Tenure of Kings and Magistrates Questions

John Milton’s Prose


Of interest: The Death Warrant for Charles I | The List of Regicides | BBC English Civil War Timeline | See also J. P. Sommerville’s Royalists and Patriots…, 2nd. ed. (ISBN-13: ‎978-0582320062)

1. From 750 – 53 column two near bottom of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (beginning through “… they think it only surviving in their own faction”), who does Milton principally identify as his opponents in the present argument over whether or not Cromwell and his faction were right to depose King Charles I and then later execute him on January 30, 1649? What motives does he attribute to these opponents, and how does he back up such accusations?

2. From 753 column 1 bottom – 756 column 2 middle The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (“But now that their censorious domineering …” through “… least of all to be endured by free-born men”), what account does Milton offer of how the institution of monarchy developed in primitive times, and further, what account does he offer of the basic limitations that subjects have found it necessary to place upon such an institution? What inferences about the relationship between monarchs and the people does he draw from those limitations? Analyze Milton’s ideas in this section in terms of what we might call “social contract theory”: how is he describing the original contract that fallen humanity supposedly made to allow themselves to be governed?

3. Again regarding 753 column 1 bottom – 756 column 2 middle of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (“But now that their censorious domineering …” through “… least of all to be endured by free-born men”), if you are familiar with Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 philosophical work Leviathan, how would you contrast the social contract theory Milton implicitly offers with Hobbes’s political absolutism? What is the fundamental point of disagreement between the two men with regard to the nature and purpose of government? (Book II, Chapter XVIII “Of the Rights of Sovereigns by Institution” might be a good section of Leviathan to use in making your comparison.)

4. From 756 column 2 middle – 759 column 2 bottom of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (“And surely no Christian prince …” through “… as they shall judge most conducing to the public good”), what use does Milton make of classical precedent and more particularly the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as he develops his ideas about the manner in which monarchs are in fact accountable to the people for their actions?

5. From 759 column 2 bottom – 764 column 1 below middle of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (“We may from hence with more ease and force of argument …” through “… and put to death their kings in those primitive Christian times”), Milton first returns to the issue of what exactly a tyrant is, and then draws on examples both foreign and domestic to explain what it is permissible to do to a tyrant. So what is a tyrant: how does Milton define that term? Why does he go on to expend so much energy in the next several pages not only leveling the relationship between monarch and subjects but also effectively construing as “foreigners” those who deserve the label of tyrant, even if they hold their title as natives of the place they rule?

6. From 764 column 2 near middle – 773 column 2 below middle of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (“the examples which follow shall be all protestant, and chiefly presbyterian” through “… they have blasphemed the vengeance of God and traduced the zeal of his people”), and indeed to the end of the treatise on 780, Milton focuses sustained ire on the Presbyterians against whom he had begun the present treatise. What examples does he offer, in the first place, of sometime Presbyterian willingness to fight against and depose their rulers, and then to treat them like ordinary criminals subject to the full penalty of the law? And what has caused the lamentable change, in Milton’s view, in their attitude during the lead-up to the execution of King Charles I? Why did they turn hypocritical and shrink from consummating the process they had begun?

7. Back on 771 column 2 top of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Milton had written that “if the parliament and military counsel do what they do without precedent, if it appear their duty, it argues the more wisdom, virtue, and magnanimity, that they know themselves able to be a precedent to others….” Yet from 773 column 2 bottom – 777 column 2 middle (“And that they be not what they go for…” through “… usurpation over the consciences of all men”), he offers us yet another spate of examples and precedents. A question about Milton’s rhetorical strategy, then, arises: why is it vital to him to offer such examples, so much so that he has peppered every section of his argument with them? No doubt examples are an important part of classical rhetoric, but why are they so important in the present treatise?

8. General question, okay for journal but not for presentation: when you consider Milton’s treatise The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in terms of its content and its rhetorical qualities, do you find it convincing as a justification for regicide in the wake of the king’s conviction on charges of “High Treason and other high Crymes,” as the death warrant of January 29th, 1649 (by our dating; the document says “1648” because Milton’s contemporaries started their year on March 25th) calls Charles I’s offenses? Why or why not? What specific parts or features of the text lead you to think as you do?

Edition: Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Hackett: 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0872206786.

Copyright © 2013 Alfred J. Drake. All rights reserved.