Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Milton Defends the Republic

In Search of the Republic--18

England's  seventeenth-century experiment with republican government failed, but it yielded some innovative writings about the origins and nature of government. Although few, if any, of these writings had a lasting impact on English political thought, many much later influenced the founders of the United States, the greatest of the modern republics.

One of the earliest of these writings was Tenure of Kings and Magistrates by John Milton. Known mostly as a poet who composed Paradise Lost, Milton wrote many polemical and philosophical works. As a Puritan Independent, he supported the Parliament against King Charles I in the English Civil War. He had an uneasy relationship, however, with the Puritan led republic that emerged from that contest. In his Areopagitica (1644), Milton wrote against the censorship imposed by the new regime. In his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), he defended the overthrow and execution of the king. His manuscript was actually seized by the very republican government he supported. It was returned and Milton published it with a dedication to the chief magistrate of the republic, Oliver  Cromwell.

The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates was not only a defense of the revolution, but also an attack on the Presbyterian supporters of the revolution who began to have second thoughts. In this work, Milton introduces a novel theory of the origins of government.

In the years preceding the civil war and during the struggle itself, both the King and his supporters as well as the Parliament and its supporters based their arguments on tradition and what they called "the ancient constitution." Each party accused the others of being innovators.

Milton moved beyond these arguments. In his opening passages, he condemned those who appealed to tradition:

"If men within themselves would be govern'd by reason, and not generally give up thir understanding to a double tyrannie, of Custom from without, and blind affections within, they would discerne better, what it is to favour and uphold the Tyrant of a Nation."

He appealed to reason over custom and the passionate attachment to the existing constitution.

Instead, he based his position on the pre-political state of nature:


"No man who knows ought, can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were borne free, being the image and resemblance of God himself, and were by privilege above all the creatures, born to command and not to obey: and that they liv'd so."

Only after the fall of man in Eden did man discover the need for organized society:


"They agreed by common league to bind each other from mutual injury, and joyntly to defend themselves against any that gave disturbance or opposition to such agreement. Hence came Citties, Townes and Common-wealths."

Because societies needed some authority to enforce order, they turned to those who possessed the qualities needed to insure justice. They gave up their natural right to private justice to magistrates:



"This autoritie and power of self-defence and preservation being originally and naturally in every one of them, and unitedly in them all, for ease, for order, and least each man should be his own partial Judge, they communicated and deriv'd either to one, whom for the eminence of his wisdom and integritie they chose above the rest, or to more then one whom they thought of equal deserving: the first was call'd a King; the other Magistrates."

Not willing to subject themselves to arbitrary rule, the people restricted the kings exercise of authority.
They desired the classical republican idea of  "rule by law, not by men."

"Then did they who now by tryal had found the danger and inconveniences of committing arbitrary power to any, invent Laws either fram'd, or consented to by all, that should confine and limit the autority of whom they chose to govern them: that so man, of whose failing they had proof, might no more rule over them, but law and reason abstracted as much as might be from personal errors and frailties"


Consequently, powers given to the King were given only in trust and remain fundamentally in the hands of the people. The attempt to attach to Kings such titles as Lord or Sovereign amounted only to arrogance and flattery:

"It being thus manifest that the power of Kings and Magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferr'd and committed to them in trust from the People, to the Common good of them all, in whom the power yet remaines fundamentally, and cannot be tak'n from them, without a violation of thir natural birthright, and seeing that from hence Aristotle and the best of Political writers have defin'd a King, him who governs to the good and profit of his People, and not for his own ends, it follows from necessary causes, that the Titles of Sov'ran Lord, natural Lord, and the like, are either arrogancies, or flatteries."

When a king rules in the interest of himself and not the interest of the people, he is nothing less than a tyrant, unfit to serve as a ruler over free men.

Milton first appealed to the Bible to justify his argument. He qualified Paul's injunctions to obey the "powers that be." Milton argued that Paul's writing only applied to governments that fulfilled the biblical mandate to be a rewarder  of the good and a terror to evil. When a government ceased to fulfill this God ordained role and instead became a terror to the good, men have the right to overthrow it.

In addition,  Milton appealed to the classical examples of the Greeks and Romans to defend the overthrow of tyrants:


"The Greeks and Romans, as thir prime Authors witness, held it not onely lawfull, but a glorious and Heroic deed, rewarded publicly with Statues and Garlands, to kill an infamous Tyrant at any time without tryal: and but reason, that he who trod down all Law, should not be voutsaf'd the benefit of Law."

So with the examples of both Biblical and secular history, Milton defended the actions of the victors in the English Civil War.

Later, as the English deliberated about ending the republic and restoring the monarchy, the nearly blind Milton wrote another piece warning against it and advocating his ideal republic.





John Milton


2 comments:

CW said...

This is quite interesting. As someone who’s not that great of a reader (especially on history and philosophy), I appreciate having someone else do the work for me (I’ve read 1 & 18 so far). One thing is clear – that the struggle for people to live in societies and yet remain free from tyranny is both universal and constant, as is the struggle to find the perfect gov’t that makes it all possible. There’s no such thing. The struggle will always exist. This is what I think most folks have trouble accepting.

V.L.Ewell said...

Thanks for stopping by. I earned a couple of degrees in American history, yet never until now (30years later)bothered to read some of the writers that influenced our founders.
Your observation about living in society and yet remaining free from tyranny gets right to the point. That's one theme I am trying to unfold--government for the common good that also preserves the liberty of the people.