Harrington, James (1611–1677)

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HARRINGTON, JAMES (16111677), English political theorist. James Harrington was born at Upton, Northamptonshire, the eldest son of Sir Sapcote Harrington and his first wife Jane (née Samuel). Most of our knowledge about Harrington's life comes from three seventeenth-century sources: John Aubrey's Brief Lives, Anthony Wood's Athenae Oxonienses, and John Toland's "Life of James Harrington," which served as an introduction to his edition of Harrington's works. Since Wood drew on Aubrey, and Toland drew on Wood, there is some overlap between these three sources.

Harrington entered Trinity College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner in 1629 but did not take his degree. Instead he traveled extensively on the Continent. There is little evidence about Harrington's involvement during the first Civil War (16421646), though Wood claims that he sided with the Presbyterians and tried, unsuccessfully, to win a seat in Parliament. In May 1647, however, he was appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Charles I, who was being held at Holdenby House. The ambiguity of Harrington's positionemployed by Parliament to serve the kingperhaps explains the ambiguity of his political views, particularly his attitude toward the king. Despite the republican tone of Harrington's works, it was said that he got on well with Charles and that the latter's execution, on 30 January 1649, affected him profoundly.

Harrington's major work, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), was written and published under the Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell. The work was dedicated to Cromwell, but the sincerity of that dedication is questionable. The work can be divided into two main parts: "The Preliminaries," in which Harrington set out his political theory, and "The Model of the Commonwealth," in which that theory was applied in the context of Oceana (England). The first part of the preliminaries deals with what Harrington called "Ancient Prudence"the politics of the ancient world or "the [government] of laws, and not of men." The second part concerns "Modern Prudence"the politics of the period since the fall of the Roman Empire, or "the [government] of men, and not of laws." The aim of the work as a whole was to show how to bring about a return to "Ancient Prudence" in the modern world. On the basis of his theory of the economic underpinnings of political power, Harrington argued that the time was ripe for such a revival in England.

"The Model of the Commonwealth" consists of a series of "orders" by which the new regime was to be established. At the national level Harrington advocated a variation on the conventional mixed system of government, with the magistrate (the one) executing the laws, the senate (the few) debating the laws, and the popular assembly (the many) voting on the laws. The system also involved rotation of office, a complex balloting process based on the Venetian model, and a network of assemblies running from the parish to the national level to ensure that the whole country would be governed effectively.

Harrington's subsequent works are less well-known than Oceana. They were aimed either at responding to critics of that work or at restating the theory presented there. But Harrington's ideas were of practical as well as theoretical interest. In July 1659 a petition was submitted to Parliament which proposed that certain of Harrington's ideas be adopted there. And in the autumn and winter of 16591660 Harrington and his friends formed the Rota Club, which met at Miles's Coffee House in New Palace Yard, Westminster. There Harrington's ideas were discussed and his system of balloting practiced. At the Restoration, the ambiguity of Harrington's position again brought him under scrutiny. He was arrested, interrogated, and finally sent to the Tower, later being transferred elsewhere. Though eventually released, his mind had been affected by his imprisonment, and he did not fully recover before his death in 1677.

Harrington's ideas continued to be influential after his death. During the eighteenth century they had an impact on such diverse figures as Thomas Gordon, David Hume, and Thomas Spence. Moreover, through the influence of men like Thomas Hollis, Harrington's works also found their way to America, where they influenced the revolutionary generation, and to France, where a model constitution based on Oceana appeared in 1792 and translations of Harrington's works in 1795. Harrington seems to have faded from view during the nineteenth century, but he became popular again in the twentieth century through the uses made of his works by R. H. Tawney in the debate over the rise of the gentry and by Caroline Robbins and J. G. A. Pocock in their accounts of eighteenth-century Commonwealthmen and neo-Harringtonians.

See also Constitutionalism ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; Political Philosophy .


Primary Sources

Aubrey, John. Brief Lives: A Modern English Version. Edited by Richard Barber. Woodbridge, U.K., 1982.

Harrington, James. The Political Works of James Harrington. Edited by J. G. A. Pocock. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1977. Pocock's introduction provides further details concerning the sources on Harrington's life and works, as well as providing the most detailed recent account.

Toland, John. "The Life of James Harrington." In The Oceana of James Harrington and His Other Works. Edited by John Toland. London, 1700. Reprinted in James Harrington and the Notion of a Commonwealth. Edited by Luc Borot. Collection "Astraea," 6. Montpellier, France, 1998.

Wood, Anthony. Athenae Oxonienses: An Exact History of All the Writers and Bishops Who Have Had Their Education in the University of Oxford. Edited by P. Bliss. 4 vols. London, 1967.

Secondary Sources

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, 1975.

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. Cambridge, Mass., 1959.

Russell Smith, H. F. Harrington and His Oceana: A Study of a Seventeenth-Century Utopia and Its Influence on America. Cambridge, U.K., 1914. Good on Harrington's posthumous influence in America and France.

Worden, Blair. "James Harrington and 'The Commonwealth of Oceana,' 1650" and "Harrington's 'Oceana': Origins and Aftermath, 16511660." In Republicanism, Liberty, and Commercial Society, 16491776. Edited by David Wootton. Stanford, 1994.

Rachel Hammersley

Harrington, James

views updated May 14 2018

Harrington, James



James Harrington (1611-1677), English political theorist, was the oldest son and heir of Sir Sapcotes Harrington, a member of an aristocratic family that had risen to eminence under the Tudors. Orphaned at an early age, he enjoyed throughout his life the means to live as he pleased. After a brief stay in Oxford, where he perfected his knowledge of languages, he traveled extensively on the Continent. There he befriended the exiled elector palatine and professed a militant Protestantism. By the time he returned to England in 1635 he was a firm republican. He was, however, also deeply attached to Charles I and remained with him to the end. Torn by such a conflict between personal friendship and political conviction, he took no direct part in the Civil War. After the execution of the king he devoted himself entirely to his studies. The product of his retirement was The Commonwealth of Oceana, a constitutional blueprint. Published in 1656 after some opposition by Cromwell, it remained Harrington’s only book. All his other writings are explanations of its main points or answers to its critics. His public life was limited to publishing and debating his proposals for a constitution. After the Restoration he was put in prison, where his health, mental as well as physical, was utterly destroyed. He died without ever recovering his mental health.

It was perhaps Harrington’s own social position that made him a decidedly aristocratic republican: no society, he felt, can do without the military and political talents of the nobility. The greatest influence upon his thinking was not personal experience, however, but the works of the “masters of ancient prudence“—Plato’s Laws, Aristotle’s Politics, Polybius’ Histories, and the works of their only heir, Machiavelli. In stark contrast to these sources of wisdom, he saw the “modern prudence” of feudal and absolutist theories as nothing but a series of errors. Among his contemporaries only Hobbes won his grudging approval. For although he despised Hobbes’s reasoning “by geometry” and his mo narchical ideas, he shared with Hobbes a distaste for religious warfare. Harrington’s solution to the problem of religious strife was to establish a state church that would represent “the public conscience” without limiting toleration, leaving theological disputes to the universities.

Political theory, according to Harrington, has to be historical, and he based his own ideas on a theory of historical development. As he saw it, the “Gothick balance,” or feudalism, had come to an end. It had never been a stable order, but a tug of war between the nobility and the kings, who had uneasily shared both property and power. In England this order had come to an end when Tudor legislation reduced the nobility and put the balance of property into the hands of the people. This had made the old order impossible and had brought about the Civil War. The same impersonal forces, moreover, were at work in the revolutions in Europe as well, and this linking together of all the upheavals of the age was one of Harrington’s most original perceptions.

Government is, in Harrington’s view, a super structure based on property. Ruling requires armies and whoever feeds the soldiers will thereby rule. Hence, if the balance of property is in the hands of the people, stability requires a republican form of government, and stability is the great end of political organization.

Harrington saw his own task as that of revealing to the people of England the necessities of their situation and of suggesting to them the appropriate political institutions. This was “political anatomy,” which he considered a science analogous to that of William Harvey. The analogy implies that attention to details, to every artery of the body politic, is necessary, and such was the approach he used. His suggestion for producing the necessary order in England was a bicameral legislature, indirectly elected by all “who lived off their own,” by secret ballot, with rotation in office, and a citizen army to defend the new society. Eternal stability was to be ensured by an agrarian law that would permanently limit the amount of property any one person might own. For changes in the balance of ownership of land had always been the source of strife and had caused the decline of ancient and modern republics.

While Harrington’s influence upon his contemporaries was limited, he enjoyed a great reputation in eighteenth-century America. Constitution makers have continued to admire him, since he was the very epitome of the constitutional engineer. In recent years his contribution to social history has become the subject of debate. Since Eduard Bernstein, many Marxist historians have regarded Harrington as a precursor of dialectical materialism. They have found evidence in his ideas for the theory that the Civil War in seventeenth-century England was a bourgeois revolution caused by the “rise of the gentry.” Against this view, it has been said that the gentry was a declining class, in no sense bourgeois, and that Harrington used his political fantasy to justify its power. All these theories tend to underestimate his passionate classicism. Harrington avowedly looked to the remote past to find guidance for a desirable future. From Polybius he learned that deliberately planned constitutions are more likely to endure than those that develop haphazardly. From him, too, he took the theory of the inevitable cycle of decline that all the “pure,” unbalanced forms of government—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—must suffer. However, while Polybius thought of these constitutions entirely in terms of divisions of governmental power, Harrington held that they depend upon the distribution, or “balance,” of landed property. If stability was his end, no less than Polybius’, he did not stop with the latter’s theory of a mixed constitution, in which democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements are poised in such a way as to prevent any changes in the political order. Instead Harrington proposed his agrarian law as the means of achieving stability: its enactment would permit a “natural” aristocracy to form a deliberative assembly and the people to be represented in a deciding body. This proposal was, indeed, his own contribution to constitutional theory. His ideas of historical change, however, were derivative, as he was perfectly happy to admit—witness his endless tributes to “ancient prudence.” The necessity for a return to the classical past both in theory and in practice was not, in his view, a historical inevitability, but the sole means by which England might learn to become stable and powerful.

Judith N. Shklar

[For the historical context of Harrington’s work, seeConstitutions and Constitutionalism; Utopianism; and the biographies ofAristotle; Hobbes; Machiavelli; Plato. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see the biography ofBernstein.]


(1656) 1924 The Commonwealth of Oceana. Edited by S. B. Liljegren. Heidelberg: Winter.

(1700) 1963 The Oceana of James Harrington, and His Other Works. Edited by John Toland. Aalen (Ger many): Scientia.

1955 Political Writings: Representative Selections. Edited with an introduction by Charles Blitzer. New York: Liberal Arts Press.


Bernstein, Eduard (1908) 1963 Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution. NewYork: Kelley. → First published in German.

Blitzer, Charles 1960 An Immortal Commonwealth: The Political Thought of James Harrington. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Dwight, Theodore W. 1887 James Harrington and His Influence Upon American Political Institutions and Political Thought. Political Science Quarterly 2:1–44.

Fink, Zera S. (1945) 1962 The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth Century England. 2d ed. Evanston, III.: Northwestern Univ. Press.

Gooch, George P.; and laski, harold L. (1898) 1954 English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge Univ. Press. → First published as The History of English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century, by George P. Gooch.

Greenleaf, W. H. 1964 Order, Empiricism and Politics: Two Traditions of English Political Thought, 1500–1700. Oxford Univ. Press.

Koebner, Richard 1927-1928 Die Geschichtslehre James Harringtons. Volume 3, pages 4-21 in Geist und Gesellschaft: Kurt Breysig zu seinem sechzigsten Gehurtstage. Breslau: Marcus.

Macpherson, Crawford B. 1962 The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Clarendon.

Pocock, John G. A. 1957 The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Polin, Raymond 1952 Economique et politique au XVIIesiecle: L’Oceana de James Harrington. Revue francaise de science politique 2:24–41.

Raab, Felix 1964 The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation, 1500–1700. With a foreword by Hugh Trevor-Roper. London: Routledge.

Russell Smith, Hugh F. 1914 Harrington and His Oceana: A Study of a Seventeenth Century Utopia and Its Influence in America. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Shklar, Judith 1959 Ideology Hunting: The Case of James Harrington. American Political Science Review 53:662–692.

Tawney, Richard H. 1941 Harrington’s Interpretation of His Age. British Academy, Proceedings 27:199–223.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. 1953 The Gentry: 1540–1640. Economic History Review, Supplement 1. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Harrington, James (1611–1677)

views updated May 23 2018


The English political philosopher and publicist James Harrington was the eldest son of Sir Sapcote Harrington, of Rand, Lincolnshire. As such, he belonged to a junior branch of a family that had been prominent from the days of Richard I. An erudite man, Harrington must have acquired his great knowledge of languages, literature, and history largely independently, since he spent only two or three years at Oxford and in the Middle Temple and took no degree. During the 1630s he traveled extensively on the Continent and served in an English volunteer regiment in the forces of one of the palatine electors. From these experiences, and especially from a visit to Venice, he gathered much of the data that later formed the raw material for his political theory.

When civil war broke out in England, Harrington took a neutral position, despite his republican sympathies, because of his personal regard for the king, and at one point attempted the role of mediator between royal and parliamentary interests. But after Charles I's execution in 1649 he devoted himself to the construction of a republican political theory, which culminated in 1656 in the publication of his major work, The Commonwealth of Oceana, a blueprint for a perfect republic.

He was imprisoned by Charles II in 1661 on a false charge of treason. His mind became deranged while he was in prison, and he never fully recovered his faculties after his release. He died at his Westminster home in 1677.

Although Oceana has the form of a utopia, Harrington stands squarely in the British empiricist tradition. Even Niccolò Machiavelli, whom he admired as "the only Polititian of later Ages," he criticized for violating the canons of empiricism by using such concepts as "virtue" and "corruption," which Harrington held to be meaningless as analytical tools.

Harrington's own concepts are sociological, rather than psychological or ethical. A stable governmental system always represents the dominant property-owning groups of a society. Where political and economic power are held by the same hands, and a single person controls three-fourths of all the property, the political system will be an absolute monarchy. If a few hold three-fourths of the property, it will be a mixed monarchy. If property is so dispersed that no monopoly vests in a single social interest, the system will be a republic, or "common-wealth."

Harrington made no moral ranking of the forms of government. Words such as tyranny, oligarchy, anarchy he used descriptively rather than evaluatively, to signify unstable governmental forms that do not match their foundations, those in which power is held incommensurately to the distribution of property. The theoretical question that preoccupied him was stability, and the chief cause of revolution and civil war he identified as an incongruence between social balance and form of government. Conflict he viewed as a mechanism for bringing the two into close proportion. He was not an economic determinist, however, for he thought it just as possible to "frame the foundation unto the Government" as the reverse.

Like Machiavelli, Harrington preferred the republican system to all others. He wrote of "that Reason which is the interest of mankind, or of the whole," as "a Law of Nature," and described "the publick interest of a commonwealth" as "nearest that of mankind." Since he espoused a radically hedonic view of human motivation, this must mean he preferred republics because in them the things men enjoy are more widely distributed than in systems with a narrower property base. Not absolute equality but a middle-class order is implied, however. For "leveling" impedes economic growth and the social accumulation of the riches humankind desire.

More sanguine than Machiavelli, Harrington thought it possible to create a perfectly stable and unchanging republic. It could be maintained by an "equal Agrarian" law, fixing forever a middle-class distribution of property, and by arranging a suitable balance of interests in the organization of the government through such devices as separation of powers, division of the legislature, and rotation in office.

See also Empiricism; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Social and Political Philosophy.


primary works

James Harrington's Oceana. Edited by S. B. Liljegren. Heidelberg: Winter, 1924.

The Political Works of James Harrington. Edited by J. G. A. Pocock. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

secondary works

Blitzer, Charles. An Immortal Commonwealth: The Political Thought of James Harrington. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1960.

Downs, Michael. James Harrington. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Fink, Zera S. The Classical Republicans. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 1945.

Fukuda, Arihiro. Sovereignty and the Sword: Harrington, Hobbes, and Mixed Government in the English Civil Wars. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Russell-Smith, H. F. Harrington and His Oceana. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1914.

Tolan, John. The Oceana of James Harrington and His Other Works. 4th ed. London: 1771.

Wershofen, Christian. James Harrington und sein Wunschbild vom germanischen Staate. Bonn, 1935.

William T. Bluhm (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

James Harrington

views updated Jun 11 2018

James Harrington

The English political theorist James Harrington (1611-1677) is best known for "The Commonwealth of Oceana, " a utopian treatise which advocates the establishment of an aristocratic republic.

The eldest son of Sir Sapcotes Harrington, James Harrington was born into an old and extremely wellconnected family. After showing much academic promise as a child, he entered Trinity College, Oxford. Upon the death of his father, he left Oxford without taking a degree and began a tour of the Continent.

Harrington became a frequent visitor at The Hague and, after meeting the Prince of Orange, was introduced to the Elector and Electress Palatine. He accompanied the elector on at least one state visit to Denmark. His discretion so impressed the elector that Harrington was later commissioned to look after his affairs at the court of his brother-in-law, Charles I. Before returning to England, Harrington passed from Holland, through France, into Italy. Venice greatly interested him, and he proved a keen observer of the Venetian republican government, as his later works demonstrated.

Upon returning to England, Harrington sought to retire from court life and devote his time to study, but in 1638-1639 was co-opted by Charles as a member of his privy chamber. He then accompanied the King in the First Bishops' War against the Scots, but this appears to have been the extent of his active involvement in the events precipitated by that unsuccessful campaign. He does not seem to have taken part in the Short or Long Parliament, nor does he seem to have played a role in the Second Bishops' War or in the civil wars which ensued.

After Charles's defeat Harrington was named as one of the King's attendants. Although he was not in sympathy with the excesses of monarchy, he apparently got along very well with the King and is reported to have been with Charles at the time of his execution in 1649.

Harrington then turned his attention to the problem of choosing the best of all possible governments for England and began work on The Commonwealth of Oceana. He proposed a society in which all men of property would have a share; property was to be balanced by laws which limited the extent of individual wealth. A senate (drawn from historical examples) was to be elected by all men of property and was to propose laws. Once the laws had been ratified by the people, they were to be executed by an elected magistracy. All officials were to serve for limited terms to ensure the maximum participation on the part of the citizens of the Commonwealth. A community of interest served to hold the society together. Harrington's work reflected conditions in England, but in a sense the reflection was all too clear. "Olphaus Megaletor" was so obviously Oliver Cromwell that the government seized his manuscript. Only with the greatest difficulty did Harrington succeed in convincing Cromwell of his good intentions, but his work was restored to him and finally published in 1656.

Once in print, the work was violently attacked by monarchists and extreme republicans alike. These attacks led Harrington to pen a defense called The Prerogative of Popular Government, to abridge his work for a wider audience under the title The Art of Law Giving, and to further develop his views in a series of essays which were printed in 1659, the last year of the Commonwealth.

With the Restoration, Harrington retired from public life but at the end of 1661 was arrested as a traitor and thrown into the Tower. There appears to have been no basis for the accusations made against him, but Charles Il's ministers evidently felt that his writings made him a dangerous foe of monarchical government. Transferred to a jail in Plymouth, he suffered from disease and from mistreatment at the hands of a prison physician, and he ultimately became insane. His release soon followed, but Harrington never recovered the full use of his faculties, nor did his health improve significantly. A late (and unhappy) marriage was followed by the onset of the gout and palsy; he died of a stroke on Sept. 11, 1677.

Further Reading

The Commonwealth of Oceana is the only work of Harrington's readily available. Henry Morley includes it in his Ideal Commonwealths (1893; 6th ed. 1968) and appends a short sketch of Harrington's life. See also Charles Blitzer, An Immortal Commonwealth: The Political Thought of James Harrington (1960). □

Harrington, James

views updated May 23 2018

Harrington, James (1611–77). Political philosopher. His Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), though dedicated to Cromwell, implicitly censured the Protectorate. Its central doctrine was that the distribution of property in a state determines its form of government. Where one ruler disposes of all the land, absolute monarchy results; where an aristocracy holds most of it, mixed monarchy is the natural form; but where property is widely distributed, only a republic can provide stable government. To maintain its stability, Harrington prescribed an upper limit to any individual's holding of land and an obligation on all property-owners to serve in arms, the wealthier as cavalry, the less affluent as infantry. A two-chamber legislature was to be elected by these local militias: a senate of 300 (all cavalry) to initiate laws, and an assembly of 1,050 (mixed horse and foot) to ballot silently for or against them. A third of their members were to retire each year. Officers of state and magistrates were to be similarly subject to election (by ballot) and rotation.

Austin Woolrych

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