Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Sir John Davies's Agrarian Law for Ireland

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Sir John Davies's Agrarian Law for Ireland

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This article examines the views of Sir John Davies, Solicitor General (1603-6) and attorney general (1606-19) in Ireland, concerning the idea of an agrarian law for Ireland.1 The objective is to integrate scholarship surrounding the English colonial project in Ireland with recent developments in the history of republican thought, most notably the work of Eric Nelson, who has suggested that the "neo-Roman" opposition to the redistribution of landed property was broadly hegemonic in late Tudor and early Stuart political discourse. In this interpretation, only with the incorporation into English republican thought of precepts and maxims of politics derived from recent innovations in Talmudic scholarship did the general aversion to redistribution begin to fade.2 The intellectual landmark in this development was the appearance of James Harrington's Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), with its emphasis on the need for an "equal" agrarian foundation to maintain the peace and stability of the commonwealth. Prior to Harrington, "the rejection of redistribution was a remarkably consistent feature of early-modern political discourse."3

The assertion of a generalized hostility towards redistribution may certainly have held true for England and for other European states; however, as in so many other instances, Ireland proved the exception. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the redistribution of Irish lands became an essential component in the "New" English colonial project in that realm. While Ian W. S. Campbell has characterized his thinking as "anti-Aristotelian," Davies's influential treatise A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued [and] Brought Under Obedience of the Crown of England Until the Beginning of His Majesty's Happy Reign (1612) also advocated the implementation of an agrarian law in all future Irish plantations, reflecting a more distributive understanding of justice.4 Davies's arguments for the reformation of Ireland combined a unitary, Bodinian conception of sovereignty, in which the monarch enjoyed sole exercise of the marks of sovereignty, with a distributive conception of justice in which gross disparities in wealth and landed property constituted a serious threat to the stability and good governance of the commonwealth.

The argument here, therefore, offers an alternative interpretation to that of Nicholas Canny, who, in a series of influential publications, has stressed the formative influence of A View of the Present State of Ireland (MS c. 1596), usually attributed to the Munster planter and poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99), in the emergence of a distinctive Anglo-Irish identity during the seventeenth century.5 The View, written amid the crisis of the Nine Years' War (1594-1603), presented an ethnological analysis of Irish affairs premised on the inherent, "Scythian" barbarity of the native Irish and the degenerate condition of the "old English," Anglo-Norman population, expressing a deep skepticism towards the efficacy of English law and political institutions as agents of reform.6 Against other current reformist arguments emphasizing the role of persuasion and magisterial eloquence in the reformation of Ireland, the View advocated instead an extreme course of military-judicial violence in the reduction of Ireland's inhabitants to a civil state.7 In Canny's interpretation, Davies "adhered rigidly to the ideas of Spenser."8

This article argues instead that Davies operated from a much softer set of ethnological assumptions than those of the View, according to which the culturally transformative powers of the English law, aided when necessary by coercive violence, would bring Ireland's barbaric and degenerate inhabitants to a civilized state.9 For Davies, the failure of all previous plantations lay not with any strong ethnological premise, but with the faulty political economy of Ireland's medieval past: the failure to establish an equitable agrarian base in all previous plantations since the initial Norman Conquest was the main reason why all previous English monarchs had been unable to communicate successfully the English common law and its "civilizing" potentials to the "mere" Irish. …

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