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John Milton

John Milton

John Milton: Political Milton

By 1641, political tension between England's pro-Cromwell Parliamentarians and the Royalists backing King Charles I was approaching civil war. "I thought it base to be traveling for amusement abroad, while my fellow-citizens were fighting for liberty at home,"4 Milton wrote. He returned to England, and was delighted to find a society engaged in passionate political debate and pushing the limits of a free press. "Liberty of speech was no longer subject to control," Milton wrote of this more liberal England. "I saw that a way was opening for the establishment of real liberty . . . I therefore determined to relinquish the other pursuits in which I was engaged, and to transfer the whole of my talents and industry to this one important object."5 Inspired by his experiences in Europe, Milton decided to join the political fray. His first political pamphlets argued that the nation should be governed by the church. Milton believed that the crown was corrupt, and that real reform should come from the church.

In 1642, John Milton married Mary Powell. At seventeen years old, Mary was exactly half her husband's age. The marriage was not a success at first, and Mary soon left Milton's home to live with her parents. Divorce was illegal in England, and the suffering Milton wrote a series of pamphlets known collectively as the "Divorce Tracts" arguing for change to the divorce laws. Milton argued that loveless marriages were actually more of an offense to God than the dissolution of a marriage. "Love in marriage cannot live or subsist unless it be mutual; and where love cannot be, there can be left of Wedlock nothing, but the empty husk of an outside Matrimony, as unpleasing to God, as any other kind of hypocrisy,"6 he wrote.

When publishers attempted to censor one of Milton's Divorce Tracts, he responded with an outraged, impassioned essay that championed a free press. That essay, Areopagitica, is one of the most eloquent arguments ever made for free speech. More than a century later, the framers of the U.S. Constitution looked to it as a model for the First Amendment. Milton saw censorship as an attempt to keep the populace impotent and ignorant. He would have none of it. "Methinks I see in my mind a mighty and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks," Milton wrote. "You cannot make us now lesse capable, lesse knowing, lesse eagerly pursuing of the truth."7 Soon after, Milton and his wife reconciled, and she gave birth to the first of their four children.

On 30 January 1640, wearing two shirts so that people would not see him shivering in the cold and think he was trembling with fear, King Charles I was publicly beheaded. Milton supported the king's removal. "I did not insult over fallen majesty, as is pretended," he wrote, "I only preferred queen Truth to king Charles."8 Charles' execution ushered in a republican government led by Oliver Cromwell. Milton was appointed Secretary for the Foreign Tongues, an official position in the English government handling diplomatic correspondence. He received a salary and lodgings at Scotland Yard.

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