Tuesday, 4 January 2011

More Correspondence

From Christopher Thompson :

But Harrington's argument was not "the product of an analysis of the contemporary distribution of land, because it does not claim to be" such: it was an investigation of the decline of feudal tenures and the development of freehold tenure, which made possible a state in which a Classical Republic of the kind described by Livy and advocated by Machiavelli. Scholars like J.G.A.Pocock and Judith Schklar showed as long ago as the 1950s that Tawney's view of Harrington was erroneous.

Reply thehistorywoman (http://thehistorywoman.wordpress.com/)

I'm not saying that Harrington's thesis is based on an exact or even correct 'analysis of the contemporary distribution of land'. But he did perceive significant changes which - as you rightly say - were caused by 'the decline of feudal tenures'. And this decline of feudal tenures gave rise to a new type of landownership and at the same time a new type of society characterised increasingly by merit rather than birth. The senators who replace the old lords in Harrington's ideal state hold their office because they are 'wiser than the rest', not by the virtue of their birth. That is what matters. Changes in property ownership produce changes in a country's power structures. In the long term freehold tenure facilitates popular participation in politics.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Correspondence on The historywomans article Property and Power: On James Harrington’s 400th Birthday

Christopher Thompson

I am afraid that these assertions about the transfer of land between the nobility and gentry. The peerage in 1601 may have held less land than in 1558 but it still held more than in 1534. By 1641, the much enlarged peerage had far more land in its hands than in 1601. This is true even using Lawrence Stone's highly improbable figures. The English Civil War or Revolution was preceded by a notable shift in landed possessions towards the peerage and by the rise of "aristocratic constitutionalism".

thehistorywoman (http://thehistorywoman.wordpress.com/)%20On%20t

That's an interesting point. The 'rise of the gentry' hypothesis has long been contested. However, I find it significant that Harrington still perceived a shift of property and power towards the gentry and yeomanry. Of course one might wonder how far this perception was influenced by a political agenda.

Property and Power: On James Harrington’s 400th Birthday

Power is founded on property. Few people nowadays would deny this doctrine. The political philosopher James Harrington formulated it in the mid-seventeenth century. Living in per-industrial England he still considered land, not money, the most important form of property.

The social group that held most of the country’s land also held the largest amount of power. In early modern England this was the monarch and his nobility, including the bishops.

However, from the reign of Henry VII onwards, and especially through the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries and sale of Church lands, power relations began to change. Over time, the King (or Queen) and nobility lost land and power in favour of the next social group, the gentry and the commoners, represented in the lower house of Parliament. 

By the early Stuart period the power balance had been upset so badly that struggles between the King and the House of Commons led to a breakdown or ‘dissolution’ of the government in the English Civil War. Anyone trying to reconstruct the English government in the aftermath of the war would therefore have to create a new superstructure that took into account the changed power relations.

The most famous elaboration of Harrington’s theory can be found in his utopian Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, in which he tried to persuade Oliver Cromwell to play the sole legislator, set up the perfect republican state and retire to the country.

‘Good laws’, Harrington believed, could give the country stability, and these laws had to be infallible, so that bad men would not be able to corrupt the state. Harrington never saw his dream come true. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 meant a return of many of the old problems. But his ideas of mixed government and a balance of power remained influential in the writings of the Neo-Harringtonians of the later 17th and early 18th century. They influenced both the American and French Revolutions, while his materialist theory of political change would also strike a chord with Marxists and modern economic and political thinkers.

James Harrington would have celebrated his 400th birthday today. He was born in Upton, Northamptonshire on 3 January 1611 and died in Little Ambry on 11 September 1677.