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The Pen Is Mightier Than The King

The 17th century saw a kings head roll and an English Caesar sit the throne, in the midst of all of this a new class was rising. England in the 17th century was rife with change, there was much work to be done before the industrial revolution could fully grip the nation. For hundreds of years the monarch had dominated the political landscape, now that was changing radically. Although their remained a Monarch in power for most of this period they had seen their powers limited to the point of reducing them to the status of figurehead.

As farming techniques and technology had improved, the population in England had increased steadily and the use of this new technology created a new class in society. (1) This merchant class was on the rise due in large part to the captured markets in North America and the West Indies which had made many a merchant richer than their aristocratic brethren.

The British Parliament had seen its power expand over the last hundred years and would continue that trend in the 17th century finding itself with the power to behead even the king. ) As Parliament flexed their new found muscle the king was forced to find the funding for his political intrigues among the new merchant class. In addition to this new found monetary prowess the middle classes had been exposed to a rich variety of philosophers who espoused the right of the people to rule themselves. (1)

Revolution in the New World and in parts of Europe increasingly made the lower classes aware of their right to self-governance. The parliament a representative of the people showed its power in the 17th century by enacting the Glorious Revolution and crippling the English monarchy for the rest of time. ) Indeed in the next century the French Revolution would show that not only a government body had the power to remove royalty, the common people could also spill royal blood. As a result of this change in the class structure Monarchs and parliament where forced to recognize the power of the common people and they would from then on need to seek the peoples favor.

The danger of an uprising was quite real and could not be controled by marshal means, as there was no standing police force or army. ) In addition leaders of the time where selected by birth and not by political prowess and as such many of them lacked the eloquence to persuade the people. Because of this they where forced to find an emissary to express their ideas to the people and many of the individuals chosen logically were talented writers of the age. The wealth of the new merchant class allowed many of them to better educate their children, and so the middle class author came into prominence. (1) The ruling class would use these authors to curry the peoples favor for their often conflicting agendas.

Writers in 17th century England soon found that their abilities and viewpoints were a powerful political tool. They used the support of the government in power to expose themselves to their audience and to expand their trade for future generations. Early 17th century authors where faced with a more than difficult task to succeed in their career and indeed even to survive. At that time writing, even if you where a masterful author was not much of a career, finding funds to survive on was quite difficult and often not possible using your writing talents alone. )

In order to really earn any money from your scribbling you had to reach the readers that your work was intended for. This was not so easy in a time before mass communication, and without some form of significant exposure you were condemned to forever wallow in obscurity. In addition the law of the time was not friendly to authors as there was still no allowance for freedom of the press. A government branch was still designated for the censoring of writers material, and if your particular beliefs did not agree with the person or persons currently in power they would simply not see the light of day. )

The most influential of these early 17th century authors was John Milton. He lived from 1608 to 1674 and was raised in a strongly puritan household. Educated at Cambridge he attended there for eight years and developed a strong background in writing as well as the classical languages. (1) He emerged as an important figure in Cromwells republican government. Milton was an important factor in keeping the somewhat unpopular Cromwell in power until his death in 1658. Cromwell was seen as a threat both at home and abroad and was accused of trying to assume dictator like powers in the English government.

In January 1641 the puritans in Parliament introduced a law abolishing the office of Bishop in the English church. (1) The Bishop at that time was Joseph Hall, an intelligent man of some writing ability. Upon hearing of the law being pushed through Parliament he wrote a letter which was circulated not only among the ruling class but to the people defending the office of Bishop. The puritans in Parliament turned to Milton to write a convincing response to this attack on their plans. Milton wrote two responses both harshly critical of both the man Joseph Hall and the office of Bishop.

The law was passed and Hall found himself without a job. An even more important act to clear with the English people was the beheading of the previous English king Charles I. In 1649 Milton wrote a pamphlet which was widely circulated defending the peoples write to remove a king who did not have the consent of the people. (1) The pamphlet quieted many outraged people at least in London and the surrounding territory and seemed to add some form of validity to Cromwell and Parliament making it look less like a power grab and more like the only natural answer to a politically unpopular king.

After this pamphlet had succeeded in its intended purpose Milton found himself installed in Cromwells republican government. In April of 1649 Milton was asked to respond to several recently published pamphlets attacking the validity of the republican government. John Lilburne was prominent among those professing the view that the English people were no better off under the strict Puritan rule than under Charles I. (1) Milton responded with several pamphlets which staunchly defended the government under Cromwell.

Perhaps more dangerous to Cromwell than the unrest among his own citizens was the growing unease among the other rulers of Europe, who did not like the precedent that the execution of Charles had set. (1) These rulers where none to happy to have their subjects exposed to a successful rebellion against an established monarch and even less thrilled that the subsequent government installed had lasted with some success.

In addition to these powerful enemies throughout Europe Charles II the son of the recently removed king hired an influential writer, Claude Saumaise to attack the actions of the rebellious Parliament and Cromwell in removing the king. Milton was directed to respond to these attacks and did so with brilliant success, thoroughly embarrassing Saumaise and easing the minds of many of the rulers of nearby European powers. (1) As Milton was writing these political responses his position in Cromwells government allowed him a level of publicity that he could have only achieved with great difficulty outside of government.

Milton was allowed to write several controversial pamphlets while in the employ of the government including one on the merits of divorce. He also advocated a free press in England, although this law did not directly affect Milton as he published his pamphlets without subjecting them to the scrutiny of the government it would have greatly helped many other authors of his time. However the parliament although willing to overlook Miltons works due to his services to the government was not ready to allow other volatile authors the same freedom, in fact they tightened the laws governing freedom of the press.

Milton went on to parley his prominence with Cromwells government into an avid reader base for his later works such as Paradise Lost. One of the authors most directly responsible for the changing opinions in how a country should be ruled was John Locke. John Locke was born August 29, 1632 the son of a small landowner. (2) He attended Oxford and there received and education in a mind numbing range of fields. Like Milton however he found it useful to put his pen at the service of the government. A debate was aroused by the fact that Charles IIs heir was James II a flagrant Catholic.

As a result a law was being proposed in Parliament which would make it illegal to have a Catholic king in the English monarchy. Opponents of the law republished a pro Catholic pamphlet Patriarcha by Sir Robert Filmer. (2) One of the strongest proponents of the law Secretary of State Shaftesbury asked John Locke to write a reply to this damaging paper. As Sir Robert Filmer had died in 1653 Locke had little trouble disposing of the antiquated material in Patriaracha and indeed published two separate pamphlets in support of the anti-catholic law.

As James II took power with the death of Charles II anyway Shaftesbury and Locke both where forced to flee for their lives to Holland. John Locke although only slightly involved in politics was never dependant on political activity to advance his career. In addition to being a brilliant writer Locke was a very accomplished philosopher and his knowledge of both law and medicine allowed him to not be monetarily reliant on the government. Because of this Locke was never a seeker of high office in any government, although he could have held many important posts.

Lockes main contribution was not in the political advancement of any one figure but rather in the advancement of philosophy relating to the rule of the people. Perhaps the most flagrant example of a 17th century author using the government to promote and support himself was John Dryden. Dryden was born August 19, 1631 and was educated at Cambridge; he was the son of a modest landowner. (1) Dryden could never be said to have maintained any solid affiliation with a political cause or figure. He generally put his pen to the services of whoever was in power and thus in the best position to advance his personal well being.

Indeed he served in a variety of capacities under Cromwells republican government, under Charles II upon his ascension to the throne, and although he had repeatedly attacked Catholics while it was popular he wrote a poem celebrating the ascension of James II as king. In 1681 Secretary of State Shaftesbury tried to organize a rebellion to replace Charles II with his son James. (1) After being foiled in this attempt Shaftesbury was to stand trial for treason and Charles asked Dryden to write a satire mocking Shaftesbury and ridiculing him for his attempt. Dryden wrote The Medal viscously satirizing Shaftesbury and his accomplices.

After repeatedly publishing papers attacking and mocking Catholics Dryden found it to his benefit to write a poem celebrating the ascension of James II. James for his part forgave the earlier insults and rewarded Dryden with a position in the government. When James II died and the protestant William of Orange was installed Dryden was finally dismissed from the government as a Catholic. As William of Orange a Dutch Protestant took power writers found that the work of their forbearers in the political arena and the more liberal approach of the King were to have great benefits for them. )

At this time freedom of the press was adopted by the English government and this change was to see an explosion in the publication of journals and novels. Journals such as The Examiner, The Tattler and The Spectator could now be published without the interference of the government. In addition to opening a new forum for writers to express themselves in these journals proved to be a significant new form of income. Because of this writers in the later 17th century tended to stick to their guns and express their own political and social views regardless of who was currently in power.

One of the pioneers of this new freedom was Daniel Defoe. He was born sometime in 1659 the son of a London butcher. (1)Defoe was a business man and a literary figure issuing pamphlets and writing his journal The Review on a multitude of subjects including the education of women and the proper method for running a business. Although Defoe was allowed to publish his opinion freely some of his more controversial writings got him thrown in the Pillory. He wrote a pamphlet in support of dissenters and was jailed for it.

Robert Harley a member of Williams government obtained his release in exchange for service to the government. (1) In this way Defoe was not entirely independent of the governments help, however his own controversial ideals placed him in this position rather than being compelled to service as his forbearers had been. Two of the most prominent writers in later 17th century England where both born in 1672, Richard Steele was born in Dublin and educated at Oxford and Joseph Addison whos father was a rector and who was also educated at Oxford. )

Steele was a proud youth and participated in a duel which almost killed his opponenet, after this incident Steeles view of society would change dramatically. He began writing pamphlets mocking not only the practice of dueling but also many aristocratic customs. In order to reach his middle class audience Steele began writing and editing The Tattler which continued his attack on the warped ethics of the aristocratic class. Joseph Addison was somewhat more politically involved as he was employed in William the Oranges government.

He wrote a poem celebrating the victory of the Duke Marlborough at Blenheim, which encouraged support for the war of Spanish succession which was being advocated by Addisons Whig allies in Parliament. When the Whigs fell from power both Steele and Addison lost favor with the government and began publishing the now famous Spectator a journal expressing their views on a number of aspects of English society and politics. Although The Spectator enjoyed brief success it soon grew tiresome to its readers as the articles became repetitive. )

Although their joint effort at writing this journal failed in the short term they showed writers in the future what a journal could accomplish both in terms of style and success. Another writer of this period Jonathon Swift combined a successful writing career with an influential role in politics and accomplished a broad range of projects. Born in Ireland in 1667 to a mother of low social status and a father that died before he was born Swift achieved an amazing amount of influence in his lifetime. (1) Swift entered the political arena as a low level writer for the Whigs in Parliament.

After serving with them for what he felt was enough time and not achieving any real power he changed his allegiances to the Tories and was promptly made editor of the pro-Tory examiner. He wrote the opposite view point to Addison on the war of Spanish succession and sharply criticized both his former allies the Whigs and Duke Marlborough in his writings. He claimed that the war advocated by the Whigs and the Duke was both expensive and pointless; apparently his view was accepted as the Whigs lost their power and the war ended soon after this publication. (1)

Each of these men has come to be associated with literary greatness and deservedly so, however at the time of their death they may not have felt the sense of accomplishment that they had earned. With the possible exception of Milton the early 17th century authors were limited both in the ideas that they could legally express and in the career opportunities that they could pursue, these men Dryden, Locke and Milton paved the way for the later authors and the freedoms that they enjoyed. In all of their cases they came from modest middle class backgrounds and were educated with money earned by their merchant class parents.

The leaders of their time sought them out for this very reason as it allowed them to more effectively communicate their point of view to the increasingly powerful middle class. Although the rulers who sought to use them for their skill in communication may have gained some temporary benefit from their services, it is all subsequent English speaking authors who have benefited the most from their labors in that they do not have to chain themselves to the prevailing sentiment in society to be heard.

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