Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV.: Leading Ideas. - The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
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IV.: Leading Ideas. - 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).
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When we attempt to analyze the ideas set forth in this treatise, and now for the first time applied with astonishing vigor and frankness to a great political crisis in English history, we find that Milton is developing his philosophy of freedom. In his previous writings, all of them timely performances, he had contended for religious and domestic freedom, for a free interpretation of the Bible, for free education, for liberty of investigation, of speech, of the press;1 in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates he was to re-emphasize most of these ideas, and to make his first plea for civil liberty, to anticipate modern thought in the statement and defence of great and generous principles. In the compact and weighty pages of this pamphlet, he presents the following leading ideas, which were to command such attention from the whole of Europe in their elaborated form, in the Latin periods of the replies to Salmasius and Morus:—(1) All men naturally were born free (9. 24); (2) as a result of a voluntary compact, kings and magistrates were appointed by the people as deputies and commissioners, repositories of communicated and entrusted power (9. 31 ff.); (3) laws were invented by the people as checks to confine and limit the authority of magistrates (10. 21 ff.); (4) bonds or covenants were also imposed upon rulers to compel them to observe the laws which the people had made (11. 9 ff.); (5) the power of kings and magistrates remains fundamentally in the people as their natural birthright (11. 7 ff.); (6) the king or magistrate may be chosen or rejected, retained or deposed by the people (15. 11 ff.); (7) men should be governed by the authority of reason (1. 1, et passim). Commenting on these political maxims for a new society, Geffroy says: ‘Milton was not a practical statesman, and his plans for a future social fabric were too often pure Utopias, but he loved liberty passionately, he consecrated to her defence his entire life, with an elevation of spirit, a generosity of soul, which distinguished him from all his compatriots and all his contemporaries. He is worthy of being numbered with the precursors of our eighteenth century, and his writings offer to the historian and the philosopher the curious and sublime spectacle of a new society commencing to be born.’1
But if Milton’s main purpose in writing this attack on tyranny was to lay down the program of constitutional liberty, his secondary aim was to chastise his former friends the Presbyterians, and to pour out the bitterest vials of his wrath upon their inconsistent divines. The controversial character of his treatise is indeed very marked. Stern calls the acrimonious attack on the Presbyterians the shell of the pamphlet, of which the abstract argument on the origin of government, and the right to depose and punish a tyrant, is the kernel.2 According to the Second Defence (Bohn 1. 260), it was the inconsistent conduct of the ministers which impelled Milton to write this exposure of their inconstancy and effrontery. Not only as the greatest opponents of his goddess, Liberty, but as his own personal foes, did Milton eagerly embrace the opportunity to reveal their various shortcomings of thought and life. In a sermon preached before the Houses of Parliament in 1644 by the Rev. Herbert Palmer, Milton’s tractate on divorce had been openly called ‘a wicked booke which deserves to be burnt.’3 The Westminster Assembly, displeased from the same cause, had the ‘libertine’1 summoned before the House of Lords. It was not the nature of the poet to accept these strictures in a spirit of Christian forgiveness; from the date of the publication of his Colasterion, references to the Presbyterians in Milton’s prose and verse are bitter in tone. ‘From that time,’ says Orme, ‘he never failed to abuse the Presbyterians and the Assembly. It is painful to detract from the fair fame of Milton, but even he is not entitled to vilify the character of a large and respectable body of men, to avenge his private quarrel.’2 Whether he was actuated by personal reasons or not, whether he loved himself rather than truth, in thus turning upon his former party, as Doctor Johnson avers,3 it was not necessary for the author of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates to invent charges against the Presbyterian preachers and writers. No party ever laid itself more helplessly open to attack. And no controversialist ever fell more mercilessly upon a vulnerable enemy than Milton upon the men who were preaching and writing in a vain effort to save ‘the Lord’s anointed.’4
In addition to their sermons in the pulpits of London, the Presbyterian divines expressed their new-found loyalty to the king by sending out two tracts from Sion College. The first, which we have already mentioned, was signed by 47 ministers, including Case, Gataker, Gower, Rowborough, and Wallis of the Westminster Assembly, and was addressed to Lord Fairfax and the Council of War, Jan. 18, 1649. A few days later, another pamphlet was issued as a defence against charges of inconsistency. It was entitled, A Vindication of the London Ministers from the unjust Aspersions upon their former Actings for the Parliament, and was signed by 57 ministers. Still a third deliverance came from the Presbyterian ministers of Lancashire, entitled, The Paper called the Agreement of the People taken into Consideration. William Prynne and Clement Walker, for the laymen, issued a Declaration and Protestation, and the former made a very long speech in Parliament on Dec. 4, 1648, and now returned to the subject in his Briefe Memento. In all these writings, the Presbyterians used the most forceful language in denouncing the course of the Army and Independents as utterly opposed to the Solemn League and Covenant, that to depose or to put to death the king would be contrary to all legal precedent, to Scripture, and to the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance. It was easy for Milton to throw himself upon this literature, and to compare the sentiments of the present with those of the past, to show that these very men, in sermon and in pamphlet, had formerly cursed the king as a tyrant, as one worse than Nero (5. 25; 8. 7; 38. 10 ff.); that they had commended the war against the king (7. 27 ff.); that they themselves had broken the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance (32. 26 ff.), and by making war on the king and denying his authority had absolutely deposed him (32. 34 ff.); and that they had broken the Covenant (34. 30 ff.), and had really taken the life of the king by robbing him of his office and dignity (36. 25 ff.).
[1 ]See his own statement in Sec. Def. (Bohn 1. 257 ff.).
[1 ]Étude sur les Pamphlets Politiques et Religieux de Milton, pp. 224, 225.
[2 ]Milton und seine Zeit 1. 441.
[3 ]The Glasse of God’s Providence towards his Faithfull Ones. A Sermon preached before the Houses of Parlt., Aug. 13, 1644.
[1 ]Clement Walker calls Milton ‘a libertine that thinketh his wife a Manacle,’ Hist. of Indep., pt. 2. 199.
[2 ]Life and Times of Rich. Baxter 1. 70.
[3 ]Life of Milton, in Works, ed. Hawkins 2. 101.
[4 ]For a full discussion of Milton’s relations with the Presbyterians, see Masson, Life of Milton 2. 377 and 3. 468 ff.