display | more...

The execution of Charles I in 1649 did not end the English Civil War. The struggle for victory continued throughout the archipelago until September 1651, when after suffering a decisive defeat at Worcester the future Charles II fled the field and escaped to France to establish his court-in-exile. As royalist soldiers carried on the fight following the King’s death, so did John Milton take up his pen to defend the nascent commonwealth. Written within weeks of the highly controversial regicide, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (TKM) attempted to justify the ways of Parliament to men. Its carefully measured, well articulated, and logically executed argument stands in sharp contrast to the impassioned plea Milton made eleven years later, when the Restoration of Charles II seemed all but inevitable. The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (REW) illustrates a significant stylistic adjustment to Milton’s rhetorical tactics, and it reflects the frustration of an author whose vision of a free and stable English commonwealth was slipping away with the last days of the Protectorate. Milton wrote in support of the Parliament that condemned the father, and in desperation of the Parliament that embraced the son; the differences between the texts speak to Milton’s changing audiences and the difficult reversal he was forced to negotiate as a republican political operative.

When The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates appeared, enough people had already taken sides to supply seven years’ worth of soldiers and support to the Civil War’s two main factions, to say nothing of those who joined the fractious groups that later troubled Parliament and the Lord Protector. Writing after the fact of the regicide, Milton could not have been concerned with convincing Royalists that deposing the king had been justified. TKM was therefore directed primarily at those on the Parliamentary side who staunchly believed in the justness of their actions, and secondarily to those members and allies of the Rump Parliament who felt uncomfortable with a trial and execution that many saw as questionable from the standpoints of both law and Scripture.

Milton’s use of personal pronouns reveals the divisions: in announcing his intention to prove the lawfulness of removing tyrants from power, he says he will look to "authorities and reasons . . . fetched out of the midst of choicest and most authentic learning, and no prohibited authors nor many heathens, but Mosaical, Christian, orthodoxal and, which must needs be more convincing to our adversaries, presbyterial” (277). The "our" at once identifies Milton’s camp and names the opposition. Scottish Presbyterians felt the Rump had gone too far in sending Charles I to the scaffold; Milton, TKM makes clear, knew better, and he organizes much of his argument in terms of "us" and “them.” In the opening four paragraphs, Milton uses a form of "they" over two dozen times in reference to fair-weather friends of dubious motivation. The salvo ends with a rebuke of the Presbyterian position on the regicide: "Others who have been fiercest against their prince, and no mean incendiaries of the war against him . . .on a sudden and in a new garb of allegiance, which their doings have long since cancelled, they plead for him, pity him, extol him, protest against those that talk of bringing him to justice. . ." (275). In the first line of the following paragraph, Milton places his readers alongside him and specifically against "them": “But certainly if we consider who and what they are, on a sudden grown so pitiful, we may conclude their pity can be no true and Christian commiseration . . ." (275, italics added). To a steadfast supporter, the lines drawn by this language reflect a truth either held or desirable; Milton says "we" are right, and proceeds in the essay to explain precisely why. TKM primarily seeks to arm defenders of the regicide with data (historical, Scriptural, theoretical) to support their a priori position, for which reasons most of the essay speaks to them but about others.

Milton cites his sources and executes his argument with little vitriol. The political circumstances of 1649 allowed him to write with the relatively cool and level-headed voice of the victor; the deed was not only done, but it was done in accord with the oft-mentioned rights of the "power to the people|people]" and the textually supported and logically presented will of God. He deploys a near laundry list of biblical and historical evidence as cold facts in support of Parliament's action, and demonstrates by calculated example the position of his contemporaries relative to tyranny. The advice to Presbyterians and divines he delivers "earnestly and calmly," only occasionally lapsing into slightly malicious admonition and condescending tones: "As for the party called Presbyterians, of whom I believe very many to be good and faithful Christians, though misled by some of turbulent spirit . . ." (297). Milton’s style in TKM establishes a position dependent on deeply held belief but arrived at and secured by reason and reasonability. Those on the side of right could be so confidently; those on the other side were simply ignorant.

By 1660, reason and reasonability had failed to establish a free commonwealth; Milton’s deeply held belief, however, remained, and the author's personal and passionate attachment to it dominates the style of The Ready and Easy Way. Several stylistic devices employed in TKM remain, but are reversed by Milton in REW. Others that were once occasional and judiciously used are amplified and occur frequently. The tone of REW is one of overriding immediacy. With the return of Charles II (largely to open arms) only months away, Milton could not but realize that such a reversal of fortune would make him no crusader for liberty, but a traitor condemned to perpetual thralldom. He clearly wanted it known that he would not be alone: like TKM, REW employs the language of "us" and "them," but the lines have changed. The use of "we" in REW refers not to Parliament, but to the people. Parliament, with its significant Presbyterian membership and adversarial relationship to the new Protector, has become "they": "Writs are sent out for elections . . . not in the name of any living king, but of the keepers or our liberty, to summon a free parliament; which then only will indeed be free, and deserve the true honour of that supreme title, if they preserve us a free people” (339, italics added). The new allegiance forms part of Milton’s project in REW to instill in the remaining supporters of a true commonwealth a sense of personal investment by appealing in dramatic style to their honor, and by painting a mortifying portrait of their life under the restored king should they fail.

Parallel sentence structure can create an inspiring crescendo of emphasis, and the device does not go underutilized in REW. Milton deploys it far more liberally here than in TKM, particularly as the essay progresses. The device occurs in three phrase sets of two repetitions on page 350, and a page later in combination: "This would soon spread much more knowledge and civility . . .would soon make the whole nation more industrious, more ingenious at home, more potent, more honorable abroad." Parallel structure even leads to a few bizarre sounding word constructions in the name of Milton’s rising warmth: "but otherwise softest, basest, viciousest, servilest, easiest to be kept under. And not only in fleece, but in mind also sheepishest" (351). By far, though, the most frequently occurring phrases to appear in parallel are "their own" and "our own." Both refer to the people, and both evoke simultaneous conceptions of individual liberty and national unity. In Milton’s commonwealth, each man will be free on his own, and all will be free together. The device conveys the strength of Milton’s sentiment, and lends more visceral power to the project of persuasion than was present in TKM.

Milton’s description of the people’s lot under a restored Charles II is even more compelling. The language of renewed servitude, loss of glory, and unjust rule echoes in Satan’s speeches in Paradise Lost. "If we return to kingship," Milton warns in REW, "and soon repent (as undoubtedly we shall when we begin to find the old encroachments coming on by little and little upon our consciences . . .), we may be forced perhaps to fight over again all that we have fought" (335). In lines 93-102 in Book IV of Paradise Lost, Satan wonders, amongst other things, how soon he would "unsay what feigned submission swore." Satan repeats some of the logical arguments Milton made in TKM (and Areopagitica), but he does so in the emotionally charged voice of REW. Just as Satan cannot pull his army from the lake with level reason and reasonability, neither can Milton motivate the people without more fiery rhetoric. "To creep back so poorly" to kingship, he writes, will "render us a scorn and derision to all our neighbours" (334). The steady confidence and intellectual abstractions of TKM necessarily recede as Milton’s intention changes from rationalizing a past event to preventing an imminent future.

The differences between The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth present a chiasmus of reason and passion. The changes in political allegiance, intention, and stylistic strategy reflect the twists and reversals Milton experienced during the years of the English Commonwealth and Protectorate. The Restoration would rewrite a just uprising into a treasonous fall; Milton would have to rewrite himself in the new mythology.


Milton, John. John Milton: The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Node your homework

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.