Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harrington, James (1611-1677)

HARRINGTON or HARINGTON, JAMES (1611–1677), political theorist, eldest son of Sir Sapcotes Harrington of Rand, Lincolnshire, by his first wife, Jane, daughter of Sir William Samwell of Upton, Northamptonshire, was born at Upton on 7 Jan. 1611. The Harringtons were an old family, connected with many of the nobility. John, first lord Harington of Exton [q. v.], was his great-uncle. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, as a gentleman-commoner in 1629, and is said to have been a pupil of Chillingworth; Chillingworth, however, was soon afterwards converted to Catholicism, and went to Douay in 1630. Upon the death of his father, Harrington chose for his guardian his grandmother, Lady Samwell. He left Oxford without a degree and travelled to Holland, where he joined the court of the elector and electress' palatine [see Elizabeth, 1596-1662], then living in exile near Arnheim. Harrington's relation, Lord Harington, had been Elizabeth's guardian. He served in the regiment of William, lord Craven [q. v.], and once accompanied the elector to Denmark. He afterwards travelled through France to Rome, where he refused to kiss the pope's toe, excusing himself afterwards to Charles I for his rudeness by saying that he would not kiss the foot of any prince after kissing the king's hand. He visited Venice, where he was much impressed by the system of government, and collected many Italian books, especially upon politics.

Returning to England he brought up his younger brother, William, as a merchant, and superintended the education of his sisters, Elizabeth, afterwards married to Sir Ralph Ashton, and Anne, afterwards married to Arthur Evelyn. He devoted himself to study, and took no active part in the civil war. With Thomas (afterwards Sir Thomas) Herbert (1605-1682) [q. v.] he followed the king from Newcastle to Holmby House, where at the request of Charles they were both made grooms of the bedchamber in place of some discharged servants. Here, according to Toland, he translated Sanderson's 'De Juramenti … obligatione,' published in 1655. Wood (under 'Sanderson, Robert') and Herbert say that Charles himself made the translation. He was with Charles in the Isle of Wight, and discussed political and other questions with him. He accompanied Charles to Hurst Castle, but was shortly afterwards dismissed on account of an imprudent conversation with some officers, in which he showed sympathy with the king and argued for accepting his concessions (Herbert). According to Toland, he was even imprisoned for refusing to take an oath against assisting the king to escape, but released by Ireton's intercession. Toland and Aubrey further say that he saw the king afterwards and accompanied him to the scaffold. Although a republican in principle, he seems to have been attracted by Charles, whose death is said to have greatly shocked him.

Harrington resumed his studies and in 1656 produced the 'Oceana.' Toland gives a story that the manuscript was seized by Cromwell and restored through the intercession of Mrs. Claypoole, whom Harrington had playfully threatened with stealing her child unless her father would restore his. A smart controversy followed the publication and led to the issue of many tracts by Harrington, chiefly in 1659. Baxter attacked the 'Oceana' in his 'Holy Commonwealth.' During the confusion which followed Cromwell's death Harrington formed a club called the Rota, to discuss the introduction of his political schemes. It lasted from November 1659 to February 1659-60, and included his friend H. Nevill, Major Wildman, Roger Coke, Cyriack Skinner, John Aubrey, William Petty, and others. It ceased when Monck's action made the Restoration a certainty.

On 26 Nov. 1661 (Wood) Harrington was committed to the Tower. His sisters were allowed access to him upon matters of private business on 14 Feb. 1661-2, when he had been eleven weeks in confinement (State Papers, Dom.) On 23 April following a warrant was issued to the lieutenant of the Tower to take him into close custody for having endeavoured at several meetings to change the form of government (ib.) In the index to the State Papers he is not distinguished from his cousin Sir James Harrington, son of his father's elder brother, Sir Edward, who was on the commission for trying the king and afterwards member of the council of state, and excepted from acts of pardon, for whose arrest warrants were issued at the same time. Sir James wrote 'Noah's Dove,' 1645, and a 'Holy Oyl,' attributed in the British Museum Catalogue to James. Noble fuses the two lives. James Harrington was examined before Lauderdale and others, and Clarendon accused him in a conference of the houses of being concerned in a plot (Toland). His sisters petitioned for a trial, and had obtained a writ of habeas corpus when he was suddenly sent off to St. Nicholas Island in Plymouth harbour. He was afterwards allowed to move to Plymouth, where he was kindly treated by the authorities. By the advice of a Dr. Dunstan he drank guaiacum in such quantities, it is said, as to injure his health and finally disorder his brain. He was released and allowed to come to London for advice. He was never quite cured, even by the Epsom waters, and a curious paper illustrating his illusions is printed by Toland. He fancied that diseases were caused by evil spirits, whom, according to Aubrey, he identified with flies. He married, however, a daughter of Sir Marmaduke Dorrel or Dayrell, to whom he behaved with the 'highest generosity,' though a temporary quarrel followed the discovery that her intentions were not quite disinterested. He suffered much from gout, and finally died of paralysis at Westminster on 11 Sept. 1677. He had lived since his release at the Little Ambry, looking into Dean's Yard, and was buried on the south side of the altar of St. Margaret's Church, next to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Aubrey describes him as of middling stature, strong, well-set, with 'quick-hot fiery hazell eie and thick moist curled hair.'

His 'Oceana' was long famous, and is noticed in Hume's 'Essays' ('Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth') as the 'only valuable model of a commonwealth' extant. Harrington's main principle is that power depends upon the balance of property, and normally of landed property. His scheme is expounded in an imaginary history of Oceana (England), in which Olphaus Megaletor (Oliver Cromwell) founds a new constitution. An 'agrarian' limits landed estates to a value of 3,000l. a year. The senate proposes laws, which are voted upon by the people, and the magistracy execute them. Elaborate systems of rotation and balloting are worked out in detail; and the permanence of the system is secured by the equilibrium of all interests. His republic is a moderate aristocracy. Machiavelli is his great authority, and Venice (as with many of his contemporaries) his great model. For an interesting account of his political theories see Professor Dwight in 'Political Science Quarterly' for March 1887.

His works are:

  1. 'The Commonwealth of Oceana,' folio, 1656.
  2. 'The Prerogative of Popular Government' (defence of 'Oceana' against Matthew Wren's 'Considerations,' Dr. Seaman, and Dr. Hammond).
  3. 'The Art of Lawgiving' (abridgment of 'Oceana') 1659.
  4. 'Valerius and Publicola,' 1659.
  5. 'Aphorisms Political' [1659].
  6. 'A System of Politics, delineated in Short and Easy Aphorisms' (first printed by Toland from manuscript).
  7. 'Seven Models of a Commonwealth,' 1659.
  8. 'Ways and Means whereby an equal Commonwealth may be suddenly introduced …,' 1659.
  9. The Petition of Divers well-affected Persons …' (presented to the House of Commons 6 July 1659, and printed with answer), 1659.

The above are included in Toland's edition of the 'Works,' 1 vol. folio, 1700. An edition by Millar in 1737 included in addition:

  1. 'Pian Piano' (answer to Henry Ferne [q. v.]), 1656.
  2. 'A Letter unto Mr. Stubs, in answer to his Oceana Weighed,' 1659.
  3. 'A sufficient Answer to Mr. Stubb,' 1659
  4. A Discourse upon this Saying: the Spirit of the Nation is not yet to be trusted with liberty …,' 1659.
  5. ' A Discourse showing that the Spirit of Parliaments … is not to be trusted for a settlement,' 1659.
  6. 'A Parallel of the Spirit of the People with the Spirit of Mr. Rogers,' 1659..
  7. 'Pour enclouer le Canon, or the Nailing of the Enemy's Artillery,' 1659.
  8. 'A Proposition in order to the Proposing of a Commonwealth,' s.s., 1659. (The last five and Nos. 4 and 5 were collected with a common title-page as 'Political Discourses,' 1660, with a portrait by Hollar, after Lely.)
  9. 'The Stumbling-block of Obedience and Rebellion, cunningly imputed by Peter Heylin to Calvin, removed …,' 1659.
  10. 'Politicaster, or a Comical Discourse in Answer to Mr. Wren' (i.e. to Wren's 'Monarchy Asserted'), 1659.
  11. 'A Proposition in order to the Proposing of a Commonwealth,' 1659.
  12. 'The Rota' (extracted from ' Art of Lawgiving '), 1660. 'A Censure of the Rota upon Mr. Milton's ready … Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth,' 1660, may also be his.

The above all refer to the 'Oceana.' He published also in 1658 a translation of 'two of Virgil's "Eclogues" and (the first) two of his "Æneis,"' and in 1659 the next four books of the 'Æneid.'

[Wood's Athenæ, iii. 1115-26; Life by John Toland, prefixed to Oceana and other works in 1700 (Toland received from Harrington's half-sister, Dorothy, wife of Allan Bellingham, a collection of Harrington's letters and papers, with observations by his sister, Lady Ashton); Aubrey's Life in Letters by Eminent Persons, &c., 1813, pp. 370-6; Sir Thomas Herbert's Memoirs, 1813, pp. 21, 22, 29, 61, 63, 114, 119, 120, 128; Masson's Life of Milton, iii. 470, v. 482-6, 627-8; Wright's Antiquities of Rutland, p. 52; Noble's Regicides; Hallam's Literature of Europe, iii. 437-9.]

L. S.