Milton and the Revolutionary Reader

Milton and the Revolutionary Reader

by Sharon Achinstein

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The English Revolution was a revolution in reading, with over 22,000 pamphlets exploding from the presses between 1640 and 1661. What this phenomenon meant to the political life of the nation is the subject of Sharon Achinsteins book. Considering a wide range of writers, from John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Lilburne, John Cleveland, and William Prynne to a host of

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The English Revolution was a revolution in reading, with over 22,000 pamphlets exploding from the presses between 1640 and 1661. What this phenomenon meant to the political life of the nation is the subject of Sharon Achinsteins book. Considering a wide range of writers, from John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Lilburne, John Cleveland, and William Prynne to a host of anonymous scribblers of every political stripe, Achinstein shows how the unprecedented outpouring of opinion in mid-seventeenth-century England created a new class of activist readers and thus helped to bring about a revolution in the form and content of political debate. By giving particular attention to Miltons participation in this burst of publishing, she challenges critics to look at his literary practices as constitutive of the political culture of his age.

Traditional accounts of the rise of the political subject have emphasized high political theory. Achinstein seeks instead to picture the political subject from the perspective of the street, where the noisy, scrappy, and always entertaining output of pamphleteers may have had a greater impact on political practice than any work of political theory. As she underscores the rhetorical, literary, and even utopian dimension of these writers efforts to politicize their readers, Achinstein offers us evidence of the kind of ideological conflict that historians of the period often overlook. A portrait of early modern propaganda, her work recreates the awakening of politicians to the use of the press to influence public opinion.

Originally published in 1994.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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"This is an exciting study that all readers of Milton, at whatever level of competence will benefit from reading . . . the value of this book is its opening up of Milton's later poetry as a proper aspect of the cultural history of the period."Modern Language Review

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Milton and the Revolutionary Reader

By Sharon Achinstein


Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03490-4


Revolution in Print


And if the Parliament and Military Councel doe what they doe without precedent, if it appeare thir duty, it argues the more wisdom, vertue, and magnanimity, that they know themselves able to be a precedent to others. Who perhaps in future ages, if they prove not too degenerat, will look up with honour, and aspire towards those exemplary, and matchless deeds of thir Ancestors, as to the highest top of thir civil glory and emulation.

John Milton, Tenure of Kings and Magistrates

In 1649, the House of Commons instituted a High Court of justice to try King Charles I, and named commissioners who were to be both judges and jurors in this unique case. The men who were left to call themselves Parliament after the purge in 1648 charged the king with the intent "out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people, yea, to take away and make void the foundations thereof ... which by the fundamental constitution of this kingdom were reserved on the people's behalf." For this, and for having "traitrously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and all the people therein represented," Charles Stuart was to be put on trial for treason. In late January, Charles was found guilty and sentenced to die. These revolutionary acts were done in the name of the people and by order of law. The trial was illegal, as the king repeatedly pointed out, and the 59 men who signed the king's death warrant, out of the 150 or so judges listed on the commission, could hardly be said to represent the will of the people. On 3D January 1649, however, the death sentence was carried out before an astonished crowd. Public execution in general performed a symbolic function in English society to legitimize ruling authority. This time, however, the severed head was the king's, in a reversal of this symbolic act. The execution of Charles I stunned the English nation and all of Europe. The power being ratified belonged not to the king, but to Parliament.

Writers justifying the trial and execution of the king placed authority in the law of conscience or reason, which they claimed took precedence over custom and kingly prerogative. This logic was potentially revolutionary, since the English legal system relied upon precedent, custom, and kings for authority: these, however, could supply no prior examples to back up the case of the trial and execution of the king. Defending the regicide, John Fidoe had argued: "But if we had no precedent, either Domestic or Foreign, yet the very Law of Reason and Nature were sufficient to clear them in it: As for the laws of the Land, they are all subordinate unto this of Reason, and must give place to it." Milton pursued a similar path in Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, arguing that citizens may take action against tyrants by the guide of reason. He opened his tract, "If men within themselves would be governed by reason, and not generally give up their understanding to a double tyranny, of Custom from without, and blind affections within, they would discern better, what it is to favor and uphold the Tyrant of a Nation" (CPW 3.190).

The idea that reason is sufficient to "govern" humans, and that the people possessed reasoning capabilities, was expressed often in the aftermath of the king's execution. God's law, as written in the consciences of humans, and the law of reason were above the king's law, defenders of the regicide argued, and the people could administer both. According to Matthew Simmonds, in The Execution of the Late King Justified, and the Parliament and the Army therein, Vindicated (1649), "God's Law enjoins the execution of Justice and Judgment; The Parliament in their Late Transactions, have executed Justice and Judgment: Therefore they have obeyed God's Law." John Goodwin used the tools accessible to ordinary citizens, of "clear texts of Scripture, as principles of Reason, grounds of Law, Authorities, Precedents, as well as Foreign, as Domestic," for his justification of Parliament's actions. Robert Robins asked the public to render its word: "now let all the world judge, whether the people have justly recalled their own interest and adjudged him to death for such abuses, and refusing to account" in his pamphlet Reasons to Resolve the unresolved PEOPLE of the legality of the King's Trial and Judgment (1649). Just as the regicides appealed to the law of reason and conscience to ask English citizens to support their actions, John Lilburne appealed to the consciences of his jurymen to overturn the views of his judges in his trial for treason in 1649. In this chapter we see how, during the English Revolution, justifications that centered on the authority of a capable public were expressed to a wide audience by the medium of print. In the case of John Lilburne, we see how the public was appealed to as a potent body, was authorized by people's individual consciences to overturn precedent and institutional tradition; in Milton's Areopagitica, we see Milton develop an idea of a public out of the same materials of conscience, reason, and right.

Printing and the People

Though the group that sat in judgment of the king was a stripped-down "rump" of the House of Commons, it has been argued that during the seventeenth century more people had more say in government. As early as 1628, with its Petition of Right, Parliament had dared to place limits upon the king's absolute authority, asserting that Charles needed the consent of the Lords and Commons for certain acts; in the words of the Petition: "No man hereafter shall be compelled to make or yield any gift, loan, benevolence, tax or such like charge without common consent by Act of Parliament." With increasing vigor over the course of the seventeenth century, Parliament insisted that the king was to be subject to the law, and battled with Charles over the scope of royal prerogative. The chief struggle between king and Parliament over royal prerogative and rule by law touched upon a wide range of social, political, and religious matters. Some radicals even went so far as to say that the law was made to express the rights of the people, as in the 1647 "Agreement of the People." Revolutionary writers insisted upon the primacy of "fundamental rights" of English citizens, as embodied in Cicero's dictum, Salus populi suprema lex (let the welfare of the people be the supreme law), a concept employed by many radicals to overrule the powers of the king. John Lilburne, for example, in his pamphlet Englands Birth-Right Justified (1645), treats sahis populi as a natural political concept. William Walwyn makes the same argument in Englands Lamentable Slaverie (1645); from this doctrine, Henry Parker had also advanced a theory of "public consent," a contract theory of authority from law. A pamphlet directed to Charles in 1642, entitled Vox Populi, exhorted: ?, then return unto your Parliament, and so unto your people; Return unto your Parliament, and so unto your lawful power." One Royalist complained that "every man who hath but arrived at one sentence in Latin, is ready to beat me down with the irresistable power of axiom ... salus populi lex summa." In taking up arms against him, Parliament concluded that the king had been overstepping his authority in religious and in civil matters in the years of his personal rule; Charles was acting totally out of bounds of the law. Parliament's law.

It is significant that the regicides felt compelled first to try the king in court, and second, to publish the proceedings of his trial in pamphlet form in order to justify their action of killing him. The previously secret operations of the courts, analogous to the secret and unaccountable nature of kingly prerogative, were in these deeds overturned by political actions conducted in public and for the public. In his trial, Charles was charged in the name of the people of England: "You have been accused on behalf of the People of England of high Treason and other high Crimes." The lord president explained that the authority of the court was the people of England: "This Court is founded upon that Authority of the Commons of England, in whom rests the supreme Jurisdiction," and added an ironic note: "how great a friend you have been to the Laws and Liberties of the People, let all England and the world judge." All England was to render judgment on this comment by reading the official transcript of the king's trial, published during and after the event itself.

At the same time, the king was also fashioning himself into a champion for the people's cause. Charles requested to tell his side of the story, to "give satisfaction to the people of England of the clearness of my proceeding ... to satisfy them that I have done nothing against that Trust that hath been committed to me." On the fourth day of the case, when the lord president repeated the litany about the king's abrogation of the people's rights, Lady Fairfax, sitting in the crowd, could hold her peace no longer and interrupted the court, saying, "Not half the people!" According to the transcript, the lady "was soon silenced," and was led out of the courtroom. Still, her question acutely pressed defenders of the new commonwealth like John Milton to confront the rather strange picture of "the people" that was presented by Pride's Purge, for only sixty radical Republicans and Independents were left in the "rump" after Colonel Thomas Pride's purge of ninety-six members of the House of Commons, and it was these few who put the king on trial. Even those attending the trial knew that defense by appeal to the people might be stretching the truth a bit. Charles's speech on the scaffold, the later publication of Eikon Basilike, along with the thousands of pamphlets protesting the trial's outcome, all rallied the public to his cause: "this is not my case alone, it is the freedom and the liberty of the People of England, and you [the court] do pretend what you will, I stand more for their Liberties," Charles pleaded. Both sides knew of the usefulness of appealing to the people's interest to sway public support.

Printing may have contributed to turning citizens into political actors, but it cannot be said simply to have caused the great changes of England's revolution. Printing presses had been operating for well over a hundred years in England, and though they had produced more than one best-seller, including Foxe's Book of Martyrs and King James's Bible, they had yet to their credit no revolutions. In the many cultures where the printing press began to flourish during the Renaissance, the uses of this instrument varied widely, as did its effects on political and social institutions, and upon the lives of ordinary folk. The printing press did not operate in isolation from literacy rates, bookselling topography, patterns of book distribution, the central regulation by the Stationers' Company, police suppression of piracy, and the corps of readers and writers willing to take part in print culture. In short, the communication system of print touched many aspects of English society. During the revolution all these were in continual flux, and writers took advantage of this fluid situation to carve out a niche for the press in the political life of the nation.

The writing of the civil war differed from its precedents, however, in its conceived audience and also in the range of political opinions that appeared. Though literature of religious or political dissent had found outlets before the 1640–41 breakdown of censorship, with Thomas Scott for one exemplifying the possibilities of dissent in the 1620s, when a spate of pamphlets from the pens of the Puritan clergy attacked KingJames over the Spanish match, incidents of this kind were nevertheless few and far between. Scott's Vox populi (1620) ran to four editions in its year of publication, and it even reached the ears of the king, whose anger forced the author into hiding on the Continent, where he continued to publish anti-Catholic materials. Scott did pose a challenge to James's reign of censorship, but he acted as only a tiny minority voice; his claim to represent the interests of the people was yet to be echoed in a huge chorus of civil war writers.

During the 1640s, however, readers were confronted with a variety of political positions in the press. In this climate, everything seemed "up for grabs," as J. H. Hexter puts it. The printing industry was crucial in this unprecedented political conflict, producing over twenty-two thousand pamphlets, sermons, newsbooks, speeches, broadside ballads, and other ephemera. When censorship lapsed in 1640, the explosion of printed material brought such subjects as religion, culture, law, finance, domestic relations, and, prominently, politics, to the attention of the public, an increasingly literate public, it appears. Historians believe 30 percent of adult males in England in 1642 could read; in London, the figure was closer to 60 percent. These were extremely high numbers compared to the rest of Europe. Unlike their precedents, pamphleteers from the civil war period put political controversies before the eyes of the public. Before 1640, for instance, it was illegal to print the proceedings of Parliament and treasonous to print the king's words unless you were the king's printer. After the breakdown of censorship, a number of "diurnals," or journals, published Parliament's goings-on, along with commentary about the governing body's decisions. The printed matter that appeared in the English revolutionary period was thus utterly new. Readers were given access to the workings of the governing body, and could become witnesses to the process of political decision making. Pamphleteering with a political cast was not literally without precedent, however, but the secular political information that was being disseminated and discussed, along with the quantitative change in volume of output, precipitated a qualitative change in the ways people wrote and thought about political ideas.

Where ideas and information were being disseminated to an increasingly politicized public, there was a new political practice, even though the ideology of the English Revolution" may not have been articulated by a clear "opposition party." Given that historians are yet questioning whether the political nation did expand over the course of the seventeenth century; whether the process of parliamentary selection more accurately reflected the numbers of people voting; and whether the process of politics was increasingly conflictual, we might well give up understanding precisely what printing had to do with all of these. What this unprecedented burst of publication meant for ordinary citizens is hard to determine. Yet there is evidence from the numbers in the press that through print, the populace was given access to discussions in and about government. To politicize the public was not an explicit aim of either side, though the Levellers' platform did tend in that direction, and the royalist one away from it. Still, all sides involved the public in new ways by the medium through which they chose to express their conflicts. The politicians seemed to sense the importance and the power of some notion of public opinion in choosing to make their points in public. Thus I see the printing press as a major political agent during the English Revolution.

At the level of political communication, the press improved the quality of political participation of the people. When a pamphleteer like William Prynne attempted to justify Parliament's precedence over the king, for example, he made use of the press to make "full vindication of such public Truths, concerning Public government." Vindication, a legal form of exoneration, could take place in the press, here seen as the public's judicial forum. People were taking sides in a civil war, and they were increasingly thirst) for information, war news, and opinions. The swell of pamphlets in the press indicates that many ordinary citizens were willing to buy news. Impetus for publication also came from opinion makers, those writers and politicians who were increasingly concerned with persuading the people to side with their political views.

What is remarkable about the writing of this period is its "public" character; exactly what writers meant by "public" is harder to say. The "public" was a setting for the king's execution, for example, and it was the forum for publishing the account of his trial; but the "public" was also an ideological construct of an audience before which writers justified the execution and to which they appealed for support. It is my argument here that with publication an important part of fighting during the English Revolution, writers conceived of their readers as responsible actors in the public forum created in the press. In this chapter, I examine the habits of political writing in which pamphleteers encouraged the public to view, and to take part in, revolutionary politics. The press was instrumental in this encouragment. Writers used the press to fashion a revolutionary conception of an active and informed public as their addressees, and they began to characterize exactly the kind of forum in which such a public would hear their voices.


Excerpted from Milton and the Revolutionary Reader by Sharon Achinstein. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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