The Levellers were a heterogeneous group of English radicals, many of a quasilibertarian bent, who, as an organized movement, were briefly active during the tumultuous years of the English Civil War (1642–1649). The movement surfaced in the summer of 1645, became a vocal popular party in 1646, and, for all practical purposes, disappeared as an organized movement during the fall of 1649. Its most prominent spokesmen were John Lilburne (1615–1657), Richard Overton (1631–1664), and William Walwyn (1600–1681).
As a political movement, the Leveller party’s initial concerns centered on religious issues, first and foremost the demand for religious freedom and separation of state and church. These demands were soon taken up by ordinary citizens and soldiers who opposed the Church of England, the House of Lords, and the government of Charles I. The Levellers were for a time associated with Oliver Cromwell, the Independents, and the Protectorate. However, as the Civil War progressed and it became evident that the new Commonwealth was turning itself into a tyranny, the Levellers quickly took on the role of Cromwell’s most vocal and radical opponents.
The Levellers were not a uniform group sharing one common, clearly defined political ideology, but they did share a common viewpoint on a number of issues that proved to adumbrate modern libertarian ideology in a great many respects. Overton’s writings particularly provide an overview of the Levellers’ chief concerns. Overton was not only among the most colorful and remarkable of all the personalities thrown up by the English upheavals of 1640–1660, but also was an influential political pamphleteer and the most prominent ideologue of the movement. In clear and often satirical prose, Overton endorsed a radical voluntarist and secular version of natural law that centered on the “principles of right reason” and a semicontractarian limited government.
The “principles of right reason” espoused by Overton comprised an inalienable right of individuals, and indeed a duty, to seek their own self-preservation with whatever means necessary, and a requirement that all relationships with others be voluntary and based on the consent of the parties involved. These principles are mediated through one central analytical concept—namely, what Overton called self-propriety, which is quite similar to what many contemporary libertarians call self-ownership. This notion is best captured in this passage in Overton’s pamphlet, An Arrow against All Tyrants (1646):
To every Individuall in nature, is given an individuall property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any: for every one as he is himselfe, so he hath a selfe propriety, else could he not be himselfe, 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; mine and thine cannot be, except this be: No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans; I may be but an Individuall, enjoy my selfe and my selfe propriety, and may write my selfe no more then my selfe, or presume any further; if I doe, I am an encroacher & an invader upon an other mans Right, to which I have no Right. For by natural birth, all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedome, and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a naturall, innate freedome and propriety (as it were writ in the table of every mans heart, never to be obliterated) even so are we to live, every one equally and alike to enjoy his Birth-right and priviledge; even all whereof God by nature hath made him free.
This self-propriety is inalienable, and any attempt to contravene it would violate what is both a command of God and a law of nature: “[F]or as by nature, no man may abuse, beat, torment, or afflict himselfe; so by nature, no man may give that power to another, seeing he may not doe it himself… .”
The second principle that Overton sets forth is that it is legitimate to seek self-preservation by all means necessary, irrespective of any context other than the limits set down by the self-propriety of others, so that “[n]o man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans.” The right and duty of the individual to seek his self-preservation thus naturally entails a reciprocal duty to respect a similar right in all others—that is, “Liberty of the Person, and liberty of Estate: which consists properly in the propriety of their goods, and a disposing power of their possessions.”
These principles of self-propriety and a natural right to liberty entail the right of the individual to freely dispose of his person, his labor, and his legitimately acquired goods. In contrast to Locke some decades later, Overton nowhere developed a theory of how to legitimately acquire property, although he seems to have embraced what later would be called a labor theory of acquisition. In his pamphlet A Defiance against All Arbitrary Usurpations (1646), he states that self-propriety is a principle by which one
would do as you would be done unto, that would have your neighbour injoy the fruit of his own labour, industry, and sweat of his brow, the freedom of his Conscience and estate, his own naturall right, and property, and have none to invade or intrench upon the same, more than you would have upon your own.
Overton further embraced what might be called the sanctity of contract. He held that contracts entail mutual obligations, and that when a relationship entered into by consent is broken by one party, the other party is relieved from fulfilling his part of the contract. As Overton wrote in An Appeale (1647): “All betrusted powers if forfeit, fall into the hands of the betrusters, as their proper centure: and where such a forfeit is committed, there is disoblegeth from obedience.”
This theoretical foundation of natural law and natural rights is somewhat similar to the contractarianism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, although in certain respects more radical in its conclusions. In all our relationships, Overton maintained, we must respect the laws of nature, specifically the rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property, and only those institutions based on voluntary relationships can be considered to be legitimate. Government is legitimate only if it is consensual, and its only proper purpose is to protect the rights of citizens. If government were to overstep these limits, citizens had both a right and a duty to rebel.
The Levellers translated this philosophy into a general demand for a new social contract, a new “agreement of the people.” In A Remonstrance (1646), Overton insisted that the Parliament should limit government so as to secure the people against arbitrary invasions of their freedom: “The Lawes of this Nation are unworthy a Free-People, and deserve from first to last, to be considered, and seriously debated, and reduced to an agreement with common equity and right reason, which ought to be the Forme and Life of every Government.” This idea again later led the Levellers to set out the first statement of principles for a constitutional government ever written, namely in the Certaine Articles of 1647, which later was expanded in three proposed “Agreements.”
The Levellers’ political program emerges most clearly in their pamphlet An Agreement of the People (1649), which shows them as precursors of what later came to be known as liberalism. Here the Levellers identified three—and only three—positive tasks of government for which there was no need for further consent: (a) to secure peace and free trade with other nations; (b) to protect life, liberty, and property; and (c) to engage in such activities as were evidently conducive to these two ends and the prosperity of the Commonwealth.
More specifically, the Levellers advocated legal equality and opposed all privileges, among them peerages and exceptions from legislation. In constitutional matters, this philosophy led them to advocate strict limits on the powers of government, as set out in Magna Carta, an extension of the franchise, a freely elected Parliament as the supreme political authority, and annual or biennial elections to Parliament. They were opposed to a hereditary executive and a hereditary second chamber. In addition, they sought a number of procedural rights and a strict observance of the rule of law, among them the right of the people to directly elect judges, the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers, the right not to be forced to incriminate oneself, and the right not to be imprisoned without warrant and/or trial. Indeed, Overton insisted on restitution rather than retribution as a general principle in criminal matters and, accordingly, opposed imprisonment for crimes other than those involving violence. He strongly disapproved of imprisonment for debt. The death penalty was to be reserved solely for murder, and prisoners were not to be subjected to cruel and unfair treatment.
The Levellers not only embraced a large number of procedural rights, but they also strongly condemned conscription and other forms of slavery. They argued against going to war, at least without the explicit consent of the people, protested the existence of a state Church, and opposed all restrictions on religious freedom and all censorship and other violations of freedom of expression. Similarly, with respect to property, they demanded an end to the confiscation and expropriation of private property, as well as to tithes and high taxes, tariffs, privileges in commerce, and other forms of protectionism and mercantilism.
There is no basis for concluding that the Levellers advocated government redistribution of wealth, as some theorists have claimed, nor were they early forerunners of social democracy, socialism, or communism. With the possible exception of Walwyn, whose writings reflect some communitarian leanings, they clearly felt uncomfortable with the term Leveller because it suggested support for some species of economic leveling. It was Cromwell and the group’s other opponents who named the movement Levellers with this aim in mind. The label was, in fact, originally employed to describe those who, in 1607, protested the enclosures of previously common land by a literal leveling of the fences. From 1649 to 1652, the label was associated with the “Diggers,” a pantheistic, communitarian, and utopian movement led by Gerrard Winstanley that called itself “The True Levellers” and advocated the abolishment of private property in land and other economic inequalities by communalizing property and organizing a money-free economy. Overton and his collaborators dismissed the label as unjust and slander, and in A Manifestation (1649), they explicitly stated their opposition to “Levelling, for which we suppose is commonly meant an equalling of mens estates, and taking away the proper right and Title that every man has to what is his own.” Rather than forerunners of socialism, the Levellers had a profound influence on Whig ideology, especially as it took shape in the second half of the 17th century, and particularly in the works of John Locke.
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Originally published .