Supreme Court Review

Article Title

A Reader’s Guide to John Milton’s Areopagitica, the Foundational Essay of the First Amendment Tradition


Fittingly, the most imaginative and densely suggestive of the classic arguments for free speech was written by a poet. Had his career unfolded as he wished, John Milton would never have produced his renowned Areopagitica of 1644. It was only with great reluctance that he undertook to engage in prose polemics during the English Civil War, sacrificing his “calm and pleasing solitariness” to “embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes.”He described pamphleteering as something he did “with the left hand” all the while “knowing myself inferior to myself.” Posterity, always a Miltonic concern, has begged to differ with this self-assessment. Wherever the Areopagitica ranks on Milton’s daunting list of enduring creations, it has proved to be the foundational essay of the Anglo-American free speech tradition.

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