By Nicholas Elliott • May 1989 •
Volume: 39 • Issue: 5 The Freeman
Mr. Elliott works for the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank in
London. He is a regular contributor to the journal Economic Affairs, published by the Institute of
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.
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
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 Leveler leader John
Lilburne, drew upon the stories of Protestant suffering told by John Foxe in
his Book of Martyrs.
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
this circumstantial background a group developed known as “The Levelers,” an
informal alliance of agitators and pamphleteers who shared the same commitment
to liberal principles. The Levelers have been neglected by more recent
liberals. Indeed, it has remained a largely unchallenged assumption that they
had socialist aspirations.
was a term of abuse, coined by those seeking to exaggerate the threat of their
ideas. The only sense in which they were levelers 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 Levelers,” who were genuine visionary communitarians.
the despotism of the Stuart state the Levelers 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 Leveler activists, expressed the principle like this: “. . .
by natural birth all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty
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 Levelers 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.
went alongside the principle of equal natural rights was the principle of
equality in law. In this the Levelers 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.
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 Leveler 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.
was a principle justified by bitter experience. The Leveler 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.
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.
the Levelers, 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
Leveler 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 . . . .”
had obligated the allegiance of subjects by claiming that their authority was
granted by God. For the Levelers, 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
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.
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.
varieties of faith were being practiced throughout the country. The Levelers
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.
whole basis of Leveler 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
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.
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.”
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
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
In the Leveler 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."
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 Levelers, 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.
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 Leveler support. When the troops elected their own agitators,
the army became a political force.
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.”
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.
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.
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
Levelers denounced the Instrument, their ideas had a clear bearing upon its
The Leveler Legacy
of the books written about the Levelers 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.
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 Leveler Richard Rumbold. Americans founded a
republic with a government limited by constitution; they enacted what the
Levelers 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.
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 Leveler sympathies. In 1695 censorship was allowed to
lapse from the statute book, in recognition that it had become ineffective.
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. Leveler 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 Levelers showed a remarkable
anticipation of what became, much later, liberal and progressive opinion.
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.
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.
a time, in the postwar upheaval, when they had won support of the any, the
Levelers were power-brokers; Cromwell and the any leaders had to consort with
the Leveler leaders. Leveler fortunes climbed, and Cromwell remained
receptive—but only while he needed the army against Parliament and the Scots.
while it lasted, Leveler 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 Levelers. 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
Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford:
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/’he Levelers in
the English Revolution, G. E. Aylme, ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975),
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.