The Leveller movement of the 1640s campaigned for religious toleration and a radical remaking of politics after the English civil war. This book challenges received ideas about the Levellers as social contract theorists and Leveller thought as a mere radicalization of parliamentarian thought, analysing the writings of the Leveller leaders John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walywn to show that that the Levellers’ originality lay in their subtle and unexpected combination of different strands within parliamentarianism. The first part of the book offers a systematic analysis of different aspects of the Levellers’ developing political thought, considering their accounts of the origins of government, their developing views on the relationship between parliament and people, their use of the language of the law, and their understanding of the relationship between religious liberty and political life. Two concluding chapters examine the Levellers’ relationship with the New Model Army and the influence of the Levellers on the republican thought of the 1650s. The book takes full account of revisionist and post-revisionist scholarship, and contributes to historical debates on the development of radical and republican politics in the civil war period, the nature of tolerationist thought, the significance of the Leveller movement, and the extent of Leveller influence in the ranks of the New Model Army.
This chapter examines the relationship between the Levellers in the 1640s (and their subsequent careers in the 1650s) and the classical republican authors of the 1650s. Contemporaries as well as historians have seen continuities between Levellers and republicans, and there are obvious similarities in their thought, as well as apparent continuities or linkages of personnel. However, classical republican language was an idiom which left few traces in the Levellers’ writings, and much 1650s republicanism had an anti-populist cast which did not sit easily with Leveller egalitarianism, and even enabled republicans such as Marchamont Nedham to attack the Levellers in print. When Leveller ideas and classical language or exempla were brought together, the fit was not always comfortable, and some of the most characteristic aspects of the republican thought might be modified. Two authors of the 1650s bear most comparison with the Levellers: Nedham, in his more populist republican phase, and John Streater; but it is in Streater’s writing that a genuine continuation of the spirit of Leveller writing, in classical language, is found.
The conclusion discusses the nature of the Leveller movement and summarizes its complex relationship with parliamentarian thought. It emphasizes the populism of Leveller thought, as one factor which sometimes divided them from potential allies. It concludes by exploring the legacy of the Levellers on later radicalism, including the question of John Locke’s possible debt to Leveller thought.
The introduction sets out the challenges offered by revisionist and postrevisionist historians to the celebratory and sometimes anachronistic view of the Levellers in the older standard works, and offers ways forward. It provides a brief outline history of the Leveller movement in the context of the events of the civil war and regicide period, including an introduction to the lives of the Leveller leaders William Walwyn, Richard Overton, and John Lilburne, and a summary of the Levellers’ demands. The introduction concludes with a brief discussion of methodology.
This chapter examines Leveller accounts of the origins of government, which followed one branch of parliamentarian thought in seeing government as founded in the original power of the people. Leveller theorists emphasized the continuity of this original power in ways displaced the emphasis from any transition out of a state of nature into governed society through a social contract, and emphasized instead the regular deployment of the people’s power in elections. These views lay behind the Levellers’ constitutional theory which gave an elected representative, rather than king or lords, institutional supremacy.
This chapter argues that the Levellers’ populist challenge to parliamentary absolutism, given its most eloquent form in the ‘appeal to the people’ issued by Lilburne and Overton in 1647, had complex origins in parliamentarian thought. The presbyterian theorists who had justified parliamentarian resistance against the king on the basis of coordination theory, rather than edging towards parliamentary absolutism, were surprisingly willing to call on the consciences of the people; early ‘war party’ radicals had also hinted that the people could call their MPs to account. In 1645 a new language of representation, which now implied accountability, was developed by Leveller-related publications, and others by George Wither and William Ball. The Levellers struggled to reconcile parliamentary supremacy with the sovereignty of the people; their appeal to the people did not assume that the country had lapsed into a state of nature but rather tallied with Overton’s view that power flowed back and forth between the people and their parliament within the polity.
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.
This chapter explores the connections between the Levellers’ religious and political thought, suggesting that there are strong resonances and parallels between the two, particularly as the Levellers conceptualised freedom of religious conscience as a natural and inalienable right, similar to other such rights to be ‘reserved’ from the political authorities. This does not, however, mean that religion was subordinated to or subsumed within politics: the Levellers’ religious beliefs were genuinely christian, although significantly heterodox at least in Walwyn and Overton’s cases. This heterodoxy was linked with the Levellers’ strikingly positive view of nature and the capabilities of reason, which reduces the divide between secular and spiritual life in Leveller thought. The Levellers’ commitment to freedom of conscience went along with a positive belief in the capacities of ordinary people to decide for themselves in both spiritual and secular matters. The Levellers were radical tolerationists in their removal of any coercive power over religion from the magistrate, but they did not completely separate church from state: a non-compulsive state-church was advocated by both Lilburne and Walwyn.
This chapter examines the evidence for Leveller influence on the politicization of the New Model Army in 1647 and follows the question of Leveller links with the army radicals through the Putney debates and on to the regicide and its aftermath. It argues that links between Leveller and army radicals are detectable but not evidence of very direct collaboration, but that both Leveller and army radicalism were part of a broader radical spectrum of opinion within which currents of radical thought circulated. The influence of Leveller ideas within the army should not be dismissed, and the evidence of the army-radical newsbook the Moderate shows that Leveller ideas were still appealing, even after Burford. Some coalescence of army and Leveller ideas was made possible by the army radicals’ insistence on soldiers claiming their rights not just as soldiers but as Englishmen, and by the Levellers’ sense of the possibilities of an army of conscientious Englishmen. The constitutional thought of the army leadership, army radicals, and Levellers again displays interaction and dialogue.