Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
The Case for the Agrarian
By James Harrington (16111677)
MY Lords, the Legislators of Oceana. My Lord Philautus has made a thing which is easy to seem hard; if the thanks were due to his eloquence, it would be worthy of less praise than that he owes it to his merit, and the love he has most deservedly purchased of all men: nor is it rationally to be feared that he who is so much beforehand in his private, should be in arrear in his public, capacity. Wherefore, my lords tenderness throughout his speech arising from no other principle than his solicitude lest the Agrarian should be hurtful to his country, it is no less than my duty to give the best satisfaction I am able to so good a patriot, taking every one of his doubts in the order proposed. And,
First, Whereas my lord, upon observation of the modern commonwealths, is of opinion that an Agrarian is not necessary: it must be confessed that at the first sight of them there is some appearance favouring his assertion, but upon accidents of no precedent to us. For the commonwealths of Switzerland and Holland, I mean of those leagues, being situated in countries 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 monarchies had spread the wing over them, could either not at all be hatched, or was soon broken) are of no example to us, whose experience in this point has been to the contrary. But what if even in these governments there be indeed an explicit Agrarian? For when the law commands an equal or near equal distribution of a mans estate in land among his children, as it is done in those countries, a nobility cannot grow; and so there needs no Agrarian, or rather there is one. And for the growth of the nobility in Venice (if so it be, for Machiavel observes in that republic, as a cause of it, a great mediocrity of estates) it is not a point that she is to fear, but might study, seeing she consists of nothing else but nobility; by which, whatever their estates suck from the people, especially if it comes equally, is digested into the better blood of that commonwealth, which is all, or the greatest, benefit they can have by accumulation. For how unequal soever you will have them to be in their incomes, they have officers of the pomp, to bring them equal in expenses, or at least in the ostentation or show of them. And so unless the advantage of an estate consists more in the measure than in the use of it, the authority of Venice does but enforce our Agrarian; nor shall a man evade or elude the prudence of it, by the authority of any other commonwealth. For if a commonwealth has been introduced at once, as those of Israel and Lacedemon, you are certain to find her underlaid with this as the main foundation; nor, if she is obliged more to fortune than prudence, has she raised her head without musing upon this matter, as appears by that of Athens, which through her defect in this point, says Aristotle, introduced her ostracism, as most of the democracies of Greece. But, not to restrain a fundamental of such latitude to any one kind of government, do we not yet see that if there be a sole landlord of a vast territory, he is the Turk? that if a few landlords overbalance a populous country, they have store of servants? that if a people be in an equal balance, they can have no lords? that no government can otherwise be erected, than upon some one of these foundations? that no one of these foundations (each being else apt to change into some other) can give any security to the government, unless it be fixed? that through the want of this fixation, potent monarchy and commonwealths have fallen upon the heads of the people, and accompanied their own sad ruins with vast effusions of innocent blood? Let the fame, as was the merit of the ancient nobility of this nation, be equal to or above what has been already said, or can be spoken, yet have we seen not only their glory, but that of a throne, the most indulgent to and least invasive for so many ages upon the liberty of a people that the world has known, through the mere want of fixing her foot by a proportionable Agrarian upon her proper foundation, to have fallen with such horror as has been a spectacle of astonishment to the whole earth. And were it well argued from one calamity, that we ought not to prevent another? Nor is Aristotle so good a commonwealthsman for deriding the invention of Phaleas as in recollecting himself, where he says that democracies, when a less part of their citizens overtop the rest in wealth, degenerate into oligarchies and principalities; and, which comes nearer to the present purpose, that the greater part of the nobility of Tarentum coming accidentally to be ruined, the government of the few came by consequence to be changed into that of the many.