James Harrington, A Discourse shewing that the Spirit of Parlaments, with a Council in the Intervals, is not to be trusted for a Settlement, lest it introduce Monarchy and Persecution for Conscience (1659)

James Harrington (1611–1677)  


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



Bibliographical Information

ID Number

T.320 [1659.07.28] James Harrington, A Discourse shewing that the Spirit of Parlaments, with a Council in the Intervals, is not to be trusted for a Settlement, lest it introduce Monarchy and Persecution for Conscience (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

28 July, 1659.

Thomason Tracts Catalog information

TT. E.993 (28 July, 1659).

Editor’s Introduction

(Placeholder: Text will be added later.)

Text of Pamphlet

A DISCOURSE SHEWING, That the Spirit of Parliaments, with a Council in the Intervals, is not to be trusted for a Settlement; lest it introduce Monarchy, and Persecution for Conscience.

THE present case considered, I need say no more, than, if there be no bar, a parliament may consist wholly, or in the greater part, of Presbyterians or royalists; and if there be a bar, it is no government by parliaments, but by the bar that is upon them; which must be of greater danger. But the house of commons, as hath been hitherto usual in England, consisted of about four hundred deputies of the people, for the most part gentlemen, and old stagers, elected again and again unto the same employment, without vacation: this is that which being sweet in the stomach of divers, is the old love for which they detest new forms. Such an assembly, for the number or nature of their elections, is somewhat too low and too large to come up unto the true interest of a king, and too high and too narrow to descend wholly unto the true interest of the people; they have antiently provided diligently, that they might hawk and hunt without impediment of the king, and of the lower sort, to whom it was almost capital to spoil their game: and though this may seem but a jesting instance, yet have the rest of their laws, for their pitch, been much of the middle way, or of the like genius, while they were under a nobility; but since, through the natural decay of that order, they came to a greater height, it hath been to endure no check. Wherefore as it hath been found under a king, that such an assembly will endure no king, through the check they apprehend from him; so it will be found that under a commonwealth they will be addicted unto the introduction of monarchy, through the check they apprehend from the people.

Certain it is, that an alteration of government going no farther than the institution of parliaments, and a council in the intervals, can come to no more than that, so often as the council shall be changed for a king, or the king for a council, so often the commonwealth (if this deserve any such name) must be changed into monarchy, and the monarchy into a commonwealth; which changes may be made with such ease and suddenness, that every night it may be a cast of a dye, what the government shall be the next morning. Where the alteration (I say) of the government is no greater than from a king’s chair, to a narrow bench of counsellors; there goeth no more to make a single person, than throwing down the bench, and setting up the chair; nor to make a commonwealth (such an one as it is) than throwing down the chair, and setting up the bench. But for the farther discovery of such causes, as in so strange and unheard-of innovation may give frequent or continual mutation, if this posture of things be upheld (as I cannot see how otherwise it should stand) by an army. Let us consider three things:

First, What is incident unto such an army.

Secondly, What is incident unto such a council.

And thirdly, What is incident unto such a parliament.

It is incident unto such an army, let the body thereof be never so popularly affected, to be under a monarchical administration, or to be top-heavy in their great officers, which will have power, whether they will or no, to oversway both the army and the government; as in the setting up of the late single person. Again, if the body of the army mutiny against the government, neither their great officers, nor any thing else in the parliament or council, can withstand them; as in the pulling down of the latter single person: whence it is evident that such an army can be no foundation of any settlement.

A council in the intervals, though it should rule well, will yet have a tendency toward preservation or prolongation of itself; and if it rule ill, will be obnoxious unto parliaments. For which cause, what help for themselves shall be in their power, is to be presumed, will be in their will; and they have the same power which the king had, or which is all one, are in as effectual a posture to obstruct or elude the meeting of parliaments; therefore it will be in their will to do it. And if they will this, they reduce the government into oligarchy, then into faction, and last of all, into confusion.

The people this while must unavoidably perceive this council to consist of too few to be fellows, and of too many to be masters. For which cause being all broken into faction, some for a commonwealth, and some for monarchy, parliaments coming by gusts, whether with or against the will of the council, will either be torn with like faction among themselves, or pull down the council as no government, and endeavour some settlement. Now if a monarchy (as most likely, because most obvious) be set up, it can be no settlement, because it is quite contrary unto the balance of the nation; and so they mend nothing, but make greater confusion. And a commonwealth or democracy consisteth of such orders and such novelties in this land, as will never be light upon by an assembly, nor credited by such as are unexperienced in the art. So that this nation going thus far about, will come but unto that very point, where it now stands at gaze, or to far greater confusion; for which there is no remedy, save only that they who are in power would lay aside all prejudice unto pretended novelties and innovations, or rather not give themselves unto such novelties as tend unto confusion, (for such have been the late changes) but consider such antiquities as have been, and must be the rule and reason of a wise proceeding in that, which by the providence of God never was before, and yet is now come to be the truth of their case.

But if what hath been hitherto shewn, be the certain consequence of parliaments with a council in the intervals, as that it will be no settlement, but a state now setting up, then pulling down kings or single persons; it is apparent that what introduceth monarchy, introduceth suppression of civil liberty, and in that, of liberty of conscience. Wherefore certain it is, that the spirit of a parliament with a council in the intervals, is not to be trusted, lest it introduce monarchy and suppression of liberty, and in that, of the liberty of conscience; nor the spirit of any form whatsoever, but that only of a democracy or free state, which is the same that through novelties introduced by God himself, is only practicable as a settlement in the present case of this distracted nation.

The true form of a democracy or free state consisteth especially in this, that as to lawgiving, the wisdom of the nation propose, and the interest of the nation resolve. If this be possible in England, then it is impossible, that there should be in England greater security unto liberty, whether civil or of conscience, which but for a new distinction is the same. Now that it is possible and easily practicable to frame such standing assemblies in England, whereof the one shall contain the wisdom, the other the interest of the whole nation, hath been long since evinced.

But men that go upon picking up arguments against an house out of the rubbish, and distinguish not between the people under the ruins of the old government, and what they must needs be when raised into a proper structure of a new frame, will say, that the people have a general aversion from being built up into any new form at all. So hath the rubbish, and yet it may have good stones and beams in it. They will say, that there is a general disaffection, nay hatred, throughout the countries, unto the government; and that more now, than in the time of the late usurper. Which I easily believe, because the change of a person, with what loss soever, is yet a less change than the change of a government. The former is a change from a thing that was known, to another that is known; but the latter must be a change from a thing that hath been known in this nation, to a thing that was never known in this nation. A man that walketh, treadeth, with almost equal boldness his next step, if he see it, though it be in the dirt; but let it be never so fair, if he see it not, he stands stock-still. This is the present state of the people, and this effect in the people is especially occasioned by their natural distrust of such novelties as they cannot penetrate or discover what they are. Nor is it an ill pulse, the case considered, in which it signifies no other than their constancy, and dear affection unto their old laws and ways, how unfit soever they be now become. Wherfore, so soon as you have fitted them better, none of this will be against you, but all for you. It is certain, that a people under proper orders, is the least effeminate, and most manly government in the world. But such an one as hath no experience or knowledge in these, hath a frowardness, that is altogether childish. What they find uneasy, they tear off and throw away; as in the late war; but no sooner find the nakedness unto which by like means they are brought, than being unable to clothe themselves, they fall into an unmanly penitence, and betake themselves unto picking up of their old trappings. If there be not men at the head of them, who by introduction of a proper form, can clothe their nakedness, and reduce their passion unto temper, there is nothing to be expected, but darkness, desolation and horror.

Now if you be saints, do good unto them that hate you, and would persecute you. Now cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days, nay after a few days, you shall find it.

That the people of this land have an aversion from novelties or innovations, that they are incapable of discourse or reasoning upon government, that they do not understand the true form of a free and equal commonwealth, is no impediment unto them, nor excuse unto wise and honest men, why they should not be imbarked.

As the foul of man being by the wisdom of God imbarked in flesh, doth all the functions of the body, not that she understandeth it, but that she can work no otherwise; so the body of a people, by the wisdom of one man, (if there be any such man, as having such power, can be so honest) or of a few men (if there be any so few, as having such power, can agree in such a matter) imbarked in the true form of a government, do all the functions of the same, not that they understand it; for how much understood they the late monarchy, when it was in the greatest vigour; but that through the necessity of the form, except it came to be insufficient (as through the late decay of the church and the nobility) they can work no otherwise than according unto the nature of it.

If the form thus introduced be that of a free and equal commonwealth, the people not being able to work otherwise than according unto the nature of it, can never introduce monarchy, nor persecution for conscience, because either of these is contrary and destructive unto the nature of the form.

That the former is so, I need not prove; and that the latter is so, is obvious. For without invading civil liberty, there is no invasion of the liberty of conscience; and by invading civil liberty, this form is dissolved. But some will say, Thrust the people into innovations unto which they have so great aversion? before they can be brought to understand them, and against their consent? what a violation of freedom! what a difficulty! what an injustice!

But taking all this together; what less can be said to whatever the parliament shall next introduce? or if you take them apart.

As to aversion, I have already spoken; it is not any malice in the people, but their nature in this case, which being through mere want of acquaintance with such things as they can no wise understand but by trial, is not to be rectified but by the introduction of such a form as they finding far more worthy of their holding, will by changing of the hand, but improve their more deserved constancy.

As to the difficulty of introducing a new form, of obtaining the people’s consent, and the violation that in failure of the same may be made upon liberty, I say, that elections, at divers times, have already been divers; that in this there hath been no violation of liberty, nor difficulty in obtaining the people’s consent: and such elections as will necessarily introduce the whole form of a new commonwealth, have no such difference in them from the former, that they should not be as easily consented unto, and performed by the people; and this done by ordaining the cause, they have ordained the effect, and so introduced the new form by common and universal consent.

Lastly, if it be just that the people should have their liberty, they will soon find by this change, that they both have it, and know how to hold it: which a people once finding, were never willing to part with; and in this consisteth the strongest security against monarchy, and for liberty of conscience.

To conclude: this to our present commonwealthsmen is dictated by universal experience, and written by the best politicians, as their certain doom.

If they introduce a well-ordered commonwealth, they shall be safe while they live, and famous when they are dead; and if they introduce not a well-ordered commonwealth, they shall be unsafe while they live, and infamous when they are dead.

Certain Maxims calculated unto the present State of England.

WHERE nothing is to be obtained by reasoning, there every thing is referred to event; and so are these maxims.

1. WHERE there is no publick endowment of a ministry, there can be no national religion.

2. WHERE there is no national religion, there can neither be any government, nor any liberty of conscience.

3. WITHOUT invasion there may be a tumult, but can be no civil war in England.

4. WITHOUT a civil war, there can be no monarchy in England.

5. WHERE there is no situation like that of Venice, there can be no lasting oligarchy.

6. A commonwealth upon intervals is against nature.

7. Parliaments upon intervals set up kings or tyrants.

8. Parliaments when they are salariated, will sit in harvest.

9. Caput reipublicæ est nosse rempublicam. When the orders of any one commonwealth that is or hath been, are rightly understood by such as have the power, England will be a commonwealth.

10. IF the narrowest commonwealth require at least twice the root of the largest monarchy, and the English monarchy were founded upon two assemblies containing six or seven hundred; then a commonwealth in England, must be founded upon assemblies consisting of about thirteen hundred at the least.

11. IF justice be the common interest, and the common interest be justice; then private or partial interest, opposed unto the common, must be injustice.

12. IF the laws of the people must needs go upon the common interest, and the laws of the oligarchy must needs go upon partial or private interest, opposed to the common; then the laws of the people must be just, and the laws of the oligarchy must be unjust.

13. EVIL men, that can do no other than make just laws, are safer than good men, that must either make unjust laws, or ruin themselves.