In 1642 a civil war began, and every person in England from the most powerful to the most humble was asked, in some way or another, to choose a side. Conflict between Charles I and his Parliamentary opponents had led the King to dissolve Parliament and rule alone from 1629-40. Charles had to recall the latter when he needed money to pursue war against the Scots, but he was unwilling to comply with the demands made by the new Parliament, and the tensions between the two parties began to thicken. But the real catalyst for war, I will argue, was the new presence of print media in popular British culture. Only recently have some historians begun to accept that this was not just a war between Parliament (under Cromwell) and Charles I, but a war greatly fueled by the participation of the British masses --- sparking political animosity with the often radical propaganda they were both consuming and producing. What kind of information did British citizens have access to? How were they politically informed and how did they incendiate the outbreak of bloody revolution?
The sides came to resemble the class stratifications already in place: the king's forces (the Royalists) were dominated by nobles, Anglicans and Catholics, while the Parliamentary forces (or Roundheads) contained Puritans, Scottish covenanters, merchants, and artisans --- i.e. the "ordinary people" who reveled in their political agency for the first time, spewing and listening to each other's speculations in cheap printed pamphlets. In The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill explains the intellectual furor issuing forth from the printing presses
The Revolutionary decades produced a fantastic outburst of energy, both physical and intellectual... [namely,] the continuous flow of pamphlets on every subject under the sun... For a short time, ordinary people were freer from the authority of church and social superiors than ever before, or were for a long time to be again... They speculated about the end of the world and the coming of the millennium; about the justice of God in condemning the mass of mankind to eternal torment for a sin which (if anyone) Adam committed; some of them became skeptical of the existence of hell. They contemplated the possibility that God might intend to save everybody, that something of God might be within each of us. They founded new sects to express these new ideas.... They attacked the monopolization of knowledge within the privileged professions, divinity, law, medicine. They criticized the existing educational structure, especially the universities, and proposed a vast expansion of educational opportunity. They discussed the relation of the sexes, and questioned parts of the Protestant ethic. The eloquence, the power of the simple artisans who took place in these discussions was staggering. (292)
Out of the fury of oral and literary expression that took over England in the mid-seventeenth century --- for which the newly popularized printing press is in large part responsible --- emerged the irreverent genius of John Milton. In the midst of the rumpus of "voluble tongues" released from a history of silence, he saw that England was a "noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep and shaking her invincible locks.... a nation not slow and dull, but of quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest human capacity can soar to" (1461). Milton became politically active during the Civil War, publishing the pamphlet Areopagitica (1644), which demanded a free press for "God's Englishmen" who he believed had significant and eloquent things to say, which only the "tyrannical duncery" of bishops had prevented them from saying and that any attempt to sensor would be "an undervaluing and vilifying of the whole nation," a reproach to the common people. Milton saw unlimited promise in the printing press as a political weapon --- that is, in the innovation of pamphlets which informed and promulgated the voices of the commoners.
He barraged both the high politicians and the low proletariat of England with a profusion of pamphlets which demanded that they look at the way autocratic government was imposing inimical restrictions and constructing a myopic national ideology: "Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors." Milton railed against censorship, and sought to persuade the commoners that through exercising their voices they could participate in the ideological construction of their nation. He published antiprelatical tracts against government of the church by bishops; these were scabrous, name-calling pamphlets in the style of the times, which took a popular position on a relatively popular issue. On the heels of having been abandoned by his wife, he published pamphlets in support of "divorce on the grounds of incompatibility" which was a scandalous assertion of freedom at the time. Finally, he published a series of pamphlets after the execution of Charles I, supporting the regicide that so many former insurgents were beginning to regret. Milton's mutinous voice proved so insistent --- even after the Civil War, during the Restoration --- that he was at one point imprisoned.
Without question the most persuasive pamphlet Milton produced was the Areopagitica which to this day, perhaps, stands as the ultimate plea for democratization of literary expression. Parliament's passage of the Ordinance for Printing, which restricted unlicensed printing in June, 1643, occasioned Milton's plea for freedom of speech. I will address the details of the litigious constraints later, but I wanted to introduce the discussion of the Civil War with the understanding that the real popular uprising went far beyond a repudiation of political autocracy of Charles I in favor of the Commonwealth, specifically. The civil uprising broached broader issues (similar to the ones we confront today) regarding individual agency and a democracy of ideas. Milton saw censorship as evidence of a degenerate government and an egregious misconception of God. In his mind, God intended the world to be a democracy: "As God left human beings free to choose among the many physical foods of this world, urging only temperance, so He left them free to pick and choose for themselves among ideas" (1465).
Christopher Hill places a contemporary perspective on this campaign for freedom of expression --- for the wide availability of the medium to the masses in which the "ordinary people" of England partook :
What do we conclude? We do not need persuading today that liberty of printing ought to be given a trial. That hard-fought battle has been won. We take victory for granted, and are sometimes skeptical of the results now that printing has become a big capitalist business. But to appreciate what it meant, to recover the intoxicating excitement --- not only of being able to print what one thought, but of being able to say what one thought --- we have to return to those marvelous decades when it seemed as though the world might be turned upside down. (World Turned 164).