The Readie and Easie Way appeared first in late February 1660, probably only a few days after General George Monck engineered the re-admission to Parliament, on February 21, of the members forcefully excluded by Pride's Purge in 1648. No one paying attention at the time could fail to acknowledge that the return of the purged members to their seats would lead inevitably, and swiftly, to the restoration of monarchy in the person of Charles II. Cromwell's army had seen fit to purge them in December 1648 because they stood in the way of trying and executing Charles I. Had they not been forcibly removed, there would have been no abolition of monarchy, no experiment with a commonwealth, and no Cromwellian protectorate. Restoring them meant setting the clock back about eleven years. Charles II dated the first year of his reign as 1649, immediately following his father's execution for treason.In light of this, the first part of Milton's opening sentence could well be regarded as one of the greatest understatements of all time:
Although since the writing of this treatise, the face of things hath had som change, writs for new elections have bin recall'd, and the members at first chosen, readmitted from exclusion, ...
Milton acknowledges the monumental change in the face of things, but decides to carry on with his appeal to this hugely altered Parliament anyway. He wrote the treatise (except for the opening paragraph) as an address to the Rump Parliament; events of the 21st make it, regardless of his original intention, into an address to a Parliament which will certainly not heed his call to avoid backsliding into monarchy and re-engage in the business of establishing "the noblest, the manliest, the equalest, the justest" form of government, "a free Commonwealth." His opening sentence looks squarely at the new circumstances, and then seems to pivot on a "yet" back to hopes that should have been dashed:
yet not a little rejoicing to hear declar'd the resolution of those who are in power, tending to the establishment of a free Commonwealth, and to remove, if it be possible, this noxious humor of returning to bondage, instilld of late by som deceivers, and nourishd from bad principles and fals apprehensions among too many of the people, I thought best not to suppress what I had written.
He admits that recent events prompted him to consider scrapping the project as useless, but certain shreds of hope remained: the army grandees, including the one most in power, General Monck, had all declared their continued faith in the Commonwealth "without a King, Single Person, or House of Lords" (Commons Journals 7.843); the secluded members, it was hoped, would be seated "on Condition they would promise to declare for a Commonwealth Government" (Sir Richard Baker et al., A Chronicle of the Kings of England , 710), but in the event all they really agreed was to issue writs for successive parliaments, settle the affairs of the army, appoint a Council of State (for affairs of Scotland and Ireland), and, most important, to dissolve themselves well before April 20 (710). In short, they agreed not to meddle with the constitution, fully confident that the succeeding parliament would restore the king, court and church.
Milton pretends to be uncertain in late February "if it be possible" to remove from the people "this unsound humour of returning to old bondage," but he chooses to sound optimistic. By April, any shreds of hope were long gone. In his own words, the "unsound humour" (first edition) of returning to monarchy had become positively, and threateningly, "noxious" (second edition) over the course of a few weeks. Nevertheless, Milton chooses yet once more "not to suppress" what he has written; indeed he revises and enlarges it!
This choice, to spend more time and effort arguing for the Good Old Cause, even in ever more dangerous and less promising circumstances, has fascinated critics for some time. In 1959, Barbara Lewalski defended Milton against charges of Machiavellianism on one hand and political ineptness on another by looking at the tract in the context of all seven of Milton's 1659-60 pamphlets (A Treatise of Civil Power, Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means, Letter to a Friend, "Proposals of Certain Expedients," Readie and Easie Way (first and second editions), Letter to Monck, and Brief Notes upon a Late Sermon). She reads the pamphlets as a series of attempts to promote "the most satisfactory compromise possible" at each stage in rapidly deteriorating circumstances (Lewalski, "Milton: Politics and Polemics," 194). The argument is appealing, and almost convincing, but cannot hold up in the face of all the evidence. His first decision to publish ("not to suppress") the Readie and Easie Way even though circumstances had changed so radically, argues against her case. His second decision, to advance an even bolder proposal for an oligarchy of the virtuous in the face of circumstances that guaranteed he would be ignored at best, can hardly be regarded as a strategic response to changing circumstances.
Keith Stavely, in 1973, reads the pamphlet (both editions) as written in alternating voices. One section that conveys "a sense that events have passed quite beyond republican or rational governance" followed by another "explaining the futile but reasonable plan for stabilizing the revolution" (Stavely, "Style and Structure," 278). This conserves for us a Milton who actually acknowledges what is going on, not sliding (as Lewalski's Milton seems to) through various stages of denial. But it fails fully to account for some of the tones it calls to our attention, like the "superbly ironic naïveté" (277) of suggesting that the "Elections to a free Parliament" could possibly lead to anything other than the restoration of monarchy. There is nothing "readie" or "easie" about Milton's proposals for a republican settlement given the circumstances on the political ground, and Milton knew that.
In 1990, Laura Knoppers proposed we read the tract as a "self-conscious performance" of an English jeremiad, a prophetic condemnation of the backsliding English people, all too ready to give up the liberties they had won, so easily re-submitting their necks to the yoke of tyrannical bondage ("The English Jeremiad"). More recently, Annabel Patterson calls attention to the remarkable accuracy of Milton's several predictions for the future cavalier court ("Milton as Political Prophet").
However, as Paul Stevens suggests, there is no totalizing interpretive gesture that can save Milton's prose in this period from its painfully obvious expressions of "emotional turmoil in which he is almost always out of step with events" and "continually misreads key players like General Monck" (Stevens, "Lament for a Nation?" 598). Efforts to read these tracts, especially the two versions of The Readie and Easie Way, as "fully coherent" will probably always succeed in rendering parts of the prose invisible or obtuse. Stevens' suggestion that we should detect an inevitable and irresistible slide into satire opens the way to closer readings of many of the best sections of the tract.
I would add only two other observations. First, Milton obviously knew how hopeless proposals for re-settling a republican commonwealth were, especially proposals that he ironically refers to as "readie" and "easie." What he fails to acknowledge is that most Englishmen in 1660 simply missed having a government with some shred of legitimacy. The republican Commonwealth had been established by military force. When Cromwell dismissed the Rump in 1653 as "no Parliament," the last vestige of representative government was gone. When it was recalled in 1659, it was even less legitimate than before. Restoring the purged members actually restored some of its legitimacy, and lots of people recognized that the price of legitimacy was restoration of the monarchy. You didn't have to be a "backsliding" neo-royalist to see restoration as a legitimate and practical way forward. Milton simply and brilliantly refused to see things that way.
Second, David Gay reminds us that at the close of the tract, Milton imagines another audience, a future audience. Even if there really is no "abundance of sensible and ingenuous men" prepared to listen to his proposals, God, he trusts, will raise up a new generation that will not be deaf to his prophetic voice:
But I trust I shall have spoken perswasion to abundance of sensible and ingenuous men: to som perhaps whom God may raise of these stones to become children of reviving libertie; and may reclaim, though they seem now chusing them a captain back for Egypt, to bethink themselves a little and consider whether they are rushing.The copy text for The Readie and Easie Way (2nd edition) is EEBO's rendering of the copy in Harvard University Library.