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24 May

John Toland: the myth-maker of English republican theory

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With the support of powerful men he met through Molesworth, Toland published editions of works by republican authors including Edmund Ludlow, Algernon Sidney, John Milton and James Harrington.

Republishing the thought of those associated with regicide was, unsurprisingly, controversial. Toland claimed to be merely laying out these ideas to a free public to be judged. However the truth was more complicated. Collaborating with others to obtain and organise the texts, Toland shaped them to suit the needs of the radical Whigs. His preface to Oceana reiterated Molesworth’s contention that the English government is, under William, “already a commonwealth”. He purged the militant puritanism from Ludlow’s memoirs, silently added original material to the editions of Sidney and Harrington reflecting contemporary concerns, and wrote a life of Milton to shape how the accompanying works were read. He also wrote defending Milton’s denial that Charles the First was a martyr.

Though his editorial work Toland created a narrative spanning the seventeenth century in which virtuous republican heroes battled absolutism, arbitrary government and clerical powerseeking. Toland became the myth-maker of English republican theory.

From Irish Republicanism in the early 18th century: Molesworth, Toland and Hutcheson, a talk given at the “What is a Republic?” conference at Maynooth University, 23rd May 2016 (online at academia.edu)

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