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Mammon's Music: Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton

Mammon's Music: Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton

by Blair Hoxby

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The commercial revolution of the seventeenth century deeply changed English culture. In this ambitious book, Blair Hoxby explores what that economic transformation meant to the century’s greatest poet, John Milton, and to the broader literary tradition in which he worked. Hoxby places Milton’s work—as well as the writings of contemporary reformers


The commercial revolution of the seventeenth century deeply changed English culture. In this ambitious book, Blair Hoxby explores what that economic transformation meant to the century’s greatest poet, John Milton, and to the broader literary tradition in which he worked. Hoxby places Milton’s work—as well as the writings of contemporary reformers like the Levellers, poets like John Dryden, and political economists like Sir William Petty—within the framework of England’s economic history between 1601 and 1724. Literary history swerved in this period, Hoxby demonstrates, as a burgeoning economic discourse pressed authors to reimagine ideas about self, community, and empire. Hoxby shows that, contrary to commonly held views, Milton was a sophisticated economic thinker. Close readings of Milton’s prose and verse reveal the importance of economic ideas in a wide range of his most famous writings, from Areopagitica to Samson Agonistes to Paradise Lost.

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Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Blair Hoxby
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09378-0

Chapter One

The Trade of Truth Advanced

* * *

It is no accident of history that a monopoly grant to a select group of printers elicited what may be the greatest apology for human liberty in the English language, Milton's Areopagitica (November 1644). While Milton's editors and critics have ably set his pamphlet in the context of the other tracts on freedom of speech and liberty of conscience that arose from the church government and licensing controversy of the 1640s, they have paid limited attention to Milton's knowledge of antimonopoly case law, to his use of contemporary arguments in favor of free trade, or to the expository burden of the commercial imagery in his tract. That neglect has not only hindered our ability to chart the progress of Milton's economic thought between A Maske (1634) and his participation in the trade negotiations of the Commonwealth (1649-53); it has prevented us from fully understanding the very pleadings for expanded liberties amid which Areopagitica is usually situated. For, as we shall see, Milton's pamphlet is the crowning example of a tradition of legal commentary whose only concept of liberty was freedom from monopoly.

Milton was already thinking of intellectual exchange in terms of trade by 1642, when he published The Reason of Church Government. Recalling the parable of the talents, he reminded readers of their duty to improve the gifts entrusted to them. They must determine how best to "dispose and employ those summes of knowledge and illumination, which God hath sent [them] into this world to trade with," striving to bear themselves "uprightly" in their "spiritual factory" and to promote a "heavenly traffick" (CPW 1:801-02). Yet "having receiv'd amongst [their] allotted parcels certain pretious truths of such an orient lustre as no diamond can equall," they might find themselves kept from the market by powerful men who have an interest in suppressing what they have to sell. For "the great Marchants of this world fearing that this cours would soon discover, and disgrace the fals glitter of their deceitfull wares wherewith they abuse the people, like poor Indians with beads and glasses, practize by all meanes how they may suppresse the venting of such rarities" (CPW 1:801-02).

It is little wonder, then, that in responding to the Long Parliament's Licensing Order of June 14, 1643, Milton should again think of intellectual exchange in terms of trade. For the order used a grant of exclusive privileges to a select group of master printers to align the economic interest of the Stationers' Company with Parliament's aim of controlling the press: it erected an economic monopoly and imposed an intellectual restriction in a single measure. The Stationers themselves were granted rights of search and seizure so that in jealously guarding their monopoly against interloping printers and booksellers they might suppress unsanctioned printing. Milton felt the weight of their authority in August 1644, when they pursued him for the unlicensed publication of his divorce tracts. In Areopagitica, Milton responded not just with a vindication of liberty in the face of oppression but with a model of intellectual exchange that, relying on the theories and arguments of free trade advocates, contended that men could best generate truth when they were left free to exercise their industry and employ their skill in producing, venting, and purchasing ideas in an open market. In short, he advanced a new ideal of the way the public sphere should operate.

In this chapter, we shall also see that if free speech pamphlets like Areopagitica drew on the arguments of free trade advocates, they repaid their debt to economic thought. Justice demanded that the economic sphere be made more open and equitable, and free speech pamphlets suggested that one way that goal might be achieved was to make creative use of publicity and the free flow of information. Although Milton's direct involvement with such reforms was more limited than that of some other advocates of free speech like Henry Robinson and William Walwyn, the social resonance of Areopagitica and other free speech tracts in the economic realm is itself suggestive of how related some contemporaries thought the logic of economic and intellectual exchange really were. It is further evidence that Milton and like-minded reformers did not consider the economic analogies in their tracts and sermons mere flowers of rhetoric but vehicles for thinking systematically about the conditions of intellectual exchange that were likeliest to generate truth without bound.

In Areopagitica, Milton was able for the first time to reconcile his humanist and millenarian values with a subset of the century's new economic arguments and thus push beyond the tentative thought experiments of A Maske. Was it Milton's faith in the resulting model of intellectual exchange, I ask in closing, that underwrote his defense of popular sovereignty from 1649 to 1651?

The Case against Monopolies

Elizabeth I and her Stuart successors used their royal prerogative to grant patents of monopoly for manufactures not only to protect new industrial processes but to favor loyal courtiers and their clients with royal bounty. Because patentees and chartered trading companies were willing to return a portion of their monopoly profits to the Crown in the form of taxes and loans, the monopoly system also provided an attractive form of extraparliamentary financing. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, however, the legal basis and economic effect of this unpopular system was already being controverted in the courts, in Parliament, and in print.

As Sir Robert Cecil observed in 1601, the "dispute" over monopolies drew "two great things in question; First the Princes power; Secondly the freedom of Englishmen." The queen, said Francis Bacon, had both an "enlarging" and a "restraining Power," either of which could be used to regulate or restrict trade and manufacturing, "for by her Prerogative she may first set at liberty things restrained in Statute Law or otherwise; and secondly, by her Prerogative she may restrain things which be at liberty." Yet even the queen's prerogative had a theoretical, if ill-defined, limit. "As I think it is no derogation to the Omnipotence of God to say he can do all but evil," said the lawyer Lawrence Hyde, "So I think it is no derogation to the Majesty or Person of the Queen to say the like in some proportion." Even if the queen granted letters patent, those grants could be deemed void if they violated divine law, deprived subjects of their native liberties, or were not for the good and avail of subjects generally.

In the landmark case Darcy v Allen (1602), in which the courtier Edward Darcy pursued the haberdasher Thomas Allen for selling playing cards that Darcy had not manufactured, the defense successfully countered that Darcy's grant for the exclusive manufacture or importation of cards was void on just these grounds. Arguing on behalf of Allen, the lawyer Nicholas Fuller asserted that "The ordinance of God is, that every man should live by labour, and that he that will not labour, let him not eat" (2 Thess. 3). When the queen granted exclusive manufacturing privileges to just one subject, she prevented others from working in their calling. A "grant, ordinance, or law of any Christian king tending to prohibit some of his subjects" from laboring, Fuller said in Parliament when later summarizing the court's finding, was "unlawful" and "absurd" because it went "directly against the law of God, which saith six days thou shall labor; so the grant and prohibition of any king tending to prohibit any of his subjects to labor in his lawful calling or trade ... when he knoweth no other ... is contrary to the law of God and therefore ... void." The monopolist was vir sanguinis, or a man of blood, because, according to Deuteronomy 24:6, a man who took away another man's means of living took his life. After explaining Fuller's claim in his Institutes, Sir Edward Coke pressed on to its logical conclusion: monopolists were "odious" because they were viri sanguinis, and "against these Inventers and Propounders of evill things, the holy Ghost hath spoken, Inventores malorum, & digni sunt morte." They were, said Coke's Latin, worthy of death. The Leveller John Lilburne, who would later defend himself with the Institutes in hand, thought Coke's passage worth quoting in his own pamphlets.

Fuller did not, however, rely solely on such arguments from divine law. Citing Davenant v Hurdis (1599), in which the Queen's Bench had adjudged that an ordinance of the Merchant Tailors requiring members to set out half their cloths to other members for dressing violated the twenty-ninth chapter of Magna Carta, Fuller argued that Darcy's monopoly similarly violated the Great Charter and took away what should have been the "surest" form of subjects' property, the "excellent skill in a trade" that they had acquired by their "industry." The same charge had already been made in Parliament the prior year, when Richard Martin complained that patentees took "the fruits of our own Soil and the commodities of our own labour, which with the sweat of our brows even up to the knees in Mire and Dirt, we have laboured for." To lay claim to other men's labors was to treat them like slaves; it was, said Fuller, "to make freemen bondmen."

With the growing importance of foreign trade to the nation and the creation of powerful new corporations like the East India Company, a growing number of M.P.s, outport merchants, and domestic business men argued that despite consisting of more than one buyer, these companies acted as corporate monopolists and could thus be attacked on the grounds established by Darcy v Allen. The economic case against monopolies, which had been of secondary importance in Fuller's defense of Allen, was developed more fully by the opponents of the chartered companies because it was not so obvious that a privilege enjoyed by a company of men drove the public good into private hands and impinged on the native liberties of English subjects. It therefore had to be shown that such charters did not benefit but harmed the commonwealth.

Invoking the traditional charge that monopolists were bloodsuckers - and perhaps responding to James I's reference to chartered companies as "the veins whereby wealth is imported into our estate"- company opponents charged that such monopolies "like Incubusses doe suck the very vitall spirits, and drive into one veine that masse of blood which should cherish the whole body." Insisting that "the more common and diffusive a good thing is, the better it is," they asserted that driving the public into private hands, even when those hands were united in a company, was unhealthy for the domestic body politic. Even more important, they argued that the growth of England's foreign trade was being stunted by the restrictive policies of the Crown and chartered companies and that "if the number of traders were enlarged, trade itself would be enlarged." Trade was not fixed, in other words, but elastic, and as long as the number of traders was restricted and their routes determined by a few legally protected companies, its full pattern and extent would never emerge.

Such arguments put the chartered companies in a difficult position, for they wished their own business activities to be relatively unfettered by taxes, regulations, or currency manipulations that could impede the flow of trade, yet they also insisted that their "politic Government, Laws, and Orders" were the "root and spring" of their "incredible trade and traffic." Trade that was thrown open to all Englishmen, they argued, would be "dispersed, straggling, and promiscuous." They attacked interlopers as men who "under pretence of liberty and free trade," possessing "neither skill nor patience," had proved "disorderly and unskillful traders" who were likely to subject the economy to unwelcome price and inventory shocks through their incompetence and disorganization and who threatened to diminish the reputation of English manufactures by producing or trading goods of inferior quality. It was imperative that trade be confined to "well experimented merchants."

Domestic businessmen such as clothiers and retailers who wished to integrate trade into their other business activities rejected the company merchants' claims to peculiar skill. They resented the ability of the companies, as monopoly buyers and sellers, to extract excess profits from them. Any "mystery" to the Merchant Adventurers' trade was "well known," said one pamphlet, and the name Adventurers was an absurd misnomer, "their hazard being so small, and the voyage so short." By associating the "mysteries" of the companies not with the skills of the guilds but with the ceremonies of the Catholic Church, Leveller pamphlets implied that they were a superstition that would not withstand scrutiny, a mere instrument of despotic government. Skill was not something to be handed down within a secret society of merchants, which would only enforce a "servile kind of obedience," but something to be gained from rude experience of the market by "active and industrious spirits." Far from guaranteeing quality, monopolies had the effect, as the Queen's Bench had recognized as early as Davenant v Hurdis, of driving quality down and prices up. The best way to make goods more plentiful and of superior quality was to encourage the emulation of craftsmen who were left free to rival one another.

Fuller's claim that the Crown's monopoly patents infringed on the liberties of freeborn subjects, while more difficult to demonstrate in the case of corporate charters, was never abandoned. In 1604, for instance, Sir Edwin Sandys's report from Parliament's Committee on Free Trade listed "Natural right" as the foremost reason for the enlargement of trade:

All free Subjects are born inheritable, as to their Land, so also to the free Exercise of their Industry, in those Trades whereto they apply themselves, and whereby they are to live. Merchandize being the chief and richest of all other, and of greater Extent and importance than all the rest, it is against the natural Right and Liberty of the Subjects of England to restrain it into the Hands of some few.


Excerpted from MAMMON'S MUSIC by BLAIR HOXBY Copyright © 2002 by Blair Hoxby. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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