James Harrington



The Political Works of James Harrington, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Cambridge, 1977).


The Oceana of James Harrington, and his other Works; Som wherof are now first publish'd from his own Manuscripts…by John Toland (London, 1700).


Harrington's Manuscripts

Examples of the handwriting of James Harrington, author of Oceana, are of the utmost rarity and, with the exception of HaJ 2-3 below, there are no recorded contemporary manuscripts of any of his prose works. According to Toland (p. xiii), Harrington's sister Elizabeth, wife of Sir Ralph Ashton, made a collection of ‘all the remaining Letters, and other Manuscript Papers of her Brother, with the Collections and Observations relating to him’. That collection came into the possession of a half-sister (by her father's second marriage), Dorothy, wife of James Bellingham (not Allan Bellingham as Toland says: see Pocock, p. 1), of Levens Hall, Westmorland. In 1699 Dorothy Bellingham made the collection available to the deist scholar John Toland (1670-1722), who made use of it for his edition of Harrington's works published in the following year. Toland printed for the first time, from manuscript, The Mechanics of Nature (‘An imperfect Treatise written…during his sickness…the Manuscript containing no more…’: pp. xlii-xliv); The Examination of James Harrington (‘He found means to transmit a Copy of his Examination to his Sisters, giving 'em leave to publish it, which was never hitherto don’: pp. xxxi-xxxiv); and A System of Politics (‘Publish'd from the Author's own Manuscript’: pp. 496-514). Of the last, Toland noted (pp. xxx-xxxi): ‘I have that Manuscript now in my hands, and another Copy of the same which was given me by one of his acquaintance, from both which I have printed it among the rest of his Works’. By ‘that Manuscript’ he referred to one originally in ‘written sheets…then lying loose on the table before him’ but afterwards stitched together, which was seized upon Harrington's arrest in 1661, resulting from his habit of ‘freely communicat[ing] his Papers to all that visited him’. Yet another manuscript, that of his most celebrated work, Oceana (1656), was allegedly seized by Cromwell's agents (‘after hunting it from one Press to another’), but afterwards restored through the intercession of Cromwell's ‘favorit Daughter, the Lady Claypole’, whom Harrington characteristically charmed (Toland, p. xix). Since Toland's time, the manuscripts preserved by Harrington's family have been totally lost to sight. Neither can any volumes be traced from his library, containing what Toland calls his ‘Collection of all the valuable Books in the Italian Language, especially treating of Politics’ (p. xv).

Almost the only examples of Harrington's handwriting known today were preserved by John Aubrey, who knew the writer well and whose account of him (Bodleian, MSS Aubrey, 6, f. 98r-v; 8, f. 11r; Wood F. 49, f. 308r) is one of the most important early biographical sources (see Brief Lives, ed. Andrew Clark, 2 vols (Oxford, 1898), I, 288-95). A short manuscript poem Vpon the state of Nature (*HaJ 1 below) is inscribed by Aubrey ‘By Mr James Harrington Esq, autor Oceanae, whose handwriting this is’. As such this would appear to be the only surviving literary autograph manuscript by Harrington. It is also one of the few known examples of Harrington's attempts at poetry (along with the translations of Virgil, accompanied by a verse preface and five unrelated epigrams, which he published in two volumes in 1658-9). Though passable, it scarcely belies Aubrey's judgment: ‘He made severall essayes in Poetry, viz. love-verses, &c…but his muse was rough, and Mr. Henry Nevill…disswaded him from tampering in poetrie which he did invitâ Minervâ, and to improve his proper talent, viz. Politicall Reflections’ (Clark, I, 289). The other autograph manuscript preserved by Aubrey is a short letter which Harrington wrote to him on 16 February ‘1669’, cancelling an arranged visit (*HaJ 4). Although written in a somewhat crabby style at the time of Harrington's mental decline, it is clearly in the same hand as the poem (*HaJ 1), Aubrey's inscription on the latter being material witness to the authenticity of both.

These two brief autograph manuscripts make it possible to authenticate a third example of Harrington's hand, a remarkable letter bearing witness to the state of Harington's mind in 1675 or '76 (see HaJ 6).

Other James Harringtons

In fact, other discovered manuscripts by ‘James Harrington’ (or ‘Harington’) prove to have been written or signed by other men of that name, with whom the political writer has been often, understandably, confused. The most notable of these is his first cousin, Sir James Harington, third Baronet (1607-80), of Kelston, Somerset, who was a member of the Council of State during the Commonwealth period (see Ian Grimble, The Harington Family (London, 1957), passim). This Harington, author of such works as Noah's Dove (1645), A Holy Oyl (1669) and Horae Consecratae (1682) and a man of strict Puritanical views, wrote on 23 April 1647 a lengthy letter to Charles I discussing the keeping of Easter (the text in the hand of an amanuensis and signed by ‘James Harington’, afterwards annotated by the King himself); this is in the National Archives, Kew (SP 16/515, Part I/49). He also wrote a series of nineteen letters now preserved among the papers of Sir Edward Heath at the University of Illinois. The letters, addressed variously to Heath (6), to John Dunkin (8), to John Woode (4) and to one Brooke (1) and dating from July 1632 [?] to October 1646, are sometimes in Sir James's hand, sometimes in the hands of amanuenses and signed by him. The collection includes, besides, three letters to Heath (dated 1641-2) by Sir James's father, Sir Edward Harington (d.1653), the political writer's uncle. Another autograph letter by Sir James, written to his wife on 19 March 1660/1, is in the British Library (Add. MS 23206, ff. 30r-1v). Sir James evidently signed also two letters of appointment, dated 20 September and 2 October 1652 (Christie's, 1 May 1917, lots 275 and 276, both sold to Brown); an official letter of 23 September 1652 (in the Pierpont Morgan Library, R-v R of E Commonwealth); a letter to the Governor of the Isle of Wight, 2 October 1652 (Sotheby's, 21 July 1914, lot 84, sold to Quaritch); and a letter to Sir William Lockhart, [26 August]/5 September 1659, intercepted by Royalists, a transcript of which is among the papers of the Earl of Clarendon in the Bodleian (MS Clarendon 64, f. 14r). Yet another James Harrington (1664-93) was a member of Christ Church, Oxford, a lawyer of the Inner Temple and author of various pamphlets on theological and academic matters. A number of his letters, to Anthony Wood and others, are in the Bodleian (in MSS Ballard 22, Tanner 27 and Wood F. 42) and he was presumably the ‘James Harrington Student of Ch: Ch:’ responsible for ‘An Essay Upon Epigrams’ (a long poem dated 1688 and beginning ‘Till Wit can be defin'd’) preserved in a ten-page copy at the University of Nottingham (Portland MS Pw 2V 195).


An essay on Oceana by the historian George Grote (1794-1871), written in 1818-22, is preserved among Grote's papers in the British Library (Add. MS 29529, ff. 1r-10r). Brief extracts from another of Harrington's treatises, Valerius and Publicola (1659), made by Sir John Dalberg, Baron Acton (1834-1902), are among Acton's papers in Cambridge University Library (MS Add. 4857, f. 37r). Late-seventeenth-century notes on some of Harington's works were also made by William Harris, Master of Winchester School, and are now in the Bodleian (MS Rawl. D. 960).

The original petition by Harrington's sisters, dated 14 February 1661/2, for permission to have access to him in the Tower, after his confinement on 26 November 1661, is in the National Archives, Kew (SP 29/50/48).

Peter Beal