essays

Jun 1, 1982

The Levellers & Natural Law

“The Levellers…approached the question of a constitutional settlement as an ethical or moral one, based on the premises of natural law.”

Richard A. Gleissner
George Mason University

“The Levellers and Natural Law: The Putney Debates of 1647.” The Journal of British Studies 20 (Fall 1980): 74–89.

Professor Gleissner analyzes the use of natural law—the idea that man has a determinate nature which he needs to realize by the aid of reason—by the Levellers in the period following Charles I’s imprisonment during the English Civil War. He seeks to relate the Levellers’ understanding of the natural law concept to the traditional teaching about it. He believes that the Levellers’ radical natural rights philosophy may have arisen from the assumptions about man that have been historically associated with the theory of natural law. The Putney debates reveal that the Levellers’ perception of man and the world derived ultimately from the natural law writings of Plato and Aristotle transmitted to the Levellers from Aquinas and Hooker.

In late October 1647 the Levellers presented to Cromwell at Putney “An Agreement of the People,” a formal set of revolutionary social and political demands which developed out of The Case of the Army. The principal radical spokesmen in the debates were Colonel Thomas Rainborough and John Wildman, both of whom were familiar with the classical theory of natural law and well able to apply it to their situation. Their familiarity with natural law is evidenced from their convictions “(1) that all men share an essential structure that determines certain fundamental human inclinations or tendencies; (2) that the good for all men is the realization or fulfillment of these inclinations; (3) that norms or moral laws are derived from man’s nature and his efforts to achieve authentic fulfillment. From these premises, they went on to argue for full participation in government of all freemen—even the propertyless—as a matter of justice, whereas Cromwell and Ireton continued to uphold the practical necessity of reserving the exercise of political authority to men of ‘permanent fixed interest’ in the kingdom in order to assure internal stability and peace.” The Levellers thus approached the question of a constitutional settlement as an ethical or moral one, based on the premises of natural law.

Other Levellers, Lilburne and Overton, discerned the radical potential in the natural law theory by invoking self-propriety as the basis of universal rights. Natural law served as a bridge to the utopian traditions of the Renaissance, and such thinkers as Richard Hooker and George Buchanan seem to have contributed to the Levellers’ understanding of the political uses of natural law. Gleissner surveys the parallels between natural law doctrine and Leveller statements on such topics as the origin and dissolution of government, property, right, and freedom. The Levellers transcended Cromwell’s and Ireton’s conservative, pragmatic, and ad hoc political thinking by invoking the framework of natural law morality. Any government—not just King Charles’—Wildman held to be unjust if it limited men in their natural law right to pursue their natural end. “Always, however, the Levellers’ purpose was to protect the individual’s right to live a more fully human existence without hindrance” and thus proposed universal manhood suffrage within this natural rights framework. The Levellers contributed in “formulating that broad libertarian platform of the commonwealthmen so vital to a later generation of Americans.” Natural law vindicated their optimism about the natural desire of men to actualize their potentialities and to become more fully human.