The laws of England and the ‘free-born Englishman’
in The Levellers
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This chapter discusses the way in which Lilburne adapted the language of English law to convey a powerful notion of citizenship to his readers. Lilburne argued that all ‘free-born Englishmen’ had a ‘birthright’ of equal liberties, privileges and franchises, rather than the patchwork of particular privileges, conferred by grant, which these terms originally denoted. In doing this, Lilburne was following more ‘radical’ exponents of common law tradition, and his use of such language was not simply a mask for thinking which really derived from ‘purer’ and more theoretical natural law arguments. Lilburne’s allegiance to the common law was shaken by critiques, including those of Walwyn, of the Norman origins of the common law, but he and other Levellers retained a sense of the importance of the English law as a bulwark against arbitrary power, even as they equivocated about the status of the current English law. Lilburne’s emphasis on the inclusive status of the ‘free-born Englishman’ is an important context for the Levellers’ thinking on the franchise, but cannot settle questions about its precise extent which remained undecided in Leveller writing.

The Levellers

Radical political thought in the English Revolution

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