Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: Purpose. - The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
III.: Purpose. - John Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates 
The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, edited with Introduction and Notes by William Talbot Allison (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1911).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The main purpose of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates is therefore very plain. It is a justification of the thoughts and intents of all those in England who hated tyranny, and who held it to be simple justice that a perfidious monarch should, after fair trial, receive due punishment for high crimes and misdemeanors. The long title of this treatise lays down Milton’s thesis ‘that it is lawfull to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King and after due conviction to depose, and put him to death.’ It was not the intention of Milton to disparage monarchy, however, although he combats the theory of divine right, and maintains that the original of power is in the people. He puts the case of the people against a wicked king, with special reference to Charles I, and gives illustrations from past ages of the overthrow and deposition of tyrants. But his purpose was not to glorify the republican form of government, nor to derogate from the fair fame of good kings. In his reference, in the Second Defence, to his motives in writing this treatise, he says, ‘Without any immediate or special application to Charles, I shewed in an abstract consideration of the question, what might lawfully be done against tyrants’ (Bohn I. 260). While this statement must be discounted, for Milton did make immediate and special application to Charles, as we have already pointed out, still it remains true that he had no quarrel with the monarchic principle itself. In later years he was delighted because Queen Christina of Sweden praised his reply to Salmasius. In his panegyric of the Queen of Sheba of the North, he says: ‘When the critical exigencies of my country demanded that I should undertake the arduous and invidious task of impugning the rights of kings, how happy am I that I should meet with so illustrious, so truly a royal evidence to my integrity, and to this truth, that I had not written a word against kings, but only against tyrants, the spots and pests of royalty’ (Bohn 1. 249). Whatever Milton’s honest purpose may have been, his contention that ‘all men naturally are born free,’ his theory of the contractual origin of society and government, his enunciation of the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, of the derivative character of all kingly rule, of the equality of all persons before the law, and his declaration of the right of ‘any who have the power’ to depose or put to death a wicked king, give the general reader the impression that he was a republican of the most thorough-going kind. Aubrey, one of his earliest biographers, so understood him: ‘Whatever he wrote against monarchie was out of no animositie to the king’s person, or out of any faction or interest, but out of a pure zeale to the Liberty of Mankind, which he thought would be greater under a free state than under a monarchiall government. His being so conversant in Livy and the Roman authors, and the greatnes he saw donne by the Roman commonwealth, and the vertue of their great commanders [captaines] induc’t him to it.’1 When he wrote this treatise Milton seems to have been indifferent to the form of government, so long as liberty was insured to the subject. If he welcomed the republic, he did so because it meant to him the dawn of a new day of political and individual freedom in England. In his former writings he had not used a single expression against royalty; on the contrary, he had defended the rights of the crown against the pretensions of the Anglican prelates. In proposing a plan for the reform of the church, his model had been monarchical government. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates was written, therefore, not as a protest against the institution of royalty, but as a protest against a wicked king and as a defence of resolute upholders of human liberty, not because they were democrats and republicans, but because they were earnest and vigorous in the putting down of tyranny, and in the setting up of a righteous rule in England.
[1 ]Collections for Life of Milton, app. to Lives of Edw. and John Philips, ed. Godwin, p. 341.