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Harvard Classics Volume 28

Fell to huckster the Commonwealth


Whatever may be the faults of that ill-fated monarch,--and they assuredly were not small,--no one would now think this absurd invective to be even an excusable exaggeration. It misses the true mark altogether, and is the expression of a strongly imaginative mind, which has seen something that it did not like, and is unable in consequence to see anything that has any relation to it distinctly or correctly. But with the supremacy of the Long Parliament Milton's attachment to their cause ceased. No one has drawn a more unfavorable picture of the rule which they established. Years after their supremacy had passed away, and the restoration of the monarchy had covered with a new and strange scene the old actors and the old world, he thrust into a most unlikely part of his "History of England" [Book iii.] the following attack on them:--

"But when once the superficial zeal and popular fumes that acted their New Magistracy were cooled and spent in them, straight every one betook himself (setting the Commonwealth behind, his private ends before) to do as his own profit or ambition led him. Then was justice delayed, and soon after denied; spite and favor determined all: hence faction, thence treachery, both at home and in the field; everywhere wrong and oppression; foul and horrid deeds committed daily, or maintained, in secret or in open. Some who had been called from shops and warehouses, without other merit, to sit in supreme councils and committees

(as their breeding was), fell to huckster the Commonwealth. Others did thereafter as men could soothe and humor them best; so he who would give most, or under covert of hypocritical zeal insinuate basest, enjoyed unworthily the rewards of learning and fidelity, or escaped the punishment of his crimes and misdeeds. Their votes and ordinances, which men looked should have contained the repealing of bad laws, and the immediate constitution of better, resounded with nothing else but new impositions, taxes, excises,--yearly, monthly, weekly; not to reckon the offices, gifts, and preferments bestowed and shared among themselves."

His dislike of this system of committees, and of the generally dull and unemphatic administration of the Commonwealth, attached him to the Puritan army and to Cromwell; but in the continuation of the passage we have referred to, he expresses--with something, let it be said, of a schoolmaster's feeling--an unfavorable judgment on their career:--

"For _Britain_, to speak a truth not often spoken, as it is a land fruitful enough of men stout and courageous in war, so it is naturally not over-fertile of men able to govern justly and prudently in peace, trusting only in their mother-wit; who consider not justly that civility, prudence, love of the public good more than of money or vain honor, are to this soil in a manner outlandish,--grow not here, but in minds well implanted with solid and elaborate breeding; too impolitic else and rude, if not headstrong and intractable to the industry and virtue either of executing or understanding true civil government. Valiant indeed, and prosperous to win a field; but to know the end and reason of winning, unjudicious and unwise: in good or bad success, alike unteachable. For the sun, which we want, ripens wits as well as fruits; and as wine and oil are imported to us from abroad, so must ripe understanding and many civil virtues be imported into our minds from foreign writings and examples of best ages; we shall else miscarry still, and come short in the attempts of any great enterprise. Hence did their victories prove as fruitless as their losses dangerous, and left them still, conquering, under the same grievances that men suffer conquered: which was indeed unlikely to go otherwise, unless men more than vulgar--bred up, as few of them were, in the knowledge of ancient and illustrious deeds, invincible against many and vain titles, impartial to friendships and relations--had conducted their affairs; but then, from the chapman to the retailer, many whose ignorance was more audacious than the rest were admitted with all their sordid rudiments to bear no mean sway among them, both in church and state."


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