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The Levellers

By Ryan Miller

Libertarianism is almost always thought to be a modern phenomenon. Obviously, this isn’t true, and libertarians can trace their intellectual ancestors back through the classical liberals, whigs, and even some conservative elements of British and American political history.

I’ll tip my hat to some notable Frenchmen like Bastiat and Tocqueville. But for the most part liberalism and libertarianism have been a very Anglo affair.

But when did it begin?

We tend to think of men like Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and John Locke as either heralding in liberal thought or bringing liberal ideas to fruition. And though these men, and countless others, were critical to the development of liberal ideas, a full-fledged liberal and libertarian movement existed on the historical stage nearly two full generations before Locke published his Second Treatise of Civil Government.

This movement was born out of the violent and tumultuous political and military upheavals brought about by the War of the Three Kingdoms (1639-51), colloquially termed the English Civil War.

The purveyors of this movement were called the Levellers.

Murray Rothbard wrote in An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, “the Levellers, led by John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walwyn, worked out a remarkably consistent libertarian doctrine, upholding the rights of “self-ownership,” private property, religious freedom for the individual, and minimal governmental interference in society. The rights of each individual to his person and property, furthermore, were “natural” — that is, they were derived from the nature of man and the universe, and therefore were not dependent on, nor could they be abrogated by, government.

To have such a succinct, clear, and distinctly libertarian outlook, well before Locke, and about 130 years prior to the American Revolution, is nothing short of remarkable. In a time when the concept of Divine Right of Kings still held sway over many even in England, and common Englishmen were still often mere pawns of greater men and lords, what the Levellers were able to do was, again in the words of Rothbard,  “transform the rather vague and holistic notions of natural law into the clear cut, firmly individualistic concepts of natural rights of every individual human being.”

England in the first half of the 17th Century was not Spain or France. Even as Charles I attempted to model his Monarchy on that of the Bourbons, England by 1640 was firmly a nation of laws.

Parliament proved a useful tool and ally to the Tudors and so during the 16th century it developed from a mere meeting into an institution. As it gained power and increasing influence, it evolved from a money machine of the Monarch to the voice of the gentry and aristocracy and, finally, to a shared sovereign along with the King.

The 17th Century in England can be viewed as a battle for sovereignty between these two entities. This battle climaxed in 1649 when Parliament took the head of Charles I, and culminated in 1688-89 when Parliament removed one King and replaced him with one of their own choosing, and on their own terms.

Thus we had royal tyranny replaced with republican tyranny. Monarchical supremacy replaced with Parliamentary supremacy. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But it didn’t have to be.

There was a brief moment, in the midst of the all the bloodshed and political maneuvering, when freedom almost prevailed in England.

The Levellers, among other things, sought to extend the franchise to all men. But this was not a ploy or a plot to gain the reigns of power for the purpose of the poor using the state against the rich. This was not about increasing the power that men have over other men. The Levellers sought to clearly define and limit where the power of the state ought to be used.

Their program, An Agreement of the People (1647), called for biennial elections, and limited governmental power to make war or peace, relations with foreign states, appointing and dismissing magistrates and government officers and making laws. Parliament was committed to freedom of conscience, equality before the law, and was forbidden to conscript or press men for war service.

Sounds familiar right?

They were a movement made up of nearly exclusively military men. Much of the radicalism of the Civil War was fomented in the ranks of the New Model Army–the Parliamentary military force created in 1645 after a series of military defeats at the hands of the Cavaliers. This army hosted men of all persuasions–from the proto-socialist Diggers, to the proto-libertarian Levellers, to the Ranters, and to Puritan fanatics.

In the fall of 1647 these ideas and the future political face of England were debated and discussed in a series of meetings called the Putney Debates. Anti-climatically, these debates devolved into mere arguments about the extent of suffrage. And even less excitingly, they ended in compromise. The most famous lines uttered in these debates, however, are still worth noting. In replying to Major General Ireton’s criticism of universal manhood suffrage, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough stated the Leveller position masterfully:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

The Second Civil War soon broke out in 1648, however, and the debate was put to bed. The Levellers were suppressed. And though they had a brief respite of activity following the conclusion of that war some months later, Cromwell’s power overtook them.

Their message further suppressed, and leaders such as Lilburne, Overton, Prince and Walwyn imprisoned, the Leveller Movement could not survive new found stability and iron authority of the Cromwellian regime.

While leading Parliamentarians sought to take power for themselves at the expense of the Royalists, and the Royalists sought to keep power at the expense of Parliament, the Levellers sought to give power to each man. Power to govern his own affairs and live life unimpeded by the state.

This meant they made few friends on either end of the political spectrum. And ultimately, that is what did them in.

The ideas of the Levellers became the foundation of later liberalism as it evolved in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century. As David Hoile notes in Libertarian Heritage No. 5, “Many of the ideas outlined in the various drafts of An Agreement of the People can be identified in several of the constitutions and key political documents within the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary American States, including both the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.”

He goes on further to say that, “If the Levellers helped in any way to guide or direct the political birth of the United States of America, still and certainly then the freest society on earth, insisting as they did on the separation of powers and that government is the servant and not the master of the people, then their legacy and importance is inestimable.”

As important as understanding the fundamental political, economic, and philosophical ideas behind libertarianism, is understanding their history and how they developed.

The Levellers of the English Civil War are a critical piece of that puzzle and story.

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