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Sovereignty and the SwordHarrington, Hobbes, and Mixed Government in the English Civil Wars$

Arihiro Fukuda

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780198206835

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198206835.001.0001

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(p.165) Appendix D ‘Equality’ in Harrington and Contarini

(p.165) Appendix D ‘Equality’ in Harrington and Contarini

Sovereignty and the Sword
Oxford University Press

According to Harrington, his idea of an ‘equal commonwealth’. was his most original contribution to ancient prudence.1 Unlike the distinction between single commonwealths and leagues, or that between commonwealths for preservation and those for increase, that between equal and unequal commonwealths was ‘unseen hitherto’.2 Yet before Harrington, Gasparo Contarini, whose The Commonwealth and Government of Venice appeared in English in 1599 and was widely known in England, had been as warm as Harrington in favouring equality within a commonwealth. In this appendix, the possible influence of Contarini upon Harrington's notion of equality will be suggested. Harrington quotes Contarini's book only twice (in Italian), but so warm a devotee of Venetian constitutional machinery as Harrington is likely to have had a close knowledge of that standard work on the subject.

In Harrington's scheme, the notion of equality was embodied in the principle of ‘rotation’. An equal opportunity of election as members of the legislature—‘an equal distribution of common right’—should be given, argued Harrington, ‘unto the whole people who are possessed of the might’.3 Contarini had a similar view:

nothing is more proper to a commonwealth, then that the common authority and power should belong to many: for it is iust that the citizens, by whom the state of the Cittie is maintained, being otherwise among themselues equall, should not in this distribution of honors bee made vnequall.4

Moreover, where Harrington emphasized the notion of equality in relation to the prevention of factions and to the making a commonwealth ‘perfect’, Contarini pointed to the link between equality and perfection:

there cannot happen to a commonwealth a more daungerous or pestilent contagion, then the ouerweighing of one parte or faction aboue the other:…if you will haue your commonwealth perfect and enduring, let not one parte bee mightier then the other, but let them all (in as much as may bee) haue equall share in the publique authoritie. …not onely in the senate, but also in all other offices there shoulde not bee any more of one kindred or allyance, then the preseruation of equalitie required.5

(p.166) Admittedly, whereas Harrington's main concern was to prevent the emergence of factions by reshuffling the senators as frequently as possible, Contarini commends the Venetian rule that ‘there cannot in all be aboue three [senators] of a kindred’, which prevents any particular family from dominating the senate.6 When Harrington mentions the Venetian practice that ‘In the sixty of the senate, there cannot be above three of any one kindred or family’, it is true, he neither refers to Contarini nor uses the word ‘equality’.7 The passages of Contarini which are quoted in Oceana are not about equality.8 However, Contarini does share Harrington's conviction that the equal distribution of public office prevents factions and that the perfection of the Venetian government is expressed in its internal stability.9


(1) See Sect. 7.2 above.

(2) Oceana, 180 [p. 33].

(3) The Art of Lawgiving, 696.

(4) Gasparo Contarini, The Commonwealth and Government of Venice tr. Lewis Lewkenor (London 1599), 33.

(5) Ibid. 67. See also p. 78.

(6) The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, 67.

(7) The Prerogative of Popular Government, 483.

(8) Oceana, 213,283 [pp. 76,170].

(9) If Harrington was indebted to Contarini for the notion of equality, why did he not say so? Perhaps the answer is that, while the two writers agreed that the Venetian commonwealth was equal, they were split over the character of the Roman republic. Unlike Harrington, Contarini did not claim that Rome had been ‘unequal’. He did concede that Rome had been seditious, but he attributed that quality to defects in the Roman judicial procedure, which allowed ‘any citizen whatsoever’ to accuse others, whereas ‘in Venice no priuate man may performe such office’ (The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, 88).

Contarini, it is true, anticipated Harrington's claim that Venice was equal, but no one before him claimed that Rome was unequal and that inequality was the cause of her downfall. Perhaps that is why he felt entitled to claim that the distinction between equal commonwealths and unequal ones had been ‘unseen hitherto’.