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Milton argues that a Monarchy wants the people to be prosperous only so it can better fleece them (1660)

In the year that the English Commonwealth was replaced by the restored monarchy of the Stuarts (1660), the poet and revolutionary politician John Milton (1608-1674) contrasts a Commonwealth, which wants its people to flourish for their own sakes, with a Monarchy, which wants them to be prosperous so it can fleece them:

[F]or of all governments a Commonwealth aims 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 wel-fleec’t for thir own shearing , and [for] the supply of regal prodigalitie; but otherwise softest, basest, vitiousest, servilest, easiest to be kept under; and not only in fleece, but in minde also sheepishest.

The other part of our freedom consists in the civil rights and advanc’ments of every person according to his merit: the enjoiment of those never more certain, and the access to these never more open, then in a free Commonwealth. ∥ And both | Both which ∥ in my opinion may be best and soonest obtaind, if every county in the land were made a ∥ little commonwealth , | kinde of subordinate Commonaltie or Commonwealth, ∥ and ∥ thir chief town a city , if it | one chief town or more, according as the shire is in circuit, made cities, if they ∥ be not so call’d alreadie; where the nobilitie and chief gentry from a proportionable compas of territorie annexd to each citie, may build, houses or palaces, befitting their qualitie, may bear part in the government, make their own judicial lawes , or use these that are, and execute them by their own elected judicatures, and judges without appeal, in all things of civil government between man and man. So they shall have justice in thir own hands, law executed fully and finally in thir own counties and precincts, long wishd, and spoken of, but never yet obtaind; ∥ and none | they shall have none then ∥ to blame but themselves, if it be not well administerd. and fewer laws to expect or fear from the supreme autoritie; or to those that shall be made, of any great concernment to public libertie, they may without much trouble in these commonalties or in more general assemblies call’d to thir cities from the whole territorie on such occasion, declare and publish thir assent or dissent by deputies within a time limited sent to the Grand Councel : yet so as this thir judgment declar’d shal submitt to the greater number of other counties or commonalties, and not avail them to any exemption of themselves, or refusal of agreement with the rest, as it may in any of the United Provinces, being sovran within it self, oft times to the great disadvantage of that union. In these imployments they may much better then they do now 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. or any other more commodious, indifferent place and equal judges . And this I finde to have bin practisd in the old Athenian Commonwealth, reputed the first and ancientest place of civilitie in all Greece; that they had in thir several cities, a peculiar; in Athens, a common government; and thir right, as it befell them, to the administration of both. They should have heer also schools and academies at thir own choice, wherin their children may be bred up in thir 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: by communicating the natural heat of government and culture more distributively to all extreme parts, which now lie numm and neglected, [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 Parlament hath had alreadie som such thing in designe) for of all governments a Commonwealth aims 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 wel-fleec’t for thir own shearing , and [for] the supply of regal prodigalitie; but otherwise softest, basest, vitiousest, servilest, easiest to be kept under; and not only in fleece, but in minde also sheepishest; and will have all the benches of judicature annexd to the throne , as a gift of royal grace that we have justice don us; whenas nothing can be more essential to the freedom of a people, then to have the administration of justice and all publick ornaments in thir own election and within thir own bounds, without long traveling or depending on remote places to obtain thir 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 as they (to the retarding and distracting oft times of thir counsels or urgentest occasions), [so] many sovranties united in one Commonwealth, but many Commonwealths under one united and entrusted sovrantie. And when we have our forces by sea and land, either of a faithful Armie or a setl’d Militia, in our own hands to the firm establishing of a free Commonwealth, publick accounts under our own inspection , general laws and taxes with thir causes in our own domestic suffrages, judicial laws, offices and ornaments at home in our own ordering and administration, all distinction of lords and commoners, that may any way divide or sever the publick interest, remov’d, what can a perpetual senat have then wherin to grow corrupt, wherin to encroach upon us or usurp; or if they do, wherin to be formidable? Yet if all this avail not to remove the fear or envie of a perpetual sitting, it may be easilie provided, to change a third part of them yearly, or every two or three years, as was above mentiond; or that it be at those times in the peoples choice, whether they will change them, or renew thir power, as they shall finde cause.

About this Quotation:

This is another quotation celebrating authors or books which enjoy a significant anniversary this year. John Milton wrote this defence of a free Commonwealth just as the English Commonwealth was being replaced by the return of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 after nearly two decades of political upheaval known as the English Revolution. Milton makes the point that a Commonwealth is based upon the merit principle in which anybody with talent can rise to the top of their profession, and that the lack of centralised political power means that local communities can exercise control over things like the law and education. What is striking in this piece is the language he uses to liken the powers of the monarch to those of a rapacious shepherd, whose only interest in the well-being of his people is so he can fleece them all the better. The analogy probably comes from Plato’s Republic. Milton takes it one step further by saying that there is also a psychological aspect to this submissive behavior by the people in a monarchy, namely that the king wants a political system where it was “easiest [for the people] to be kept under; and not only in fleece, but in minde also sheepishest.” Milton feared that in a monarchy the people would be shorn not only of their fleece but also of their independent thinking.

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