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James Harrington
James Harrington, portrait by Sir Peter Lely, ca.1658, National Portrait Gallery, London
James Harrington, portrait by Sir Peter Lely, ca.1658, National Portrait Gallery, London
Born(1611-01-03)3 January 1611
Upton, Northamptonshire, England
Died11 September 1677(1677-09-11) (aged 66)
Little Ambry, Dean's Yard, Westminster, England
Resting placeSt Margaret's, Westminster
Citizenship Kingdom of England (1611–1649; 1660–1677)
 Commonwealth of England (1649–1660)
EducationTrinity College, Oxford
PeriodEuropean wars of religion
GenreUtopian fiction
SubjectUtopia, Republicanism
Notable worksThe Commonwealth of Oceana

James Harrington (or Harington) (3 January 1611 – 11 September 1677) was an English political theorist of classical republicanism.[1] He is best known for his controversial publication The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656). This work was an exposition of an ideal constitution, a utopia, designed to facilitate the development of the English republic established after the regicide, the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Early life

Memorial to Harrington's mother, Dame Jane, in Holy Cross Church, Milton Malsor, Northamptonshire

Harrington was born in 1611 in Upton, Northamptonshire, the eldest son of Sir Sapcote(s) Harrington of Rand, Lincolnshire who died in 1630, and his first wife Jane Samwell of Upton, daughter of Sir William Samwell. James Harrington was the great-nephew of John Harington, 1st Baron Harington of Exton, who died in 1613. He was for a time a resident, with his father, in the manor house at Milton Malsor, Northamptonshire, which had been bequeathed by Sir William Samwell to his daughter following her marriage. A blue plaque on Milton Malsor Manor marks this.

Holy Cross Church in Milton Malsor contains a monument on the south wall of the chancel to Harrington's mother, Dame Jane Harrington.[2] According to the memorial, 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:

"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".

When his father died in June 1630, James commissioned a second monument, which can still be seen in the Church of St Oswald at Rand in Lincolnshire. It depicts Sapcotes and his first wife Jane together with their five children.

Childhood and education

Monument depicting Sir Sapcotes Harrington and his first wife Jane with their five children, to be found in the Church of St Oswald at Rand, Lincolnshire

Knowledge of Harrington's childhood and early education is thin, though he clearly spent time both in Milton Malsor and 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. His eighteenth-century biographer, John Toland, says that while there one of his tutors was the royalist High Churchman William Chillingworth, which may have been the case before the latter left for the Catholic seminary in Douai in 1630. On 27 October 1631 Harrington entered the Middle Temple.


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. There is some suggestion that 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. 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, and enthusiasm for, the Italian republics. The following decade, including his comings and goings during the Civil Wars, are largely unaccounted for by anything other than unsubstantiated stories, for example that he accompanied Charles I to Scotland in 1639 in connection with the first Bishops' War. In 1641–42 and in 1645 he provided financial assistance to Parliament, providing loans and perhaps also collecting money on behalf of Parliament in Lincolnshire. Yet, around the same time, he was acting as 'agent' for Charles Louis, the Prince Elector Palatine, who was nephew of Charles I and whose brother Prince Rupert led the Royalist forces in the English Civil War. Charles Louis and his mother had declared their support for Parliament in 1642.

Harrington's apparent political loyalty to Parliament did not interfere with a strong personal devotion to the King. Following the capture of Charles I, Harrington accompanied a "commission" of MPs appointed to accompany Charles in the move from Newcastle to Holdenby House (Holmby), after he had been relinquished by the Scots, who had captured him. Harrington's cousin Sir James Harrington was one of the Commissioners, which perhaps explains why the future author of Oceana was one of those who accompanied the commissioners as servants 'to wait upon' the King on the journey.[3] Harrington continued as 'gentleman of the bedchamber' to the King once they reached Holdenby House, and we see him acting in that capacity through to the end of the year at both Carisbrooke Castle and Hurst Castle. However, while at Hurst Castle Harrington got into a discussion with the Governor and various army officers during which he voiced his support for the King's position concerning the Treaty of Newport, resulting in his dismissal.[4]

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

After Charles' death, Harrington probably devoted his time to the composition of 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, Elizabeth Claypole. The work was restored to him, and appeared in 1656, newly dedicated to Cromwell.[5] 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 little success.[6][7]

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 of Oceana are known as the "Chapman" and the "Pakeman". Their contents are nearly identical. His Works, including the Pakeman Oceana and a previously unpublished but important manuscript A System of Politics, were first edited with a biography by John Toland in 1700.[8] Toland's edition, with numerous substantial additions by Thomas Birch, appeared first in London in 1737. An edition not including Birch's additions but rather a copy of Henry Neville's Plato Redivivus was published in Dublin in the same year. The 1737 London edition was reprinted in 1747 and 1771. Oceana was reprinted in Henry Morley's Universal Library in 1887; 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 compilation of many of Harrington tracts, with a lengthy historical introduction. According to Pocock, Harrington's prose was marred by an undisciplined work habit and a conspicuous "lack of sophistication," never attaining 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."[9]

By contrast, Rachel Hammersley has argued that Harrington's literary approach was specifically designed to serve his political purposes, to persuade his readers to act on his ideas.[10]


Following the Stuart Restoration, on 25 November 1661 Harrington was arrested on a charge of conspiring against the government in the "Bow Street" cabal[11] and, without a formal trial, was thrown into the Tower. There, he was "badly treated", and in April 1662 a warrant was issued for him to be held in close custody, which led his sisters into obtaining a writ of habeas corpus. Before it could be executed, however, the authorities rushed him to St Nicholas Island off the coast of Plymouth. His brother and uncle won Harrington's release to the fort at Plymouth by posting a £5000 bond. Thereafter, his general state of health quickly deteriorated, perhaps from his ingestion on medical advice of the addictive drug guaiacum.[12] 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. At some point between 1662 and 1669 he married "a Mrs Dayrell, his 'old sweetheart'", the daughter of a Buckinghamshire noble.

Harrington died at Little Ambry, Dean's Yard, Westminster. He was buried next to Sir Walter Raleigh in St Margaret's, Westminster. There is a slate wall memorial to him at St Michael's Church, Upton.[13]

[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 many who had taken up arms against the King during the Civil Wars (1642–46).]

See also


Blue plaque, installed 4 October 2008, marking the Manor House 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. Archived from the original on 4 April 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  3. ^ Moderate Intelligencer, 97, 7-14, January 1647.
  4. ^ Thomas Herbert Memoirs of the Last Two Years of the Reign of King Charles I, third edition, London, G and W. Nichol, 1815, pp128-30
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harrington, James". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 18–19.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ The Oceana and other Works of James Harrington, with an account of his Life by John Toland.
  9. ^ Pocock, "Intro", p. xv.
  10. ^ Hammersley, R. (2019) James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography, Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 8.
  11. ^ a "circle of Commonwealthsmen [radical republican] 'plotters'." Höpfl, ODNB, p. 390.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Historic England. "Church of St Michael, Upton (1372152)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 April 2015.


  • R. Hammersley James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); ISBN 9780198809852.
  • 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 0-521-21161-1]; cited as 'Pocock, "Intro"'.
  • Portions have been adapted from Pocock, "Intro" and Höpfl, ODNB.

Further reading

  • Blitzer, Charles. An Immortal Commonwealth: the Political Thought of James Harrington (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970;1960); 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.
  • Hammersley, Rachel. James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); ISBN 9780198809852
  • 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 0-521-31643-X].
  • Pocock, J. G. A. "James Harrington and the Good Old Cause: A Study of the Ideological Context of His Writings." Journal of British Studies 10#1 1970, pp. 30–48. online
  • Pocock, The Work of J.G.A. Pocock: Harrington section.
  • Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (1959, 2004).
  • 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 Nicholas Phillipson; Quentin Skinner, eds. Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge: 1993), 139–163; ISBN 0-521-39242-X.

External links

4 Annotations

Second Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

James Harrington (1611-1677), author of "The Commonwealth of Oceana" and founder of the Rota Club:

King Charles I liked Harrington, but it wasn't just monarchists who disliked "Oceana," according to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica:
"By order of Cromwell [Oceana] was seized when passing through the press. Harrington, however managed to secure the favour of the Protector's favourite daughter, Mrs. Claypole; the work was restored to him, and appeared in 1656, dedicated to Cromwell.

"The views embodied in Oceana, particularly that 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. In November 1661, by order of Charles II, Harrington was arrested, apparently without sufficient cause, on a charge of conspiracy, and was thrown into the Tower. ...

"The Oceana is a hard, prolix, and in many respects heavy exposition of an ideal constitution ... the main ideas are two in number, each with a practical corollary. The first is that the determining element of power in a state is property generally, property in land in particular; the second is that the executive power ought not to be vested for any considerable time in the same men or class of men. ...

"Oceana contains many valuable ideas, but it is irretrievably dull."
The full text of "Oceana" is here:…

Aubrey's note on James Harrington in his Brief Lives:
"... Anno 1659, the beginning of the Michaelmas-terme, [Harrington] had every night a meeting at the (then) Turke's head, in the New Pallace-yard, where they take water, the next house to the staires, at one Miles's, where was made purposely a large ovall-table, with a passage in the middle for Miles to deliver his Coffee. ... The Discourses in this kind were the most ingeniose, and smart, that ever I heard, or expect to heare, and bandyd with great eagernesse: the Arguments in the Parliament howse were but flatt to it."

Aubrey goes on to say that the Rota "was given over upon General Monck's coming-in."

"After the Restoration, Harrington was put in the Tower, and then removed to Portsea Castle. His imprisonment turned him mad, so that he fancied his perspiration turned sometimes to flies and sometimes to bees, but all his hallucinations were inoffensive." -- "Samuel Pepys and his World," by Henry B. Wheatley (1889) p. 20

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

The study of Hebrew at the universities was considered very important during the 17th century. It led to a change in attitude towards the Bible and religion in the 18th century, which in turn influenced the French Revolution and the American Constitution, amongst other things.

The introduction to The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom by Fania Oz-Salzberger explains it this way:

"Seventeenth-century political and juridical thinkers mined the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and rabbinic literature for ideas, examples and full-fledged political systems, aiming to apply them to modern Europe.

"This essay examines several political Hebraists of the 17th century, notably Petrus Cuneaus, John Selden, James Harrington and his fellow English republicans, and John Locke.

"The 'Hebrew republic,' the polity idealized by early modern Hebraists, is significant above all as a political and juridical model. The essay discerns three clusters of ideas reaped exclusively, or mainly, from Hebraic sources, and interwoven into modern political thought:
(1)The importance of the rule of law within fixed borders: a concept of international borders underpinning a novel, natural-law-based theory of the state, law, and rights;
(2) the idea of a federal republic, transformed from the tribal Israelite society to Dutch political thinking; and
(3) the moral economy of republican social justice.

"Finally, the essay explains why jurists and political thinkers ceased to read the Bible as a historical and political text in the 18th century, and why the earlier legacy of political Hebraism could become valuable again today, both historically and politically."…
You may need to subscribe to Academia, which I find to be a fount of information and well worth it.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” -- Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

I suspect Charles II had read "The Prince": James Harrington was one of the men Charles considered too dangerous to be free, and so his services to King Charles I were forgotten. Harry Vane lost his life for the same basic reason: These men could and did think and speak independently.

The Divine Right of Kings, so enshrined by grandfather King James I and VI did not accommodate such independent thought.

Third Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

L&M tells us that a "prophecy said to have been made in mid-February 1660 by James Harrington, the republican writer: 'Well, the King will come in. Let him come in, and call a Parliament of greatest Cavaliers in England, so they be men of estates, and let them set but 7 years, and they will all turn Commonwealth's men': Aubrey, i. 291"

Harrington was almost right.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.