John Milton defends the right of freedom of the press and likens government censors to an “oligarchy” and a free press to a “flowery crop of knowledge” (1644)

John Milton

Found in Areopagitica (1644) (Jebb ed.)

In a pamphlet structured like a speech given before Parliament, the great English poet John Milton gave one of the most stirring defences of a free press ever penned:

What should ye do then, should ye suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge and new light sprung up and yet springing daily in this city? Should ye set an oligarchy of twenty engrossers over it, to bring a famine upon our minds again, when we shall know nothing but what is measured to us by their bushel? … Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

John Milton was not the only author to run afoul of the government censors. With this book he courageously put his name to the unlicensed work, thus risking a fine or a prison sentence. In 18th century France it was common to have banned books printed in the Netherlands or Switzerland and then have them smuggled across the French border in order to avoid the censors. Another trick was to put a fake title page in the book or to write under a nom de plume. Milton chose to directly challenge the authorities because he so highly valued the freedom of expression and printing.