Levellers Launch an Egalitarian Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An egalitarian reform movement, closely associated with Cromwell’s New Model Army, was launched in England. The so-called Levellers sought to establish universal male suffrage and government accountability and they provided the foundation for republican political thought.

Summary of Event

The English Civil Wars of the 1640’s provided a historical precedent for open political debate and dialogue, mass petitions, and popular demonstrations upon Parliament, from which the group now known as the Levellers were able to generate momentum and support for their movement and crystallize a radical political and social agenda. This agenda included the institution of democracy, popular sovereignty, active citizen participation in government, communal action in the public interest, and an individualistic political philosophy emphasizing natural rights and individual and civil liberties. The label “Levellers” was originally coined and used with a pejorative connotation by their opponents to deny the legitimacy of the reform movement and to imply that its members desired to level or equalize property holdings among the population. [kw]Levellers Launch an Egalitarian Movement (1646-1649) [kw]Egalitarian Movement, Levellers Launch an (1646-1649) Social issues and reform;1646-1649: Levellers Launch an Egalitarian Movement[1600] Government and politics;1646-1649: Levellers Launch an Egalitarian Movement[1600] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1646-1649: Levellers Launch an Egalitarian Movement[1600] England;1646-1649: Levellers Launch an Egalitarian Movement[1600] Levellers

Leveller political writing was stimulated by the multiple and complex political, religious, social, and economic conflicts of the period. From 1646 to 1649, severe adverse transformations in manufacturing and landholding upon the English lower middle class led to mass discontent in both urban and rural areas throughout the country. In particular, the Civil Wars were promoting poor trade conditions, sharply accelerated inflated prices, very high unemployment, poor wages, and diminished purchasing power. These factors unfortunately coincided with a prolonged period of bad harvests in the latter part of the 1640’. The Levellers’ proposed remedies to such problems provided them immediate, although short-lived, influence and visibility.

Throughout the early 1640’, the Levellers had allied themselves with the radical republican forces in Parliament and various members of the gentry elite in their opposition to monarchical absolutism and to the political theory of the divine right of kings. By the end of the first phase of the Civil English Civil Wars (1642-1651) Wars in 1646 and in the context of Parliament’s various successes, the Levellers echoed the army’s skepticism of the Presbyterian-dominated Parliament’s negotiation with Royalist forces and King Charles I. By mid-1647, major Leveller leaders had forged an alliance with the rank and file of the army and assisted them to gain greater leverage in the negotiated settlement with the Royalist forces. This was due primarily to a belief, shared by both the Levellers and the Parliamentary Parliamentarians army, that the Presbyterian majority in Parliament had treated the army poorly and had failed to promote the general welfare effectively.

In their pamphlets, the Levellers often relied upon a nostalgic glorification of a golden age prior to the Norman invasion of 1066. The Norman Conquest was depicted as the critical watershed event in English constitutional history, since it represented the imposition of the arbitrary power of the “Norman Yoke” on the people and an immediate loss of fundamental rights and liberties. The Levellers argued that Norman rule also led to a perversion of the revered ancient Anglo-Saxon constitution, the subsequent servitude of the English population, and the loss of traditional English representative government. The Levellers insisted that only comprehensive constitutional, political, social, and economic reforms could recover the lost rights and liberties of the English people.

The main intellectual leaders of the Leveller movement included John Lilburne, Lilburne, John Richard Overton, Overton, Richard William Walwyn, Walwyn, William and John Wildman Wildman, John . Most of these Leveller leaders were well educated and had demonstrated the excellent political skills necessary to drive a truly populist democratic movement. As political activists, they had extensive experience and expertise in mass mobilization, political persuasion, agitation, and the writing of political pamphlets. The Levellers’ philosophical program was often derived from the personal political experiences of many of their leaders.

John Lilburne’s critical commentary on the abuses of a tyrannical government reflected his own protracted periods of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. The Puritan Lilburne, referred to as Free-born John, was imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried in 1638 for publishing several Puritan works that attacked the Church of England. He was a prolific author, having written many political tracts and petitions promoting individual rights, religious freedom of conscience and toleration, freedom of speech, and limited governmental and church authority. He opposed any form of oligarchical or hierarchical power, such as trading monopolies or church tithes. Lilburne served as a lieutenant-colonel fighting against the Royalist army of King Charles I Charles I (king of England);Royalists and during the First English Civil War. He had the reputation of being the most popular and charismatic of the Leveller leaders. This was demonstrated by his intensely loyal followers, who supported him throughout his trial for high treason, and by the jury of Londoners who acquitted him in August, 1649.

The Levellers were for the most part drawn from segments of the “middling” class and consisted of small traders, artisans, merchants, apprentices, craftsmen, and husbandmen. They were primarily from London and considered themselves spokespersons and representatives of the politically unrepresented and disenfranchised men of the English population. Certain revolutionary segments of the New Model Army New Model Army and various independent congregations were enthusiastic activists in support of the Leveller platform, primarily because of its radical objectives of religious toleration and freedom of religious thought.

The Levellers were highly skilled at writing and circulating effective political pamphlets and petitions and submitting petitions to Parliament to mobilize the masses and increase public support for their movement. Their persuasive rhetoric was articulated in classic political pamphlets and tracts, such as Lilburne’s The Case of the Army Truly Stated Case of the Army Truly Stated, The (Lilburne) (1647) and Foundations of Freedom Foundations of Freedom (Lilburne) (1647). Some of the more significant and influential of the Leveller petitions included the Large Petition (March, 1647) Large Petition (1647) , the Earnest Petition (January, 1648) Earnest Petition (1648) , the Humble Petition (September, 1648) Humble Petition (1648) , and the very popular Remonstrance of Many Thousands of the Free People of England (September, 1649) Remonstrance of Many Thousands of the Free People of England (1649) . The latter petition, justifying armed resistance to oppressive authority, garnered 98,064 signatures.

As prolific authors of radical political literature Literature;political (for example, Overton wrote forty essays, and Lilburne authored eighty pamphlets), the Levellers sacrificed intellectual sophistication and logical coherence for the pragmatic party objective of persuasive political rhetoric. The newspaper The Moderate, edited by Gilbert Mabbott Mabbott, Gilbert and printed from July, 1648, to September, 1649, was a major source of Leveller doctrine. Instead of relying upon a political discourse based upon tradition, precedent, or biblical references, Leveller writings provided a then-innovative appeal to rational argumentation. Newspapers;Levellers

The Levellers’ progressive social, economic, and legal program insisted upon removing trading monopolies, opening up greater tracts of public land and reducing land enclosure, and creating more equitable property ownership laws. They called for comprehensive legal reforms, including equal legal rights for all citizens, and the elimination of church taxes. The Levellers quickly rejected Parliament’s attempt in 1646 to impose a Presbyterian theocracy or national church. The most influential Leveller leaders (Lilburne, Walwyn, and Overton) were strongly committed to the positions of religious toleration, freedom of spiritual conscience, and congregational autonomy. These Leveller Calvinist Puritan positions were very popular among numerous independent congregations throughout England.

In the early months of 1647, the New Model Army was influenced by a very strong Leveller faction. In April, 1647, agitators who were proponents of Leveller political theory were popularly elected by the rank and file of the army. The grandees (or generals) of the army were compelled to allow for an army council that included these radical soldiers, in addition to the officers who were generally supportive of Oliver Cromwell Cromwell, Oliver . From early October to November 8, 1647, a series of intense meetings and debates of the council of the New Model Army were held in the Putney Church.

In addition to Cromwell and Henry Ireton Ireton, Henry (Cromwell’s son-in-law), several officers and so-called Agitators participated in the Putney Debates, which focused on an evaluation and potential adoption of the Levellers’ proposed constitution, the Agreement of the People Agreement of the People . This radical document was written as a social contract to reestablish a legitimate state, since Parliament’s victory over King Charles I in the Civil War had led to the disintegration of the traditional English political system of monarchical absolutism. The various versions of the Agreement of the People were actually popular political petitions, supported by mass signatures and purposely designed as reform constitutions for a new, democratic commonwealth. The central principles of the Agreement of the People were to defend popular sovereignty and to reject arbitrary, despotic power of either the monarchy or the Parliament. At Putney, the Levellers proposed that a republican government replace the traditional rule of an absolute monarchy, hereditary House of Lords, and the more recently oppressive House of Commons.

Both the Putney Debates Putney Debates (1647) and the Whitehall Debates (December, 1648) Whitehall Debates (1648) demonstrated the serious disagreements between the Levellers and the grandees concerning political and economic issues. Cromwell and Ireton, for example, rejected the Leveller demands for a republican constitution and universal male suffrage. It was the Leveller Agitators’ expansion of the franchise position in particular that promoted the deadlock and breakdown of negotiations at Putney. The proposal to give all men the vote was interpreted by Ireton as a means for promoting mob rule, anarchy, and the abolition or “levelling” of property.

The Agitators returned from Putney to their regiments on November 8, 1647, and a growing army mistrust of the House of Commons and Cromwell led to mutiny among the soldiers on November 15, 1647. The generals quickly crushed the army uprising and restored order among the ranks. Subsequently, the brief success of the Leveller agenda was based upon mobilizing the New Model Army against its officers. Leveller leaders, such as Lilburne, became more aggressive in asserting a more radical program at the initiation of Cromwell’s Commonwealth in 1649. They demanded the immediate abolition of the House of Lords, the dissolution of the Rump Parliament, annually elected Parliaments, the dissolution of the council of state, and decentralization of public authority. Again, these radical proposals were rejected by the army officers, and several army mutinies resulted.

Cromwell quickly prompted the arrest and imprisonment of Lilburne, Overton, and Walwyn in the Tower of London in March, 1649. A mutiny among the Leveller troops who refused to follow a command to leave London occurred on April 25, 1649. This rebellion was suppressed by Cromwell, however, and several of the soldiers were court-martialed. Subsequent rebellions among the troops spread throughout England but without much success; many of these army mutinies were stimulated by the soldiers’ fear of not receiving payment previously owed to them. In May, 1649, between one thousand and two thousand soldiers mutinied at Banbury and two regiments mutinied at Salisbury. One thousand mutineers from Salisbury moved along the Thames Valley toward London, but they were defeated by Cromwell at Burford, and the Leveller movement was crushed.

Significance

The Leveller movement was one of the first widespread egalitarian movements in European history. Ideas that have since become commonplace, such as government by the people and for the people, were at the time so unprecedented and radical as to border on insanity in the minds of the English rulers. The immediate consequences of the movement were negative: It resulted in the forcible removal or silencing of advocates of popular democracy in England and consolidated Cromwell’s power over the New Model Army and by extension the nation. Cromwell would become lord protector in 1653. The long-term consequences of the movement were a different matter. The Levellers demonstrated that there was a genuine populist spirit present in the hearts of many English subjects, providing both a rational and an empirical basis for future democratic reforms. Their ideas and their fate served as both an example and a cautionary tale to democratic and socialist movements for centuries afterward.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brailsford, H. N. The Levellers and the English Revolution. Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England: Spokesman, 1983. This classic study by an outstanding historian provides compelling argumentation that the Levellers provided the intellectual initiative for the English Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frank, Joseph. The Levellers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955. A landmark work focusing on the writings of Lilburne, Overton, and Walwyn, and the organizational strategies of the Leveller party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manning, Brian. The English People and the English Revolution. London: Bookmarks, 1991. Manning’s controversial study contends that the English Revolution should be interpreted as a class struggle, and that the “middling sort” played a central role in the Leveller movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mendle, Michael, ed. The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers, and the English State. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Collection of revised papers originally presented at a conference about the Putney Debates held in 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petegorsky, David W. Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War. New York: Haskell House, 1972. A sophisticated study of the ideological origins of radical political thought during the Civil Wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanderson, John. “But the People’s Creatures”: The Philosophical Basis of the English Civil War. New York: Manchester University Press, 1989. Sanderson offers new insights into the radical nature of the Levellers’ political philosophy and the arguments of the movement’s critics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharp, Andrew, ed. The English Levellers. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Collection of writings by Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn, and others expressing the Levellers’ political philosophy. Includes an introduction providing an overview of the Leveller movement from 1645 through 1649.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; John Lilburne. Levellers

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