James Harrington

James Harrington books and biography


James Harrington



Portrait of James Harrington, oil on canvas, c. 1635
Portrait of James Harrington, oil on canvas, c. 1635

James Harrington (or Harington) (January 3, 1611-September 10, 1677) was an English political theorist of classical republicanism,[1] best known for his controversial work, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656).

Early life

James Harrington was born in 1611 in Upton, Northampshire, eldest son of Sir Sapcote(s) Harrington of Rand, Lincolnshire (d. 1629), and great-nephew of the first Lord Harington of Exton (d. 1615). His mother was Jane Samwell (or Samuell) of Upton (d. 1619), daughter of Sir William.

Knowledge of his childhood and early education is practically non-existent; both, it seems, were conducted at the family manor in Rand. In 1629, he entered Trinity College, Oxford as a gentleman commoner and left two years later with no degree. For a brief time, one of his tutors was the famous royalist High Churchman William Chillingworth. He entered then abruptly left the Middle Temple, despising lawyers forever, a mark he explicitly left in his writings. By this time, Harrington's father had passed away, and his inheritance helped pay his way through several years of Continental travel. He enlisted in a Dutch militia regiment, (apparently seeing no service), before touring the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France and Italy. Toland says while visiting the Vatican circa 1634-36, he "refused to kiss the pope's foot," and that a trip through Venice helped bolster his knowledge of the Italian republics. He appears to have returned to England no later than 1636; the following decade, including his comings and goings during the Civil Wars, are largely unaccounted for by anything other than unsubstantiated stories of the ilk: that he accompanied Charles I to Scotland in 1639 in connection with the first bishops' war; and that he came to Parliament's financial assistance with loans and solicitations in 1641-42 and 1645. Otherwise, he appears to have simply "resided at Rand, an unmarried country gentleman of studious tastes."

Harrington's apparent political loyalty to Parliament interfered not all with a strong personal devotion to the King. Following his capture, Harrington accompanied a "commission" of M.P.s appointed to persuade Charles to move from Newcastle to Holmby House, as to be nearer London. When a further attempt was made to forcibly transfer the King to the capital, he successfully intervened. In May 1647, he became a gentleman groom of the royal bedchamber; we see him acting in that capacity through the end of the year and also in 1648 at Hurst Castle and at Carisbrooke. Sometime around New Year 1649, his attendance on the King was abruptly terminated by parliamentarians furious, it is said, over his refusal to swear to report anything he might hear of a royal escape attempt. At least two contemporary accounts have Harrington with Charles on the scaffold, but these do not rise above the level of hearsay.

Oceana and imprisonment

After Charles' death Harrington devoted his time to the composition of his The Commonwealth of Oceana, a work agreeable perhaps to no one but its author. By order of England's then Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, it was seized when passing through the press. Harrington, however managed to secure the favour of Cromwell's favourite daughter, Mrs. Claypole; the work was restored to him, and appeared in 1656, newly dedicated to Cromwell. The views embodied in Oceana, particularly those bearing on vote by ballot and rotation of magistrates and legislators, Harrington and others (who in 1659 formed a club called the "Rota") endeavoured to push practically, but with no success.

Following the Stuart Restoration, on December 28, 1661, Harrington was arrested on a charge of conspiring against the government in the "Bow Street" [Plot] and, without a trial, was thrown into the Tower. There, he was "badly treated" until his sisters managed to obtain a writ of habeas corpus enabling his furtive escape to St. Nicholas Island off the coast of Plymouth. His general state of health promptly plunged and quickly deteriorated, apparently from his ingestion on medical advice of the addictive drug guaiacum.[2] Harrington's mind appeared to be affected. He suffered "intermittent delusions;" one observer judged him "simply mad." He recovered only a bit, then slipped decidedly downhill. He proceeded to suffer attacks of gout and palsy before falling victim to a paralyzing stroke. In 1675, just two years before his death, he married "a Mrs Dayrell, his 'old sweetheart'," the daughter of a Buckinghamshire noble. The short-lived couple had no children. Following his death at Little Ambry, he was buried next to Sir Walter Raleigh in St. Margaret's Church, Westminster.

Harrington has often been confused with his cousin Sir James Harrington, 3rd Baronet of Ridlington, M.P., a member of the parliamentary commission which tried Charles I, and twice president of Cromwell's Council of State. He was subsequently excluded from the Indemnity and Oblivion Act which pardoned most for taking up arms against the King during the Civil Wars (1642-1646).

Editorial history

Harrington's manuscripts have vanished; his printed writings consist of Oceana, and papers, pamphlets, aphorisms and treatises, many of which are devoted to its defence. The two first editions are known as the "Chapman" and the "Pakeman." Their contents are nearly identical. His Works, including the Pakeman Oceana and the somewhat important A System of Politics, were first edited with biography by John Toland in 1700.[3] Toland's edition, with numberous substantial additions by Thomas Birch, appeared first in Dublin in 1737 and 1758, and then in England in 1747 and 1771. Oceana was reprinted in Henry Morley's Universal Library in 1883; S.B. Liljegren reissued a fastidiously-prepared version of the Pakeman edition in 1924.

Harrington's modern editor is J.G.A. Pocock, Professor of History Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. In 1977, he edited and published a thoroughly comprehensive, and what has become the definitive, compilation of Harrington tracts, along with a lengthy editorial/historical introduction. Harrington's prose was marred by what Pocock described as an undisciplined work habit and a conspicuous "lack of sophistication." He never attained the level of "a great literary stylist." For example, as contrasted with Hobbes and Milton, nowhere to be found are:

"important shades of meaning...conveyed [through] rhythym, emphasis and punctuation; ...He wrote hastily, in a baroque and periodic style in which he more than once lost his way. He suffered from Latinisms...his notions of how to insert quotations, translations and references in his text were at times productive of confusion."[4]

Though in a swipe at fairness, history sometimes vindicates the mediocre.


  1. ^ "England's premier civic humanist and Machiavellian. He was not the first to think about English politics in these terms..., but he was the first to achieve a paradigmatic restatement of English political understanding in the language and world-view inherited through Machiavelli." Pocock, "Intro," p. 15.
  2. ^ tincture of the lingum resin of a West Indies tree, "best known as a remedy in gout and rheumatism and as a diuretic." see John Henry Clarke, M.D., Dictionary of Practical Materia
  3. ^ The Oceana and other Works of James Harrington, with an Account of his Life by John Toland.
  4. ^ quote and preceding two paragraphs owe to Pocock, "Intro."


  • H.M. Höpfl, "Harrington, James," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 25, eds. H.C.G. Matthew; Brian Harrison (Oxford: 2004), 386-391. cited as 'Höpfl, ODNB'.
  • J.G.A. Pocock, "Editorial and Historical Introductions," The Political Works of James Harrington (Cambridge: 1977), xi-xviii; 1-152. [hb: ISBN 0521211611]; cited as 'Pocock, "Intro"'.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. Portions have also been adapted from Höpfl, ODNB.

Further Reading

  • Blitzer, Charles. An Immortal Commonwealth: the Political Thought of James Harrington (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970;1960); [ISBN 020800811X].
  • Cotton, James. James Harrington’s Political Thought and its Context (New York: Garland Pub., 1991); [ISBN 0815301308].
  • Dickinson, W. Calvin. James Harrington’s Republic (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983); [ISBN 0819130192].
  • Downs, Michael. James Harrington (Boston: Twayne Pubs., 1977); [ISBN 0805766936].
  • Pocock, J.G.A. "Interregnum: the Oceana of James Harrington," chapter 6 in Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: a Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century, a reissue with a retrospect (Cambridge: 1987;1957); [pb: ISBN 052131643X].
  • Russell-Smith, Hugh Francis. Harrington and his Oceana; a story of a 17th century Utopia and its influence in America (New York: Octagon Books, 1971); [ISBN 0374969965].
  • Scott, Jonathan. "The Rapture of Motion: James Harrington's Republicanism," in Nicholas Phillipson; Quentin Skinner, eds. Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge: 1993), 139-163; [ISBN 052139242X].

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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