Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: 'Aierie Modells' - The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth
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II.: ‘Aierie Modells’ - John Milton, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth 
The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, edited with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary by Evert Mordecai Clark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1915).
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The one question upon which there was universal agreement during the months immediately preceding the Restoration was the urgent necessity of settling the government upon permanent foundations. ‘This care of timely settling a new government,’ declared Milton, ‘too much neglected, hath been our mischief.’ The republic of 1649-53 had been merely tentative; the protectorate, in spite of its noble achievements, had utterly collapsed within a year after the death of the great ‘Single Person’; the resurrected Rump delayed the attempt until turned out by the army; the army-régime evolved elaborate proposals, only to fall to pieces again in favor of the Rump; and, finally, the Remnant, after its second restoration, seemed utterly incompetent, or strangely unwilling, to go about the great business. In a word, proposal, experiment, and failure had been the history of the past eleven years, and the half-year preceding the Restoration is well called the reign of ‘anarchy and confusion.’ ‘Like a drowning man,’ declared one of Monk’s gratuitous advisers, ‘this nation hath laid hold of every thing that came in its way; but all things have proved but straws and helpless twigs, that will not bear it above water.’1 Monk himself told the Parliament on Feb. 6 that, as he marched from Scotland, he ‘observed the people in most counties in great and earnest expectations of Settlement.’2
But if there was unanimity as to the need, there was the greatest possible diversity of opinions as to ways and means. Every faction had its ‘only cure’ or ‘easy prescription.’ And, as The Ready and Easy Way was one of these contributions of advice, it will be best understood in relation to the more important, at least, of these numerous proposals.
Of no statesman of his day had Milton a higher opinion than of Sir Henry Vane, whom Clarendon describes as a man ‘unlimited and unrestrained by any rules or bounds prescribed to other men, by reason of his perfection, . . . a perfect enthusiast’ who ‘did believe himself inspired.’3 In the well-known sonnet, Milton addresses him as
Vane and Milton were both republicans, both champions of the Rump, and both believers in freedom of conscience, and separation of church and state. It is not surprising, therefore, that their solutions of the problem of settlement show a considerable similarity, particularly in the advocacy of a perpetual council. In A Healing Question propounded and resolved, . . . with a Desire to apply Balsome to the Wound before it become incurable,4 Vane inquired whether a ‘standing council of state setled for life in reference to the safety of the commonwealth, and for the maintaining intercourse and commerce with foreign states, under the inspection and oversight of the supream judicature, but of the same fundamental constitution with themselves, would . . . be disliked.’ By such recommendations, urged by such worthy members as Henry Vane, Milton was undoubtedly persuaded into championing the perpetuation of the Rump as a grand council. Vane’s council was to have been even more absolute than Milton’s: vacancies, ‘by death or otherwise, might be supplied by the vote of the major part of themselves.’ This idea may have suggested to Milton his modified form of rotation (see p. 23). Vane is clearly in advance of Milton in his recommendation of distinct legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government. ‘Would there be any just exception to be taken,’ he asks, ‘if (besides both these) it should be agreed (as another part of the fundamental constitution of the government) to place that branch of soveraignty which chiefly respects the execution of laws in a distinct office from that of the legislative power, (and yet subordinate to them and to the laws) capable to be intrusted into the hands of one single person, if need require, or in a greater number, as the legislative power should think fit?’ Like Milton, Vane concludes his model with a rhapsodic expression of faith in its efficacy, exclaiming: ‘How suddenly might harmony, righteousness, love, peace, and safety unto the whole body follow hereupon, as the happy fruit of such a settlement, if the Lord have any delight to be amongst us!’
Vane’s influence did not cease with the downfall of the Rump in October, 1659, but is apparent in the constitution drafted by the general council of army-officers, the main provisions of which were as follows: that there be (1) no kingship, (2) no single person as chief magistrate, (3) no house of peers, (4) no imposition upon conscience; (5) that an army be continued; (6) that the legislative and executive powers be in distinct hands; and (7) that Parliaments be elected by the people.1 In this constitution, Vane’s idealism is tempered and restrained by the conservatism and legal acumen of Bulstrode Whitelock.
On the last day of October, 1659, William Prynne, the most voluminous of the pamphleteers, came forward with A short, legal, medicinal, useful, safe, easy Prescription, to recover our Kingdom, Church, Nation, from their present dangerous, distractive, destructive Confusion,2 in which he recommended, as ‘the only just, legal, probable means now left,’ the following: (1) ‘for all the antient nobility of the kingdom . . . to assemble themselves by common consent at Westminster’ and issue writs for a Parliament; (2) ‘for all freeholders in every county’ . . . to elect ‘the ablest, honestest, wisest, stoutest gentlemen for their sheriffs,’ and ‘the wisest, ablest, stoutest, discreetest persons . . . knights, citizens, and burgesses’; (3) for all to resolve not to obey ‘new, illegal, tyrannical, upstart powers, officers, conventicles, committees, or councils,’ and to punish all resisting these measures as traitors.
Denouncing Prynne as a ‘crop-eared pettifogger, a reviler of the saints, a constant opposer of powers, an unwearied scribbler, a demoniack possessed with a legion of hellish fiends, the spirit of contradiction,’ the author of Democritus turned Statesman3 wished to know ‘whether it be not the purest and safest kind of free state, to have a free parliament elected annually, or twice a year, as it was before the Conquest, and after many years, without restraint on the wills of the free people of the nation; which parliament may constitute and elect a senate, that shall act according, and subject to the law of the land in the interval of parliament, and so to be elected from year to year by each parliament.’ This was the notion of ‘successive Parlaments’ with which Milton regrets to find men’s minds ‘prepossessd.’
A most remarkable anticipation of the presidency and house of representatives, as constituted in modern republics, is found in Twenty-five Queries: modestly and humbly, and yet sadly and seriously propounded1 : ‘If it shall be thought fit to have a single person to govern these nations with the advice of his council in the intervals of parliament: first, Then will it not be the safest way for the people to have this single person and council invested only with power to execute the laws, and the whole legislative power to be settled in the people’s representatives? And again, considering the temper and constitution of the nation, will it not be most equal and just to have this single person elective, to continue for one or two years, and he and his council to be accountable to the parliament for mal-administration? . . . Will not this way be far less chargeable and burthensome to the nation than hereditary kingship?’
Among these numerous advisers there were few who agreed with Milton upon perpetuation, but the sentiment in favor of a commonwealth in some form was predominant in publications up to the decisive turn of affairs on Feb. 11. A typical plea for an ‘equal commonwealth’ is found in A Letter of Advice to his Excellency Lord-General Monk2 : ‘Thus hath this poor nation, within these few years, tried all sorts of government, but an equal commonwealth. We have experienced monarchy in the old line, and in the two protectors, a select senate, an oligarchy, the government of an army; what not? And have not as yet met with the ends of a good government. . . . And now, sir, can anything else save us, but an equal commonwealth? Which in truth is no more than a free and full parliament; but a free and full parliament more truly elected and better formed.’
Monk himself pretended to be strong for a commonwealth, as is evident from The Speech and Declaration1 of Feb. 21: ‘. . . I thought good to assure you, and that in the presence of God, that I have nothing before my eyes but God’s glory, and the settlement of these nations upon commonwealth foundations. . . . Only give me leave to mind you, that the old foundations are by God’s providence so broken, that, in the eye of reason, they cannot be restored but upon the ruins of the people of these nations; . . . for if the people find that, after so long and bloody a war against the king for breaking in upon their liberties, yet at last he must be taken in again, it will be out of question, as is most manifest, he may for the future govern by his will, dispose of parliaments and parliament men as he pleaseth, and yet the people will never more rise for their assistance.’
Harrington’s important proposals are considered in the section entitled The Rota Club.
On October 20, in A Letter to a Friend, Concerning the Ruptures of the Commonwealth,2 Milton himself sketched in outline a proposal which four months later he elaborated in The Ready and Easy Way. It ran: ‘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 be either the parliament readmitted 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’—the former implying also ‘the removal of a forced maintenance from ministers. . . . That which I conceive only able to cement, and unite for ever the army, either to the parliament recalled, or this chosen council, must be a mutual league and oath, private or public, not to desert one another till death: that is to say, that the army be kept up, and all these officers in their places during life, and so likewise the parliament or counsellors of state. . . . And whether the civil government be an annual democracy or a perpetual aristocracy, is not to me a consideration for the extremities wherein we are, and the hazard of our safety from our common enemy, gaping at present to devour us.’ Finally, ‘well-order’d committees of their faithfulest adherents in every county may give this government the resemblance and effect of a perfect democracy.’
We may now turn from this embryonic constitution to its full development in The Ready and Easy Way.
Milton’s Ideal Republic
The ground upon which Milton was to erect his commonwealth was first cleared of all traditional rubbish. There was to be no king or duke or protector—no single person of any kind. There were to be no bishops, no House of Lords; nor was there to be any ‘distinction of lords and commoners’ that might ‘any way divide or sever the public interest.’
In the way of positive proposal he began, as he did in the Letter to a Friend, with an aristocratic council. Supreme power should be vested in a ‘full and free Councel of ablest men,’ elected by the people from such as were ‘not addicted to a single person or house of lords.’ This council should have control of the naval and military forces, manage the public revenue, make laws, and attend to all affairs with other nations. The tenure of office in this body should be for life, or during good behavior; but if this would not be accepted, then the expedients of rotation, or of submitting to the people the question whether the several members should retire or remain in office, might be adopted.
To facilitate the handling of matters requiring much ‘secrecie and expedition,’ and to act as a kind of executive head, the grand council must choose from its own members a smaller council of state. ‘No single person, but reason only,’ was to rule in all its deliberations.
Every county in England was to be constituted a ‘little commonwealth,’ of which the chief town should be the capital. Here the chief gentry were to reside in befitting palaces, and participate in the local legislative, executive, and judicial organizations, which should be subordinate only in matters affecting the national government. But even the legislative enactments of the grand council were to be submitted, by a species of referendum, to ratification or rejection at the hands of the majority of these subordinate commonwealths. Thus there were to be, not ‘many sovranties united in one Commonwealth, but many Commonwealths under one united and entrusted sovrantie’—not a loose confederation, but the largest amount of local sovereignty consistent with a supreme and efficient national authority.
Offices were to be filled by popular election; but suffrage must be well hedged about with qualifications. By no means should all be left to ‘the noise and shouting of a rude multitude.’ These qualifications were designed to restrict suffrage and magistracy to those who were ‘well affected’ toward government without single person or House of Lords. Those ‘rightly qualifi’d’ might nominate as many as they would; from these nominees, ‘others of a better breeding’ were to ‘chuse a less number more judiciously, till after a third or fourth sifting and refining of exactest choice,’ those were left who were the ‘due number,’ and ‘by most voices’ thought ‘worthiest.’ Thus ‘worth and merit,’ rather than rank or wealth, were to govern in the choice of public servants. Moreover, these worthies were to be unsalaried; for magistracy should be undertaken, not from motives of personal ambition, but solely as an opportunity for unselfish service.
The good and the wise, however few, were to rule. But ‘due libertie’—not license—and equality proportioned to merit should be guaranteed to all. In every town there should be free schools and academies. Church and state should be absolutely distinct and independent; and liberty of conscience must be assured. Finally, there were to be the fewest possible laws, in order that there might be the largest possible degree of individual freedom; one universal, divine law should prevail—the law of nature, ‘the only law of laws truly and properly to all mankinde fundamental.’
When the government was once settled on this foundation, virtue would flourish and happiness abound. The people would soon be ‘satisfi’d and delighted with the decent order, ease, and benefit’ of such a government. And the republic itself should never know decay, but should ‘so continue . . . even to the coming of our true and right full and only to be expected King, . . . the Messiah, the Christ.’
Milton vigorously resented any suggestion that his model was ideal and impracticable. Again and again he insisted that his ‘way’ was ‘plain,’ ‘open,’ ‘easy,’ ‘without intricacies . . . or any considerable objection . . . that it is not practicable.’ He professed to follow Aristotle rather than Plato, whose ‘fancied republic . . . in this world could have no place.’1 He desired ‘to ordain wisely, as in this world of evil’—not ‘to sequester out of the world into Atlantic and Utopian politics, which never can be drawn into use.’2
In Milton’s claim there was some degree of force. His plan was extremely simple. It meant merely perpetuating a body of men already in power, and further elaborating systems of local sovereignty and popular education already in existence. Many of its recommendations have long since become a part of the actual workings of modern republics. Such are its combination of local and national authority, the referendum in legislation, and the merit-system of civil service. Besides, he announced no socialistic principles of absolute equality, equal division of lands, or community of goods. He attempted, at least, to lay the foundations of his commonwealth, not upon some undiscovered Oceana. Utopia, or New Atlantis, but in the England of February, 1660.
But while Milton, in modeling his republic, endeavored to play the rôle of a practical statesman, he nevertheless remained the great idealist and poet. Hence we find that, in spite of its air of practicality, his republic has much in common with those of Plato and other political idealists. With Augustine and the mystical mediævalists, Milton loves to think of the race as a great brotherhood, and of God’s ‘governing from heaven’ as the ‘universal Lord of all mankind.’ With Plato, he conceives of office-holding as public service. The right of the wise to rule, and the obligation of the ignorant to follow; aristocracy of merit; the exaltation of spiritual interests over every other in the state—these are all a part of Plato’s republic. Like Plato, Milton saw no reason why a state, so constituted, should not endure for ever.
The impracticability and real Utopian character of Milton’s republic, however, are to be found in its most fundamental proposal—government by a supreme and perpetual council of ablest men. To Milton, who looked upon magistracy as unselfish service, and believed that ‘nothing is more agreeable to the order of nature, or more for the interest of mankind, than that the less should yield to the greater, not in numbers, but in wisdom and in virtue,’1 it seemed so easy, so desirable, so safe, to constitute the Parliament then sitting a perpetual council. As their literary champion, Milton had come to believe that these men were absolutely worthy and incorruptible—‘faithfull worthies, who at first freed us from tyrannie, and have continu’d ever since through all changes constant to thir trust.’ But by February, 1660, Milton stood practically alone in this belief. The Rump had become a national byword. No Utopian model ever dreamed could have been less acceptable to England at that time than was Milton’s proposal to perpetuate this obnoxious assembly. The Ready and Easy Way was greeted with a roar of derision. Instantly and mercilessly were its fundamental weaknesses laid bare. The Censure of the Rota is typical: ‘Though you brag much of the people’s managing their own affairs, you allow them no more share of that in your Utopia, as you have ordered it, than only to set up their throats and bawl, instead of every three years, which they might have done before, once in an age, or oftener, as an old member drops away, and a new one is to succeed,’ etc. (see Appendix B. 3).
So far as the adaptability of Milton’s model to then existing conditions was concerned, there can be no doubt that the critics were right. Had there been infallible means of finding out who were the best and wisest; had all men looked upon magistracy as unselfish service; had officers, once chosen for life, been absolutely incorruptible, then, and then only, could Milton’s scheme have been successful. But notwithstanding twenty years of participation in public affairs, Milton seems to have been unable to perceive the utter impracticability of his proposal, or to realize, as did Sir Thomas More, that ‘except all men were good, everything cannot be right.’
Two Formative Influences
[1 ]Letter of Advice (Harl. Misc. 8. 625).
[2 ]Cobbett, Parl. Hist. 3. 1575.
[3 ]Hist. of Rebellion 16. 88.
[4 ]Somers Tracts 6. 303.
[1 ]Whitelock, Memorials 4. 378.
[2 ]Somers Tracts 6. 533.
[3 ]Harl. Misc. 6. 192.
[1 ]Harl. Misc. 9. 424.
[2 ]Ibid. 8. 625.
[1 ]Cobbett, Parl. Hist. 3. 1579.
[2 ]Bohn 2. 103.
[1 ]Areop. (Bohn 2. 72).
[2 ]Ibid. (Bohn 2. 74).
[1 ]Sec. Def. (Bohn 1. 265).