James Harrington, Political Aphorisms (or Aphorisms Political) (1659)

James Harrington (1611–1677)  


Note: This is part of the Leveller Collection of Tracts and Pamphlets.



Bibliographical Information

ID Number

T.299 (1659.08.31) James Harrington, Political Aphorisms (or Aphorisms Political) (1659).


This HTML version comes from the 1771 edtiion edited by John Toland: The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, with an Account of His Life by John Toland (London: Becket and Cadell, 1771).

Estimated date of publication

31 Aug. 1659.

Thomason Tracts Catalog information

TT. E.995 (31 Aug. 1659).

Editor’s Introduction

(Placeholder: Text will be added later.)

Text of Pamphlet


Obsequium amicos, veritas odium parit. Terent.

1. THE errors and sufferings of the people are from their governors.

2. When the foundation of a government coms to be chang’d, and the governors change not the superstructures accordingly, the people becom miserable.

3. The monarchy of England was not a government by arms, but a government by laws, tho imperfect or ineffectual laws.

4. The later governments in England since the death of the king, have bin governments by arms.

5. The people cannot see, but they can feel.

6. The people having felt the difference between a government by laws and a government by arms, will always desire the government by laws, and abhor that of arms.

7. Where the spirit of the people is impatient of a government by arms, and desirous of a government by laws, there the spirit of the people is not unfit to be trusted with their liberty.

8. The spirit of the people of England, not trusted with their liberty, drives at the restitution of monarchy by blood and violence.

9. The spirit of the people of England, trusted with their liberty, if the form be sufficient, can never set up a king; and if the form be insufficient (as a parlament with a council in the intervals, or two assemblys coordinat) will set up a king without blood or violence.

10. To light upon a good man, may be in chance; but to be sure of an assembly of good men, is not in prudence.

11. Where the security is no more than personal, there may be a good monarch, but can be no good commonwealth.

12. The necessary action or use of each thing is from the nature of the form.

13. Where the security is in the persons, the government makes good men evil; where the security is in the form, the government makes evil men good.

14. Assemblys legitimatly elected by the people, are that only party which can govern without an army.

15. Not the party which cannot govern without an army, but the party which can govern without an army, is the refin’d party, as to this intent and purpose truly refin’d; that is, by popular election, according to the precept of Moses, and the rule of Scripture: Take ye wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you.

16. The people are deceiv’d by names, but not by things.

17. Where there is a well-order’d commonwealth, the people are generally satisfy’d.

18. Where the people are generally dissatisfy’d, there is no commonwealth.

19. The partys in England declaring for a commonwealth, hold every one of them something that is inconsistent with a commonwealth.

20. To hold that the government may be manag’d by a few, or by a party, is inconsistent with a commonwealth; except in a situation like that of Venice.

21. To hold that there can be any national religion or ministry without public indowment and inspection of the magistracy, or any government without a national religion or ministry, is inconsistent with a commonwealth.

22. To hold that there may be liberty, and not liberty of conscience, is inconsistent with a commonwealth that has the liberty of her own conscience, or that is not Popish.

23. Where civil liberty is intire, it includes liberty of conscience.

24. Where liberty of conscience is intire, it includes civil liberty.

25. Either liberty of conscience can have no security at all, or under popular government it must have the greatest security.

26. To hold that a government may be introduc’d by a little at once, is to wave prudence, and commit things to chance.

27. To hold that the wisdom of God in the formation of a house or of a government, gos not universally upon natural principles, is inconsistent with Scripture.

28. To hold that the wisdom of man in the formation of a house, or of a government, may go upon supernatural principles, is inconsistent with a commonwealth, and as if one should say, God ordain’d the temple, therfore it was not built by masons; he ordain’d the snuffers, therfore they were not made by a smith.

29. To hold that hirelings (as they are term’d by som) or an indow’d ministry, ought to be remov’d out of the church, is inconsistent with a commonwealth.

30. Nature is of GOD.

31. Som part in every religion is natural.

32. A universal effect demonstrats a universal cause.

33. A universal cause is not so much natural, as it is nature it self.

34. Every man, either to his terror or consolation, has som sense of religion.

35. Man may rather be defin’d a religious than a rational creature; in regard that in other creatures there may be somthing of reason, but there is nothing of religion.

36. Government is of human prudence, and human prudence is adequat to man’s nature.

37. The prudence or government that is regardless of religion, is not adequat nor satisfactory to man’s nature.

38. Where the government is not adequat or satisfactory to man’s nature, it can never be quiet or perfect.

39. The major part of mankind gives itself up in the matter of religion to the public leading.

40. That there may be a public leading, there must be a national religion.

41. Where the minor part takes away the national religion, there the major part is depriv’d of liberty of conscience by the minor.

42. Where the major part is depriv’d of liberty of conscience by the minor, there they will deprive the minor of that liberty of conscience which they might otherwise injoy.

43. In Israel there was an indow’d clergy or priesthood, and a national religion under inspection of the magistrat: whence the Christians in apostolic times, defraying their own ministry, could have liberty of conscience; wheras if the Christians by going about to take away tithes, and abolish the national religion, had indeavor’d to violat the consciences of the unconverted Jews, these being far greater in number, must needs have taken away the liberty of conscience from the Christians.

44. PAUL in Athens could freely and undisturbedly convert Dionysius and others; therfore in Athens there was liberty of conscience: but if Paul and his converts had gon about to drive hirelings, or an indow’d priesthood or clergy out of that church, who sees not that the Athenians would have driven Paul and his converts out of Athens?

45. That there may be liberty of conscience, there must be a national religion.

46. Tha there may be a national religion, there must be an indowed clergy.

47. Commonwealths have had three ways of union. As the Athenians, by bringing their confederats to subjection: as the united provinces by an equal league: or as the Romans by an inequal league. The first way is tyrannical. In the second, one commonwealth under the league is no more than another, and each one as to herself has a negative: which kind of union is not only obstructive, but tends (as we have seen both in Holland and Switzerland) towards division. In the third way, the commonwealth uniting other commonwealths, retains to her self the leading of the whole league, leaving to each of the rest her own laws, and her own liberty.

48. Till a commonwealth be first fram’d, how such a commonwealth should make an effectual union with another nation, is not possible to be seen.

49. The new, unpractis’d, and heretofore unheard union (as it is vulgarly spoken) with Scotland, by uniting deputys of divers nations, not in a council apart, or by way of states general, as in the united provinces, but in the standing councils of som one commonwealth in the league, is destructive to liberty both in England and in Scotland.

50. If the commonwealth of England receives deputys from Scotland in a greater number than that of her own, she receives law from a foren interest, and so loses her own liberty.

51. If Scotland be receiv’d in an equal number, it obstructs the freedom of both, or occasions war or dissension.

52. If Scotland be receiv’d in an inferior number, she receives law from England, and so loses her liberty. The like is understood of Ireland.

53. Wheras a well-order’d commonwealth should give the balance to her consederats, and not receive it from them; the councils in which divers others are thus united, tho in a far inferior number of deputys, yet if these ly in wait, or lay their heads together, may be over-rul’d, obstructed, or overbalanc’d by foren interests.

54. Where countrys are divers in their laws, and yet are to receive laws one from the other, neither the commonwealth giving law, knows what to give, nor the commonwealth receiving law, understands what she receives: in which case the union returns to force or confusion.

55. The best way of holding a nation different or not different in laws, is the Roman, that is, by way of province.

56. A province, especially if she has strong holds, may, by defraying of a small guard, be kept to a just league, and for the rest injoy her own laws, her own government, and her perfect liberty. Other ways of union will be found more chargeable, and less effectual, on both sides: for if England has no army in Scotland, Scotland will receive no law from England; and if England has an army there, her hold consists not in the union, but in the force. The like is to be understood of Ireland.

57. If a country be very small, and not able to subsist of it self, as Wales, it may be safely united and held: but the advantage that Wales has in a participation of all magistracys and offices, is not that which England is able to afford to such a country as Scotland, without subjecting her neck to the yoke.

58. The order of a commonwealth requires, that it consists, first of a civil; secondly, of a religious; thirdly, of a military; and fourthly, of a provincial part. The manner of uniting provinces or different nations, pertains to the last part; and in the formation of a commonwealth, to begin with that first, which is naturally last, is to invert the order, and by consequence the commonwealth it self, which indeed is nothing but order.

59. Where there can be any other government, there can be no commonwealth.

60. Where there can be a commonwealth, what tumults soever there happen, and which soever prevail, there can be no other government; that is to say, without foren invasion, which throout I must be understood to except.

61. If Sir George Booth had prevail’d, he must either have introduc’d a commonwealth, or have restor’d the king.

62. If the king were restor’d, he must either govern by an army, or by parlaments.

63. A king governing now in England by an army, would for the same causes find the same effects with the late protector.

64. A king governing now in England by parlaments, would find the nobility of no effect at all.

65. A parlament, where the nobility is of no effect at all, is a mere popular council.

66. A mere popular council will never receive law from a king.

67. A mere popular council giving law to a king, becoms therby a democracy, or equal commonwealth; or the difference is no greater than in the imperfection of the form.

68. A commonwealth or democracy to be perfect in the form, must consist especially of such an assembly, the result wherof can go upon no interest whatsoever, but that only which is the common interest of the whole people.

69. An assembly consisting of a few, may go upon the interest of one man, as a king; or upon the interest of one party, as that of divines, lawyers, and the like; or the interest of themselves, and the perpetuation of their government.

70. The popular assembly in a commonwealth may consist of too few, but can never consist of too many.

71. In every commonwealth there has bin a popular assembly. This in Israel at least consisted of twenty-four thousand, upon a monthly rotation. In Athens, Lacedemon, Rome, it consisted of the whole citizens, that is, of all such as had a right in the commonwealth, whether they inhabited in city or country. In Venice it consists of about two thousand. In the province of Holland only, which contains eighteen or nineteen soveraintys, the popular or resolving assemblys consist at least of five hundred persons: these in the whole union, may amount to five or six thousand; in Switzerland I believe they com to a greater number. And the most of these assemblys have bin perpetually extant.

72. If the popular assembly consists of so few, and so eminent persons as are capable of any orderly debate, it is good for nothing but to destroy the commonwealth.

73. If the popular assembly consists of so many, and for the greater part of so mean persons as are not capable of debate, there must be a senat to help this defect.

74. The reason of the senat is, that a popular assembly rightly constituted, is not capable of any prudent debate.

75. The reason of the popular assembly is, that a senat rightly constituted for debate, must consist of so few and eminent persons, that if they have the result too, they will not resolve according to the interest of the people, but according to the interest of themselves.

76. A popular assembly without a senat cannot be wise.

77. A senat without a popular assembly will not be honest.

78. The senat and the popular assembly being once rightly constituted, the rest of the commonwealth will constitute itself.

79. The Venetians having slain divers of their dukes for their tyranny, and being assembl’d by such numbers in their great council as were naturally incapable of debate, pitch’d upon thirty gentlemen who were call’d pregati, in that they were pray’d to go apart, and, debating upon the exigence of the commonwealth, to propose as they thought good to the great council: and from thence first arose the senat of Venice (to this day call’d the pregati) and the great council, that is, the senat and the popular assembly of Venice. And from these two arose all those admirable orders of that commonwealth.

80. That a people of themselves should have such an understanding as when they of Venice did institute their pregati or senat, is rare.

81. That a senat or council of governors having supreme power, shou’d institute a popular assembly, and propose to it, tho in all reason it be the far more facil and practicable, is that which is rarer.

82. The diffusive body of the people is not in a natural capacity of judging; for which cause the whole judgment and power of the diffusive body of the people must be intirely and absolutely in their collective bodys, assemblys or representatives, or there can be no commonwealth.

83. To declare that assemblys or representatives of the people have power in som things, and in others not, is to make the diffusive body, which is in a natural incapacity of judging, to be in a political capacity of judging.

84. To bring a natural incapacity of judging to a political capacity of judging, is to introduce government. To bring a natural incapacity of judging to such a collective or political capacity of judging, as yet necessarily must retain the interest of the diffusive body, is to introduce the best kind of government. But to lay any appeal whatsoever from a political capacity of judging, to a natural incapacity of judging, is to frustrat all government, and to introduce anarchy. Nor is anarchy, whether impos’d or obtruded by the legislator first, or by the people, or their demagogs or incendiarys afterwards, of any other kind whatsoever than of this only.

85. To make principles or fundamentals, belongs not to men, to nations, nor to human laws. To build upon such principles or fundamentals as are apparently laid by God in the inevitable necessity or law of nature, is that which truly appertains to men, to nations, and to human laws. To make any other fundamentals, and then build upon them, is to build castles in the air.

86. Whatever is violent, is not secure nor durable; whatever is secure and durable, is natural.

87. Government in the whole people, tho the major part were disaffected, must be secure and durable, because it waves force, to found it self upon nature.

88. Government in a party, tho all of these were well affected, must be insecure and transitory, because it waves nature, to found itself upon force.

89. Commonwealths, of all other governments, are more especially for the preservation, not for the destruction, of mankind.

90. Commonwealths, that have bin given to cut off their diseas’d limbs (as Florence) have brought themselves to impotence and ruin. Commonwealths that have bin given to healing their diseas’d limbs (as Venice) have bin healthful and flourishing.

91. ATHENS under the oligarchy of four hundred, was infinitly more afflicted and torn with distraction, blood and animosity of partys, than is England; yet by introduction of a senat of four hundred, and a popular assembly of five thousand, did therupon, so suddenly as if it had been a charm, recover might and glory. See the eighth book of Thucydides; A story in these times most necessary to be consider’d.

92. To leave our selves and posterity to a farther purchase in blood or sweat of that which we may presently possess, injoy, and hereafter bequeath to posterity in peace and glory, is inhuman and impious.

93. As certainly and suddenly as a good state of health dispels the peevishness and peril of sickness, dos a good state of government the animosity and danger of partys.

94. The frame of a commonwealth having first bin propos’d and consider’d, expedients (in cafe such should be found necessary for the safe, effectual, and perfect introduction of the same) may with som aim be apply’d or fitted; as to a house, when the model is resolv’d upon, we fit scaffolds in building. But first to resolve upon expedients, and then to fit to them the frame of a commonwealth, is as if one should set up props, and then build a house to lean upon them.

95. As the chief expedients in the building of a house are axes and hammers; so the chief expedient in the building of a government, is a standing army.

96. As the house which, being built, will not stand without the perpetual noise or use of axes and hammers, is imperfect; so is the government which, being form’d, cannot support it self without the perpetual use of a standing army.

97. While the civil and religious parts of a commonwealth are forming, there is a necessity that she should be supported by an army; but when the military and provincial parts are rightly form’d, she can have no farther use of any other army. Wherfore at this point, and not till then, her armys are by the practice of commonwealths, upon slighter occasions, to have half pay for life, and to be disbanded.

98. Where there is a standing army, and not a form’d government, there the army of necessity will have dictatorian power.

99. Where an army subsists upon the pay or riches of a single person, or of a nobility, that army is always monarchical. Where an army subsists not by the riches of a single person, nor of a nobility, that army is always popular.

100. The English armys are popular armys.

101. Where armys are popular, and exercise dictatorian power in deposing single persons, and monarchical assemblys, there can be no greater, nor needs any other expedient for the introduction of a commonwealth. Nevertheless to this may be added som such moderat qualifications as may prune the commonwealth, not lop off her branches. Whom these will not satisfy, it is not a commonwealth, but a party, that can.

102. If the late king had freely permitted to the people the exercise of the power inevitably devolv’d upon them by the change of the balance, he had not bin destroy’d. If either of the late single persons had brought the people into an orderly exercise of the power devolv’d upon them, he had bin great. What party soever shall hinder the people from the exercise of the power devolv’d upon them, shall be certainly ruin’d: who or what party soever shall introduce the people into the due and orderly exercise of the power devolv’d upon them, shall be forthwith secure and famous for ever.

103. A man uses, nourishes, and cherishes his body, without understanding it; but he that made the body understood it.

104. The reason why the nations that have commonwealths, use them so well, and cherish them so much, and yet that so few nations have commonwealths, is, That in using a commonwealth, it is not necessary it should be understood; but in making a commonwealth, that it be understood, is of absolute necessity. Caput reipublicæ est nosse rempub. Cicero.

105. As the natural body of a Christian or Saint can be no other for the frame, than such as has bin the natural body of an Israelit or of a Heathen; so the political bodys, or civil governments of Christians or Saints can be no other, for the frame, than such as have bin the political bodys or civil governments of the Israelits, or of the Heathens.

106. It shall be as soon found when and where the soul of a man was in the body of a beast, as when or where the soul or freedom natural to democracy, was in any other form than that only of a senat, and an assembly of the people.

107. In those things wherin, and so far as art is directed or limited by the nature of her materials, it is in art as in nature.

108. That democracy, or equal government by the people, consist of an assembly of the people, and a senat, is that wherby art is altogether directed, limited, and necessitated by the nature of her materials.

109. As the soul of man can never be in the body of a beast, unless God make a new creation; so neither the soul or freedom natural to democracy in any other form whatsoever, than that only of a senat and a popular assembly.

110. The right constitution, coherence, and proper symmetry of a form of government gos for the greater part upon invention.

111. Reason is of two parts; invention, and judgment.

112. Judgment is most perfect in an assembly.

113. Invention is most perfect in one man.

114. In one man, judgment wants the strength which is in a multitude of counsillors.

115. In a multitude of counsillors, invention is none at all.

116. Thro the defect of invention, the wisest assemblys in the formation or reformation of government, have pitch’d upon a sole legislator.

117. It is not below the dignity of the greatest assembly, but according to the practice of the best commonwealths, to admit of any one man that is able to propose to them, for the good of his country.

118. To the making of a well order’d commonwealth, there gos little more of pains or charge, or work without doors, than the establishment of an equal or apt division of the territory, and the proposing of such election to the divisions so made, as from an equal foundation may raise equal superstructures; the rest being but paper-work, is as soon don, as said or voted.

119. Where such elections are propos’d, as being made by the people, must needs produce a well order’d senat and popular assembly, and the people (who, as we have already found by experience, stick not at the like work) elect accordingly; there not the proposers of any power in themselves, but the whole people by their peculiar and natural right and power, do institute and ordain their whole commonwealth.

120. The highest earthly felicity that a people can ask, or God can give, is an equal and well-order’d commonwealth. Such a one among the Israelits, was the reign of God; and such a one (for the same reason) may be among Christians the reign of Christ, tho not every one in the Christian commonwealth should be any more a Christian indeed, than every one in the Israelitish commonwealth was an Israelit indeed.