Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth

It is not with forms of government, as with other artificial contrivances; where an old engine may be rejected, if we can discover another more accurate and commodious, or where trials may safely be made, even though the success be doubtful.

The mathematicians in Europe have been much divided concerning that figure of a ship, which is the most commodious for sailing; and Huygens,1 who at last determined the controversy, is justly thought to have obliged the learned, as well as commercial world; though Columbus had sailed to America, and Sir Francis Drake made the tour of the world,2 without any such discovery. As one form of government must be allowed more perfect than another, independent of the manners and humours of particular men; why may we not enquire what is the most perfect of all, though the common botched and inaccurate governments seem to serve the purposes of society, and though it be not so easy to establish a new system of government, as to build a vessel upon a new construction? The subject is surely the most worthy curiosity of any the wit of man can possibly devise. And who knows, if this controversy were fixed by the universal consent of the wise and learned, but, in some future age, an opportunity might be afforded of reducing the theory to practice, either by a dissolution of some old government, or by the combination of men to form a new one, in some distant part of the world? In all cases, it must be advantageous to know what is most perfect in the kind, that we may be able to bring any real constitution or form of government as near it as possible, [514] by such gentle alterations and innovations as may not give too great disturbance to society.

All I pretend to in the present essay is to revive this subject of speculation; and therefore I shall deliver my sentiments in as few words as possible. A long dissertation on that head would not, I apprehend, be very acceptable to the public, who will be apt to regard such disquisitions both as useless and chimerical.

All plans of government, which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind, are plainly imaginary. Of this nature, are the Republic of Plato, and the Utopia of Sir Thomas More.3 The Oceana is the only valuable model of a commonwealth, that has yet been offered to the public.

The chief defects of the Oceana seem to be these.

  1. First, Its rotation is inconvenient, by throwing men, of whatever abilities, by intervals, out of public employments.
  2. Secondly, Its Agrarian is impracticable.
    • Men will soon learn the art, which was practised in ancient Rome, of concealing their possessions under other people’s name; till at last, the abuse will become so common, that they will throw off even the appearance of restraint.
  3. Thirdly, The Oceana provides not a sufficient security for liberty, or the redress of grievances.
    • The senate must propose, and the people consent; by which means, the senate have not only a negative upon the people, but, what is of much greater consequence, their negative goes before the votes of the people. Were the King’s negative of the same nature in the English constitution, and could he prevent any bill from coming into parliament, he would be an absolute monarch. As his negative follows the votes of the houses, it is of little consequence:
    • Such a difference is there in the manner of placing the same thing. When a popular bill has been debated in parliament, is brought to maturity, all its conveniencies and inconveniencies, weighed and balanced; if afterwards it be presented for the royal assent, few princes will venture to reject the unanimous desire of the people.
    • But could the King crush a disagreeable bill in embryo (as was the case, for some time, in the Scottish parliament, by means of the lords of the articles5), the British government would have no balance, nor would grievances ever be redressed:
    • And it is certain, that exorbitant power proceeds not, in any government, from new laws, so much as from neglecting to remedy the abuses, which frequently rise from the old ones.
    • A government, says Machiavel, must often be brought back to its original principles.
    • It appears then, that, in the Oceana, the whole legislature may be said to rest in the senate; which Harrington would own to be an inconvenient form of government, especially after the Agrarian is abolished.

Here is the ideal form of government:

  • Let all the freeholders of 20 pounds a-year in the county, and all the householders worth 500 pounds in the town parishes:
  • Let the 100 county representatives, two days after their election:
  • This will lead to:
  • Every new law must first be debated in the senate [by the executive, like a veto].

    The magistrates, though the law be referred to them, may:


    The senate:

    The Magistrates and Council

  • Each council has:
  • All these must be senators.
  • The senate also names all the ambassadors to foreign courts, who may either be senators or not.
  • The council of religion and learning inspects the universities and clergy.
  • The council of trade inspects every thing that may affect commerce.
  • The council of laws
  • The council of war
  • The council of admiralty has the same power with regard to the navy, together with the nomination of the captains and all inferior officers.

    The Court of Competitors

    Besides these councils or courts, there is another called the court of competitors

  • If the senate acquit him, the court of competitors may appeal to [520] the people's magistrates or representatives.
  • Upon that appeal, the magistrates or representatives:
  • These, up to 300 people, meet in the capital, and bring the person accused to a new trial.
  • The court of competitors may propose any law to the senate.

    The Senate

    The senate possesses all the judicative authority of the house of Lords -- all the appeals from the inferior courts.

  • At any time, the senate, or any single county, may annul any by-law of another county.

    The Representatives

    The representatives have all the authority of the British justices of peace in trials, commitments, etc.

    The magistrates name rectors or ministers to all the parishes.


    The Militia

    The militia is established in imitation of that of Switzerland.

  • During war, the general appoints the colonel and downwards
  • The magistrates may break any officer in the county regiment.
  • Justice System

    All crimes are tried within the county by the magistrates and a jury.

  • 2 secretaries
  • the council of state, with any five or more that the senate appoints
  • In wartime, no army officer in the field can have any civil office in the commonwealth.

    The capital may be allowed [522] 4 members in the senate.

    When they enact any by-law, the greater number of counties or divisions determines the matter.

    The first year in every century is set apart for correcting all inequalities, which time may have produced in the representative.

    Therefore, in their parochial meetings, will probably choose the best representative:

    The nobles in Poland are more than 10,000.


    All free governments must consist of 2 councils, a lesser senate and greater people

  • Here is an inconvenience, which no government has yet fully remedied, but which is the easiest to be remedied in the world.
  • This is confirmed by daily experience.
  • When an absurdity strikes a member, he conveys it to his neighbour, and so on, till the whole be infected.
  • Separate this great body.
  • Even though every member is  only of middling sense, it is improbable, that any thing but reason can prevail over the whole.
  • Influence and example being removed, good sense will always get the better of bad among a number of people.
  • There are two things to be guarded against in every senate:

    1. The great dependence of the senators on the people by annual elections
  • Allowing them only a small power
  • The court of competitors composed of their rivals
  • its division.
    1. the smallness of their number
    2. Factions are prevented by their dependence on the people
  • They have a power of expelling any factious member.
  • In a senate regularly chosen by the people, almost any man may be fit for any civil office.
  • : Which resolutions would not confine them in critical times, when extraordinary parts on the one hand, or extraordinary stupidity on the other, appears in any senator; but they would be sufficient to preventd intrigue and faction, by making the disposal of the offices a thing of course.
  • The senate of Venice govern themselves by such resolutions.

    In foreign politics the interest of the senate cannot be separated from that of the people


    The chief support of the British government is the opposition of interests;

    It is necessary, likewise, to prevent both combination and division in the thousand magistrates.

    The 10,000 are too large a body either to unite or divide, except when they:

    A small commonwealth is the happiest government in the world within itself, because every thing lies under the eye of the rulers:

    Every county-law may be annulled either by the senate or another county because that shows an opposition of interest: In which case no part ought to decide for itself.

    In many governments, the rewards of inferior magistrates arise only from their ambition, vanity, or public spirit.

  • The senators have access to so many honourable and lucrative offices
  • This plan of government is practicable as it is seen in and proven by the commonwealth of the United Provinces

    1. The representation is more equal
  • The unlimited power of the burgo-masters in the towns forms a perfect aristocracy in the Dutch commonwealth
  • Every province and town has the negative on the Dutch republic regarding alliances, peace and war, and the imposition of taxes
  • In my plan, the counties are not so independent of each other
  • Larger powers, though of the safest kind, are intrusted to the senate than the States-General possess;
  • The chief alterations that could be made on the British government are:

    1. The plan of Cromwell’s parliament should be restored, by:
  • Such a house of Commons would be too weighty for a frail house of Lords, like the present
  • This plan of limited monarchy is still liable to three great inconveniencies.

    1. It removes not entirely, though it may soften, the parties of court and country
    2. The king’s personal character must still have great influence on the government.
    3. The sword is in the hands of a single person, who will always neglect to discipline the militia, in order to have a pretence for keeping up a standing army.j

    There is a fallacy:

    The contrary seems probable.

  • On the other [528] hand, a city readily concurs in the same notions of government
  • Even under absolute princes, the subordinate government of cities is commonly republican; while that of counties and provinces is monarchical
  • But these same circumstances, which create commonwealths in cities, render their constitution more frail and uncertain.
  • Aristocracies are better adapted for peace and order

  • In a large government modelled with masterly skill, there is room to refine the democracy
  • Should such a government be immortal?

  • Rust might grow to the springs of the most accurate political machine and disorder its motions.
  • Lastly, extensive conquests ruins every free government
  • Even if such a state establishes a fundamental law against conquests, republics have ambition just a people have ambition
  • and
  • It is sufficient motivation that such a government would flourish for many ages