James Harris (grammarian)

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James Harris (Circle of Arthur Pond)
James Harris, portrait attributed to Frances Reynolds, c. 1777

James Harris, FRS (24 July 1709 – 22 December 1780) was an English politician and grammarian. He was the author of Hermes, a philosophical inquiry concerning universal grammar (1751).

Life and works[edit]

He was born at Salisbury and educated at the grammar school in the Close at Salisbury, and at Wadham College, Oxford. On leaving the university he was entered at Lincoln's Inn as a student of law, though not intended for the bar. The death of his father in 1733 placed him in possession of an independent fortune and of the house in Salisbury's Cathedral Close.

On his mother's side, Harris was the nephew of the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), the philosopher and famous author of Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711). Many influences of the uncle are to be found in the philosophical works of the nephew.

He became a county magistrate, and was Member of Parliament for Christchurch from 1761 until his death, and was Comptroller to the Queen from 1774 to 1780. He held political office under George Grenville, retiring with him in 1765. The decided bent of his mind had always been towards the Greek and Latin classics; and to the study of these, especially of Aristotle, he applied himself with unremitting assiduity during a period of fourteen or fifteen years.

He published in 1744 Three Treatises—on art; on music, painting and poetry; and on happiness. In 1751 appeared the work by which he became best known, Hermes, a philosophical inquiry concerning universal grammar. He also published Philosophical Arrangements and Philological Inquiries. Harris was a great lover of music and a friend of Handel and directed concerts and music festivals at Salisbury for nearly fifty years. He adapted the words for a selection from Italian and German composers (subsequently published by the cathedral organist, James Corfe) and wrote a number of Pastorals (pastiches of various - mostly Italian - works), one of which was produced by David Garrick at Drury Lane under the title The Spring. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1763.[1]

Harris was a correspondent of fellow classicist Lord Monboddo, who disclosed in a 1772 letter[2] to Harris the possible first glimmerings of pre-evolutionary thought. Samuel Johnson found Harris uncongenial, saying he was "a sound, solid scholar," but "a prig" and "a coxcomb" who "did not understand his own system" (in Hermes). Not so the music historian Charles Burney, who esteemed him highly as a writer on music. Harris, his wife and daughter attended a high-powered domestic concert at Burney's house in May 1775, of which a vivid description by the 22-year-old Frances (Fanny) Burney survives: "I had the satisfaction to sit next to Mr. Harris, who is very chearful (sic) and communicative, and his conversation instructive and agreeable." His daughter Louisa ("a modest, reserved, and sensible girl") was asked to sing, and Harris accompanied her.[3]

Harris married Elizabeth, daughter of John Clarke of Sandford, Somerset, in 1745. Harris's works were collected and published in 1801, by his son, the first earl of Malmesbury, who prefixed a brief biography. His papers are held by the Hampshire Record Office. The informative and graphic letters from his mother over the 1763-80 period have also survived. He was buried in the north aisle of Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire.[4]


 Stephen, Leslie; Lee, Sidney, eds. (1891). "Harris, James (1709-1780)". Dictionary of National Biography. 25. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harris, James". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.


  1. ^ "Fellows details". Royal Society. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  2. ^ Letter from Lord Monboddo to James Harris, 31 December 1772; reprinted by William Knight 1900 ISBN 1-85506-207-0
  3. ^ The Early Diary of Frances Burney, 1768-1778, edited by Annie Raine Ellis, Vol. II, pp. 56-60 (London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., [1889] 1913).
  4. ^ [1][dead link]

Further reading[edit]

  • Music and Theatre in Handel's World: The Family Papers of James Harris 1732–1780, by Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill, Oxford University Press, US (29 March 2002)
  • The Sociable Humanist: The Life and Works of James Harris, 1709–1780, by Clive T. Probyn. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991
  • The Works of James Harris, Esq. (2 vols). London: F. Wingrave, 1801 (facsimile edition, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2003)

External links[edit]

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Robinson
John Mordaunt
Member of Parliament for Christchurch
1761 – 1781
With: Hon. Thomas Robinson 1761–1770
James Harris (junior) 1770–1774
Thomas Villiers Hyde 1774–1780
Sir James Harris from 1780
Succeeded by
Sir John Frederick, Bt
Sir James Harris