Front Page Titles (by Subject) VIII.: Background of Political Thought. - The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
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VIII.: Background of Political Thought. - 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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Background of Political Thought.
Before discussing the special sources of Milton’s political doctrines, it will be necessary to pass in review several of the main ideas which he inherited from the theorists of the sixteenth century, and which had their roots in the writings of the Middle Ages. The contractual origin of society and government, the sovereignty of the people, the authority of reason, the divine right of kings—all these topics had engaged the argumentative powers of sixteenth century pamphleteers. Certain great movements of thought had contributed to the furtherance of civil and religious liberty in that age—(1) the struggle between the papacy and the rising power of kings, (2) the Protestant Reformation, with its appeal to the Bible and reason as the sole authorities of life and conduct, (3) the influence of the Renascence in resurrecting the classics of Greece and Rome, with their republicanism, their passion for liberty, and their approval of tyrannicide, (4) the increased study of Roman law, and (5) the rise of the historical spirit, and of the modern historical method. All these currents of thought converge in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.
1 It is one of the remarkable facts of history that the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people came from the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church, the archfoe of modernism, and the determined obstructer of civil and religious liberty. Upholders of this church, however, both in the Middle Ages and in the sixteenth century, emphasized the power of the people, in order to check the growing independence of the king. They were not actuated by any desire to promote democracy, but simply and solely to belittle the dangerous rivals of the pope. ‘Civil power,’ so wrote Pope Gregory VII to Bishop Hermann of Metz, ‘was the invention of worldly men, ignorant of God and prompted by the devil; it needed not only the assistance, but the authorization, of the church.’ In conformity with this teaching, Marsiglius of Padua declared that the king might be restrained or deposed if he overpassed his prescribed bounds. In order to exalt the church, this pioneer of political theory recognized the people as the origin of all power in the state.2 From the time of Augustine, the origin of civil government had been ascribed to Adam’s fall, and Cain and Nimrod were asserted to be its first founders. ‘The church was therefore ready to admit any form of civil government that would listen to her claims. Theoretically she had no preference for monarchical institutions; rather, it should seem, she was inclined to promote a democratic sentiment.’1 This principle, then, that the people is supreme, so wellknown in the Middle Ages, was eagerly seized upon by the opponents of the Reformation, which was itself furthered and protected by the princes of Germany and the kings of England and Sweden. A school of Jesuit writers arose to battle for the theory that mankind is naturally at liberty to choose its form of government. Towards the close of the sixteenth century, they had even become defenders of tyrannicide, and argued that it was not a sin to depose or put to death a heretical monarch—for the church held that it was a fundamental law of all countries that a sovereign must be a Roman Catholic. Mariana, the Spanish Jesuit, openly approved the assassination of Protestant rulers.2 In his able exposition of the political teachings of the Jesuits, Figgis sums up this doctrine as follows:—‘Power is in the people, for nature made all men free and equal, and there is no reason why one should have one jurisdiction rather than another. The whole community, then, is the immediate depositary of political power. But it cannot exercise it directly. It must delegate its power to a king or ruling body, under such conditions as shall please it.’3
In opposition to this purely utilitarian and secular theory of the state advanced by the defenders of the papacy, the early Protestant reformers set up the theory of the divine right of kings. This also is one of the anomalies of history, that those great religious leaders, who put in motion all the forces of modern liberty, should have been at the outset the upholders of despotism. It was owing to the force of circumstances, however, that Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and others became supporters of the regal power. Kings were their sole protectors against the persecuting rage of the papacy, and it was but natural and reasonable that they should magnify kingly authority, in order to combat the claims of the church to absolute sovereignty. Luther, therefore, and his successors searched the Scriptures for divine sanction to the rule and right of kings. As we have seen, they found many texts to support their views; hence the dogma, which was destined to become such a weapon of tyranny in the hands of the Stuarts, that the king is appointed directly by God, that he is solutus legibus, that he is responsible to God alone, and that the perpetual duty of the subject is obedience. But Luther’s followers, such men as Knox, Gilby, and Poynet, learned that divine right was a doctrine that could mean hindrance and oppression, instead of progress and liberty, and that the Bible also authorized resistance to idolaters and tyrants. In the seventeenth century, Protestant teachers agreed with the Jesuits in asserting the sovereignty of the people. We should remember, however, that when Milton says the power of kings is derivative and transferred (12. 8); when the author of the Case of the Army Truly Stated (Oct. 15, 1647) says, ‘All power is originally and essentially in the whole body of the people of this nation’; or when, in January, 1649, the committee of the House of Commons, ultra-Protestant and Rome-hating as it was, voted ‘that the people, under God, are the original of all just power; that the Commons of England have the supreme authority of this nation,’ they were each and all indebted to Hildebrand, and an army of Romanist writers, for such a theory of civil liberty. We can understand, therefore, that there was a substratum of truth in the declarations of the Royalists that the revolutionary opinions of Cromwell’s soldiers were the result of the propaganda of Jesuit priests, who entered the ranks of the army on purpose to sow their anti-monarchical opinions. The Jesuits were not there in the flesh, but the writings of Molina, Mariana, and Bellarmine had come to full flower in The Grand Army Remonstrance, in the fierce democracy of the Levelers, and in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.
The chief buttress of the theory of popular sovereignty is the idea of the social contract, the contention that the origin of kingship is to be traced to the remote occasion when the multitude, of their own accord, transferred to one of their own number the rights and powers of the magistrate. In this treatise, Milton states this opinion, not as a theory, but as a commonly accepted fact (9.31). Although this notion of the contractual origin of society and government was an inheritance from Epicurus, Polybius, and others,1 it was adopted by the mediæval upholders of the papacy as a valuable argument for their purposes. Manegold, a priest of Lutterbach in Alsatia, who wrote in defence of Hildebrand, clearly states the famous theory: ‘Since no one can create himself emperor or king, the people elevates a certain one person over itself to this end that he govern and rule it according to the principle of righteous government; but if in any wise he transgresses the contract by virtue of which he is chosen, he absolves the people from the obligation of submission, because he has first broken faith with it.’2 This plain statement was accepted by almost all the political theorists of the sixteenth century, but the defenders of monarchy argued that by this agreement the people surrendered their power to the ruler and his heirs. Towards the close of the century, after the question had become very thoroughly discussed, we find the contractual idea imbedded in the maxims of the Three Estates in 1584: ‘La royauté est un office, non un héritage.—C’est le peuple souverain qui dans l’origine créa les rois.—L’État est la chose du peuple; la souveraineté n’appartient pas aux princes, qui n’existent que par le peuple.—Un fait ne prend force de loi que par la sanction des États, rien n’est saint ni solide sans leur aveu.’1 Milton is therefore following closely in the footsteps of a long line of thinkers in founding royalty on a primitive contract, the conditions of which were dictated by the people. And, like others who had gone before him, he finds a sanction for such a league in the covenants of the chosen people, and, in later history, in coronation oaths and pledges.2 On this theory he bases his arguments (1) that titles of ‘Sovran Lord, natural Lord, and the like, are either arrogancies or flatteries’ (12. 17), (2) that the king has not a hereditary right to his crown and dignity (12. 27), (3) that kings are accountable, not only to God, but to the people (13. 11), (4) that the people may choose or reject, retain or depose the king, as they see fit (15. 11).
Out of these doctrines proceeds his outspoken declaration that the people may take up arms against a tyrant, ‘as against a common pest, and destroyer of mankind, that it is lawful and has been so through all ages, for any who have the power to convict, depose, and put him to death.’ Because this is his thesis, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates occupies a unique place in English literature, for it contains the first attempt in our language to trace even partially the history of tyrannicide, and it might also be added that until the present no later writer in English has supplemented the material gathered in this treatise and in the First Defence of the English People.1 Although Milton was indebted to Buchanan’s dialogue, De Jure Regni apud Scotos (1579), for some references on this topic, and possibly to Bodin’s De Republica (1576), he did research-work on his own account, and has cited here, and elsewhere in his writings, principally in his First Defence, many quotations from the ancients on the subject of tyranny.
In this pamphlet, Milton pays most attention to instances of tyrannicide from Jewish history, but he draws one important quotation from Seneca (22. 17) and makes a general statement concerning the practice among the Greeks and Romans (20. 10). His definition of a tyrant shows his knowledge of Aristotle’s opinions on the subject (12. 13). He also cites Euripides (14. 22), Dio Cassius (14. 29), Livy (16. 20), and St. Basil (19. 27). In the second edition he added a formidable array of quotations from the Protestant theologians.
This pamphlet, however, was written hurriedly, and he did not have time to make an exhaustive study of the subject. In the days when he toiled over the pages of the First Defence he was able to go into the question more deeply, and perhaps nothing in Milton’s prose reveals the vast extent of his reading more than his citations on this theme. He quotes Aristotle (Bohn 1. 37, 38, 46), Sallust (ib. 1. 38, 39), Cicero (ib. 1. 39), M. Aurelius (ib. 1. 49); he refers to Tiberius as ‘a very great tyrant’ (ib. 1. 49); the senate and people of Rome would have been justified in proceeding against Domitian ‘according to the custom of their ancestors,’ and in giving judgment of death against him, as they did once against Nero’ (ib. 1. 81); he calls attention to Cicero’s praise of Brutus as a saviour and preserver of the Commonwealth (ib. 1. 90). ‘All men’ he says, ‘blame Domitian, who put to death Epaphroditus, because he had helped Nero to kill himself’ (ib. 1. 93). He points out that Valentinian was slain by Maximus (ib. 1. 105), Avitus was deposed by the Roman senate (ib.), Gratian was killed by the soldiers (ib.). Diodorus and Herodotus are quoted as authorities for the stories of the deposition of Egyptian tyrants, and the former also yields examples from Persian and Ethiopian history (ib. 1. 121 ff.). Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Cicero, and Polybius are all cited in rapid succession (ib. 1. 125). Of the poets, he quotes Æschylus (ib. 1, 126), Euripides, and Sophocles (ib. 1. 127). In a review of the Roman historians, he cites Sallust (ib.), Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, Dio Cassius (ib. 1. 128), Pliny (ib. 1. 131), and Capitolinus (ib. 1. 133). After quoting Seneca, he continues: ‘By what has been said it is evident, that the best of the Romans did not only kill tyrants as oft as they could, and howsoever they could; but that they thought it a commendable and a praiseworthy action so to do, as the Grecians had done before them’ (ib. 1. 132). In the Second Defence he declares that the Greeks and Romans ‘are the objects of our admiration because of their resistance to tyrants and their treatment of tyrannicides, whose brows they bound with wreaths of laurel and consigned their memories to immortal fame’ (ib. 1. 217). The poets are also eulogized; for ‘I know that the most of them, from the earliest times to those of Buchanan, have been the strenuous enemies of despotism’ (ib. 1. 241).
Although he uses Protestant opinions, he was obliged to pass by the sixteenth century Roman Catholic writers on this subject, for citations from their pages would have been offensive to his readers. Indeed, he takes care to abuse the Jesuit doctrine in favor of tyrannicide, in these words: ‘And let him ask the Jesuits about him [Ormond], whether it be not their known doctrine and also practice, not by fair and due process of justice to punish kings and magistrates, which we disavow not, but to murder them in the basest and most assassinous manner, if their church interest so require.’1 But this criticism of the Jesuits comes with bad grace from the eulogist of Harmodius, Brutus, and the other glorified assassins of Greece and Rome.
[1 ]Poole, Illust. Hist. Med. Thought, p. 229.
[2 ]Opera, ed. Goldast, 18. 185.
[1 ]Poole, Illustr. Hist. Med. Thought, p. 231.
[2 ]De Rege et Regis Institutione 1. 7.
[3 ]Trans. Royal Hist. Soc. 11. 104.
[1 ]See note on 9. 31.
[2 ]Poole, Illust. Med. Thought, p. 232.
[1 ]Baudrillart, J. Bodin et Son Temps, p. 10.
[2 ]See notes on 9. 31; 12. 4.
[1 ]For a review of the literature on the subject of tyrannicide see the Appendix.
[1 ]See De Jure Regni apud Scotos, trans. Macfarlan, pp. 146, 147.