Liberty Matters

The Roman Senate, The Grand Council, and John Milton’s The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth

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Professor Kewes’s call to reconsider “the contemporary significance of the Roman senate—the aristocratic element of the mixed constitution” within the political thought and parliamentary culture of early modern Europe can only be met with approval and intellectual excitement. She pointedly notes that “parallels were being variously drawn between the Roman senate and a host of contemporary institutions—the royal council or council of state, the . . . Polish Senate or the English House of Lords, and even a representative assembly such as a parliament or diet tout court.” A particularly notable instance of such parallelism is John Milton’s explicit comparison of the Roman Senate with his proposed “Grand” or “General Council'' in his political tract of 1660, The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. Faced with the imminent return of the Stuart monarchy and the collapse of the republican experiment for which he had been a leading advocate and government official, Milton (fruitlessly) wrote to Major General George Monk and a newly expanded Parliament that included readmitted Presbyterian and pro-Monarchist MPs inclined to restore Charles II to the throne. In his open letter, Milton—who had famously and publicly defended the regicide of Charles I—offered a plan for how to constitute “a free Commonwealth” in England (426).[1]

The single most striking feature of Milton’s schema for a republican government is his proposal to establish a Grand or General Council: “For the ground and basis of every just and free government . . . is a general councel of ablest men, chosen by the people to consult of public affairs from time to time for the public good. In this Grand Councel must the sovrantie not transferrd but delegated only, and as it were deposited, reside” (427). Milton frequently refers to this Council as “a perpetual” or “standing Senat” (428-9) which he explicitly models on several ancient and contemporary institutions including the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Athenian Areopagus, the Spartan “Ancients,” and, most importantly, the Roman Senate (429). Indeed, Milton’s most extended and detailed institutional comparison in this relatively brief tract is that between the Grand Council and Roman Senate, a comparison in which Milton offers his analysis of the rise and fall of that aristocratic body that, according to him, provided the foundation for the liberty of the Roman republic and the weakening and corruption of which marked the end of republican freedom. 

Milton proposes to abolish permanently the Monarchy, the House of Lords, and the Third Estate (the Lords Spiritual, to say nothing of the Church of England), thereby effectively ending any form of hereditary rule or privilege. In place of a monarchy and aristocracy defined by birth or blood, Milton would establish a new rule of “the best,” the wisest, most capable, and most virtuous men, elected for life to the Grand Council. (Milton explicitly recommends against a rotational “Senat” in which members of the Council would serve a limited term, though he is willing as a practical matter to agree to this as a kind of political compromise). Selected and filtered by an ascending series of electoral contests (Milton refers to “a third or fourth sifting and refining of exactest choice,” 431) that begin at the local level, Council members would indirectly represent each “county and commonalitie” in England (441). Milton enumerates the duties and powers of the Council: they chiefly involve directing the nation’s foreign affairs (war, peace, treaties, trade with other countries), but also include the raising and managing of public revenue (taxes), and proposing (if not necessarily making) civil laws pertinent to the duties and responsibilities of the Council (427). Wary of concentrating too much power in a single institution, Milton importantly stipulates that most matters of civil government (the making of laws, the administration of justice) will be decentralized, remaining a strictly local matter to be handled by the “nobilitie and chief gentry” of each territory and city (441). (The reader troubled by Milton’s reference here to “nobilitie” must consider his earlier assertion that a free commonwealth is the “the noblest, the manliest, the equalist, the justest government, the most agreeable to all due libertie and proportioned equalite, both human and civil,” 422). Milton refers to this decentralized and federated form of government as “many Commonwealths under one united and entrusted Sovrantie” (443). As an additional guarantee against the possibility that the Council will exceed its authority and abuse its power, Milton assures his readers that arms will remain in the hands of the people: “Neither do I think a perpetual Senat, especially chosen and trusted by the people, much in this land to be feard, where the well-affected either in a standing armie, or in a settled militia have thir arms in thir own hands” (428). All matters under the purview of the Council are to be decided by a majority vote of its members—thereby ensuring that all regions, territories, and cities within the Commonwealth have an equal say in the government of the republic. Finally, though he does not specify the total number of Council members, Milton insists that the body be sufficiently small so as to make sustained face-to-face rational deliberation and debate possible.

Milton’s explicit aim in proposing a Commonwealth is to preserve and protect “the whole freedom of man,” which consists of either “spiritual or civil libertie” (439). To be sure, Milton expects a Commonwealth that depends upon a Grand Councel as “the foundation and main pillar of the whole State” to bring about “freedom, peace, justice, [and all the] plenty that we can desire” (trade and commerce will flourish). But the overarching and enduring goal of his proposal is to insure “libertie” as opposed to the servility, slavishness, and moral darkness that Milton associates with kingship and which he consistently identifies with tyranny, moral corruption, spiritual slavery, and political and religious despotism (427, 439). In many respects, Milton’s defense of “aristocratic” (senatorial) republicanism parallels that of Paulus Manutius’s De Senatu as described by Professor Kewes, though Milton takes a far more favorable view toward trade, commerce, and the acquisition of material wealth than does his Italian predecessor.[2] Much of The Readie and Easie Way is devoted to a blistering critique of what Milton perceives as the two chief threats to “libertie”: autocratic (tyrannical) monarchs and a people far too willing and eager to abandon their freedoms and return to a state of spiritual and civil servitude. In a justly famous passage, Milton draws a lesson for his contemporaries in 1660 from the history of republican Rome. Acknowledging that many ancient republics were mixed regimes that combined “perpetual Senats” with “popular remedies against their growing too imperious,” Milton nonetheless insists that these remedies “either little availd the people, or brought them to such a licentious and unbridl’d democraties, as in fine ruind themselves with their own excessive power” (430). In Milton’s highly abbreviated and polemical characterization of the Roman republic, each increase in the power of the people (and consequent dilution of senatorial authority)—the establishment of the Tribunes, the transformation of the Censors and Praeters into offices for which Plebians were eligible—lead inevitably and predictably to the civil atrocities of the plebian and demagogic General Marius (who massacred aristocrats) and the “tryannie of Sylla” (430). Long before the civil wars between the two Triumverates that eventuated in Caesar's and then Octavius’s despotic concentration of political authority, the decline of the Roman Senate presaged the ultimate fall of the republic and the consequent loss of liberty. 

For Milton (like Plato), unbridled democracy and tyranny are two sides of the same coin: the demagogic tyrant appeals to the people’s base desires in order to form a political alliance that allows him to crush his senatorial adversaries and put an end to republican liberties. Unsurprisingly, Milton, in this tract, is unimpressed with contemporary calls to establish a large bicameral legislature with over three hundred senators and a popular assembly of a thousand (which according to Milton effectively dilutes the power of the senate while making sustained rational deliberation in the lower chamber near impossible). Suggestively, Milton rejects such a proposal and returns to a defense of that sixteen-year period in the history of republican Rome between the expulsion of the Tarquins (“the enemies of . . . libertie”) and the establishment of the Tribunate as a model of government which a Free Commonwealth might emulate (431).

Faced with the looming prospect that Charles II would be restored to the English throne, convinced that those like himself who had advocated for religious and civic liberty even to the point of justifying the execution of Charles I and the abolition of the monarchy would most certainly be persecuted as enemies of the new regime, Milton in a desperate and defiant gesture turned to republican Rome, and more specifically to an idealized characterization of the Roman Senate, in a final if futile effort to establish a Free Commonwealth and preserve both his own freedom and that of his fellow countrymen.

[1] All citations to The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth are from John Milton, Aeropagitica and Other Political Writings of John Milton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).

[2] I have not been able to determine whether Milton, often described as the most learned man of his day, had read or was influenced by Manutius’s work of 1580.