James Harrington, A Discourse upon this Saying, The Spirit of the Nation is not yet to be trusted with Liberty, lest it introduce Monarchy, or invade the Liberty of Conscience (1659)

James Harrington (1611–1677)  


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



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ID Number

T.319 [1659??] James Harrington, A Discourse upon this Saying, The Spirit of the Nation is not yet to be trusted with Liberty, lest it introduce Monarchy, or invade the Liberty of 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

c. 1659

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Not listed in Thomason's Catalog.

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Text of Pamphlet

A DISCOURSE UPON THIS SAYING: The Spirit of the Nation is not yet to be trusted with Liberty; lest it introduce Monarchy, or invade the Liberty of Conscience.

DAVID was a man after God’s own heart, yet made the people judges of what was of God, and that even in matters of religion; as where he proposeth unto the representative, consisting of twenty-four thousand, in this manner: If it seem good unto you, and that it be of the Lord our God, let us—bring again the ark of our God to us: for we enquired not at it in the days of Saul, 1 Chro. xiii. But men in this nation blow hot and cold: one main exception which the prelatical and Presbyterian sects have against popular government, is, that as to religion it will trust every man unto his own liberty; and that only, for which the rest of the religious sects apprehend popular government, is, that the spirit of the nation (as they say) is not to be trusted with the liberty of conscience, in that it is inclining to persecute for religion. What remedy? ask the former sects, or parties different in judgment as to matter of religion, (for the word signifies no more) they tell you a king; ask the latter, they tell you some certain or convenient number of princes, or an oligarchy. But saith the Scripture, Put not your trust in princes. It doth not any where say the like of the congregation of the Lord, or of the people; but rather the contrary, as is implied in the example already alledged of David’s proposition unto the representative of Israel, and is yet plainer in the proposition of Moses unto the whole people, even before they were under orders of popular government; and when they were to introduce such orders, as where he saith, Take unto you wise men, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you Now these rulers thus elected by the people, were supreme, both in matter of religion and government: in which words therefore, both by the command of God, and the example of Moses, you have the spirit of the people trusted with all matters either civil or religious. Throughout the Testaments, Old and New, (as I have over and over demonstrated unto you) the proceedings of God, as to the matter of government, go not beside the principles of human prudence the breadth of one hair. Let saints therefore, or others, be they who or what they will, work otherwise in like cases, or (to speak more particularly unto the present state of things) obtrude upon us oligarchy, when they can or dare, they shall be, and soon confess themselves to be below men, even of natural parts. In the mean while, having thus the free leave and encouragement both of Scripture and religion, I come unto a farther disquisition of this point by the card of reason, and the course of prudence.

In all the circle of government, there are but three spirits; the spirit of a prince the spirit of the oligarchy, and the spirit of a free people: wherefore if the spirit of a free people be not to be trusted with their liberty, or, which is all one, with the government, then must it follow of necessity, that either the spirit of a prince, or of the oligarchy, is to be trusted with the liberty of the people, or with their government.

What the spirit of a prince intrusted with the government or liberty of the people hath been, we have had large experience; and full enough of the spirit of the oligarchy: for a single council having both the right of debate and result, never was nor can be esteemed a commonwealth, but ever was and will be known for mere oligarchy. It is true, that the spirit of the people, in different cases, is as different as that of a man. A man is not of that spirit when he is sick, as when he is well: if you touch a sick man, you hurt him; if you speak to him, he is froward; he despairs of his health; he throws down his medicines: but give him ease, he is debonnaire and thankful; give him a cure, and he blesseth you. It is no otherwise with the people. A people under a yoke which they have lost all hopes of breaking, are of a broken, a slavish, a pusillanimous spirit, as the paisant in France. A people under a yoke which they are not out of hopes to break, are of an impatient, of an active, and of a turbulent spirit, as the Romans under their senate for life, the Hollanders under the king of Spain, and the English, after the ruin of the nobility, under the late monarchy. A people broken loose from their ancient and accustomed form, and yet unreduced unto any other, is of a wild, a giddy spirit; and, as the politician saith, like some bird or beast, which having been bred in a lease or chain, and gotten loose, can neither prey for itself, nor hath any body to feed it, till, as commonly comes to pass, it be taken up by the remainder of the broken chain or lease, and tyed so much the shorter; as befel those in Spain after the war of the commonalties, and the Neapolitans after that of Mazinello. But a people under orders of popular government, are of the most prudent and serene spirit, and the voidest of intestine discord or sedition; as the Venetians, the Switz and the Hollanders.

Wherefore thus we may in no wise argue: A ship without tackling and steerage is not to be trusted with any freight, nor can make any voyage; therefore a ship with tackling and steerage is not to be trusted with any freight, nor can make any voyage. But to say that the people not under fit orders of popular government, are not capable of liberty; therefore the people under fit orders of popular government, are not capable of liberty, is no better. As the former argument breaketh up all hope of trade, so the latter breaketh up all hopes of popular government.

Here lyeth the point. The mariner trusteth not unto the sea, but to his ship. The spirit of the people is in no wise to be trusted with their liberty, but by stated laws or orders; so the trust is not in the spirit of the people, but in the frame of those orders, which, as they are tight or leaky, are the ship out of which the people being once imbarqued, cannot stir, and without which they can have no motion.

IF the trumpet gave an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself unto the battle? It is not a multitude that makes an army, but their discipline, their arms, the distribution of them into troops, companies, regiments, and brigades, this for the van, that for the rear-ward; and these bodies must either rout themselves, which is not their interest, or have no motion at all, but such only as is according unto orders. If they march, if they halt, if they lodge, if they charge, all is according unto orders. Whereof he that giveth the orders, trusteth not to the army, but the army trusteth him. It is no otherwise in the ordering of a commonwealth. Why say we then, that the people are not to be trusted, while certain it is, that in a commonwealth rightly ordered, they can have no other motion than according unto the orders of their commonwealth? Have we not seen what difference there may be in an house elected by the counties only, and an house elected both by the boroughs and the counties? Is this so much from the people, as from their orders? The Lacedemonian senate for life, before the institution of the ephori, was dangerous; after the institution of the ephori, was not dangerous. The Venetians, before the introduction of their present policy, were very tumultuous; since the introduction of the same, are the most serene commonwealth. Was this from the people who are the same, or from the difference of their orders? If you will trust orders, and not men, you trust not unto the people, but unto your orders: see then that your orders be secure, and the people fail not.

You the present rulers of England, now the object of angels and men, in the fear of God look to it. I dare boldly say, and the world will say to all posterity, if England through the want of orders be ruined, it was not that you needed to trust the people, but that the people trusted you.

And of what orders have some of you that lay the people so low, and think yourselves only to be trusted, made offer? Do you not propose,

THAT they who are or shall be intrusted, (with power or authority) be such as shall be found to be most eminent for godliness, faithfulness and constancy to the good old cause and interest of these nations?

Now I beseech you consider, if you mean to make your selves judges, without the people or parliament, in such manner as you have owned your commander in chief, who are godly, and what the interest of the nation is, what kind of commonwealth this must make. Or if you mean to make the people judges, without which it is impossible there should be any well-ordered commonwealth, whether you can give them any other rule than according unto Moses, Take ye wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes.

Consider whether those you would indemnify for strengthning the late unnatural and dishonourable yoke, be eminent for godliness, faithfulness to the good old cause, or for asserting the interest of these nations; and whether to impose such qualifications as may bring these or the like again into power, be the more probable way unto a free state; or to leave the people according to the rule of Moses, unto their judgment in these cases.

You propose, That to the end the legislative authority of this commonwealth may not by their long sitting become burthensom or inconvenient, there may be effectual provision made for a due succession thereof.

I beseech you to consider what example can be produced of any one commonwealth wherein the legislative authority was not continually extant or sitting; and what reason there can be that it should possibly be otherwise, the government remaining a commonwealth. Consider whether in case the two houses of parliament had been heretofore perpetually sitting, the government had not been a commonwealth; whether the intervals of the same, were not that in a good part, which caused it to be monarchical; and so, whether the legislative authority in a commonwealth being intermitted, must not convert the commonwealth into monarchy, in case the intervals be guided by a single person; or into oligarchy, in case they be guided by a council. Lastly, consider whether such a council in the intervals of parliaments, be not, of all others, that mole-hill by which a tyrant can be most conveniently raised for a jump into a throne; or what there is in this case to withstand him, though Whitehall should be sold or pulled down.

Again, you propose, That the legislative power be in a representative consisting of an house successively chosen by the people, and of a select senate, co-ordinate in power.

Upon which I beseech you to consider whether there can be any safe representative of the people, not constituted of such a number, and by such rules as must take in the interest of the whole people. Whether there be not difference between the interest which a people can have under monarchy, and the interest which a people ought to have under a commonwealth: and whether it be a good argument, that an assembly of four hundred upon intervals, was a sufficient representative of the people under monarchy, or under lords on whom they depended; therefore the like may be sufficient under a commonwealth, where they are their own lords, and have no dependence. I beseech you to consider whether it be natural unto any assembly to resolve otherwise than according unto the interest of that assembly. Whether it be not natural unto the senate, especially being not elected by the people, but obtruded, and, as I suspect, for life, to debate according as they intend to resolve, and to resolve according to the interest of the few, or of a party. Whether it be not unnatural, confused and dangerous unto a representative of the people, rightly constituted, to debate, whether it be not natural to such a representative to resolve according unto the interest of the whole people. Whether the senate resolving according unto the interest of the few, and the representative resolving according to the interest of the many, be not the certain way of creating feud between the senate and the people, or of introducing blood and civil war. And last of all, whether to declare the senate and the representative co-ordinate, be not to give unto either council both the debate, and the result indifferently, and in that the unavoidable occasion of such feud.

Lastly, you propose, That the executive power be in a council of state.

Upon which I beseech you to consider whether ever the prytans in Athens, the college in Venice, or a council of state in any commonwealth, had any executive power, except in the management perhaps of a war or treaty with foreign states.

Upon the whole, I beseech you to consider whether these propositions, and such like, be not contrary unto the whole course of popular prudence in all or any one commonwealth, and tending unto the certain destruction, or at least intolerable confusion of the people. Yet are these, I suppose, intended by you as a bar unto monarchy, and a guard unto the liberty of conscience.

To the Orders of a COMMONWEALTH. The whole territory is equally divided into fifty tribes or shires; in every one of these tribes, the people of each parish elect out of themselves one man in five to be for that year a deputy of that parish. I but, they will choose cavaliers or Presbyterians. Well, if that be the worst, for discourse sake be it so. These deputies thus chosen in each parish, are upon some certain day in their year to assemble at the capital of their tribe or shire, and there to elect a few to be knights or senators, and a fuller number to be burgesses or deputies in the representative of the people. Good: and these also must therefore be such as were their electors. So the sovereign assemblies of the nation will consist of Presbyterians and cavaliers; and being thus constituted, will either introduce monarchy, or invade the liberty of conscience, or both.

But these at their election take an oath of allegiance unto the commonwealth. An oath is nothing. How! not among Christians? Let us see what it hath been among Heathens. Brutus having driven out the Tarquins, or Roman kings, thought the spirit of that people not yet fit to be trusted with their liberty; and for this cause gave them an oath, whereby they abjured kings; which was then thought and found in that case to be enough. But if this would not have served the turn, what could? For Brutus to have expelled the kings, and yet not to have given the people their liberty, he well knew was not to have driven forth monarchy, but to have laid obligation upon the people to bring it back again in hatred of the oligarchy; as we in our way of proceeding have felt, and continue still to feel, yet blame the people upon as good grounds as if we should say, the people are impatient of trusting oligarchy with their liberty; therefore the people are not to be trusted with their liberty. But supposing an oath were as slight a matter as indeed in these days it is made; these sovereign assemblies, tho’ they should be thus constituted of Presbyterians and cavaliers only, yet could in no wise either introduce monarchy, or invade the liberty of conscience, for these reasons. The natural tendency of every thing, is unto the preservation of itself; but cavaliers and Presbyterians under these orders are a commonwealth; therefore their natural tendency must be to the preservation of the commonwealth. It is not so long since a roundhead was made a prince; did he make a commonwealth? Or what more reason can there be, why if you make cavaliers and independents a commonwealth, they should make a king? What experience is there in the world, that the greatest cavaliers being once brought under the orders of popular government rightly balanced, did not thenceforth detest monarchy? The people of Rome, libertatis dulcedine nondum experta, were the greatest cavaliers in the world; for above one hundred years together they obstructed their senate, which would have introduced a commonwealth, and caused them to continue under monarchy; but from the first introduction of popular government, continued under perfect detestation of the very name.

Putting the case that the senate could have a will to destroy it self, and introduce monarchy, you must also put the case that they may have some interest to do it; for the will of every assembly ariseth from the interest of the same. Now what interest can there be in a senate thus instituted, to destroy it self and set up monarchy?

The senate can do nothing but by proposing unto the people: it is not possible for them to agree unto any thing that can be proposed, without debating it; nor can any debate tend unto any such agreement, but in the force of reasons thereunto conducing. Now what reason had ever any senate, or can any senate ever have, to incline them unto such an end?

No man nor assembly can will that which is impossible: but where a commonwealth is rightly balanced, that a monarchy can there have any balance, except the senate can persuade people to quit three parts in four of the whole territory unto a prince, or to a nobility, is impossible. But if the introduction of monarchy can neither be in the will of the senate, though that should consist altogether of cavaliers and Presbyterians, then much less can it be in the will of the assembly of the people, though this also should consist altogether of cavaliers and Presbyterians.

But while we talk, that the people will be so rash in elections, we observe not that this is but the rashness of the few, exalting their wisdom above the wisdom of the people. If it be not seen that a commonwealth so ordered as hath been shewn, must of necessity consist in the senate of the wisdom, and in the popular assembly of the interest of the whole nation, after such manner that there can be no law not invented by the wisest, and enacted by the honestest, what the people under such a form shall do, cannot be judged: and if this be seen, we must either believe that the exclusion of monarchy, and the protection of liberty of conscience, concern not the wisdom or interest of the nation, in which case they are points upon which the present power ought in no wise to insist; or that being according unto the wisdom and interest of the nation, that wisdom and interest so collected as hath been shewn, must be much more able to judge of, obliged to adhere unto, and effectual to prosecute those ends, than any hundred or two hundred men in the world, were they never so select and unbiassed. Which nevertheless is not said against the ways we have to go, but for the end in which we are to acquiesce.

The distinction of liberty into civil and spiritual, is not ancient, but of a later date; there being indeed no such distinction, for the liberty of conscience once granted separable from civil liberty, civil liberty can have no security. It was the only excuse that the late tyrant pretended for his usurpation, that he could see no other means to secure the liberty of conscience. Suppose an oligarchy were like minded, would it follow that the tyrant did not, or that the oligarchy could not usurp civil liberty? Or is not this the only plausible way by which they might? What encouragement, except for present ends, or some short time, hath liberty of conscience had to trust more unto men, than civil liberty? Or what became of that civil liberty which was at any time trusted unto a prince, or to the oligarchy? On the other side, where hath that free state or commonwealth been ever known, that gave not liberty of conscience?

In Israel at the worst, or when it was scarce a commonwealth, Paul earnestly beholding the council, that is, the sanhedrim, or senate of the Jews, cryed out—Men and brethren—of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question: and when he had so said, there arose dissention between the Pharisees and the Sadduces—For the Sadduces say, that there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit; but the Pharisees confess both, Acts xxiii. Howbeit the Sadduces, for the rest adhered unto the Scriptures of the Old Testament, of which the Pharisees made little or no account in respect of their oral law, or traditions. Whence it followeth, that in this senate there were two religions, and by consequence that in this commonwealth there was liberty of conscience; and so much the rather, in that besides these sects, and that also of the essenes, this commonwealth consisted in a good part of proselytes of the gates, who did not at all receive the law of Moses, but only the precepts given by God to Noah.

PAUL, Acts xvii. in like manner, seeming to be a setter forth of strange gods, in the commonwealth of Athens, because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection; and the Athenians, being given to spend their time in telling or hearing some new thing, they took him and brought him, not by application of any violence, but out of curiosity and delight in novelties, unto Areopagus, or unto the famous senate in Athens, called The Areopagites, honoured by Cicero to furnish an argument against Atheists, where he argued, that to say, the world is governed without God, is as if one should say, that the commonwealth of Athens is governed without the Areopagites. Paul being thus brought unto Areopagus, or unto the place, that you may see it was not under custody, where the senators used to walk, stood in the midst of Mars-hill, and preached: now the Areopagites, or senators, were some Epicureans, who held as the Sadduces, and others Stoicks, who held as the Pharisees: and when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some, that is, the Epicureans, mocked, and others, that is, the Stoicks, said, we will hear thee again of this matter. And Paul, for another argument that he was all this while at his own disposing, and full freedom, departed from among them. Howbeit, certain men clave unto him, and believed, among which was Dionysius the Areopagite. So in the senate of Athens there were now three religions; the Epicurean, Stoick, and Christian; whence it must needs follow, that in the commonwealth of Athens, there was liberty of conscience. Men that are vers’d in Roman authors will have little reason to doubt, that the learnedst of this people gave not much credit unto the fabulous religion that among them was national. Among these, as is yet apparent by his writings, was Cicero, who nevertheless lamenteth, that he found it easier to pull down a religion, than to set up any; yet was neither Cicero, nor any man of his judgment, for this, less capable of being consul, or of any other magistracy. All things are not equally clear in every story, yet shall no man give one reason or example that it hath been otherwise in any commonwealth.

It is true, that the Popish commonwealths do not give the liberty of conscience. No man can give that which he hath not: they depend in part, or in the whole, as to religion, upon the church of Rome; and so have not the liberty of conscience to give: but even these do not take it away; for there is no Popish commonwealth that endureth any inquisition. Now I say, if there be no reason nor example that a commonwealth ever did invade the liberty of conscience, either there must be some cause in nature, which hath hitherto had no effect, or there is no reason why a commonwealth can invade the liberty of conscience. But the reason why it cannot, is apparent: for the power that can invade the liberty of conscience, can usurp civil liberty; and where there is a power that can usurp civil liberty, there is no commonwealth. To think otherwise, is to measure a commonwealth by the overflowing and boundless passions of a multitude, not by those laws or orders, without which a free people can no otherwise have a course, than a free river without the proper channel. Yet as far as we in this nation do yet stand from this object, we can perceive a difference between men, and orders or laws. A man will trust the law for a thousand pound, nay must trust it with his whole estate. But he will not trust a man for an hundred pounds; or if he do, he may repent it. They who dare trust men, do not understand men; and they that dare not trust laws or orders, do not understand a commonwealth. I told a story of my travels to some gentlemen that were pleased with it. The Italians are a grave and prudent nation, yet in some things no less extravagant than the wildest; particularly in their carnival or sports about Shrovetide: in these they are all mummers, not with our modesty, in the night, but for divers days together, and before the sun; during which time, one would think, by the strangeness of their habit, that Italy were once more overrun by Goths and Vandals, or new peopled with Turks, Moors, and Indians, there being at this time such variety of shapes and pageants. Among these, at Rome I saw one, which represented a kitchen, with all the proper utensils in use and action. The cooks were all cats and kitlings, set in such frames, so try’d and so ordered that the poor creatures could make no motion to get loose, but the same caused one to turn the spit, another to baste the meat, a third to scim the pot, and a fourth to make green-sauce. If the frame of your commonwealth be not such, as causeth every one to perform his certain function as necessarily as this did the cat to make green-sauce, it is not right.

But what talk we of frames or orders? Though we have no certain frame, no sitting orders, yet in this balance there are bounds, set even by his hand who stilleth the raging of the sea, and the madness of his people. Let the more wary Cavalier, or the fiery Presbyterian, march up when he may into the van, he shall lead this nation into a commonwealth, or into certain perdition. But if the old officers, men for the greater part of small fortunes, but all of large souls, ancient heroes, that dared to expose themselves unto ruin for their country, be restored unto their most deserved commands, this will be done, and done without a bloody nose, or a cut finger.

We hope ye are saints; but if you be men, look with all your might, with all your prudence, above all, with fervent imploration of GOD’s gracious assistance, who is visibly crowning you, unto the well ordering of your commonwealth. In the manner consists the main matter. Detest the base itch of the narrow oligarchy. If your commonwealth be rightly instituted, seven years will not pass, ere your clusters of parties, civil and religious, vanish, not through any force, as when cold weather kills flies; but by the rising of greater light, as when the sun puts out candles. These in the reason of the thing are demonstrable, but suit better with the spirit of the present times, by way of prophecy. England shall raise her head to ancient glory, the heavens shall be of the old metal, the earth no longer lead, nor shall the sounding air eternally renounce the trumpet of fame.

James Harrington.