Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rachel Hammersley's "James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography"

Rachel Hammersley is an intellectual historian with particular expertise in the political thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She has carried out research on concepts such as republicanism, democracy and revolutions during this period and have written extensively on the exchange of ideas between Britain and France. Her books are French Revolutionaries and English Republicanism: The Cordeliers Club, 1790-1794 and The English Republican Tradition and Eighteenth-Century France.

Hammersley applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography, and reported the following:
Page 99 of James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography presents the argument that Harrington's innovative theory that political power depends on landed power was the product not just of his concern with inequality in wealth, but of his ambitious aim in The Commonwealth of Oceana to design a form of republican or commonwealth government that could function in a large, modern nation-state. Most previous republics had focused on single city-states or federations of towns. Consequently, it had come to be assumed that republics could only flourish in small states. In proposing a commonwealth suitable for seventeenth-century England, Harrington was therefore doing something new and controversial. He used several strategies to counter the traditional view and to justify his claim that a large republic was possible. The most important of these was his insistence that the problem of size could be alleviated through the use of representative government.

While all the arguments of a long and complex book will never be found on one page, the test works reasonably well in this case. Certain key points that are important in themselves are presented on page 99 and they in turn point towards broader ideas.

In turning to page 99 the first thing that struck me was the heading 'Creating a Commonwealth in the Modern World'. The idea that this was Harrington's aim, the notion that this aim was innovative for the time, and the suggestion that this helps to explain Harrington's importance in the eighteenth century, are all central claims of my book. Moreover, these claims are connected to two broader arguments. First, that Harrington was an innovative thinker. He introduced novel ideas rather than just repeating those of his predecessors; and he encouraged and embraced, rather than avoiding, controversy. Secondly, that he was one of the first political thinkers to advocate representation as the solution to political problems of governance.

Harrington was concerned with how government involving an element of popular participation could be made workable in a state covering a large area and population. This was an issue that came to the fore in the eighteenth century, and the introduction of modern representative democracy is usually associated with the revolutions of the later part of that century, and with thinkers such as James Madison in America and Benjamin Constant in France. Here on page 99 we can see Harrington pioneering the idea in the mid-seventeenth century, demonstrating both his credentials as an innovative thinker and the importance of his thought for the development of the modern understanding of representative government that remains relevant today. He also addressed the problems that representation can bring - not least the issue of how to keep representatives accountable to their constituents - a question that we still grapple with. These resonances, and others that can be found in the book, show why Harrington deserves to be better known in the twenty-first century.
Visit Rachel Hammersley's website.

--Marshal Zeringue