There is a theory about the history of socialism that has annoyed me for some time now, and that is the theory that a man named James Harrington (whose writings had a powerful influence on America's founders) essentially taught socialism when he used the term "agrarian balance." I have encountered this claim in the writings and lectures of Harvard historian Eric Nelson who wrote "The Hebrew Republic," a book that I highly recommend in spite of this particular error, and in discussions with Jon Rowe of the American Creation Blog. The remainder of this article is a response that I made to one of Jon's reiterations of this claim.
Let me offer an explanation of Harrington's agrarian balance. Jon, you said that "Harrington was a property redistributionist," but the portion of Oceana which you referenced does not say anything at all about redistribution. It does mention an "equal Agrarian" frame of government that has to do with the distribution of land, but Harrington was not referring to the kind of redistribution of wealth that a casual reading might suggest. A more cautious reading reveals that Harrington was actually advocating for the private ownership of property in opposition to the feudal system which had been so prevalent in Europe throughout the previous centuries.
To validate this explanation of Harrington's statement, we could begin with a quote from the link that you provided.
An equal Agrarian is a perpetual law establishing and preserving the balance of dominion by such a distribution that no one man or number of men within the compass of the few or aristocracy can come to overpower the whole people by their possessions in lands.
This statement explains the goal of Harrington's agrarian balance. He was not seeking an equal distribution of wealth among the populace. Rather, he sought for only such distribution as would be sufficient to prevent the aristocracy from using their property to subjugate the rest of the people. Such a subjection would cause the government to become unbalanced because the aristocracy could then pass tyrannical laws with little or no political opposition from the common man.
Now, you have alleged that my explanation would consist of mere "spin," and I suppose that if I were to end my explanation at this point, your accusation would appear to be justified. Let me, therefore, proceed a little further to demonstrate the baselessness of your accusation.
The excerpt from Oceana which you provided does not represent the sole instance in which Harrington spoke of his agrarian balance. His first reference to agrarian laws appears a fourteen pages prior to the beginning of your excerpt. In explaining the external principles of domestic government, Harrington wrote:
Domestic empire is founded upon dominion. Dominion is property, real or personal; that is to say, in lands, or in money and goods.
Lands, or the parts and parcels of a territory, are held by the proprietor or proprietors, lord or lords of it, in some proportion; and such (except it be in a city that has little or no land, and whose revenue is in trade) as is the proportion or balance of dominion or property in land, such is the nature of the empire.
If one man be sole landlord of a territory, or overbalance the people, for example, three parts in four, he is grand seignior; for so the Turk is called from his property, and his empire is absolute monarchy.
If the few or a nobility, or a nobility with the clergy, be landlords, or overbalance the people to the like proportion, it makes the Gothic balance (to be shown at large in the second part of this discourse), and the empire is mixed monarchy, as that of Spain, Poland, and late of Oceana.
And if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them that no one man, or number of men, within the compass of the few or aristocracy, overbalance them, the empire (without the interposition of force) is a commonwealth.
Here we see that Harrington recognized three natures of domestic governments, and he identified these three natures according to three possible balances of property ownership. The first nature is one in which the balance of the property in the nation is owned by a single individual who rules over everyone else. The second is one in which the balance of the property is owned by a few individuals who then rule in concert over the remainder of the populace. The third nature of domestic government recognized by Harrington is one in which the balance of the property in the nation is owned by the individual citizens of that nation who are then able to maintain rule over themselves as a commonwealth.
This explanation of the three kinds of balances of the land within a nation is followed by a paragraph introducing the concept of fixing the balance by law. While reading this paragraph, however, we must keep in mind that the modern American practice of making the word "fix" a synonym with "repair" was not followed in the seventeenth century. At that time, the word "fix" meant "to establish or to make immovable." With this in mind, let us read the following:
But there be certain other confusions, which, being rooted in the balance, are of longer continuance, and of worse consequence; as, first, where a nobility holds half the property, or about that proportion, and the people the other half; in which case, without altering the balance there is no remedy but the one must eat out the other, as the people did the nobility in Athens, and the nobility the people in Rome. Secondly, when a prince holds about half the dominion, and the people the other half (which was the case of the Roman emperors, planted partly upon their military colonies and partly upon the Senate and the people), the government becomes a very shambles, both of the princes and the people. Somewhat of this nature are certain governments at this day, which are said to subsist by confusion. In this case, to fix the balance is to entail misery; but in the three former, not to fix it is to lose the government. Wherefore it being unlawful in Turkey that any should possess land but the Grand Seignior, the balance is fixed by the law, and that empire firm. Nor, though the kings often sell was the throne of Oceana known to shake, until the statute of alienations broke the pillars, by giving way to the nobility to sell their estates. While Lacedaemon held to the division of land made by Lycurgus, it was immovable; but, breaking that, could stand no longer. This kind of law fixing the balance in lands is called agrarian, and was first introduced by God himself, who divided the land of Canaan to his people by lots, and is of such virtue that wherever it has held, that government has not altered, except by consent; as in that unparalleled example of the people of Israel, when being in liberty they would needs choose a king. But without an agrarian law, government, whether monarchical, aristocratical, or popular, has no long lease.
In this paragraph, Harrington identifies two balances of property which would bring misery if they were perpetually established by a law. In both cases, misery occurs if the common citizens retain ownership of exactly half of the property within the nation. The other three instances, in which one group or another retains ownership of the balance of the property, the balance must be established by laws in order to prevent that nation's form of government from being lost. This practice of permanently establishing the balance of property ownership in either a single individual, a few individuals or the whole multitude is identified by Harrington as an agrarian law. Without this kind of law, no form of government last for very long, for the form will change as often as the balance does.
In The Art of Lawgiving, Harrington provided some numbers which illustrate what he intended by his reference to the balance of property. First, he provided numbers regarding the balance of lands in England:
In a territory not exceeding England in revenue, if the balance be in more hands than three hundred, it is upon swaying from monarchy; and if it be in fewer than five thousand hands, it is swaying from a commonwealth.
Then, several pages later, he provided a possible division of the land of Israel which would have been consistent with a commonwealth:
These, reckoning the whole people in the twelve tribes at six hundred and two thousand (which is more than upon the later poll they came to), would have afforded unto every man four acres; to every one of the patriarchs (upon the poll of the foregoing catalogue, where they are sixty) four thousand acres; to every one of the princes of the tribes fourteen thousand acres; to every one of the princes of the tribes fourteen thousand acres; to the Levitical cities (being forty-eight, each with her suburbs of four thousand cubits diameter) one hundred thousand acres; and yet for extraordinary donations, as to Joshua and Caleb (of which kind there were but few), some eighty thousand acres might remain.
These two sets of numbers demonstrate that Harrington's agrarian balances were not references to equal divisions of the land among all the people, for his possible distribution of the land in Israel included much larger tracts of land being given to the aristocracy than were given to common men, and in his numbers for England, he claimed that that nation would still be a commonwealth if all the property were owned by as few as five thousand people. At the time that Harrington published these numbers, the population of England was fast approaching five million. Thus, he was claiming that a nation could still be considered a commonwealth with only one out of every thousand individuals owning land. This is certainly not consistent with your claim that Harrington was advancing "egalitarian economic policies." It is consistent, however, with my explanation that he was advocating the private ownership of property in opposition to feudalism.
The example from Oceana which is mentioned at the link you provided is explained in The Art of Lawgiving to have been just an example of how Harrington's principles could have been practicably applied to the then current conditions of England. In other words, the capping of inheritances was not the principle itself but rather a practical means by which England could proceed from the Aristocratic balance of feudalism to a balance in which the majority of the land was held by common men. This transition from feudalism to commonwealth is explained at length in the first book of The Art of Lawgiving, but in the third book, Harrington condenses his "frame of a commonwealth" to a list of six principles followed by a lengthy explanation of how these principles could be practicably brought about in the England of his day.
Here are Harrington's six principles of a properly framed commonwealth:
1. That the native territory of the commonwealth be divided, so equally as with any convenience it may, into fifty tribes or precincts.
2. That the people in each tribe be distinguish’d, first by their age, and next by the valuation of their estates: all such as are above eighteen, and under thirty, being accounted youth; and all such as are thirty or upwards, being accounted elders. All such as have under one hundred pounds a year in lands, goods, or mony, being accounted of the foot; and all such as have so much or upwards, being accounted of the horse.
3. That each tribe elect annually out of the horse of their number two elders to be knights; three elders out of the same, and four elders more out of the foot of their number, to be deputys or burgesses. That the term of each knight and burgess, or deputy so elected, be triennial; and that whoever has serv’d his triennial term in any one of these capacitys, may not be reelected into any one of the same, till a triennial vacation be expir’d.
4. That in the first year of the commonwealth there be a senat so constituted, of three hundred knights, that the term of one hundred may expire actually; and that the hundred knights, annually elected by two in each tribe, take in the senat the places of them whose term coms to be thus annually expir’d.
5. That in the first year of the commonwealth there be a representative of the people, consisting of one thousand and fifty deputys; four hundred and fifty of them being horse, and the rest foot. That this representative be so constituted, that the term of two hundred of the foot, and of one hundred and fifty of the horse, expire annually; and that the two hundred foot, and one hundred and fifty horse elected annually, by four of the foot, and three of the horse in each tribe, take the places in this representative of them whose terms com thus annually to be expir’d.
6. That the senat have the whole authority of debate; that the representative have the whole power of result, in such a manner, that whatever (having bin debated by the senat) shall by their authority be promulgated, that is, printed and publish’d, for the space of six weeks; and afterwards (being propos’d by them to the representative) shall be resolv’d by the people of the same in the affirmative, by the law of the land.
As you can see, there is no mention of an inheritance cap in these six principles. This list is then followed by a paragraph explaining that the practical application of this system to the then current state of affairs in England would require it to be modified so as to fit the particulars of their situation.
THUS much may suffice to give implicitly a notional account of the whole frame. But a model of government is nothing as to use, unless it be also deliver’d practicably; and the giving of a model practicably, is so much the more difficult, that men, not vers’d in this way, say of it (as they would of the anatomy of their own bodys) that it is impracticable. Here lys the whole difficulty: such things as, trying them never so often, they cannot make hang together, they will yet have to be practicable; and if you would bring them from this kind of shifts, or of tying and untying all sorts of knots, to the natural nerves and ligaments of government, then with them it is impracticable. But to render that which is practicable, facil; or to do my last indeavor of this kind, of which if I miss this once more, I must hereafter despair: I shall do two things; first, omit the ballot, and then make som alteration in my former method.
It is only after this paragraph that Harrington proposes:
THAT every one holding above two thousand pounds a year in land, lying within the proper territory of the commonwealth, leave the said land equally divided among his sons; or else so near equally, that there remain to the eldest of them not above two thousand pounds a year in land so lying. That this proposition be so understood, as not to concern any parent having no more than one son, but the next heir only that shall have more sons; in such sort, as nothing be hereby taken from any man, or from his posterity, but that fatherly affection be at all points extended as formerly, except only that it be with more piety, and less partiality. And that the same proposition, in such familys where there are no sons, concern the daughter or daughters in the like manner.
Here we find that Harrington proposed the inheritance cap only as a practical means of bringing England from her then current situation into a more perfect commonwealth, and he explains this further by stating: "That these propositions prevent the growing of a monarchical nobility, is their peculiar end." In the first book of The Art of Lawgiving Harrington explained that the laws of Henry VII had started England on the path toward being a commonwealth, but it is also evident from his recounting of this history that this change was understandably being resisted by the nobility. The inheritance cap was proposed solely as a means to thwart that resistance.
If we return to the account in Oceana, we can see that this was indeed the case. In that account, Philautus, one of the lords of Oceana, rose up to oppose the inheritance cap. Harrington wrote of Philautus that:
The case of my lord Philautus was the most concern’d in the whole nation; for he had four younger brothers, his father being yet living to whom he was heir of ten thousand pounds a year.
Philautus' objections were answered by Archon whose response included an explanation that the inheritance cap was a peculiar necessity for the nation of Oceana.
For the commonwealths of Switzerland and Holland, I mean of those leagues, being situated in countrys not alluring the inhabitants to wantonness, but obliging them to universal industry, have an implicit agrarian in the nature of them: and being not obnoxious to a growing nobility (which, as long as their former monarchys had spread the wing over them, conld either not at all be hatch’d, or was soon broken) are of no example to us, whose experience in this point has bin to the contrary.
Thus Harrington noted that the inheritance cap was but one method among many by which a popular agrarian balance could be attained by law. The principle to be achieved was for the balance of the property to be owned by the commoners instead of the nobility. The peculiar method by which that principle was to be achieved in Oceana was the method of an inheritance cap.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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