Q&A with intellectual historian Rachel Hammersley
Like any research project, ours profits greatly from work done by others. In a new series of Q&A's we invite researchers to our blog whose ideas inspire us or who work on similar subjects. Our first interlocutor is Rachel Hammersley, professor of Intellectual History at Newcastle University. Among her many publications are monographs on the Cordeliers Club (2005) and the English republican tradition and 18th-century France (2010) and an intellectual biography of James Harrington. Her most recent book is Republicanism: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020). She also keeps the interesting blog www.rachelhammersley.com/new-blog.
BD: Congratulations on the publication of your latest book, Republicanism. An Introduction (Polity Books, 2020). Republicanism is a popular topic these days but also a notoriously complex one. What attracts you in it?
RH: Thanks Brecht. I suppose I've always been fascinated by the transmission of ideas from one place and time to another - and especially with the ways in which they are adapted in the process. Republican ideas provide plenty of examples of this in their long and rich history. I have also reflected on the relevance of these ideas for the present and it seems to me that key republican concepts such as liberty, the common good, and citizenship remain important today - even in countries like the UK that do not have a republican constitution.
BD: You are an advocate of the ideas of the 17th century political republican James Harrington (1611-1677), whose intellectual biography you have written. Why do you think his work is relevant for our own age?
RH: Harrington's ideas are so rich and inventive in lots of ways, but he is not an easy author to read (my students tend to hate him), so I am keen to make his ideas accessible to a wide audience. For me his work is particularly important because he recognises that human beings cannot be expected to act in the interests of others all the time. He therefore tries to design a system of government that will take account of this and use human self-interest to produce positive results. There is much that we could learn from this observation today. I also think it's instructive that Harrington was writing in the aftermath of a brutal civil war that had divided the nation. One of his key aims was to find a way of rebuilding a cohesive society in this situation. Again I think this has resonance in our own time.
BD: Which other ‘forgotten’ thinker(s) should we rediscover who could help us meet the challenges of our time?
RH: At the top of my list would be Thomas Spence. It's not just the fact that he was born in Newcastle (where I now work) that appeals to me, but it is his deep commitment to establishing equality (in what was a very divided society at the turn of the nineteenth century) both by making land more readily and fairly available to ordinary people at a local level and by seeking to advance education for all. He even developed a phonetic alphabet, believing this would make it easier for everyone to learn to read.
BD: Harrington’s ideas were eagerly picked up by the French revolutionaries, as you showed in your first two books French Revolutionaries and English Republicans: The Cordeliers Club 1790-1794 (Boydell and Brewer, 2005) and The English Republican Tradition and Eighteenth-Century France (Manchester University Press, 2010). What explains Harrington’s appeal to those French activists, who lived in a time and place very different from his own?
RH: First and foremost what appealed was the fact that he engaged in constitution building and that was a matter of immediate concern to the French in the 1790s. This is what ties together the various different figures who drew on Harrington's ideas or translated his works during that period. More specifically members of the Cordeliers Club (on whom I focused in my first book) were obsessed with establishing what they called 'democratic government'. Though Harrington has generally been defined as a republican in recent literature he was (as I demonstrate in my recent biography of him) an early advocate of democracy. Members of the Cordeliers Club - especially Jean-Jacques Rutledge - picked up on this, and saw Harrington as providing guidance about how to establish democratic government in a large, nation state.
BD: Harrington’s ideas certainly influenced political debate in revolutionary France. Did they also contribute to the institutional choices made under the first French Republic?
RH: It is very difficult to attribute direct 'influence'. Often we can see resemblances between ideas, but there are gaps in the chain that make it difficult to prove conclusively. It is certainly the case that Harrington's notion of a bicameral assembly, in which one chamber debates and proposes legislation and the other votes for or against the proposal, was much debated when the constitution of 1795 was being drawn up. We know that Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (one of those involved in the debate) had read Harrington and that members of the constitutional committee were probably aware of his ideas via the works of John Adams. However, there are mediating factors involved here, as well as other influences on the processes that shaped the first French Republic.
BD: A recurrent theme in your work are the ways in which ideas travel in time and space. Would you agree that ideas are inevitably transformed in the process? How do you see that process at work in the context of the French Revolution?
RH: As I said before - it is precisely this that fascinates me. I suppose ultimately ideas are always likely to be transformed when they are disseminated - even at the time of production - because they are open to different interpretations. On top of this making ideas relevant to a different political context often requires them to be adapted. However, this is precisely what keeps them relevant.
BD: One of the central ideas of the Radical translations project is that translators are cultural mediators who are often actively engaged in adapting texts to new national and political contexts. Do you see any of that in your own research?
RH: Absolutely, for a long time the translators (together with reviewers, printers, and others involved in the dissemination of works) have been obscure figures who have not received the attention they deserve. It's great that your project and those of others - such as the Cultural Translations project led by Gaby Mahlberg and Thomas Munck and the Dictionary of Translators led by Ann Thomson - are changing this. One particularly strong example from my own work is that of the Huguenots working in Holland in the early eighteenth century who were responsible for producing French translations and reviews of a number of English republican works. They saw in those works ammunition to pursue their own campaigns. Working on them, I was also struck by how authors, translators, printers, booksellers and others worked closely together (often across national boundaries) to achieve their goals.
BD: In a recent talk in our online workshop Revolutionary translations. Translators as revolutionary and in a blogpost you mentioned the importance of changes in format and genre. Texts work differently when their material or literary form changes. Could you explain?
RH: This is something that I am particularly interested in just at the moment. I suppose that the rise of digital humanities and the fact that we now read so many texts online has led me to think again about the formats in which the works I study appeared and the messages that these conveyed. For early modern authors I think the literary and physical form of texts was in many cases integral to their argument. A good example of this is the editors and printers who effectively created a canon of English republican works in the eighteenth century. I'm thinking here in particular of John Toland and John Darby at the turn of the century and Richard Baron and Thomas Hollis 50 years or so later. In producing the works in particular formats, or binding them in particular ways, they sought to direct them towards a particular audience and indicate their purpose. For instance, while the original texts had often been in quarto, Toland deliberately produced them in folio using expensive red type on the title page and sometimes including an elaborate frontispiece (which he paid for out of his own money). In doing so he was both seeking to make them desirable objects for the political elite (whose ideas he wanted to influence) and indicating that these were not ephemeral works of interest only during the Civil War or Exclusion Crisis, but that they had a more enduring relevance. As for literary genre, I'm increasingly convinced that the authors of early modern political texts chose the genre of their works very carefully and used it to advance their arguments. An example here is that when Jean-Jacques Rutledge, whom I mentioned earlier, inserted a translation of Harrington's A System of Politics into the newspaper that he edited in the early 1790s he changed how the audience would experience it. Instead of reading an entire pamphlet in one go, readers were given small snippets at a time which were deliberately timed to relate directly to the unfolding events in France.
BD: Finally, which book, historical or otherwise, should the readers of this blog definitely read in 2021?
RH: I've recently read Yanis Varoufakis's book Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present (Bodley Head, 2020), which I very much enjoyed. One of the things the current political chaos has made me realise is that we need to think about alternative futures rather than just trudging along the same course until it is too late. Harrington realised this back in the seventeenth century, which is why he used a fictional or utopian framing for his work The Commonwealth of Oceana to suggest a better alternative to what was happening. Varoufakis does something similar in his book. I think we need utopians more now than ever.
BD: Many thanks for sharing these inspiring thoughts with us, Rachel. We look forward already to your next book!