James Harington (1611-77) was a political philosopher. He was born in Northampton of an ancient family and educated at Trinity College, Oxford, where he took no degree. He subsequently travelled on the Continent and several countries of Europe, making a particular study of their forms of government. As a result, he became a convinced Republican, though he maintained a deep personal affection and respect for Charles I. During the Civil War, he attended Charles I in his captivity (1647–8), and a tradition (through John Aubrey and Anthony Wood) was established that his deep personal devotion to the monarch plunged him into years of profound melancholy on his execution. His views did not favourably impress Oliver Cromwell, lord protector (1653–58) during the Commonwealth.
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. This work was an exposition of an ideal constitution, a utopia, designed to facilitate the development of the English republic It is 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 aim of this work was to show how to bring about a return to “Ancient Prudence” in the modern world.
Harrington also wrote several tracts in defence of this work, and other political works include The Prerogative of Popular Government, 1657–8; The Art of Law-Giving, 1659; Aphorisms Political,1659 expounding his concepts including republicanism, the ballot, rotation of officers, and indirect election.
In 1659 he founded the Rota, a coffee-house academy that met for political discussion, the first of its kind in England. In 1661 he was arrested and imprisoned on a charge of treason, defended himself ably, and was later released, but by this time his health was in decline, and little is known of the remaining years of his life.
Harrington has never been considered a great stylist (David Hume described his prose as ‘altogether stiff and pedantic’ but he had many admirers, including William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge, and his shrewd historical analysis and political projections have increasingly attracted attention.