The Levelers: Libertarian Revolutionaries
|by Nick Elliott|
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 little of the tradition of communal ownership and dependency in
social relationships of the sort that prevailed in mainland Europe.1
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 Leveler leader John Lilburne, drew upon
the stories of Protestant suffering told by John Foxe in his Book of
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."2
Against 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
"Leveler" 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
Against 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.3 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 and freedom."4
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 United States Constitution. 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.
What went alongside the principle of equal natural rights was the
principle of equality in law. In this they championed the cause of
the common man by calling for the law to be applied impartially,
without favor to wealth or position. For the Levelers, the basis of
law should be English common law, supplemented by a few statutes
which guaranteed individual liberty, such as the Magna Carta and the
Petition of Right.
They 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.
It was a principle justified by bitter experience. The Leveler
leaders suffered numerous 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 was 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 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 Putney 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....5
Monarchs 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 contest of history their belief in representative
government was notably advanced; the idea was to become the basis of
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 practised 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.
The 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 the
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 of writing 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.6 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.7
Leveler 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 dependent 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 the 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 Leveler 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 Ireton -- to discuss political principles. The Levelers 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.8
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 drawn up by John Lambert, Britain's first and only
written constitution. 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 design.
The Leveler Legacy
Many 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. More
significant than the movement and its activists were the ideas which
they introduced into public discussion. Their ideas lived on, long
beyond their 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.9 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. State involvement in
religion remained an issue of contention for the liberals of later
years. Tithes fell into disuse, although not formally abolished
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 less
than 700 new publications were brought into circulation. By 1648 the
number had grown to over 1400. 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.
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. 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.
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 practised their religion or set down an opinion in writing.
For a time, in the postwar upheaval, when they had won support of
the army, the Levelers were power-brokers; Cromwell and the army
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.
Remarkable 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 libertarians.
- 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 The
Levelers in the English Revolution, G. E. Aylmer (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.
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 Economic