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The Commonwealth of Oceana

James Harrington


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Description

The Commonwealth of Oceana, published 1656, is a composition of political philosophy written by the English politician and essayist, James Harrington (1611–1677). It is an exposition on an ideal constitution, designed to allow for the existence of a utopian republic.

This book has 264 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1656.

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Excerpt from 'The Commonwealth of Oceana'

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.

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