Democracy Dies in Pandemonium


Vim, Ph.D.
35 min readSep 1, 2021

Today’s lecture is aimed at contextualizing Book I of Paradise Lost, in which we find an army of rebellious angels in the aftermath of a defeat that has sent them falling from Heaven into much less desirable real estate. In many respects, it is not their fall that matters so much as another fall that it will occasion: that of humanity, an event depicted rather briefly in the Book of Genesis. Embellishing Biblical verses with dazzling technique, Milton “pursued / Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime,” and therein invited us to think about power and government in a poem that is significantly longer than, and very different from, its source.

Of course, he may have claimed to be the first to spin an epic out of that story, but he was not the last, and writers continue to adapt the creation story in Genesis and also Milton’s version as well. You know this if you read Daniel Lavery’s “Dirtbag John Milton,” or Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, or the show based on it on Amazon Prime.

Or maybe you’ve read the novels in Philip Pullman’s series, His Dark Materials, which are titled after a line from Paradise Lost and re-imagined the story of The Fall for a young adult audience; in 2007, they were adapted into a film, and just this past year, a series on HBO. Paradise Lost has also been made into a play that you can actually go see on an honors college trip! Keep your eyes peeled for the email with the link to sign up.

There’s even a little bit of Genesis and Paradise Lost in The Good Place, a show that replaces Religion with Philosophy and Adam and Eve with Eleanor and Chidi. The plot twists of both Season 1 & 3 — that the Good Place might really be the Bad Place — puts a wholesome, contemplative face on Milton’s Satanic contention that “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n” (1.254–55).

But I’m not going to talk about TV or novels. We’re reading Milton’s poem as part of our introductory unit in a course focused on Democracy, so I, like my colleagues in the next couple weeks, will be trying to set up a historical foundation for topics we’ll consider later in the semester. There will be a few points today where I will connect today’s material to the material we studied last semester, our course organized around health and wellness in the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds. If you’re new to C&E this Spring, and that includes members of the faculty, don’t worry that you weren’t here last semester — I will aim to make sure these connections are clear for all.

I will begin today’s lecture by giving you a little more information about the structure of England’s government in the period preceding the poem’s original composition. In that opening section of my lecture, I’ll also contextualize the poem further by discussing the Wars of Three Kingdoms that ultimately precipitated a major change in that structure. Discussing those wars — and Civil wars in England more specifically — will then allow me to situate Milton’s writing and his views within this complex and shifting political landscape. Just to give you a heads-up: these three parts will cover the longest portion of my time today, so when you look at my outline in the handout, don’t panic if we’re more than halfway through the period and I haven’t gotten that far. On this point, I also want to say that I’m going to give you a lot of historical details today, many of which I’ve included on your handout. While you should, as always, take some notes during this lecture, I recommend that you do more listening than writing. You will never need to commit these dates, texts, or events to memory for a test, so it’s more important to follow the story I am telling than to write all of it down. In addition to the lecture video, I will post the text of my entire lecture to Blackboard along with the images and powerpoint.

The story I will share today is that of a radical experiment in republican government — and by that phrase I mean the 17th century republican government in England rather than the current situation in America. In some ways the facets of democracy as we currently understand it in America — popular representation, human rights, toleration and universal suffrage — were so radical that they could come only in the wake of the American revolution and revolution in France. But some democratic ideals were fiercely debated in England prior to that, and the period in which Milton wrote Paradise Lost was, in many ways, a revolutionary one. And in fact, the American government as it developed from English colonies the 18th century was very much influenced by these earlier struggles and their influence persists in the laws and rights we take recourse to today.

So: let’s get started!

I. Monarch & Parliament: A pre-History

Because of Henry and Meghan’s recent messy departure, you probably know something about the English monarchy, a system in which royalty is inherited and passed down to the eldest son at the father’s death. You might be familiar with the phrase “Divine Right Monarchy,” a belief that a royal family was appointed to rule by God, and so, rather than a body of laws or the people he rules over, kings were subject only to the divine will. In this conception of monarchy, removing a King by forceful means was thus not only a grave sin, but technically impossible without a foreign army, since no earthly person in a divine right kingdom has the authority to do so.

England was not a divine right monarchy in practice or in structure, though its people did believe there was some connection between divine will and their rulers, and a number of people who invoked this concept in political treatises throughout England’s early modern history. But, in actual practice, England’s government in the 17thcentury was what we call a mixed Monarchy, since power was instilled not only in the crown but also two institutions, Common Law and Parliament. Monarchs could rule without these institutions, since they could make laws through royal proclamations. But any law they might proclaim would be meaningless across a population without an infrastructure of local courts to enforce them.

And so, English Common Law developed as a summation of the decisions rendered by these courts and their juries, and, over time it developed and was supplemented by a variety of written documents — including Royal Proclamations and Parliamentary Statues — that offered further specifications on citizens’ responsibilities and rights.

Among such texts is the Magna Carta, a statement articulating the liberty of all free men and the supremacy of the Rule of law. Its tenets provided a safeguard from the arbitrary exercise of power, and even the king was understood to be subject to it. At the same time, the liberties it enshrined were not universal; it excluded all women, and men of non-elite, non-land-owning status (something you’ll probably hear again at multiple points this semester).

The Magna Carta made it conventional for the king to call his Parliament before instituting any changes in taxation. Parliament is a legislative body that, by the 14th century, had developed into an important branch of government consisting of two houses, the upper chamber being the House of Lords and lower chamber being the House of Commons. The House of Lords consisted of the top members of the Church as well as what we refer to as the peerage: every male person who held the highest aristocratic titles based on land-ownership. Property of this kind was at some distant point in a family’s history being bestowed by the King and then passed down — you guessed it, via heredity, to the eldest male heir. in this perpetuating system, you held land because you were rich, and you were rich because you held land. The people you allowed to live and work on it paid you rents. The House of Lords was a small body of elites with maybe 70 or 80 members; its membership could only grow if the King decided to create new high titles, relatively rare but not unheard of.

King James (& Prince Charles) preside over the House of Lords, drawing by Michael van Meer, Album Amicorum Laing MS III 283, Edinburgh University Library

The House of Commons, by contrast, was an elected body consisting of the gentry classes — that is, people with less property and therefore lesser aristocratic titles than the House Lords. Knights and burgesses could be elected to sit in the Commons, and this body was comparatively and increasingly large. As Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris note, “At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were 296 places in the Commons, but by 1629 this figure had risen to 493.”

The House of Commons, as depicted in True Platforme and Manner of the Sitting in the Lower House of Parliament (1625)

With its size and composition, the Commons was more representative of “the people” than was the House of Lords. But, its membership was still pretty elite and not as “common” as its name might encourage you to think.

The voting public, or franchise, was also exclusive. In order to vote you had to be a male who owned property that brought in 40 shillings, or 2 pounds, of income per year. In the 15th century when a law outlining who could vote was passed, that bar meant only about 3% of the population could vote. The percentage increased over time, not because of aristocratic generosity, but because of inflation, and throughout and within these periods, the numbers of voters could vary quite a bit across shires, counties, and towns. Proposals to expand the franchise were floated in Parliament’s House of Commons through the 1620s, a time when (according to Derek Hirst) the 40 shillings standard meant that in some boroughs, between 27 % and 40% of the adult men had a vote.[i] But that ratio was not true of all counties, and it is not the percentage of people with voting rights in the entire population; as Brian S. Roper notes, it’s really only about 7% of all people that were eligible, since women and young men couldn’t vote.[ii] (Though younger men could hope to vote once they inherited sufficient property, women were excluded from voting even in local matters of governance until three centuries later; they did not occupy even one seat in Parliament until 1918.)

Some headlines from prominent news organizations

If you’re thinking that these are slow gains but gains nonetheless, I want to caution you against assuming a general movement in history towards universal suffrage. In fact, we can see a move in recent history to making voting more difficult for Americans — or at least some Americans: in 2013, the Supreme Court repealed parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, limiting Federal oversight and allowing States to initiate purges of voter rolls for dubious reasons, to gerrymander districts, and implement policies that suppress voter turn-out without any congressional intervention.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the King and MPs in the House of Lords were no more invested in increasing equality and political agency amongst people of different stations than these state officials are now. In fact, both the King and the Lords typically used their power and money to ensure elections would result in a Commons that helped secure people’s compliance.[iii] And so, while the existence of both Houses technically required the monarch to cede some of his political power, the House of Lords also provided him with ready allies and the large numbers in the Commons could actually increase the Crown’s reach.

For a more specific example of how this relationship worked, you only have to consider one fact: England had no standing army, and throughout its early history, its kings could not afford one. So monarchs could conduct foreign policy on their own, but the country was vulnerable to military threats and in constant need of a way to assemble armed power and collect money. It’s hard to get money without getting the participation and literal buy-in of a large constituency, and approving levies for taxation and military service was often Parliament’s most important job as an official legislative apparatus.

But there are other ways to explain why the House of Lords and Commons benefited the Monarch more than they checked his power: as in our current system in America, both houses had to approve a bill for it to even reach the King, and Monarchs could veto any bill even if it did pass in both houses. Moreover — and this is unlike our system — Members of Parliament could only convene when the King called for them, and the King could also thereby dissolve or dismiss his Parliament at any point their discussions stopped serving his interests.[iv]

Heading for Section II. Conflict & Change (1621–1647)

You may remember that in my Fall lecture on Margaret Cavendish I mentioned the civil wars within and between England, Scotland, and Ireland, conflicts we call the Wars of Three Kingdoms. These wars were in part the product of religious differences and the history behind the inclusion of Scotland and Ireland as kingdoms ruled by the English crown.

Map of England, Scotland, and Ireland with dates and locations for the Wars of Three Kingdoms
A handy chart for information you don’t really need to memorize

While Milton’s own political positions were shaped by the problems in all three kingdoms, I’m going to focus on the wars fought primarily between the King and Parliament between 1642 and 1649. What I’ll present is necessarily an oversimplification of this period, but one that will still help us think more deeply about the period in which Milton began writing Paradise Lost.

King Charles I was crowned in 1625. Within the first three years of his reign, his relationship with his Parliaments went south. Most of their disagreements at this time centered argued about the legality of the king’s desired taxes and fines. The king needed this money for military campaigns in France and Spain; three times he called his Parliament to meet to approve the money, and three times they refused to pass bills. Each time he came up short, he dissolved the assembly in a huff. Desperate to get his armies the resources they needed, Charles attempted to collect additional taxes from his subjects anyway, even though he had not secured Parliamentary consent. When five prominent members of the Commons refused to pay and spoke out against the taxes, the king had them imprisoned.

This act prompted MPs in the Commons to draft a document reaffirming their rights as subjects, known as The Petition of Right, which was passed in both Houses in 1628. You probably haven’t heard of it before, but this document would be an important text in the drafting the third, fifth, six, and seventh amendments of the US constitution. In Milton’s time, it was significant because it laid the groundwork for tighter connections and collaboration between two houses that would persist in later Parliaments.

United together against the imprisonment of House members who refused to pay an illegal tax, they forced Charles to ratify it. But, their doing so did not mean he would keep the peace with his MPs. In fact, the king decided that it would be easier to rule without them, as long as he could secure peace agreements with France and Spain. Without war as an impetus, he managed to rule without calling Parliament to assemble from 1629 to 1640, a period historians call “the Personal Rule,” and Parliamentarians would later invoke as “The Eleven Years Tyranny.”

Engraving from a sensational pamplet (James Cranford’s The Tears of Ireland (1642) , describing the Scottish riots against the English Prayerbook

Importantly, the policies he attempted to enforce without Parliament’s help during this time were not just limited to English counties. In an attempt to bring the Scottish Presbyterian church in line with the Anglican Protestant Church, he mandated the use an English prayerbook there, a royal fiat that was vociferously rejected by his subjects in Edinburgh. The Scots had shared a monarch with England since 1604, but had retained their own parliament and church; they responded by taking to the streets in massive numbers to protest on the day the English prayerbook was to be instated. They also drafted their own petition in opposition, another important constitutional rights document, known as the Scottish National Covenant (1638).

The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard (1837) by William Allan

Although he was himself half Scottish by birth, Charles countered this show of independence and unity with an attempt to compel their compliance through military force. But as I noted before, his English kingdom did not have a standing army, nor funds from Parliament to raise troops. The armies he was able to form without their assistance were thoroughly routed by the Scots, whose people had a functioning parliament but also significant experience fighting as mercenary soldiers in Protestant campaigns on the continent.

After this embarrassing defeat, Charles was forced to call his English Parliament once again to ask for money; those who assembled in 1640 were no more inclined to deliver up any money than the members who served 11 years before. Instead, its members used the occasion of their meeting to draft another document, asserting their rights over the King’s prerogative. The Grand Remonstrance (1641) detailed more than two hundred objections to the King’s autocratic way of ruling.

The demands in the Remonstrance initiated some divisions within each house of Parliament — but, after a deadly rebellion broke out in Ireland, also over attempts to enforce religious conformity there — these divisions mattered less than the gaping divide between Parliament and King. In fact, in less than a year after issuing the Grand Remonstrance, both Parliament and Charles were raising armies. The king claimed that his troops were formed to put down riots in Ireland, but Parliamentarians were convinced that he was actually raising them in opposition to them. For their part, they insisted that they were not raising troops to fight the King, but rather, to defend themselves and the King himself from the malignant people who had corrupted his rule.

Thus began what would be 7 years of fighting between the Royalists Cavaliers and Parliamentarian Roundheads on English soil, battles that gave birth much discord amongst ordinary people and initiating an explosion of (mostly partisan and sometimes false) newsbooks to report on victories and casualties.

It also gave rise to humorous pamphlets aimed at showing the ridiculousness of contemporary politics, like this one, showing that even the dogs were fighting, or this one, that described England as “a world turned upside down.”

Always a market for misogyny & the exclusion of women from politics!

Or this one, which posits a state run by “A Parliament of Women,” as the height of backwardness to seventeenth century men. This well of humor was so overflowing with jokes that writers kept drawing on it for pamphlets of the same topic published in 1640, 1646, 1647, 1656 1683, 1684. [vi]

The war was not just defined by the actions of Royalists and Parliamentarians. The Scots and Irish played key roles at different moments, with the former as side-switching military allies, and, the latter in constant resistance to English and Protestant rule.It was also impacted by the development of Parliament’s disciplined regiments, which it called The New Model Army. Its members became household names after 1647, after a coalition of Parliament and Scottish interests led to the defeat of the Royalists and the captured of the King. With Parliament moving to draw up a truce with the King, the Army’s commander in Chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax, and cavalry leader Oliver Cromwell, trusted the leadership in the Commons to make good on all that they had promised their soldiers at the beginning of conflicts: they assured the army that its good service would not be forgotten; they’d be paid what they were owed for their service; there would be financial support for the wounded, and for widows and orphans; and they would not be forced into war again.

As part of the negotiations, Charles demanded that Parliament disband its troops as a show of peace and loyalty. But the with the command to disarm came with no provisions made for the soldiers; the officers saw cause to worry, and so did members of the rank and file. Specifically, they fear that if the Royalists were back in power, any Parliamentary soldier could expect to be imprisoned or executed for taking up arms against them . Yet even these fates seemed better than another demand that Charles made, to deploy some of the Army’s regiments to Ireland, a quagmire from which very few soldiers seemed to return.

Parliament’s agreement to this command in particular represented a betrayal, and faced with these prospects, members of the army refused the order to disband. But, importantly, they did not just storm into Parliament to get the outcome they wanted with threats of violence. Instead, they and their leaders spent several months debating amongst themselves.

Soldiers and Fairfax engage in the political process in the woodcut attached to a 1647 pamphlet.
Soldiers and Fairfax engage in the political process in the woodcut attached to a 1647 pamphlet.

During these debates, a coalition of tradesmen within the army distinguished themselves by advocating for greater enfranchisement and the levelling of unjust social hierarchies — beliefs which led their detractors to call them The Levellers.

In the detailed notes taken by the secretary to the council of the Army, we find a number of remarkable speeches from these soldiers, including this one from Colonel Thomas Rainsborough:

Colonel Rainsborough’s “poorest hee” speech at Putney
Colonel Rainsborough’s “poorest hee” speech at Putney, from The Clark Papers

“Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a Government ought to first by his own consent to putt himself under that Government; and I doe think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to putt himself under…”

Although the Army’s agenda started with the rights of veterans, the records of their discussions bear witness to the development of the Army’s political program from one that defended veteran’s rights to one that championed and thought seriously about the rights of all men in England. That trajectory is not only clear in the notes of the secretary, but in the pamphlets that appeared in print during these debates, most notably these two, The Case of the Army Truly Stated and The Agreement of the People.

Two key texts coming from the Army’s debates, The Case of the Army Truly Stated (1647) and An Agreement of the People (1647)
Fears and justifications articulated in The Case of the Army Truly Stated (1647)

It is important to emphasize that “People” in these documents just means men; at no point did these soldiers advocate for women to have a place in political affairs. But, An Agreement of the People was indeed a levelling text in many other respects. They advocated for things we hold dear in America: liberty of conscience — a request for religious freedom and tolerance for it — as well as freedom from being forcefully pressed into military service.

from Agreement of the People (1647)
from Agreement of the People

They called for more frequent elections to Parliament, more inclusive representation in that body, insisting that “Election of their deputies in Parliament, ought to be more indifferently proportioned,” and, and they also advocated for equal treatment under the law: “That in all laws made…every person may be bound alike, and that no [rank] do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of Legall proceedings, where unto others are subjected.” They declared these and other basic tenets to be “native rights” and called on the House of Commons to “help the oppressed people…in the settlement of the most perfect freedome.”

The Army’s publications were truly remarkable, not just for what they said, but the way they came about. The army’s members used petitions, the printing press, and moderated debates to present grievances and ask for reform on behalf of all Englishmen — methods we associate not with military tactics, but with democratic instruments. They are the products of collective bargaining, since the principles that inspired them were rooted in class-interests and a specific kind of workers’ rights. The shift from advocating for soldiers to all Englishmen was a tacit acknowledgement that all private subjects were public servants for England, performing labor that should come with benefits as well as burdens.

This is a romantic view offered in retrospect, of course, but An Agreement of the People met with a lot of pushback in its time, even from some who fought on Parliament’s side. Comwell and Fairfax affirmed their support of the soldiers’ original demands, but distanced themselves from the Leveller platform.

William Ashurst Offers Reasons Against Agreement (1648)

William Ashurst, a major in the army and a member of the House of Commons published this pamphlet in response, arguing that the Agreement’s proponents were not just wrong, but sinfull: “It is sinfull,” he argued, “in any subject to subscribe to that which is contrary to the duty of a subject. That it is contrary to the duty of a subject to go about to alter the supreme government of a kingdom wherein he is a subject, is evident in many scriptures…” He cited verses from Proverbs, Romans, and Peter to insist that people had no right or precedent for that kind of power.

Using Proverbs, Romans, and Peter to insist subjects couldn’t alter the government.

With friends like these, who needs critiques from enemies? But there were also those. This is a pamphlet some of you will remember from my lecture on Margaret Cavendish last year: The Loyal Sacrifice (1648), a tract penned in response to Parliament forces killing Cavendish’s brother Charles Lucas, and his fellow Royalist commander George Lisle.

Cover page of The Loyal Sacrifice (1648), which you may remember from my previous lecture on Margaret Cavendish (

The author of this text not only condemned this act, but also the Army’s political pamphlets. The author dismissed its call for rights as nothing short of an attempt at “Suppressing a Monarchicall power: and establishing a Levelling Democracy.” In contrast, he described Lucas and Lisle as real patriots — more specifically “the face of Loyaltie, their true native lustre in defence of the just privileges of their Country, and conservation of a Monarchical Soveraignty.”

Accusations against Parliament’s Army vs. Praise of Royalist Soldiers Lisle and Lucas, from The Loyal Sacrifice (1648)

Now, at this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with Paradise Lost, but now that you know the bigger picture, we can situate Milton’s place within it. The poem, his most famous work, was not printed until 1667, two decades after the Agreement of the People was published. But, as your poem’s introduction noted, scholars believe he began writing it in the 1640s, in medias res of the wars of three kingdoms. The conflicts between sovereign and subjects obviously inspired him to fill in the emotional and political gaps created by the sparse and simple verses of the post-creation story in Genesis — and the war in heaven that takes place prior to Book I — which Milton has Raphael revisit in Books 5 and 6 — is fundamentally a civil war.

Armed with only the the small fraction of the poem that you read for today, which side of that conflict do you think Milton was on?

It’s a difficult question if you only have the poem to go on, because Paradise Lost resists simple parallels or analogies. At the same time, now that you know a bit about the context, you can see how tempting it is to make them. God is described as “sitting on his Throne” in the Argument to Book 3, and Milton positions Satan explicitly “Against the Throne and Monarchy of God” in Book 1. In this way, the monarch of Charles I could be understood as akin to figure Milton describes as “the potent Victor” (95). God is also challenged in the poem by a group of angels who, like Charles’s Parliamentarians, object to his unilateral use of authority.

These angels are soldiers whose role in the war means that at its end, they are vulnerable to punishment; and in fact, we see from the outset that their armies were immediately thrust from Heaven and chained up in Hell for eternity. As we watch these fallen warriors regrouping to determine their next course of action, we can see how their predicament recalls that of the Parliament’s New Model Army. These soldiers were victorious in war, but where we left them in the previous section, they were poised to lose an important battle in securing rights and protections.

The parallels are low hanging fruit, but Milton’s attitude toward the fallen angels and their leader is hard to pin down: he bestows Satan with the deadly sin of pride, but also a rhetorical prowess that allows his legions — and maybe us as well — to be persuaded us of God’s tyranny. And though he presents the hellscape they inhabit as deeply unappealing, this environment is not without resources and possibility. Within the course of 800 lines, these warriors have already adjusted to dramatic climate change, using a soil that is rich in minerals, if not sunlight, to build a gleaming palace for themselves. In Pandemonium, we watch them form a council that is not unlike a unicameral Parliament, with Satan and Beelzebub at the helm, as they debate their options. Their “great consult,” as Milton describes it, also recalls the meeting of Army & Levellers at Putney bridge, where soldiers gathered to imagine a government that worked for those who had fought for it, as well as the abstract rights of those they’d fought to defend. Of course, Satan and his rebel angels are more singularly focused on their own condition, whereas members of the Parliament’s Army discussed an agenda that, with some voices, included poor civilians as well soldiers and officers.

Ok — so again, where do we put Milton in all of this? Literally speaking, he was out of the country for much of the decade prior to the wars; making a grand tour of Europe after earning his MA at Cambridge, he returned to his native soil in 1639, just in time for Charles’s Scottish wars. Milton published several tracts on the occasion, expressing sympathy for Scottish Presbyterians and denouncing corruption in the king’s appointees in the Episcopal Anglican church. These tracts as well as those he would write at the outbreak and aftermath of civil war in England make clear that he supported the Parliamentary cause.

Title page of Tenure of Kings and Magistrates

In the best known of these, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), he argued that the power these figures held was “only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the People, to the Common good of them all.” In the People, he claimed, “the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their natural birth right.”

Additionally, he argued, to say “the King hath as good right to his Crown and dignity, as any man to his inheritance, is to make the Subject no better than the King’s slave, his chatel, or his possession that may be bought and sold.”

Milton also cited Aristotle’s claim that a King should govern “to the good and profit of his people, and not for his own ends.” When one’s own monarch didn’t, it was not only necessary to remove him from power, but also permissible. “Since the King or Magistrate holds his authoritie of the people, both originally and naturally for their good in the first place, and not his own, then may the people as oft as they shall judge it for the best, either choose him or reject him, retain him or depose him though no Tyrant, merely by the liberty and right of free born Men, to be governed as seems to them best.

“To say Kings are accountable to none but God,” he scoffed, “is the overturning of all Law and government. For if they may refuse to give account, then all covenants made with them at Coronation; all Oaths are in vain, and mere mockeries, all Lawes which they swear to keep, [are] made to no purpose.”

Here again, he quoted from Aristotle’s Politics to insist “that monarchy unaccountable is the worst sort of tyranny and least of all to be endured by free born men.”

Examples from scripture, the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, he asserted, “confirm…that the right of choosing, yea of changing their own Government[,] is by the grant of God himself in the People.”

Milton believed firmly in God’s supreme authority, and so anyone who expected Milton to be a royalist may be forgiven; for that affiliation does not seem to be a stretch given the variety of lines in Paradise Lost that frame his reverence God in monarchical terms. And yet, as you now know, Milton suggested that God would disapprove of the King’s conduct; in presuming himself above the people, Charles, like Satan, “had offended the Majesty of God by aspiring to Godhead” (Argument to Book 3).

In fact, Milton would go on to justify the King’s execution, and this is the course of action that, after a second phase of fighting, Parliament ultimately took. For a graphic engraving depicting that event that came out the same year in Germany, here’s a link to the British Library’s discussion of it.

When last we left the army, they were petitioning the Parliament to confirm their protections and liberty in their negotiations with the King. But, Charles saw this division as an opportunity to free himself, and in addition to playing Parliament against its own Army, he actively sowed discord among the two and the Presbyterian Scots. Fighting then resumed, but with the Scots’ changing sides. After another year of battles, Parliament’s Army once again emerge with the victory, but its members were hardened by the experience, and most of them were convinced that the King could never be trusted to negotiate in good faith.

The Commons put Charles on trial, charging him with High Treason and conspiracy. Few members of parliament wanted him to be executed for these crimes, nor did Thomas Fairfax, the Army’s celebrated commander. But Cromwell’s former investment in liberty of conscious had given way to a zealous fundamentalism, and he believed that his army’s victories over the King presented Parliament with a clear sign. Another army officer played a direct role in securing a vote that would enable this outcome early in 1649. Led by Colonel Thomas Pride, these soldiers stormed the House of Commons and kept or kicked out members they knew to be opposed or wavering; all told, Pride’s Purge prevented hundreds of MPs from voting and ensured that the remaining group — now known as the ‘Rump Parliament’ — would see it through.

The order to execute was passed by a mere 80 members of the House of Commons, and zero members of the House of Lords, who refused on principle to take part.

After the deed was done, the Rump issued the following declaration:

Act Declaring England a Commonwealth and Free State

“That the People of England, and of all the Dominions and Territories thereunto belonging, are and shall be, and are hereby Constituted, Made, Established and Confirmed to be a Commonwealth and Free-State: And shall from henceforth be Governed as a Commonwealth and Free-State, by the Supreme Authority of this Nation, The Representatives of the People in Parliament, and by such as they shall appoint and constitute as Officers and Ministers under them for the good of the People, and that without any King or House of Lords.”

Heading for Part IV. Republic After Regicide (1649–1660)

Under the new republic, Milton served as both a scribe and translator for the new regime; he also became its most eloquent defender in print. When published tracts like this one painted the King as a pious martyr and the regicide as a treasonous murder, Milton countered it with his own, chronicling the entire civil war, giving example after example of the King presenting himself as above the law and against his people.

The king should not only have been subject to the law, Milton argued, but should be expected more than any ordinary subject to know and follow it: “If Kings presume to overtop the Law by which they Reign for the public good, they are by Law to be reduced into order. And that can no way be more justly, then by those who exalted them to that high place. For who should better understand their own Laws, and when they are transgressed, then they who are governed by them, and whose consent first made them. And who can have more right to take knowledge of things done within a Free Nation then they within themselves?”

The argument sounds good on both the principle and the facts. But the legal basis for executing him for any crime was weak. Even if Charles had committed treason and waged war on his own subjects, because the King was always able to dissolve his Parliaments, that body was never able to pass a law that truly empowered its members to remove a seated king.

The lack of a legal instrument was such a problem that Scotland, whose armies had been fighting English kings for religious and political independence since the 12th century, took the cautious step of declaring Charles’s eldest son as the successor and rightful king after his father’s execution. Charles Jr. had already absconded to the continent and would live in hiding for the next decade, so he did not, at that time, assume the Scottish throne. But the decision to uphold the monarchy in Scotland even in his absence led to increased tensions between it and England. The staunchly Puritan Republican government also remained in, and further escalated conflict with Ireland, a part of the kingdom whose Catholic population was never successfully brought into submission or uniformity with English rule.

Despite many threats and fissures, the republic did not devolve into chaos and anarchy without a singular royal authority figure; in fact, rather paradoxically, this new government ultimately fashioned itself as a mirror image of the old one — an absolutist monarchy in structure, if not in name. Its ten years are difficult to sum up quickly, but a simple way to see what happened is to look at the figure of Oliver Cromwell. Ever the commander, believed that the new regime would never be effective until it brought both Scotland and Ireland in line — in both governance and in spiritual matters as well. With Parliament’s consent, he waged brutal wars in both places, and wrote almost gleefully of the atrocities committed in Ireland.[vi] It’s worth noting here that Milton and his friend Andrew Marvell both praised Cromwell in the poems I’ve put on the back of your handout. One called him “our chief of men,” and glorified an image of fields and streams filled with Scottish blood; the other jeered, “now the Irish are asham’d / To see themselves in one year tam’d,” and mocked the Scots as well.

Cromwell’s victories over both further convinced him that his vote for the regicide was correct and that God was behind his every endeavor. Not long after these battles, he moved to dissolve a Commonwealth Parliament that was not moving quickly enough for him and installed a new Council of State; it members reciprocated by granting him the title of Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland. For this favor, he installed his Generals in high positions throughout the republic, effectively transforming a military republic and functional dictatorship. It’s not true, as some popular history websites say, that Cromwell cancelled Christmas, but his increasingly puritanical government eventually rivaled the tyranny that its members once railed against.

When Cromwell died in 1658, there was no precedent for electing a successor to the Protectorship, and it was not necessarily inevitable that the country’s former mode of governance would be restored. For instance, in 1659, we can still find pamphlets circulating like the one above, “Government Described,” which concluded that Democracy was “the most Natural, and best sort of all Governments.” Milton, for his part, continued to advocate for non-monarchical government in a variety of treatises. But even if he and others could imagine other options, the Council of State did what had always been done when Kings ruled England, naming Oliver’s son Richard the new Lord Protector. Anyone who had regretted the regicide quickly saw in Richard Cromwell’s ascension an opportunity to end the experiment. Some of the same soldiers who commandeered the vote for Charles I’s execution now worked behind the scenes with the Scots to restore his son Charles II to the throne. By 1660, England was a mixed monarchy once again.

The republic’s failures to live up to its promise are quietly manifested in the fate of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost. In the Argument for Book 2, they collectively decide not to pursue a second military effort, convinced by Satan’s alternate suggestion to undermine God through his rumored creations in a new world. Here we see collaborative deliberations culminate in the nomination of an singular individual, effectively using democratic modes of governance only to reinstate the model they rebelled against in Heaven. The mind can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven, but it apparently can’t fathom a system without a dominant, if charismatic leader, and traditional hierarchies. For more on the lesser status of other angels, you can look for a passage from book 5 I’ve put on the handout, in which Satan says class differences can be maintained with liberty, in the same breath he’s telling their collective struggles will make them equally free.

With respect to God’s rumored creation, mankind, there is some question as to whether Adam and Eve are equal to the fallen angels or not. But, it hardly matters either way, since Satan convinces his fiends that as long as these new subjects get to live in paradise, even reigning in hell will feel servile. By getting Adam and Eve to fall, he and the other fallen angels succeed. But they also lose, and are consigned to Hell forever. As subjects in the Atlantic Archipelago learned with both Charles and Cromwell, a ruler who bends the government to serve his own needs cannot represent the best interests of the electorate.

Did you think I was really talking about our own current moment just now? I might have been. But here again, I want to move from the basic analogies and focus on the concrete precedents. Just this past week, our senate weighed a question not unlike that contemplated by Milton in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. If a ruler appears to have broken the law and abused his office, is it safe to allow him to remain in place? As Susan Amussen recently wrote in the Washington Post, the 17th century problem of tyrannical kingship provided an important lesson in our framers’ efforts to codify a more reasonable way to handle such a person. In the past few days, I’ve seen some prominent politicians railing against the process, as if the people pursuing the truth about serious charges are analogous to the soldiers that used the threat of force to prevent a majority of voters from entering the chamber. But in fact, the framers intended to prevent events like 1649 from happening again. As Amussen notes, “The U.S. Constitution solved these problems in two ways. First, it lodged impeachment entirely in the legislative branch, which was defined as coequal to the executive (Article I, Section 2.5 and Section 3.6). Second, it expressly made the president subject to impeachment (Article II, Section 4).”[viii]

Beyond this one issue, though, the study of Milton is broadly relevant to the study of America, in part because Satan’s promise that “space may produce new worlds” (650) gives a direct nod to England’s projects of settler colonialism, in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Maryland, as well as Bermuda, Barbados, and Jamaica. As an interesting sidenote: That radical idea put forth by the Levellers and Army in An Agreement of the People, that all adult men should have a vote regardless of property, had been enshrined even earlier in the 1619 Charter of the Virginia colony.[ix] Of course, its inhabitants also relied on exclusionary moral and social hierarchies when they wanted to justify their appropriation of indigenous land and their enslavement of Africans.

The same is true of later figures like John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and they were not coincidentally, big fans of Milton’s works. In fact, we have physical evidence of their reading: Jefferson and Madison read and wrote their names in the same copy!

Jefferson in particular loved Milton’s poetry and he drew on it extensively to write a length treatise about the complexity and brilliance of English meter.

To see it for yourself, visit this site at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has also digitized portions of Jefferson’s literary commonplace book.

If you were in C&E last semester, you will remember that I talked at some length about these amazing objects in my lecture on Hamlet: Commonplace books were basically blank journals in which 16th and 17th century readers copied out their favorite or most important passages from the works they read — in the these examples from the 17th century, we find several works by Shakespeare, including Hamlet.[x]

The digitized portions of Jefferson’s book don’t include the particular pages that contain passages from Milton, but fortunately, there are several studies devoted to its contents by those who have accessed the originals.[xi] Jefferson’s commonplace book includes nearly fifty passages from Paradise Lost; and as John Tanner and Justin Collings note, the bulk of these are speeches from Satan.

According to Tanner and Collings, Jefferson’s attitude towards Satan differed significantly from that of John Adams; the latter claimed that the character’s “impious defiance” of God should “[make] the blood of every reader, who has a soul, curdle from his fingers to his toes.” But Jefferson quoted him approvingly in multiple letters he wrote. in fact, when Jefferson wanted to give his friends a pep talk, he often broke out our friend Satan:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never fail to yield” (PL 1.105–08).

Scholars who have examined Jefferson’s more public works have found evidence that he drew directly on Milton’s other political works in drafting some of his own legal treatises; many have noted a close resemblance of the two passages I’ve put at the bottom of your handout, a Miltonic claim in the Tenure of King’s and Magistrates and the opening of the Declaration of Independence; these are high-minded passages that contain the germs of many of the topics we’ll discuss this semester, and I hope you can take some time to compare them in section today.

As a final suggestion before I send you off, I hope you will also compare them to the passage from Book 9 that I’ve included next to them, in which Eve reflects on their “several employments” (Argument book 9) in the garden: It is in paradise, as it is in hell and in America: if the people are to have free will, the Gods must have cheap labor.

I hope you enjoy talking about this and other things this week, and are ready for more a fantastic Spring Semester. Thank you!

[i] For more on voting percentages, see Hirst’s essay “cultures of voting” in Cultures of Voting in Pre-Modern Europe (2018); see also Realities of Representation: State Building in Early Modern Europe and European America (2007); The Workman and the Franchise: Chapters from History on the Education and Representation of The People (1866).

[ii] “The English Revolution and parliamentary democracy,” in The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation(Pluto Press, 2013).

[iii] As Michael A.R. Graves says of the Parliament under the Tudor monarchs: “The two houses did not express the different and even competing interests of two separate social groups, but rather the common concerns and priorities of one political nation in which the peerage and greater gentry were the dominant force.” See Tudor Parliaments,The Crown,Lords and Commons,1485–1603 (Routledge, 2014 ), 49.

[iv] Henry VIII, who needed a way to legally get divorced, separate England from the Catholic Church, and set up an Anglican Church under his exclusive control, perfectly understood how to harness its power: “We at no time,” he apparently said, “stand so highly in our estate royal as in the time of parliament.”

[vi] On this phenomenon, see Gaby Mahlberg, “The Parliament of Women and the Restoration Crisis” in Democracy and Anti-Democracy in Early Modern England, 1603–1689 (Brill, 2019)

[vii] Some historians hesitate to describe his conduct there as genocide, noting that the casualties in Ireland are no worse than those in battles all across Europe. But the language Cromwell himself used to describe English victories there sounds very much like a concerted effort at ethnic cleansing. See, for instance, the speech quoted in Barry Coward’s biography, and John Morrill’s essay, “Was Oliver Cromwell a War Criminal.” Both are measured accounts that nonetheless answer that question in the affirmative.

[viii] Here I use the phrasing of Susan Amussen, historian of the period, who wrote about the subject recently for the Washington Post. See “Why impeachment was the answer to 17th-century tyranny” published 24 January 2020.

[ix] See Richard Bushman, “English Franchise Reform in the Seventeenth Century,” The Journal of British Studies 3 (November, 1963): 35–56.

[x] See Adam Hooks’s “How to Read like A Renaissance Reader,” and Michael Stolberg, “John Locke’s “New Method of Making Common-Place-Books”: Tradition, Innovation and Epistemic Effects” in Early Science and Medicine 19 (2014): 448–470.

[xi] On the subject of Jefferson’s reading of Milton, see Gimelli Martin, Milton among the Puritans: The Case for Historical Revisionism (Routledge, 2014); George F. Sensbaugh, Milton in Early America (Princeton UP, 1964); Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book, edited by D. L. Wilson (Princeton UP, 2014). “How Adams and Jefferson Read Milton and Milton Read them,” Milton Quarterly 40 (2006); Kenmare Anderson Milton at Monticello: Thomas Jefferson’s Reading of John Milton (2019).

Other cool stuff: Title page of Hobbes’s Leviathan, a famous image

British Library digital exhibit of images of parliament and political turbulence



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.