The Levellers were the earliest liberals; they advocated for common law, legal equality, and government’s necessity to have the consent of the governed.
Among students of intellectual history, the revolutions in the United States (1776), France (1789), and Russia (1917) attract most interest as being the result and cause of ideas: in America the liberalism of Thomas Paine and the later Federalists, in France the turbulent combination of the liberalism of Voltaire and Montesquieu with the populism of Rousseau, and in Russia the path‐breaking implementation of Marxism. Earlier revolutions in the Netherlands and in England are often passed over.
The first English “revolution,” following the Civil War of 1641–1646, was a remarkable event for the ideas which led up to it, and which ensued from it. England had been a profoundly individualistic society for centuries before the war. As Alan MacFarlane has shown in The Origins of English Individualism, there was lit‐fie of the tradition of communal ownership and dependency in social relationships of the sort that prevailed in mainland Europe. This individualism made England particularly hospitable to Reformation ideas, and subsequently to liberal principles.
The Reformation was a challenge to the monolithic state churches. It also allowed for each believer to communicate with God in his own way, and so made the church hierarchy redundant. The fragmentation of English religion was aided by the translation and mass production of the Bible, allowing each individual to interpret for himself. Religious radicals, like the Leveller leader John Lilburne, drew upon the stories of Protestant suffering told by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs.
One of the major reasons why civil war erupted was that Charles I and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, were attempting to impose a uniform high church religion. This policy was inextricably linked to the maintenance of state hegemony. Laud ordained a weekly reading in every church of the Divine Right of Kings the doctrine that kingship is directly conferred by God. The Church of England had often been used before to control the ideas and behavior of subjects. Those who challenged the authority of the church also threatened the powers of the state. The Earl of Strafford recognized this when he wrote: “These men do but begin with the Church that they might have free access to the state.”
Against this circumstantial background a group developed known as “The Levellers,” an informal alliance of agitators and pamphleteers who shared the same commitment to liberal principles. The Levellers have been neglected by more recent liberals. Indeed, it has remained a largely unchallenged assumption that they had socialist aspirations.
“Leveller” was a term of abuse, coined by those seeking to exaggerate the threat of their ideas. The only sense in which they were levellers was that they sought an equality of rights in law; they railed against tipping the scales of justice in favor of those with wealth and status. Yet they explicitly disavowed the charge of favoring the leveling of wealth. They distanced themselves from the “Diggers” or “True Levellers,” who were genuine visionary communitarians.
Against the despotism of the Stuart state the Levellers invoked the concept of natural rights. They drew upon the explication of natural law by Christopher St. Germain in his book Doctor and Student. Richard Overton, one of the leading Leveller activists, expressed the principle like this: “… by natural birth all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedom.”
Natural rights are a current of thought in the liberal tradition: the theory was later expanded by the philosopher John Locke and was the foundation of the Declaration of Independence. When the Levellers spoke of rights, they assumed them to reside with individuals. They believed that each man should have freedom limited only by regard for the freedom of others.
What went alongside the principle of equal natural rights was the principle of equality in law. In this the Levellers championed the cause of the common man by calling for the law to be applied impartially, without favor to wealth or position. For them, the basis of law was English common law, supplemented by a few statutes which guaranteed individual liberty, such as the Magna Carta and the Petition of Right.
Levellers renounced most of the laws made since the Norman invasion, the corruption of the common law tradition being seen as the result of the “Norman yoke.” Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes, the classic contemporary defense of evolutionary common law, was used as a Leveller handbook. Their approach anticipated the case for evolutionary common law as opposed to statutory law made by later liberals such as David Hume and F. A. Hayek.
It was a principle justified by bitter experience. The Leveller leaders suffered many times from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, both under the Stuart monarchy and under the postwar republic. In a famous trial in 1649, John Lilburne was indicted for high treason. Lilburne made a strident defense on grounds of principle, and confounded his opponents with procedural delays. He convinced the jury of his innocence and was acquitted. The result was hailed as a great victory; bonfires were lit throughout the capital. Yet, within a year he was tried and convicted by Parliament, acting as judge and jury, and banished to lifelong exile in the Netherlands. He died under sentence, having spent 12 years of his 42‐year life as a prisoner of the state.
Lilburne held such a commitment to his legal philosophy that he opposed the trial and execution of Charles I- -whom Lilburne had enlisted in the Parliamentary army to dethrone. He believed that if the King were to be tried at all, then it should be before a common law court and jury, the procedure of justice that should be available to every free‐born Englishman.
To the Levellers, all men were born free and equal. It followed that government could be legitimate only as a contract among free individuals. Government was justified only as a voluntary combination to provide better protection for property. The cohesion of principles is illustrated by this statement made by Leveller Maximilian Petty at the Patney debates: “For I judge every man is naturally free; and I judge the reason why the men when they are in so great numbers that every man could not give his voice, was that they who were chosen might preserve property; and therefore men agreed to come into some form of government that they might preserve property .…”
Monarchs had obligated the allegiance of subjects by claiming that their authority was granted by God. For the Levellers, government was legitimate only if the consent of those under it was secured. In the context of history their belief in representative government was notably advanced; the idea was to become the basis of Western democracies.
The Response to Despotism
It is an accident of history that the Reformation movement gave rise to ideas which re‐assessed the relationship of the individual to the state. Luther was shocked when his denouncement of church corruption led to uprisings in Germany, and he called for the rebellion to be crushed without mercy. Calvin was less conservative in accepting the consequences of his doctrinal challenge, but the organization of society which the Calvinists established in Geneva was very closed and restrictive. Neither the state church, nor the Lutherans and Calvinists wanted pluralism in religion, but the unexpected outcome of their conflict was that overall compliance was less easy to enforce.
It was the same with religious toleration in England. Parliament had rebelled against the King not because they objected to uniformity of religion, but because they disliked his own preference for a High Church, and Laud’s inclination towards Arminianism. During and after the war neither side held the authority to enforce a doctrine. The result, which neither Parliament nor King sought, was de facto toleration.
Many varieties of faith were being practiced throughout the country. The Levellers themselves differed in religion—Lilburne was a mainstream Puritan until his conversion to Quakerism in later years. William Walwyn was an antinomian, while John Wildman appears to have inclined towards skepticism. The breakdown of conformity in religion made the law an anachronism, and made law enforcement an exercise in futility.
The whole basis of Leveller politics was original in that the foundation wasn’t religious doctrine. What they sought was a secular republic, without religious direction from the state. In common with later liberals, they called for the abolition of tithes the feudal fee charged to pay for the state church. They argued for complete religious toleration—a position that was very radical for the time.
Those in government, before and after the Civil War, felt alternative doctrines to be a threat. Tight controls were maintained over the means of communicating new ideas, by vesting the sole right to print and publish with agents of the state. Under Charles I all printing and publication were controlled by the Stationers Company, which held a legal monopoly.
Lilburne first became famous when, as a young man, he was arrested by officials of the Stationers Company while assisting in the illegal importation of texts from the Netherlands. Tried and convicted before the Star Chamber, he was flogged down the length of Fleet Street, pilloried, and then shackled in a prison cell. Lilburne was freed after two years, in time to enlist with the Parliamentary army. After the war, Parliament was no more willing than the King had been to relinquish control of printing. The Stationers Company was not abolished, but reformed as the “Committee of Examinations.” Lilburne soon fell afoul of the Examiners. Locked away at their behest in Newgate prison, he wrote Englands Birth‐Right Justified, an eloquent piece in which he called for the dissolution of the “insufferable, unjust and tyrannical Monopoly of Printing.”
The imposition of an alien prayer‐book in Scotland provoked rebellion and led to the First Bishops’ War against the Scots in 1639. Charles had not called a Parliament since 1629, and so had scant means to finance the war. The Stuart machinery of government was still largely feudal, and the King had to exploit what expedients he could to find revenue. He revived knighthood fines, imposed fines for the enclosure of forests and common land, increased excise taxes on domestically produced goods, and levied “ship money”—supposedly to finance the navy—upon inland towns. Another expedient was the creation of monopolies—the sale by government of the sole right of manufacture. These expedients bridled the economy and were particularly onerous for small capitalists. They were one of the heavy grievances which led men to take up arms and fight a war against the King.
The most despised monopoly was the Merchant Adventurers Company, which held the sole right for trade in textiles. A booklet popularly received was the anonymous A Discourse for Free Trade, which called for the removal of their charter. In the Leveller constitution, trade was to be free from government intervention: “That it shall not be in their power to continue or make any Laws to abridge or hinder any person or persons, from trading or merchandizing into any place beyond the Seas, where any of this Nation are free to Trade.”
Leveller support had its basis in the Parliamentary army, which was uniquely suitable for the spread of radicalism. Ironically, it was Oliver Cromwell, the leader at odds with the Levellers, who had formed the army into a meritocracy. “Gentlemen” did not have automatic passage into the officer elite: rank was &pendent upon soldiering ability. Ordinary pikemen and musketeers were less divided from the men of status, and began to see themselves as equal in rights to their leaders. The most dedicated fighters were motivated by religious zeal, and some of them were forceful orators, with a captive audience of fellow soldiers.
When the first civil war was won, the victorious army hoped for great things. But, Parliament viewed the standing army as a threat to its power, and as a dangerously radical body of opinion. They ordered the troops to disband, which added to discontent and reinforced Leveller support. When the troops elected their own agitators, the army became a political force.
What followed were the remarkable Putney debates, at which ordinary soldiers sat down with generals—Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ire-ton—to discuss political principles. The Level‐crs argued that government can be legitimate only with the consent of the citizens. They contended that there was no basis for excluding poor men from voting, because without having a voice in the making of laws one is not obliged to comply with those laws. Colonel Rainsborough made the case like this: “… for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”
They drew up a constitution to be presented and agreed to by the people, distributed in pamphlet form as An Agreement of the People. The first Agreement appeared in 1647, and two variations in subsequent years. The Agreements were drawn up by people who had been severely disillusioned by the new regime. They had taken up arms to fight against the arbitrary rule of King Charles I, but now saw Parliament becoming equally despotic.
The Agreements aimed to limit government by dispersing power among separated executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The House of Lords was to be abolished. Certain individual rights were to be protected from government infringement by constitutional guarantee. The obvious parallel here is with the American revolutionaries, who enshrined their concept of natural rights in a constitution which was aimed at restraining government.
The separation of powers was incorporated into the Instrument of Government, Britain’s first and only written constitution, drawn up by John Lambert. The instrument established a division of powers among the Lord Protector, Parliament, and a Council of State. It also guaranteed certain individual liberties against the encroachment of statute law; it guaranteed religious freedom for all but Catholics and followers of “licentious” sects. Although the Levellers denounced the Instrument, their ideas had a clear bearing upon its design.
The Leveller Legacy
Many of the books written about the Levellers chart their “rise and decline” as a political movement, as if their importance lasted only as long as they had the ear of Oliver Cromwell.
More significant than the movement and its activists were the ideas which they introduced into public discussion. Their ideas lived on, long beyond theft immediate political successes. In 1826, when Thomas Jefferson wrote that “[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately,” he was quoting the words of Leveller Richard Rumbold. Americans founded a republic with a government limited by constitution; they enacted what the Levellers had proposed. Religious uniformity could never be a serious policy again with the great diversity of faiths that had been flourishing outside of controls. Toleration in law was admitted in 1689, with freedom of worship made permissible for all but Unitarians and Catholics. It was made complete in the nineteenth century with the opening of the political nation to Catholics and Jews. However, state involvement in religion remained an issue of contention for the liberals of later years. Tithes fell into disuse, although they were not formally abolished until 1936.
For the same reason—the obvious futility of the law—censorship ceased to be a sensible undertaking. Improved printing technology had made pamphleteering simpler and cheaper. When in 1644 the poet John Milton published his famous Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, the work was illegally dispersed through the underground London printing network; its spread was a vindication of the very argument contained within. The output of private presses outgrew the resources of the Examiners. In 1645 fewer than‐700 new publications were brought into circulation. By 1648 the number had grown to over 1,400. It was in this year that The Moderate was first seen, a regular newspaper with Leveller sympathies. In 1695 censorship was allowed to lapse from the statute book, in recognition that it had become ineffective.
After many years of guarded privilege, the Merchant Adventurers government charter was dissolved in 1689, as one of the acts of the Glorious Revolution. It was not until the 1840s that trade was freed from the strictures of the law, as the result of the unrelenting efforts of liberals and humanitarians. Monopolies of one sort or another have persisted, and remain a source of contention in modern times. Leveller support for a wider franchise went unheeded at the time, but was revived to become one of the great liberal campaigns of the nineteenth century. In the positions they took on these questions, the Levellers showed a remarkable anticipation of what became, much later, liberal and progressive opinion.
The overthrow of the monarchy in England removed a structure of government that had existed for centuries. For the first time, a new foundation of government had to be built. Questions of political philosophy took on a new importance.
It was also a time when the monopoly powers of government were not sustained. In their absence, individual liberty was left to prosper. People needed to worry less about offending the law when they practiced their religion or set down an opinion in writing.
For a time, in the postwar upheaval, when they had won support of the any, the Levellers were power‐brokers; Cromwell and the any leaders had to consort with the Leveller leaders. Leveller fortunes climbed, and Cromwell remained receptive—but only while he needed the army against Parliament and the Scots.
Remarkable while it lasted, Leveller control over the balance of power could be maintained only so long as there was instability. With the Scots defeated, and Parliament brought into forced obedience, Cromwell could act against the Levellers. Once more, their political activities placed them in danger. They either retired, escaped, or went to prison. In retrospect, however, prison walls did not prevent the advance of their ideas. In subsequent years, England became a freer place in which to live, and this owed something to the efforts of these early libertarians.
This essay originally appeared in the May 1989 edition of The Freeman , pp. 185–189. It was previously republished at FEE.org.
Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).
M. A. Gibb, John Lilburne the Leveller—A Christian Democrat (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1947), p. 35.
Pauline Gregg, Free‐Born John (London: Dent, 1986), p. 217.
Richard Overton, “An Arrow Against All Tyrants,” in The Levellers in the English Revolution, G. E. Aylme, ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), p. 69.
Aylmer, p. 106.
Gregg, p. 118.
An Agreement of the People, in Aylmer, p. 165.
Aylmer, p. 100.
Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 37.