Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: The Rota Club - The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth
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II.: The Rota Club - 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 Rota Club
Among the various contemporary schools of commonwealth-proposers there was none so interesting, so brilliant, and so important in relation to Milton as the little group of enthusiasts who met regularly during the winter evenings of 1659-60 to discuss ‘aierie modells’ under the hospitable shelter of Miles’ Coffee-House, ‘at the Turk’s head, in the New Pallace-yard.’ The founder and animating spirit of this famous debating society was James Harrington, the author of Oceana, and, upon the whole, the ablest political philosopher of his time. Toland styles him the ‘greatest Commonwealthman in the World,’1 and his Oceana ‘the most perfect Form of Popular Government that ever was.’ However that may be, it is certain that no contemporary republican possessed an equally intimate acquaintance with all previous political theory, together with constructive imagination and genius for detail, and unfailing enthusiasm in promoting his ideas. The Oceana appeared in 1656. It was instantly pounced upon by Cromwell’s courtiers, and carried to Whitehall; but, through Harrington’s intercession with Lady Claypole, the ‘child of his brain’ was rescued from Cromwell. Toland tells us that the treatise was ‘greedily bought up, and become the subject of all mens discourse.’ It proposed a most elaborate model of a commonwealth, based upon rotation in office, equal distribution of land, and the fundamental principle ‘that empire follows the balance of property, whether lodg’d in one, in a few, or in many hands’—a principle which, Toland affirms, Harrington ‘was the first that ever made out.’ Aubrey records that this ‘ingeniose tractat, together with his and H. Nevill’s smart discourses and inculcations, dayly at coffee-houses, made many proselytes.’1 It provoked spirited controversy, and became the political creed and unifying principle of the Rota Club.
As the militant republicanism of the Harringtonians exercised so large an influence upon both editions of The Ready and Easy Way, it may be worth while to become acquainted with the Rota-men and their famous Coffee-Club. The Club began its sessions in September, 1659, at the time when the restored Rump was taking up the great question of settlement. The purpose of the Club, according to Burnet, was ‘to consider of a form of government that should secure liberty, and yet preserve the nation.’2 It continued its animated discussions through the constitution-making army-régime and until the downfall of the Rump in February, or almost up to the appearance of The Ready and Easy Way. Perhaps the best contemporary mention is the following quaint account by Aubrey, a frequent visitor: ‘In so much [did Harrington ‘make proselytes’] that, anno 1659, the beginning of Michaelmasterme, he had every night a meeting at the (then) Turke’s head, in the New Pallace-yard, where they take water, the house next to the staires, at one Miles’, where was made purposely a large ovall-table, with a passage in the middle for Miles to deliver his Coffee. About it sate his disciples, and the virtuosi. The discourses were in this kind the most ingeniose, and smart, that ever I heard, or expect to heare, and band[i]ed with great eagernesse: the arguments in the Parliament howse were but flatt to it. . . . Here we had (very formally) a ballotting-box, and balloted how things should be caried, by way of tentamens. The room was every evening full as it could be cramm’d. I cannot now recount the whole number:—Mr. Cyriack Skinner, an ingeniose young gentleman, scholar to John Milton, was chaireman. . . . We many times adjourned to the Rhenish wine howse. One time Mr. Stafford and his gang came in, in drink, from the taverne, and affronted the Junto (Mr. Stafford tore their orders and minutes). The soldiers offerd to kick them downe stayres, but Mr. Harrington’s moderation and persuasion hindered it. The doctrine was very taking, and the more because, as to human foresight, there was no possibility of the king’s returne. But the greatest part of the Parliament-men perfectly hated this designe of rotation by ballotting; for they were cursed tyrants and in love with their power, and ’t was death to them, except 8 or 10, to admitt of this way. . . . Now this modell upon rotation was:—that the third part of the Senate should rote out by ballot every yeare, so that every ninth yeare the House would be wholly alterd; no magistrate to continue above 3 yeares, and all to be chosen by ballot, then which manner of choice, nothing can be invented more faire and impartiall. Well: this meeting continued Novemb., Dec., Jan., till Febr. 20 or 21; and then, upon the unexpected turne upon generall Monke’s comeing-in, all these aierie modells vanishd.’1
Wood’s account2 follows Aubrey’s, but adds that the ballot-box with which the ‘gang’ amused themselves was an absolute novelty, ‘not being us’d or known in England before’; and that ‘on this account the room was every evening very full.’ This ballot-box, with its queer little pellets of divers colors, is one of the exotics at which Milton grumbles; but it was a source of infinite mirth among the Royalist wits. For a specimen of their satire see The Censure of the Rota (Appendix B. 3). Other amusing references to the Club may be found in the Harleian Miscellany (6. 192, 465; 7. 197).
A frequent and very much interested visitor at the Rota-Club debates was Samuel Pepys, who furnishes us comments under the dates of Jan. 10, Jan. 14, Jan. 17, and Feb. 20, the last of which is as follows: ‘In the evening Simons and I to the Coffee Club, where nothing to do only I heard Mr. Harrington, and my Lord of Dorset and another Lord, talking of getting another place as the Cockpit, and they did believe it would come to something. After a small debate upon the question whether learned or unlearned subjects are the best the Clubb broke up very poorly, and I do not think they will meet any more.’
They did not; at least, this is the last account we have of them.
We do not know that Milton ever visited the Rota Club, but it is certain that he was in constant and intimate touch with its proceedings. Cyriack Skinner, its occasional chairman, was one of Milton’s closest friends. Besides, this vigorous championship of a commonwealth must have been of very great interest to Milton, who differed from Harrington only as to the best means to this same general end. In the preface to Hirelings, he seems to show a keen interest in the Harrington petition recently laid before Parliament (see note on 23. 19). It is probable that his Rota-friend read to him from time to time Harrington’s various tracts in support of a commonwealth, such as The Art of Lawgiving, Political Aphorisms, 7 Models of a Commonwealth, and The Rota. And it would be singular indeed if there were no trace of them to be found in Milton’s contemporary model.
We find that the characteristic ideas of the Rota-men did exert an influence upon both editions of The Ready and Easy Way. The idea of rotation, so far from Milton’s doctrine of perpetuity in office, was still less radical and dangerous than the ‘conceit’ of successive Parliaments. It is therefore mentioned by Milton in the first edition, by way of compromise with the Harrington school, as the ‘best expedient, and with least danger’—but only to be tolerated as a last resort to satisfy such as were ‘ambitious to share in the government.’ It would seem, however, that Milton’s information as to Harrington’s proposal was somewhat inexact, or, as is more probable, that he was not willing to follow that design too closely. The rotation-scheme as stated in the first edition is Harrington’s, but with a difference; and the difference is characteristically Miltonic. Instead of one third of the senate’s rotating annually by suffrage of the people, ‘a hundred or some such number may go out by lot or suffrage of the rest’—a much less popular form of rotation than Harrington’s, and one less likely to impair the dignity and power of the senate. If possible, the managing of this business should be in the control of the council itself. It is in the second edition, however, that the subject receives earnest attention. Milton finds it expedient ‘to enlarge especially that part which argues for a perpetual Senat.’ Accordingly, we find that the brief mention of rotation in the first edition has been expanded into whole paragraphs and pages in the second.
But the Rota Club, notwithstanding the fact that Milton grudgingly and tentatively accepts one of its proposals, is not to be thought of as a source of The Ready and Easy Way, but rather as a formative influence without the pressure of which large sections of Milton’s treatise would not have been written. The ideas of the Rota-men are almost invariably mentioned to be criticized and combated. Such criticism must have seemed all the more imperative, as The Rota: Or a Modell of a Free State or equal Commonwealth, Harrington’s contribution of advice corresponding to Milton’s, was almost exactly contemporary with The Ready and Easy Way. Wood naturally associates the two rival models: ‘The Rota . . . published in the beginning of Feb. 1659. About which time John Milton published a pamphlet called, The ready and easy Way to establish a free commonwealth.’1 That Milton considered Harrington a formidable competitor, we may infer from the dimensions of the counter-argument in this treatise, and from Harrington’s reputation as a political philosopher. Toland says by way of comparison: ‘In this book [Milton’s] he delivers the model of a commonwealth, well suted perhaps to the circumstances of that time, but inferior, in all respects, to Harrington’s Oceana, which for the practicableness, equality, and completeness of it, is the most perfect form of such a government that ever was delineated by any antient or modern pen.’1
Finally, the principal proposals of Harrington that come in for criticism in the pamphlet, and Milton’s opinions of them, may be briefly stated. (1) Agrarian laws (see note on 28. 30) Milton believes to be dangerous; his own model involves ‘no perilous, no injurious alteration or circumscription of mens lands and proprieties.’ (2) There were to be a ‘Senate of three hundred Knights, and the popular assembly of one thousand and fifty Deputies, each being upon a triennial Rotation, or annual Change in one third part.’ But this ‘annual rotation of a Senat to consist of three hundred, as is lately propounded,’ replies Milton, and ‘another popular assembly upward of a thousand, with an answerable rotation, . . . cannot but be troublesom and chargeable, unweildie with thir own bulk, unable to mature thir consultation as they ought.’ He ‘could wish this wheel or partial wheel in State, if it be possible, might be avoided, as having too much affinitie with the wheel of fortune.’ He does not, however, reject it utterly. If not the ‘best,’ it is still the ‘known expedient,’ and much to be preferred to kingship. He will not ‘forejudge . . . any probable expedient.’ The tone of the argument reveals no sign of animosity toward Harrington himself. (3) The secret ballot receives no support from Milton; he speaks slightingly of this Venetian innovation, and of ‘exotic models’ in general. (4) Harrington’s whole elaborate scheme of division and subdivision of territory into shires or tribes, hundreds, and parishes, and of the freemen into youths and elders, horse and foot; their assembling at stated times at the summons of trumpet or drum, or the ringing of bells; the compulsory marching and countermarching, the prescribed robes of divers colors, the intricate process of voting—all seemed to Milton ‘new injunctions to manacle the native libertie of mankinde; turning all vertue into prescription, servitude, and necessitie, to the great impairing and frustrating of Christian libertie.’ His way, so different from Harrington’s, was ‘plain, easie and open; . . . without intricacies, without the introducement of . . . obsolete forms, or terms, or exotic models.’
[1 ]Preface to Life of James Harrington.
[1 ]Brief Lives 1. 289.
[2 ]Hist. of My Own Time 1. 151.
[1 ]Brief Lives 1. 289.
[2 ]Athen. Oxon., ed. Bliss, 2. 1119.
[1 ]Athen. Oxon. 3. 1123.
[1 ]Life of Milton, ed. 1761, p. 110.