Hume’s Ideal Commonwealth

An established government has an infinite advantage of letting mankind be governed by traditional authority, not reason.

  • A wise magistrate will not try experiments to change such a government.
  • Though he may attempt some improvements for the public good while preserving  its chief pillars.


Europe mathematicians have been divided on which figure of a ship is most commodious for sailing

  • Huygens,1 ended the debate in the academic and commercial world
    • Even if Columbus had sailed to America, and Sir Francis Drake toured the world,2 without any such discovery.


  • One form of government is more perfect than another, independent of the manners and humours of particular men
  • We should ask what is the most perfect of all?


  • This is the most interesting for anyone.
  • Who knows? This might be universally agreed upon by the wise and learned.
  • In the future, this could be implemented 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 is good to know what is most perfect so that we can create such a real constitution or government through gradual gentle changes and innovations that would not disturb society too much.
  • 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 known valuable model of a commonwealth.4


These are the chief defects of the Oceana:

  • First, Its rotation is inconvenient.
    • It throws men out of public employments.
  • Secondly, Its Agrarian is impracticable.
    • Men will soon learn to hide their possessions under other people’s name.
      • This will be so common that they will do it blatantly
      • This was practised in ancient Rome
  • Thirdly, The Oceana does not provide:
    • a sufficient security for liberty, or
    • the redress of grievances.

The senate must propose, and the people consent.

The senate:

  • has a negative upon the people and
  • their negative goes before the votes of the people
    • This is of much greater consequence


The King would be an absolute monarch if:

  • his negative were of the same nature in the English constitution, and
  • he could he prevent any bill from coming into parliament,

His negative follows the votes of the houses, so it is of little consequence.

  • Such a difference is there in the manner of placing the same thing.


After a popular bill has been debated in parliament,

  • A bill’s conveniencies and inconveniencies are weighed and balanced in the debates in parliament.
  • It is then presented for the royal assent.
  • A few princes will try to reject the people’s unanimous desire.


If a King could crush a disagreeable bill from the beginning, the British government would have no balance, nor would grievances ever be redressed.

  • This happened in the Scottish parliament through the lords of the articles5

In any government, exorbitant power does not come from new laws.

  • It comes from neglecting to remedy the abuses from old laws.

Machiavel says that a government must often be brought back to its original principles.6

  • Thus in the Oceana, the whole legislature rests 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:

  • aLet Great Britain and Ireland, or any territory of equal extent:
    • be divided into 100 counties,
    • each county has 100 parishes, making in all 10,000.
      • If the country is smaller, we can reduce the number of counties; but never below 30.
      • If it is bigger:
        • the parishes should be enlarged, or
        • throw more parishes into a county
          • This is better than increasing the number of counties.
  • bLet all the freeholders of 20 pounds a-year in the county, and all the householders worth 500 pounds in the town parishes:
    • meet annually in the parish church, and
    • vote some freeholder of the county to be the county representative.
  • Let the 100 county representatives, two days after their election:
    • meet in the county town, and
    • vote from their own body:
      • 10 county magistrates
      • senator.
  • This will lead to
    • 100 senators
    • 1,100 county magistrates, and
    • 10,000 county representatives.
  • All senators will have the authority of county magistrates
  • All county magistrates will have the authority of county representatives.
  • The senators will
    • meet in the capital,
    • have all executive power of the commonwealth;
      • the power of:
        • peace and war
        • giving orders to generals, admirals, and [517] ambassadors
          • in short, all the prerogatives of a British King, except his negative.
  • The county representatives will:
    • meet in their own counties,
    • have all the legislative power of the commonwealth;
    • the greater number of counties deciding the question
      • if these are equal, let the senate have the casting° vote.

Every new law must first be debated in the senate [by the executive, like a veto].

  • If rejected by it, if ten senators insist and protest, it must be sent down to the counties.
  • The senate may join to the copy of the law their reasons for receiving or rejecting it.
  • It would be troublesome to assemble all the county representatives for every trivial law
    • The senate has their choice of sending down the law either to the county magistrates or county representatives.


  • The magistrates, though the law be referred to them, may:
    • call the representatives, and
    • submit the affair to their determination.


  • Whether the law be referred by the senate to the county magistrates or representatives, , must be sent to
  • Eight days before the day appointed for the meeting, every representative will receive:
    • a copy of the law
    • the senate’s reasons for the law
  • They will deliberate on it.
  • And though the determination be, by the senate, referred to the magistrates, if five representatives of the county order the magistrates to assemble the whole court of representatives, and submit the affair to their determination, they must obey.


  • Either the county magistrates or representatives may give, to the senator of the county, the copy of a law to be proposed to the senate
  • If five counties concur in the same order, the law, though refused by the senate, must come either to the county magistrates or representatives, as is contained in the order of the five counties.


  • Any 20 counties, by a vote either of their magistrates or representatives, may throw any man out of all public offices for a year. 30 counties for 3 years.


The senate:

  • can throw out any members of its own body, not to be re-elected for that year.
  • cannot throw out twice in a year the senator of the same county.


  • The power of the old senate continues for three weeks after the annual election of the county representatives.
  • Then all the new senators are shut up in a conclave, like the cardinals;
  • By an intricate ballot, such as that of Venice7 or Malta, they choose the following magistrates;
    • a protector, who represents the dignity of the commonwealth, and presides in the senate;
    • two secretaries of state;
    • these six councils,
      • a council of state,
      • a council of religion and learning,
      • a council of trade,
      • a council of laws,
      • a council of war,
      • a council of the admiralty
    • Each council has:
      • five persons;
      • six commissioners of the treasury
      • a first commissioner.
    • All these must be senators.
    • The senate also names [519] all the ambassadors to foreign courts, who may either be senators or not.


  • The senate may continue any or all of these, but must re-elect them every year.
  • The protector and two secretaries have session° and suffrage in the council of state.
    • The business of that council is all foreign politics.
    • The council of state has session and suffrage in all the other councils.
  • The council of religion and learning inspects the universities and clergy.
  • That of trade inspects every thing that may affect commerce.
  • That of laws inspects all the abuses of law by the inferior magistrates, and examines what improvements may be made of the municipal law.
  • That of war inspects the militia and its discipline, magazines, stores, &c. and when the republic is in war, examines into the proper orders for generals.
  • The council of admiralty has the same power with regard to the navy, together with the nomination of the captains and all inferior officers.


  • None of these councils can give orders themselves, except where they receive such powers from the senate.
  • In other cases, they must communicate every thing to the senate.
  • When the senate is under adjournment, any of the councils may assemble it before the day appointed for its meeting.


The Court of Competitors

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

  • If any candidates for the office of senator have more votes than 1/3 of the representatives, that candidate, who has most votes, next to the senator elected, becomes incapable for one year of all public offices, even of being a magistrate or representative:
  • But he takes his seat in the court of competitors.
  • It is a court of 100 members, and sometimes have no members at all.
    • It can be abolished for a year.
  • The court of competitors has no power in the commonwealth except:
    • The inspection of public accounts and
    • The accusing of any man before the senate.
  • 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:
    • meet on the day appointed by the court of competitors
    • choose in each county three persons; from which number every senator is excluded.
  • 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.
    • If refused, may appeal to the magistrates or representatives, who examine it in their counties.
    • Every senator thrown out of the senate by a vote of the court, takes his seat in the court of competitors.


The Senate

The senate possesses all the judicative authority of the house of Lords, that is, all the appeals from the inferior courts.

  • It likewise appoints the Lord Chancellor, and all the officers of the law.
  • Every county is a kind of republic within itself.
  • The representatives may make by-laws which have no authority ’until three months after they are voted.
  • A copy of the law is sent to the senate, and to every other county.
  • 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 have the appointment of all the officers of the revenue in each county.
  • All causes with regard to the revenue are carried ultimately by appeal before the magistrates.
  • They pass the accompts of all the officers; but must have their own accompts examined and passed at the end of the year by the representatives.

The magistrates name rectors or ministers to all the parishes.

  • The Presbyterian government is established
  • The highest ecclesiastical court is an assembly or synod of all the presbyters of the county.
  • The magistrates may take any cause from this court, and determine it themselves.
  • The magistrates may try, and depose or suspend any presbyter.


The Militia

The militia is established in imitation of that of Swisserland.8

  • An army of 20,000 be annually drawn out by rotation, paid and encamped during six weeks in summer; that the duty of a camp may known.
  • The magistrates appoint all the colonels and downwards.
  • The senate all upwards.
  • During war, the general appoints the colonel and downwards, and his commission is good for a twelvemonth.
  • But after that, it must be confirmed by the magistrates of the county, to which the regiment belongs.
  • The magistrates may break° any officer in the county regiment.
  • And the senate may do the same to any officer in the service.
  • If the magistrates do not think proper to confirm the general’s choice, they may appoint another officer in the place of him they reject.


Justice System

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

  • But the senate can stop any trial, and bring it before themselves.
  • Any county may indict any man before the senate for any crime.
  • The following have 6 months dictatorial powers on extraordinary emergencies:
    • The protector
      • The protector may pardon any person condemned by the inferior courts.
    • 2 secretaries
    • the council of state, with any five or more that the senate appoints

In time of war, no officer of the army that is in the field can have any civil office in the commonwealth.

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

  • It may therefore be divided into 4 counties.
  • The representatives of each of these chuse one senator, and ten magistrates.
  • There are therefore in the city 4 senators, 44 magistrates, and 400 representatives.
  • The magistrates have the same authority as in the counties.
  • The representatives also have the same authority;
    • but they never meet in one general court:
    • They give their votes in their particular county, or division of hundreds.

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

And where these are equal, the magistrates have the casting vote.

The magistrates choose the mayor, sheriff, recorder, and other officers of the city.

  • In the commonwealth, no representative, magistrate, or senator, as such, has any salary.
  • The protector, secretaries, councils, and ambassadors, have salaries.

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

This must be done by the legislature.

The following political aphorisms° may explain the reason of these orders.

The lower sort of people and small proprietors are good judges enough of one not very distant from them in rank or habitation;

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

But they are wholly unfit for county-meetings, and for electing into the higher offices of the republic.

Their ignorance gives the grandees an opportunity of deceiving them.

10,000 people is large enough for any free government even though they were not annually elected.

The nobles in Poland are more than 10,000.

  • But they oppress the people.
  • But as power always continues there in the same persons and families, this makes them a different nation from the people.
  • Besides the nobles are there united under a few heads of families.


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

  • Harrington observes that:
    • Without the senate, the [523] people would want wisdom,
    • Without the people, the senate would want honesty.
  • A large assembly of 1000 representatives would would fall into disorder if allowed to debate.
  • If not allowed to debate, the senate has a negative upon them.
    • It would be the worst kind of negative, that before resolution.
  • Here is an inconvenience, which no government has yet fully remedied, but which is the easiest to be remedied in the world.
    • If the people debate, all is confusion.
    • If they do not debate, they can only resolve; and then the senate carves for them.

Divide the people into many separate bodies; and then they may debate with safety, and every inconvenience seems to be prevented.

  • Cardinal de Retz says, that all numerous assemblies are:
    • a mere mob, and
    • swayed in their debates by the least motive.9
  • 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.c


There are two things to be guarded against in every senate:

  • Its combination
    • This is most dangerous.
    • We solve this by:
      • The great dependence of the senators on the people by annual elections,  and that not by an undistinguishing [524] rabble, like the English electors, but by men of fortune and education.
      • The small power they are allowed.
        • They have few offices
        • Almost all are given by the magistrates in the counties.
      • The court of competitors composed of their rivals, next to them in interest, and uneasy in their present situation, will be sure to take all advantages against them.
  • its division.
    • This division is prevented by:
      • the smallness of their number
      • As faction supposes a combination in a separate interest, it is prevented by their dependence on the people
      • They have a power of expelling any factious member.
      • It is true, when another member of the same spirit comes from the county, they have no power of expelling him:
      • Nor is it fit they should; for that shows the humour to be in the people, and may possibly arise from some ill conduct in public affairs.
      • 4. Almost any man, in a senate so regularly chosen by the people, may be supposed fit for any civil office. It would be proper, therefore, for the senate to form some general resolutions with regard to the disposing of offices among the members: 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. For instance, let it be a resolution, That no man shall enjoy any office, till he has sat four years in the senate: That, except ambassadors, no man shall be in office two years following: That no man shall attain the higher offices but through the lower: That no man shall be protector twice, &c. 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

  • and therefore it is fit to make the senate absolute with regard to them;
  • otherwise there could be no secrecy or refined policy.
  • Besides, without money no alliance can be executed; and the senate is still sufficiently dependant.
  • The legislative power being always superior to the executive, the magistrates or representatives may interpose whenever they think proper.


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

  • but that, though in the main serviceable, breeds endless factions.
  • In the foregoing plan, it does all the good without any of the harm.
  • The competitors have no power of controlling the senate:
  • They have only the power of accusing, and appealing to the people.

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

  • This is done sufficiently by the separation of places and interests.
  • But lest that should not be sufficient, their dependence on the 10,000 for their elections, serves to the same purpose.

Tthe 10,000 may resume the power whenever they please, whenever any 5% of them please.

  • This will happen on the very first suspicion of a separate interest.

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

  • they meet in one place, and
  • they have ambitious leaders.
  • they have their annual election,e by the people

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

  • But it may be subdued by great external force
  • This scheme seems to have all the advantages both of a great and a little commonwealth.

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.

The matter must be referred to the whole, which will best determine what agrees with general interest.

No free government will ever have security or stability without:

  • the dependence of the clergy on the civil magistrates
  • a militia

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

  • The salaries of the French judges amount not to the interest of the sums they pay for their offices.
  • The Dutch [526] burgo-masters have little more immediate profit than the English justices of peace, or the members of the house of commons formerly.
  • But lest any should suspect, that this would beget negligence in the administration (which is little to be feared, considering the natural ambition of mankind), let the magistrates have competent salaries. The senators have access to so many honourable and lucrative offices, that their attendance needs not be bought. There is little attendance required of the representatives.

That the foregoing plan of government is practicable, no one can doubt, who considers the resemblance that it bears to the commonwealth of the United Provinces,f a wise and renowned government.

  • This has many advantages
  • 1. The representation is more equal.
  • 2. The unlimited power of the burgo-masters in the towns, which forms a perfect aristocracy in the Dutch commonwealth, is corrected by a well-tempered democracy, in giving to the people the annual election of the county representatives.
  • 3. The negative, which every province and town has upon the whole body of the Dutch republic, with regard to alliances, peace and war, and the imposition of taxes, is here removed.
  • 4. The counties, in the present plan, are not so independent of each other, nor do they form separate bodies so much as the seven provinces; where the jealousy and envy of the smaller provinces and towns against the greater, particularly Holland and Amsterdam, have frequently disturbed the government.
  • 5. Larger powers, though of the safest kind, are intrusted to the senate than the States-General possess; by which means, the former may become more expeditious, and secret in their resolutions, than it is possible for the latter.

The chief alterations that could be made on the British government are:

  • First, The plan of gCromwell’s parliament should be restored, by:
    • making the representation equal, and
    • allowing none to vote in the county elections who possess noth a property of 200 pounds [527] value.
  • Secondly, As such a house of Commons would be too weighty for a frail house of Lords, like the present, the Bishops and Scotch Peers should be removed:i
  • The number of the upper house should be raised to 300-400.
  • Their seats not hereditary, but during life: They should have the election of their own members;
  • no commoner should be allowed to refuse a seat that was offered him.
  • By this means the house of Lords would consist entirely of the men of chief credit, abilities, and interest in the nation; and
  • every turbulent leader in the house of Commons might be taken off, and connected by interest with the house of Peers.
  • Such an aristocracy would be an excellent barrier both to the monarchy and against it.
  • At present, the balance of our government depends in some measure on the abilities and behaviour of the sovereign; which are variable and uncertain circumstances.

This plan of limited monarchy is still liable to three great inconveniencies.

  • First, It removes not entirely, though it may soften, the parties of court and country.
  • Secondly, The king’s personal character must still have great influence on the government.
  • Thirdly, 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:

  • that no large state, such as France or Great Britain, could ever be modelled into a commonwealth
  • that such a form of government can only take place in a city or small territory.

The contrary seems probable.

  • It is more difficult to form a republican government in a large country than in a city.
    • But after it is formed, is can be preserved more steadily and uniform, without tumult and faction.
    • It is not easy, for the distant parts of a large state to combine in any plan of free government;
    • but they easily conspire in the esteem and reverence for a single person, who, by means of this popular favour, may seize the power, and forcing the more obstinate to submit, may establish a monarchical government.
    • On the other [528] hand, a city readily concurs in the same notions of government, the natural equality of property favours liberty, and the nearness of habitation enables the citizens mutually to assist each other.
    • 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 facilitate the erection of commonwealths in cities, render their constitution more frail and uncertain. Democracies are turbulent. For however the people may be separated or divided into small parties, either in their votes or elections; their near habitation in a city will always make the force of popular tides and currents very sensible. Aristocracies are better adapted for peace and order, and accordingly were most admired by ancient writers; but they are jealous and oppressive. In a large government, which is modelled with masterly skill, there is compass and room enough to refine the democracy, from the lower people, who may be admitted into the first elections or first concoction of the commonwealth, to the higher magistrates, who direct all the movements. At the same time, the parts are so distant and remote, that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measures against the public interest.

Should such a government be immortal?

  • I allow the justness of the poet’s exclamation on the endless projects of human race, Man and for ever!10
  • The world itself probably is not immortal.
  • Such consuming plagues may arise as would leave even a perfect government a weak prey to its neighbours.
  • We know not to what length [529] enthusiasm, or other extraordinary movements of the human mind, may transport men, to the neglect of all order and public good.
  • Where difference of interest is removed, whimsical and unaccountable factions often arise, from personal favour or enmity.
  • Perhaps, rust may grow to the springs of the most accurate political machine, and disorder its motions.
  • Lastly, extensive conquests, when pursued, must be the ruin of every free government; and of the more perfect governments sooner than of the imperfect; because of the very advantages which the former possess above the latter.
  • And though such a state ought to establish a fundamental law against conquests; yet republics have ambition as well as individuals, and present interest makes men forgetful of their posterity.
  • It is a sufficient incitement to human endeavours, that such a government would flourish for many ages; without pretending to bestow, on any work of man, that immortality, which the Almighty seems to have refused to his own productions.

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