The men who gathered in that blistering humid room in Philadelphia in 1787 to create our governing document did not represent a cross section of the American population. Unlike most Americans, they were wealthy lawyers and planters and most were extremely well-educated. Though they may not have all attended universities, they were well read in history and political philosophy. We know the major influences of men like Locke and Montesquieu upon our governing documents, but we know little today of James Harrington.
All of the founders were familiar with Harrington. His writing was the inspiration for the original South Carolina government and in many ways also on the Constitution. If we want to try to understand the thinking behind the Constitution, and make better historical arguments, it is helpful to know what inspired the men who wrote it.
Writing during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Harrington described the fictional utopian nation of Oceana. The Commonwealth of Oceana, like all utopian novels, was meant to shed light on the author’s own government and its shortcomings. Harrington criticized Cromwell, thinly veiled as Olphaus Megaletor in the tract, and served time in the Tower for his criticism. Harrington believed that all political power should be shared by men of property and that property should be distributed amongst the middle class, a concept shared later by Thomas Jefferson.
Harrington believed that these property holders should vote for senators who serve limited terms so all could take turns in governing. Like most political philosophers of the time, Harrington saw these men as those who had a stake in society and so should hold the power. Power should also be held in a bicameral legislature, with a lesser and greater house making the laws.
The key to freedom for Harrington was that the property holding citizens had an obligation to serve in the militia. Under the Cromwell rule, the army had become a tool for tyranny. Not being property holders themselves, Cromwell’s solders did not have a stake in society and cared little for the rights of the people. They had become professional soldiers, whose only loyalty was to Cromwell.
If the property holding citizens were the militia, he believed, they would not drain the purse. More importantly, they would be the ones who ruled. If they attacked the system, they would only be attacking the system that placed them in power. In other words, a standing army can lead to tyranny, whereas an armed citizenry of stakeholders leads to democracy.
Another author every founder knew was Thomas Gordon who wrote under the name “Cato.” The original Cato was a Roman Senator who stood against Caesar and was a popular pen name for anyone representing republicanism.
In his 1722 Cato Letter #65, Gordon wrote, “In attacks upon a free state, every man will fight to defend it, because every man has something to defend in it. He is in love with his condition, his ease, and property, and will venture his life rather than lose them; because with them he loses all the blessings of life. When these blessings are gone, it is madness to think that any man will spill his blood for him who took them away, and is doubtless his enemy, though he may call himself his prince. It is much more natural to wish his destruction, and help to procure it.”
Harrington understood there would always be those who tried to take advantage of the stakeholders, like Cromwell, who wanted to take power. The answer was for stakeholders to practice public virtue, the ability to look beyond themselves for the good of the state. As we see from Cato, virtuous citizens must be willing to lose their lives for the good of the state.
You can see the influence of Harrington and Gordon in the creation of the Bill of Rights. They both saw a standing army as a potential for tyranny, hence, the Second Amendment. I am not trying to make an argument for or against gun control here, only to show the influences on the founders and their points of view.
What can be drawn from understanding men like Harrington is the concept of virtue. There have been so many arguments as to why we are so divided today and why there are so many issues such as random violence. I have heard blame placed on a loss of God, a growth in white supremacy, the NRA, and violent video games. Maybe what we have really lost is public virtue.
Maybe what we have lost is the willingness to give our lives for what we believe in and to put public virtue before ourselves. Historically speaking, Oceana may be a fictional nation, but maybe Harrington understood something. If we could ever bring back the notion of public virtue, maybe we could attack the causes of our divide instead of always having to fix the consequences.
Dr. James Finck is an associate professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.