F. D. Dow (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "The Levellers," in Radicalism in the English Revolution, 1640-1660, pp. 30-56. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
[In the following essay, Dow studies the political factors leading to the emergence of the Leveller party. He also discusses various intellectual, religious, and philosophical influences on Leveller ideology, examines the primary goals of the party, and reviews the strengths and weaknesses of Leveller organization.]
In recent times the Levellers have enjoyed a diminishing reputation among historians of seventeenth-century England. Once hailed as the champions of a democratic revolution who were defeated only by the political turncoats in the New Model Army, and still referred to by some present-day politicans as the founding fathers of the working-class movement, the Levellers have been severely cut down to size by the current triumph of the revisionists. Their significance in the English Revolution, it is now claimed, has been seriously overestimated by writers such as H. N. Brailsford and Christopher Hill. Marxist as well as conservative historians would now question the extent of their support, their impact on events (especially in the heady days of the army revolt in 1647), and the true nature of their apparently radical and democratic programme. None the less, despite the reservations about the movement which many historians now share, it is hard to deny that, in comparison with the parliamentarians and republicans whom we have examined so far, the Levellers broke new ground in several ways. They went farther than other groups in tackling the problem of building a new constitution instead of merely tinkering with the balance of institutions in the old. They sought to extend active political rights well beyond the charmed circle of the elite, and to develop new mechanisms for enforcing the accountability of the governors to the governed. They grounded their programme on a new ideological basis by developing arguments based on the doctrines of natural rights and of popular sovereignty. And they mobilized support for their movement by employing sophisticated modern techniques of propaganda and organization.
Disagreement among historians on the essential nature of the movement has been compounded by ambiguities in its composition and in its ideology, which in turn spring from the circumstances in which the Leveller party was formed and the way in which its policy was formulated. Rising out of the immediate political and religious turmoil of 1646-9, but tapping also longer-term social and economic grievances, the Leveller movement throve on the very fact that it had a multifaceted appeal and could for a brief period represent many things to many men. Both ideologically and socially it was, as the Baptist Henry Denne described it, a very heterogeneous body. Its rapid rise and fall, its relatively short life, the fact that the leaders and their followers were thrown together by the crisis of the moment, all this meant that intellectual coherence suffered at the hands of an urgent need to hammer out a programme. The Levellers were not like a revolutionary party which had had a long period in opposition or in exile during which to assimilate and integrate various strands in its political thinking. Some historians have chosen to see a fundamental distinction between, on the one hand, those allegedly more moderate or 'constitutional' Levellers who concentrated on political reform and were less interested in social and economic restructuring and, on the other hand, the more radical wing of the movement, the 'true Levellers', which concerned itself with social democracy and economic problems and which had real affinities with the Diggers (Hill, 1975). This distinction seems much too arbitrary, and tends to obscure the rather more confused reality of the Leveller movement, where there was great internal flux and issues were seized upon and then abandoned as the political climate demanded. Changing external circumstances, especially relations with the New Model Army, dictated that policies (for example, on the franchise) should be modified and altered on grounds of expediency; and the individual concerns of particular leaders (such as Lilburne's interest in London's affairs or Overton's concern with social problems) might lead to specific issues being aired for a time without being fully and clearly integrated into the main platform. Policy documents designed to enlist mass support—the major petitions to parliament in March 1647 and September 1648 and the three Agreements of the People in November 1647, December 1648 and May 1649, for example—are a sure guide to the Leveller programme, but are not necessarily the fullest statements of Leveller views. To these must be added the writings of a veritable host of prominent figures in the movement: Lilburne himself was the author of eighty pamphlets, and Richard Overton wrote forty between September 1645 and July 1649 alone (Greaves and Zaller, 1983).
The embarrassment of riches which this vast outpouring of pamphlet literature presents to the student of Leveller ideology raises a further difficulty about the composition and membership of the movement. The presentation of such a wide range of issues, together with the mass propagandist techniques which were used to procure subscriptions to petitions and a large turnout at demonstrations, makes it tempting to overestimate the strength of the party as such. As we shall see, expressions of sympathy with the attitudes the Levellers struck were numerous and vocal, especially in parts of London and the south-east, but it is not certain that this generalized sympathy was translated into widespread committed, consistent and sustained support for all the details of the party programme. Even in London, active party membership was probably much smaller than the numbers who turned out to Leveller spectacles, such as Lilburne's trial or Rainsborough's funeral, would suggest. Identification with the grievances the Levellers articulated was undoubtedly more widespread than active support for the remedies they espoused. Conservative historians would particularly demur at the suggestion that the radical ideology of the Leveller leaders was typical even of those social groups from which most support for the movement came. Clubmen, not Levellers (or Diggers), were arguably the true representatives of the wishes of the middling sort.… The Levellers' failure to build up solid grassroots commitment to the party and its official programme outside a limited section of the population of the south-east was, as we shall see, one of the main reasons for the downfall of the movement.
None the less, the difficulty of determining the nature of the Leveller programme or the extent of its support should not blind us to an appreciation of just how remarkable a phenomenon the Leveller movement of mid-seventeenth-century England was. 'Nowhere else', G. E. Aylmer writes, 'before the 1760s, or even perhaps before 1789, do we find the combination of radical journalism and pamphleteering, ideological zeal, political activism, and mass organization that prevailed in England from 1646 to 1649' (Aylmer, 1975, p. 9).
Origins and Influences
In explaining the background to and the origins of the Leveller movement we can look at three main sets of factors. First, there were particular grievances which the Levellers could exploit and which provided them with the issues on which to focus: these grievances encompassed both long- and short-term economic and social factors, the exceptional political conditions of the mid-1640s, and the religious disputes into which the nation had been plunged by the dismantling of episcopacy. Secondly, there was the intellectual heritage on which the Levellers could draw to establish the ideological underpinning for their programme of reform: this included the legacy of radical Protestantism; the doctrines of natural law and popular consent, which were ripe for extension into theories of natural rights and popular sovereignty; and particular interpretations of the course of English history since 1066. And third, there were models of popular participation, examples drawn from the actual political and religious experiences of Leveller leaders and supporters, which could inspire the party as it strove to develop practical solutions to the ills of the time.
The socio-economic preconditions for the rise of a movement like the Levellers had been created by long-term changes in landholding and in manufacturing. Those changes which had adversely affected the status and prosperity of the urban and rural 'middling sort of people' were especially important in providing potential supporters for the Levellers, who were to become principally the spokesmen for the 'industrious sort'. Pressure on the smaller peasant farmer who lacked the resources of his larger neighbour to benefit from an expanding market and rising prices; the discontent of the insecure copyholder subject to rack-renting; and the fear of the small cottager or husbandman at the prospect of enclosure, produced dissatisfaction which the Levellers could tap and issues on which they could take a stand. Of even greater significance were the problems of the small craftsmen and tradesmen, particularly in the towns, whose independence seemed threatened by large-scale merchants and entrepreneurs. The existence of such problems in London was crucially important, for the capital was to provide the core of the Leveller movement. Here a large pool of discontent existed among journeymen unable, because of changes in the structure of manufacturing, to find the resources to set up as masters in their own right. Anger smouldered among small tradesmen and merchants chafing at the alleged oppression of the guilds, the livery companies and, above all, the Merchant Adventurers; and indignation reigned among all those London householders who felt their economic rights and political interests threatened by corruption and oligarchy in the municipal government itself.
Many of these long-term economic grievances were felt throughout the early seventeenth century, but discontent was seriously exacerbated by the particular distress of the years from 1646 to 1649. The dislocations of war had seriously disrupted trade, unemployment increased, prices rose but wages failed to keep pace and at the end of the decade harvests were extremely poor. To add to this distress, parliament's imposition of taxes to pay for the army, especially the hated excise, had raised the price of consumable goods even further, again to the particular annoyance of the London tradesmen. In January 1648 a pro-Leveller pamphlet entitled The Mournfull Cryes of many thousand poor Tradesmen, who are ready to famish through decay of Trade gave vent to this collection of grievances:
Its your Taxes, Customs, and Excize, that compells the Countrey to raise the price of food, and to buy nothing from us but meer absolute necessaries; and then you of the City that buy our Work, must have your Tables furnished, and your Cups overflow; and therefore will give us little or nothing for our Work, even what you please, because you know we must sell for moneys to set our Families on work, or else we famish: Thus our Flesh is that whereupon you Rich men live, and wherewith you deck and adorn yourselves. (quoted in Shaw, 1968, p. 118)
London was, therefore, important to the Levellers because it was the scene of much economic distress for the small trader and artisan, but it was also significant because it was the focus of political and religious debate.
By 1646 the fighting in the Civil War had ended, but peace brought its problems no less profound than war. Between 1646 and 1649 the fundamental question of what to do with the King and what sort of political settlement to erect in the wake of parliamentary victories had to be resolved. An important consideration in all this was not simply how to preserve the gains made against the King, but also how to reach a settlement which would justify the sacrifices of ordinary people. Fears that these gains and sacrifices might be abandoned by parliament formed an essential backdrop to Leveller activities. As a developing issue, the quest for a settlement, coupled with radical suspicions of parliament's intentions, played a key part in determining the Levellers' relations with the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army. These relations in turn were crucial in determining how much influence the Levellers could exercise on the course of political events. In time it was to become very clear, not least in the Putney Debates of October-November 1647 and the Whitehall Debates of December 1648, that the Levellers and the Grandees (or senior officers) of the army differed on the nature of the political and religious settlement that should be reached with the King, and on the distribution of political power that should obtain in the new order. But in the immediate aftermath of the war it was also clear that both sides had good reason to fear and distrust the intentions of the dominant Presbyterian faction in parliament, that they shared a belief that a generous, compromise agreement should not be concluded with the King, and that by mid-1647 the Levellers had recognized that the army should have a large say in shaping the eventual settlement. The possibility of collaboration between the Levellers and the army Grandees would probably not have been seriously mooted, however, had it not been that the grievances and aspirations of the Levellers found such echoes among the rank and file that the Grandees had to take note in order to preserve the discipline and unity of the army. The radicalization of sections of the rank and file did not happen solely, or even directly, because of Leveller influence; it happened because the soldiers' perception of their own ill-treatment at the hands of the Presbyterian majority produced a political consciousness on which the Levellers could capitalize. The Levellers thus acted as a catalyst in forcing the soldiers to recognize and articulate their own role in producing a political settlement, but they were never powerful enough to make the Grandees dance entirely to the Leveller tune (Kishlansky, 1979a, 1979b). However, the Presbyterians' treatment of the army had provided the Levellers with an additional issue to exploit, an extra source of support on which to draw, and a lever with which to propel themselves into the political spotlight.
Integral to the confused politics of 1646-9 was the fact that a religious settlement also had to be hammered out in the wake of the destruction of episcopacy. In 1646 this issue came to a head when parliament prepared to erect a presbyterian system of church government. This attempt to set up a national church, to preserve the links between church and state and to impose discipline and unity on the godly, spurred into action those who wished to see a more tolerant system developed, with freedom for separatist churches and a loosening of the bonds between church and state. Many future Leveller supporters and leaders had already become convinced of the case for religious toleration in the early 1640s, and their desire to advance this cause was a key factor in the formation of the Leveller movement. The relationship between political and religious radicalism was very close, especially in London. Many separatist congregations or gathered churches had been formed in the very suburbs of the city where craftsmen and traders of the middling sort were suffering under the prevailing economic conditions. Each of the major Leveller spokesmen, including Richard Overton, William Walwyn and John Lilburne, had been involved in the struggle for religious freedom and had several years of pamphleteering and agitation behind them before they came together as a group in 1645. Religious toleration was a major issue in the Leveller campaign and occupied a vital position in their programme throughout the life of the party. The movement was crucially dependent for its strength on support from the gathered churches, and its appeal to radical elements in the army was likewise based in part on shared beliefs in toleration and liberty of conscience. In some ways the Leveller policy of political and social reform 'amounted to an expression of the aspirations of the sectarian community at large' (Tolmie, 1977, p. 149). Although the withdrawal of much sectarian support was eventually to cripple the Leveller movement, in its early days the large coincidence of views and the overlap in personnel between Levellers and religious radicals was crucially important in promoting and shaping the party.
Economic and social distress, concern over the political settlement with the King, and anxiety about the imposition of an oppressive religious system, provided both the context for the emergence of the Leveller movement and the issues on which its programme could focus. But the definition and elaboration of that programme did not only depend on the immediate practical concerns of its supporters. Its ideological content and its political language reflected the intellectual heritage of the leaders of the movement. Leveller ideology was based on three principal sets of ideas. Each of these had been prefigured in the parliamentarian ideology we examined in chapter 2, but whereas the parliamentarians had interpreted these notions in a restrictive, conservative manner, the Levellers developed and extended them in a liberal, radical and democratic direction.
The first major strand in Leveller thinking was the influence of radical Protestantism, which some writers would wish to define more narrowly as the influence of Calvinistic Puritanism. Certainly the Levellers owed a great debt to Puritanism, but by 1646 their leaders and many of their supporters had abandoned an orthodox Calvinist position. None the less some Calvinist notions were eminently transferrable, psychologically as much as theologically, from the religious to the secular sphere, and the ambiguities inherent in Calvinism could be exploited in a variety of ways (Woodhouse, 1974). The doctrine of predestination, for example, with its distinction between the elect and the reprobate, might immediately suggest an elitist, hierarchical view of society, but in Leveller hands a stress on equality within the elect could be used to support more egalitarian notions. Similarly, the Puritan emphasis on inner spiritual worth and godly virtue suggested new criteria for the exercise of power: the challenge to traditional notions of leadership and rank could be transmuted into a demand for the monopoly of the elite on political power to be broken. The Puritan belief in a person's direct relationship with God and individual responsibility in biblical interpretation and other matters, linked to the intensely personal experience of knowledge of one's own salvation, undoubtedly influenced the highly in-dividualistic temper of the Leveller movement. So too did the Puritan stress on activism, on the duty of the godly to act out God's purposes in the world, which encouraged a belief in the ability and right of the common people to control their own destiny through active political participation. Furthermore, the voluntarist principle, which enjoined the godly to gather together in separate congregations, not only led to demands for religious toleration, but influenced the Levellers' concept of self-government.
The Levellers' propensity to develop the doctrines of radical Protestantism in a liberal direction was extended and reinforced by the second major influence on their thought: this was a cluster of ideas stemming from what G.E. Aylmer calls the 'rationalist, optimistic temper of the Renaissance, and more specifically the neoclassical idea of Natural Law' (1975, p. 12). The Levellers built on doctrines of natural law to produce a radical theory of the natural rights of man. The idea of 'natural law' (which had been used by Henry Parker) implied a set of principles implanted in nature by God which were knowable by and consonant with reason; since man himself was a rational creature he could discern these principles which, the Levellers now claimed, included certain natural rights. In 1646, in The Free Man's Freedom Vindicated, John Lilburne expressed this concept thus: 'All and every particular and individual man and woman, that ever breathed in the world, are by nature all equal and alike in their power, dignity, authority and majesty, none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power one over and above another' (Shaw, 1968, p. 100).
The principle of reason and the belief in equal natural rights led the Levellers to espouse theories of popular consent and popular sovereignty (they believed in fact that only consent could give scope to reason). Hence also their emphasis on 'trust', that is their belief that those who governed did so on the basis of trust between themselves and the people to whom they were accountable. Where the Levellers differed radically from theorists like Henry Parker was in their insistence that sovereignty resided in the people and had not been delegated to parliament, and in their consequent desire to establish active political rights for the people and to restrict the powers of the legislature (Frank, 1955; Tuck, 1979; Woodhouse, 1974; Zagorin, 1954).
The third major intellectual influence on Leveller ideology was a set of ideas about English history and English law. Like the 'ancient constitution' theorists before them, the Levellers relied on a historical myth to defend their claim to be restoring chosen liberties, but in their case it was the rights of the people, not the privileges of parliament, which principally concerned them. Their attitudes here were in some ways highly ambivalent. On the one hand they appealed to Magna Carta, statute law and the principles of the common law to defend their claims about the legal rights of the individual, yet at the same time they subscribed to the historical myth of the 'Norman Yoke'. In their view, far from the principles of the law and the constitution having been handed down in an unbroken line since time immemorial, the Norman Conquest of 1066 had marked a decisive break in English history: for them the Conquest represented the enslavement of a free English people and the repression of Anglo-Saxon representative institutions. They regarded the law itself as part of the Norman bondage, and despite appeals to Magna Carta and other enactments they believed the mainstream of the common law had been corrupted and that wide-ranging legal as well as political reform would be necessary to restore the lost rights and liberties of the people. Arguments based on the notion of lost liberties were not entirely consistent with those based on natural rights; the first argument focused on the recovery of rights which used to exist, the second on the pursuit of rights because they ought to exist (Hill, 1958). This reflects the transitional nature of much Leveller thinking, and their Janus-like use of extant political theories to point in new radical and even progressive directions.
The Levellers certainly did combine an appeal to history with an appeal to reason, but the emphasis lay most heavily on the latter. They had therefore moved away from using an adherence to tradition or a reliance on precedent as legitimizing arguments in themselves, and in their use of rationalist arguments they looked forward to Locke and Paine rather than back to the parliamentarians. Overall, indeed, the Levellers had made significant leaps forward in the development of a radical political ideology. It was a major advance to move from the spiritual equality of the elect to the equal political rights of saints and sinners alike, and from the rights of the godly to the liberties of all Englishmen, just as it was of crucial importance to progress from an appeal to precedent towards an appeal to reason. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Levellers do not always score highly in terms of logic and intellectual coherence. But as political activists and innovators, they pushed forward the frontiers of political debate, expressed the aspirations and grievances of sections of the population who had been ignored by many parliamentarian writers, and prefigured the radical agitators of the later eighteenth century.
It must also be remembered that the Leveller programme was the result not only of thought, but also of experience. This was certainly true of the leaders, especially John Lilburne. The issues on which the Levellers focused reflected almost exactly the problems of Lilburne's own career. Like John Wilkes in the 1760s, Lilburne managed to establish his personal history as a paradigm of national injustice and oppression. He had a boundless capacity for identifying his own sufferings with the cause of liberty: his tirades against the Merchant Adventurers' trading monopoly, the corruption of the government of London, and arbitrary methods of trial and imprisonment reflected his own personal disasters as well as matters of general concern. In particular, he was able to use his repeated arrest and imprisonment by the authorities to generalize about oppression in a way which struck a responsive chord among his listeners, and provided a focus for agitation by the London crowd. Economic disaster, religious persecution and legal oppression: Lilburne had suffered them all. For this reason he was the ideal leader of a movement which reflected the grievances of the middling sort (Greaves and Zaller, 1983; Gregg, 1961).
Another type of experience also found its expression in the Leveller creed. The solutions they propounded to remedy their grievances were rooted in and inspired by actual models of popular participation. Many writers have noted that not merely the ideology of Puritanism but also the practice of the separatist churches influenced the Levellers in their ideal view of state and society: the actual experience of a small, relatively democratic and egalitarian religious community produced perhaps a more powerful image of society for many Leveller supporters than did intellectual theorizing. Likewise there were some practical precedents for political participation by the middling orders. Keith Thomas has drawn attention to the model of local government, with its opportunities for service as constable, churchwarden and juryman, and to the extension of the franchise to some of the middling sort before 1640, and has argued that such participation at 'village level' was 'a familiar enough experience to make its extension to the parliamentary sphere seem by no means unreasonable' (1972, p. 61). The expansion of the electorate in the early seventeenth century, the increase in contested elections in 1640, and the existence of a few constituencies like Westminster with a fairly broad franchise certainly meant that the Levellers' vision of wider political participation had something on which to build. But the most forceful model of popular action was surely the involvement of the common people in the Civil War: not merely their contribution to the fighting (although service in the New Model Army was clearly for some an energizing and radicalizing experience), but also their involvement with and influence upon political debate and decision-making, especially in London. It was not the Levellers but the parliamentarian preachers who first encouraged the belief that the common people should act out God's purposes and shift from a passive to an active role. It was not the Levellers who first brought the crowds on to the streets of London: there was precedent aplenty for the expression of popular opinion in the demonstrations outside parliament in 1641-2 and in the continuing pressure from all kinds of petitioners (including massive peace demonstrations) since the outbreak of war. Heightened political expectations and heightened political activity were as much the cause as the consequence of the formation of the Leveller movement in London; and it was in part to make sense of and ensure some gains from this degree of popular participation that the Leveller programme arose.
Beliefs and Programme
The Levellers' intellectual heritage combined with the fruits of practical experience to produce a political programme which had as its main theme a belief in the rights and liberties of the individual. Their concept of freedom, however, was cast in terms of 'freedom from restraint' as well as 'freedom to act'. Therefore, although they put forward positive claims for active political rights to be granted to the people, the thrust of many of their proposals had a more negative aspect. They certainly supported the liberty of the people, but this was cause and consequence of the fact that they were against the power of oligarchy and monopoly in government, in the economy, in the legal system and in religion. This combination of the positive and the negative was well expressed by Lilburne. In 1648 he wrote that those 'nicknamed Levellers are the supporters and true defenders of liberty and propriety, or anti-grandees, anti-imposters, anti-monopolists, anti-arbitrarians and anti-[economic] Levellers' (quoted in Greaves and Zaller, 1983).
The Levellers' political and constitutional proposals were designed to express their belief that government originated in a social contract, that the actions of government required the consent of the people, and that ultimate sovereignty resided in the people. They argued that in England in the later 1640s legitimate government had in effect been dissolved: parliament had so denied the liberties of the people that it had forfeited its right to govern. Therefore government (and indeed society) would have to be reconstituted by a new social contract. Hence the Levellers espoused an 'Agreement of the People' which all citizens would subscribe and which would both reconstitute political society and define the fundamental principles of the new political system (Frank, 1955; Zagorin, 1954). Those printed manifestos entitled on 'Agreement of the People' (published in November 1647, December 1648 and May 1649) are therefore to be construed literally: they were conceived as mechanisms for establishing the consent of the people to a new form of government which could ultimately be endorsed by all citizens. In setting out what that new form of government should be, whether in the Agreements themselves or in other declarations of policy, the Levellers addressed themselves to two main questions. First, given the inherent sovereignty of the people, how could that sovereignty be actively and continuously expressed; and second, who exactly, for political purposes, were 'the people'? The first question was answered by designing a series of devices to ensure the accountability of parliament to the electorate, and by proposals to 'reserve' certain crucial powers to the people, to curtail executive power and to achieve a large measure of decentralization in government. The second problem, which was probably less important to Levellers than was the first, produced proposals for the extension of the franchise.
The Levellers wanted a parliament which could be made frequently and easily responsive to the popular will. For this reason they were hostile to the political power of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and were confirmed in this belief by their view that the King and the aristocracy had been the chief beneficiaries of that Norman Yoke which had been placed on the necks of the common people in 1066. Some Leveller writings did contain a theoretical defence of republicanism, and calls were clearly made for the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords. Other spokesmen, however, were prepared to retain these institutions so long as neither had a 'negative voice' (or veto) over legislation. The real aim of policy on this issue was to ensure that popular sovereignty should be reflected, untrammelled by any other body, in a one-chamber assembly which exercised the sole legislative power in the state. To ensure the accountability of this assembly to the electorate, the Levellers also demanded frequent elections (either every one or every two years) and measures to reduce patronage and oligarchical influence both at elections and in the Commons itself. In this vein they wished to exclude lawyers from the Commons and to award MPs a modest salary to free them from economic dependence on rich patrons. A redistribution of parliamentary seats and an extension of the franchise would promote the same end.
These checks on the power of parliament were not deemed sufficient in themselves to translate the sovereignty of the people into a continuous political reality. The Levellers' experience gave them ample reason to be suspicious of men once they were in power and to fear the growth of corrupt, self-interested faction in the legislature. Their bitterness was vividly expressed in this cri de coeur in 1649: 'we have', they wrote 'by wofull experience found the prevalence of corrupt interests powerfully inclining most men once entrusted with authority, to pervert the same to their own domination, and to the prejudice of our Peace and Liberties' (quoted in Aylmer, 1975, p. 164). To counteract this they proposed that certain powers should be forever 'reserved' to the people; that is, certain subjects were declared to be so fundamental to the liberties of the people that they were put beyond the normal legislative competence of parliament. How decisions could be taken on these subjects if the need arose was never clearly spelled out, but probably the Levellers envisaged that the people would voice an opinion through some sort of referendum. The number and nature of these reserved powers varied according to the circumstances in which the Levellers found themselves. There were only five in the first Agreement of the People in November 1647, including religious toleration and equality before the law, both of which remained fundamental to this part of the Leveller programme; but by the third Agreement in May 1649, the number of reserved powers had been considerably expanded to include other matters of a less important legal and fiscal nature.
The Levellers' antagonism to those who held the reins of power also led to a desire to limit the executive in their new system of government. This is most noticeable in their pronouncements in 1649, after they had been bitterly humiliated by the army Grandees. In late 1648 the Leveller leaders had been outwardly courted by Cromwell and Ireton and invited to talks at Whitehall, but after the execution of the King in January 1649 it was clear that they had outlived their usefulness to the army command and could be summarily disposed of. Realizing this, and believing that the new republican regime was no more a friend to liberty than the old, the Levellers published bitter attacks on their new masters in Englands New Chains Discovered (two parts, February and March 1649), and in The Hunting of the Foxes (21 March 1649). They were also led to make more explicit their hostility to executive power as such. The Levellers seem to have assumed that when parliament was actually sitting, it would exercise full executive authority, subject to the checks which would normally operate on the competence of the legislature. When parliament was not in session other arrangements would have to be made: either a Council of State would be formed which would include MPs, or else a committee of MPs would exercise authority 'limited and bounded with express instructions, and accountable to the next section [session]' (Shaw, 1968, p. 79). The Levellers were clearly concerned to prevent the concentration of power in a few hands, and therefore did not wish to have an executive either powerful in itself or with the independent resources to fill parliament with its own supporters.
In various ways, then, Leveller insistence on the sovereignty of the people had led them to rethink the details of the political structure at national level. But equally important to their belief in government by popular consent was their keen interest in the local structure of authority and the decentralization of power. Indeed, there is no doubt that the Levellers imagined that, once their new system was in operation, power in the provinces would be much more important than government at the centre. Their demand for the election of officeholders by local communities was therefore crucial: in this way, public officials could be made responsible and responsive to the popular will in communities small enough to make that democratic control effective. The Levellers' proposals here overlapped with their demands for legal and judicial reform, for, in common with general opinion, the administration of justice and the enforcement of the law was in their view a large part of the work of government (Manning, 1976). Hence the desire for locally elected judicial officals and locally based law courts. The Earnest Petition of January 1648 demanded that 'some chosen Representatives of every Parish proportionably may be the Electors of the Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, Committeemen, Grandjury men, and all ministers of Justice whatsoever' (Wolfe, 1944, p. 269). Decentralization was a consistent theme in many parts of the Leveller programme: it also influenced their demands for a locally trained and recruited militia in place of a centralized professional army, and it was reflected in their espousal of the independent rights of 'local' congregations. The revitalization of the small community—whether it be parish, borough, guild or church—was deemed essential to curb the power of oligarchy in law, politics, trade and religion. Decentralization was not merely as important as democracy: it was the indispensable condition for the democratization of the whole political system in church and state.
Among historians, Leveller plans for the devolution of power have received comparatively little emphasis compared with the close attention that has been given to the Leveller debate on the franchise. Despite various attempts to impose a spurious consistency on Leveller pronouncements on this subject, most writers would prefer simply to accept that the movement gave different answers at different times to the question 'who are the people?', and that there was always internal division on this issue. Therefore apparent shifts in opinion in the Levellers' public pronouncements are most usefully taken at face value. The logic of the Levellers' belief in the equal natural rights of every man and woman ought in theory to have impelled them towards the advocacy of universal suffrage. No one followed this path to the extent of calling for votes for women, but some Levellers clearly did demand universal manhood suffrage, although even this most radical group would have temporarily excluded men such as 'delinquents' (or former royalists). At the other end of the spectrum some moderate Levellers would have settled for a franchise restricted in the main to male heads of households owning modest amounts of property. In between, a case could be made for the exclusion of various types of working people. In The Case of the Armie Truly Stated (15 October 1647) Leveller influence in the army had produced the demand that 'all the freeborn at the age of 21 years and upwards, be the electors'. A few weeks later, however, when the Levellers came to debate the first Agreement of the People with the army Grandees at Putney, it was clear that there was a significant internal difference in the movement between those who believed that literally 'every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government', and those who felt that only those 'that have not lost their birthright' ought to vote in elections (Woodhouse, 1974, p. 53). The notion of loss of birthright could open the way to some far-reaching exclusions from the franchise. The demands of political expediency and pressure from the Grandees also began to erode the case for universal manhood suffrage. In December 1648, in the second Agreement of the People (entitled Foundations of Freedom), the Levellers would have limited the franchise to 'Natives or Denizens of England, such as have subscribed this Agreement; not persons receiving Alms but such as are assessed ordinarily towards the relief of the poor; not servants to, or receiving wages from any particular person' (Wolfe, 1944, p. 297). This was a considerable, and perhaps untypical, retreat from the public position the Levellers had held in 1647, but by May 1649 the third Agreement restored the franchise to all men over 21 'not being servants, or receiving Alms, or having served the late King in Arms or voluntary Contributions' (Aylmer, 1975, p. 162).
The Marxist historian C. B. Macpherson has argued that even during the Putney Debates the Levellers wanted to deny the vote to all types of wage-earners and anyone who had ever had to rely on poor relief. He believes that the Levellers deemed a man to have lost his birthright when he alienated his labour, as all wage-earners, alms-takers, servants and beggars had done; and that when a man lost his birthright he forfeited his right to vote (1964). Keith Thomas, on the other hand, has argued more plausibly that the Levellers did not, on the whole, take the extreme view that to alienate one's labour was to lose one's birthright, nor did they assume that wage-earners and servants were synonymous categories (1972). Many writers would now accept that when the Levellers excluded servants' they meant only living-in servants and apprentices, not wage-earners with their own homes, and when they mentioned 'alms-takers' they intended that only those permanently in receipt of alms would be excluded from the vote. What is clear, however, is that Levellers set great store by independence, both economic and political, and that their interest lay in enabling a man to cast an independent vote. For this reason, they were prepared to stop short of the logical consequence of their belief in equal natural rights and to retreat from the position of universal manhood suffrage. Here the Levellers showed that they had not transcended traditional patriarchal assumptions about the role of male heads of household, and that their basic desire was to protect the small producer against the power of 'great men'. Their willingness to exclude beggars and servants, for example, could be reconciled with their more radical claims by maintaining that such men could be 'represented in the votes of their masters', and by recognizing Ireton's claim at Putney that those 'who depended on the will of other men' might be incapable of exercising the vote in their own right. To enfranchise dependent men might in these circumstances do more to entrench the power of great men than to restrict it. Such a policy would not enable the small craftsman, artisan, trader or farmer to challenge the power of oligarchy in politics and ensure the election of a representative body responsive to the interests and wishes of the 'middle sort of people' (Manning, 1976; Thompson, 1980).
The Levellers' constitutional and political proposals were detailed and wide-ranging, but they were not the only means by which the movement sought to advance the liberties of the people. Of great importance for the protection of the individual's rights in society were their plans for the reform of the law and the legal system. Full equality before the law, Levellers believed, was the chief protection for the individual's right to life, liberty and property, and the main guarantee that his 'self-propriety' (as Overton called it) would not be invaded by others. The health of the nation depended on swift legal reform, Lilburne had argued in 1645, and 'the Reformation of Courts of Justice, is a worke of absolute necessitye, without which … you shall have no Peace' (Englands Birth-Right Justified, quoted in Aylmer, 1975, p. 60). As well as plans for the local election of justices of the peace and magistrates, calls were made for the simplification of legal procedure so that it might be cheaper and easier to understand. English should be used in legal proceedings, the Levellers demanded, instead of Latin and law French. The Levellers wanted every plain man to be able to defend his interests at law without the help of professional lawyers, whom Lilburne especially detested, likening them to locusts who swarmed over the land devouring and impoverishing it. Mindful of the leadership's personal experience at the hands of various tribunals, the Levellers demanded that every individual should be free from arbitrary arrest, from imprisonment without trial, and from interrogation which might incriminate him. No man was to have special privileges at law because of birth and status. Great emphasis was laid on the role of the jury, an essential institution in Leveller thinking. The jury was the embodiment of the freeborn men of England, men of independent mind who would judge a situation by the light of reason and reject the corrupting influence of faction. The right to trial by jury became a reserved power; and in March 1649 Lilburne bitterly criticized the new regime because the erection of the High Court of Justice meant that 'that great and strong hold of our preservation, the way of tryal by 12 sworn men of the Neighbourhood is infringed' (Englands New Chains Discovered, quoted in Aylmer, 1975, p. 143). The Levellers also wanted the reform of specific laws. Here their most urgent demand was for a change in the laws of debt. This would help, above all, the small trader who was often caught between the burden of defaulting or non-existent customers and the demands of suppliers clamouring to be paid. His 'cash flow' problems could easily land him in gaol, where he had no hope of earning anything to recoup his losses or meet his debts.
The individual's rights at law were crucial. So too was his right to liberty of conscience and worship. The involvement of individual Levellers in the campaign for religious toleration both predated and post-dated the emergence of the Leveller movement; indeed, as we have seen, it was this very issue which had brought several of the leading figures in the movement together for the first time. During its life, the movement's appeal to the sectarian interest was vital to its success, and although many sectarians in the end parted company with and repudiated Leveller ideals for a secular state, many Leveller supporters continued to identify themselves with the cause of radical religion in the 1650s. By 1647, a demand for religious toleration and the abolition of compulsory tithes had been incorporated into the Leveller platform; some Levellers, including Lilburne, had also begun to demand a complete separation of church and state. In the Large (or comprehensive) Petition of March 1647 the Levellers, operating as a mass political movement for the first time, argued that the suppression of allegedly heretical opinions should be stopped lest 'the most necessary truths, and sincere professions thereof may be suppressed'. They also demanded that tithes be abolished and not replaced by any other form of compulsory state maintenance for the clergy. In the first Agreement of the People, of November 1647, religious toleration became a reserved power; thereafter it maintained its clear status as one of the fundamental laws which no mere statute law could infringe. Religious toleration also provided the issue over which the Levellers broke with the Grandees in the Whitehall Debates of December 1648. Cromwell and the officers professed to accept that the state had no power to coerce a man's conscience, but they wished to retain the power to restrict the practices of so-called idolatry or atheism (in effect Roman Catholicism and the 'lunatic fringe' of radical religion). The Levellers felt that even this power was an infringement of religious toleration. None the less, in both the first and second Agreements of the People some kind of state church and non-compulsory form of public worship was still envisaged: in 1647 they were prepared to grant a future parliament 'the publike way of instructing the Nation (so it be not compulsive)'. By the time of the third Agreement in 1649 the Levellers had refined their position: they demanded a complete separation of church and state with no established church, no tithes and no other form of state maintenance for ministers. However, they now recognized a distinction between liberty of conscience and worship, on the one hand, and civil equality on the other. In this way Catholics were to be allowed to worship freely but could not hold public office. In its advocacy of such a broad degree of religious toleration—truly limitless for some Levellers, and including Jews and Muslims as well as Catholics—the movement was shown at its most egalitarian and humanitarian.
In the area of social and economic reform, the Levellers were less united and more ambiguous in their public pronouncements. Specific proposals for schemes of social welfare and for penal reform were popular among some sections of the movement, but they tended to be elaborated more in the writings of individuals than as an integrated part of collaborative policy documents. In 'Certain Articles' appended to an Appeale from the Degenerate Representative Body (1647), for example, Richard Overton argued the case for establishing schools and hospitals for the poor. The economic issues which figured in the Leveller programme tended to be those which particularly affected the urban middling sort. Overall, Levellers assumed that the system of private property would be retained, and officially they were quick to repudiate the notion that they were in the strict sense 'economic Levellers'. In the second and third Agreements, the powers reserved to the people were extended to include this very subject: the future Representative was expressly forbidden to 'levell mens Estates, destroy Propriety, or make all things common' (Wolfe, 1944, p. 301; Aylmer, 1975, p. 167). Here again, the Levellers were shown to be more concerned with the destruction of monopoly than the creation of equality. Mirroring faithfully the grievances of their 'middling' supporters, especially in London, they were content to press for the abolition of those privileged groups like the Merchant Adventurers who had caused so much hardship to the 'industrious people' in the nation, including tradesmen and seafarers. More radically, they were also prepared on occasion to advocate the destruction of enclosures, the return of common lands to the people, and the abolition of 'base' or copyhold tenures. This would have benefited the smaller tenant farmer in the countryside faced with exploitation by a grasping landlord. Economic burdens on the people were also to be relieved by the abolition of the excise tax and by replacing it with more equitable forms of direct taxation. Beyond this, it is clear that only some members of the movement were prepared to countenance more egalitarian economic measures. William Walwyn was certainly one of those who had consistently condemned economic inequality. The Power of Love in 1643 was a particularly compelling statement of his views, but when he wrote A Manifestation in May 1649 on behalf of the other Leveller leaders, he conceded that economic levelling could not be forced on people against their will.
On the whole the. individualistic liberal ideology of the Leveller movement encouraged their belief that political reform, not economic or social reform, would be the fount from which all other blessings for the common people would flow. Just as they believed that the source of the people's suffering was intrinsically political (in the long term the Norman Conquest, in the short term the corruption of parliament), so they believed that the remedies for these ills lay essentially in the political sphere. The economic issues which concerned them were principally those which affected the middling sort, the people to whom all Levellers would have given the franchise. In truth their economic and political thinking was all of a piece. They were against the agglomeration of wealth in a few hands, just as they opposed the concentration of political power in a few hands; conversely, they came out against complete equality of wealth just as they retreated from universal manhood suffrage. As Brian Manning concludes, if the Levellers hated the exorbitantly rich they also feared the very poor. Theirs was the 'characteristic doctrine of meri of an intermediate status in society', the 'industrious' people or the middling sort (Manning, 1976, p. 315).
The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Movement
In attempting to build up the strength of their movement and win support for their programme, the Levellers showed themselves to be shrewd publicists and propagandists. They were very soon able to whip up demonstrations of pro-Leveller feeling in the capital, establish links with aggrieved elements in the counties, and tap feelings of discontent in the army. The use of the press, the organization of petitions and demonstrations, the development of a party structure, and the skilful deployment of the charismatic appeal of its leaders, quickly built up the impression of a mass political movement, especially in London.
The Levellers contributed in no small measure to the vast outpouring of pamphlets, tracts, treatises and other forms of printed polemic which marked the intellectual and emotional ferment of the 1640s. Although many of their tracts tackled complex issues in considerable detail and often with elaborate citation of biblical and other references, the Levellers also took care to speak directly to the ordinary people in a pungent, witty and cogent manner. Their rhetoric 'intensified the strengths of common speech', and its form was influenced by sources as diverse as plain preaching and popular drama (Heinemann, 1978). Whether it was the witty, vituperative style of Richard Overton's The Baiting of the Great Bull of Bashan (July 1649) or the histrionic appeal of Lilburne's account of his trial in 1649, The Trial of Lieut. Collonel John Lilburne, the Levellers showed they could play to an audience (Erskine-Hill and Storey, 1983). From June 1648 until September 1649 Leveller ideas also found their way into The Moderate, a weekly newsbook run by Gilbert Mabbott which circulated in London and the provinces. Other newsbooks which briefly favoured the Leveller cause were the Perfect Occurrences of Henry Walker, and the short-lived Mercurius Militaris of John Harris, a former professional actor turned printer to the army radicals (Brailsford, 1976).
The drawing up and presentation of petitions to parliament was another tactic shrewdly employed by the Levellers to organize and mobilize public opinion. The circulation of petitions like the Large Petition of March 1647, the Earnest Petition of January 1648, and the Humble Petition of September 1648 (as well as others on single issues like the arrest and imprisonment of the party leaders), enabled the movement to reach out and embrace large sections of public opinion and provided an essential focus and rallying-point for Leveller supporters. These petitions were often publicized and circulated for signature through the gathered churches in London and the provinces. The Moderate also helped to make their existence known. The act of presenting a petition to parliament became an occasion for mass crowd demonstrations in the streets of London. Likewise the arrest and trial of prominent members and the funerals of leading supporters afforded opportunities for shows of strength as well as for consciousness-raising. The funeral of Colonal Thomas Rainsborough on 14 November 1648 was the scene of much emotional drama. Crowds of supporters, many of them women, turned out sporting sea-green colours, which henceforth became a badge of the movement. In April 1649, the funeral of Robert Lockyer, an army Leveller who had been shot for taking part in a mutiny, provoked similar outbursts. Something of a personality cult was indeed an important element in the appeal of the movement. The quality of its leadership, particularly the charismatic appeal of John Lilburne, helps to account for the swift rise in the party's fortunes and its ability to draw large crowds of sympathizers to witness its public acts. Lilburne was well-suited to the role of 'populist and martyr', and his battles with authority provided a focus of identity for ordinary people. The resilience of the leadership after arrest and imprisonment, and their refusal to be silenced, also provided their followers with a model for popular action (Greaves and Zaller, 1983).
Partly to control the organization of public opinion through petitions and demonstrations, a party structure had grown up in London, and to a more limited extent in parts of the Home Counties. The City was divided up into wards, each of which sent representatives to a committee of the parish; in addition, twelve commissioners or agents were elected to act as a central executive committee for the party. Party subscriptions were levied according to a member's means, to support the cost of Leveller publications and other activities, and two treasurers were appointed to look after the party coffers. Various City taverns acted as party meeting-places: the party headquarters was situated in the Whalebone Tavern, and other favoured haunts were the Saracen's Head in Friday Street and the Windmill Tavern.
One method which, on the whole, the Levellers did not espouse was the use of organized violence or armed rebellion. For most of its life the party stuck to its belief in the power of man to judge things by the light of reason and did not abandon its faith in rational argument. Few contemplated the violent overthrow of the regime by an armed citizenry, or even by the New Model Army. Of course, the Levellers sought to influence the army, and radical supporters in the rank and file provoked mutinies, notably at Ware in 1647 and Burford in 1649, but this did not amount to an overall plan for the armed take-over of the regime. A few 'physical force' Levellers did exist, such as Major White and Captain Bray, and one ex-soldier William Thompson advocated armed risings in 1649; but when the party machine did come out in favour of mass armed rebellion in The Remonstrance of Many Thousands of the Free People of England (September 1649), it was merely the last fling of a dying movement (Aylmer, 1975; Hill, 1975).
The shrewd manipulation of issues and the mobilization of public opinion allowed the Levellers to build up support among apprentices, journeymen, small traders, craftsmen and artisans, and among some sections of the rural middling orders. Membership of a separatist congregation and, especially, residence in and around London, were factors which predisposed men towards Leveller ideas. For much of the party's history, a 'typical' Leveller might be a small craftsman, perhaps in the textile trade, who had contacts with a gathered church and lived in one of the poorer suburbs of the capital. Levellers claimed to be able to call on 10,000 supporters in the metropolis and could produce several thousand signatures for a petition in London fairly quickly. But outside this area, and outside the 'middling' social groups, support for the movement was probably much less firm. There were organized Leveller groups in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Kent, and sympathy for Leveller agitation was expressed in petitions which arrived from much farther afield including at various times Somerset, Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire. The monster petition, The Remonstrance of Many Thousands of the Free People of England, claimed to have 98,064 signatures. In addition, Leveller views attracted considerable attention in the army.
However, it would be misleading to infer from this that England was full of committed party supporters. The superficial strength of the Leveller movement during its petitioning campaigns masked underlying weaknesses. Sympathy with the grievances to which the Levellers gave voice was greater than support for the solutions to those problems which the Levellers advocated. Not all those who shared the Levellers' hostility to the 'powers that be' were prepared to translate their antagonism into demands for radical change; and of those who were prepared to countenance a radical solution, not all agreed that it should be the Leveller one. This last point was crucial to the party's fortunes: the Leveller movement rose in part because it fed on, inspired and became part of a radical coalition of interests in London, in the army and in the...
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