Eric Nelson: Hebraism, Monarchy, and the American Revolution

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Eric Nelson, Robert M. Beren Professor of Government at Harvard, to discuss the surprising impact of John Milton and a set of once forgotten rabbinical texts on the formation of the government of the United States. The story starts with Wilhelm Schickard, a Christian Hebraist, monarchist, and the most important early modern political theorist you’ve never heard of, who in the early 17th century set out to compile all rabbinic references to monarchy. Schickard’s book is in our current exhibition, where it can be viewed through April 22, 2017. Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at


The Boston Camerata. Anne Azéma, artistic director

Recording from Rosh Hashanah at the Park Avenue Synagogue, New York City
Cantor Azi Schwartz, voice
Colin Fowler and the PAS choir, music
Doug Yoel, recording

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

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JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit for more information.

[background music: “The Boston March” performed by The Boston Camerata. Track 4 on their CD Liberty Tree: Early American Music Music 1776-1881 (Erato CD 3984-2 1668-2) ]

HF: In July of 1776, the American colonies declared themselves free from the rule of the British king. Looking back, it seems obvious that the founders of the nation would choose to establish a republic rather than another monarchy, right? Clearly, monarchy wasn’t working for them! But actually, monarchism was quite popular in the Colonies until January of 1776, only months before the Declaration. So what triggered the sudden shift in political thought?

JC: Eric Nelson, Robert M. Beren Professor of Government here at Harvard, joined us to discuss the surprising impact of John Milton and a set of once forgotten rabbinical texts on the formation of the government of the United States. The story starts with Wilhelm Schickard, a Christian Hebraist, monarchist, and the most important early modern political theorist you’ve never heard of, who in the early 17th century set out to compile all rabbinic references to monarchy.

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Eric Nelson (EN): Schickard wrote this text called Mishpat ha-melek: Jus regium hebraeorum, so the law or right of the king. He gives the text a Hebrew title and then he translates it into Latin. And what he was aiming to do was collect and translate into Latin all of the discussions in rabbinic literature about monarchy. Schickard himself was a monarchist. He was much more attracted to the position on monarchy that’s found in the Talmud which is very pro-monarchical, actually stridently so. But he was also intellectually honest and he wanted to be comprehensive, and so in the beginning of the text he acknowledges that there is a set of rabbinic authorities that are less well known and these lesser known rabbinic texts are actually stridently anti-monarchical and in fact take the view that it was a great sin for the Israelites to establish monarchy, and in particular that it was an instance of the sin of idolatry. That having a monarch is inherently idolatrous.

HF: So even though Schickard was a monarchist, he included these anti-monarchical rabbinical sources. Interestingly, this minority view is what we now remember from his compilation of contrasting rabbinic interpretations. But how did these views compare to the political ideology of early modern Europe? After all, most Europeans at that time lived under monarchy.

EN: The kind of majority position in the Talmud is respectably monarchist, actually much more stridently monarchist and in some ways more radical than the monarchism that was actually extant in western Europe. Although most European political theorists in the Medieval period and the early modern period would favor monarchical government, very very few took the position that monarchical government alone was a legitimate constitutional form. But the majority position in the Talmud comes very close to taking this position, and so it’s more radically monarchist than western European Christian political theory had sort of indigenously theorized. And when that rival rabbinic tradition of thinking about monarchy enters the European mainstream, it radicalizes monarchist opinion as well. So the rabbinic sources are sort of doing important work on both sides of the divide. They are sort of radicalizing monarchical, royalist political thought and radicalizing republican political thought at the same time.

JC: Just as different rabbis interpreted the same Talmudic texts differently, so did political theorists. The same texts were used as the basis of both monarchist and anti-monarchist thought. Obviously, it all came down to interpretation. But was one interpretation more dominant or clear within the sources?

EN: The monarchist position is, first of all, more dominant in the sources that become canonical within the Jewish tradition in the Medieval period. So the Talmud itself, obviously, but also the major Medieval commentators, Maimonides most of all, take the monarchist position. Monarchism, from the point of view of Jewish tradition and Jewish law as in Christian exegesis and Christian law, is very very tightly connected to Messianism. It’s very hard to think simultaneously that monarchy is a great sin and the people erred in establishing the Davidic monarchy, and at the same time that the Messianic Age will involve the restoration of the House of David. Those who took the anti-monarchist line actually had to evolve their own rival republican eschatology, that is, a view of the end times according to which the Messianic Age is not one in which the throne of David is restored but rather one in which the rule of the judges is restored.

That rival rabbinic tradition, it goes into hibernation, really, in the Jewish tradition itself for a millennium more or less until it’s revived in the early modern period by a scholar and commentator named Abravanel. For a long time, it doesn’t make any important appearances in Jewish literature. It’s rediscovered by these Christian Hebraists, and put to work by them in these interesting and radical ways.

JC: So Schickard rediscovers and revives these forgotten rabbinic texts, publishing his book in 1625 and adding new fuel to European political discourse.

HF: But this is early modern Germany, over a century before the founding of the United States, not to mention on a completely different continent. How did these texts cross both time and geography to reach the colonists?

EN: It’s through Schickard that these incendiary rabbinic texts enter European learned discourse. Schickard’s most famous reader and influential from this point of view was John Milton, who in his First Defense of the English People of 1651, for the first time presents this radical republican take on biblical monarchy in which he glosses the famous passage in First Samuel 8 where the Israelites ask for a king and God gets very angry. The question was always for interpreters, what was the sin? And the usual answer to the question among orthodox Christian and most Jewish exegetes was, “Well, the sin wasn’t asking for a monarch, per se. It was just asking for the wrong kind of monarch, a monarch like all the other nations had, a gentile-izing monarch.” And Milton, accessing these quite radical texts through Schickard, introduces into European political theory for the first time the claim that monarchy per se is an illegitimate constitutional form because it’s idolatrous.

[background music: “Liberty Tree” (with Lyrics by Thomas Paine) performed by The Boston Camerata. Track 3 on their CD Liberty Tree: Early American Music Music 1776-1881 (Erato CD 3984-2 1668-2)]

EN: His argument is picked up by a whole range of English republican writers in the 1650’s and then eventually by Tom Paine in Common Sense, who simply lifts it out of the First Defense. Late in life, John Adams recalled a conversation that he had with Paine in 1776 in which he attacked Paine, criticized him for this fiercely polemical argument against monarchy, the claim that monarchy is idolatrous and illegitimate, and Paine chuckles and says “yeah, I just took that from Milton.”

HF: When I think of Milton, I immediately turn to poetry – specifically Paradise Lost. Why was Milton writing political treatises radically attacking monarchy? Was he also a political theorist?

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EN: The thing that’s very important to remember about Milton is Paradise Lost is published at the end of his life, only seven years before he dies. It’s published in 1667, so seven years after the Restoration. He becomes famous in the 1640’s and 50’s as a polemicist, as a political writer, political theorist, a pamphleteer. Then as a, I mean, frankly a paid hack for the Long Parliament, and then the Protectorate. He’s, you know, appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues, which basically meant that he was charged with writing responses on behalf of the regime to these texts attacking the regicide and attacking the new English free state that were coming from Protestants on the continent like Salmasius. But at this time he was not known at all as a poet. His first published poem was the sonnet “On Shakespeare,” which was appended to the second folio in 1632. But, I mean, no one paid that any mind. His first collection of poetry was the 1645 Poems, and at that point he was Milton the polemicist, the pamphleteer. By the time you get to the 18th century, he’s both. After the Restoration his political prose was deeply out of fashion, but American Whigs read it quite passionately and carefully through the earlier 18th century.

[background music: “Jefferson and Liberty” performed by The Boston Camerata. Track 14 on their CD Liberty Tree: Early American Music Music 1776-1881 (Erato CD 3984-2 1668-2) ]

JC: Like many of his time, Milton was an important mind in many areas. In our particular interest, he facilitated the transfer of Schickard’s work to Thomas Paine, bringing stridently anti-monarchical thought to the Colonies.

HF: As we mentioned earlier, the Colonists were for the most part pro-monarchist. So how did the introduction of an anti-monarchical political ideology impact the uneasy relationship between the Colonies and the Crown?

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EN: There is this extraordinary shift in American political thought that occurs quite suddenly in the early months of 1776 in the Imperial Crisis, the great debate over Parliamentary jurisdiction over America and these offending legislative enactments, the Stamp Act, and all the rest. The position that patriot writers evolved was actually stridently monarchist. Their position was, eventually, Parliament has no jurisdiction over America, so we’re connected solely through the person of the king. And the only way you could make that model work was to argue that the king should revive these sweeping powers of the crown that no English monarch had actually wielded at that point for a hundred years. The Glorious Revolution had definitively subjected the English monarch to Parliament, which is why ultimately George III was not interested in taking up their offer.

So, they actually put all their eggs in the basket of monarchy for quite a long time. It’s not until January ‘76, when word reaches America of the text of the king’s speech in October of ‘75 declaring the Colonies in rebellion and removing Americans from the royal protection, that there’s suddenly this fierce turn away from the king himself, and also the first real outbreak of anti-monarchism. Paine’s Common Sense just providentially happens to come out that month, and he introduces into American discourse this very radical argument that monarchy is illegitimate because it’s idolatrous. It’s sort of picked up and goes absolutely viral. It’s the great bestseller of the American 18th century and it completely and permanently changes what is possible to argue in mainstream American political thought. From that moment forward, if you wanted to argue for sweeping prerogatives in a chief magistrate, you had to be very careful not to call him a king.

[background music: Aleinu from Rosh Hashanah at the Park Avenue Synagogue, New York City.
Cantor Azi Schwartz, voice. Colin Fowler and the PAS choir, music. Doug Yoel, recording]

JC: We would like to thank Professor Eric Nelson for coming in and sharing his research on one of the lesser known sources of American political thought. The music you are listening to now is from the Aleinu from the malchuyot section of the Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah, which deals with God’s universal kingship. Thanks to Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, specifically Cantor Azi Schwartz, Colin Fowler and the Park Avenue Synagogue choir, and Doug Yoel for the recording.

HF: Thanks also to the Boston Camerata, the preeminent early music ensemble, whose music you heard in the beginning and throughout the podcast. These pieces can also be found on their album, “Liberty Tree, Early American Music 1776-1861.” The “Liberty Tree” lyrics were actually written by Thomas Paine himself!

JC: To view Wilhelm Schickard’s Mishpat ha-melek up close, as well as other fascinating objects from Houghton collections, visit HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library. The exhibition is free and open to the public here at Houghton Library until April 22nd, and can also be viewed online at

HF: If you’d like to read transcripts or see detailed musical notes, you can also go to Thanks for listening, and we hope you will join us next time here at Houghton75.

[music continues to end]