by Alexander Collin

Benjamin Woodford is an assistant professor at Thompson Rivers University. He researches literature and political thought focusing on early modern England. He defended his PhD dissertation, “Institutions, Theology, and the Language of Freedom in the Poetry and Prose of John Milton,” in 2018. He is also the author of numerous articles, as well as the book Perceptions of a Monarchy without a King: Reactions to Oliver Cromwell’s Power (McGill-Queens UP, 2013).

He spoke with Alexander Collin about his recent JHI article “The right we have to our owne bodies, goods, and liberties: The Freedom of the Ancient Constitution and Common Law in Milton’s Early Prose” (volume 85, issue 1).

Alexander Collin: What is it that drew you to early Milton? What makes his early work distinctive or interesting compared to the later work?

Benjamin Woodford: I am interested in all of Milton’s writings, but I find his early prose particularly interesting because of the level of optimism in some of the tracts, especially Areopagitica. In Areopagitica, Milton objects to any system of prepublication licensing, and he expresses a lot of faith in the English people to make good judgements when their reading choices are not limited by a licenser. He envisions the entire nation reading and working diligently to illuminate matters of religious truth.

Later in his career, Milton becomes very frustrated with the failure of the English people to embrace what he saw as the opportunities that came with the regicide and the establishment of the commonwealth. In Milton’s early prose, there is none of the bitterness and frustration that shapes some of his later work. In these works, we see Milton’s thought before his experience working in government; before he had to face some unpleasant realities. Since Milton is not yet employed by the government, he is a bit of an outsider at this point, so he doesn’t have the same obligation to promote the policies and structure of the English Commonwealth. 

AC: Most readers will know Milton through Paradise Lost, so they might be surprised to see there is a relatively narrow role for religion in your account of Milton’s thought. You’re critical, for example, of Blair Worden’s argument that his early work is mainly concerned with religion. Could you say more about how you understand the role of religion in Milton’s early thought?

BW: Religion is certainly an important topic in Milton’s early prose. His early tracts specifically address his thoughts on the church. In his early prose, he seems to be more concerned about reforming the church than the government, so I don’t mean to suggest that Milton was not concerned with religious issues. In fact, he devotes more space in his early prose to discussing the church than politics. Milton’s focus is to correct problems that he sees in England, and the structure of the church, with the prelates holding temporal power, is one of his main targets.

AC: Henry Parker appears several times as a point of comparison with Milton, could you say a little more about Parker’s views and his influence on Milton.

BW: I don’t think that Parker influenced Milton’s early thought. Parker, who was a propagandist for Parliament in the early 1640s, is willing to grant Parliament much more power than Milton in his early prose. For Parker, Parliament could contain the power of the king and even had sovereignty over the law, meaning it could act contrary to the law in the name of national interest. Parker discusses arbitrary power in government, but he only fears arbitrary power if it is in the hands of the king, not Parliament. He defined Parliament as “the state it self,” so he saw no problem with Parliament wielding arbitrary power. Milton’s early prose, comparatively, speaks of the king’s “supremacy.” Later, when he was employed by the English Commonwealth, Milton elevates the power of Parliament and refers to it as having “the real power of the people,” but those views are not present in his early prose.

AC: What is Milton’s basis for his knowledge of common law and history—who has he been talking to and what has he been reading to form the opinions that you describe in this article?

BW: Milton reads a number of English histories. Milton’s commonplace book has a number of entries from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles and John Speed’s The Historie of Great Britaine that are related to laws. Milton also read the natural law theorist John Selden and cited his work De Jure Naturali et Gentium in Areopagitica. Milton seems to have read these texts to help him prepare for writing his own historical work.

Milton and many of his contemporaries have an idealized understanding of pre-Norman history and law. Groups like the Levellers saw the Normans as corrupting the Saxon laws, and Milton also criticizes the impact of the Norman conquests on English laws. Some pre-Norman kings, such as Saint Edward the Confessor, become a part of the appeals to the authority of the common law.

AC: You note that Milton never explicitly espouses republicanism in his early writings. How much can we read into that omission? Does it indicate that he really isn’t a republican at that stage or is it merely prudent not to advocate for republicanism at that point?

BW: I think that Milton’s lack of explicit republicanism in his early prose is a product of the context. In the early 1640s, no one is talking about executing the king and creating a commonwealth. No one, including Milton, sees the abolition of monarchy as the solution to England’s political problems. Milton’s focus on existing English political and legal traditions shows that he thought that England had all the necessary tools to fix its government.

Later, Milton and others would change their mind and see regicide as a solution. It is important to keep in mind the king’s bad faith negotiations after the first civil war and the fact that he escaped custody and started the second civil war. These actions were crucial in driving some parliamentarians and officers in the army to consider regicide, and none of this had happened in the early 1640s. Milton is, notably, silent during the negotiations that follow the first civil war and the second civil war. Milton publishes his final divorce tract in 1645, and he does not publish another prose work until 1649, when he publishes The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.

The events that radicalized some MPs and the army occurred in 1647 and 1648, and we don’t know how Milton reacted to these events as they happened. When Milton publishes The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in 1649, he promotes popular sovereignty and champions the people’s right to remove kings. Due to his silence between 1645 and 1649, it is difficult to know exactly when Milton rejected the traditional English government with a monarch in favour of popular sovereignty.

AC: I come away from your article with the impression that we should see the early Milton above all as a product of his time—he’s working within a well-established literary tradition, with fairly conventional forms of argumentation, and his position is not as radical as some of his contemporaries. If he had not become so famous as a poet later in life, do you think we would still be interested in his early work, or would he seem a less distinctive voice in the political landscape of seventeenth-century England?

BW: Although Milton is working within an established and conventional framework, he extends that framework in a unique way. For example, divorce, reading, and the publication of books were not part of traditional English liberties. Milton, however, uses the language of the Common Law and ancient constitution to transform them into English liberties. It is Milton’s ability to apply an existing legal framework to new areas, and thus extend the liberties for English people, that make his early work important.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. The project has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst. Alexander has written for The Historian magazine, Shells and Pebbles, The History of Knowledge Blog, as well as academic publications. Alongside his historical work, he also contributes reports to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker. He studied at King’s College London, Humboldt University Berlin, the University of Cambridge, and Viadrina University Frankfurt.

Featured image: John Milton, Aeropagitica, via Wikimedia Commons.