From a series of pamphlets and newspapers, the English Levellers rained fire and brimstone on English authorities throughout the English Civil War. Not shy of criticizing king or parliament when the occasion demanded it, the Levellers were widely feared and condemned. Their name itself was pejorative, denoting a dangerous group of ideologues intent upon leveling social and economic differences. Despite being religious radicals, the Levellers were actually quite moderate in their religious aims. In stark contrast, their political demands were radical to the point of being revolutionary. What linked these two major planks of Leveller goals were the Levellers’ ideals. The right to choose one’s religion according to one’s conscience and the right to choose one’s government according to one’s reason both bespoke an idea of inalienable rights belonging to all men. From this radical concept of natural rights arose the entire Leveller programme.
As a group primarily comprised of religious radicals, the Levellers had a strong interest in obtaining some form of religious toleration. Many had personally witnessed religious persecution. Leveller leader John Lilburne was beaten, pilloried and imprisoned for his writings against the bishops (206). In the days of Kings James I and Charles I, thousands of Puritan dissidents fled persecution and settled in North America. Moreover, once Charles was defeated, the newly Presbyterian Parliament gave little sign of being more tolerant. William Walwyn’s “Toleration Justified” found the behavior of the Presbyterian clergy no better than that of the Anglican bishops (10). For the Levellers who were on balance quite religious, toleration was a major issue.
But religious tolerance as a concept was hardly a new concept. In Elizabethan England, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptists were all allowed some degree of freedom. Many Levellers, including Richard Overton (208), had connections to the Netherlands where Protestantism existed in forms ranging from Calvinism to Anabaptism. In France for more than forty years, the Edict of Nantes had provided legal protection for Protestants to worship in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation. James I may well have snapped, “No bishop, no king,” in a statement of the importance of a unified church in maintaining a unified kingdom, but Parliament had MPs who were Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Puritan. Tolerance was far from official doctrine, but England was in reality a place of many religious denominations, and tolerance, to some degree, was a daily reality.
Leveller goals regarding religion were straightforward. In “An Agreement of the Free People of England,” John Lilburne offers an itemized account of Leveller demands. Regarding religion, item ten stated: “That we do not empower or entrust or said Representatives to continue in force to make laws... to anything in or about matters of faith, religion or Gods worship (173).” They did not ask for the state to sanction their brand of Protestantism. All they asked for was a Parliament that would refrain from forcing the beliefs of others upon them.
This was not a radical goal. Their position was not new. Long before, when Puritans were tortured and branded by the Star Chamber, it was Presbyterians who bitterly denounced the imposition of Anglican bishops upon the men and women of England. But now times had changed. Scotch Presbyterians had invaded England, the king had been removed, and England was in the control of a Presbyterian Parliament. The Levellers’ were merely trying to prevent the Presbyterians, or any other religious group, from doing what the Presbyterians had opposed the Episcopalians for doing. Their goal indeed amounted to little more than the codification of the de facto religious freedom existing before the accession of the Stuarts.
Where the Levellers did depart from the day’s norms was their justification. In other places where tolerance was practiced, it was the means to an end, and not an end in itself. Unlike Henry IV of France, the Levellers did not turn to toleration as means of strengthening the state. Nor did they justify it simply as a matter of self-preservation. Rather they stated that religion was a matter of interpretation, and of individual choice. Walwyn, in “Toleration Justified and Persecution Condemned” comments: “I shall easily concur with them thus far: that the word of God is the touchstone that all opinions are to be examined by, and that the best is to be held fast. But now ‘who shall be the examiners?’ must needs be the question (12).” Leveller thinkers did not themselves propose to know the true interpretation of God’s word. Neither, however, did they see it reasonable for anyone else to make that determination for them.
Walwayn gives an answer to his own question: “...by allowing a just and contentful freedom to serve God without hypocrisy and according to the persuasion of conscience (9).” Walwyn’s call for a liberty of conscience is an acknowledgment that religion is in fact a private matter, subject not to state or external control, but to the conscience and reason of the individual. Walwyn suggests that coercive attempts to implement religion result not in holiness but hypocrisy, “… compulsion being the way to increase, not the number of religious converts, but of hypocrites (15).” Walwyn’s assertion stands counter to over a thousand years of church practice, and delegitimizes much of its authority.
Along with religious toleration, the other major Leveller concern was political equality. Levellers demanded an extension of voting rights and a cap on the length of parliament sessions. Speaking on behalf of Levellers in the New Model Army, Maximilien Petty announced, “We judge that all inhabitants who have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in the elections (103).” In “An Agreement,” the very first demand enumerated by John Lilburne was, “That the supreme authority of England… shall henceforth reside with a Representative of the people… in the choice of whom all men of the age of twenty-six and upwards shall have their choices… (170).” The placement of that demand as the first item in “An Agreement” was far from coincidental.
Universal manhood suffrage in the mid seventeenth century was an idea without parallel. Of all the major powers of Europe, only England had a government with a representative body in which persons other than nobles had a voice. In France, nobles and kings vied for power, but commoners had no power over decision-making. In Spain, Germany, Russia, and Poland, the story was much the same. It was the privileged few, and not the many, who determined the course of nations. Yet the Levellers’ pushed to make a body, already far more representative than any other in Europe, even more so. In responding to objections to Leveller proposals at Putney, Colonel Nathanael Rich admitted, “I confess there is weight in that objection of the Commissary-General last insisted upon; for you have five to one in this kingdom that have no permanent interest (115).” Leveller success would have increased the size of voter rolls by a factor of five or more. Not only independent businessman and well-off farmers, but also country peasants, domestic servants, and beggars would have received representation.
If Leveller demands went far, their implications went farther. Colonel Thomas Rainborough famously remarked at Putney, “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government (103)...” Rainborough clearly equated living in England with a right to vote, whatever one’s social class and circumstances. If one was to be ruled by a government, one must first voluntarily submit to its authority. Further, Rainborough added, “... and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under (103).” One who does not have a voice in the government has no obligation to obey that government. In an age when “democracy” meant rule by the mob, when one’s position in society was often considered an indication of one’s moral worth, and when kings claimed rule by divine right, the Levellers’ proposal amounted to revolution, both in thought and deed.
Rainborough and others based their unorthodox pronouncements on an idea of a natural law. He noted about voting rights: “I do not find anything in the Law of God that a lord shall choose twenty burgesses, and a gentleman but two, or a poor man shall choose none. I find no such thing in the law of nature, nor in the law of nations (106).” Rainborough claims franchise limitations are due to the “law of man.” However, nature and God does give man reason. A man with property may utilize the reason that God gave him in voting. However, once he loses that property, he loses the power to vote, and thus cannot use what nature has provided him. As such, franchise limitations are an infringement upon man’s innate, God-given reason.
Rainborough’s point shows an enormous shift in viewpoint. Divine right was usually the bulwark for feudal authorities. “Honor thy father,” offers the Bible. And so they did. Father might mean one’s feudal lord, or one’s King, or one’s parent. But to suddenly use the Bible to claim that all men have a God-given right to exercise their reason turns that sensibility on its head. So too, for that matter, does Rainborough’s point that, “With respect to the divine law which says 'Honour thy father and thy mother', the great dispute is who is a right father and a right mother (112).” Rainborough and the Levellers’ have a far different idea of what constitutes legitimate authority than their contemporaries.
One can see how radical Rainborough’s suggestions are by the responses they elicited. In the Putney debates, Commissary General Ireton provided the most complete example of the more traditional view: “I think that no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affairs of the kingdom, and in choosing those that shall determine what law we shall be ruled by here – no person has a right to this who has not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom… (103)” By permanent fixed interest, Ireton meant a minimum quantity of property, something of the order of forty pounds per annum. To many, including Lieutenant General and future Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, this was the true meaning of representative government, and an extension would lead inevitably to anarchy.
Ireton perceives all too readily the potential of natural rights to disrupt order and society. After all, it was he who first coined the term Levellers’ when he attached it to those who opposed him at Putney. Ireton says, “Now I wish we may all consider of what right you will challenge that people should have a right to elections. Is it by the right of nature? If you will hold forth that as your ground, then you must deny all property too… (108).” He noted that if there was a natural law allowing man an equal right in choosing who governs him, then is there not a natural right that a man has an equal right to the property that sustains him? He asks, “… if you do … hold up this law of nature, I would fain have any man show me their bounds, where you will en, and why you should not take away all property (109)?” This is indeed a fair criticism. For fundamentally, if men are equal in their rights to use God’s gift, then why should not all men have a right to survival? If a man needs the vote to exercise his God given reason, does he not food as well? Property? Shelter? Where, indeed, does it all end?
Yet why should a bunch of religious radicals have turned into political reformers and radicals? Why should political and religious equality be linked, yet economic inequality remained unaddressed? The Levellers’ of the English Civil war were no doubt people of their time, yet they fit curiously well into much later times as well. Indeed it is almost difficult to see them as radicals, for many of their views have stood so well the test of time.
Leveller justifications for religious and political change have one common thread: “natural rights.” It is not a term commonly used by them. Yet time and time again, the complaint directed at their parliamentary and military foes is that the natural, God-given rights of Englishman are being violated. At the beginning of “An Arrow Against All Tyrants,” Richard Overton states: “For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom (55)” This idea of law and rights is essential. For every Leveller demand, every Leveller proposal, and every Leveller diatribe, bases itself on the idea that some law, either God’s or man’s, is being violated.
One might wonder whether all the Leveller programme in its entirety can be summed up in terms of natural rights. When the Levellers seek to restrain parliament, it is so as to protect the individual’s natural rights. Be it by abolishing tithes so a man need not support a church he does not believe in, be it by ending impressments, so no man is compelled to fight a war against his conscience, or be it by ending the practice of debtor’s prison, so that the creditor can actually hope to be paid, and the debtor not consigned to prison for the remainder of his days, the Levellers hold that they have God’s law on their side. They speak of Englishman as “freeborn” and attack slavery frequently, for without these rights, they believe a man is a slave. In his one of his later attacks on the army and its actions, John Lilburne begged, “Oh help! Help! Save and redeem us from total vassalage and slavery… and be no more like brute beasts… (198)”
Another question is why the Levellers confined their activities to political reforms, and did not propose much in the arena of economic reforms. The fact is, that most economic issues did not fall under the umbrella of natural law. Ireton said at Putney, “The Law of God does not give me property, nor the law of nature (119),” and the Levellers did not disagree. So far as the Levellers were concerned, private property was neither protected by God’s law, nor detrimental to it. Like religion, the Levellers sought to put the question of property outside of the scope of parliament, for they feared it was a question where the judge would also be an interested party. Item thirty of “An Agreement: We Therefore agree that it shall not be in the power of any Representative in any wise to render up or give or take away any part of this Agreement, nor level men’s estates (177).”
Looking back at the Levellers through hindsight, one has the benefit of more than three hundred years of context to judge them in. With the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a “Bill of Right” was enacted, essentially allowing Protestants freedom of worship. Meanwhile, despite a mass movement in the 1830s, universal enfranchisement of men did not occur until 1918. That in itself provides a good comparison between the Levellers’ moderate religious aims, and radical political ones. Yet the idea of natural rights has remained controversial even longer than universal suffrage. It is only mildly ironic that while universal suffrage is today often taken for granted, the questions raised by Ireton at Putney remain. What are natural rights? How far do they extend? Where do they end? Alas, it may take far longer than three hundred years to straighten those out.