James Harrington

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James Harrington. Oil painting by an unknown artist (around 1635)

James Harrington (born January 3, 1611 in Upton , Northamptonshire , † September 11, 1677 in Westminster ) was an English philosopher . In some sources January 7, 1611 is given as the date of birth.

Harrington's main work The Commonwealth of Oceana appeared in 1656 in the short non-monarchical period between the execution of the English king Charles I and the restoration by his son Charles II. The work was dedicated to the autocratic ruling lord protector Oliver Cromwell and represented an attempt to break the existing constitutional vacuum to be filled in with the model of an ideal republic .

In the form of a total of thirty constitutional laws (orders) , Harrington drafted a republic theory that was characterized by the principle of representation , office rotation and a two-chamber system with a strict separation of advice and decision-making. Starting based on the observation that political power to economic power - a principle that later under the motto "power follows property" (, power follows property , targeted Harrington a balanced distribution of the English landed property by changes in inheritance law and - ') has been known in agricultural legislation.

In England itself, Harrington's ideas influenced the political culture of the liberal Whigs . Harrington's political theory, with its concept of an elected bicameral parliament, had its greatest impact on the constitutions of the English owner colonies in North America in the 17th century and finally on the American Revolution and the constitution of the United States in the 18th century .

Historical framework

The period between James Harrington's birth in 1611 and his death in 1677 marked a period of profound upheaval for England. The absolutist claim to power of Jacob I and his son Karl I had provoked a conflict with the English Parliament , which in 1642 led to the English Revolution (First and Second English Civil War ). Due to the military successes of the New Model Army under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell , the conflict was finally decided in favor of Parliament in 1648. Charles I was sentenced to death by parliament and beheaded on January 30, 1649. For a brief moment it looked as if the power struggle between the monarchy and parliament, which was one of the reasons for the revolution, would culminate permanently in a republic. From 1653, however, Cromwell ruled as " Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland" and called parliaments at his will. He had refused the royal title offered to him, but at the same time he was endowed with dictatorial power. The reign of his son Richard , who he chose as his successor , was only a short episode. Six months after the death of Oliver Cromwell in September 1658, the protectorate rule was overthrown and a little later the monarchy was restored under Charles II , the son of the executed king. With the return of Charles II from exile in the Netherlands in May 1660, the only non-monarchical period in the history of England to date came to an end after eleven years.

James Harrington (1611–1677)

Preliminary remark on the sources

Harrington portrait by Wenceslaus Hollar from 1658. The family coat of arms is incorporated in the upper left, Harrington's monogram is incorporated in the upper right.

Little reliable information is available about Harrington's living conditions. His biographer John Toland (1670–1722), who also got the first edition of the work, had letters and manuscripts from the estate kept by Harrington's half-sister Dorothy Bellingham. These papers are now considered lost. The reconstruction of the living conditions is therefore based on four sources: the memories of Thomas Herbert (1606–1682), who, like Harrington, was chamberlain to Charles I and who made a report on the time of the king's captivity; a brief outline of the life of the English scholar John Aubrey (1626-1697), a friend of Harrington; a sketch by the English antiquarian and historian Anthony Wood (1632–1695) based on Aubrey's materials; and the detailed biography which John Toland first published in 1700 and which is now available as a reprint. Since Toland is known to extensively rewrite the memoirs of MP Edmund Ludlow (1617–1692) before he published them, great caution is advised in his anecdotal Harrington biography.

The authenticity of the known portraits has been contested by the prominent Harrington researcher JGA Pocock . However, the work of Riklin has provided clarity here. The cause of the confusion is that there were three James Harringtons in the 17th century: the author of the Oceana ; his cousin Sir James Harrington of Kelston (1607–1680), Member of the Parliamentary Commission who condemned Charles I ; and a James Harrington, who taught at Christ Church College, Oxford (1664-1693). Riklin was able to convincingly demonstrate that at least three of the known portraits - the oil painting by an unknown artist from 1635, the engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar , who also engraved the title page of Hobbes ' Leviathan , and an engraving by Michael van der Gucht  - with a high degree of probability are portraits of the philosopher.

Biographical sketch

Origin, studies and educational trip

James Harrington came from a traditional family of the English landed gentry. Its ancestors can be traced back to the 12th century when they got married to property in Exton in the small county of Rutland . At the turn of the 16th to the 17th century in particular, the family had a close relationship with the English royal family. His uncle Sir John Harrington, who was made Baron of Exton in 1603 , taught Elisabeth , the daughter of Jacob I , who later became the wife of the Winter King Frederick V of the Palatinate. His uncle's son was one of the companions of the late Heinrich Friedrich , Prince of Wales .

Harrington was born on January 3, 1611, the eldest son of Sir Sapcote Harrington and Jane, the daughter of Sir William Samwell of Upton , Northamptonshire , on the maternal family estate in Upton. Little more is known of his teenage years than that he and his seven siblings grew up on his father's estate in Rand, Lincolnshire . In 1629 he began studying at Trinity College , Oxford, where he was a student of theologian William Chillingworth , whose influence on Harrington's thinking is difficult to prove. Two years later he left Oxford without a degree - a process not uncommon for the first-born son of an English aristocratic family - and transferred to the Middle Temple School of Law in London . It is not certain whether he studied there. What is remarkable in this context is the fact that Harrington later repeatedly and unusually clearly expressed his aversion to lawyers .

After his father's death in 1632, Harrington left England and began a five-year educational tour of Europe . In the Netherlands he joined the British expeditionary corps for a few months and then went to The Hague at the court of the deposed Winter King Frederick V , not least because of the close ties between his family and his wife Elisabeth . Harrington briefly accompanied Frederick V on his trip to Denmark and then traveled via Flanders to France and from there via Italy to Venice. The last two stations left the most lasting impression on him. Here he read Gianotti and Contarini's writings on the history and constitution of the Republic of Venice with great enthusiasm and finally returned to England via Germany - inspired by Machiavelli's ideas and from now on with great interest in the history of the ancient republics.

Civil war and death of the king

Harrington's circumstances between his return to England and the end of the First English Civil War in 1647 are largely in the dark. The version given by Toland that Harrington accompanied Charles I after the defeat of the royalists in the decisive battle of Naseby in Scotland, is doubted by Pocock. He suspects, however, that Harrington spent the first phase of the civil war on his country estate in Rand.

The execution of King Charles I of England. Detail from a contemporary single-leaf woodcut by Marx Anton Hannas , Augsburg 1649.

From May 1647, Harrington was one of the four noblemen who assisted Charles I as lords of the chamber - together with Thomas Herbert, whose name later appeared several times in the last two years of Charles I's life. However, his apparently close relationship with the king meant that in 1648 he was removed from the king's surroundings either while Charles was imprisoned in Hurst Castle or immediately before his transfer to Windsor Castle . Both Aubrey and Wood and Toland - who may follow the other two in his portrayal - report that Harrington accompanied Charles I on his way to the scaffold ; but Herbert, who was present as an eyewitness to the execution of the king, does not mention Harrington in his account of the events.

Aubrey reports that Harrington personally confided in him that the king's death had plunged him into severe melancholy . Pocock suspects that this circumstance is possibly a key to the deeper motivation of Harrington to write the Oceana . This is, so to speak, the coming to terms with the fate of Charles I and the related question of why the monarchy in England had to take this development. What is certain is that after the execution of Charles, Harrington first tried to translate the Aeneid of Virgil until his friend, the MP Henry Neville (1620-1694), convinced him to turn to politics. While Aubrey believes that Harrington Neville at the Office of the Oceana was suggested that Harrington was even in a traditional in Toland interrogation record of his later detention, a group of "sober men" ( "sober men") got him to the drafting of the Work requested. Today's research follows the reconstruction of Pocock, who in the "sober men" makes up a group of Cromwell's officers who turned to Harrington in their dissatisfaction with the concentration of power of the Lord Protector.

Publication of the Oceana

In the preface to Oceana , Harrington reports that it took him two years to write his main work. During the creation of the work, he never claims to have seen even half of the manuscript together (Riklin mockingly remarks: "It is not difficult for the reader to believe this"), as he apparently kept the texts in separate locations for fear of censorship . However, this measure did not lead to success, because the manuscript was confiscated shortly after it was handed over to three different printers. According to Toland - who is the sole source of information for this episode - Harrington was only able to get his text clear through the personal intervention of Cromwell's daughter. Cromwell himself is said to have said on this occasion what he had conquered with the sword, he would not let himself be taken by a small paper bullet ( "what he got by the Sword he would not quit for a little paper shot" ).

Between September and November 1656, The Commonwealth of Oceana appeared in two editions in quick succession by L. Chapman and D. Pakeman in London. Like his direct predecessors Thomas More ( Utopia , 1516) and Francis Bacon ( The New Atlantis , 1627), Harrington designed the model of an ideal social system in the Oceana , resorting to the art of literary alienation . The people and places appearing in the Oceana under fantasy names established a clearly recognizable contemporary reference to England in the mid-1650s. At Harrington, Cromwell is called “Olphaus Megelator” (generous donor of light), “Oceana” stands for England , “Emporium” for London and “Leviathan” for Hobbes . Although it can be assigned to the form of the utopias , Harrington's model of the republic was understood as a concrete constitutional proposal for Cromwell's England. The fictional served Harrington alone to show the thinkable - or, as writes Pocock:

"Oceana is not a utopia so much as an occasione , a moment of revolutionary opportunity at which old historical forms have destroyed themselves and there is a chance to construct new forms immune from the contingencies of history (known as fortuna )".

The publication of the Oceana drew Harrington's attention and criticism. So he spent the next three and a half years almost exclusively defending and supplementing his work. Between 1656 and 1661 he published seventeen political writings alone, including The Prerogative of Popular Government (1658), The Art of Lawgiving (1659), The Rota or a Model of a Free State (1660) and A System of Politics (written in 1661) , Published posthumously by Toland in 1700).

Humble Petition and Rota Club

Harrington's ideas were discussed particularly intensely in the brief period between the death of Oliver Cromwell in September 1658 and the return of Charles II two years later. In the parliament convened by Cromwell's son Richard in January 1659, a group of around fifty Republican - or at least against the Protectorate - sat members, including Harrington's friend Henry Neville , who had gathered a small group of dedicated Harrington supporters around him. As an increasingly clear front against Richard, who was far weaker than his father, began to emerge, Harrington saw his chance come. In May he published several pamphlets in which he declared that the time was now ripe for the concrete implementation of the ideas he had developed in Oceana . On July 6, 1659, Neville's group finally introduced the Humble Petition of Diverse Well Affected Persons, a constitutional concept based on Harrington's ideas. However, this paper - a distillate from the Oceana  - was as unsuccessful as any other pamphlet that Harrington published in quick succession later in the year. Pocock sees the reason for the failure of the loosely connected Republican parliamentary group in their inability to agree on an alternative to the second chamber, the House of Lords , which was abolished in 1649 . Harrington's idea of ​​a second chamber that was no longer composed in a baristocratic manner, but elected and subject to the principle of rotation , could not prevail.

In October 1659 the Harringtonians founded the so-called Rota , a coffee house group that met every evening in Miles's coffee-house at New Palace Yard in Westminster and debated politics and the ideal form of the state until late at night. In addition to Harrington and his two friends Neville and Aubrey, a number of some high-ranking personalities from politics and business took part in the discussions. Aubrey reports that the coffeehouse was crammed to the bursting with guests because so many onlookers were drawn to the heated debates. The discussions themselves followed a fixed pattern each time: Harrington and the other more prominent participants in the group sat at a large oval table in the middle of the room and discussed a thesis presented at the beginning of the evening. At the end of each meeting, the results of this discussion were then put to a vote among the rest of the people present. This procedure corresponded to the basic idea worked out by Harrington in the Oceana of a division of advice among experts and decision-making by the general public.

With the beginning of the restoration , all speculations about the Harrington Republic model became obsolete, and so the Rota Club disappeared from the scene again. The coffee house debates were reflected in Harrington's work The Rota or a Model of a Free State or Equal Commonwealth , which he published in London in 1660.

In the dungeon

On December 28, 1661, Harrington was arrested on the orders of Charles II and taken to the Tower for questioning. The circumstances that led to his arrest remain unclear to this day and have given researchers much speculation. While Toland names an intrigue spun by courtiers around William Poultney as the cause, Pocock suspects that Harrington's arrest is related to the so-called Derwentwater Plot . Grimble, on the other hand, believes Harrington was wrongly accused of being implicated in the Republican plot over Colonel Salmon, backed up by the involvement of close friends of Harrington such as John Wildman . The possibility of confusion with Harrington's cousin Sir James Harrington of Kelston, who was involved in the conviction of Charles I , would also be conceivable .

Whatever the exact reason for Harrington's imprisonment, it is clear that Harrington suffered severe physical and mental damage during his imprisonment, which he spent first in the Tower in London, then on Drake's Island off Plymouth and finally in Plymouth itself. His scurvy disease, which he contracted on Drake's Island, was treated by a doctor in Plymouth with a mixture of guaiacum (a panacea made from the resin of the guaiac tree) and coffee, which Harrington apparently found in ingested large amounts and had a fatal effect on his health.

"Transform'd of Body and Mind"

When Harrington was finally released from prison at the instigation of his sisters in late 1662, he was a broken man. The inhumane conditions of detention, combined with the ordeal he had undergone on the advice of the quack in Plymouth, had left deep marks. What Toland euphemistically described as a "transform'd of body and mind" was a severe cognitive disorder that manifested itself in Harrington's obsession with exhaling flies and bees .

Harrington spent the next few years in Westminster . Toland mockingly comments on his late marriage to his childhood friend, the daughter of Sir Marmaduke Dorrel from Buckinghamshire , that she might have made a better match at other times (“and might have made a more seasonable match than at this time”). Apparently she hadn't paid much attention to Harrington in her youth and was now grateful to be able to live a financially secure retirement.

Before his death, Harrington suffered progressively from gout , lost memory and speech, and was paralyzed towards the end. He died on September 11, 1677 and was buried south of the altar of St. Margaret's Church in London next to Sir Walter Raleigh . The inscription on his tombstone concluded with the slogan: "Nec virtus, nec animi dotes [...] corruptione eximere queant corpus" ("Neither virtue nor the gifts of the spirit [...] can protect the body from decay"). Riklin's research has shown that this black marble plate is now damaged and forgotten by the general public under the floor of the church organ.

Harrington's political philosophy

The Commonwealth of Oceana


Title copper of the first edition (London 1737)

The Commonwealth of Oceana is Harrington's only writing that is still widely recognized today. Harrington's ambition in drafting it was nothing less than to "design the first perfect republic in human history" (Riklin). The republic model developed in the Oceana was based on an intensive examination of English and ancient history and the basic assumption derived from it that there were exactly two errors from which the English state suffered: the lack of balance in the distribution of property (balance of property) and the unsatisfactory functioning of the parliamentary system. The alternative proposed by Harrington was a mixed constitution , with power in the state with the male citizens with middle and larger property. Against the background of the hypothesis that political power is based on economic power (a principle postulated by Harrington, which later became known under the motto "power follows property" ), Harrington sought an even distribution of land in order to gradually achieve a balance of political power . In the form of a total of thirty ordinances (orders) , he submitted a written draft constitution that covered all areas of political life, from the structure of the state to the basic rights and obligations of citizens. Riklin calls Harrington's ideal republic depicted in these constitutional laws a "two-part, property-owned aristodemocracy".

Rule of Law: "Empire of Laws"

The basis of the Harrington Republic was the principle of rule of law, which he summarized in the catchy formula:

government [...] is the empire of laws and not of men. (161)
To rule is to rule by law and not by people.

Based on the example of ancient leaders such as Solon or Lykurg , Harrington assumed that the ideal state is the one that gets by with as few laws as possible. As a consequence, he limited the legislation of the Oceana to thirty so-called orders - a term with which, according to Riklin , he linked to the Ordini Italian Renaissance republics. Following Macchiavelli and Gianotti , Harrington was convinced that good laws and regulations could positively influence people's behavior. This idea culminated in the saying:

give us good orders, and they will make us good men (205)
Give us good laws and they will make us good people.

Accordingly, a good two thirds of the Oceana is devoted to the presentation, explanation and discussion of the thirty constitutional laws. Riklin rates this draft constitution as “a milestone in the history of ideas and the constitution” and at the same time refers to the astonishing fact that Harrington's ideas made a “significant contribution to the origins of the written constitution”, but surprisingly in his still today Customary law, the common law , obligated home country had the least effect.

"Balance of property"

The connection between political and economic power had been discussed in England before Harrington's Oceana was published . In the debate between 1647 and 1649 about the Democratic draft constitution, the Agreement of the People , which never came into force, Colonel of the Parliamentary Army and Member of the House of Commons, Henry Ireton , spoke out against universal male suffrage because, in his opinion, only those people had a lasting interest in the future of the Kingdom who owned private property. While Ireton merely explained why only owners should have access to political power, Harrington postulated around a decade later that the concrete exercise of political power was inseparably linked to private property.

Harrington's central statement on the relationship between political and economic power reads:

such [...] as is the proportion or balance of dominion or property in land, such is the nature of the empire. (163)
Political power in a state is based on the proportion or balance between economic power and property.

On the basis of this premise, Harrington developed a classification scheme for models of government: If a single person owns all or at least most of the property of a state, then the form of government is an absolute monarchy. If a smaller group, such as the nobility, owned more land than the rest of the people, it would be a mixed monarchy. If, on the other hand, property is distributed in such a way that neither an individual nor a small group is predominant, then the form of government is a republic (commonwealth) (163–164). Based on the observation that both the civil war in England under Charles I and that in the Roman Empire at the time of Caesar had been preceded by shifts in property ownership, Harrington believed that the balance of property he demanded was the remedy for the current one To have found the misery of the English state.

It was far from Harrington, however, to restore the desired balance in political power through an abrupt redistribution of landed property. Rather, its solution consisted of a gradual redistribution over several decades through changes in inheritance law and agricultural legislation. An upper limit for the earning value of the lands of each individual owner was intended to prevent the property from becoming agglomerated. At the same time, Harrington - who, as the eldest son, had benefited from the preference of the firstborn since the days of the Norman Conquest in England - proposed an equal distribution of property among all descendants, whereby an upper limit should again apply to the earnings value of each individual inheritance (231 ). The dismemberment of all land holdings and the subsequent redistribution in equal parts to all citizens, or even the complete transformation of England into a communist agricultural republic of Christian character, as proposed by the radical splinter group of the Diggers ("Buddler"), called for by the movement of the Levellers ("equalizers ") around Gerrard Winstanley was still sought towards the end of the 1640s, Harrington declined as a supporter of the achievement principle. Smith sums up Harrington's position on property as follows: “Through his socialist distribution of property, he hoped to facilitate republican institutions. He hoped to be able to prevent the extreme form of democracy by leaving political power in the hands of the part of the community that was more stable through agriculture. "

Bicameral system; Separation of advice and decision

A central component of the Harrington Republic model was the two-chamber system with a strict separation of advice and decision-making. Harrington believed in the general ability of people to put their private benefit behind the common good , but with the bicameral parliament he tried to institutionalize this common good. He figured the underlying idea in what is known as the cake parable , which is about the question of how two girls can share a cake fairly among themselves:

'Divide', says one unto the other, 'and I will choose; or let me divide and you shall choose. ' If this be but once agreed upon, it is enough; for the divident dividing unequally loses, in regard that the other takes the better half; wherefore she divides equally, and so both have right. (172)
'Share', says one girl to the other, 'and I will choose; or let me share and you shall choose. ' Once one agrees on this procedure, this is sufficient; if the dividing girl divides unequally, she loses because the other takes the better half; but if it divides in equal halves, both come to their own.

On the basis of the idea that this principle could be applied to politics ( dividing and choosing, in the language of the commonwealth, is debating and resolving , 174), Harrington proposed a two-part system in which the first chamber was based on deliberation limited, while the second chamber - without further advice - decides. Members of the first chamber, the Senate, should be chosen from those who, because of their wisdom, stand out from all others. This natural aristocracy (natural aristocracy) had been scattered by God over all mankind; their task is not to rule over the people, but to advise them ( not to be commanders but councellors of the people , 173). With this concept of the best elected from among the people, Harrington replaced the previous hereditary aristocracy with an educated aristocracy. But if this Senate - so Harrington went on - had any other power than that of deliberation, the republic could only be harmed. While the wisdom of the Senate was to be used in the interest of the community, the interests of a small aristocratic group were not directed towards the benefit of the state, but towards their own advantage. For this reason, the people themselves must hold the power of decision in their hands:

As the wisdom of the commonwealth is in the aristocracy, so the interest of the commonwealth is in the whole body of the people (173)
Just as the wisdom of the state lies with the aristocracy, so the decision in the state lies with the entire people.

Since a simultaneous gathering of all citizens for the purpose of voting in a large country is not conceivable for practical reasons alone, the second chamber, the so-called People's Chamber, like the first, must be based on the principle of representation.

Representation and elections

Harrington's ideal republic, Oceana, is a purely representative system . In order to give each vote an approximately equal weight, Harrington planned a reorganization of England into electoral districts of roughly the same size . He hit one on the decimal system based division of the country in 10,000 municipalities (parishes) , 1000 Hundreds (dog reds) and 50 tribes (tribes) before. Anyone who was both owner and conscript and aged 30 or over should be entitled to vote. According to Harrington's calculation, this resulted in half a million eligible voters - which, by the way , would have meant a strong expansion of active suffrage in England - who in the first electoral stage determine the deputies in direct elections. In a second ballot, these MPs elect their representatives for both houses of parliament. Finally, the executive body, the so-called magistrate, is elected from among the ranks of the Senate. Due to a strict rotation principle, the term of office is limited to one year (community and people's chamber members) to three years (senate and magistrate members) and one third of the senate and magistrate members are replaced annually. In this way, the entire people are in constant rotation, which, according to Harrington, ensures a fair participation of every active citizen in politics. A pause before re-election was intended to prevent a class of professional politicians from emerging.

The elections themselves were to follow a complicated system that Harrington had modeled on the Venetian model and which he explained in more detail in The Manner and Use of the Ballot .

Seat and election regulations in the Senate

A strategist, B chief speaker, C keeper of seals, D / E treasurer, F middle urn, G / H benches of senators, I seats of censors, K censors, L outer urns, M secretaries, N urns for yes and no votes , O wool sack seats, P tribune of the cavalry, Q tribune of the infantry, R judges, S senators in the aisle to the draw, T senators at the outer urn, V senator on the way to the middle urn, W senator at the middle urn, X senators after drawing lots, Y bowl for silver balls

Seat and election regulations in the Senate

a Senator with drawn silver ball, b bowl for silver balls, c Senator with drawn gold ball (elector), d waiting bench for electors, e waiting electors, f pages, g two-chamber urns for yes and no votes, h urn for no votes, i ballot box for yes votes

Illustration from: The Manner and Use of the Ballot . Legend according to Riklin, pp. 197-198

The election process (ballot) ran - simplistically shown - in two phases: In the first phase of eligible voters have been drawn so-called "nominators" by the drawing of balls of the circle. Lots were taken over from ancient Greece, where it was considered particularly democratic. Ultimately, the uncertainty associated with the process was intended to ensure that no collusion took place and that no political groups were formed. The task of the nominators determined in this way was to propose the later candidates, who were then determined in a second phase by secret ballot box voting with an absolute majority. The process itself, in which silver, gold and linen balls as well as various bowls and urns were used, was extremely complex and was subject to meticulous regulations in its course. It was precisely this complicated electoral order that became a popular target for Harrington's critics in contemporary public debate.

Reception history

The contemporary echo in England

The contemporary response to the Oceana was polyphonic and not infrequently characterized by sharpness or even ridicule. Many of the discussions held in this context related to peripheral problems and are of little interest from today's perspective. The spectrum of topics ranged from the ordination of priests in early Christianity to the Spartan constitution . Harrington's more prominent contemporary critics included Matthew Wren (1629–1672), the son of the eponymous Bishop of Ely. Wren showed that the concept of the balance of power - contrary to what Harrington claims - played a role neither in the works of Aristotle nor in those of Thucydides . With relish, he countered Harrington with reference to his two-chamber concept and based on a quote from Anacharsis , that clever men would advise matters and fools decide them. The polymath Henry Stubbe (1632–1676) criticized the "historical defects" that the Oceana still contained despite Harrington's broad knowledge of ancient history. Marchamont Nedham (1620–1678), editor of the Cromwell government-affiliated journal Mercurius Politicus , complained about the urge to constantly discuss new models of government where there was no need. The Puritan pastor Richard Baxter (1615–1691) took up the frequently voiced argument that the transfer of ancient models to England was completely unsuitable and exacerbated it by saying that Venice, which is brimming with papism and fornication, could least of all as a model for use the English state system. The debate was taken to extremes by the suggestion that Harrington should be shipped to the English Caribbean island of Jamaica so that he could realize his commonwealth there. Only Thomas Hobbes , of whom Harrington's friend John Aubrey claimed that the Oceana was directed against him, remained silent.

Oceana overseas: the owner colonies in North America

The first period during which Harrington's ideas had a concrete influence on political thought in North America occurred during the time of the English Restoration , when the North American colonies of Carolina , New Jersey and Pennsylvania were founded between 1660 and 1680 . These so-called "owner colonies" were given by Charles II to English nobles, with whom he - as in the case of General George Moncks , who had played a key role in the re-establishment of the monarchy, or in the case of William, Earl of Craven , who more than Borrowed £ 50,000 - still had to pay off debt due before 1660.

The first of these owner colonies founded in North America was Carolina , which Charles II lent to eight of his followers from the exile in 1663. After completing the founding phase, the owners passed a constitution in 1670, which became known as the Fundamental Constitutions . The Fundamental Constitutions were characterized by a complicated hierarchy that classified the Carolinas according to the amount of land they owned. The express aim of this regulation was "that the division and cultivation of the land should maintain the balance of forces" in order to avoid the "establishment of a [...] democracy". The Harrington principle of power follows property as the basis for the Fundamental Constitutions is clearly recognizable: the executive power lay solely with the landowners. If a man lost his country, he lost his title too. But other similarities are also noticeable. The Carolinian legislature was in the hands of a bicameral parliament, one of which proposed laws while the other passed them. The constitution expressly stipulated a secret procedure for parliamentary elections. The term ballot , which became more widespread through Harrington's influence, was used for this, while in the colonies of New England the term papers was used. Even the imaginative naming (palatine, landgrave, cazique) is reminiscent of Harrington. The mere objective of preventing the establishment of a democracy was diametrically opposed to Harrington's ideas. The bonds the Fundamental Constitutions took on Harrington are not particularly difficult to explain. Smith points out that three of the eight owners of the colony were directly related to Harrington. William Craven was the commandant of the regiment in which Harrington briefly served during his stay in the Netherlands in 1632; Sir George Carteret , one of the leading royalists of the 1640s, played a prominent role in the investigation into the conspiracy charges against Harrington and George Monk according to Smith on suspicion of adhering to Harrington's ideas. Ultimately, however, the Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas were doomed to failure. After surveys by the settlers, who demanded a larger share of the administration of the colony, they were suspended in 1693 and finally abolished completely around 1700. In 1719 Carolina became a crown colony, with which the first attempt at an approximate realization of Harrington's ideas vanished into thin air.

First draft of the Frame of Government (around 1681). At the bottom of the page is Penn's discussion of the rotation of MPs.

The second colony whose constitution clearly borrowed from Harrington was Pennsylvania . Its founder William Penn had asked Charles II in June 1680 for the granting of land. With the support of the king's brother Jacob , in whose advisory circle Penn had considerable influence, his requests were granted, and so he received a royal charter in February 1681 , which granted him the property rights of an area between New York and Maryland . This charter gave Penn wide leeway not only in the implementation of his religious, but also his political ideas. The constitution for Pennsylvania created by Penn around 1681 with the title Frame of Government calls Smith the "most interesting and most comprehensive of all attempts to realize Oceana in the colonies". The constitution provided for three organs of government: the governor, the council and the parliament. The members of the council were determined by secret ballot and were subject to the principle of rotation. Every year 24 of the 72 council members should resign and be replaced by new elections. Re-election should be possible after a one-year break at the earliest. The right to be elected was tied to the ownership of property, whereby the total property of an individual landowner - in the spirit of Harrington's balance of property  - was capped by a quoted upper limit. Since it is not known whether Penn himself owned a copy of the Oceana , it cannot be conclusively determined whether Harrington's ideas influenced the creator of the Pennsylvania Constitution directly or through the intermediation of third parties. Regardless of this, the similarities between the political ideas of Penn and Harrington emerge so clearly that the role of the Oceana as a model for the Pennsylvania constitution of 1682 cannot be denied. In practice, however, the regulations have not proven themselves. Numerous changes were made soon after the constitution came into force, with most of the regulations borrowed from Harrington being among the first to be deleted from the constitutional text. All attempts made in the 17th century to put Harrington's ideas into practice in the North American colonies had failed.

Adams' Harrington Reception and the US Constitutional Discussion

For the second time, Harrington's influence was felt in North America during the revolution in the 18th century. The most important role in spreading Harrington's ideas was played by the later second President of the United States, John Adams , who was a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778 and who played a decisive role in shaping American independence in those years. In May 1776, the Continental Congress resolved that the Thirteen Colonies should draft new constitutions and asked Adams to draft a recommendation to that end. Adams then wrote Thoughts on Government applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies , in which he designed a model of the republic that was largely based on the Oceana . Adams' constitution was based on the basic idea of ​​a rule of laws ("Empire of Laws") , which was to be ensured by separating the legislature into two chambers, separation of powers , rotation and indirect elections for the occupation of the second chamber. Harrington's name appears as a model for this system in the Thoughts on Government, along with other names.

In September 1779, the Massachusetts MPs commissioned Adams to prepare a draft constitution. Adams deviated from the indirect choice of the second chamber,  but remained true to his system of checks and balances - the mutual control of the constitutional organs. Active and passive voting rights were linked to qualification through ownership. The document concluded with the sentence “to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men”. Adams' draft evidently reminded MPs so strongly of Harrington that in the course of the discussion about the final text they even went so far as to suggest replacing the term “Commonwealth of Massachusetts” with “Commonwealth of Oceana”. However, this idea of ​​renaming Massachusetts to Oceana ultimately did not find a majority. In this context, Smith raises the legitimate question of whether the initiative was actually meant seriously and whether Adams should perhaps be confronted with the accusation that he had written off at Harrington.

Further evidence of Harrington's influence on Adams can be found in his work Defense of the Constitutions of the United States , published in 1787 , in which Adams defended his concept of the American bicameral system against growing attacks from Europe. In a unicameral system, Adams said, the elite of a country who were born to lead would quickly become tyrannical. The great art of legislation is to prevent this through a system of balance between the poor and the rich. In his argument, he resorted to Harrington's idea of ​​a natural aristocracy and thus followed one of the basic assumptions on which Oceana's two-chamber system was based.

Montesquieu, the Whigs and Jaucourts Encyclopédie Articles

The first evidence of the Harrington reception in France becomes tangible at the beginning of the 18th century. John Toland's edition of Harrington's works, published in England in 1700, was immediately noted with interest after its publication and discussed in literary journals such as Les Nouvelles de la République des Lettres . This was repeated when Harrington's works were reissued in England in 1737; in the same year a translation of the Commonwealth of Oceana appeared in France under the title Les Oceana .

Harrington's influence on political thought in France, however, was not solely direct. Probably the most important communicator of Harrington's ideas was Thomas Gordon (1691? –1750), who in England together with John Trenchard (1662–1723) published the Independent Whig series, initially published weekly and later in book form, and published between 1720 and 1723 - again together with Trenchard, but under the common pseudonym of the Roman statesman Cato  - published the famous Cato's Letters , a series of 144 pamphlets. Gordon's writings were among the most important English sources for Montesquieu's first published in 1748 on the philosophy of history and the theory of the state De l'esprit des lois (Eng. On the Spirit of Laws ) . There is much to suggest that Montesquieu became aware of the pamphlets of the liberal Whig politicians and was influenced by them during his stay in England towards the end of the 1720s . However, his judgment of Harrington himself was rather critical. In the XI. He criticizes the book of his Esprit des lois , the chapter on the English constitution, with reference to a remark by Herodotus of the Persian general Megabazos that Harrington had political freedom in England in mind and yet sought it in an imaginary nowhere:

Harrington, dans son Océana, a aussi examiné quel étoit le plus haut point de liberté or the constitution d'un état peut être portée. Mais on peut dire de lui qu'il n'a cherché cette liberté qu'après l'avoir méconnue, et qu'il a bâti Chalcédoine, ayant le rivage de Byzance devant les yeux.
Harrington also examined in his Oceana what could be the height of freedom to which the constitution of a state could be carried. But it can be said of him that he sought this freedom only after he misunderstood it and that he built Chalcedonia while he was facing the coast of Byzantium.

The extent to which this judgment of Montesquieu was received is shown by the entry in the Encyclopédie Diderots , which deals with Harrington. The remarks written by the Chevalier de Jaucourt are housed under the lemma "Rutland" in the 14th volume of the Encyclopédie, first published in 1765 . Around ten lines of the text relate to Harrington's home region, the county of Rutlandshire in Central England, while the rest of the article, which extends over a total of five columns, contains detailed information about Harrington, the context of the publication and the content of Oceana . As far as the evaluation of the work is concerned, Jaucourt attests to Oceana that it is “extremely renowned in England”, then quotes the passage from the Esprit des lois and finally comes to the conclusion that Harrington is less for his writing style than for “excellence of the substance ”. In view of its widespread use, it can be assumed that the Encyclopédie played a not insignificant role in the reception of Harrington's ideas in France.

Harrington and the French Revolution

The exact influence of Harrington on the politicians and state theorists of the French Revolution is difficult to assess. The attention that the American independence movement drew in France was great. Thus Harrington's ideas can also have reached Europe via the detour of the United States . However, there are also a number of indications that Harrington had a direct influence on political thought in revolutionary France. In 1794, for example, the director of the French National Library published an article in the Moniteur calling for an edition of the Oceana . A year later, his wish was partially fulfilled when a three-volume French-language edition of Harrington's works and a volume of political aphorisms appeared. In his preface, the editor explicitly mentioned the influence Harrington had had on Adams as one of the masterminds of the American Revolution, and admitted that it was precisely this that aroused his curiosity.

Another reason for Harrington's popularity was a passage in the Oceana in which he prophesied the future world domination of France:

If France, Italy and Spain were not all sick, all corrupted together, there would be none of them so, for the sick would not be able to withstand the sound, nor the sound to preserve her health without curing of the sick. The first of these nations (which, if you stay her leisure, will in my mind be France) that recovers the health of ancient prudence shall assuredly govern the world [...] (332)
If France, Italy and Spain weren't all sick and depraved, then neither would they be. Because neither the disease would be able to withstand the healthy, nor the healthy to maintain its condition without curing the disease. The first of these peoples (which, in my opinion - if given leisure - will be French) to find the health of ancient wisdom, will certainly rule the world.

On March 13, 1796, Goupil-Prefeln, member of the council of elders, referred to this passage in a letter to the Moniteur and called on the newspaper readers to read Harrington. Montesquieu , he criticized, had obviously subjected Harrington to an all too careless assessment, because after all, Harrington had influenced Adams, who was one of the founders of American freedom.

The motives for the increased interest in Harrington were obvious. As before in England and North America, the specific question arose about the design of the parliamentary system, the mode of voting and, last but not least, strategies for preventing a concentration of power in the hands of a few. For this reason, attempts have been made again and again to establish a link between the English Revolution and the current situation in France. The translator of the French Harrington edition wrote in his foreword:

Les troubles de la révolution Française ont trop de ressemblance avec ceux de la révolution d'Angleterre, pour que celui qui aime à remonter des effets aux causes, ne svempresse pas d'étudier l'une, pour mieux deviner les suites de l'autre [...]
The events of the French Revolution are too reminiscent of those of the Revolution in England for those who want to trace the effects back to the causes should not try to study the latter in order to better assess the consequences of others [...]

In his Essai sur les causes qui, en 1649, amenèrent en Angleterre l'établissement de la république (English: attempt on the reasons that led to the establishment of the Republic in England in 1649 ), the President of the Council joined the Five Hundred Antoine in his Essai sur les causes qui, en 1649 Boulay de la Meurthe shared this opinion and, in retrospect, referred to the fact that he had already dealt intensively with the English Revolution a few years earlier in order to better understand the events in his own country.

The question of a concrete influence Harrington had on Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès as the most important political theorist of his time is difficult to answer. Like Montesquieu, Sieyès took pride in its originality and revealed little about its sources. After all, his writing Qu'est-ce que le Tiers État? (dt. What is the Third Estate?) it can be seen that he was familiar with the English system of rule. In addition, there are similarities in the way of reasoning and the choice of words in the text, which suggest a Harrington reading. In particular, the division of France into administrative units of approximately the same size, the present-day departments , promoted by Sieyès , strongly reminded his contemporaries of Harrington's idea of ​​a reorganization of the English constituencies. As long as Sieyès' estate, which was handed over to the French National Archives at the end of the 1960s, has not been processed, all attempts to establish a direct link between Harrington and Sieyès remain largely speculative.

Finally, there remains a reference to a document that Liljegren found in the collection of French revolutionary pamphlets in the British Museum in London at the beginning of the 20th century . It is a draft constitution by the French Théodore Lesueur (also: Le Sueur), about whose living conditions almost nothing is known. The document is entitled Idée sur l'espèce de gouvernement populaire and was submitted by Lesueur to the French National Assembly on September 25, 1792. The text itself shows an evident correspondence with the Oceana , as Liljegren can show in a direct comparison. To what extent this attempt at a direct implementation of Harrington's ideas was perceived remains open. There is no record of a reaction by the National Assembly to Reader's proposal.

Fonts (selection)

  • The commonwealth of Oceana (1656)
  • The Prerogative of Popular Government (1658)
  • The Art of Lawgiving (1659)
  • The Rota or a Model of a Free State or equal Commonwealth (1660)
  • A System of Politics (written 1661, published posthumously by John Toland in 1700 )


Text output

  • The political works of James Harrington , edited with an introduction by JGA Pocock , Cambridge [u. a.] 1977, ISBN 0-521-21161-1 - Edition of Harrington's Political Writings. Excerpts from it are available as The commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics in a new edition Cambridge 1992 ( ISBN 0-521-41189-0 ).
  • James Harrington's Oceana , edited with notes by Sten Bodvar Liljegren, Lund / Heidelberg 1924 - so far only critical edition of Oceana .


  • Louis de Jaucourt : Article “Rutland”, in: Encyclopédie , Volume 14: Reggio – Semyda (December 1765), pp. 446 , 447 and 448 .
  • Thomas Herbert: Memoirs of the Two last Years of the Reign of that unparallell'd Prince, of ever Blessed Memory, King Charles I , London 1702.
  • John Toland : Exact Account of the life of James Harrington , annotated reprint of the 3rd edition from 1747 (text identical to the first edition London 1700), in: Luc Borot (ed.): James Harrington and the notion of Commonwealth: with a critical edition of John Toland's Life…, Montpellier 1998, ISBN 2-84269-238-1 , pp. 23-80.
  • John Aubrey: Brief lives , New edition by Richard Barber, Woodbridge [u. a.] 2004, ISBN 1-84383-112-0 , pp. 127-130.
  • Anthony a Wood: Athenæ Oxonienses: An exact history of all the writers and bishops who have had their education in the university of Oxford (1813–1820) , edited by Philip Bliss, Reprografischer Reprint of the London edition 1815–, Volume 3 (1817) , Hildesheim 1969, pp. 1115-1126.
  • Richard Baxter : A holy commonwealth. Or, political aphorisms, opening the true principles of government , London 1659
  • Matthew Wren : Considerations upon Mr Harrington's Commonwealth of Oceana, restrained to the first part of the Preliminaries , London 1657


  • Rachel Hammersley: J ames Harrington. An Intellectual Biography , Oxford: Oxford University Press 2019, ISBN 978-0-19-880985-2 .
  • Christian Dahlke: The movement of the heart and blood as body metaphors in James Harrington "Oceana" from 1656. In: Christian Hoffstadt u. a. (Ed.): What moves us? People in the field of tension between mobility and acceleration. Project, Bochum / Freiburg 2010, pp. 197-213, ISBN 978-3-89733-225-6
  • Ulf Christoph Hayduk: Hopeful Politics: The Interregnum Utopias , PhD Thesis, University of Sydney, 2005, available online via the Australian Digital Theses Program - Hayduk presents Winstanley's The Law of Freedom , Harrington's Oceana and Hobbes ' Leviathan, three of which were created during Cromwell's Interregnum Works opposite each other.
  • Alois Riklin: The Republic by James Harrington 1656 , Bern 1999, ISBN 3-7272-9617-8 - written extremely knowledgeable and at the same time understandable, the handy volume by Riklin offers an indispensable introduction to the subject. In the chapters on political philosophy, references to the text edition by Pocock (Cambridge 1977) facilitate orientation for those readers who would also like to study Harrington's work in the English-language original.
  • John Greville Agard Pocock: Introduction , in: The political works of James Harrington, Cambridge [u. a.] 1977, ISBN 0-521-21161-1 , pp. xi – xviii, 1–152 - Pocock's comments on Harrington's reception in England in particular represent an important addition to the works of Smith and Liljegren.
  • Michael Downs: James Harrington . Boston 1977.
  • Günther Nonnenmacher : Theory and history: studies on the political ideas of James Harrington , Meisenheim / Glan 1977, ISBN 3-445-01461-2
  • Sten Bodvar Liljegren: A French draft constitution of 1792: modeled on James Harrington's Oceana , Lund 1932.
  • Hugh Francis Russell Smith: Harrington and his Oceana: a study of a 17th century utopia and its influence in America , Cambridge 1914 - Still fundamental, especially on Harrington's influence on political thought in North America.

Web links

Wikisource: James Harrington  - Sources and full texts (English)
Commons : James Harrington  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica : James Harrington
    Notable Names Database : James Harrington in the Notable Names Database (English)
    Chair for the Early Modern Period of the History Department of the Westphalian Wilhelms University : James Harrington
  2. Thomas Herbert: Memoirs of the Two last Years of the Reign of that unparallell'd Prince, of ever Blessed Memory, King Charles I , London 1702.
  3. John Aubrey: Letter lives. New edition by Richard Barber. Woodbridge 2004, ISBN 1-84383-112-0 , pp. 127-130.
  4. Anthony a Wood: Athenae Oxonienses. An exact history of all the writers and bishops who have had their education in the university of Oxford (1813-1820). Edited by Philip Bliss. Vol. 3. London 1817, Hildesheim 1969, pp. 1115-1126 (repr.).
  5. ^ John Toland : Exact Account of the life of James Harrington. Annotated reprint of the 3rd edition from 1747 (text identical to the first edition London 1700), in: Luc Borot (Ed.): James Harrington and the notion of Commonwealth, with a critical edition of John Toland's Life… Montpellier 1998, ISBN 2-84269 -238-1 , pp. 23-80.
  6. ^ Blair Worden (ed.), Edmund Ludlow: A Voyce from the Watchtower , London 1978.
  7. Lit .: Pocock
  8. Lit .: Riklin
  9. ^ Riklin, pp. 63-70.
  10. Lot .: Pocock, p. 2.
  11. Pocock, p. 3.
  12. Aubrey, p. 127, writes that Harrington himself confided in him that nothing in his life had struck him as deeply as the death of the king (“that his death gave him so great grief that he contracted a disease by it; that never anything did go so near to him ”).
  13. Pocock, pp. 4-5.
  14. Lit .: Pocock, pp. 7–9.
  15. ^ Riklin, p. 75.
  16. Toland, reprinted by Borot, p. 36.
  17. ^ Pocock (ed.), The commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics , Cambridge 1992, p. Xvii.
  18. ^ In Toland's The Oceana Of James Harringten, And His Other Works from 1700 on pages 473-546.
  19. ^ Lit .: Pocock, pp. 103-104.
  20. ^ "The room was every evening full as it could be crammed." Aubrey, p. 128. There is also a list of regular participants in the debates.
  21. Aubrey, p. 129, states 1660 as the year of the arrest.
  22. Toland, reprinted by Borot, p. 58, writes about the courtiers' reaction to Harrington's 1661 A System of Politics : "[...] they did not approve a Scheme that was not likely to further their selfish designs."
  23. ^ Pocock, p. Xi.
  24. Grimble, p. 225.
  25. Allan Howard: The Case of James Harrington, Utopian Writer , in: Fantasy Commentator, 5.4 (1986), pp. 241-244.
  26. Toland, reprinted by Borot, p. 69.
  27. Toland, reprinted by Borot, p. 72.
  28. Toland, reprinted by Borot, p. 73.
  29. ^ Riklin, p. 234.
  30. ^ Riklin, p. 150.
  31. ^ Lit: Riklin, p. 212.
  32. This and all following page references refer to the text edition by Pocock, Cambridge 1977.
  33. ^ Riklin, p. 151.
  34. ^ Riklin, p. 155.
  35. ^ Riklin, p. 220.
  36. ^ According to Ireton, only those who have a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom [...] the persons in whom all land lies and those in corporations in whom all trading lies deserve a right to vote ", quoted in Smith, p. 24.
  37. ^ "By his socialistic division of property he hoped to make republican institutions possible. By keeping power in the hands of the steadier section of the community, which is engaged in agriculture, he hoped to avoid the extreme form of democracy ", Smith, p. 36.
  38. See Smith, p. 45.
  39. ^ Matthew Wren : Considerations upon Mr Harrington's Commonwealth of Oceana, restrained to the first part of the Preliminaries. London 1657.
  40. Richard Baxter : A holy commonwealth. Or, political aphorisms, opening the true principles of government. London 1659
  41. ↑ On this and the following cf. Smith, pp. 113-121.
  42. On the development of the English colonies in North America after 1660 cf. Hermann Wellenreuther: decline and rise. History of North America from the beginning of settlement to the end of the 17th century , Hamburg 2000, Chapter X.3.
  43. Quoted from Wellenreuther, Niedergang und Aufstieg , p. 502.
  44. ^ Smith, pp. 162-163.
  45. ^ Smith, p. 160.
  46. ^ "The most interesting and complete of all the attempts to introduce Oceana in the colonies," Smith, p. 163.
  47. ^ Smith, p. 194.
  48. September 1700, pp. 243-263. On this and on the following, see Liljegren, A French draft constitution , passim.
  49. ^ Lit .: Jaucourt
  50. "son oceana [...] est extreme célebre [sic] en Angleterre", Jaucourt, p. 446.
  51. ^ "Il manque au style d'Harrington d'être plus facile & plus coulant; mais ce défaut est avantageusement compensé par l'excellence de la matiere [sic] », Jaucourt, p. 448.
  52. “jugé trop légèrement par Montesquieu, mieux apprécié par Adams, l'un des fondateurs de la liberté américaine […]”, quoted in Liljegren, A French draft constitution , p. 34 Note 1.
  53. Quoted from Liljegren, A French draft constitution , p. 39, note 2.
  54. See Liljegren, A French draft constitution , p. 39, note 3.
  55. Liljegren discusses this in detail, A French draft constitution , Chapter 3: "Harrington and the French Revolution II. The Abbé Sieyès".
  56. Liljegren, A French draft constitution , pp. 77-78.
  57. Liljegren, pp. 103-162.
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on January 21, 2006 in this version .