YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 21, 2012

Milton, Mason, Melville on Free Speech

[ Part two of this blog can be found here: http://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/]

This blog is about the intellectual history of the First Amendment, and is meant to establish a longer lineage than is asserted by many conservatives, who look to George Mason, Jefferson, and Madison as the most significant proponents of freedom of expression. What is ignored in this claim is the always contested nature of free speech, even within its most ardent progenitors. Also overlooked are the material interests of Southern slaveholders whose doctrine of State’s Rights was threatened by the abolitionist and/or antislavery arguments of such Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

For instance, George Mason (1725-1792), the famous Antifederalist, wanted slaves as property to be protected, although he opposed the extension of slavery and the importation of further slaves. During the 1830s, when slavery was defended as a positive good, Southerners forbade not only the education of slaves, but stopped the importation of Northern abolitionist arguments through the mails. It is obvious that material interests in slave property trumped any desire for universal freedom of expression in the slaveholding states.

Go back several centuries to Milton’s famous polemic Areopagitica (1644). In my book on the revival of Herman Melville’s reputation in the 20th century, I devoted an entire chapter to Milton and Melville’s ambivalent relations to puritanism, as expressed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poet’s relationship to his character Satan (often taken to be the mouthpiece of Milton in his most radical mood) has generated a “Milton industry” of even greater size and consequence than the “Melville industry.” Conservatives, moderates, and radicals alike, appropriate the life and art of these authors as their ideologies demand. What each party suppresses is the ambivalence of either Milton or Melville—an ambivalence that we may find within ourselves as we save our own hides from the bullies we encounter at every stage of life. This is an issue that educators fail to address, no matter how well-meaning their efforts may be at reforming the current system of public education. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/09/19/bullies/.)

What follows is a short collage followed by some comments that begin chapter 4 of my book. I lay out the obvious influence of Milton’s great tract upon Herman Melville, feeding his passionate desire to see and describe “things as they are.” For Melville, struggling with inner censors, was “the mind its own place?”

Gustave Dore Satan

[From Areopagitica:] I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye on how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand unless wariness be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

[Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 1849, regretting his negative critique of Francis Parkman:] Hereafter I shall no more stab at a book (in print I mean) than I would stab at a man.[i]

[From “Baby Budd”:] Claggart hesitated not an instant. Deliberately advancing within short range of the sailor, he spoke. Without emphasis and in a tone more musical than ever, he delivered the accusation point-blank into his eyes.[ii]

Seventeenth-century radical puritans and scientists produced many of the innovations we associate with the intellectual foundations of democracy: along with the partial legitimation of dissent and libertarian ideas in some strands of Reformation thought, the scientific revolution fortified older political theories of popular sovereignty and constitutional government. The explosion of printing made subversive ideas broadly available to a growing and confident middle-class reading public eager to be emancipated from arbitrary authority. Milton published Areopagitica in 1644; it is perhaps the most eloquent statement ever conceived on behalf of intellectual freedom; it thrills to the puritan marrow of my bones. But that appeal to the censor was framed during the English Civil War soon after the Independents, reacting to new assertions of popular sovereignty, had put down rebels to their Left in the City of London, stifling vox populi (the voice of the people) in favor of vox salutaris (the voice of public safety).[iii] After the Restoration Sir Henry Vane was beheaded, and the bodies of the chief regicides, Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw, were exhumed and hanged as an example to would-be republicans. All overtly radical thoughts were chased back to the Tartarean realms from which the Titans had emerged. Milton, who had been named as secretary of foreign languages in 1649, was taken into custody then freed, perhaps by the intercessions of Andrew Marvell and Sir William Davenant or because the restored regime concluded that the blind poet, though formerly an official of the commonwealth and ardent defender of the regicides, was now harmless. [end, book excerpt]

Surveys taken by liberal journalists present a troubling picture of American attitudes toward freedom of speech. (See http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=2621.) As we contemplate the direction of the current administration, attributing blame for the jihadists uprisings on a video of dubious origin (as opposed to terrorism only weakly resisted), we should be aware that the freedom of speech libertarians desire is not universally supported, not even in our “free republic.”

In my next blog, I will compare those accounts of the 1960s written within a religious framework, versus my own accounts of 20th century social movements as written by a materialist historian (myself). The subject highlighted will be a populism that has never been vanquished, and that retains all its baneful, irrationalist influence on our politics.


[i]  2. Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 12/14/49, N/N Corr., 148-149.

                [ii]  3. Herman Melville, “Baby Budd, Sailor,” quoted in Freeman, Melville’s Billy Budd, 317. In “Billy Budd,” Claggart’s glance is linked to an “asylum physician” and to the mesmerizing Rabbi in Clarel.

       [iii]  4. See Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993). On Davenant and Milton see http://www.oxfordtimes.co.uk/lifestyle/history/8927697.How_a_friendship_saved_John_Milton_s_life/.

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7 Comments »

  1. There is also the (English) Bill of Rights of 1689, which was incorporated into the US Bill of Rights by Madison. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_of_Rights_1689. And while there’s no direct connection to the freedom of speech per se, the Magna Carta and even earlier Anglo-Saxon customs are antecedents to all the constitutional rights enjoyed in the Anglosphere.

    BTW, I just linked into this blog from a comment you made at PJ Media. Lot’s of very interesting and insightful work here. You should be writing for a wider audience.

    Comment by Michael Hiteshew — January 3, 2014 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

  2. [...] http://clarespark.com/2012/09/21/milton-mason-melville-on-free-speech/ Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Comments (1) [...]

    Pingback by Updated index to Melville blogs « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 10, 2012 @ 11:06 pm | Reply

  3. I rarely say, “wonderful,” but there’s little else to say about how my mind swells as I read these lines. Thank you Clare for making this possible in these dark days. I hope that life grants me more time for Milton and Clare Spark’s efforts. I should add something about the value of an open and free Internet to my enthusiasm. “What a fantastic age we live in. If only we can preserve its great treasures for future generations.

    Eddie Evans — savekpfk.net

    Comment by eddie evans — October 3, 2012 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

  4. [...] [This is the second of two blogs on the ambivalence surrounding the First Amendment. The first is http://clarespark.com/2012/09/21/milton-mason-melville-on-free-speech/.%5D [...]

    Pingback by Materialist history and the idea of Progress « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 22, 2012 @ 10:32 pm | Reply

  5. Excellent Post, Clare!

    Who was it that said, “An American thinks what he wants to think, says what he wants to say, goes where he wants to go and does what he wants to do!”

    (Was it Donald Rumsfeld?)

    Comment by Robert Winkler Burke — September 22, 2012 @ 3:13 am | Reply


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