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John Milton, The Readie and easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth - Joyce Lee Malcom, The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, vol. 1 
The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, 2 vols, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 1.
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John Milton, The Readie and easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth
J. M. [John Milton, 1608-1674]
Readie & Easie
The Excellence therof
The inconveniences and dangers of readmitting kingship in this nation.
The author J. M.
Printed by T. N. and are to be sold by Livewell Chapman at the Crown in Popes-Head Alley. 1660.
The best-known defender of the Commonwealth government was also one of England’s greatest men of letters, the poet and writer John Milton. “The Readie & Easie Way” is his desperate plea for the continuation of republican government in the face of mounting sentiment for the restoration of monarchy. While Milton has been honored for his poetry and for other prose works, this heartfelt piece, probably the boldest and most passionate essay he ever wrote, has been passed over by scholars in favor of the longer, more measured second edition. The splendid first edition is reprinted here for the first time in eighty years.
Milton’s career was an odd one for a staunch republican. He became disaffected from the Laudian church as a student of Christ’s College, Cambridge. After university he devoted himself to literature and entered the political fray with contributions to the pamphlet debate over episcopacy. When the civil war broke out he shied away from military service and remained in London teaching pupils whom he took into his home. In 1643 he married the daughter of a royalist. He clashed with Presbyterian members of Parliament in 1643 over his controversial tract on divorce and again the following year when he took issue with Parliament’s controls on the press in his famous tract, “Areopagitica.” Perhaps it is not surprising that Milton sympathized with the New Model Army’s purge of the Presbyterian members of Parliament in 1648. After the execution of the king he wrote in defense of the people’s right to judge their rulers. The new Council of State invited him to become their Latin secretary. He accepted, and despite his growing blindness he continued to hold this post through the protectorates of Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard. He also continued writing political tracts including, at the request of the government, a response to the Eikon Basilike, the best-selling book supposedly written by Charles I.
Milton’s growing disenchantment with the governments of the 1650s and the collapse of Richard Cromwell’s regime failed to shake his faith in republican government. Shortly after the arrival in London of General George Monck and his army on 3 February 1660 Milton composed “The Readie & Easie Way.” Milton feared that Monck and the Rump might agree to an election with few restrictions on who voted or stood for office. Such an election would almost surely produce a majority of members keen to restore Charles II. “The Readie & Easie Way” was a frantic appeal to Monck, the Rump, and the English people to resist the overwhelming sentiment for a return to monarchy. In it Milton acknowledges past problems with the republican experiments and makes various suggestions for reform.
The tract was published on 3 March 1660, but the essay may have been composed as early as 22 February. Political events overtook the tract, and Milton composed another version, softening his tone and adding additional sections. This second edition appeared in early April. It was all to no avail. On 21 April Monck invited former members of the Long Parliament to resume their seats. With their support a monarchist Council of State was created with authority to invite Charles II to return. Many of Milton’s warnings about the repercussions of the reestablishment of the monarchy would come to pass. Milton himself narrowly escaped execution. In his bitterness, pain, and blindness he would create what some consider to be the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost.
The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, &c.
Although since the writing of this treatise, the face of things hath had some change, writs for new elections have been recalled, and the members at first chosen, readmitted from exclusion, to sit again in Parliament, yet not a little rejoicing to hear declared, the resolutions of all those who are now in power, jointly tending to the establishment of a free Commonwealth, and to remove if it be possible, this unsound humour of returning to old bondage, instilled of late by some cunning deceivers, and nourished from bad principles and false apprehensions among too many of the people, I thought best not to suppress what I had written, hoping it may perhaps (the Parliament now sitting more full and frequent) be now much more useful than before: yet submitting what hath reference to the state of things as they then stood, to present constitutions; and so the same end be persued, not insisting on this or that means to obtain it. The treatise was thus written as follows.
The Parliament of England assisted by a great number of the people who appeared and stuck to them faithfullest in the defence of religion and their civil liberties, judging kingship by long experience a government burdensom, expensive, useless and dangerous, justly and magnanimously abolished it; turning regal-bondage into a free Commonwealth, to the admiration and terror of our neighbours, and the stirring up of France itself,1 especially in Paris and Bourdeaux, to our imitation. Nor were our actions less both at home and abroad than might become the hopes of a glorious rising Commonwealth; nor were the expressions both of the Army and of the People, whether in their publick declarations or several writings, other than such as testified a spirit in this nation no less noble and well fitted to the liberty of a Commonwealth, than in the ancient Greeks or Romans. After our liberty thus succesfully fought for, gained and many years possessed, except in those unhappie interruptions, which God hath removed, and wonderfully now the third time brought together our old Patriots, the first Assertours of our religious and civil rights, now that nothing remains but in all reason the certain hopes of a speedy and immediate settlement to this nation forever in a firm and free Commonwealth, to fall back, or rather to creep back so poorly as it seems the multitude would, to their once abjured and detested thraldom of kingship, not only argues a strange degenerate corruption suddenly spread among us, fitted and prepared for new slaverie, but will render us a scorn and derision to all our neighbours. And what will they say of us, but scoffingly as of that foolish builder mentioned by our Saviour, who began to build a Tower, and was not able to finish it: where is this goodly tower of a Common-wealth which the English boasted they would build, to overshaddow kings and be another Rome in the west? The foundation indeed they laid gallantly, but fell into a worse confusion, not of tongues, but of factions, than those at the tower of Babel; and have left no memorial of their work behinde them remaining, but in the common laughter of Europ, Which must needs redound the more to our shame, if we but look on our neighbours the United Provinces, to us inferiour in all outward advantages: who notwithstanding, in the midst of greater difficulties, couragiously, wisely, constantly went through with the same work, and are settled in all the happie injoyments of a potent and flourishing Republick to this day.
Besides this, if we return to kingship, and soon repent, as undoubtedly we shall, when we begin to finde the old incroachments coming on by little and little upon our consciences, which must necessarily proceed from king and bishop united inseparably in one interest, we may be forced perhaps to fight over again all that we have fought, and spend over again all that we have spent, but are never like to attain thus far as we are now advanced, to the recoverie of our freedom, never likely to have it in possession, as we now have it, never to be vouchsafed heerafter the like mercies and signal assistances from heaven in our cause, if by our ingratefull backsliding we make these fruitless to ourselves, all his gratious condescensions and answers to our once importuning prayers against the tyrannie which we then groaned under to become now of no effect, by returning of our own foolish accord, nay running headlong again with full stream wilfully and obstinately into the same bondage: making vain and viler than dirt the blood of so many thousand faithfull and valiant English men, who left us in this libertie, bought with their lives; losing by a strange aftergame of folly, all the battels we have wonne, all the treasure we have spent, not that corruptible treasure only, but that far more precious of all our late miraculous deliverances; and most pittifully depriving ourselves the instant fruition of that free government which we have so dearly purchased, a free Commonwealth, not only held by wisest men in all ages the noblest, the manliest, the equallest, the justest government, the most agreeable to all due libertie and proportioned equalitie, both human, civil and Christian, most cherishing to vertue and true religion, but also (I may say it with greatest probabilitie) planely commended or rather enjoined by our Saviour himself, to all Christians, not without remarkable disallowance and the brand of Gentilism upon kingship. God in much displeasure gave a king to the Israelites, and imputed it a sin to them that they sought one: but Christ apparently forbids his disciples to admitt of any such heathenish government: the kings of the gentiles, saith he, exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authoritie upon them, are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that serveth. The occasion of these his words, was the ambitious desire of Zebede’s two sons to be exalted above their brethren in his kingdom, which they thought was to be ere long upon earth. That he speaks of civil government, is manifest by the former part of the comparison, which inferrs the other part to be always in the same kinde. And what government comes neerer to this precept of Christ, than a free Commonwealth; wherein they who are greatest, are perpetual servants and drudges to the publick at their own cost and charges, neglect their own affairs; yet are not elevated above their brethren, live soberly in their families, walk the streets as other men, may be spoken to freely, familiarly, friendly, without adoration. Whereas a king must be adored like a Demigod, with a dissolute and haughtie court about him, of vast expence and luxurie, masks and revels, to the debaushing of our prime gentry both male and female; nor at his own cost, but on the publick revenue; and all this to do nothing but bestow the eating and drinking of excessive dainties, to set a pompous face upon the superficial actings of State, to pageant himself up and down in progress among the perpetual bowings and cringings of an abject people, on either side deifying and adoring him who for the most part deserves none of this by any good done to the people (for what can he more than another man?) but even in the expression of a late court-Poet, sits only like a great cypher set to no purpose before a long row of other significant figures. Nay it is well and happy for the people if their king be but a cypher, being oft times a mischief, a pest, a scourge of the nation, and which is worse, not to be removed, not to be controuled, much less accused or brought to punishment, without the danger of a common ruin, without the shaking and almost subversion of the whole land. Whereas in a free Commonwealth, any governour or chief counselour offending, may be removed and punished, without the least commotion. Certainly then that people must needs be madd or strangely infatuated, that build the chief hope of their common happiness or safetie on a single person; who if he happen to be good, can do no more than another man, if to be bad, hath in his hands to do more evil without check, than millions of other men. The happiness of a nation must needs be firmest and certainest in a full and free Councel of their own electing, where no single person, but reason only swayes. And what madness is it, for them who might manage nobly their own affairs themselves, sluggishly and weakly to devolve all on a single person; and more like boyes under age than men, to committ all to his patronage and disposal, who neither can perform what he undertakes, and yet for undertaking it, though royally paid, will not be their servant, but their lord? How unmanly must it needs be, to count such a one the breath of our nostrils, to hang all our felicitie on him, all our safety, our well-being, for which if we were aught else but sluggards or babies, we need depend on none but God and our own counsels, our own active vertue and industrie. Go to the Ant, thou sluggard, saith Solomon, consider her ways, and be wise; which having no prince, ruler, or lord, provides her meat in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest. Which evidently shews us, that they who think the nation undone without a king, though they swell and look haughtie, have not so much true spirit and understanding in them as a Pismire. It may be well wondered that any nation, styling themselves free, can suffer any man to pretend right over them as their lord; whenas by acknowledging that right, they conclude themselves as his servants and his vassals, and so renounce their own freedom. Which how a people can do, that hath fought so gloriously for libertie, how they can change their noble words and actions heretofore so becoming the majestie of a free people, into the base necessitie of court-flatteries and prostrations, is not only strange and admirable, but lamentable to think on; that a nation should be so valorous and courageous to winne their libertie in the field, and when they have won it, should be so unwise in their counsels, as not to know how to value it, what to do with it, or with themselves; but after ten or twelve years prosperous war and contestation with tyrannie, basely and besottedly to run their necks again into the yoke which they have broken, and prostrate all the fruits of their victorie for nothing at the feet of the vanquished, besides our loss of glorie, will be an ignominie, if it befall us, that never yet befell any nation possessed of their libertie. Worthie indeed themselves, whosoever they be, to be forever slaves; but that part of the nation which consents not with them, as I perswade me of a great number, far worthier than by their means to be brought into the same bondage, and reserved, I trust, by Divine providence to a better end; since God hath yet his remnant, and hath not yet quenched the spirit of libertie among us. Considering these things, so plane, so rational, I cannot but yet further admire on the other side, how any man who hath the true principles of justice and religion in him, can presume or take upon him to be a king and lord over his brethren, whom he cannot but know, whether as men or Christians, to be for the most part every way equal or superiour to himself: how he can display with such vanitie and ostentation his regal splendour so supereminently above other mortal men; or, being a Christian, can assume such extraordinarie honour and worship to himself, while the kingdom of Christ, our common King and Lord, is hid to this world, and such Gentilish imitation forbid in express words by himself to all his disciples? All Protestants hold, that Christ in his Church hath left no viceregent of his kingly power, but himself without deputy, is the only head thereof, governing it from heaven. How then can any Christian man derive his kingship from Christ, but with worse usurpation than the Pope his headship over the Church, since Christ not only hath not left the least shadow of a command for any such viceregence from him in the State, as the Pope pretends for his in the Church, but hath expressly declared that such regal dominion is from the gentiles, not from him, and hath strictly charged us, not to imitate them therein?
I doubt not but all ingenuous and knowing men will easily agree with me, that a free Commonwealth without single person or house of lords, is by far the best government, if it can be had; but we have all this while, say they, been expecting it, and cannot yet attain it. I answer, that the cause thereof may be ascribed with most reason to the frequent disturbances, interruptions and dissolutions which the Parliament hath had partly from the impatient or disaffected people, partly from some ambitious leaders in the armie; much contrarie, I believe, to the mind and approbation of the Armie itself and their other Commanders, when they were once undeceived, or in their own power. Neither ought the small number of those remaining in Parliament, be made a by-word of reproach to them, as it is of late by the rable, whenas rather they should be therefor honoured, as the remainder of those faithfull worthies, who at first freed us from tyrannie, and have continued ever since through all changes constant to their trust; which they have declared, as they may most justly and truly, that no other way they can discharge, no other way secure and confirme the people’s libertie, but by setling them in a free Commonwealth. And doubtless no Parliament will be ever able under royaltie to free the people from slavery: and when they go about it, will finde it a laborious task; and when they have done all, they can, be forced to leave the contest endless between prerogative and petition of right, till only dooms-day end it. And now is the opportunitie, now the very season wherein we may obtain a free Commonwealth, and establish it forever in the land, without difficulty or much delay. The Parliament have voted to fill up their number: and if the people, laying aside prejudice and impatience, will seriously and calmly now consider their own good, their own libertie and the only means thereof, as shall be heer laid before them, and will elect their Knights and Burgesses able men; and according to the just and necessarie qualifications decreed in Parliament, men not addicted to a single person or house of lords, the work is done; at least the foundation is firmly laid of a free Commonwealth, and good part also erected of the main structure. For the ground and basis of every just and free government (since men have smarted so oft for committing all to one person) is a general Councel of ablest men, chosen by the people to consult of publick affairs from time to time for the common good. This Grand Councel must have the forces by sea and land in their power, must raise and mannage the Publick revenue, make lawes, as need requires, treat of commerce, peace, or war with forein nations; and for the carrying on some particular affairs of State with more secrecie and expedition, must elect, as they have already out of their own number and others, a Councel of State. And although it may seem strange at first hearing, by reason that men’s mindes are prepossessed with the conceit of successive Parliaments, I affirm that the Grand or General Councel being well chosen, should sit perpetual: for so their business is, and they will become thereby skillfullest, best acquainted with the people, and the people with them. The ship of the Commonwealth is always under-sail; they sit at the stern; and if they stear well, what need is there to change them; it being rather dangerous? Adde to this, that the Grand Councel is both foundation and main pillar of the whole State; and to move pillars and foundations, unless they be faultie, cannot be safe for the building. I see not therefore how we can be advantaged by successive Parliaments; but that they are much likelier continually to unsettle rather than to settle a free government, to breed commotions, changes, novelties and uncertainties; and serve only to satisfie the ambition of such men, as think themselves injured, and cannot stay till they be orderly chosen to have their part in the government. If the ambition of such be at all to be regarded, the best expedient will be, and with least danger, that everie two or three years a hundred or some such number may go out by lot or suffrage of the rest, and the like number be chosen in their places; (which hath been already thought on heer, and done in other Commonwealths): but in my opinion better nothing moved, unless by death or just accusation. And I shall make mention of another way to satisfie such as are reasonable, ere I end this discourse. And least this be thought my single opinion, I shall adde sufficient testimonie. Kingship itself is therefore counted the more safe and durable, because the king and for the most part, his Councel, is not changed during life: but a Commonwealth is held immortal; and therein firmest, safest and most above fortune; for that the death of a king, causeth oft-times many dangerous alterations; but the death now and then of a Senator is not felt; the main body of them still continuing unchanged in greatest and noblest Commonwealths, and as it were eternal. Therefore among the Jews, the supream Councel of seaventie, called the Sanhedrin, founded by Moses, in Athens that the Areopagus, in Lacedaemon that of the Ancients, in Rome the Senat, consisted of members chosen for term of life; and by that means remained still the same to generations. In Venice they change indeed ofter than everie year some particular councels of State, as that of six, or such others; but the full Senate, which upholds and sustains the government, sits immovable. So in the United Provinces, the States General, which are indeed but a Councel of State delegated by the whole union, are not usually the same persons for above three or six years; but the Provincial States, in whom the true sovrantie is placed, are a standing Senate, without succession, and accounted chiefly in that regard the main prop of their libertie. And why they should be so in everie well ordered Commonwealth, they who write of policie, give these reasons; “That to make the whole Senate successive, not only impairs the dignitie and lustre of the Senate, but weakens the whole Commonwealth, and brings it into manifest danger; while by this means the secrets of State are frequently divulged, and matters of greatest consequence committed to inexpert and novice counselors, utterly to seek in the full and intimate knowledg of affairs past.” I know not therefor what should be peculiar in England to make successive Parliaments thought safest, or convenient heer more than in all other nations, unlesse it be the fickelness which is attributed to us as we are Islanders. But good education and acquisite wisdom ought to correct the fluxible fault, if any such be, of our watrie situation. I suppose therefor that the people well weighing these things, would have no cause to fear or murmur, though the Parliament, abolishing that name, as originally signifying but the parlie of our Commons with their Norman king when he pleased to call them, should perpetuate themselves, if their ends be faithfull and for a free Commonwealth, under the name of a Grand or General Councel. Nay till this be done, I am in doubt whether our State will be ever certainlie and throughly settled: and say again therefor, that if the Parliament do this, these nations will have so little cause to fear or suspect them, that they will have cause rather to gratulate and thank them: nay more, if they understand their own good rightly, will sollicit and entreat them not to throw off the great burden from their shoulders which none are abler to bear, and to sit perpetual; never likely till then to see an end of their troubles and continual changes, or at least never the true settlement and assurance of their libertie. And the government being now in so many faithful and experienced hands, next under God, so able, especially filling up their number, as they intend, and abundantly sufficient so happily to govern us, why should the nation so little know their own interest as to seek change, and deliver themselves up to meer titles and vanities, to persons untried, unknown, necessitous, implacable, and every way to be suspected: to whose power when we are once made subject, not all these our Patriots nor all the wisdom or force of the well affected joined with them can deliver us again from most certain miserie and thraldom. To return then to this most easie, most present and only cure of our distempers, the Grand Councel being thus firmly constituted to perpetuitie, and still, upon the death or default of any member, supplied and kept in full number, there can be no cause alleaged why peace, justice, plentiful trade and all prospertie should not thereupon ensue throughout the whole land; with as much assurance as can be of human things, that they shall so continue (if God favour us, and our willfull sins provoke him not) even to the coming of our true and rightfull and only to be expected King, only worthy as he is our only Saviour, the Messiah, the Christ, the only heir of his eternal father, the only by him anointed and ordained, since the worke of our redemtion finished, universal Lord of all mankind. The way propounded is plain, easie and open before us; without intricases, without the mixture of inconveniencies, or any considerable object to be made, as by some friviously, that it is not practicable: and this facilitie we shall have above our next neighbouring Commonwealth, (if we can keep us from the fond conceit of somthing like a duke of Venice, put lately into many men’s heads, by some one or other subtly driving on under that prettie notion his own ambitious ends to a crown) that our liberty shall not be hampered or hovered over by any ingagement to such a potent family as the house of Nassaw,2 of whom to stand in perpetual doubt and suspicion, but we shall live the cleerest and absolutest free nation in the world. On the contrarie, if there be a king, which the inconsiderate multitude are now so madd upon, marke how far short we are like to come of all those happinesses, which in a free State we shall immediately be possessed of. First, the Grand Councel, which, as I said before, is both the basis and main pillar in everie government, and should sit perpetually, (unless their leisure give them now and then some intermissions or vacations easilie manageable by the Councel of State left sitting) shall be called, by the king’s good will and utmost endeavour, as seldome as may be; and then for his own ends: for it will soon return to that, let no man hope otherwise, whatever law or provision be made to the contrarie. For it is only the king’s right, he will say, to call a Parliament; and this he will do most commonly about his own affairs rather than the kingdom’s, as will appear planely so soon as they are called. For what will their business then be and the chief expence of their time, but an endless tugging between right of subject and royal prerogative, especially about the negative voice, militia, or subsidies, demanded and oft-times extorted without reasonable cause appearing to the Commons, who are the only true representatives of the people; but will be then mingled with a court-faction; besides which, within their own walls, the sincere part of them who stand faithful to the people, will again have to deal with two troublesome counter-working adversaries from without; meer creatures of the king, temporal and spiritual lords, made up into one house, and nothing concerned with the people’s libertie. If these prevail not in what they please, though never so much against the people’s interest, the Parliament shall be soon disolved, or sit and do nothing; not suffered to remedie the least greevance, or enact aught advantageous to the people. Next, the Councel of State shall not be chosen by the Parliament, but by the king, still his own creatures, courtiers and favorites; who will be sure in all their counsels to set their maister’s grandure and absolute power, in what they are able, far above the people’s libertie. I denie not but that there may be such a king, who may regard the common good before his own, may have no vicious favorite, may hearken only to the wisest and incorruptest of his Parliament; but this rarely happens in a monarchie not elective; and it behoves not a wise nation to committ the summ of their well-being, the whole state of their safetie to fortune. And admitt, that monarchy of itself may be convenient to some nations, yet to us who have thrown it out, received back again, it cannot but prove pernicious. For the kings to come, never forgetting their former ejection, will be sure to fortifie and arme themselves sufficiently for the future against all such attempts heerafter from the people: who shall be then so narrowly watched and kept so low, as that besides the loss of all their blood, and treasure spent to no purpose, though they would never so fain and at the same rate, they never shall be able to regain what they now have purchasd and may enjoy, or to free themselves from any yoke imposed upon them. Besides this, a new royal-revenue must be found; which being wholly dissipated or bought by private persons, or assigned for service done, and especially to the Armie, cannot be recovered without a general confusion to men’s estates, or a heavy imposition on all men’s purses. Not to speak of revenges and offences that will be remembered and returned, not only by the chief person, but by all his adherents; accounts and reparations that will be required, suites and inditements, who knows against whom, or how many, though perhaps neuters, if not to utmost infliction, yet to imprisonment, fines, banishment; or if not these, yet disfavour, discountnance, disregard and contempt on all but the known royalist, or whom he favours, will be plentious; whatever conditions be contrived or trusted on.
Having thus far shewn with what ease we may now obtain a free Commonwealth, and by it with as much ease all the freedom, peace, justice, plentie that we can desire, on the other side, the difficulties, troubles, uncertainties nay rather impossibilities to enjoy these things constantly under a monarch, I will now proceed to shew more particularly wherein our freedom and flourishing condition will be more ample and secure to us under a free Commonwealth than under kingship.
The whole freedom of man consists either in spiritual or civil libertie. As for spiritual, who can be at rest, who can enjoy any thing in this world with contentment, who hath not libertie to serve God and to save his own soul, according to the best light which God hath planted in him to that purpose, by the reading of his revealed will and the guidance of his holy spirit? That this is best pleasing to God, and that the whole Protestant Church allows no supream judge or rule in matters of religion, but the scriptures, and these to be interpreted by the scriptures themselves, which necessarily inferrs liberty of conscience, hath been heertofore proved at large in other treatises, and might yet further by the publick declarations, confessions, and admonitions of whole Churches and States, obvious in all historie, since the Reformation. He who cannot be content with this libertie to himself, but seeks violently to impose what he will have to be the only religion, upon other men’s consciences, let him know, bears a minde not only unchristian and irreligious, but inhuman also and barbarous. And in my judgement civil States would do much better, and remove the cause of much hindrance and disturbance in publick affairs, much ambition, much hypocrisie and contention among the people, if they would not meddle at all with Ecclesiastical matters, which are both of a quite different nature from their cognisance, and have their proper laws fully and compleatly with such coercive power as belongs to them, ordained by Christ himself and his apostles. If there were no medling with Church matters in State counsels, there would not be such faction in chusing members of Parliament, while every one strives to chuse him whom he takes to be of his religion; and everie faction hath the plea of God’s cause. Ambitious leaders of armies would then have no hypocritical pretences so ready at hand to contest with Parliaments, yea to dissolve them and make way to their own tyrannical designs. In summ, I verily suppose there would be then no more pretending to a fifth monarchie of the saints:3 but much peace and tranquillitie would follow; as the United Netherlands have found by experience: who while they persecuted the Arminians, were in much disquiet among themselves, and in danger to have broke asunder into a civil war; since they have left off persecuting, they have lived in much more concord and prosperitie. And I have heard from Polanders themselves, that they never enjoyed more peace, than when religion was most at libertie among them; that then first began their troubles, when that king by instigation of the Jesuites began to force the Cossaks in matters of religion. This libertie of conscience, which above all other things ought to be to all men dearest and most precious, no government more inclinable not only to favour but to protect, than a free Commonwealth; as being most magnanimous, most fearless and confident of its own fair proceedings. Whereas kingship, though looking big, yet indeed most pusillanimous, full of fears, full of jealousies, startled at everie umbrage, as it hath been observed of old to have ever suspected most and mistrusted them who were in most esteem for vertue and generositie of minde, so it is now known to have most in doubt and suspicion them who are most reputed to be religious. Q. Elizabeth, though herself accounted so good a Protestant, so moderate, so confident of her subjects’ love, would never give way so much as to Presbyterian reformation in this land, though once and again besought as Cambden relates,4 but imprisoned and persecuted the verie proposers thereof, alleaging it as her minde and maxim unalterable, that such reformation would diminish regal authoritie. What libertie of conscience can we then expect from others far worse principled from the cradle, trained up and governed by Popish and Spanish counsels, and on such depending hitherto for subsistence.5 For they hear the Gospel speaking much of libertie, a word which monarchie and her bishops both fear and hate; but a free Commonwealth both favours and promotes; and not the word only, but the thing itself.
The other part of our freedom consists in the civil rights and advancments of every person according to his merit: the enjoyment of those never more certain, and the access to these never more open, than in a free Commonwealth. And both in my opinion may be best and soonest obtained, if every county in the land were made a little commonwealth, and their chief town a city, if it be not so called alreadie; where the nobilitie and chief gentry may build, houses or palaces, befitting their qualitie, may bear part in the government, make their own judicial lawes, and execute them by their own elected judicatures, without appeal, in all things of civil government between man and man. So they shall have justice in their own hands, and none to blame but themselves, if it be not well administered. In these imployments they may exercise and fit themselves till their lot fall to be chosen into the Grand Councel, according as their worth and merit shall be taken notice of by the people. As for controversies that shall happen between men of several counties, they may repair, as they do now, to the capital citie. They should have heer also schools and academies at their own choice, wherein their children may be bred up in their own sight to all learning and noble education, not in grammar only, but in all liberal arts and exercises. This would soon spread much more knowledge and civilitie, yea religion, through all parts of the land: this would soon make the whole nation more industrious, more ingenuous at home, more potent, more honourable abroad. To this a free Commonwealth will easily assent; (nay the Parliament hath had alreadie some such thing in designe) for of all governments a Commonwealth aim most to make the people flourishing, vertuous, noble and high spirited. Monarchs will never permitt: whose aim is to make the people, wealthy indeed perhaps and well-fleeced for their own shearing, and for the supply of regal prodigalitie; but otherwise softest, basest, viciousest, servilest, easiest to be kept under; and not only in fleece, but in minde also sheepishest; and will have all the benches of judicature annexed to the throne, as a gift of royal grace that we have justice done us; whenas nothing can be more essential to the freedom of a people, than to have the administration of justice and all publick ornaments in their own election and within their own bounds, without long traveling or depending on remote places to obtain their right or any civil accomplishment; so it be not supream, but subordinate to the general power and union of the whole Republick. In which happie firmness as in the particular above mentioned, we shall also far exceed the United Provinces, by having, not many sovranties in one Commonwealth, but many Commonwealths under one sovrantie.
I have no more to say at present: few words will save us, well considered; few and easie things, now seasonable done. But if the people be so affected, as to prostitute religion and libertie to the vain and groundless apprehension, that nothing but kingship can restore trade, not remembering the frequent plagues and pestilences that then wasted this citie, such as through God’s mercie, we never have left since, and that trade flourishes no where more, than in the free Commonwealths of Italie, Germanie and the Low Countreys, before their eyes at this day, yet if trade be grown so craving and importunate through the profuse living of tradesmen that nothing can support it, but the luxurious expences of a nation upon trifles or superfluities, so as if the people generally should betake themselves to frugalitie, it might prove a dangerous matter, least tradesmen should mutinie for want of trading, and that therefor we must forgoe and set to sale religion, libertie, honour, safetie, all concernments divine or human to keep up trading, if lastly, after all this light among us, the same reason shall pass for current to put our necks again under kingship, as was made use of by the Jews to return back to Egypt and to the worship of their idol queen, because they falsly imagined that they then lived in more plenty and prosperitie, our condition is not sound but rotten, both in religion and all civil prudence; and will bring us soon, the way we are marching, to those calamities which attend always and unavoidably on luxurie, that is to say all national judgments under forein or domestic slaverie: so far we shall be from mending our condition by monarchizing our government; whatever new conceit now possesses us. However with all hazard I have ventured what I thought my dutie, to speak in season, & to forewarn my country in time: wherein I doubt not but there be many wise men in all places and degrees, but am sorrie the effects of wisdom are so little seen among us. Many circumstances and particulars I could have added in those things whereof I have spoken, but a few main matters now put speedily into execution, will suffice to recover us, and set all right: and there will want at no time who are good at circumstances, but men who set their mindes on main matters and sufficiently urge them, in these most difficult times I finde not many. What I have spoken, is the language of the good old cause: if it seem strange to any, it will not seem more strange, I hope, than convincing to backsliders. Thus much I should perhaps have said, though I were sure I should have spoken only to trees and stones, and had none to cry to, but with the Prophet, O earth, earth, earth: to tell the verie soil itself what God hath determined of Coniah and his seed forever.6 But I trust, I shall have spoken perswasion to abundance of sensible and ingenuous men: to some perhaps, whom God may raise of these stones, to become children of libertie; and may enable and unite in their noble resolutions to give a stay to these our ruinous proceedings and to this general defection of the misguided and abused multitude.
[1. ]Milton is referring to the uprising against the French Crown from 1648 to 1653 known as the Fronde.
[2. ]The House of Nassau was a powerful European family with possessions in Germany and Holland.
[3. ]The Fifth Monarchists believed there was to be a fifth universal monarchy on earth under the personal reign of Jesus Christ and thought it their duty to bring this to pass. They plotted unsuccessfully to blow up Oliver Cromwell at Whitehall and later plotted against his son, Richard. In 1661 the Fifth Monarchists were to launch an abortive uprising against Charles II.
[4. ]William Camden, The History of The most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth, Late Queen of England, 3d ed., thus (London, 1675), 107, 191-92, but see p. 421. The Latin edition first appeared in 1615.
[5. ]Elizabeth’s predecessor and half-sister Mary Tudor, the daughter of a Spanish princess, launched a campaign against Protestant heretics when she became queen. Charles II was the son of a French Catholic and received support during his years in exile from the French court.
[6. ]Coniah, or Jehoichin, the ill-fated king of Judah, had been appointed to his throne by the Babylonians in 598. His brief three-month reign was ended when the Babylonian king decided to carry him off as a hostage. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied the end of his rule and of his dynasty. His fate is described in II Kings and II Chronicles.