The Levellers: the first English radicals

Radical has a special meaning in English political history. It describes those whose instincts were democratic although they did not espouse the idea of a full male adult  suffrage let alone a suffrage which included women until very late in their existence. But what they all had was a desire to see political power taken from the few and given to many more.  Their means of doing this was not to overthrow Parliament but to make it responsive to the interests and needs of the general population, something which was to be achieved by devices such as broadening the franchise, ending rotten boroughs, annual parliaments. As for the monarchy, this might be allowed or not, but if it was to continue the powers of the crown had be emasculated.  With few exception such as Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers,  they were not  socialists or egalitarian in a general sense.  The sort of people who became radicals were typically men with some material independence and education such as tradesmen and  those educated at non-conformist colleges. Constitutional reform – in which they had a naive trust as a panacea for all the ills they wished to mend –  was what they sought, not social revolution. 

The English radical emerged in the struggle between Charles I and Parliament. The  group  which gave the strongest voice  and  effect  to the new radical  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.

What the Levellers were most certainly not, were the thorough going democrats and proto-socialists portrayed by the likes of Tony Benn and Bill Bragg.  Rather they were men who would have fitted much more comfortably into the ideological sleeve of Margaret Thatcher than that of social democracy.

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  which  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,  religious.  But their belief had a strong vein of rationalism in  it. They  saw God not as  the often  cantankerous  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.

The  Levellers  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  number 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 which  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 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   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.  These 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  people under the heel of the  Normans  and  their  French successors.

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.

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2 Responses to The Levellers: the first English radicals

  1. efgd says:

    Love the history you detail. Please give advice on appropriate books about The Levellers, if you would not mind. Thank you.

  2. I suggest Macpherson for their philosophical influence and Brailsford for the general story:

    C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism
    N.H, Brailsford – The Levellers and the English Revolution.

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