James Harrington (author)

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James Harrington after Sir Peter Lely, ca.1658, National Portrait Gallery, London. James Harrington by Sir Peter Lely.jpg
James Harrington after Sir Peter Lely, ca.1658, National Portrait Gallery, London.

James Harrington (or Harington) (3 January 1611 – 11 September 1677) was an English political theorist of classical republicanism, [1] best known for his controversial work, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656). This work was an exposition on an ideal constitution, designed to facilitate the development of a utopian republic.

Classical republicanism, also known as civic republicanism or civic humanism, is a form of republicanism developed in the Renaissance inspired by the governmental forms and writings of classical antiquity, especially such classical writers as Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero. Classical republicanism is built around concepts such as civil society, civic virtue and mixed government.

<i>The Commonwealth of Oceana</i> book by James Harrington

The Commonwealth of Oceana, published 1656, is a composition of political philosophy written by the English politician and essayist, James Harrington (1611–1677). The unsuccessful first attempt to publish Oceana was officially censored by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). It was eventually published, with a dedication to Cromwell.


Early life

Memorial to Harrington's mother, Dame Jane, Holy Cross Church, Milton Malsor, England. Harrington Memorial Dame Jane.jpg
Memorial to Harrington's mother, Dame Jane, Holy Cross Church, Milton Malsor, England.

Harrington was born in Upton, Northamptonshire, eldest son of Sir Sapcote(s) Harrington of Rand, Lincolnshire who died 1629, and great-nephew of the first Lord Harington of Exton who died 1615. His mother was Jane Samwell of Upton, daughter of Sir William Samwell. He was also for a time a resident, with his father, in the Manor House at Milton Malsor, Northamptonshire. A blue plaque on the Manor house marks this fact.

Upton, Northamptonshire civil parish in Northamptonshire, England

Upton is a civil parish north-east of Kislingbury and south-west of Dallington, in Northamptonshire, England about 3.5 miles (6 km) west of Northampton town centre along the A4500 road. Formerly a scattered hamlet, it is now part of the town. The area west of Northampton is now a major area of expansion of the town and named Upton after the parish.

Rand, Lincolnshire village in the United Kingdom

Rand is a small village and civil parish in the West Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, England. It is situated approximately 9 miles (14 km) north-east from the city of Lincoln and approximately 2 miles (3 km) west from Wragby, and near the A158 road from Lincoln to Skegness. The nearest large town is Market Rasen, about 5 miles (8 km) north-east. The village is 87 feet (27 m) above sea level. The population is listed under Goltho.

Milton Malsor village in the United Kingdom

Milton Malsor is a village and civil parish in South Northamptonshire, England. The population of the civil parish at the 2011 census was 761. It is 4 miles (6.4 km) south of Northampton town centre, 45 miles (72 km) south-east of Birmingham, and 66 miles (106 km) north of central London; junction 15 of the M1 motorway is 2 miles (3.2 km) east by road. The area of the Milton Malsor civil parish is about 1,650 acres (670 ha), stretching from north of the M1 motorway between junctions 15 and 15A, south to the West Coast Main Line, east to the A508 and A45 roads, and west to the A43 road.

The village church contains a decorative plaque on the Chancel wall, on the south side, to Dame Jane, the late wife of Sir Sapcote(s). [2] According to a memorial in Holy Cross Church in Milton, she died on 30 March 1619, when James was 7 or 8 years old. The memorial reads, in modern English but punctuated as in the original

Chancel space around the altar of a traditional Christian church

In church architecture, the chancel is the space around the altar, including the choir and the sanctuary, at the liturgical east end of a traditional Christian church building. It may terminate in an apse. It is generally the area used by the clergy and choir during worship, while the congregation is in the nave. Direct access may be provided by a priest's door, usually on the south side of the church. This is one definition, sometimes called the "strict" one; in practice in churches where the eastern end contains other elements such as an ambulatory and side chapels, these are also often counted as part of the chancel, especially when discussing architecture. In smaller churches, where the altar is backed by the outside east wall and there is no distinct choir, the chancel and sanctuary may be the same area. In churches with a retroquire area behind the altar, this may only be included in the broader definition of chancel.

Knight An award of an honorary title for past or future service with its roots in chivalry in the Middle Ages

A knight is a man granted an honorary title of knighthood by a monarch, bishop or other political or religious leader for service to the monarch or a Christian church, especially in a military capacity.

"Here under lies the body of Dame Jane, daughter of Sir William Samwell Knight, & late wife to Sir Sapcotes Harington[ sic ] of Milton Knight, by whom he had issue 2 sons & 3 daughters, viz James, William, Jane, Anne & Elizabeth. Which Lady died March 30, 1619".

The Latin adverb sic inserted after a quoted word or passage indicates that the quoted matter has been transcribed or translated exactly as found in the source text, complete with any erroneous, archaic, or otherwise nonstandard spelling. It also applies to any surprising assertion, faulty reasoning, or other matter that might be likely interpreted as an error of transcription.

Childhood and education

Knowledge of Harrington's 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 royalist High Churchman William Chillingworth. He entered then abruptly left the Middle Temple despising lawyers forever, an animus which later appeared in his writings.

Trinity College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

Trinity College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England. The college was founded in 1555 by Sir Thomas Pope, on land previously occupied by Durham College, home to Benedictine monks from Durham Cathedral.

William Chillingworth British churchman

William Chillingworth was a controversial English churchman.

Middle Temple one of the four Inns of Court in London, England

The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, commonly known simply as Middle Temple, is one of the four Inns of Court exclusively entitled to call their members to the English Bar as barristers, the others being the Inner Temple, Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn. It is located in the wider Temple area of London, near the Royal Courts of Justice, and within the City of London.


Portrait of James Harrington, oil on canvas, ca.1635. James Harrington from NPG.jpg
Portrait of James Harrington, oil on canvas, ca.1635.

By this time, Harrington's father had died, 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, Switzerland and Italy. He was in Geneva with James Zouche in the summer of 1635 and subsequently travelled to Rome where on 14 January 1636 he dined at the Jesuit-run English College with Zouche and perhaps Henry Neville or his elder brother Richard. [3] In the light of this, Toland's reference to his visiting the Vatican, where he 'refused to kiss the Pope's foot' , probably refers to early 1636; meanwhile his visit to Venice helped bolster his knowledge of an enthusiasm for the Italian republics. Harrington returned to England in the same year. 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 in 1645. Otherwise, he appears to have simply "resided at Rand, an unmarried country gentleman of studious tastes."

The Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640 are generally viewed as the starting point of the 1639–1652 Wars of the Three Kingdoms that ultimately involved the whole of the British Isles. They originated in long-standing disputes over control and governance of the Church of Scotland or kirk that went back to the 1580s. These came to a head in 1637 when Charles I attempted to impose uniform practices between the kirk and the Church of England.

Harrington's apparent political loyalty to Parliament did not interfere with a strong personal devotion to the King. Following his capture, Harrington accompanied a "commission" of MPs 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, Harrington 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 rumour.


Title page of The Commonwealth of Oceana. Oceana title page.gif
Title page of The Commonwealth of Oceana .

After Charles' death Harrington devoted his time to the composition of his The Commonwealth of Oceana. 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. [4] 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. [5]

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 first two 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. [6] Toland's edition, with numerous 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. In 1977, he edited a comprehensive compilation of Harrington tracts, with a lengthy 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] rhythm, 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." [7]


Following the Stuart Restoration, on 28 December 1661, Harrington was arrested on a charge of conspiring against the government in the "Bow Street" cabal [8] and, without a trial, was thrown into the Tower. There, he was "badly treated" until his sisters succeeded in bribing his jailers to obtain a writ of habeas corpus . Before it could be executed, however, the authorities rushed him to St Nicholas Island off the coast of Plymouth. Other relatives won Harrington's release to the fort at Plymouth by posting a £5000 bond. Thereafter, his general state of health promptly plunged and quickly deteriorated, apparently from his ingestion on medical advice of the addictive drug guaiacum. [9] Harrington's mind appeared to be affected. He suffered "intermittent delusions;" one observer judged him "simply mad." He recovered only slightly, then slipped decidedly downhill. He proceeded to suffer attacks of gout and palsy before falling victim to a paralysing 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, MP, 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 (1642–46).

See also


James Harrington blue plaque, installed 4 October 2008, marking the Manor House of Rectory Lane in the English village of Milton Malsor where Harrington lived. James Harrington Blue Plaque 1.jpg
James Harrington blue plaque, installed 4 October 2008, marking the Manor House of Rectory Lane in the English village of Milton Malsor where Harrington lived.
  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. "James Harrington". Milton Malsor Historical Society. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  3. Edward Chaney, The Grand Tour and the Great Rebellion: Richard Lassels and 'The Voyage of Italy' in the Seventeenth Century (Geneva, 1985), pp. 285–86)
  4. Pocock writes that this explanation of Cromwellian censorship "has the authority of family tradition, but is not especially convincing." More credible, he finds, is that Oceana criticizes the Protectorate's maintenance of a standing army (in order to hold power), a concept clearly denounced in Oceana and other English republican tracts of the time, in favor of locally controlled regiments (militia). Pocock, "Intro", 8–9.
  5. the Rota being "a select debating society" which conducted "high quality discussions" where "proposals were formally voted on" by members of "salience", which may have included Samuel Pepys. Höpfl, ODNB, p. 388.
  6. The Oceana and other Works of James Harrington, with an account of his Life by John Toland.
  7. Pocock, "Intro", p. xv.
  8. a "circle of Commonwealthsmen [radical republican] 'plotters'." Höpfl, ODNB, p. 390.
  9. 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 Medica.

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Wikisource-logo.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harrington, James"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 18–19. Portions have also been adapted from Pocock, "Intro" and Höpfl, ODNB.

Further reading