JAMES HARRINGTON, eldest son of Sir Sapcotes Harrington of Exton, in Rutlandshire, was born in the reign of James I, in January, 1661, five years before the death of Shakespeare. He was two or three years younger than John Milton. His great-grandfather was Sir James Harrington, who married Lucy, daughter of Sir William Sidney, lived with her to their golden wedding-day, and had eighteen children, through whom he counted himself, before his death, patriarch in a family that in his own time produced eight dukes, three marquises, seventy earls, twenty-seven viscounts, and thirty-six barons, sixteen of them all being Knights of the Garter. James Harrington’s ideal of a commonwealth was the design, therefore, of a man in many ways connected with the chief nobility of England.
Sir Sapcotes Harrington married twice, and had by each of his wives two sons and two daughters. James Harrington was eldest son by the first marriage, which was to Jane, daughter of Sir William Samuel of Upton, in Northamptonshire. James Harrington’s brother became a merchant; of his half-brothers, one went to sea, the other became a captain in the army.
As a child, James Harrington was studious, and so sedate that it was said playfully of him he rather kept his parents and teachers in awe than needed correction; but in after-life his quick wit made him full of playfulness in conversation. In 1629 he entered Trinity College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner. There he had for tutor William Chillingworth, a Fellow of the college, who after conversion to the Church of Rome had reasoned his way back into Protestant opinions. Chillingworth became a famous champion of Protestantism in the question between the Churches, although many Protestants attacked him as unsound because he would not accept the Athanasian Creed and had some other reservations.
Harrington prepared himself for foreign travel by study of modern languages, but before he went abroad, and while he was still under age, his father died and he succeeded to his patrimony. The socage tenure of his estate gave him free choice of his own guardian, and he chose his mother’s mother, Lady Samuel.
He then began the season of travel which usually followed studies at the university, a part of his training to which he had looked forward with especial interest. He went first to Holland, which had been in Queen Elizabeth’s time the battle-ground of civil and religious liberty. Before he left England he used to say he knew of monarchy, anarchy, aristocracy, democracy, oligarchy, only as hard words to be looked for in a dictionary. But his interest in problems of government began to be awakened while he was among the Dutch. He served in the regiment of Lord Craven, and afterward in that of Sir Robert Stone; was much at The Hague; became familiar with the Court of the Prince of Orange, and with King James’s daughter, the Queen of Bohemia, who, with her husband the Prince Elector, was then a fugitive to Holland. Lord Harrington, who had once acted as governor to the princess, and won her affection, was James Harrington’s uncle, and she now cordially welcomed the young student of life for his uncle’s sake, and for his own pleasantness of outward wit and inward gravity of thought. Harrington was taken with him by the exiled and plundered Prince Elector, when he paid a visit to the Court of Denmark, and he was intrusted afterward with the chief care of the prince’s affairs in England.
From Holland, James Harrington passed through Flanders into France, and thence to Italy. When he came hack to England, some courtiers who were with him in Rome told Charles I that Harrington had been too squeamish at the Pope’s consecration of wax lights, in refusing to obtain a light, as others did, by kissing his Holiness’s toe. The King told Harrington that he might have complied with a custom which only signified respect to a temporal prince. But his Majesty was satisfied with the reply, that having had the honor to kiss his Majesty’s hand, he thought it beneath him to kiss any other prince’s foot.
Of all places in Italy, Venice pleased Harrington best. He was deeply interested ill the Venetian form of government, and his observations bore fruit in many suggestions for the administration of the Commonwealth of Oceana.
After his return to England, being of age, James Harrington cared actively for the interests of his younger brothers and sisters. It was he who made his brother William a merchant. William Harrington throve, and for his ingenuity in matters of construction he was afterward made one of the Fellows of the newly formed Royal Society. He took pains over the training of his sisters, making 110 difference between sisters and half-sisters, and treating his step-mother as a mother. He filled his home with loving-kindness, and was most liberal in giving help to friends. When he was told that he often threw away his bounty on ungrateful persons, he playfully told his advisers they were mercenary and that he saw they sold their gifts, since they expected so great a return as gratitude.
James Harrington’s bent was for the study of life, and he made no active suit for court employment. But he went to court, where Charles I liked him, and admitted him as one of his privy chamber extraordinary, in which character he went with the King in his first expedition against the Scots.
Because Charles I knew him and liked him, and because he had shown himself no partisan of either side in the civil war, though he was known to be inclined, in the way of abstract opinion, toward a form of government that was not monarchy, the commissioners appointed in 1646 to bring Charles from Newcastle named Harrington as one of the King’s attendants. The King was pleased, and Harrington was appointed a groom of the bedchamber at Holmby. He followed faithfully the fortunes of the fallen King, never saying even to the King himself a word in contradiction of his own principles of liberty, and finding nothing in his principles or in his temper that should prevent him from paying honor to his sovereign, and seeking to secure for him a happy issue out of his afflictions. Antony a Wood says that, “His Majesty loved Harrington’s company, and, finding him to be an ingenious man, chose rather to converse with him than with others of his chamber: they had often discourses concerning government; but when they happened to talk of a commonwealth the King seemed not to endure it.”
Harrington used all the influence he had with those in whose power the King was, to prevent the urging of avoid-able questions that would stand in the way of such a treaty as they professed to seek during the King’s imprisonment at Carisbrooke. Harrington’s friendly interventions on the King’s behalf before the Parliament commissioners at New-port caused him, indeed, to be suspected; and when the King was removed from Carisbrooke to Hurst Castle, Harrington was not allowed to remain in his service. But afterward, when King Charles was being taken to Windsor, Harrington got leave to bid him farewell at the door of his carriage. As he was about to kneel, the King took him by the hand and pulled him in. For a few days lie was left with the King, but an oath was required of him that he would not assist in, or conceal knowledge of any attempt to procure, the King’s escape. He would not take the oath; and was this time not only dismissed from the King’s service but himself imprisoned, until Ireton obtained his release. Before the King’s death, Harrington found his way to him again, and he was among those who were with Charles I upon the scaffold.
After the King’s execution, Harrington was for some time secluded in his study. Monarchy was gone; some form of commonwealth was to be established; and he set to work upon the writing of “Oceana,” calmly to show what form of government, since men were free to choose, to him seemed best.
He based his work on an opinion he had formed that the troubles of the time were not due wholly to the intemperance of faction, the misgovernment of a king, or the stubbornness of a people, but to change in the balance of property; and he laid the foundations of his commonwealth in the opinion that empire follows the balance of property. Then he showed the commonwealth of Oceana in action, with safeguards against future shiftings of that balance, and with a popular government in which all offices were filled by men chosen by ballot, who should hold office for a limited term. Thus there was to be a constant flow of new blood through the political system, and the representative was to be kept true as a reflection of the public mind.
The Commonwealth of Oceana was England. Harrington called Scotland Marpesia; and Ireland, Panopea. London he called Emporium; the Thames, Halcionia; Westminster, Hiera; Westminster Hall, Pantheon. The Palace of St. James was Alma; Hampton Court, Convallium; Windsor, Mount Celia. By Hemisna, Harrington meant the river Trent. Past sovereigns of England he renamed for Oceana: William the Conqueror became Turbo; King John, Adoxus; Richard II, Dicotome; Henry VII, Panurgus; Henry VIII, Coraunus; Elizabeth, Parthenia; James I, Morpheus. He referred to Hobbes as Leviathan; and to Francis Bacon, as Verulamius. Oliver Cromwell he renamed Olphaus Megaletor.
Harrington’s book was seized while printing, and carried to Whitehall. Harrington went to Cromwell’s daughter, Lady Claypole, played with her three-year-old child while waiting for her, and said to her, when she came and found him with her little girl upon his lap, “Madam, you have come in the nick of time, for I was just about to steal this pretty lady.” “Why should you?” “Why shouldn’t I, unless you cause your father to restore a child of mine that lie has stolen?” It was only, he said, a kind of political romance; so far from any treason against her father that he hoped she would let him know it was to be dedicated to him. So the book was restored; and it was published in the time of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, in the year 1656.
This treatise, which had its origin in the most direct pressure of the problem of government upon the minds of men continues the course of thought on which Machiavelli’s “Prince” had formed one famous station, and Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” another.
“Oceana,” when published, was widely read and actively attacked. One opponent of its doctrines was Dr. Henry Ferne, afterward Bishop of Chester. Another was Matthew Wren, eldest son to the Bishop of Ely. He was one of those who met for scientific research at the house of Dr. Wilkins, and had, said Harrington, “an excellent faculty of magnifying a louse and diminishing a commonwealth.”
In 1659, Harrington published an abridgment of his Oceana as “The Art of Lawgiving,” in three books. Other pieces followed, in which he defended or developed his opinions. He again urged them when Cromwell’s Commonwealth was in its death-throes. Then he fell back upon argument at nightly meetings of a Rota Club which met in the New Palace Yard, Westminster. Milton’s old pupil, Cyriac Skinner, was one of its members; and its elections were by ballot, with rotation in the tenure of all offices. The club was put an end to at the Restoration, when Harrington retired to his study and amused himself by putting his “System of Politics” into the form of “Aphorisms.”
On December 28, 1661, James Harrington, then fifty years old, was arrested and carried to the Tower as a traitor. His Aphorisms were on his desk, and as they also were to be carried off, he asked only that they might first be stitched together in their proper order. Why he was arrested, he was not told. One of his sisters pleaded in vain to the King. He was falsely accused of complicity in an imaginary plot, of which nothing could be made by its investigators. No heed was paid to the frank denials of a man of the sincerest nature, who never had concealed his thoughts or actions. “Why,” he was asked, at his first examination by Lord Lauderdale, who was one of his kinsmen, “why did he, as a private man, meddle with politics? What had a private man to do with government?” His answer was: “My lord, there is not any public person, nor any magistrate, that has written on politics, worth a button. All they that have been excellent in this way have been private men, as private men, my lord, as myself. There is Plato, there is Aristotle, there is Livy, there is Machiavel. My lord, I can sum up Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ in a very few words: he says, there is the Barbarous Monarchy — such a one where the people have 110 votes in making the laws; he says, there is the Heroic Monarchy — such a one where the people have their votes in making the laws; and then, he says, there is Democracy, and affirms that a man cannot be said to have liberty but in a democracy only.” Lord Lauderdale here showing impatience, Harrington added: “I say Aristotle says so. I have not said so much. And under what prince was it? Was it not under Alexander, the greatest prince then in the world? I beseech you, my lord, did Alexander hang up Aristotle? did he molest him? Livy, for a commonwealth, is one of the fullest authors; did not he write under Augustus Caesar? Did Caesar hang up Livy? did he molest him? Machiavel, what a commonwealthsman was he! but he wrote under the Medici when they were princes in Florence: did they hang up Machiavel, or did they molest him? I have done no otherwise than as the greatest politicians: the King will do no otherwise than as the greatest princes.”
That was too much to hope, even in a dream, of the low-minded Charles II. Harrington could not obtain even the show of justice in a public trial. He was kept five months an untried prisoner in the Tower, only sheltered from daily brutalities by bribe to the lieutenant. When his habeas corpus had been moved for, it was at first flatly refused; and when it had been granted, Harrington was smuggled away from the Tower between one and two o’clock in the morning, and carried on board a ship that took him to closer imprisonment on St. Nicholas Island, opposite Plymouth. There his health suffered seriously, and his family obtained his removal to imprisonment in Plymouth by giving a bond of £5,000 as sureties against his escape. In Plymouth, Harrington suffered from scurvy, and at last he became insane.
When he had been made a complete wreck in body and in mind, his gracious Majesty restored Harrington to his family. He never recovered health, but still occupied himself much with his pen, writing, among other things, a serious argument to prove that they were themselves mad who thought him so.
In those last days of his shattered life James Harrington married an old friend of the family, a witty lady, daughter of Sir Marmaduke Dorrell, of Buckinghamshire. Gout was added to his troubles; then he was palsied; and he died at Westminster, at the age of sixty-six, on September 11, 1677. He was buried in St. Margaret’s Church, by the grave of Sir Walter Raleigh, on the south side of the altar.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56