Commonwealth Principles: Republican Writing of the English Revolution

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Examining works which supported the abolition of monarchy and its replacement with a republic, Jonathan Scott ventures beyond existing studies of individual authors or specific themes to offer the first general account of an influential body of writing. Poets such as John Milton as well as journalists, political leaders, theorists and whig martyrs were among those contributing to the cultural ferment. The result is a major contribution to our understanding of seventeenth-century England, from one of its foremost historians.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This erudite treatment of the subject is sure to become a standard. Essential."

"England's Troubles (Scott's previous book) was described by the TLS as 'brimming with originality and stuffed with insights that make it the most stimulating book on seventeenth-century history to have appeared in years, if not in decades'... Commonwealth Principles demonstrates the range, vigour and intrigue of intellectual English Republicanism... Commonwealth Principles presents a coherent and confident overview."
Times Literary Supplement

"Its chronological account of the unfolding of English republicanism across…the seventeenth century can be recommended as the best narrative now available. Its skeptical treatments of republican constitutionalism, conceptions of history and attitudes towards empire will inject informed controversy into much-debated fields. Its chapters on republicanism and 'the cause of God' and on its relation to resistance theory will now bring studies of English republicanism into much more productive dialogue with recent work on early-modern Dutch and German republicanism. Moreover, the depth of Scott's primary research, his respectful treatment of previous scholarship and the unpretentious clarity of his prose will make the book a model for future studies of seventeenth-century political thought."
History of Political Thought

"Scott fills a glaring gap in the scholarly marketplace, by producing a wide-ranging exploration of republican writing in the long seventeenth century, which engages with and challenges leading authorities in the field…this is unquestionably an impressive work. Scott offers a thorough discussion…and an extremely subtle reading, on big and small issues alike. His achievement is all the greater for having reintegrated intellectual thought within a variety of historical contexts, and for having progressed beyond canonical texts…an immense achievement that will enlighten scholars and students from any number of disciplinary backgrounds."
Journal of British Studies

"Scott…has made his eloquently written book (it was hard to put down) required reading for students of early-modern republicanism…In his presentation and scrutiny of the varieties of republican ideology, the quality of Scott's work is on par with that produced by J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner…a…book that sheds new light on an area of English history and a political ideology that scholars assumed they already knew very well."
Canadian Journal of History

"A particular virtue of this book is its full development of…[Scott's] revisionist reading of James Harrington…such that …[its] larger significance beyond the re interpretation of that one writer is now visible…In doing so, he demonstrates the continuing vitality of scholarship on English republicanism, bringing new definition to a notoriously elastic term while also painstakingly tracing its development over time and the significant philosophical differences between its main protagonists…His focus on republicanism as a moral cause, rather than on particular constitutional forms, also grants him scope to make a major contribution to the current rehabilitation of the infamous turncoat Marchamont Nedham, in a patient and sympathetic analysis which is one of the most rewarding elements of the book…Scott is now firmly established as one of the most prominent scholars of seventeenth century republicanism, and this latest synthesis of his views will be impossible for scholars of this literature to ignore."
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews

"Jonathan Scott has established himself as a leading scholar of English classical republicanism — a learned interpreter of the sources and discourses of its early modern exponents and a perceptive critic of the output of its modern historians…The book under review here resoundingly articulates its author's sense of the priority of principles…Empowered by opportunities raised by war and interregnum, the English republicans of the mid-seventeenth century were dedicated more to the moral project of the 'reformation of manners' than to the formal one of the construction of constitutions…The pursuit of principle in preference to form drives a rethinking of the place of James Harrington — a rethinking that Scott has undertaken, in respectful dissent from the views of J.G.A. Pocock, over a number of years… Commonwealth Principles… deserves to command the attention of a wide readership of early modern historians, and will assuredly stimulate further research."
Journal of Ecclesiastical History

"Few seventeenth century historians possess the mastery of these materials the way that Jonathan Scott does. His ability to combine a deep appreciation of the demands of doing political theory and political history is surely unrivaled…Commonwealth Principles is a remarkable achievement of an historian at the height of his powers."
Mark Kishlansky, Harvard University

"In addition to…[a] synchronic analysis of English republican writing, Scott provides a powerful diachronic analysis of it, an account of how the thinking of those who opposed the Stuarts developed over time and in response to rapidly changing political, military, economic, and cultural circumstances in England, the United Provinces, and the western hemisphere. This is fine interdisciplinary scholarly work which makes a major contribution to our understanding of the history of republican political thought at large."
European Legacy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521843751
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2004
  • Pages: 414
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Scott is Carroll Amundson Professor of British History at the University of Pittsburgh. A New Zealander by birth, he taught for many years at the University of Cambridge, before moving to the USA in 2002.
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Cambridge University Press
0521843758 - Commonwealth Principles - Republican Writing of the English Revolution - by Jonathan Scott

Introduction: English republicanism

. . . remembring, that we are now put into a better course, upon the Declared Interest of a Free State or Common-weal, I conceived nothing could more highly tend to the propogation of this Interest, and the honour of its Founders, then . . . that the People . . . may . . . understand what Common-weal Principles are, and thereby . . . learn to be true Common-wealth's men, and zealous against Monarchick Interest, in all its Appearances and Incroachments whatsoever.

Marchamont Nedham, Mercurius Politicus no. 92, March 1652.1


The historiography of English republicanism is largely a creation of the past half-century. Before Zera Fink's ground-breaking The Classical Republicans (1945), such a general phenomenon had scarcely been identified.2 Attention to English republican thought was largely confined to James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), a work intermittently famous since the year of its publication, and by 1950 at the centre of a renowned dispute about early modern English social development.3 Against this background it is not surprising that the most powerful impact of Fink's work should have been to furnish the most fertile context to date for our understanding of Harrington. By 1977, in the hugely influential analysis of John Pocock, Harrington had become not only 'a classical republican', but 'England's premier civic humanist and Machiavellian'.4

Pocock's achievement drew upon other important work. This included the identification, by Hans Baron, of the concept of Florentine 'civic humanism', and the application to the history of political thought, by Quentin Skinner among others, of linguistic methodology.5 To this investigation of early modern history Pocock linked a developing debate about the 'ideological origins of the American revolution'.6 Putting all of this together with his own prior engagement with historical thought, The Machiavellian Moment connected to the Florentine recovery of a classical understanding of politics an 'Atlantic republican tradition' by which this was conveyed, via seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, to colonial America.

Although every detail of Pocock's analysis has now been fiercely criticised, this has largely occurred within the contours of the intellectual geography thus created.7 The notion of classical republicanism has become hotly disputed. There are the controversies surrounding the particular interpretations by Baron and Pocock of their chosen texts and periods.8 There is the vigorously contested nature of classical republicanism itself: was it primarily Greek in origin, or Roman? Can it be understood as a language? Did it hinge upon the defence of a particular form of government (a constitutional prescription), a way of life (a moral philosophy) or a still more general view of the world (entailing a natural philosophy and/or metaphysics)? Was it philosophy at all, as opposed to a series of rhetorical or polemical postures? Finally, can any meaningful connection actually be established between the moral and political thought of ancient and modern times? Did early modern classical republicanism exist?9

Informed by these developments, wildly disparate readings of Harrington's Oceana have proliferated. By 1975 the analyst of contemporary economic and social change had become the author of a 'Machiavellian meditation upon feudalism'.10 For many scholars Harrington remains the exemplar of an English classical republicanism which is, however, variously depicted as Platonic, Aristotelian, neo-Roman, 'Virgilianised', Machiavellian, or a synthesis of several of these elements mediated by Polybian constitutionalism.11 For others Harrington's principal intellectual debt was to Hobbes, the nature of which engagement has been vigorously disputed together with its impact upon his claimed classical republicanism.12 Still others have depicted Harrington as a Utopian, a Stoic, a natural philosopher, and the author of a civic religion.13

A third developing area of study has been investigation of the thought of English republicans other than Harrington. This has involved the extension of attention from John Milton's poetry to his overtly religiously and politically engaged prose.14 It has built upon the work of Pocock to pay much more attention to the ideological influence of the notorious journalistic turncoat Marchamont Nedham.15 It has seen republication of the major work by Harrington's friend Henry Neville, and new accounts of the life and thought of Neville's colleague and second cousin Algernon Sidney.16 At the same time the spotlight continues to fall on a succession of other members of the republican literary canon. These include Sir Henry Vane Jr, John Streater, Edmund Ludlow and Slingsby Bethel.17

In the wake of this work have come several attempts to delineate the contours of English republicanism more generally. Recent writing has done much to excavate its contemporary social, political and intellectual contexts.18 We have a magisterial treatment of its relationship to poetry, an analytically acute examination of its understanding of liberty, and a major attempt to establish its relationship to seventeenth-century politics.19 This is a literature still in a rapid state of development. This development is multi-faceted, argumentative and notable for a tendency to draw in hitherto discrete aspects of early modern studies. There is now a need to draw this literature together, and enter into its key debates, from the standpoint of the broadest analysis of our subject. This is particularly important given that, whatever their positions, few historians have questioned the practice, for the purpose of generalising about English republicanism, of taking Harrington to be its exemplar. To this extent much of the wider debate may turn out to have been sustained by the variety of possible readings of a peculiarly complicated and hybrid text.

The second reason for a holistic approach is that English republican writers were polemicists united, and divided, by their commitment to a cause. Their manuscript or printed utterances were interventions in, and attempts to influence, a struggle going on in practice. This political engagement is one reason for the eclecticism of this literature. Such polemic can be made to yield the single concepts or languages of particular interest to modern political philosophers. But it cannot be reduced to them, or to one use or understanding of them, without diminishing our own grasp of the rhetorical requirements of a rapidly developing practical situation.20 To understand republicanism as a whole, or even any one text, we need to recover the constellation of ideas informing what came to be known as the 'good old cause'. By what contexts, themes and events was this intellectual phenomenon united? What were the causes, extent and nature of its internal variation?


The first task is to draw together evidence concerning the longer-term contexts of English republicanism. We begin with those which have been the primary focus for historians of ideas. Recent work on English classical republicanism has tended to distinguish Greek from Roman moral philosophy, and to emphasise its Roman rather than Greek character.21 Yet from Milton's A Defence of the People of England (1651) and Harrington's Oceana (1656), to Neville's Plato Redivivus (1680) and Sidney's Discourses (1698), there are few key texts which do not attempt to combine the authority of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Livy and others. Similarly English republicanism combined a powerful debt to Machiavelli's Discourses with another to that Greek and Roman moral philosophy by which Machiavelli had himself ostentatiously refused to be bound.

In addition, English republicanism was influenced by other, often related languages of history, philosophy, politics and law, including ancient constitutionalism, natural law theory, natural philosophy, Stoicism and interest theory.22 Most importantly, there is hardly a single important republican work which is not also fundamentally animated by religious considerations and principles. The greatest shortcoming of the existing literature on English republicanism has been its relative neglect of the religious dimension.23 The consequent need is not simply to recover the radical protestant republican religious agenda. It is to explain why, when classical republicanism came to England, it did so in the moral service of a religious revolution.

Two sixteenth-century contexts for the answer lay in Christian humanism and radical protestant reformation.24 Both informed the practical identity of the republican experiment as an attempted reformation of manners. So did the rational Greek moral philosophy, as indebted to Plato as to Aristotle, common to certain humanist and Christian political languages. Consequently, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and republicans shared many aspects of a common political, religious and social agenda. All came to oppose not only tyranny but monarchy, agreeing upon a substantially shared definition of liberty. All did so in the church as well as the state (that is to say, all demanded liberty of conscience). It was the fact of a revolution within which liberty and virtue had powerful religious as well as political content which required these writers to connect a Graeco-Roman commitment to civic action to a Platonic epistemology and metaphysics. In the words of Sidney to Jean-Baptiste Lantin in Paris in 1677: 'après la Theologie, ou la connoisance de Dieu et de la Religion, il n'y avoit point de sciance qui fut plus digne de l'application d'un honneste homme, que la politique'.25

This is to emphasise the extent to which the intellectual and practical contexts of English republicanism were intertwined. The most important practical context was the military collapse of English monarchy. This had been prefigured by Stuart military impotence on the European stage between 1624 and 1629.26 With rebellion in Scotland, and subsequently Ireland and England, it became politically immobilising. The English civil war was an unsuccessful attempt by the king to undo this disaster. In this respect Harrington correctly noted that 'the dissolution of this government caused the war, not the war the dissolution of this government'.27 Thus Marchamont Nedham spoke mockingly in 1645 of the need 'to fill up that roome in the Monarchie, which hath been too long empty . . . Where is King Charles? What's become of him? . . . it were best to send a Hue and Cry after him.'28 As with the church, the drastic dimunition of monarchy as a practical force pre-dated by some years the constitutional 'settling of the government of this nation for the future in way of a Republic, without King or House of Lords'.29

This demise of the crown had not only religious and political, but economic and social contexts. Most important was a state of fiscal weakness with its roots in the Europe-wide social and economic changes of the period 1540-1640, including price inflation. They lay more particularly in the failure of Tudor and early Stuart monarchs to respond to these successfully.30 Meanwhile, it was in the localities that social, economic and religious changes had been grappled with most keenly.31 Local government survived the upheavals of 1640-60 and republican writing paid significant attention to the local government dimension. Equally, many of its themes reflected the longstanding struggle by a traditional society to respond to unsettling forces of social and economic change.32 Drawing upon all of these contexts, republican writers attempted to oppose not only private interest politics, embodied by monarchy or tyranny, on behalf of the publicly interested virtues of a self-governing civic community. This was part of a more general critique of private interest society; an attempt, from pride, greed, poverty and inequality, to go beyond the mere word 'commonwealth' and reconstitute what Milton called 'the solid thing'.33 At the same time, following successful parliamentary statebuilding between 1642 and 1649, many republican writers became preoccupied with the themes of empire and trade.34 It is the power actually wielded by the English republic which helps to explain the otherwise surprising conjunction in many writers of the formidable moral forces of Plato and Machiavelli.


It is the second purpose of this study to offer a comparative thematic analysis of republican writing. Existing treatments have noted certain preoccupations connecting the thought of Nedham and Harrington, Vane and Ludlow, or Milton and Sidney. Yet what are the principal distinguishing features of English republican thought? What were the points of similarity, and of difference? What is the intellectual framework within which these may be identified? It is in relation to these questions that we may note both the nature and extent of internal variety and, thereafter, of development over time.

One approach has been to study republican thought as language.35 While descriptively useful, this is less satisfactory when deployed to include some writers in, and exclude others from, a linguistically defined canon. No seventeenth-century republican wrote in one political language only, and most combined several, spanning the intellectual terrains of humanism, Christianity, science and law.36 Moreover, to identify the terminology deployed by a writer is not thereby to determine the use to which it was being put. Many of the most important early modern writers (including Machiavelli, Hobbes and Harrington) put conventional contemporary political language to startlingly unconventional use.37 To this extent, drawing a distinction beloved of seventeenth-century radicals themselves, linguistic analysis may tell us more about the form of a contemporary text than about its substance. If so, a history of politics as language may not be best equipped to analyse what was, among other things, an anti-formal revolution of manners. This was precisely Milton's point in putting classical republican language into the mouth of the republican moral anti-type Satan in Paradise Lost.38

A second approach is to focus upon conceptual content. The two most important republican concepts were liberty and virtue (or the virtues). It has been one ('Greek') view that 'it is as a politics of virtue that [English] republicanism most clearly defines itself '.39 It has been a contrasting ('neo-Roman') view that it is a shared 'analysis of civil liberty' which 'constitute[s] the core of what is distinctive . . . [and] marks the[se writers] out as the protagonists of a particular ideology, even as the members of a single school of thought'.40 In either case at least as much rigour needs to be applied to distinguishing the moral philosophies of Machiavelli, Nedham, Milton, Harrington and Sidney as has been employed in linking them. Thus the shared championship of austerity, frugality and activity over luxury, effeminacy and sloth was common to much ancient morality from Plato onwards and does not encapsulate Machiavelli's shocking new conception of virtu. If all these writers shared an exclusively 'neo-Roman' understanding of liberty, it is difficult to understand the central use made by all of them of Greek sources and examples.41

The range of English republican moral philosophy reflected not only the complexity of the classical republican heritage, but also the diversity of contemporary intellectual contexts. Adherents to the good old cause were more effectively united by its practical context than by its philosophical content. This is not to deny that we will discover very important shared characteristics of this moral philosophy as a whole. One is a relationship between liberty and the virtues (however understood) as one of means to ends. In the virtues we are considering the positive moral good which the republican experiment proposed to itself. To these virtues, liberty was the indispensable precondition.42 For some writers particularly influenced by Roman sources and/or Machiavelli, those virtues had a further end in glory. According to Aristotle the life of virtue (eudaimonia, usually translated as 'happiness') was itself the end (telos) of human life.

For their political realisation liberty and virtue required a constitutional framework. The historiography of English republicanism has been dominated by constitutional analysis. This reflects the influence not only of Harrington's Oceana but of Fink's The Classical Republicans.43 Yet for most English republicans, constitutional prescription, where it existed, was far less detailed than in Harrington and secondary to the enunciation of general moral principles. This reflected aspects of the classical, humanist and radical protestant content of this thought, and was both cause and consequence of the interregnum's constitutional instability. Yet even such anti-formalism, shared with Machiavelli, did not preclude constitutional generalisation. Moreover, between 1653 and 1660, as instability threatened the republic, a range of writers entered a debate concerning not simply the appropriate constitution, but the role to be played within republican politics by constitutional prescription.

In the Discorsi Machiavelli introduced a distinction between free states, not simply in terms of their constitutional composition, but (by distinguishing between two routes to grandezza) in relation to their ends. 'Either you have in mind a republic that looks to founding an empire, as Rome did; or one that is content to maintain the status quo. In the first case it is necessary to do in all things as Rome did. In the second case it is possible to imitate Venice and Sparta.'44 Sidney, mocking the 'ignorance' of those who failed to understand the variety of 'constitutions of commonwealths . . . according to the different temper of nations and times', repeated this distinction, while adding to it secondary subdivisions relating to trade and federated republics.45 That most English republicans followed Machiavelli in choosing expansion over preservation distinguished English republicanism from its Dutch counterpart.46 Yet at times all of these writers moderated this enthusiasm for empire in response to particular circumstances. Moreover, both Harrington and Neville made a more fundamental departure from Machiavelli by seeking to avoid altogether the choice between Roman external expansion and Venetian internal stability.47

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Preface; Introduction: English republicanism; Part I. Contexts: 1. Classical republicanism; 2. The cause of God; 3. Discourses of a commonwealth; 4. Old worlds and new; Part II. Analysis: 5. The political theory of rebellion; 6. Constitutions; 7. Liberty; 8. Virtue; 9. The politics of time; 10. Empire; Part III. Chronology: 11. Republicans and Levellers, 1603–49; 12. The English republic, 1649–53; 13. Healing and settling, 1653–8; 14. The good old cause, 1658–60; 15. Anatomies of tyranny, 1660–83; 16. Republicans and Whigs, 1680–1725; Appendix: 'a pretty story of horses' (May 1654); Bibliography; Index.
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