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2023 | OriginalPaper | Chapter

The Possibility of Democratic Republicanism: The Levellers, Milton, and Harrington

Author : Rachel Foxley

Published in: Republicanism and Democracy

Publisher: Springer International Publishing

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Abstract

In the revolutionary England of the 1640s and 1650s, it was newly possible for non-monarchical and radical constitutional proposals to be put forward, in some cases drawing on a classical republican tradition; the idea of representative ‘democracy’ was simultaneously becoming established. This paper considers the Levellers, John Milton, and James Harrington, arguing that while they shared assumptions of popular sovereignty and electoral representation, they can be placed at very different positions on a spectrum between the poles of democracy and republicanism. Their very different constitutional proposals reveal different fears and different attitudes to the role the people should play within a representative system. While the Levellers proposed a clearly democratic system (in modern terms), they also expected an active and spirited people to keep representatives in check. Milton’s constitutional suggestions on the eve of the Restoration show the people as the threat and an aristocratic republicanism as at least a temporary defence. Harrington overtly embraced both the idea of ‘democracy’ and the heritage of the more aristocratic ancient and contemporary republics, forging a remarkable fusion of the two in spite of the anti-democratic elements present in early modern republicanism.

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Footnotes
1
In fact, there was a good deal of ambivalence or inconsistency in republican treatment of Leveller ideas. To take only the authors handled here, John Milton was commissioned to write against the Levellers but did not do so, for reasons which have been much debated (Dzelzainis, 2005); and James Harrington criticised Leveller ideas through a discussion of the second Agreement of the People in his Art of Law-giving (1659), although others attempted to combine Harringtonian with Leveller thought (see Hammersley 2019, 164–166).
 
2
See Peltonen 2019, as well as his forthcoming articles in History of Political Thought and in his Cambridge History of Democracy vol. 2. Histories of democracy have hitherto taken this to be an eighteenth-century development, and have paid little attention to the English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s except to discuss the Levellers, who did not explicitly discuss ‘democracy’ at all: Peltonen shows that just one contemporary author connected the Levellers’ proposals positively with this new conception of representative democracy (2019, 69).
 
3
James Harrington used such arguments to describe ancient Sparta and modern Venice as ‘democracies’, for example.
 
4
Similarly, Richard Tuck’s arguments (2016) about the emergence of a democratic theory of the people as merely a ‘sleeping sovereign’, could again produce a ‘democracy’ which in its relative lack of wide popular involvement was not so far from republicanism, but might not meet the criteria of ‘democracy’ which are of most interest to us.
 
5
Como (2018) offers an illuminating account of the origins of parliamentarian radicalism and the future Levellers’ place in it.
 
6
The ‘Agreements of the People’ had their origins with the radicals of the New Model Army, whose relationship with the Leveller civilian radicals is somewhat disputed, but civilians were involved in the Putney Debates for which the first Agreement of the People was drafted in 1647, and the Levellers were then involved in negotiations over a further version in late 1648, and finally issued their own version in May 1649 (the ‘Third Agreement of the People’). For discussion of these and related documents, see Baker and Vernon (2012).
 
7
Leveller women pointed out that they had “a proportionable share in the Freedoms of this Common-wealth” with men (The Moderate 1649). The classic appraisal of the movement’s inclusion and strategic presentation of women is Hughes 1995.
 
8
Criticisms of democratic tendencies in radical sectarian and parliamentarian thought in the 1640s by Thomas Edwards (1646, 262) and in the 1650s by John Hall (1653) were also partially aimed at the Levellers, although Edwards’ most damning condemnations of democratic ideas did not name the Leveller leaders as their target, and Hall’s anonymous A Stop to the Mad Multitude was specifically aimed at John Streater, a populist republican who has been seen as inheriting Leveller ideas.
 
9
The drafting of the provision emphasises the possibility of members of the Representative using their power to alter the constitution and “exceed their time and power in places of trust”, and states that each member of the Representative will be guilty of treason if they do not immediately dissent to measures to overturn the Agreement introduced into the Representative. It would also be treasonable for members of the public to attempt to overturn the Agreement but this is not the primary focus.
 
10
For the Levellers’ changing attitude to Magna Carta and English legal tradition, see Dzelzainis (2005); for the interplay of the English legal tradition and broader sources of legitimation in Lilburne’s writing, see Foxley (2013, 102–108).
 
11
This is not a point ever explicitly made by Leveller writers, with just one hint to this effect found in Lilburne (1647, 26), where he argues that if the Commons’ act of will can destroy him, then no individual is safe, but also, the MPs themselves are not safe as “the lesser part of themselves, are liable by the law every houre to be destroyed by the Vote of the Major part”.
 
12
A detailed tracing of Milton’s evolving political stance in the 1650s is to be found in Worden (2007).
 
13
See McDowell (2020) for a highly illuminating account of Milton’s early life and his beliefs about education.
 
14
Study of Milton’s political thought and the nature of his republicanism was stimulated and furthered by the essays in Armitage et al. (1995). Williams (2017) is the most sustained argument for an egalitarian and democratic Milton; Hamel (2013) makes a powerful case for a fundamental egalitarianism in Milton’s thought. On the other side of the debate, Rahe (2008, 114–118) emphasises a hierarchical view of people’s moral capacities as central to Milton’s politics.
 
15
See Hammersley (2019, 47–63) on this and the family’s earlier connections with the Stuarts.
 
16
Harrington’s argument includes the claim that this perfect commonwealth can forestall anyone within it having an interest in, or having the power to, act seditiously; this may be indirectly attributable to the legitimacy of its popular character—but Harrington does not develop such an argument.
 
17
While the electoral processes at all levels included an element of lot, this was deployed not in a democratic fashion as at Athens, but following the practice of the Venetian ‘ballot’—Venice being a contemporary republic noted for its stability but also its politically exclusive system. The lot was deployed as an anti-corruption measure to select people to play a part in nominating others for election, but everyone finally selected for office was chosen through election and not by lot.
 
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Metadata
Title
The Possibility of Democratic Republicanism: The Levellers, Milton, and Harrington
Author
Rachel Foxley
Copyright Year
2023
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-15780-6_4