James Harrington

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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] After observing the governments of the Italian republics, Harrington developed a theory of government based on law rather than the power of individuals. His major work, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), advocated a return to a constitutional republican form of government, similar to that of ancient Greece and Rome. A Senate elected from among all landowners would propose legislation which would then be ratified by the people and implemented by elected magistrates. Officials, elected through a complex balloting process, would serve for limited terms to ensure maximum participation in the government. His system included a network of assemblies from the parish level to the national level, to ensure that the whole country would be governed effectively.

Although Harrington advocated republicanism, he was a personal friend of King Charles I and served as his attendant after his defeat and capture. At least two contemporary accounts relate that Harrington was with Charles on the scaffold during his execution. Oliver Cromwell had the manuscript of Oceana seized when it was being printed, because he disapproved of Harrington’s political ideas; Cromwell's favorite daughter, Elizabeth (Mrs. John Claypole), intervened and the work appeared in 1656.


Early life

James Harrington was born January 3, 1611, in Upton, Northampshire, England, the eldest son of Sir Sapcote(s) Harrington of Rand, Lincolnshire (d. 1629), and Jane Samwell (or Samuell) of Upton (d. 1619), daughter of Sir William Samwell. James was the great-nephew of the first Lord Harington of Exton (d. 1615). Little is known of Harrington's childhood and early education, which appears to have taken place 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 the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court exclusively entitled to call their members to the English bar as barristers, then abruptly left, despising lawyers forever, an animus which later appeared in his writings. By this time, Harrington's father had passed away, and he left London without taking a degree.

His inheritance helped pay for several years of travel on the Continent. He enlisted in a Dutch militia regiment (apparently seeing no service), before touring the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, and Italy. Harrington frequently visited at The Hague, where he met the Prince of Orange, and was introduced to the Elector and Electress Palatine. He made such an impression on the Elector that he was invited to accompany him on at least one state visit to Denmark, and was later appointed to look after his affairs at the court of his brother-in-law, Charles I. Before returning to England, Harrington visited France and Italy. In Venice, he carefully observed the Venetian republican government. According to John Toland, while visiting the Vatican around 1634-36, Harrington "refused to kiss the pope's foot."

Harrington appears to have returned to England no later than 1636, intending to retire from court life and spend his time in study, but in 1638–1639, Charles I asked him to serve as member of his privy chamber. According to unsubstantiated stories, he accompanied Charles I to Scotland in 1639, in connection with the first Bishops' War; and 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."

Harrington's apparent political loyalty to Parliament did not interfere with his personal devotion to the King. Following Charles’ defeat and capture, Harrington accompanied a "commission" of Members of Parliament appointed to persuade Charles to move from Newcastle to Holmby House, which was nearer to 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 and acted 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 who were 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 relate that Harrington was with Charles on the scaffold during his execution.

Oceana and imprisonment

After Charles' death, Harrington devoted his time to the composition of The Commonwealth of Oceana, an effort to describe the best of all possible governments for England. The character "Olphaus Megaletor" was so obviously intended to be Oliver Cromwell that by order of England's then Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, his manuscript was seized when passing through the press. Harrington, however managed to secure the favor of Cromwell's favorite daughter, Elizabeth (Mrs. John Claypole), who intervened. The work was restored to him, and appeared in 1656, newly dedicated to Cromwell. 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 criticized 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).[2]

“Oceana” was strongly criticized by both monarchists and extreme republicans. In response, Harrington published a defense entitled, The Prerogative of Popular Government, abridged his work for the general public as The Art of Law Giving, and further developed his views in a series of essays, printed in 1659, the last year of the Commonwealth.

Harrington and others (who in 1659, formed a club called the "Rota") endeavored to promote the innovations embodied in Oceana, particularly the vote by ballot and term limits for magistrates and legislators, but with no success.[3]

Following the Stuart Restoration, on December 28, 1661, Harrington was arrested on a charge of conspiring against the government in the "Bow Street cabala," a circle of Commonwealthsmen (radical republican) "plotters,"[4] and, without a trial, was thrown into Tower of London. There was apparently no basis for the charges, but Charles II's advisers perceived him as a threat to monarchical government. In prison, 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 another prison on 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 quickly deteriorated, apparently because of his ingestion, on medical advice, of the addictive drug guaiacum.[5]

Harrington's mind appeared to be affected. He suffered "intermittent delusions;" one observer judged him "simply mad." He recovered somewhat, then slipped decidedly downhill. 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. Harrington proceeded to suffer attacks of gout and palsy before falling victim to a paralyzing stroke. 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).

Thought and works

Harrington's manuscripts have vanished; his printed writings consist of Oceana, and papers, pamphlets, aphorisms, and treatises, many of which are devoted to its defense. 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.[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, 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] 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 (Pocock, "Intro," p. xv).


The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), can be divided into two main parts: "The Preliminaries," setting out Harrington’s political theory, and "The Model of the Commonwealth," in which he applied his theory was applied in the context of a fictional country, Oceana, which was intended to represent England. In the first section of “The Preliminaries,” Harrington examined what he called "Ancient Prudence," the political structure of the ancient world which had a government "of laws, and not of men." The second section discussed "Modern Prudence," the political structure of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, which according to Harrington was "the [government] of men, and not of laws." Based on his theory of the economic circumstances affecting political power, Harrington argued that it was time for a revival of "Ancient Prudence" in the modern world.

Harrington proposed that political power should be shared by all men of property, with laws limiting the extent of individual wealth. These men of property were to elect a Senate, similar to the law-making bodies of ancient Rome and Greece, which was to propose legislation. The laws were then to be ratified by the people, and implemented by an elected magistracy. Elected official would serve for limited terms in order to assure maximum participation in government by citizens of the Commonwealth. Society would be held together by common interests. "The Model of the Commonwealth" proposed a series of "orders" by which the new regime was to be established. At the national level, Harrington advocated a variation on the conventional model of government, in which the senate (the few) debated the laws, the popular assembly (the many) voted on the laws, and the magistrate (the one) executed them. His system included a complicated balloting process based on the Venetian model, the rotation of political offices, and a network of assemblies from the parish level to the national level, to ensure that the whole country would be governed effectively.

Harrington believed that the existence of a strong middle class was necessary for the stability of democracy, and that political revolution occurred when economic power became separated from political power. He advocated the division of the country into landholdings of a limited maximum size, in order to prevent too much economic power from falling into the hands of one individual. Harrington’s ideas are said to have been partially responsible for the establishment of certain political institutions in the United States, such as written constitutions, bicameral legislatures, and the election of the president through a system of electorates. His theories influenced Thomas Jefferson’s democratic agrarianism (restriction of the vote to land owners), and the antitrust policies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.


  1. Pocock, "Editorial and Historical Introductions," The Political Works of James Harrington p. 15.
  2. Pocock, "Editorial and Historical Introductions," The Political Works of James Harrington 8-9.
  3. Höpfl, ODNB, p. 388.
  4. Höpfl, ODNB, p. 390.
  5. John Henry Clark, MD, Dictionary of Practical Materia Medica. Retrieved July 15, 2007.
  6. The Oceana and other Works of James Harrington, with an Account of his Life by John Toland.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blitzer, Charles. An Immortal Commonwealth: The Political Thought of James Harrington. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970. ISBN 0-208-00811-X
  • Cotton, James. James Harrington’s Political Thought and its Context. New York: Garland Pub., 1991. ISBN 0-8153-0130-8
  • Dickinson, W. Calvin. James Harrington’s Republic. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983. ISBN 0-8191-3019-2
  • Downs, Michael. James Harrington. Boston: Twayne Pubs., 1977. ISBN 0-8057-6693-6
  • Hopfl, H.M. "Harrington, James," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: 2004.
  • 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. ISBN 0-521-31643-X
  • Pocock, J.G.A. "Editorial and Historical Introductions," The Political Works of James Harrington. Cambridge: 1977. ISBN 0-521-21161-1
  • 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 0-374-96996-5
  • Scott, Jonathan. "The Rapture of Motion: James Harrington's Republicanism," in Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain. Cambridge: 1993. ISBN 0-521-39242-X

External links

All links retrieved March 16, 2018.


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  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. Portions have also been adapted from Pocock, "Intro" and Höpfl, ODNB.