Dec 18, 2015
John Locke: A Leveller Connection?
Smith examines and criticizes Richard Ashcraft’s arguments that Locke was significantly influenced by the Levellers.
I concluded my last essay by calling attention to a thesis defended by Richard Ashcraft in his important book Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1986). John Locke, according to Ashcraft, may have been more influenced by the Levellers than earlier historians had typically supposed. This is an intriguing thesis for modern libertarians, because the Levellers—John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn, John Wildman, Edward Sexby, and many others—were the first organized group of libertarian thinkers and activists in history; indeed, their political platforms from the 1640s would elicit few objections from modern libertarians.
The Leveller movement ultimately failed, and not until the late nineteenth century did historians begin to appreciate the importance of the Levellers and their ideas. But for a considerable time thereafter it was fairly common to mischaracterize the Levellers as early proponents of socialism, confusing them with the so-called “Diggers” (sometimes called “True Levellers”), whose most famous champion was Gerrard Winstanley. Even the esteemed English historian Christopher Hill (1912-2003) committed this error in his early work on the Levellers, published in the mid-twentieth century. Hill was a Marxist who found predecessors to modern socialism among the Levellers. But Hill later realized and acknowledged his mistake, so his later works give us a much more accurate portrayal of the radical individualist, or libertarian, ideology of the Leveller movement.
The common misunderstanding about the Levellers began with their contemporary critics. Indeed, the label itself was foisted upon the group by their political opponents, who charged that Lilburne, Overton, and their colleagues wished to level all differences in property so that the distinction between rich and poor would no longer exist. Of course, this is not at all what the Levellers believed; on the contrary, they were principled defenders of private property and free trade who opposed all government monopolies and other special privileges for favored commercial interests. This early charge of socialism was pure political propaganda, but the label “Levellers” stuck, despite its misleading connotations. The label is accurate only in the sense that the Levellers wished to “level” all individuals, rulers and ruled alike, to the same status of natural and civil rights. Members of the ruling class did not possess more or better rights than the common people, and the primary purpose of government should be to respect and enforce those equal rights. A government may claim special rights only if those rights have been delegated to it voluntarily by the people.
If Ashcraft is correct, if Locke was influenced to a significant degree by Leveller ideas, then this would mean that the Levellers ultimately had a profound effect on the course of modern political thought, beginning in the seventeenth century. I discussed some general points about Ashcraft’s thesis in my previous essay, and I won’t repeat that material here. Instead, I shall examine some specific similarities and differences between the ideas of the Levellers and those of John Locke. Before proceeding, however, I should note some circumstantial evidence used by Ashcraft to establish a connection.
It is well known that Locke was a close friend and protégé of the First Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), who led the opposition to the policies of Charles II. Locke worked closely with Shaftesbury in his political activities. In addition, it is likely that Shaftesbury influenced Locke’s political perspective. Although Locke grew up in a Puritan family—his father had fought against Charles I during the civil wars of the 1640s, which culminated in the beheading of the king in 1649—Locke welcomed the Restoration of the Stuart dynasty in 1660, and his early political tracts exhibit a tendency toward absolutism, including opposition to religious toleration, that is quite unlike the ideas we normally associate with Locke. It was only after Locke began to serve as Shaftesbury’s personal physician and lived as a member of Shaftesbury’s household that he transformed into a stringent critic of absolutism and a champion of individualism. We know that Shaftesbury, impressed with Locke’s intelligence, encouraged him to broaden his horizons and write about philosophy, and it may have been at Shaftesbury’s behest that Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Government.
Because of the close personal and professional relationship between Shaftesbury and Locke, historians (including Ashcraft) have often assumed that Locke agreed with Shaftesbury’s political activities and objectives. But Locke was highly secretive about his political activities, so a good deal of educated guesswork becomes necessary.
Ashcraft pointed out that Shaftesbury moved to London in 1676, where he organized a coalition of Protestant Dissenters and commercial interests to oppose the agenda of Charles II. The following year political dissidents in London formed the Green Ribbon Club, a subversive organization with secret membership. The name of the Green Ribbon Club is significant, according to Ashcraft, because green ribbons had been the Leveller insignia.
Information on the Green Ribbon Club is scanty, so Ashcraft did not claim to establish a definite connection between it and Shaftesbury (and, by implication, Locke). Nevertheless, the Green Ribbon Club shared the ideology and political goals of Shaftesbury’s circle; and, as critics noted at the time, Shaftesbury frequently rubbed shoulders with “state-malcontents” and the “meanest and basest of the people”—the same kind of people who belonged to the Green Ribbon Club.
Throughout his book Ashcraft emphasized how Shaftesbury appealed to merchants, tradesmen, artisans, and shopkeepers—the “pert tradesmen,” “meaner sort of people,” and “rabble,” as Tories liked to call them. These were the same groups from which the Levellers had drawn their support decades earlier. Thus did critics assail the radical Whigs for their “levelling” tendencies. The Whigs, Tories charged, would unleash “a many-headed monster” on society and plunge England into anarchy.
Shaftesbury’s Whigs (he was effectively the founder of that political party) were repeatedly accused of harboring Leveller and Republican (anti-monarchical) principles. Some historians have dismissed these allegations as political propaganda, but Ashcraft suggested that we take them more seriously. Ashcraft conceded that Shaftesbury was not a closet-Leveller, but former Levellers and Commonwealthmen (those who praised and defended the brief commonwealth period after the civil wars and before Cromwell appointed himself dictator under cover of a “protectorate”) did assist Shaftesbury’s political efforts. Ashcraft mentioned a number of these radicals, the most famous being John Wildman and Algernon Sidney (who was later executed for sedition), but his list accentuates a recurring problem in Revolutionary Politics. A few of the men on Ashcraft’s list had Leveller connections, but the majority are more accurately described as Commonwealthmen. Now, to demonstrate a relationship between Locke (via Shaftesbury) and the Commonwealthmen is one thing, but to show a similar relationship to the Levellers—a far more radical group, generally speaking—is another thing entirely. Ashcraft wished to highlight the Leveller influence on Locke’s Two Treatises, but he sometimes used “Leveller” in the same breath with “Commonwealthmen” and “Republican,” despite some significant differences.
One way to test Ashcraft’s thesis of a Locke/Leveller connection is to compare their theories and proposals. The following is my brief assessment of this issue.
A barrier to comparing the ideas of Locke and the Levellers is the fact that Locke was a deeply theoretical writer, whereas the Levellers, for the most part, were not. True, a few Levellers, such as Richard Overton and William Walwyn, wrote theoretical tracts, but even those pieces did not explore the philosophical foundations of freedom and a legitimate government to the extent that we find in the Second Treatise. Most Leveller writings focused on particular grievances and called for concrete political reforms, with the philosophical foundation stated in summary form. This difference can make it difficult to assess the extent to which Locke and the Levellers agreed on the details of political philosophy.
One of the more theoretical of Leveller tracts is Richard Overton’s An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646). There are interesting similarities between Overton and Locke, beginning with Overton’s defense of self-proprietorship—or self-ownership, as modern libertarians typically call the same principle.
To every Individual in nature, is given an individual property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any: for every one as he is himself, so he hath a self-propriety, else could he not be himself, and on this no second may presume to deprive any of, without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature, and of the Rules of equity and justice between man and man….
Like Locke, Overton argued that people are naturally free, so legitimate political power can arise only from “deputation, commission, and free consent.” Political rulers so commissioned are empowered to preserve the “safties and freedoms” of the people, but “no more.”
These similarities don’t prove anything, because many non-Levellers embraced the notion of self-proprietorship and employed the same kind of contractarian language. (We find the latter in the writings of John Milton, for example.) But Overton did anticipate Locke with an argument that was not as common. According to Locke, a people cannot contract themselves into political slavery (absolute monarchy) because the individual, who ultimately belongs to God, his creator, does not possess the right to destroy himself. The individual, Locke maintained, possesses the right of self-proprietorship only in relation to other people, not in relation to God. Thus lacking an absolute power over himself (a power possessed only by God), the individual or a nation generally cannot delegate this nonexistent right to others, including a government. The same argument was articulated by Overton.
[A]s by nature, no man may abuse, beat, torment, or afflict himself; so by nature, no man may give that power to another, seeing he may not do it himself, for no more can be communicated from the general than is included in the particulars, whereof the general is compounded.
There are other parallels between Locke and the Levellers, but these existed mainly in the realm of general theory—and, again, much of this theory was shared by other, less radical philosophers. When we descend to specific Leveller proposals, however, the parallels virtually disappear. There were many parts of the Leveller agenda that Locke opposed or on which he remained silent. Here is a partial list taken from An Agreement of the Free People of England, a Leveller manifesto from 1649.
The Levellers wished to broaden the franchise to include all men twenty-one and older, except “servants” and those living on alms or poor relief. (These exceptions and the reasons for them have sparked a considerable amount of debate among historians.) The Levellers called for annual elections and compulsory rotation in office (or term limits, as we call them today). They opposed military conscription and self-incrimination when charged with a crime. (Lilburne was a pivotal figure in the latter cause.) They denied to parliament the right to pass any laws that interfere with free trade or that impose “excise or customs” duties “upon any sort of good, or any other goods, wares, or commodities.” They called for the abolition of debtor’s prison, state-enforced tithes, and capital punishment (except for murder or “other like heinous offences destructive to humane society.”) And they insisted that the military power should never “come to be superior to the Civil Authority.”
The Levellers advocated specific and severe restraints on the powers of Parliament. Locke, in contrast, said that Parliament should promote the public good and remain true to its trust, but he was vague regarding details. Moreover, we don’t find in Locke the typical Leveller assault on the English legal system as a tyrannical vestige of the Norman Conquest. (“Our very laws were made by our conquerors,” as the Leveller John Wildman put it in 1647 during the famous “Putney debates.”) If Locke intended the Two Treatises to be an updated version of Leveller thinking, we must wonder why he omitted almost every plank of the Leveller platform.
The conduct of Shaftesbury and his party during the Exclusion Crisis (1679-81), which was an unsuccessful parliamentary effort to exclude the Duke of York (later James II) and other Catholics from ever becoming English monarchs, is what disturbs me most about Ashcraft’s case for a Leveller connection to Locke. The Exclusion Crisis came on the heels of a disgraceful episode known as the “Popish Plot”—a supposed conspiracy by Catholics to assassinate Charles II so that his Catholic brother could become king, establish Catholic rule in England, and eradicate Protestantism. This fictitious conspiracy—which even Charles II, the supposed victim of the plot, did not believe—was hatched from the fetid brain of a renegade clergyman named Titus Oates, and it led to the execution of thirty-five Catholics, including Oliver Plunkett, primate of Ireland.
The Popish Plot generated rabid anti-Catholic hysteria (even by English standards) and spread panic throughout England. Shaftesbury, presumably supported by Locke, exploited this sordid affair for political advantage and rode the anti-Catholic bandwagon into the Exclusion Crisis. This may be a major reason why Shaftesbury solicited political support from the lower classes. Many of those people were enthusiastic Catholic-haters. Indeed, as Ashcraft observed, members of the Green Ribbon Club organized spectacular pope-burning demonstrations attended by thousands of Londoners—a popular form of protest among those who associated Catholicism with absolutism and the policies of the French King, Louis XIV. (Some effigies of the pope were stuffed with live cats to make them squeal while being burned.)
Did Shaftesbury and Locke really believe in the Popish Plot, despite the contradictory “evidence” and obvious instances of perjured testimony? We don’t really know, but I have my doubts. In any case, Locke opposed toleration for Catholics throughout his life, as we see in his Letter Concerning Toleration, where he also opposed toleration for atheists. Here we have a direct and significant conflict with the Levellers, who called for complete religious toleration, including toleration for both Catholics and atheists.
Ashcraft’s case for a Locke/Leveller connection is intriguing and suggestive, but I do not find it convincing. But this theme constitutes a small part of Revolutionary Politics and the Two Treatises of Government. Every serious student of Locke should study this book carefully. It is packed with fresh insights that cry out for further exploration.