The Levellers

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Religion, Political Philosophy, And Pamphleteering

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D. B. Robertson (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "Leveller Beliefs about God and Man: Doctrine of God, Doctrine of Man, Richard Overton, William Walwyn," in The Religious Foundations of Leveller Democracy, pp. 90-104. New York: King's Crown Press, 1951.

[In the following essay, Robertson examines the religious views collectively expressed by the Leveller leaders in the 1649 pamphlet A Manifestation, and the relationship between religious and political beliefs of the Levellers. Robertson also studies the way in which their individual views differ, especially on such topics as the idea of original sin.]

Doctrine of God

The Levellers, it is clear, had the sectarian distrust of finespun rationalizations, of complex theological formulations. One cannot, therefore, expect to find an elaborate systematic statement of their religious beliefs. But this does not mean, of course, that there are no theological statements. There are some elemental statements of doctrine in their writings, though most of the indications are scattered and often implicit rather than explicit. They are important, however, not as any special contribution to Christian thought, as such, for they shared their beliefs, traditional as most of them were, with many of their day. The important aspect is in Leveller application of these beliefs to state and society.

Lilburne and the other Leveller leaders usually stated their religious beliefs as a reply to enemies who accused them of atheism and anti-Scripturalism. Thus in A Manifestation (1649) the four imprisoned leaders wrote in self-defense: "we beleeve there is one etemall and omnipotent God, the Author and Preserver of all things in the world. To whose will and directions, written first in our hearts, and afterwards in his blessed Word, we ought to square our actions and conversations."' Lilburne, particularly, stated his beliefs about God in opposition to the "arbitrary" actions of men. For instance, tyrants, he said, were imitators of God.

Lilburne made his most complete statement of his doctrine of God in a postscript to The Free-Mans Freedome Vindicated (1646), and thereafter stated the same general belief a number of times.2 "God, the absolute Soveraign Lord and King, of all things in heaven and earth, the originall fountain, and cause of all causes, who is circumscribed, governed, and limited by no rules, but doth all things meerly and onely by his soveraign will, and unlimited good pleasure, gave man (his meer creature) the soveraignty (under himselfe) over all the rest of his Creatures, Gen."3 He conceives his fight against tyranny as a religious duty to curb the tyranny of rulers on the one hand and to uphold the sovereignty of God on the other. His "just and righteous quarrel" with Cromwell and his faction is the championing of "The liberties of the land of my nativities against the apostacies and tyrannies of her most perfidious and treacherous professed friends," and also "the holding out of Gods Soveraignty amongst the sons of men, as being that one, single, individual ALONE (either in heaven or earth) that is to raign, rule, govern, and give a law by his will and pleasure to the sons of men."4

God alone is absolute. God alone acts by will—may take "arbitrary" action. This is, of course, good Calvinistic doctrine. How does this concept relate to the Leveller concept of natural law, of the importance of reason in state and society? Man was made in the image of God, "which principally consisted in his reason and understanding."5 Logically speaking, this implies a rational God, bound by the same rules of reason which govern men, for the Creator's nature is revealed in his creation. Lilburne held, on...

(This entire section contains 21959 words.)

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the human level, that laws made by Parliament were conceived upon rational grounds "to be binding to the very Parliament themselves as well as others."6 But the same reasoning does not follow through to the Divine Being. Overton, a more careful and consistent thinker, and also more secular in his thinking, conceived the world in more rationalistic terms. Speaking of "right reason" he said,

Several are its degrees, but its perfection and fulness is only in God. And its several branches and degrees are only communicable and derivated from him, as several beams and degrees of heat from the body of the sun—yet all heat. So in reason there are different degrees, as from morality to divinity, and under those two heads several subordinate degrees, all derivated and conveyed from the Creator (the original fountain) to the creature, yet all one and the same in nature—the difference only lying in the degree of the thing … And so the gifts and graces of God are one radically, yet different in their species, and all from one and the same Spirit, which can act nothing contrary to its own nature. And God is not a God of irrationality and madness, or tyranny. Therefore all his communications are reasonable and just, and what is so is of God.7

Overton's point seems clear, but what is the meaning of Lilburne's statement? Woodhouse8 sees it as an achievement of the "principle of segregation," whereby the rationalist standard is maintained in the "natural order," while in the "order of grace" the view of God is "purely voluntarist." In effect this may be the case. The fact of the matter is, however, that Lilburne probably had not thought the point through. Actually he is concerned with asserting the sovereignty of God—the absolute sovereignty of God—and at the same time establishing the equality of men. In insisting upon the absolute, unqualified, uncircumscribed sovereignty of God, he is simply following Calvin, but the use he made of it in political terms would not have met with Calvin's approval. Lilburne was always fighting "will" in human beings as a corrupted element in human nature, as a symptom of personal, private interest—as "unnatural" and "arbitrary." Only in Almighty God, not in sinful man, is there a possibility of arbitrariness and will-acting. God is not bound by rational and moral standards—man is. Tyranny is the sin of usurping the place of God. It was such pride which brought the curse upon Adam and all his kind. Arbitrary action, the will of the King, Council, Parliament, Cromwell, etc., were very much a part of the life of England in the first half of the seventeenth century. As unclear, and logically inconsistent as Lilburne's doctrine of God is, it is as though he feels it necessary to make an ultimate concession to this most obvious element (will) in his world, so that no mediate concessions are possible. Or is his view perhaps the reflection of a basic contempt for the rationalism which the law of nature implied in certain features of his thought?

Doctrine of Man

The Puritans in general accepted the traditional Christian doctrine of the Fall of Adam and the consequent corruption of all mankind. Book II of Calvin's Institutes was spread over the pages of their writings. In varying degrees, according to the writer, it was conceived that original sin left untouched the reason of man to the extent that he could know good from evil and maintain some degree of dignity and order in society. Even Calvin, conscious as he was of human debility—aware that the human mind "halts and staggers even when it appears to follow the right way"—nevertheless conceded that "some seeds of political order are sown in the minds of all." He went on to say that "this is a powerful argument, that in the constitution of this life no man is destitute of the light of reason."9 It was generally believed that those who had never heard of Christ, or those before Christ, were to some degree aware of the presence of God's image in them. But man's will to deliver what conscience and reason demanded in the sight of God was another matter. Ames was not representative in his belief that the will of man survived the Fall partially competent to do the good which reason and conscience perceived. It was generally believed, after Calvin, that whatever good man was able to do was to the glory of God and not of man. Even "common grace" was a witness to God's spirit, for it was the mark of the Creator.

There are indications in the writings of the Leveller leaders that they accepted the usual view of man's fall and incompetence, though in Overton and Walwyn the awareness of it is often faint. The view is more evident in Lilburne than in the other leaders, that the doctrine of original sin is necessary to the understanding of the world in which he lived. Lilburne, arguing against "uncircumscribed authority" and the necessity of government by law, recognized as the basis of this necessity the fact that "man is naturally ambitious and apt to encroach and usurpe upon the liberty" of others.10 It is certainly a tacit recognition of the fact, apparent in all Leveller writings, that man is not any longer in Adam's state and cannot therefore live without precept. All the Leveller writers believed in the implications of the Fall, for paramount precept or law, applicable to all men alike, was the be-all of their endeavours. But Lilburne does state the orthodox position more exactly, always with Augustinian emphasis upon pride and ambition as the chief basis of the Fall. "And Adams sin it was, which brought the curse upon him and all his posterity, that he was not content with the station and condition that God created him in, but did aspire unto a better, and more excellent (namely to be like his Creator), which proved his ruin, yea, and indeed had been the everlasting ruin and destruction of him and all his, had not God been the more mercifull unto him in the promised Messiah."" The part of reason which survived the Fall, according to Lilburne, was what we call the "Golden Rule." After the Fall, Lilburne said, almost using Parker's words, man became "tyrannical and beastly in his principles and actions." Where before there had been unity and amity, now there was a "devouring temper of spirit." But for the measure of God's mercy toward man, man would be no different from the beasts. But in His mercy, God "institutes a perpetuall, morall, unchangeable, and everlasting law; that is to say, That whosoever he was, that would be so beastly, bearish, and Woolvish, as to fall upon his neighbour, brother, or friend, and do unto him that, which he would not he should do to him by taking away his life and blood from him; God ordaines, and expressly saith he shall lose his life without mercy or compassion for so doing."12 Thus man stood, in Milton's words, "Betwixt the world destroyed and world restored."13

The Leveller writers all traced the necessity of government itself to the corrupted will of man. Lilburne quotes with approval the Leveller "large Petition" to the effect that "whosoever meanes to settle good lawes, must proceed in them with a sinister opinion of all mankind, and suppose that whosoever is not wicked, it is for want only of opportunitie."14 In his The Engagement Vindicated,'s Lilburne says, "for my part I say Government it self is from God, or the prime Lawes of nature, without which by reason of mans corruption by the fall, he cannot live as a rationall Creature." Indicating the relationship of reason and will in man's corrupted state (cf. Parker, Rutherford, and Hobbes), Lilburne says, answering Prideaux's question of "who shall be judge?", that "man being a reasonable creature, is Judge for himself." He goes on to say, however, that "by reason of his present corrupted estate, and want of perfection, he is something partial in his own case, and therefore wherein many are concerned, Reason tels him, Commissioners chosen out and tyed to such rational Instructions as the Chusers give them, are the most proper and equallest Judges."16 Liburne was persistently concerned that men in government not be allowed a position where partiality in their "own case" encroached upon the common good.17 Defending themselves against the charge of anarchy, of desiring no government, the four leaders (Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince) proclaimed that "we know very well the pravity and corruption of mans heart is such that there could be no living without (government)."18 Yet, as is clear in the Leveller writings, the reason of man is conceived to be sufficiently intact so that the people could be trusted to lead to a right and just solution of any political problem. Here the interests of most men were recognized as identical. And the leaders devised means, in their Agreement, whereby the reason of the people might express in an orderly and peaceful manner their requirements and at the same time provide protection against selfish tendencies.

One cannot, however, fail to detect in Overton and Walwyn, particularly, a weakening of the idea of original sin. It is true that they at times recognized the defect. They, for instance, signed with Lilburne and Prince the statement in A Manifestation quoted above. Overton gave acknowledgement to it in his An Appeale,'9 where he says, "for if right reason be not the only being and bounder of the Law over the corrupt nature of man (that what is rationall, the which injustice and tyranny cannot be, may only and at all times be legall …)." He recognizes as valid the Pauline dictum that "magistracy is for the praise of them that do well, and for the punishment of those that do evil."20 Overton and Walwyn, with their generation, claimed to be "Biblical" in their interpretation of life and the world, and hence to accept the Biblical truths, but, of course, the Bible served all appeals. Adam's fall seemed always to be slipping their minds. Even Lilburne, in his enthusiasm for freedom and justice appears often to forget the material with which he must work and thinks in terms of Christ's restoration of the Image of God. One might say that in Overton and Walwyn are visible the workings of what developed so clearly in the rationalists of the eighteenth century: "primitivism," while in Lilburne there is a suggestion of sectarian "perfectibilitarianism." Lilburne seems quite confident that the image of God in the Christian is "restored, confirmed, and inlarged."2' And he claims personal "righteousness" in Christ.22 In how far beyond the golden rule every man was conceived to be in harmony with God's purposes is not clear. Certainly the possibility of a general restoration was envisaged. There were those, like Henry Marten, who boldly affirmed general restoration and lost no time in exploiting the political implications of it. Said Marten, "As God created every man free in Adam: so by nature are all alike freemen born; and since made free in grace by Christ: no guilt of the parent being of sufficiency to deprive the child of this freedome. And although there was that wicked and unchristian-like custome of villany introduced by the Norman Conqueror; yet was it but a violent usurpation upon the Law of our Creation, Nature, and the ancient Lawes of this Kingdome: and is now, since the clearer light of the Gospel hath shined forth, by a necessary harmony of humane society; quite abolished, as a thing odious both to God and man in this our Christian Commonwealth."23

Richard Overton

Richard Overton was associated with "heresy" more than once in his lifetime. In 1644 he was connected with Milton in a Parliamentary order, saying that "the authors, printers, and publishers of pamphlets against immortality of the soul and concerning divorce should be diligently inquired for."24 The order was the result of Milton's publication, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) and of Overton's Mans Mortallitie; or, A Treatise Wherein 'tis Proved, Both Theologically and Phylosophically, that Whole Man (as a Rationall Creature), is a Compound Wholly Mortal, Contrary to that Common Distinction of Soule and Body (Jan. 19, 1644). Overton holds that the soul and body are one, that "whole Man" comes into being, grows, and dies. Christ subjected Himself to these laws of life. By nature all men, therefore, share in his resurrection of the soul and body—unless they deliberately reject Christ's atonement for sin.25 It is evident that Overton based his whole theory of death and resurrection on the Hebrew-Christian doctrine of the fall.

Upon occasion, Overton could confess that he was "a man full of Sin, and personal Infirmities,"26 and that his life was "hid in Christ," but these feelings were apparently not basic and seemed to affect his total outlook very little. Reason told him that the real issue was "not how great a sinner I am, but how faithfull and reall to the Commonwealth; that's the matter concerneth my neighbour, and whereof my neighbour is only in this publick Controversie to take notice."27 While he may have agreed with Calvin to some degree that man's reason "halts and staggers," he nevertheless did not attribute this difficulty, as Calvin did, to any congenital defect. Whatever account he took of human weakness, and there is considerable concern with it, it seemed to him in the historic fight of the moment to be largely the accumulated evil in customs and institutions. Like Walwyn, he placed broad confidence in man's reasonableness, his sociableness, his brotherhood. What is reasonable is divine;28 what is unreasonable is devilish, and man is able to distinguish the two and choose between them.29 In his beliefs about man and the world he certainly suggests the beginnings of secular naturalism and rationalism, but his independence from "dogma" is not complete, though in him it is probably as nearly achieved as in any of the Leveller leaders. He does recognize the practical necessity of taking a somewhat "sinister opinion of all mankind" in his agreement with Leveller proposals in general. And his is an attempt to have reason confirm rather than replace "God's Word" as the basis of understanding life.30

In 1649 when Overton was arrested by the Council of State, along with Lilburne, Walwyn and Prince, the soldiers who ransacked his house, he says, took away "certain papers which were my former Meditations upon the works of Creation, intituled, Gods Word Confirmed by His Works: wherein I endeavoured the probation of a God, a Creation, a State of Innocencie, a Fall, a Resurrection, a Restorer, a Day of Judgment, &c. barely from the consideration of things visible and created."3' Thus he proposed to state the whole predicament of man without revelation, or to confirm revelation by reason, as he put it. It is evident, then, that while Overton thought in terms of Christian categories, he was capable of exploring rational, philosophical interpretations. He apparently never thought through the relationship between revelation and reason. He appealed to both to support liberty and justice.

William Walwyn

William Walwyn was one of the most interesting characters of his time. A merchant by trade, he joined the Parliament in its fight with the King; and he turned his searching mind against the intolerance of the Presbyterians. He never left his parish church, as most of his associates did, to join any sectarian group.32 He followed the practice of defending the right of all men of all groups to follow their own light. But his habit of trying to find out the reason of men's faith made him hated and feared by Presbyterians and sectarians alike. Like Socrates, Walwyn went about asking men questions about their faith, and he was just as firmly condemned by the "religious" people as a corrupter of men's minds.33 Walwyn himself claimed his whole aim was "to understand how men are setled in their faith, and to help them therein."34 He seemed firmly to believe that reason could defeat every superstition, ignorance or evil intention. Walwyn typifies the Leveller conviction that discussion and argument will lead, if men are serious, to the right answer and the right action. "Powers and principalities" seemed not so important, for he says that "All the war I have made, hath been to get victory on the understandings of men."" He believed persistently that the Levellers' ideal settlement of the national constitution could be made by argumentation, by convincing men's minds. "The giving, and hearing, and debating of reason," he held, is the most certain way of securing peace and harmony on all levels of society, whether family or nation.36 And he felt bound by conscience to lead men to live according to their natures as rational beings. Walwyn found peace in anti-nomianism himself,37 and he went about telling men they could be saved unless they rejected Christ and his atonement. He was indeed "a striking example of Protestant humanism on the vernacular level."38 The Bible had been first in his reading, but he had also been "accustomed to the reading of humane authors" for many years. Seneca, Lucian and Montaigne were the chief ones. And he developed a spirit of charitableness and reasonableness not common in his day. From Montaigne and the other humanistic writers "he could have derived the ideal of society as a union of men with equal rights to well-being, working together peacefully in rational pursuit of the common good."39 In the sects he apparently thought he saw the same spirit, the spirit which animated Christ's first followers. Walwyn thus effected a combination of Christian primitivism with the golden age of the "humane writers." His doctrine of man must, therefore, be looked at in these terms.

The state of innocency was conceived in terms of Montaigne's island of cannibals. It was a state of nature, a state wherein God had shown man his love even as he had shown it in the revelation in the Scriptures. It was a state of happiness, of peace and plenty. One might ask, as Walwyn did, why such a gift from God was not "sufficient to keep mankind in order and the world in quiet."40 The answer was that man had fallen from this state. But "the fall" was hardly the Christian Fall of Man. The fall is retrievable, according to Walwyn, for it is largely a result of ignorance and the seeking after human "inventions." Man lost his righteousness and his rationality when he set out to improve upon nature, to seek out "inventions of superfluous subtilities and artificiall things, which have beene multiplied with the ages of the world, every age still producing new."41 Presumably, therefore, man's basic rationality and goodness are still intact; if enough people will conscientiously seek to reinstate the spirit, as Walwyn says he has always tried to do, who knows but there may yet be hope for the world? Ignorance, intolerance, poverty, tyranny and human vanity, all remedial, are thus the evil to be fought in the world.42

Walwyn's belief in man's continuing rationality, or perhaps better, Walwyn's disbelief in the crippling effects of "the Fall," is related to his doctrine of the law of nature. The demands of the law are absolute; man is able to live rationally, equal and free in society. Sin cannot be pleaded in defense of oppressive and suppressive government. For Lilburne, sin was a more serious factor to engage in man, but its seriousness did not incapacitate man to live in a society "of the people, by the people, for the people." There is, then, in all the Levellers, a qualified doctrine of sin. For Augustine the doctrine justified slavery. For Aquinas, for Luther and for Calvin it justified strong government. But the emphasis of the sects and the Levellers upon an original perfection produced in the Levellers, as they came to understand man's sinful nature, the concomitant emphasis upon limited government. Democratic principles may grow out of a belief that all men are equal in that they are sinful as well as out of the belief that all men are good. There were shades of difference among the Levellers and other sectarians on the degree to which sin must be a factor in politics.

The Leveller leaders, in varying degrees, were able to learn from experience. "Experience" was, of course, not new in Puritan thought as a source of knowledge, for the religious literature of the period is full of the expression, "experiential." History taught the Levellers what reason denied, taught them perhaps even to a final disillusionment, that man's corruptness is more than ignorance and is not so easily contained by law and rational argument. Greater provision must be made for human nature in the structure of government itself. In how far they thought through systematically the implications of what experience taught them is another matter.

The year 1647 was an especially educational one for the Levellers. That was the year of the Putney Debates, the debates on the Leveller Agreement between the Independent leaders and the Leveller Agitators. It became clear that rational argument was not to be effective against entrenched interests, against the property-conscious Independents. Men of property and men of religion, too, stood squarely against what seemed to the Leveller leaders the clear demands of both the first and second tables of law. It became difficult, the Levellers thought, to tell friend from foe, and Lilburne cautioned the soldiers not even to trust their own representatives, the Agitators, too far. "Suffer not one sort of men too long to remaine adjetators, least they be corrupted."43 Coming out against the House of Lords, Lilburne's reasoning is that legislative power is arbitrary to begin with, and if you place arbitrary power in the hands of a group for life, as is the case with the House of Lords, you simply invite slavery—"considering the corruption and deceitfulnesse of mans heart, yea the best of men."44 It was his own experience with the Lords which prompted this statement. Cromwell, too, was instrumental in the education of Lilburne and his fellows. Lilburne had had great hopes that Cromwell would carry through the revolution to its conclusion, and he professed to trust Cromwell completely. But it became evident at Putney and afterwards that Cromwell and the Independents wanted to contain the revolution where it was, that they would not practice the democratic principles, the Christian principles, which they had professed. Lilburne says that

after the grand and superlative Apostacie of so tall a Caedar as Lieut. Gen. Cromwell pretended to be, for the liberties and freedomes of the people of this nation: I shall never hereafter in state affaires, (for his sake) trust either my father, brother, or any other relations I have in the world, but shall always to all I converse with, inculcate the remembrance of that deare experiented truth or maxime, recorded in the margent of our … large Petition, which is, 'That it hath been a maxime amongst the wisest Legislators that whosoever meanes to settle good Lawes, must proceed in them with a sinister opinion of all mankind, and suppose that whosoever is not wicked, it is for want only of the opportun-itie.'45

Other leaders express similar sentiments.46 From the same experience Overton remarked that "God hath in some measure opened our eyes…the burnt child dreads the fire."47

By 1649 the "realism" in Leveller documents is even more definite. The four leaders wrote from the tower (in A Manifestation) that whereas their enemies had said that if the Levellers themselves were to get power they would be just as tyrannical as any, they (the Leveller leaders) had learned to provide even against their own selfishness. They confess that the "experimentall defections" of so many who have come into authority have made them "even mistrust our own hearts, and hardly beleeve our own Resolutions of the contrary." And so they have proposed an instrument which will not depend for the public good upon the goodness of men's hearts, a goodness which is more and more questionable. "And therefore we have proposed such an Establishment, as supposing men to be too flexible and yeelding to worldly Temptations, they should not yet have a means or opportunity either to injure particulars, or prejudice the Publick, without extreme hazard, and apparent danger to themselves."48 Their final Agreement, as Pease says, represented their "reluctant modification of their ideals in recognition of the depravity of human nature."49

The final Agreement represents a more realistic view of human nature and of the nature of political life. In it the Levellers contrived a greater limitation on power than they had thought necessary before. The Preamble contains the statements that "We the free People of England, to whom God hath given hearts, means and opportunity to effect the same, do with submission to his wisdom, in his name, and desiring the equity thereof may be to his praise and glory; Agree to ascertain our Government, to abolish all arbitrary Power, and to set bounds and limits both to our Supreme, and all Subordinate Authority …"50 The new foundation of government, as ever, was to be an "agreement" of the people, not a command of parliament. The army officers proposed to get their version approved by the Rump Parliament, but the Levellers knew that such an agreement could be undone by a later Parliament if it chose. They proposed that the basic rights of the individual be placed beyond the power of "interests" to touch. But it is questionable whether the Leveller leaders were finally willing to trust to the reasonableness of the agreement alone to get the people to accept it. They appeared willing to function behind the power of the Army, where they tried frantically to maintain influence, to get acceptance of their Agreement. And, the Agreement was apparently to be binding even upon those who had not assented to it.51

The contents of the Agreement itself had been decided upon by "wofull experience" and "sad experience," as they said.52 Human frailty was noted in the provision that a representative, popularly elected, was to sit for only one year and not be eligible for reelection till one term had elapsed. Representatives were not to hold other offices, so that none should be allowed to "maintain corrupt interests." The basic rights of the people were to be placed beyond the touch of elected representatives. It is through and through an attempt to cabin and confine power, to prevent men from getting into a position to molest their neighbors. Ireton had insisted in the Army Debates that the burden of the revolution had been the settlement of power. The Levellers then put the chief emphasis on the revolution as a crusade to get justice and rights, but now a more "sinister opinion of all mankind" made them take the danger of power more seriously in terms of political organization. The consciousness of human depravity led rightwing Puritans to accept the authoritative rendering of the divine commands by the Assembly of Divines and to distrust the implications of individual judgment in both religion and politics. It could lead to the totalitarianism of Hobbes. It could on the other hand strengthen the democracy of the last Agreement, wherein man is given credit enough to know his best interests and the interest of the nation but is not trusted to preserve, without compulsion, the general interest.


1 p. 6; Haller & Davies, Leveller Tracts, p. 281.

2 In Englands Miserie and Remedie (1645) is a brief statement of the central idea. See p. 3. Also Regall Tyrannie, p. 9; Legall Fundamentall Liberties, pp. 73-74, pp. 19-20.

3 pp. 11-12.

4Legall Fundamentall Liberties, p. 73.

5Londons Liberty, p. 17.

6Englands Birth-Right Justified, p. 3.

7 Overton, An Appeale (1647), in Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty, p. 324.

8 Woodhouse, p. (94).

9 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. II, Ch. II, p. 295. John Allen tr.

10Englands Miserie and Remedie (1645), p. 3.

11Free-Mans Freedome Vindicated, p. 12.

12Londons Liberty, pp. 17-18; see also Strength out of Weaknesse, p. 14.

13Paradise Lost, XII, p. 3.

14The Peoples Prerogative and Priviledges, Proeme.

15 p. 6.

16Strength out of Weaknesse, p. 14.

17 See for instance Englands Birth-Right Justified, p. 31.

18A Manifestation, p. 5.

19 Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 324.

20An Appeale, Woodhouse, p. 332.

21Londons Liberty, p. 20; see also Free-Mans Freedome, p. 12.

22Picture of the Councel of State, p. 23.

23Vox Plebis, p. 4.

24DNB, Vol. XIV, 1279; see Masson, Life of Milton, Vol. III, p. 164.

25 It might be noted that Milton held similar views regarding immortality and resurrection. See Of the Christian Doctrine, Ch. XIV, p. 35; Ch. XV, pp. 39-41; pp. 17-27, 219, 263, 307; also Barker, Milton and the Puritan Dilemma, pp. 318-19.

26Picture of the Councel of State, p. 43.

27Ibid., p. 44.

28An Appeale, Woodhouse, op. cit., pp. 323-24.

29 But Overton could hardly be called a secular naturalist of the eighteenth-century variety. And it is probably not fair to say that he simply used orthodox Puritan terminology upon occasion for his own opposite purposes, as Woodhouse suggests, p. (55).

30 See DNB, Vol. XIV, pp. 1279-80.

31Picture of the Councel of State, p. 28.

32 Walwyn, A Whisper, p. 5.

33 See Walwyns Wiles, reprinted in Haller & Davies, op. cit., pp. 285 ff.

34Ibid., p. 5.

35A Whisper, p. 3; also The Fountain of Slaunder, p. 10.

36The Fountain of Slaunder, pp. 15, 18; see Pease, The Leveller Movement, pp. 242 ff.

37A Whisper, p. 3; Walwyns Just Defence, p. 8.

38 Haller & Davies, op. cit., p. 22.

39 Haller, Tracts on Liberty, Vol. I, p. 41.

40The Fountain of Slaunder, p. 1.

41The Power of Love, pp. 2-3.

42 See Haller, Tracts on Liberty, Vol. I, Ch. v; Pease, op. cit., pp. 242 ff.; Schenk, "A Seventeenth-Century Radical," The Economic History Review, Vol. 14, pp. 75-83, Jan., 1944; also article in DNB.

43The Juglers Discovered (1647), p. 10.

44A Whip for the Present House of Lords (1647), p. 17.

45The Peoples Prerogative and Priviledge (1647), Proeme.

46 Cf. Wildman's supposed statement, in A Declaration of Some Proceedings, p. 16; Overton, An Appeale, pp. 187-88, in Wolfe reprints; and Overton's Hunting of the Foxes, Wolfe, op. cit., p. 362.

47Hunting of the Foxes, Wolfe, p. 373.

48A Manifestation, p. 7.

49 Pease, op. cit., p. 311.

50 Haller & Davies, op. cit., p. 321.

51 Pease makes much of the question of whether those who had not given assent were to be bound by the Agreement. See particularly p. 214. But Liburne said more than once that it was his duty to prevent men from acting against their own interests. A drowning man must be saved whether he wants to be or not.

52 See Articles IX and XXIX.

Perez Zagorin (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "The Leveller Party Programme," in A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution, pp. 35-42. 1954. Reprint: New York: Humanities Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, Zagorin analyzes the third and final version of The Agreement of the People as representative of the Leveller party platform. He includes commentary on thes evolution of this document between 1647 and 1649.]

In the separate writings of the Leveller leaders, there had been formulated a conception of the social order which insisted that institutions justify themselves before the bar of reason. Whatever the past had been, the present must be shaped so as to allow every man's rational nature scope for expression. Only thus could the law of Christ and true religion be fulfilled. By the middle of 1647 there existed a movement of men who accepted this theory as the expression of their deepest, but hitherto inchoate, feelings. By means of it, local suffering elevated itself to a height from which it could gain a view of its relationship to the social order that had produced it. For the first time, a mass-movement gathered from the victims of miscellaneous oppressions did not stop with demands for partial and isolated changes, but went on to call for a programme of comprehensive reform. A sufferer from monopolies could find in the writings of the Leveller leaders the basis for perceiving the connection between his own problems and those of many other separate men. He could find, too, that his adversaries were not only in the great trading companies, but in Parliament. And he would discover that his demand for a free trade had better foundation then precedent, being grounded in his right as a man. Thus the theory of the Leveller leaders became a force rallying soldiers and civilians to the banner Lilburne and his fellows had raised. Hob-nailed boots and clouted shoes demanded a reckoning. '… suffer us,' they cried, 'to free ourselves, and the whole commonalty of the Kingdome from … an intolerable burden and slavery; to shake and tumble downe that mountain of dishonour and oppression, that this Kingdome for so long time hath groaned under….'1

From 1647 onward, these demands for a general justice were being given a local habitation and a name in official party statements. Beginning with a petition in the spring of 1647 which the Commons commanded to be burnt as insolent and seditious,2 the Leveller programme evolved through two versions of The Agreement of the People and other petitions,3 to culminate in a third and final version of the Agreement in 1649.4 This last Agreement, issued by Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn, and a lesser Leveller figure, Thomas Prince, from captivity in the Tower, was the Levellers' finest legacy, and their conclusive word on the problems of their distracted country. It summed up the experience gained during intense political struggles, crystallized the chief aspirations of those parts of the community for which they spoke, and presented their maturest conception of what was necessary for the achievement of a peace based on the people's freedom. A study of it will illuminate the Leveller plan of settlement in detail at its highest point, and make clear what its social bearings were.

The third Agreement begins with a preamble in which the people declare their intention of ascertaining their government. Then follow a a series of articles laying down the powers and duties of the future representative. Supreme authority is to reside in a Representative of 400 persons, to which all men, twenty-one years and over, not servants or in receipt of alms, may elect and be elected. Those who have aided the royalist cause are disabled from this privilege for ten years. Members are to be paid a salary, and each constituency is to be represented in proportion to its population. While men are officers in the armed forces or treasurers of public moneys, they may not be members of the Representative; nor may lawyers who are members practise during their term of office. No man may be elected a member twice in succession. Elections are to be held annually, and no Representative is to sit for more than a year or less than four months. In adjournments, a committee of members elected by the Representative, and acting under its published instructions, is to manage affairs. The power of the Representative is to extend, without the concurrence of any persons, to the conservation of peace, the regulation of commerce, the preservation of the people's liberties and estates as declared in the Petition of Right of 1628, the raising of money, and to all other things conducive to freedom, the removal of grievances, and the commonwealth's prosperity.

Now comes a long list of subjects on which the Representative is denied power. It may not compel or restrain any person in matters of religion, nor impress men for military service, 'every mans Conscience being to be satisfied in the justness of that cause wherein he hazards his own life, or may destroy others'. In order to abolish the enmities created by the war, it may not, except in execution of the judgements of the last Parliament sitting before the Agreement takes effect,5 question any person for his part in the wars. It may not exempt any person from the operation of the laws on the pretext of tenure, grant, charter, patent, degree, birth, residence, or parliamentary privilege. It may not have anything to do with the execution of laws, nor permit legal proceedings and the laws to be in any language but English. It may not continue laws abridging the freedom of foreign trade, and may not raise money by excise taxes or except by an equal rate levied upon real and personal estate. It may not make or continue laws imprisoning men for debt, nor may it continue the death penalty for any crime but murder. It may not continue tithes, though impropriators are to be compensated. It may not take away the liberty of each parish to elect its own ministers. It may not alter judgments in trials from being given by twelve jurors, dwelling in the neighbourhood, and freely elected by the people. It may prevent no one from holding office for religion except upholders of the papal or any other foreign supremacy. It may not impose officials on counties, hundreds, cities, or towns, the people of which are freely to elect their own officers annually.

There follows, finally, a list of miscellaneous provisions. Future representatives are to pay all just public debts. In order to assure the subordination of the armed forces to the civil power, each constituency shall raise its own military forces and elect its officers, reserving to the Representative, however, the naming of the general officers. Any member of the Representative, or any other person, endeavouring to destroy the Agreement, or to establish communism, shall incur the penalty of high treason and lesser penalties shall be incurred by persons disturbing the people's elections.

In this multiplicity of powers and reservations, the general scheme of reconstruction can be clearly seen. The popular franchise, most important of all, was clearly provided for, though it excluded servants and those living on charity, as well as women. The former classes were denied a vote because, a Leveller spokesman pointed out, they 'depend upon the will of other men and should be afraid to displease [them]',6 and it may be imagined that in the prevailing family organization, the exclusion of women would be similarly justified by the Levellers. Supporters of the royal cause were deprived of political rights for ten years, but by preventing the Representative from questioning men for their part in the wars, it was hoped that the country would grow once more into unity, especially since the benefits of the Agreement were believed by the Levellers to affect all interests favourably. At the same time, in permitting the Parliament sitting before the Agreement became effective to give judgment on the chief instigators of the war, it was expected that the king and certain royalists would be punished.

The peers and the monarchy were stripped of all their privileges and powers, but neither was abolished If we are to accept Wildman's statement in 1647,7 the Levellers did not object to a peerage as such. So far as monarchy was concerned, there is no doubt that had not Cromwell established a military rule by the time the third Agreement was drawn up, it would have been done away with. Both Lilburne and Overton had expressed a desire for this,8 and in February 1649 the former had attacked the plan of settlement of the Cromwellian group for omitting a reservation against the restoration of monarchy.9 But Lilburne later declared, 'I had rather … live under a regulated and wel-bounded King … then under any Government with Tyrannie',10 and the final Agreement did not ban monarchy because the Levellers wished to be prepared for the possibility that Cromwell might be overthrown and the king restored on condition of his acceptance of their principles.11

With the proposals for a popularly elected annual Parliament free from any negative voice and subject to definite rules, the Levellers gave a conclusive answer to the constitutional and political questions which they believed to be at the centre of the issues that the revolution had precipitated. Similarly, by removing all compulsion in matters of religious faith, they dealt definitively with the religious question. They laid down the principle that toleration was to extend to all professions. And, whereas in their first and second Agreements they had permitted Parliament at its discretion to establish a national church, provided it was voluntary, they gave the Representative no such power now. The religion of the country was to be as varied as the faiths that flourished in it, and even Catholics could practise their beliefs without disturbance.

Finally, the various grievances against which the Levellers had been protesting were to be redressed by depriving the Representative of power to continue the laws which sanctioned them. It is interesting, however, that certain demands which had been put forward earlier did not now appear. Reservations in the second Leveller Agreement prohibiting the rate of interest from being set higher than 6 per cent and exempting estates of less than £30 from all national taxation were omitted. So was a requirement in the second Agreement that a record office be erected in every county for the registration of all bills, bonds, and conveyances. These were probably oversights. Most important of all, the abolition of base tenures, which Lilburne had called for in a list of articles at the end of the second Agreement, was overlooked.12

We can best understand the Leveller programme in this, its greatest formulation, if we characterize it as a lower-middle-class utopia. Utopia it was—and no dishonour on this account to its framers—because the prevailing relationships of economic and political power offered no basis for its realization. Lower middle class we may call it because its every line expressed the aspirations of the small and middle sort of people who formed the backbone of the Leveller movement.

The Agreement portrayed an equalitarian order which aimed at dissociating wealth from privilege by granting the same political rights to all. Under its electoral programme, it was expected that small merchants, craftsmen, and yeomen would possess sufficient weight to balance the economic advantages of great merchants and wealthy landlords. The pronounced emphasis on decentralization and local elections was to have the result of curbing both the oligarchies of the towns and rural areas, and London's power over the rest of the country. No longer would the central government appoint the justices of the peace and the sheriffs. No longer would these and other posts be habitually occupied by the gentry and the men of substance who packed the town corporations. Thus, it was hoped, the commonalty of town and country would establish its participation in political power.

Economically, the Agreement secured the interests primarily of people of lesser means. The removal of excise would ease those upon whom a tax on food fell heaviest. Though foreign trade monopolies were to be taken away, nothing was said of the whole complex of regulations governing guild privileges, apprenticeships, and local trade and industry. These the Levellers had never assailed, for they were the barriers behind which small masters and craftsmen were often entrenched. Lilburne had always borne in mind the economic grievances of such men, and had pointed out, for example, how clothiers, cloth-workers, and spinners were victimized by the Merchant Adventurers Company.13 It was on behalf of these, it would seem, that the Levellers wished the system of regulation to function, and hence they confined their attack to foreign trade monopolies alone.

In all these respects, therefore, the Leveller programme carries the imprint of the interests of those of intermediate status in economic life. Moreover, its outlook was predominantly urban. The Agreement's demands, of course, called for the removal of grievances that were general, and not limited only to urban groups. But its silence on the problem of copyholds and man-orial lords was more than an oversight. Despite the occasional mention of the abolition of base tenures,14 the land question was never a critical issue in the Leveller programme, and, among agrarian elements, it reflected more the aims of the small freeholder and yeomanry than those of the poor peasantry. This was a fundamental defect. It was on the latter that much of the power of the landed gentry depended and to leave the basis of this power unaffected by reform was to contradict the equalitarian commonwealth for which the Levellers stood. Because their programme dealt so summarily with the agrarian problem, the great majority of the rural population remained indifferent to it, despite the considerable rural discontent and disturbance which occurred during the revolution.15

The Leveller movement was distinguished in general by its high humanitarianism and by the essential hope that it would win its way through persuading the minds of men. It expressed care for the poor, the aged, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the unemployed. What they would do for these, the Levellers believed, was only what the law of Christ and of reason evidently required. The Leveller leaders would have shunned the notion that their position expressed the outlook of any class. They believed their demands were inferences from reason, as illuminated by Christ's law, and reason was the same in one man as in a thousand. Their programme corresponded to a universal interest, they held, and only men who have become beastly or who are blind, they would have argued, could fail to see this fact. Perhaps this was why in none of their Agreements was any provision made for amending the rules upon which the new political order was to operate. As the Leveller commonwealth was created, so, apparently, was it to remain forever. Moreover, there can be no doubt whatever that in spite of the call of Lilburne and Overton in 1647 for the people to rise, and in spite of the mutinies of Leveller soldiers in the army, the Levellers did not regard force as a normal or a desirable method of effecting political change. They relied, they said, 'solely upon that inbred and perswasive power that is in all good and just things, to make their own way in the hearts of men, and so to procure their own Establishment'.16 When Lilburne called for a rising, it was because he believed the country was in a state of nature. If he had really subscribed to violence as a tactic, his movement would have been far more dangerous to the Cromwellian government than it was.

The Leveller programme was the glorious hope of men who lacked all possibility of gaining power. While Lilburne led a revolution that failed, Cromwell led one that succeeded. While Lilburne strove unsuccessfully for a democratic republic, Cromwell created an oligarchic one. If Lilburne's tragedy lay in the powerlessness of his movement to achieve its ends, Cromwell's consisted in the doom of a Stuart restoration that fatally overhung him because of the narrow basis on which his power was erected. Yet with all their differences, the Levellers and Cromwell had important principles in common. Both desired liberty of conscience, though not in the same degree. They were alike also in fearing a strong central government as the source from which despotism would always arise. Many actions to which Cromwell resorted to retain power would have been left undone if his rule had been a stable one.17 Like the men for whom the Levellers spoke, Cromwell wished to be finished forever with the tyranny he saw exemplified in the interfering government of Charles I and his ministers, Laud and Strafford. But however one limits the state's role, it will still retain positive functions which can affect either favourably or not the various interests in the community. And so while the circumscribed state of the Levellers would have enforced the equalitarian order outlined in their Agreement, Cromwell's discharged the task of securing the property and position of the gentry and great merchants who inherited power in revolutionary and restoration England.

The Levellers at the very birth of political democracy stated its full theoretical implications. They would tolerate no groups or orders in society with special political privileges. They required that Parliament be truly representative. And they extended the right of consent to every individual. They admitted no sovereignty anywhere, unless it was in every man's conscience. They seriously accepted the possibility of any man refusing obedience to commands incompatible with his idea of reason or justice. This may appear anarchic, but to them it was the ultimate guarantee of liberty. But they clearly believed that a representative non-sovereign Parliament, itself subject to the laws it enacted for the people, and restrained by the safeguards of the Agreement, would erect that which every individual conscience unbiased by an irrational selfishness would be likely to accept.

Their great objective was political reform, and in the occasional Leveller pamphlets that continued to appear through the 1650s this aspiration was still being given utterance. The declaration of London Levellers in 1653 insisted that 'The people cannot be … Free … while the Supream power … is wrested out of their hands … and the prime Badge and principle of their Freedom is, Their own Election'.18 The anonymous author of Englands Remembrancers (1656) advised Cromwell's millenarian opponents not to boycott the elections to Parliament announced in June 1656, because despite Cromwell's tyranny, '(unlesse there could be a personall agreement of the people) an assemblie of the peoples Deputies, is the only visible means to settle justice.…'

'Dear Christians, it is by the choice of your Deputies only, that the whole body politick of this nation can consult together for their preservation … there is no other way consistent with the laws of God, or the nature of mankind, whereby our breaches can be healed, lawfull powers and authorities created, righteousnesse and justice exercised amongst us.'19

The unknown Leveller who wrote The Parliaments Plea in October 1659 when the breakdown of all effective government seemed near, told the soldiers in the army that a durable settlement could be made only by consent of the people in Parliament, and counselled them to choose representatives and effect the army's submission to a freely elected Parliament ruling without any king or peerage, under powers prescribed in an agreement of the people.20 And in November 1659, some inhabitants of Hampshire were still demanding an agreement of the people providing for a supreme representative body and the separation of legislative and administrative functions.21

The programme the Levellers announced for their own day took more than two hundred and fifty years to achieve. Like Moses, they never dwelt in Canaan. Yet the beliefs they voiced did not die, and rose from the ashes into which the hopes of revolutionary England were consumed. Long afterwards, they were taken up by new forces, by the Chartists and the trade unions, to become the battle-cry of new struggles.


1An alarum to the headquarters, 1647, 4.

2To the right honourable and supreme authority of this nation, the Commons … the humble petition of many thousands; Commons journals, V, 179. This petition is reprinted in Lilburne's Rash oaths unwarrantable, 29-35. Thomason's copy is dated 19th September 1648.

3An agreement of the people, 3rd November 1647; Foundations of freedom; or an agreement of the people, 15th December 1648. The most important Leveller petition of 1648 was To the right honourable the Commons … the humble petition of thousands wel-affected persons, 15th September 1648.

4An agreement of the free people of England, 1st May 1649. There were a number of documents known as agreements of the people published between 1647-9. Only three are Leveller. A discussion of the relation between all of these may be found in J. W. Gough, 'The agreements of the people, 1647-1649', History, N. S., XV, 60. Mr. Gough was unaware that what he lists as the third agreement was composed by a private person, Lieut.-Col. John Jubbes, and should be supplemented here by Wolfe, Leveller manifestoes, 311-12, W. Schenk, op. cit., Appendix B.

5 The Agreement provided that the sitting Parliament should dissolve in August 1949.

6 This is Petty's explanation in the debates of the army council at Putney, A. S. P. Woodhouse, op. cit., 83.

7 At the Putney debates, Ibid., 109.

8 See above, Ch. II.

9Englands new chains discovered, First part, 1649 [3]. Lilburne referred to the officers' Agreement of the people, submitted by the army to the purged Parliament on 20th January 1649.

10A discourse betwixt Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburne … and Mr. Hugh Peter, 1649, 8.

11 In 1652, while exiled in Holland, Lilburne was in touch with various royalists on this basis; see Gibb, op. cit., 307-8.

12 The Leveller petition of September 1648 had asked that enclosures of fens and commons be laid open or enclosed solely for the benefit of the poor.

13Innocency and truth justified, 50.

14 See above, 39. Lilburne's position was repeated in the London Levellers' statement of 1653, The fundamental lawes and liberties of England claimed … by several peaceable persons … commonly called Levellers, 1653, 4.

15 See instances in E. Lipson, The economic history of England, 3 vols., 1929-31, II, 406-7, and M. James, Social problems and policy during the Puritan revolution 1640-1660, London, 1930, 90-106.

16A manifestation, 7.

17 Cf. E. Barker, Oliver Cromwell and the English people, Cambridge, 1937, 47-62.

18The fundamental lawes and liberties of England claimed … by several peaceable persons … commonly called Levellers, 6.

19Englands remembrancers, 4, 1-2.

20The parliaments plea, 13, 15-17, 21-2.

21The weekly post, 22nd-29th November 1659.

A. L. Morton (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Leveller Style," in The Matter of Britain: Essays in a Living Culture, pp. 73-82. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1966.

(In the essay that follows, Morton compares the writing styles of Leveller leaders John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walwyn, as exhibited in the many political pamphlets penned by each.]

Many of us, when we think of the pamphlet literature of the English Revolution, think first, and often think only, of the work of John Milton. This is natural, since Milton's place not only as a poet but as a master of polemical prose has long been established. Nevertheless it can lead us to a false estimate of the vast and rich pamphlet literature of the age, for Milton was as far from being unique as he was from being typical, and, if his work is a peak, it is a peak only of one range among several. It may also be said to be somewhat outside the main current of English prose. Milton was a classical scholar, as much at home in Latin as in English, and even his English prose reads most often like the magnificent translation of a magnificent original. In so far as he is typical, he is typical of the learned writers who wrote for a limited audience similarly endowed, and whose work is heavily larded with Latin, Greek and even Hebrew, and weighted down with allusions and quotations from all the literatures of Europe.

But meanwhile a new reading public and a new kind of writer was arising, men with little or no knowledge of any language but their own. In the twenty years between 1640 and 1660 these men came to the front, and thousands of their books, pamphlets and newssheets poured off the press. The Catalogue of Thomason Tracts, the great collection in the British Museum, which is yet very far from being complete, lists nearly 15,000 pamphlets from these years, of which certainly the majority are by writers of this vernacular type. Of all the popular pamphlets, those written on behalf of the Levellers are among the most brilliant as well as the most important.

The Levellers were the party of the most advanced revolutionary sections of the lower-middle class, the independent peasantry, the smaller tradesmen and artisans and perhaps the journeymen of the bigger cities. They drew support above all from the masses of London, then at least ten times the size of any other town in England, and from the army, Cromwell's New Model, the plain men who knew what they fought for and loved what they knew.' After the defeat of the Royalists in the Civil War the Levellers demanded a radical transformation of the political and social structure, and, in The Agreement of the People2 put forward the first comprehensive programme of bourgeois democracy, including manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, full guarantees of civil and religious liberty, abolition of all feudal privileges and the reform and simplification of the legal code. Such a programme was not realisable in the existing conditions and the Levellers were defeated, and, after the middle of 1649, declined rapidly in influence.

For several years, however, they had been at the centre of the revolutionary struggle, and one of the most important achievements of progressive historians in Britain and the U.S.A. during the past few decades has been a re-estimation of their role and importance and the reprinting of many of the host of superb pamphlets which they produced in the course of their campaigns.3 It so happened that three at least of the outstanding Leveller figures—John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn4—were also pamphleteers of the first order, each with a highly individual and strongly contrasting style of work. A hostile writer refers to one of their productions: A Manifestation from Lieutenant Col. John Lilburn, Mr. William Walwyn, Mr. Thomas Prince,and Mr. Richard Overton, (Now Prisoners in the Tower of London) And others, commonly (though unjustly) styled Levellers:—'whose devout, specious, meek, self-denying, soft and pleasant lips favours much of the sligh, cunning and close subtlety of … Mr. William Walwyn, who (as the Serpent that deceived our first Parents was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God made) is much more crafty than the rest of his bretheren, of whose curious spinning we have several reasons to presume this piece, for here is not the licentious provoking daringness of L.Col. Lilburns pen, nor yet the notorious profanness of Mr. Richard Overtons pen.15 Allowing for the obvious prejudice here displayed, this is a reasonably just and accurate comparison: from the point of view of an opponent these were their distinguishing features. What they did share, apart from their common social and political outlook, was their vernacular humanism. All three were educated, widely-read men who had not been through the traditional classical discipline of the universities, but had been apprenticed to trades in their middle teens and had henceforth completed their education in accordance with their own interests and needs. This, undoubtedly, was one of the main reasons for their closeness to and immediate influence over their audience, most of whom had a background closely similar.

Of the three Lilburne was as much the most significant as a political personality as he was the least gifted as a writer. 'Martyr, folk-hero and demagogue' as Professor Haller calls him,6 he dramatised his struggles and wrongs in a flood of words that poured from him without respite and often, it would seem, almost without reflection. His enemies were fond of describing him as a 'man of a turbulent spirit, alwayes opposing, striving, and flying in the faces of all authorities, restless, and never satisfied whoever is uppermost … and that therefore it is very requisite that I be taken off, and that otherwise England must never look to rest long in peace; yea, so turbulent, that if there were none in the world but John Lilburne, rather than want one to strive withall, forsooth, John would certainly quarrel with Lilburne.17 In all this there was some truth, but Lilburne was turbulent because he felt himself, as indeed he actually became, a symbolic figure. A pamphlet written in defence of his friend William Lamer is entitled Everymans Case: Lilburne felt everyman's case to be his own and his own everyman's: he was the representative of the whole body of the oppressed people demanding justice and the restoration of their stolen birth-right.

It is this which gave his writing its force and dignity, and at his best he could write with an unstrained simplicity, as when he subscribes himself, with neither boastfulness nor false modesty as: 'JOHN LILBURNE, that never yet changed his principles from better to worse, nor could never be threatened out of them, nor courted from them, that never feared the rich nor mighty, nor never despised the poor nor needy, but alwaies hath, and hopes by Gods goodness to continue, semper idem. I At times he uses homely, familiar ideas and images to drive home his point, and a rhetoric which moves because it springs from the heart:

But as the Water-men at Queen-hive doe usually cry, 'Westward hough, hough,' so according to the present current of the times, most honest men have more than cause to cry in the Water-mens language, 'AEgypt hough, hough, the house of Bondage, slavery, oppression, taxation, heavy and cruell, wee can no longer beare it, wee can no longer beare it, wee can no longer beare it, wee are as much provoked and forced to cast off all our yokes and crosses from our shoulders (except only that of Persecution) as ever any people or Nation, though no People or Nation under heaven have been more free, beneficiall and helpfull to those whom we intrusted to help and deliver us from Oppression, which saith the Wise-man, is enough to make wise men mad.19

Finally, in writing of his own experiences, or of current political happenings, he can maintain a clear narrative style which puts the course of events plainly before his readers. It was partly for these qualities, but above all for the sense of leadership and authority that runs through them, that his pamphlets were eagerly bought and read by the soldiers in the army and the common citizens of London, circulating in thousands, and sometimes in tens of thousands of copies.

Unfortunately, much of his writing falls woefully below these levels. There is a great deal of legalistic argument, overloaded with quotations and references to legal and theological authorities as well as to the Scriptures. In these passages the style becomes angry and involved: often a single sentence will run on for pages, till its beginning has been lost before the end is in sight. Yet, whether he is writing badly or well, it is always an unmistakable man who writes. Lilburne's style has always, like his character, something of the grandeur as well as a. little of the absurdity of a national monument.

If Lilburne was the born leader, the Tribune of the People, Richard Overton was the dedicated freelance, the exuberant individualist who finds both freedom and happiness in surrender to a great cause. Like most of the Leveller leaders he began his public career as a defender of religious liberty who progressed thence by inevitable stages to political radicalism. Among his earlier works was the brilliant tolerationist polemic, The Araignment of Mr. Persecution, from which there is good reason to think Bunyan may have borrowed something for the trial scene of The Pilgrim's Progress.

Overton's style could be almost as verbose as Lilburne's, but in an entirely different way and for quite other reasons. Where Lilburne's writing staggers under its own weight, Overton's rushes and soars, towering fantastically at one moment, falling into ruins the next. It has a quality of delighted swashbuckling which leads him always from defence to attack, rejoicing to find a gap in the opposing line of battle through which he can plunge. Something of this aggressive quality shows itself in the titles which Overton gave his pamphlets: A Defiance Against All Arbitrary Usurpations, An Arrow Against All Tyrants and Tyranny, shot into the Prerogative Bowels of the House of Lords, The Hunting of the Foxes … by five small Beagles (late of the Armie)'°, and The Baiting of the Great Bull of Bashan.11

When Overton was arrested in 1649 there was taken up with him a certain soldier of the house who was found in bed with his (the soldier's) wife and who was told that 'he must get a Certificate from his Captain that he was married to her'. This was enough to set Overton away in his happiest vein:

Friends and Country-men where are you now? What shall you do that have no Captains to give you Certificates? sure you must have the banes of Matrimony re-asked at the Conventicle of Gallants at White-hall, or at least you must thence have a Congregationall Licence, (without offence be it spoken to true Churches) to lie with your wives, else how shall your wives be chast or the children Legitimate? they have now taken Cognizance over your wives and beds, whether will they next? Judgement is now come into the hands of the armedfury Saints. My Masters have a care what you do, or how you look upon your wives, for the new-Saints Millitant are paramount to all Laws, King, Parliament, husbands, wives, beds &c.'2

Much more is involved here than high spirits. With the Levellers, revolutionary politics were, for the first time, bursting through the religious forms in which they had hitherto been veiled. The Calvinists had stood for the concentration of power in the hands of the godly minority, the elect, which, in practice, meant the prosperous bourgeoisie. The Levellers stood for the rights of man, for the conception of politics as a continuous activity of the whole nation. 'The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he', declared the Leveller Colonel Rainborough,13 and by the same token, the greatest sinner as the greatest saint. This meant that politics must be secularised, and it was because he stood most conspicuously and outspokenly for this that his enemies found in Overton's pen the 'notorious profanness' of which they complained. To them he replied in a passage that shows that pen at its best:

As I am in myself in respect to my own personall sins and transgressions; so I am to myself and to God and so I must give an account; the just must stand by his own faith; But as I am in relation to the Commonwealth, that all men have cognizance of, because it concerns their own particular lives.… So that the businesse is, not how great a sinner I am, but how faithfull and reall to the Common-wealth; that's the matter concerneth my neighbour, and whereof my neighbour is only in this publick Controversie to take notice; and for my personal sins that are not of Civil cognizance or wrong unto him, to leave them to God, whose judgement is righteous and just.14

And in his last known pamphlet, written from prison in July 1649, he turns the tables completely upon his critics and puts into the most popular language that humanist rejection of the dogma of original sin without which no democratic political philosophy is really possible:

Mirth to you is like a Shoulder of Mutton to a sick Horse.… And now (my tender friends) I pray tell me what spirit is this? 'tis afoul spirit, away with it for shame; go purge, goe purge; one penniworth of the Agreement of the people with a good resolution taken morning and evening will work out this corruption.…

Mirth sure is of Divine Instinct, and, I think I may boldly say more naturall than Melancholy, and lesse savours of the Curse. Nature in its Creation was pure and good, void of corruption or anything obnoxious or destructive: all misery and mischief came in with the fall … in which number you may reckon Melancholy … and 'tis the root of the root of all wickedness, Covetousnesse, for when have you seen a Melancholy man that's not covetous? and a covetous man seldom proves a good Commonwealths man; yet this ill Weed is gotten into so religious esteem that all our Religion is turned into Melancholy.15

It is not surprising that Overton (who was also suspect of Atheism) was hated by the 'new-Saints Millitant'. What does seem strange at first sight is that his comrade William Walwyn was even more hated and more unscrupulously maligned. While Lilburne was the popular leader and Overton the outrageous pamphleteer, Walwyn seems to have combined the roles of organiser and philosopher. He avoided notice as far as possible, was an able committee-man, an adept at the drafting and promotion of petitions and manifestoes, while almost all his numerous pamphlets appeared anonymously, though the authorship of many of them must have been widely known. Their titles are just as characteristic as those chosen by Overton, and illustrate very clearly the difference of method between the two men—The Power of Love, The Compassionate Samaritane, A Still and Soft Voice from the Scriptures, Walwyns Just Defence—what could appear less aggressive or more disarming? Yet these and similar works aroused in Presbyterians and Independents alike a frenzy of rage both on account of their political and theological implications and because the smooth texture of their argument afforded so little with which an opponent could come to grips.

Like Lilburne and Overton Walwyn became a wholehearted advocate of religious toleration. But his demand for toleration did not, like that of most tolerationists of his time, spring from a desire that his own sect should be tolerated, but from a detachment then rare. Often one can sense him passing tacitly from the position that all forms of religion are good to the position that none are very good after all. Thus he can write:

I blush not to say, I have long been accustomed to read Montaigns Essaies.… And in his twentieth Chapter, pag:102, he saies, speaking of the Cannibals, the very words that import lying, falshood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them.

These, and the like flowers, I think it lawfull to gather out of his Wildernesse, and to give them room in my Garden; yet this worthy Montaign was but a Romish Catholique: yet to observe with what contentment and full swoln joy he recites these cogitations, is wonderfull to consideration: And now what shall I say; Go to this honest Papist, or to these innocent Cannibals, ye Independent Churches, to learn civility, humanity, simplicity of heart; yea, charity and Christianity.16

He seems to have belonged to no sect, and if he had any marked leaning it was towards such quietist, non-institutional groups as the Familists or Seekers, though he denies belonging to either of these.17 In The Power of Love he argues not mlerely that all men may be saved if they will, but, from the Calvinist standpoint, much more dangerously, that none will be damned, a doctrine with the most explosive political implications.

His practice appears to have been to go from Church to Church with his friends, hearing and afterwards criticising the sermons. This in itself would be regarded by the Ministers as a scandalous presumption on the part of a layman without a classical, university training. Walwyn's offence became greater when he elaborated a theoretical justification, advising the common man to trust to his own reason:

He that bade us try all things, and hold fast that which was good, did suppose that men have faculties and abilities wherewithall to try all things, or else the counsell had been given in vaine. And therefore however the Minister may by reason of his continuall exercise in preaching, and discoursing, by his skill in Arts and Languages, by the conceit of the esteeme he hath with a great part of admiring people … presume it easie to possesse us, that they are more divine than other men (as they style themselves) yet if the people would but take boldnes to themselves and not distrust their owne understandings, they would soon find that use and experience is the only difference, and that all necessary knowledge is easie to be had, and by themselves acquirable.18

He indulged freely in argument, and would infuriate the orthodox by such a question as 'How can you prove the Scriptures to be the Word of God?19 In politics his method was the same: every position was subjected to the test of reason and utility, every argument built upon first principles:

I carry with me in all places a Touch-stone that tryeth all things, and labours to hold nothing but what upon plain grounds appeareth good and useful: I abandon all nicities and uselesse things: my manner is in all disputes, reasonings and discourses, to enquire what is the use: and if I find it not very materiall, I abandon it, there are plain usefull doctrines sufficient to give peace to my mind, direction and comfort to my life: and to draw all men to a consideration of things evidently usefull, hath been a special cause that I have applied my selfe in a friendly manner unto all.20

Where Lilburne was accustomed to make his appeal to the supposed ancient laws of England, to Magna Carta and the legendary Saxon past, and Overton to a sturdy common sense, Walwyn would build upon what he regarded as the universal laws of nature. And he made his appeal in a personal, almost a confidential tone, and in a smooth, easy-running and civilised prose which stands almost alone in the seventeenth century. Many things about him are, and probably always will be, uncertain, since the fullest picture we have of him is drawn by his enemies, and many of their accusations against him, such as being an advocate of Communism, can neither be proved nor refuted. Walwyn replied to his attackers in a passage which shows that the art of the witch hunt, with all the refinements of the smear and the principle of guilt by association, has made but little advance since the seventeenth century:

If you observe any man to be of a publique and active spirit, (though he be no Independent or Separatist) he can never be friend to you in your work, and therefore you are to give him out, to be strongly suspected of whoredom, or drunkennesse, prophanenesse, an irreligious person … or say he is suspected to hold intelligence with Oxford,2' or anything no matter what, somewhat will be believed.…

If you see any such man but once talking with a Papist … you may give out that very honest men suspect him to be a Jesuit: if any one but demand of you or any other, how you can know the Scriptures to be the word of God, give it out for certain that he denieth them, or if any put questions concerning God of Christ, or the Trinity, you have more than enough to lay accusations upon them, that shall stick by them as long as they live.22

What we can at least say is that enough of Walwyn's own work remains to enable us to recognise a writer and thinker of exceptional boldness and originality, and a mind extraordinarily mature and civilised.

Further, and this is true of the Levellers as a whole and especially of the three I have been considering, they were civilised in a new way. Whatever their limitations, they had reached a conception of man and his place in society, of the role of persuasion and the power of the written and spoken word, that was more accurate, more nearly a reflection of objective reality, than any other group of their time in any country. They wrote effectively not merely because they were exceptionally gifted or technically well equipped, though this can fairly be claimed at least for Overton and Walwyn, but because they wrote with a purpose clearly understood and deeply felt, and for an audience which they knew to be close and immediately responsive. These badly printed pamphlets, often printed illegally on little backstreet presses, strike home today as they did three hundred years ago because they are warm, generous and candid, because their authors knew exactly what they wanted to say and went to their work without hesitation or doubt or any pretension to the grand style. They stand near the head of one of the great streams of English prose, the stream which later was to include such mighty figures as Bunyan, Defoe, Paine, Cobbett and Shaw. They can fairly claim to be the fathers of the tradition of plain English writing dedicated to the service of the plain man.


1 Carlyle: Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. Lomax, I, 154.

2 Four documents, differing in important respects, were issued under this name. Two are reprinted in Gardiner: Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution. All four are in Don M. Wolfe: Leveller Manifestoes.

3 The pamphlets of the Levellers are extremely rare and only survive in a few copies, sometimes a single copy, in great libraries. They were therefore virtually inaccessible till comparatively recently. In 1933 Prof. W. Haller published a number in Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution 1638-1647, 3 vols., Columbia University Press. More material was printed in Prof. A. S. P. Woodhouse's Puritanism and Liberty, Dent, London 1938. In 1944 there appeared The Leveller Tracts 1647-1653, ed. by W. Haller and Godfrey Davies, Columbia University Press, and Leveller Manifestoes, ed. Don M. Wolfe, Nelson. These volumes taken together provide an adequate selection from the works of the most important Leveller pamphleteers.

4 Other Leveller writers, whom it is not possible to discuss here, include John Wildman, Thomas Prince and Samuel Chidley.

5Walwins Wiles, p. 2.

6 Haller: Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution, p. 262.

7 Lilburne: The Just Defence of John Lilburne, pp. 1-2.

8 Lilburne and others: The Picture of the Councel of State, p. 23.

9 Lilburne: England's Birth-Right Justified, pp. 43-4.

10 The Foxes are Cromwell, Ireton, etc. The Beagles, five troopers who had been cashiered from the Army for opposing them.

11 Satirists at this time were fond of alluding to Cromwell as a bull. For example A Hue and Cry after Cromwell, published only a week later than Overton's pamphlet, says: 'He was brought up in the Isle of Ely, where for his agility of body he was called the Townbull; which made his Parents keep him for a Breeder, and not accustome him to the Yoak.'

12The Picture of the Councel of State, p. 31.

13 Woodhouse: Puritanism and Liberty, p. 53.

14The Picture of the Councel of State, p. 44.

15The Baiting of the Great Bull of Bashan, pp. 3-4.

16Walwyns Just Defence, pp. 10-11.

17 Thomas Edwards: The Second Part of Gangraena, p. 25. Walwyn: A Whisper in the Eare of Mr. Thomas Edwards, pp. 6-7.

18The Compassionate Samaritane, pp. 25-6.

19Walwins Wiles, p. 5.

20A Whisper, p. 6.

21 Oxford was at this time the headquarters of the Royalists.

22 Walwyn: An Antidote to Master Edwards His Old and New Poyson, pp. 8-9.

Richard A. Gleissner (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Levellers and Natural Law: The Putney Debates of 1647," in The Journal of British Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1, Fall 1980, pp. 74-89.

[In the following essay, Gleissner investigates the Levellers' understanding and application of the concept of natural law to their political agenda. Gleissner examines in particular the way this topic was addressed at the 1647 debates in Putney between Leveller leaders and key figures in the New Model Army, including Oliver Cromwell.]

Natural law is one of the oldest concepts in Western philosophy. When the Psalmist asked Yahweh, "What is man that Thou art mindful of him," he was struggling with the same problem that occupied thoughtful men in Greece: the need to understand man as he is and in his potentiality. Unlike the unknown Biblical poet, however, Plato and Aristotle found an answer with the aid of reason rather than revelation. For them, man is an entity in process of becoming, possessing an essential, cognizable nature that gives rise to certain inclinations he must fulfill. Until the Enlightenment, the idea of man's nature and his need to realize it served as the focus of much of secular thought, out of which developed principles of government and a distinctive ethic. But ordinary people were touched only by the practical consequences of such things. The great law codes and the teachings of the church combined with philosophy to work out the individual's relationship to others according to a teleological conception of law rooted in the very nature of things. Understandably, the ontological theses and conclusions drawn from the theory of natural law remained irrelevant and unknown to common folk.

In the midst of the English Civil War, the concept appeared in the welter of disputes and conflicting plans for the revitalization of all aspects of English life, invoked by ordinary men who were neither philosophers nor theologians, neither jurists nor statesmen. This paper considers the use of natural law by one group, the Levellers, at a dramatic moment in the turbulent period following the king's imprisonment. It seeks to relate the Levellers' understanding of the concept to the traditional teaching about it, rather than to what one historian refers to as that later age when "Eternal Reason, autonomous and untrammeled, would hail every aspect of life to judgment at its bar and reduce to rubble the sanctuaries which the past had regarded with awe."1

Historians have generally recognized the importance of natural law to Leveller political attitudes and objectives, but have not established the connection between those attitudes and the fundamental precepts of the classical theory of the law. Thus, Joseph Frank has sketched the historical development of the concept, and showed how some, including the Levellers, accepted the idea that Magna Carta somehow "defined for England the actual meaning of a law of nature." H.N. Brailsford recalled that throughout history efforts have been made to give the law "an objective meaning," but they always ended in failure, so that when Levellers and others thought they had identified the exact content of the law they actually moved away from what Frank called the "protean and traditional idea of a law of nature." William Haller characterized as "unprecedented" the fact that the Levellers spoke and acted according to a definite "conception of the law of nature and the state which they had come to accept as truth." When considering the process by which John Lilburne adopted natural law theory, Haller named Christopher Saint-Germain, Henry Parker, and Sir Edward Coke as primary influences on him while at the same time causing him to confuse the divine law with the natural. Brian Manning has disputed this explanation, arguing instead on behalf of William Walwyn as both the source of Lilburne's belief in natural law and of his and other Levellers' confusion about the differences between divine and natural laws.2

By far the main concern of scholars has been to show the way that natural law fit into Leveller political philosophy as a whole, rather than to investigate how that philosophy may have arisen from the assumptions about man that have been historically associated with the theory. Theodore Pease, for example, explained how Leveller citation of natural law accorded with ideas about social compact and covenant, while Haller and Davies specifically disallowed the notion that the "abstract dialectical force" of the theory made any impression on the Levellers. What convinced the latter to employ natural law arguments was the presumption that the law sprang "directly from common belief and experience" and answered "immediately to common need." Speaking of the "very positive political program" of the Levellers, Austin Woolrych described it as being "largely secular" whereby they "sought to harness religious radicalism to political radicalism," such as in the case of Lilburne's claim that "all men were born to equal natural rights upon the assumption that God had bestowed sovereignty over all the rest of his creatures upon Adam and Eve."3 The idea of natural rights is an especially prominent one in Leveller historiography and no more so than in C.B. MacPherson's work. MacPherson was interested in associating Leveller ideology to what he called possessive individualism, a theory of rights that he discovers emergent in the seventeenth century and responsible for subverting "Christian natural law tradition." Hence, he preferred comparing Lilburne and Richard Overton to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and not at all to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Richard Hooker.4 In sum, while historians have admitted that the concept of the law of nature played a remarkable role in Leveller thought, none has lifted that role from the limitations of time and place and situated it in the mainstream of realist philosophy. An analysis of the Putney debates offers an invaluable insight into the Levellers' perception of man and the world, a perception that depended in a fundamental way upon teachings older than the ones Hobbes or even Walwyn or Parker offered to Englishmen; indeed, the Levellers drew from principles and precepts as old as Western philosophy and that originated in the writings of Plato and Aristotle and passed to the Levellers from Thomas Aquinas and Hooker.

When Sir Thomas Fairfax, commander-in-chief of the New Model Army, summoned the General Council of Officers to meet in Putney in late October 1647 and debate certain important issues, he did so amid growing dissension in several regiments. Radicals among officers and men had recently denounced the general council for negotiating a political settlement with King Charles I that included the latter's restoration, though with severe restrictions to be placed on the royal prerogative. Under the direction of Lt. General Oliver Cromwell, the second-in-command, and Commissary General Henry Ireton, his son-in-law, the talks proceeded with the clear intention of preserving the social order in England much as it had existed before the Civil War. But the radicals, or Levellers, wanted no part of Charles and demanded significant constitutional reform.

In a lengthy statement expressing their opposition to the negotiations, The Case of the Army, the Levellers had proposed a number of fundamental changes, perhaps the most revolutionary being the enfranchisement of all freeborn Englishmen over the age of twenty-one who were not servants, and regardless of property holdings. On the very eve of the meeting of the general council they drew up a more formal set of demands styled "An Agreement of the People," but which contained, for some reason, only an ambiguous reference to universal freeborn suffrage.5 Whether they adopted a more circumspect attitude toward specific reforms in the Agreement for tactical reasons or because they genuinely meant to be conciliatory, nonetheless the Levellers' vocal opposition to any discussions with the king seriously jeopardized the discipline and internal unity of the Army.

The principal radical spokesmen in the debates were Colonel Thomas Rainborough, a member of parliament, and John Wildman, a young attorney who may have been the author of The Case of the Army.6 Though neither was an especially profound thinker, both were obviously well educated, intelligent, and sensitive to the intellectual environment of the day. That they were also comfortable with ideas is reflected in Wildman's protest at one point in debate, "I could wish we should have recourse to principles and maxims of just government [instead of arguments of safety], which are as loose as can be."7 Moreover, they were fully acquainted with the component theses of the classical theory of natural law and able to apply them to their own particular situation.

Although in the course of the debates, Rainborough and Wildman did not expressly define the ontological and ethical theses of which the theory consisted, enough was said by them to indicate the extent of their understanding. In sum, they presumed (1) that all men share an essential structure that determines certain fundamental human inclinations or tendencies; (2) that the good for all men is the realization or fulfillment of these inclinations; (3) that norms or moral laws are derived from man's nature and his efforts to achieve authentic fulfillment.' From these premises, they went on to argue for full participation in government of all freemen—even the propertyless—as a matter of justice, whereas Cromwell and Ireton continued to uphold the practical necessity of reserving the exercise of political authority to men of "permanent fixed interest" in the kingdom in order to assure internal stability and peace. On the one hand, therefore, the Levellers approached the question of a constitutional settlement, at least in part, as an ethical or moral one; on the other hand, conservatives treated it for the moment as a simple problem of making minor adjustments to established institutions, divorced from any larger considerations.

Radical interest in the concept of natural law had been evident for some time. Increasingly, men such as Overton and Lilburne invoked it in the presentation of their program for reform and in their criticism of parliament. Overton, for example, located the power of all governments in natural law and the rights of men rooted in that law. In An Arrow Against All Tyrants, published almost exactly a year before the debates, he warned the House of Lords that by this alone "are you instated into your sovereign capacity, for the free people of this nation, for their better being, discipline, government, propriety and safety, have each of them communicated so much unto you (their Chosen Ones) of their natural rights and powers, that you may become their … lawful deputies, but no more." To every person, he wrote, "is given an individual property by nature, not to be invaded, or usurped by any; for every one as he is himself, so he hath a self propriety, else could he not be himself, and on this no second may presume to deprive any of, without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature."9

Writing from the Tower of London in 1646, where he had been sent for denouncing parliament, Lilburne declared that "God, creating men for his own praise … made him [sic] not lord, or gave him dominion over the individuals of mankind, no further than by free consent, or agreement, by giving up their power, each to other, for their better being." Nature, he said, had engraved on the soul of man "this golden and everlasting principle, to do to another, as he would have another to do to him."10

That the concept of a law of nature was readily adopted by the radicals reflects its continued importance to thoughtful men of the seventeenth century. Joseph Frank calls it the "chief theoretical link" between the Levellers and the Renaissance. He says that they were attracted to the concept's "potentially utopian tradition" that had produced, in turn, a belief "that the doctrines of the common law judges had put on record various definite and basic rules about man's relationship to man."" Yet if natural law served as a bridge, the works of men like Richard Hooker and George Buchanan must have contributed something to the connection, for Hooker in particular did more than any late Renaissance thinker to establish the theory in the center of seventeenth-century English political philosophy.

There are echoes of Hooker's The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in these quotations of Overton and Lilburne. Despite the apparent references to a social contract as the root of government, the emphasis that both placed on the consensual element in the origins of government bears a close resemblance to Hooker's. In Book One of the Ecclesiastical Polity, for instance, he explained that men's "strifes and troubles would be endless, except they gave their common consent all to be ordered by some whom they should agree upon." He added that "without which consent there were no reason that one man should take upon him to be lord or judge over another."12 W.D.J. Cargill Thompson has recently pointed out that although Hooker's views "undoubtedly foreshadowed those of the seventeenth-century social contract theorists, the idea of contract … plays no part in his thought, and it is, in fact entirely alien to his political philosophy."13

The words "better being" used by Overton and Lilburne clearly expressed Leveller faith in the distinctive view of man taught by all the great natural law philosophers from the Greeks to Hooker. The words signified something other than physical safety or a more comfortable existence or freedom from arbitrary or repressive laws. They referred to the potency of human nature, to the thrust toward existential fulfillment shared by all men, an idea first developed by Plato and Aristotle.14 Hooker observed, "All other things besides [God] are somewhat in possibility which as yet they are not in act. And for this cause there is in all things an appetite or desire whereby they incline to something which they may be."15 "Better being" was equivalent to the notion of incipient tendency produced by nature itself. Indeed, the idea of an inherent thrust toward authentic realization of human nature occurred again and again in the writings of Levellers. In another tract written in 1646, titled A Defiance Against All Arbitrary Usurpations, Overton had stated, "Nature itself doth bind every man to do according to his power."16 The radicals in several regiments wrote in a letter to Fairfax forwarding The Case of the Army, "God hath given no man a talent to be wrapped up in a napkin & not improved; but the meanest vassal in the eye of the Lord is equally obliged and accounted to God with the greatest prince or commander under the sun, in and for the use of that talent betrusted to him."17 Though this obviously referred to the parousia-parable of the talents found in the gospels of Matthew (25,14-30) and Luke (19,12-27), the radicals had not cited it because of any expectation of the imminent second coming of Christ. Rather, several times in the letter they alluded to obligations arising from man's very nature, "written naturally by the finger of God in our hearts," grounded in the "very dictates of Divinity, Nature and Reason ingraven in our hearts." Overton had concluded An Arrow by stating that "by nature we are sons of Adam, and from him have legitimately derived a natural propriety, right and freedom.… It is but the just rights and prerogatives of mankind (whereunto the people of England are heirs apparent, as well as other nations) which we desire … that we may be men, and live like men."18

In such fashion did the Levellers define their belief that by nature all men tend toward completion. That they did not speak or write with the precision of Aristotle or Hooker need not surprise us since they were not, after all, philosophers. Nonetheless, they consciously appropriated the various theses of natural law philosophy, such as that of human inclination, incorporating them into their programs and adverting to them in argument so that they provided the Levellers with an encompassing perspective of the human condition in general and the particular situation facing all Englishmen at that moment.

Although all of the participants in the Putney debates assumed that divine law was normative in character, scarcely any mention was made of it by the radicals.19 On the other hand, the Levellers' insistence that norms of equal authority were rooted in the law of nature became a pivotal issue. While the speeches of radicals and conservatives ranged far beyond it, the question always hovered within reach: did moral conduct for the citizen or subject rest solely upon the definition of positive law, or did it derive from the very nature of man? Cromwell first drew attention to possible conflict between positive and natural law. At the beginning of the debate on October 28, while giving generous credit to the sincerity of the Levellers in drafting the Agreement, he suggested that implementation of that document would pose insurmountable political obstacles and would violate the original "engagement" of the army for fighting the king. "He that departs from that that is a real engagement and a real tie upon him," he said, "I think he transgresses without faith; for faith will bear up a man in every honest obligation."20

Wildman immediately objected, saying the point was whether the "engagement were honest and just or no." If it were not, "it doth not oblige the persons [even] if it be an oath itself." Later, he criticized those who "look to prophecies" as the key to determining the morality of actions, and those who "judge the justness of a thing by the consequences." Right and wrong for him depended on neither of these. Rainborough said that everyone was bound "to God and his conscience" to refuse to do evil, thus alluding to an objective source of morality available to all men.21

Ireton would have none of this. Not overly concerned about ethical considerations except in so far as they served the interests of the property holding classes, nor especially disturbed by any conflict between the army's original engagement and the Agreement, he denied that justice and honesty were a vital part of the differences between the Levellers and the council. What was of paramount importance, according to him, was the matter of obedience to lawfully constituted authority, and the radicals' suggestion that anything could excuse a man from absolute subordination to it. Speaking of the subject's duty to obey his governors, he said, "Yet, if I have engaged that they shall bind me by law, though afterwards I find they do require me to [do] a thing that is not just or honest, I am bound so far to my engagement that I must submit and suffer, though I cannot act and do that which their laws do impose upon me." Whether or not he meant that through passive disobedience a man must bear the consequences imposed by civil law, nonetheless he maintained that anything less than absolute obedience "will take away all commonwealths."22 From this principle he mounted his attack on the Levellers, insisting that to admit the prescriptive rule of a law of nature would threaten order and stability and in particular property rights.

To refer to justice and honesty as Wildman had, that is, as superior moral criteria for judging agreements among men, struck Ireton as the very source of societal dissolution. "Men of this principle," he declared, "would think themselves as little as may be [obliged by any law] if in their apprehensions it be not a good law. I think they would think themselves as little obliged … of standing to that authority that is proposed in this paper [that is, the Agreement]." Underlying his words was an admission that government did indeed result from the voluntary consent of the governed; but for him the consensual act was a once-for-all thing giving governments both independence from the people as well as perpetual tenure. "Covenants freely made, freely entered into, must be kept one with another." He agreed with the Levellers "that if a man have engaged himself to a thing that is not just—to a thing that is evil—that is sin if he do it," such a man is not bound to carry out his promise. He did not or would not, however, see, as the Levellers did, that a man could engage himself for a just and honest purpose and later be confronted by that which was unjust and dishonest, and therefore must not act contrary to those norms rooted in his very nature. "But when we talk of just," said Ireton, "it is not so much of what is sinful before God … [but] of what is just according to the foundation of justice between man and man. And for my part I account that the great foundation of justice [is] that we should keep convenant one with another, without which I know nothing of justice betwixt man and man."23

Hence, Ireton assumed that covenant establishing government, being good in itself, ever after required the abject submission of the participants. This alone guaranteed justice and righteousness, for there could be "no other foundation of right … but this general justice and this general ground of righteousness, that we should keep covenant one with another." Relating this to his chief concern, he said, "I would very fain know what you gentlemen, or any other, do account the right you have to anything in England—anything of estate, land or goods that you have.… What right hath any man to anything if you lay not [down] that principle that we are to keep covenant?"24

Wildman had argued in effect that to do that which was unjust or dishonest even within the context of government by consent violated morality. But Ireton rejected that view, as well as its justification, which he understood to be natural law. He did not believe that the latter could coexist with positive law, that is, as imposing obligations on a man apart from civil law, without jeopardizing property rights. "If you will resort only to the law of nature," he warned, "by the law of nature you have no more right to this land, or anything else, than I have. I have as much right to take hold of anything that is for my sustenance, take hold of anything that I have a desire to for my satis-faction, as you." Only positive law, the product of government by consent and enjoying perpetuity, could protect property and ensure peace among men. What one man "may claim by the law of nature, of taking my goods, that which makes it mine really and civilly, is the law." Conversely, that which makes it unlawful for a man to take another's goods "originally and radically is only this: because that man is in covenant with me to live together in peace … and not to meddle with that which another is possessed of, but that each of us should enjoy, and make use of, and dispose of, that which by the course of law is in his possession, and [another] shall not by violence take it away from him."25

Interesting parallels exist between Ireton's position and Thomas Hobbes' in the matter of permanency of government by consent, and the absolute need to perform contracts. Whether Ireton had read Hobbes cannot be proved and it may be there was no more than a coincidental agreement between his ideas and those contained in The Elements of Law (1640) and De Cive (1642). Still, it is useful to compare the two in order to further underscore the differences separating conservatives like the Commissary and the Levellers, and to show the presence of ideas in midcentury in England at variance with the traditional teachings about natural law.

Hobbes believed in the "inevitability of conflict in the desires and actions of men and argues the necessity of imposing order by human contrivance." Thus, although "earlier writers had posited a hierarchy of values, Hobbes asserts a single goal, self-preservation, which man shares with all living beings."26 Because of the unitary end of man and the condition of warfare that subsists in a state of nature, government becomes imperative for human survival. The actual origins of government are located in the "compacts which each single citizen or subject mutually makes with the other; but all contracts, as they receive their force from the contractors, so by their consent they lose it again and are broken.27 Hobbes did not think that these compacts could ever be broken, however, because "it is not to be imagined that ever it will happen, that all the subjects together … will combine against the supreme power [of governors]."28 As for a single citizen who dissents from the compact, "since it is supposed that each one hath obliged himself to each other, if any one of them shall refuse, whatsoever the rest shall agree to do, he is bound notwithstanding."29

Ireton's insistence on the performance of obligations under the original compact entirely accorded with this. The point of his arguments in the debates was that Leveller demands for reform of the constitution contradicted the permanence of the compact, and the purposes of government to safeguard peace and property. Hobbes, however, went further in De Cive by calling all actions that "violate covenants and betrothed faith" treason.30 Though Ireton carefully refrained from any accusation of treachery on the radicals' part, he obviously suspected them of plotting mischief at the expense of property holders. Certainly he shared Hobbes' fundamentally pessimistic appraisal of human nature and the need to subordinate the lower classes to superior political force capable of circumscribing their violent temperaments. Without that, property rights would be vulnerable.

Unlike Hobbes, Ireton did not invoke natural law in defense of the status quo or as an adjunct to civil law in controlling society. Indeed, he misunderstood the idea of a law of nature and of rights inherent in human nature. Nor did he recognize the Hobbesian version of natural law as rational conclusions drawn from an essentially negative evaluation of man. Hobbes' use of the concept had nothing to do with the teachings of Hooker, Aquinas, Aristotle, and Plato. For Hooker, "whose view carried immense authority in the seventeenth century, the laws of nature are the laws eternal originating 'in the bosom of God' self-evident and hence known to all reasonable men, and providing the foundation upon which positive civil law rests." But for Hobbes, "they are theorems of conduct for the ordering of men's lives in a commonwealth so as to ensure civil peace."3' They were merely "the instrumental and hypothetical rules of reason regarding the best means to self-preservation."32 Yet Ireton saw them as being even less important. To him natural law was neither normative in Hooker's sense, nor rational in Hobbes'. His references to such a law in debate suggest that he identified it with absence of government, anarchy, and destruction of property. The "great foundation of justice" to which he referred consisted entirely of human recognition of the inviolability of covenants. Simple, narrow, and leaving no room for change or modification of social and political institutions, the Commissary's political principles doubted man's ability to achieve any fulfillment except in the most selfish respect, and one that would utterly ruin order in a community painfully retrieved from savagery.

Rainborough and Wildman countered Ireton's position by denying that natural law threatened property anymore than it threatened peace and stability in the community. There could be no conflict between it and positive law except in so far as the state violated the law of nature. Rainborough dismissed all concerns about property rights by reminding his audience, "God hath set down … this law of his, Thou shalt not steal."33 Wildman preferred answering Ireton by showing the inconsistency of the Commissary's principles with the army's public stance that it "stood upon such principles of right and freedom, and the laws of nature and nations, whereby men were to preserve themselves though the persons to whom authority belonged should fail in it." He said that if "anything tends to the destruction of a people, because the thing is absolutely unjust, that tends to their destruction, they may preserve themselves by opposing it."34

But Wildman was not simply referring to physical destruction. A careful reading of his remarks indicates that he thought of destruction in a much broader sense, namely, of an act of injustice perpetrated by government that limited men in their pursuit of their natural end. It was because of injustice of this sort that the Levellers believed the war had been fought, and because of it they would have nothing further to do with the king, "him that intended our bondage and brought a cruel war upon us."35

Fearful of a repetition of the kind of oppressive government they identified with Charles I, the Levellers felt that the problem of abuse of power had greater immediacy than the conservatives' preoccupation with property rights. To the radicals, enfranchisement of all freemen seemed the best way of preventing such abuse. Only by that means would government truly respond to the needs of the people and their search for "better being." Only through enfranchisement would consent of the governed become a reality, instead of a constitutional fiction, and the original agreement of people to establish government become self-renewing. Always, however, the Levellers' purpose was to protect the individual's right to live a more fully human existence without hindrance. "I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he," was the way Rainborough put it.36

Of course Ireton opposed enfranchisement, and although the Levellers did not openly lay claim to the suffrage by natural law, he believed they defended it on that basis. "Since you cannot plead to it," he said, "by anything but the law of nature … for the end of better being, and that better being is not certain … upon these grounds, if you do … hold up this law of nature, I would fain have any man show me their bounds?" To conservatives, the "fundamental constitution" of the kingdom not only bestowed and protected property rights but justly linked them to the exercise of political authority. Such men "comprehend the local interest of this kingdom, that is, the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies"; they were the guarantors of peace and stability.37

In spite of Ireton's assertion otherwise, it was too questionable a proposition to defend the right to vote as being rooted in natural law, and the Levellers did not do so. However, they seem to have concluded that the exclusion of great numbers of persons from parliamentary elections simply because they lacked a certain amount of land was, indeed, a violation of the law. Since government resulted from the voluntary consent of the people, the Levellers argued that it was wrong to deprive them of a voice in elections.38 Moreover, property qualifications were but another example of a willful class of men who controlled the reins of power defining rights and exacting obedience from the poor to laws that said what constituted justice and injustice. In what seems to be a confused reference to the notion of men in a state of nature, a radical officer said that if "we were to begin a government," according to the conservatives only those who possessed the equivalent of a forty-shilling estate would be allowed to vote, whereas previously "every man had such a choice." Though he might also have been alluding to a utopian and romantic interpretation of life in pre-Conquest England popular among some Levellers, still he clearly meant to underscore the equality of persons in establishing government, and the unfair laws written thereafter making the majority of people "hewers of wood and drawers of water."39

The radicals also believed that participation of all freemen in government was in accord with man's natural tendency toward existential completion. One Leveller (designated Buff-Coat in the transcript) said, "But I understand that all these debates, if we shall agree upon any one thing, this is our freedom; this is our liberty; this liberty and freedom we are debarred of." Each man was born free and sought "by natural instinct … his safety and weale."40 That they did so in communion with one another was due both to the frailty of man and to a natural need for the society of others. Hooker had written that men "covet" fellowship and society. Because of "mutual grievances, injuries, and wrongs," men realized "there was no way but only by growing unto composition and agreement amongst themselves, by ordaining some kind of government public, and by yielding themselves subject thereunto." Hooker recalled that in the opinion of "some very great and judicious men" a kind of natural right reposed in the "noble, wise and virtuous" to govern the masses of "servile" disposition. Though the Levellers did not admit the existence of such a right, nevertheless they agreed with Hooker's conclusion that "for manifestation of this their right, and men's more peaceable contentment on both sides, the assent of them who are to be governed seemeth necessary.""41

Arguing that government's "chief end … is to preserve persons as well as estates," the Levellers took for granted that the individual was more valuable than property. Hence, "every man born in England cannot, ought not, neither by the law of God nor the law of nature, to be exempted from the choice of those who are to make laws for him to live under, and for him … to lose his life under."42 In The Case of the Army, the radicals had charged their officers with faithlessness toward the people by failing to abide by promises "to stand for the national interest, freedoms and rights," and by ignoring the law of nature and nations. Everyone, Wildman declared, "hath as clear a right to elect his representatives as the greatest person in England." That, he said, was "the undeniable maxim of government: that all government is in the free consent of the people." To continue the traditional distribution of power would be acquiescence in a state of slavery stretching back to the Normans.43

Rainborough bitterly criticized a system whereby a lord could choose twenty burgesses and a gentlemen only two, whereas "a poor man shall choose none." He said that he found no reason or justification for this practice in natural law or the law of nations, but that it existed only according to English civil law. Thereby, an ordinary Englishman "must lose that which God and nature hath given him," that is, the right to consent to positive law or withhold his consent.44

The teleological view of man shared by the Levellers necessitated their emphatic demand for an extension of the franchise to all freemen. As a rational creature, man was capable of recognizing his own incompletion and his need to become more truly himself, to "perform his function well," as Aristotle put it.45 As a rational being, too, he had recognized his need for the association of others and of providing for government as a means of reaching fulfillment. But if he was responsible for creating government for his own needs, he was also capable of sharing in the governing process, and it did not matter how much land he owned or how much tax he paid annually. What mattered was the fact that a government's purposes were directly tied to his natural well-being, that laws derived their justice from the extent to which they encouraged and contributed to his natural end. Therefore, the power to select his governors was not only logically implied but in strict accord with the origins of government and its ends. "We are now engaged for our freedom," Wildman said; "that's the end of parliaments [and] not to constitute what is already according to the just rules of [the old] government." Consequently, he said, the question before the council should be framed: "Whether any person can justly be bound by law who doth not give his consent that such persons shall make laws for him."" To that the radicals responded in the negative, whereas men like Ireton and Cromwell replied affirmatively.

Misunderstanding the concept of natural law, conservatives likewise misunderstood the intent of Leveller demands for constitutional reform. All they saw was a movement of the lower classes that imperiled the traditional social order and distribution of authority in the kingdom. Challenged, threatened, and profoundly fearful of the future if this defiance was not nipped, they offered counterarguments to the opposition's, thereby tacitly admitting that it was no longer sufficient for nobles and gentry to insist upon obedience to a given set of institutions and a political process merely because they claimed them to be right and proper and honored by time. Ireton might assert that while government originated in the voluntary agreement of the people, once the bargain was struck all men were bound to it and had to make the most of it; yet even he recognized the inadequacy of such a premise. So the conservatives had had to summon a complex set of ideas; power needed the support of reason to legitimize itself. It was not enough, however, because natural law philosophy allowed no room for the static conception of man and the world assumed by the conservatives' arguments. Although Ireton dismissed the radicals' concern for individual freedom as so much cant, Cromwell sensed in it something more ominous. "When every man shall come to this condition of mind," he said, "I think the state will come to desolation."47

The Levellers had no intention of despoiling property holders of their estates. Neither did they seek some kind of "permanent revolution" by which England would be cleansed or purged of the bondage they attributed to six hundred years of "Norman" rule.48 They did not feel the kind of blind anger and jealousy that Ireton and the conservatives suspected lurked in their hearts and minds. Rather, they found in the concept of the law of nature an explanation of the human condition and man's experience of himself that verified their own. The generations of nameless men and women in England who left slight record that they ever systematically questioned the historical social division of the kingdom or the constitution, or ever dreamed of enjoying a full and equitable share in government, suddenly intruded into the councils of the governing class through the voices of the Levellers. Speaking for the common folk, because they themselves were not far removed from the lower orders, the radicals gave expression to the human quest for something more than bare survival. They revealed that quite ordinary men reached out beyond themselves in a relentless pursuit of self-fulfillment, not to destroy other men or property or peace in the community, but to "live like men." In this too the Levellers contributed the initial effort in formulating that broad libertarian platform of the commonwealthmen so vital to a later generation of Americans.49 Whereas the Calvinism of the saints denied that man in his depravity ever sought the good from a natural desire or impetus, the radicals insisted that he did and discovered a cause for optimism about man in this very movement of his being. Natural law vindicated their hopefulness, acknowledging that the human entity's struggle to reach completion is finished when, in Aristotle's words, "it lacks no particle of its natural magnitude."50


1 Perez Zagorin, A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London, 1954), p. 29.

2 Joseph Frank, The Levellers, A History of the Writings of Three Seventeenth-Century Social Democrats: John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn (New York, 1955), pp. 5-7. H.N. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution, Christopher Hill (ed.) (Stanford, 1961), pp. 280-82. The Leveller Tracts, 1647-1653, William Haller and Godfrey Davies, (eds.) (Gloucester, 1964), pp. 8, 41-48. Brian Manning, "The Levellers and Christianity," in Politics, Religion and the English Civil War, Brian Manning (ed.) (New York, 1973), pp. 232-33.

3 Theodore C. Pease, The Leveller Movement (Washington, 1916), pp. 24, 46-47, 74-75, 84, 180-81, 358-59; Haller and Davies, p. 37; Austin Wollrych, "Puritanism, Politics and Society" in The English Revolution, 1600-1660, E.W. Ives (ed.) (New York, 1969), p. 96; see also Brian Manning, "The Levellers," pp. 144-57.

4 C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, (Oxford, 1962), pp. 1, 141-42, 154-56, 158-59. William Haller (ed.), Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution, 1638-1647, 3 vols. (New York, 1979), I, pp. 23-25, 111-14.

5The Case of the Army, in Haller and Davies, pp. 64-84. The first clause of the Agreement said, "That the people of England being at this day very unequally distributed by counties, cities and boroughs, for the election of their deputies in Parliament, ought to be more indifferently proportioned, according to the number of the inhabitants; the circumstances whereof, for number, place, and manner, are to be set down before the end of this present Parliament." G.E. Aylmer (ed.), The Levellers in the English Revolution (London, 1975), pp. 89-91 for the Agreement. Brailsford speculates that a forthright demand for universal suffrage in the Agreement "may have been omitted to appease the Grandees" on the general council, p. 261.

6 Shorthand notes of the debates were kept by Captain William Clarke, secretary to the general council and first published in C. H. Firth (ed.), The Clarke Papers, 4 vols. (London, 1891-1901), I, pp. 226-418; Frank, pp. 132, 309-10. Maurice Ashley, John Wildman (New Haven, 1947).

7Clarke Papers, p. 403.

8 See John Wild, Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law (Chicago, 1953) for a particularly cogent treatment of the realist theory of natural law, and Jacques Maritain, "Natural Law and Moral Law," in Challenges and Renewals, Joseph W. Evans and Leo R. Ward (eds.) (Notre Dame, 1966), pp. 213-28.

9 Richard Overton, An Arrow Against All Tyrants, in Aylmer, p. 69; Manning, "The Levellers," pp. 150-56; John Dykstra Eusden, Puritans, Lawyers, and Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven, 1958), pp. 126-41.

10 John Lilburne, A Postscript, in Aylmer, p. 71. Leo F. Solt, Saints in Arms, Puritanism and Democracy in Cromwell's Army (Oxford, 1959), pp. 80-82.

11 Frank, p. 6. He also says, "In contradistinction to Calvinism, the orientation of such a belief [in natural law] was, on the whole, political rather than religious, its initial impact synthetic rather than disintegrative." For additional discussion of the relationship of natural law to Calvinism, see Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (New York, 1969), pp. 31-32, 35-36, 154.

12 Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book I, Chapter X, 4 in The Works of Mr. Richard Hooker, John Keble (ed.), 3 vols. (London, 1888), I, pp. 241-42.

13 W. D. J. Cargill Thompson, "The Philosopher of the 'Politic Society'; Richard Hooker as a Political Thinker," in Studies in Richard Hooker: Essays Preliminary to an Edition of His Works, W. Speed Hill (ed.) (Cleveland, 1972), p. 43; E.T. Davies, The Political Ideas of Richard Hooker (New York, 1972), pp. 65-66, says that it is difficult to trace a coherent theory of the social contract in Hooker, and that "it is more correct to say that Hooker followed the Aritotelian conception of the 'natural' basis of society." Elsewhere he says that there "can be no doubt that the nearest approach in his writings to a definite basis for political authority lies in his teaching that the force of law is based on the consent of the governed." p. 69.

14 Examples of Plato's treatment of the subject may be found in Republic, 352a, 433a, 490a, 586c; Laws, 631b-e, 782d, 927b; Gorgias, 478, 499, 503. For Aristotle, see Physics, 192b, 198b; Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a, 1106a. D.B. Robertson, The Religious Foundations of Leveller Democracy (New York, 1951), pp. 53-61.

15 Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, I, p. 215.

16 Richard Overton, A Defiance Against All Arbitrary Usurpations, quoted in Frank, p. 88.

17A Copy of a Letter from the Agents of the Aforesaid Five Regiments of Horse, unto His Excellency Sir Thomas Fairfax, in Haller and Davies, p. 85.

18Ibid., pp. 85-86. The most authoritative recent discussion of the parable of the talents may be found in Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables (New York, 1966), pp. 45-50, which is an abridgement of the author's magisterial study The Parables of Jesus (New York, 1963). Overton, An Arrow, in Aylmer, p. 70. One may also cite again his statement that "every one as he is himself, so he hath a self propriety, else could he not be himself," as referring to the tendential character of man. On the natural inclination of man, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 94, Article 2 and 4 as an example of the treatment of this subject by the greatest of the medieval successors to Plato and Aristotle. In turn, Hooker leaned heavily upon the Thomistic development and exposition of natural law philosophy.

19 Pease, p. 217, says of the Levellers, "Like other men they could see in outward happenings evidence of divine approval of their work; but for guidance they ever looked to their principles and not to passing events. When contrasted in this respect with Cromwell and the Saints they are strangely modern."

20Clarke Papers, pp. 239-40. When possible I have used the updated version of the debates found in Charles Blitzer (ed.), The Commonwealth of England, Documents of the English Civil War (New York, 1963), pp. 49-51. See Cromwell's remark regarding the obstacles arising from the Agreement that it "does contain in it very great alterations of the very government of the kingdom.… There will be very great mountains in the way of this."

21Clarke Papers, pp. 240, 245, 317. Blitzer, pp. 52, 56. On the relationship of conscience to natural law as Aquinas confronted the problem, see Summa, Question 94, Article 1 and 2.

22Ibid., pp. 241-42. Manning, "The Levellers," p. 151.

23Ibid., pp. 242, 262, 263; Blitzer, pp. 53, 62-63. How far Ireton departed in his remarks from traditional notions of justice may be seen by comparing them with Cicero's comments in the Laws, Book I, Chapter XV: "But if justice is conformity to written laws and. national customs, and if… everything is to be tested by the standard of utility, then anyone who thinks it will be profitable to him will, if he is able, disregard and violate the laws. It follows that justice does not exist at all, if it does not exist in nature." Virtues, said Cicero, "originate in our natural inclination to love our fellow-men, and this is the foundation of justice." De Re Publica, De Legibus, Clinton W. Keyes (trans.) (Cambridge, Mass., 1928).

24Ibid., pp. 262, 263.

25Ibid., p. 263.

26 Paul E. Sigmund, Natural Law in Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), p. 80.

27 Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, in Bernard Gert (ed.), Man and Citizen (New York, 1972), VI, 20, p. 188. See also I, 2; I, 7; I, 9; I, 13; II, 3; III, 1.

28Ibid., p. 189; III, 1.

29Ibid. Hobbes added further emphasis to the need to obey covenants by citing sacred scripture in The Elements of Law: Natural and Politic, Ferdinand Tonnies, (ed.) (New York, 1969), I, 18, p. 96. See also De Cive, III, 1; III, 2.

30Ibid., XIV, 21, pp. 286-87.

31 Samuel I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-Century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Cambridge, 1969), p. 26. Wild, pp. 123-27. De Cive, I, 15; II, 1. The Elements of Law, I, 15, 1-2.

32 Sigmund, p. 77; Mintz, pp. 26-27. See the interesting contrast that was drawn by John Dewey between Hobbes and the Levellers in his essay, "The Motivation of Hobbes' Political Philosophy," in Ralph Ross, Herbert W. Schneider, Theodore Waldman, Thomas Hobbes In His Time (Minneapolis, 1974), p. 15.

33Clarke Papers, p. 309. Blitzer, p. 72. Less than twenty-five years earlier, Grotius had upheld the superiority of natural law over positive law in De iure belli ac pacis (1625) saying, "the civil law cannot ordain anything which the natural law prohibits, nor prohibit what that ordains." The Great Legal Philosophers: Selected Readings in Jurisprudence, Clarence Morris (ed.) (Philadelphia, 1959), pp. 94-95.

34Ibid., p. 260. Blitzer, p. 61. See A Declaration, or Representation … of the Army, for an example of the army's citation of natural law in a public pronouncement, Haller and Davies, pp. 52-63.

35 "Agreement," Aylmer, p. 91. One Leveller, Edward Sexby, summed up the radicals, mistrust of the king and the current negotiations with him when he said, "We have labored t6 please a King, and I think, except we go about to cut all our [own] throats, we shall not please him." Blitzer, p. 45.

36Clarke Papers, p. 301; Blitzer, p. 65.

37Ibid., pp. 302, 308; Blitzer, pp. 67, 71.

38 The argument along these lines recalls what Aquinas said in Question 90, Article 3 of the Summa: "A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good. Now to order anything to the common good, belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people. And therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people: Since in all other matters the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs." Treatise on Law (South Bend, n.d.), p. 8. See the third "Agreement of the People," Aylmer, p. 162, for a later assertion that the right to vote arose from the law of nature.

39Clarke Papers, pp. 312, 320. For a discussion of the idea of a golden age in Anglo-Saxon times, see Brailsford, pp. 129-30, and Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution, The English Revolution of the 17th Century (New York, 1967), Chapter 3. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (New York, 1975), pp. 158, 226, 272.

40Ibid., p. 243. Richard Overton, "An Appeal," in Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution, Don M. Wolfe (ed.) (New York, 1967), pp. 162-63.

41 Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, I, X, 4, pp. 241-42. His reference to "great and judicious men" was to Aristotle, Politics, III, iv. See also I, X, 1, p. 239 in Hooker.

42Clarke Papers, pp. 305, 320; Blitzer, p. 69. J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975), pp. 374-78, for a discussion of the debates from a different angle, especially the concern about property rights.

43The Case of the Army, Haller and Davies, p. 71; Clarke Papers, p. 318.

4Clarke Papers, pp. 304-05; Blitzer, pp. 68-69.

45 J.A.K. Thomson, The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics Translated (Baltimore, 1975), II, 1106; see also I, 1197.

46Clarke Papers, p. 318.

47Ibid., p. 370.

48 Rainborough protested that Ireton's purpose was to identify the Levellers with anarchy. He said men like the Commissary "not only yourselves believe that men are inclining to anarchy, but you would make all men believe that.… I wish you would not make the world believe that we are for anarchy." Ibid., pp. 308-09.

49 See the discussion of Leveller influence on later generations of English dissenting Whigs in Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman (New York, 1968), pp. 3-5, and the connections with the American Revolution in Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967).

50 Aristotle, Metaphysics, H. Tredennick (trans.) (Cambridge, Mass., 1933), V, xvi, 3a.


Principal Figures


Further Reading