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EFFECTS OF POLITICAL REVOLUTIONS FICKLENESS OF THE ARMY
MILTON PUBLISHES HIS TRACTS UPON THE COMMONWEALTH-ANALYSIS
SECRETED BY HIS FRIENDS-PASSING OF THE ACT OF OBLIVION.
ALL history instructs us, and political philosophy is at no loss to account for the fact, that revolutions commenced in deliberation, and carried out by the pacific force of public opinion, subside after temporary turmoil, and precipitate their elements, which crystallize into the regular forms of constitutional government: while those which are engendered and conducted by the brute force of arms, issue appropriately in a military despotism. This is either rendered temporary, by the energies of civilization and public virtue, or, failing those only resources, all that is pure and precious in human society perishes for an extended period, under its inorganic and torpifying pressure. The latter was the sad alternative which was witnessed in England in the
year 1660. The army had virtually dissolved one parliament, and re-constituted another, and this also owed its extinction to the same unconstitutional influence. The very theory of a standing army is embarrassed with a dilemma, which is not the less deserving of attention because it is not glaringly obvious. If ill disciplined, it is inefficacious for any purposes save those of feverish irritation, and plethoric expenditure; if highly disciplined, it is the mechanical engine of a few minds who may constitute it a despotic imperium in imperio.
Towards the close of the year 1659, Milton saw those gathering clouds which were destined for a time to eclipse, and for a much longer period to obscure, the pure light of constitutional freedom; and in the near prospect of the reestablishment of the Stuart dynasty, and, consequently, of the principles of Divine right and passive obedience, both civil and spiritual, and that with an activity intensified by temporary suppression, he published three tracts on the political position of his country, though evidently with the fullest recognition of the personal peril which such a measure must involve. The first of these is entitled, “ A Letter to a Friend, concerning the Ruptures of the Commonwealth.” The second and third were addressed to General Monk, and entitled, “ The Present Means and Brief Delineation of a Free Commonwealth,” and “ The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth." These are so similar in design and spirit, that they may be treated here as a single and continuous treatise.
After lamenting the fickleness of the army, he thus proceeds to appeal to them, and to state the principles on which alone the liberties of the country could be maintained :
“ How grievous will it then be! how infamous to the true religion which we profess! how dishonourable to the name of God, that his fear and the power of his knowledge in an army professing to be his, should not work that obedience, that fidelity to their supreme magistrates, that levied them and paid them ; when the light of nature, the laws of human society, covenants and contracts, yea common shame, works in other armies, amongst the worst of them! Which will undoubtedly pull down the heavy judgments of God among us, who cannot but avenge these hypocrisies, violations of truth and holiness; if they be indeed so as they yet seem. For neither do I speak this in reproach to the army, but as jealous of their honour, inciting them to manifest and publish with all speed, some better
cause of these their late actions, than hath hitherto appeared, and to find out the Achan amongst them, whose close ambition in all likelihood abuses their honest natures against their meaning to these disorders; their readiest way to bring in again the common enemy, and with him the destruction of true religion, and civil liberty.
“But, because our evils are now grown more dangerous and extreme, than to be remedied by complaints, it concerns us now to find out what remedies may be likeliest to save us from approaching ruin. Being now in anarchy, without a counselling and governing power; and the army, I suppose, finding themselves insufficient to discharge at once both military and civil affairs, the first thing to be found out with all speed, without which no commonwealth can subsist, must be a senate, or general council of state, in whom must be the power, first to preserve the public peace; next, the commerce with foreign nations; and lastly, to raise monies for the management of these affairs: this must either be the parliament re-admitted to sit, or a council of state allowed of by the army, since they only now have the power. The terms to be stood on are, liberty of conscience to all professing Scripture to be the rule of their faith and worship: and the abjuration of a single person.".
Milton next details his views of the best means of constituting a parliament and council of state, so as to supersede the institutions of monarchy and the House of Lords, and thus appeals again to the self-respect of his country
“After our liberty and religion thus prosperously fought for, gained, and many years possessed, except in those unhappy interruptions, which God hath removed ; now that nothing remains, but in all reason the certain hopes of a speedy and immediate settlement for ever in a firm and free commonwealth, for this extolled and magnified nation, regardless both of honour won, or deliverances
* Prose Works, vol. iii. p. 405.
vouchsafed from heaven, to fall back, or rather to creep back so poorly, as it seems the multitude would, to their once abjured and detested thraldom of kingship, to be ourselves the slanderers of our own just and religious deeds, though done by some to covetous and ambitious ends, yet not therefore to be stained with their infamy, or they to asperse the integrity of others; and yet these now by revolting from the conscience of deeds well done, both in church and state, to throw away and forsake, or rather to betray a just and noble cause for the mixture of bad men who have illmanaged and abused it, (which had our fathers done heretofore, and on the same pretence deserted true religion, what had long ere this become of our gospel, and all Protestant Reformation, so much intermixed with the avarice and ambition of some reformers?) and by thus relapsing, to verify all the bitter predictions of our triumphing enemies, who will now think they wisely discerned and justly censured both us and all our actions as rash, rebellious, hypocritical, and impious; not only argues a strange, degenerate contagion suddenly spread among us, fitted and prepared for new slavery, but will render us a scorn and derision to all our neighbours.
“And what will they at best say of us, and of the whole English name, but scoffingly, as of that foolish builder mentioned by our Saviour, who began to build a tower, and was not able to finish it? Where is this goodly tower of a commonwealth, which the English boasted they would build to overshadow kings, and be another Rome in the west? The foundation indeed they lay gallantly, but fell into a worse confusion, not of tongues, but of factions, than those at the tower of Babel; and have left no memorial of their work behind them remaining but in the common laughter of Europe.” *
Dr. Johnson remarks, with that inaccuracy which marks almost every general observation on which he ventures
* Prose Works, vol. ii. pp. 113, 114.
respecting Milton's character, that in opposing monarchy he looked chiefly, if not solely, at its expensiveness. But in warning his country in this treatise against a return to that form of government, he shows that economical reasons were the weakest by which he was influenced. “God,” he says, “in much displeasure gave a king to the Israelites, and imputed it a sin to them that they sought one; but Christ apparently forbids his disciples to admit of any such heathenish government: “The kings of the Gentiles,' saith he,
exercise lordship over them,' and they that 'exercise authority upon them are called benefactors : but ye shall not be so; but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that serveth. The occasion of these his words was the ambitious desire of Zebedee's two sons to be exalted above their brethren in his kingdom, which they thought was to be ere long upon earth. That he speaks of civil government, is manifest by the former part of the comparison, which infers the other part to be always in the same kind. And what government comes nearer to this precept of Christ, than a free commonwealth ; wherein they who are the greatest, are perpetual servants and drudges to the public at their own cost and charges, neglect their own affairs, yet are not elevated above their brethren ; live soberly in their families, walk the street as other men, may be spoken to freely, familiarly, friendly, without adoration ? Whereas a king must be adored like a demigod, with a dissolute and haughty court about him, of vast expense and luxury, masks and revels, to the debauching of our prime gentry, both male and female; not in their pastimes only, but in earnest, by the loose employments of court-service, which will be then thought honourable. .... Certainly, then, that people must needs be mad or strangely infatuated, that build the chief hope of their common happiness or safety on a single person; who, if he happen to be good, can do no more than another man; if to be bad, hath in his hands to do more evil without check, than