James Harrington, A Word Concerning a House of Peers (1659)

James Harrington (1611–1677)  


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



Bibliographical Information

ID Number

T.311 [1659.02.20] James Harrington, A Word Concerning a House of Peers (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

20 Feb. 1659.

Thomason Tracts Catalog information

Not listed in Thomason's Catalog.

Editor’s Introduction

(Placeholder: Text will be added later.)

Text of Pamphlet


NO man knowing what is necessary to the foundation or being of a popular government, can hope or expect the introduction of any such form, where monarchy is not impracticable. They (where monarchy is impracticable) who com first to discover it, and be convinc’d of it, if reason be not altogether depos’d, are inevitable leaders. hence it is that our commonwealthsmen are already renown’d throout this nation for their invincible reasons, even by the confession of their opponents, or such as procede nevertheless in other ways. But where seed is so well sown and rooted, intervening possession and interests are like such weather as holding back the spring, yet improves the harvest: commonwealthsmen indeed may have a cold time on’t, but upon the commonwealth it must bestow fermentation. Had our incomparable assertors of public liberty appear’d before a universal eviction of the necessity which inforces their cause, it must have bin thro such a reluctancy, as would have made them glad to do things by halves, which is the only rock to a rising commonwealth of scandal, or of danger; the whole being such against which there is nothing to be alleg’d, and the half what may be easily confuted. These things consider’d, what appearance is there but that it must redound to the greater advantage of our commonwealthsmen, that we are under the force of a present humour which abhors the very name of a commonwealth? seeing by this means one of two things must of necessity happen, and com shortly to public view or discovery: either that monarchy is practicable, or that it is not practicable; I mean, in our state of affairs, or in this present distribution of the balance. If monarchy be found practicable, commonwealthsmen are satisfy’d in their consciences, and so ready in fair ways to return, and submit not only for wrath, but for conscience sake. But (let divines cry Atheism, and lawyers Treason) if it be once discover’d to common understanding that monarchy is impracticable, then in coms the commonwealth, not by halves, but with all its tackling, full sail, displaying its streamers, and flourishing with top and topgallant.

The ways wherby it is at hand to be discover’d whether monarchy be practicable or impracticable, are particularly two; the one quicker, the other slower: the quicker way will be by the workmen, the slower by the work.

If the workmen, being willing, be yet overcom by the mere obstinacy of their matter, it amounts to a plain confession, that monarchy is impracticable. And if they give away the libertys of the people, they are overcom by the obstinacy of the matter; for that is not their work: nor any other work than such as must be useless, not so much in regard of it self (tho that may be true enough) as by the want of any other security than what the prince had before, that is, an army. And such an army, which for security is as good as none at all, nay the very contrary, as has bin shewn already:Art of lawgiving, p. 406. nor to be alter’d with better success than theirs, who became princes in Grecian and Sicilian states.

But if the workmen give not away the libertys of the people, then must they so limit their prince, that he can in no manner invade those libertys; and this by any other means than the full and perfect introduction of a well-order’d commonwealth, they will find to be utterly impossible: so either way they are overcom by the mere obstinacy of their matter.

If thro som secret dictat (as when the senat of Rome was conviva cæsaris) or a hast to make riddance, this be not perceiv’d by the workmen, it will be but the more perceivable by the work when it coms to wearing or in practice; and the flaws or grievances being found insupportable, the next parlament, thro the mere want of any other remedy, must introduce a commonwealth.

GOOD, and egregiously prophetical! But what say you for all this, if we have a house of peers, and that even for the Lord’s sake, there being no other way to secure liberty of conscience? Why I say, if we have a house of peers, it must be a house of old peers, or a house of new peers, or a house of the one and the other. Moreover I say, let it be which way you will, such a house may at som time, or for som reason, be personally affected to liberty of conscience; but is a constitution in it self naturally averse, and contrary to liberty of conscience, and therfore can be no security to the same, whether the lords be spiritual, or temporal, or partiperpale.

Lords spiritual are inspir’d with a third estate, or share of a realm, which gives no toleration to any religion, but that only asserting this point, which is monarchy. Setting this oracle, and som like reasons of state aside, we may think that every soverainty (as such) has liberty of conscience: this a king having, cannot give; and a people having, will not lose. For liberty of conscience is in truth a kind of state, wherin a man is his own prince: but a house of peers sets up another prince; it cannot stand without a king. If the balance be in the lords, as before Henry the Seventh, yet must they have a king to unite them, and by whom to administer their government; and if the balance be not in the lords, they stand or fall with the king, as the house of peers in the long parlament, and the king falling, their government devolves to the people. Again, a house of peers having the overbalance, signifys somthing; in which case it has not bin known to be for liberty of conscience: and not having the overbalance, signifys nothing; in which case it cannot secure the liberty of conscience. Thus a house of peers, whether somthing or nothing, is no way for the liberty of conscience; but every way for a king: and a king is a defender of the faith. The faith wherof a king is defender, must be that which is, or he shall call his own faith; and this faith it concerns his crown and dignity, that he defend against all other faiths. True it is, that a king for a step to a throne, may use what is readiest at hand: otherwise where there is liberty of conscience, to assert civil liberty by Scripture can be no atheism; which lames a prince of one arm. But where liberty of conscience is not at all, or not perfect, divines, who (for the greater part) are no fair huntsmen, but love dearly to be poaching or clubbing with the secular arm (tho if we, who desire no such advantages, might prosecute them for abusing Scripture, as they have don this thousand years, to all the ends, intents, and purposes of monarchy, they would think it a hard case) divines, I say, not only brand the assertors of civil liberty with Atheism, but are som of them studious in contrivances, and quaint in plots to give a check or remove to this or that eminent patriot, by the like pretences or charges; which succeding accordingly by the power of a parlament, they may at length com to have a parlament in their power. Where there is no liberty of conscience, there can be no civil liberty; and where there is no civil liberty, there can be no security to liberty of conscience: but a house of peers is not only a necessary, but a declar’d check upon civil liberty: therfore it can be no security to liberty of conscience. And so much for this particular.

Now to make upon the other parts propos’d, and in a mere civil sense, som farther conjecture.

When a house of peers sets up a house of commons, as in the barons wars, they will govern the commons well enough for their own purpose, and not seldom the king too.

But we are to speak of a thing without any example, a house of peers set up by a house of commons; nor, in the want of example, are we thought worthy by our adversarys to be furnish’d with reason: so the guidance of our discourse upon this point is committed to mother wit, a notable gossip, but not so good a politician.

Nevertheless, if this house consists of old peerage only, we have direction enough to know how that will be; for either the single person, or the commons will be predominant in the government: if the commons be so, then it will be with the peers, as it was before their last seclusion; that is, while they do as the commons would have them, they may sit; otherwise they are sent home. And if the single person be predominant, it can be no otherwise than by an army; in which case the old peers being not in arms, nor having any help that way, are as much under the yoke as the commons. By which it may be apparent, that it is the great interest of the present peerage, that there be a well-order’d commonwealth: otherwise the commons being in bondage, the lords, whom that least becoms, are but equal with them: and being free, the lords are not the head, but at the foot of them; wheras in an equal commonwealth, that the nobility be not at the head, or have not the leading, is quite contrary to all reason and experience.

If the house consists of new peers only, it must consist of the chief officers in the army; which immediatly divides the government into two distinct governments: the one in the house of commons, whose foundation is the body of the people; the other in the house of peers, whose foundation is the army. This army if it remains firm to the peers, they not only command the commons, but make and unmake kings as they please; or as ambitious partys and persons among themselves are diligent or fortunat: but if the army (as is most and more than most likely) coms off to the commons, the peers are nothing, and the commons introduce a commonwealth.

If the house consists of new peers and old, the old peers while they like it, are cyphers to new figures; and when they like it not, may go home again: nor whether they stay or go, is this case so different from the former, as to be any greater obstruction to a commonwealth.

To hate the very name of a commonwealth, or not to see that England can be no other, is as if men were not in earnest. It is ask’d of the commons what the protector shall be, and he can be nothing but what they will. It is ask’d of the commons what the other house shall be, and it can be nothing but what the commons will. The commons are ask’d whose the army, whose the militia, whose the negative vote is; nor can these be otherwise determin’d than as they please. The commons are ask’d whether they will make such a war, whether they will pay such a debt, whether they will advance such a sum; all which are intirely at their discretion: therfore actually and positively England is a commonwealth. Nay, and that there remain not the least doubt, whether it be safe for any man to say thus much, the present government has either no legal denomination at all, or is legally denominated the commonwealth: the question of the future state of it coms not one whit upon the matter, which is already granted, but upon the form only. A commonwealth for the matter makes it self; and where they will not bestow upon it the form necessary, fails not of coming to ruin, or, at least, to disgrace the workmen: or, to speak more properly and piously, a commonwealth is not made by men, but by God; and they who resist his holy will, are weapons that cannot prosper.