The group which gave the strongest voice and effect to democratic feelings in the 1640s was the Levellers. They were a disparate and ever shifting crew, drawing their support primarily from the ranks of the Parliamentary armed forces (especially after the New Model Army was formed in 1645), small tradesmen, journeymen, and apprentices. However, they also included those from higher social classes, their most famous leader, John Lilburne, being the child of minor gentry.
The Levellers’ time was brief. They were a serious political force for, at most, the years 1646 to 1649 and that is probably being a mite too generous. They failed utterly in the end, not least because they were unable to carry the army, especially the junior officers, with them. But they were important both for giving voice to the ideas and creating many of the practices on which modern politics is founded.
Their opponents attempted to portray the Levellers as social revolutionaries who would take the property of the rich, most particularly their land, and give it to the poor. Hence the epithet of Leveller which originated as a term of abuse. But the Levellers consistently denied that they had any such programme and were staunch defenders of the right to property. They might best be characterised as radical democrats with a very strong libertarian streak. Indeed, so far were they from being proto-communists that they had an almost sacramental belief in the individual’s right to personal property.
Intellectually, they started from the view that all Englishmen had a birthright that entitled them to have a say in who should govern them, although at times they accepted that the birthright might be breached through dependence on a master or by receiving alms. More importantly, their ideology contained the germ of the idea of a social contract between the people and those who held power, an idea which was to come to dominate English political thinking for the next century or so through the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
The Levellers were, with one or two exceptions such as Richard Overton, who was a deist at best and an atheist at worst, or John Wildman, who was a libertine and chancer, seriously religious. But their belief had a strong vein of rationalism in it. They saw God not as the often cantakerous and domineering supernatural being of traditional Christianity, but as a rational intelligence who entered every man and allowed him to see what was naturally just and reasonable.
For the Levellers, it seemed a natural right – a rational right – for a man to have a say in who should hold power and what they should do with the power. They were happy to use historical props such as Magna Carta and the legend of Norman oppression when it suited them, but their rationality led them to question how men were governed from first principles. One of the Leveller leaders Richard Overton actually called Magna Carta a “beggarly thing” and went on to comment:
Ye [Parliament] were chosen to work our deliverance, and to estate us in natural and just liberty, agreeable to reason and common equity, for whatever our forefathers were, we are the men of the present age, and ought to be absolutely free from all kinds of exorbitancies, molestations or arbitrary power. (A Remonstrance. Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution)
More balanced was his fellow Leveller William Walwyn:
Magna Carta (you must observe) is but a part of the people’s rights and liberties, being no more but what with much striving and fighting, was wrested from the paws of those kings , who by force had conquered the nation, changed the laws and by strong hand held them in bondage. (England’s Lamentable Slaverie, Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution.)
To call the Levellers a political party in the modern sense would be misleading. Yet they were the closest thing to it both then and, arguably, for several centuries. Their tactics and organisation were modern: the use of pamphletering and newspapers, the ability to get large numbers of supporters onto the streets (especially in London) at the drop of a hat, the creation of local associations.
Much of this was the work of Lilburne, a man of preternatural obstinacy, courage and general unreasonableness. It says much for the restraint of the English elite of the day and respect for the law that he was not killed out of hand. It is difficult to imagine such behaviour being tolerated anywhere in Europe in the seventeenth century.
Lilburne by every account of him was a most difficult man – it was said that his nature was so combative that he would seek a quarrel with himself if he were alone – ‘Jack would fight with John’. Yet this man, who came from a very modest gentry background, remained alive despite challenging the authority of first the king and then, during and after the civil war, Parliament, Cromwell and the Commonwealth. He thus carried on this mortally dangerous behaviour for almost a generation. To the end of his life in 1657, he was thought dangerous enough to imprison.
Lilburne first came to notice for seditious speeches and writings in the 1630s. For that he was whipped from the Fleet to the Palace Yard where he was stood in the stocks. Whilst in the stocks, he removed copies of the pamphlets that had caused his punishment and threw them to the crowd. That little episode will give a good idea of the Lilburne’s general mentality. He was an extreme example, one of those necessary unreasonable men without whom nothing great gets done.
From the time of his flogging onwards, Lilburne’s career was one of studied defiance of authority. He was one of the most potent pamphleteers England has ever seen. For more than a decade, he produced a flood of writings guaranteed to inflame virtually anyone in public authority in the land. He faced down judges in the most powerful courts in the land. He controlled the London mob consummately. He treated the greatest men in the land as equals. In any other place on the planet at that time, he probably would have been dead meat before his career as an agitator began. But not in England. He might be flogged. He might be put in the stocks. He might be imprisoned. He might be tried twice for his life. But what the elite of 17th century England would not do was unreservedly murder him.
The Levellers developed an increasingly sophisticated political programme in a series of documents known as The Agreements of the People. This series of Agreements dealt extensively with political representation and structure. They were also very successful in creating a sense of historic grievance and an enemy. They did this by portraying 1640s England as having declined from a golden age of freedom to an oppressed land and as a people under the heel of the Normans and their French successors.
The Levellers and the franchise
The Levellers changed their position on the franchise throughout their existence, tending to compromise when they thought that some accommodation with the likes of Cromwell could be made and ever more radical as political power slipped away from them, although there were times and places throughout their existence when this general tendency did not hold true.
What the Levellers did retain always was a belief that all Englishmen were born with the same birthright. However, they accepted more often than not that certain parts of this birthright could be forfeited under certain conditions. Religious, civil and even possibly economic rights could not be alienated justly, and as such should be protected constitutionally. The right to elect, however, could be forfeited by entering into a condition of dependence, either by taking wages or alms. In such cases, a just dependence resulted and the subservient individual’s voice was deemed to be included in that of his master or benefactor, as far as a voice in elections was concerned, just as that of a wife was deemed to be included in that of her husband. An idea of how the Levellers’ position changed can be gained from these extracts from Leveller tracts:
‘That the People of England,… ought to be more indifferently proportioned according to the number of inhabitants.’ (The first article of the First Agreement.)
[electors] ‘shall be Natives, or Denizen of England, not persons receiving Alms … not servants to, and receiving wages from any particular person’ (The Second Agreement – D.H. Wolfe,Leveller Manifestoes p.403)
‘Whereas it hath been the ancient liberty of this nation, that all the freeborn people have freely elected their representers in Parliament, and their sheriffs and Justices of the Peace, etc. and they were abridged of that their native liberty by a statute of the 8.H.6,7. That, therefore, the birthright of all English men be forthwith restored to all which are not, or shall not be legally disenfranchised for some criminal cause, or are under 21 years of age, or servants or beggars .’ (The franchise clause (section ll) of the Petition of January 1648 -D.H. Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes P,269.)
By the time political opportunity had long passed the Levellers by we find in 1653 a pamphlet Leveller in tone – ‘A Charge of High Treason exhibited against Oliver Cromwell’ summoning all the people of England to the polls ‘as well masters, sons of servants’.