The Levellers Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Levellers

The Levellers were a group of political activists that emerged in the mid-1640s, during the tumultuous period of England's Civil Wars. Often credited with being the first organized political party, the Levellers created or popularized such modern political tactics as mass demonstrations, large-scale petitioning, polemical pamphleteering, and lobbying members of Parliament. The party grew out of the Independent coalition and was led by John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walwyn. While the Levellers did not advocate the "levelling" or elimination of property rights, as their opponents accused (thereby dubbing them the "Levellers"), they did seek to divorce wealth and property from political privilege. In addition to seeking economic and political freedom, the Levellers also sought religious tolerance.

The 1640s were a time of revolution in England. King Charles I in 1637 had attempted to impose Anglicanism in Scotland. At the same time, Puritans in England and especially in Parliament grew increasingly concerned about the influence of the Anglican Church on the King. King Charles demanded that Parliament raise funds to support his war against the Presbyterian Scots, who had gathered an army against him. Parliament, in turn, insisted that the King grant reforms in exchange for such funding—a demand that the King refused. By 1642 armed conflict between the King's army and Parliament had broken out, and in 1645, Oliver Cromwell, a military leader of Parliament, destroyed the King's army. The war was officially over in 1646, the King having been captured by Cromwell's army. However, Charles rejected the conditions Parliament set for his return to the throne, and he later escaped to form an alliance with the Scots. The second civil war began in 1648, with Cromwell leading his army against and defeating the forces of the King and of Scotland. Cromwell then purged Parliament of its Presbyterian members, leaving only those who favored the execution of Charles. The King was put to death by Parliament in 1649. Parliament and Cromwell then abolished both the monarchy and the House of Lords, declaring England a Commonwealth, which it remained until the restoration of King Charles II in 1660.

Against this historical backdrop, Lilburne, Overton, and Walwyn, among others, began to gain notice for their religious and political pamphlets. Lilburne is often described as the most religious of the Levellers, as well as the group's charismatic leader; Overton is usually considered the most rational, and Walwyn the most philosophical of the three. Each had significant pamphleteering experience when they came together, and each realized that given the unsettled state of England's political affairs, they had a chance to influence the cntemporary political system. They envisioned freely elected representatives to the House of Commons with power equal to that of the House of Lords and the King. Another important component of their platform was that of complete freedom to practice any religion.

Modern critics have examined the individual contributions of the Leveller leaders to the party's ideology as well as the ways in which that ideology developed and was disseminated. M. A. Gibb has highlighted Lilburne's role as the leader of the movement, noting that the party did not officially organize until 1647, when the Commons rejected petitions presented for the release of Lilburne and Overton from prison. That year, Lilburne and Overton wrote The Outcryes of the Oppressed Commons, in which they presented their intention to appeal to the common people against the oppression of Parliament. Additionally, Gibb has discussed Lilburne's appeal to the soldiers in the New Model Army and the manner in which this support helped further the Leveller cause. Nigel Smith has examined a series of pamphlets by Overton, known as the "Marpriest" tracts, which emphasize his concern with religious and political toleration. Margot Heinemann has noted that Overton's prose is skillfully satirical and influenced by his theatrical connections. In contrast, T. B. Tomlinson has observed that William Walwyn's writing is characterized by his direct and "exceptionally unadorned" style. Tomlinson has examined Walwyn's pamphlets The Power of Love (1643) and The Compassionate Samaritane (1644) for their attacks on political and economic inequality.

The most significant Leveller documents include the three versions of their Agreement of the People, in which their demands as a party are presented to Parliament. Perez Zagorin has described the Leveller program as "a lower-middle-class utopia"; he suggests that the third version of the Agreement, entitled An Agreement of the Free People of England (1649), contians the clearest statement of the Leveller platform. D. B. Robertson has stated that in A Manifestation (1649), Leveller party leaders responded to accusations of atheism and anti-Scripturalism made by their opponents. Yet the religious statements made in this pamphlet, Robertson has argued, demonstrate the conflicting beliefs held by the leaders, and the way Lilburne's religious beliefs in particular seem to clash with his views regarding the equality of men. While the relationship between the sinful nature of man and the need for limited government may be inferred from Leveller writings, including the first two Agreements, Robertson has maintained that the third Agreement represents a more realistic conception of human nature and political life—a view emphasizing more limits on power than called for in the first two Agreements.

Another area of critical study is that of Leveller philosophy concerning the idea of natural law: the theory that moral laws are derived from human nature. Richard A. Gleissner has examined the role of this philosophical doctrine in Leveller political ideology. Specifically, Gleissner has analyzed how this concept was presented in 1647 in debates between Leveller leaders and such Parliamentary military leaders as Oliver Cromwell.

Despite their efforts to shape the existing political structures into an egalitarian, democratic form of government, the Levellers did not achieve their goals. As the government became increasingly centered under Cromwell's rule, the Levellers recognized that the inequalities and injustices that had existed under the King's rule still remained, although in a different guise. For this reason, they pushed strongly in their third Agreement for a system of government that would safeguard individual rights and prevent the consolidation of power in the hands of a single group as well as in the hands of an individual. In the 1650s the Levellers were denounced by Cromwell and government propagandists as subversives seeking to eliminate both law and property. At this time, too, Leveller leadership began to disappear: Lilburne, exiled by Cromwell in 1652, died in prison in 1657. Walwyn left politics to assume a medical practice. The Levellers, without strong leadership, soon lost all effectiveness as a group. F. D. Dow has commented that some weaknesses of the essential Leveller program doomed them from their start: Leveller ideology may have frightened the rich, neglected the poor, and been "too innovative in its assumptions to embrace all the godly 'middling sort"' of people.