Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Richard Overton argues that to submit to the unjust rule by another is to violate one’s right of self ownership (1646)

The Leveller pamphleteer Richard Overton (16??-1664) defied the House of Lords from Newgate jail where he was incarcerated for refusing to recognize their right to question him without a warrant. To submit to their unjust demands he thought would be an infringement of his right to self-ownership:

Why therefore shall I crave my own, or beg my right? to turn supplicant in such a case is a disfranchising of my self, and an acknowledgement that the thing is not my own, but at another mans pleasure; so that I forsake and cast off my property, and am inslav’d to his arbitrary pleasure: if the other will, I may have possession, otherwise not. Which indignity to my own, or to my Countreys rights, their Lordships shall never enforce me; for it is no better then a branch of tyranny to force a man to turn supplicant for his own, and of self-robbery to submit thereto. Though this inslaved Nation be most deeply and miserably involved in that intolerable condition, so that indeed we cannot have our own naturall rights and immunities, but we must be either patient sufferers, or actuall Petitioners, as if our own were not our own of right, but of favour.

And though I be in their (the House of Lords) Prerogative clutches, and by them unjustly cast into the prison of Newgate for standing for my own, and my Countrys rights and freedoms, I care not who lets them know that I acknowledge none other to be the supream Court of Judicature of this Land, but the House of Commons, the Knights and Burgesses assembled in Parliament by the voluntary choice, and free election of the people thereof; with whom, and in whose just defence I’le live and die, maugre the malice of the House of Lords. For I acknowledge that I was not born for my self alone, but for my neighbour as well as for my self; and I am resolv’d to discharge the trust which God hath repos’d in me for the good of others, with all diligence and fidelity, as I will answer it at Gods great Tribunall, though for my pains I forfeit the life and earthly being of this my little thimble full of mortality.

And these are further to let them know, that I bid defiance to their injustice, usurpation and tyranny, and scorn even the least connivance, glimpse, jot, or tittle of their favour: let them do as much against me by the Rule of Equity, Reason, and Justice for my Testimony and Protestation against them in this thing as possibly they can, and I shall be content and rest: for, Nihil quod est contra rationem est licitum; Nothing which is against reason is lawfull, it is a sure maxime in Law, for Reason is the life of the Law. But if they transgresse, and go beyond the bounds of rationality, justice, and equity, I shall to the utmost of my power make opposition and contestation to the last gaspe of vitall breath; and I will not beg their favour, nor lie at their feet for mercy; let me have justice, or let me perish. I’le not sell my birth-right for a mess of pottage, for Justice is my naturall right, my heirdome, my inheritance by lineall descent from the loins of Adam, and so to all the sons of men as their proper right without respect of persons. The crooked course of Favour, greatnesse, or the like, is not the proper channell of Justice; it is pure, and individuall, equally and alike proper unto all, descending and running in that pure line streaming and issuing out unto all, though grievously corrupted, vitiated, and adulterated from generation to generation.

Why therefore shall I crave my own, or beg my right? to turn supplicant in such a case is a disfranchising of my self, and an acknowledgement that the thing is not my own, but at another mans pleasure; so that I forsake and cast off my property, and am inslav’d to his arbitrary pleasure: if the other will, I may have possession, otherwise not. Which indignity to my own, or to my Countreys rights, their Lordships shall never enforce me; for it is no better then a branch of tyranny to force a man to turn supplicant for his own, and of self-robbery to submit thereto. Though this inslaved Nation be most deeply and miserably involved in that intolerable condition, so that indeed we cannot have our own naturall rights and immunities, but we must be either patient sufferers, or actuall Petitioners, as if our own were not our own of right, but of favour.

What is this other but an utter disfranchisement of the people, and a meer vassalage of this Nation, as if the Nation could have nothing by right, but all by favour, this cannot hold with the rule of Mine and thine, one to have all, and another nothing: one’s a gentleman, th’other a begger; so that the birth-rights, freedoms, and properties of this Nation are thereby made these great Mens Alms; and we must come with hat in hand, with good your worships, May it please your Honors my Lords, and with such like terms of vassalage and slavery for our own rights, as if we ought them Villein-Service, and held all the rights and properties we have, but by Tenure in Villonage, and so were their slaves for ever.

About this Quotation:

Richard Overton and his friend John Lilburne must have been quite a handful for their jailors when they were sent to Newgate prison, the King’s Bench, or the Tower of London for insisting upon their rights to practice their religion freely, to write what they wished and circulate it freely, to be tried by their peers and not their “betters”, for insisting that proper arrest warrants be issued, and for the traditional rights of Englishmen to be respected by the two Houses of Parliament. Stints in jail did not stop the flood of pamphlets they wrote in defence of their liberties. Attempts to silence them or make their lives hard in jail only stimulated them further to expose the corrupt practices of the jailors, such as taking bribes for food and better lodging, and nailing boards to their windows so they could not get fresh air, or to denounce the appalling conditions in the prisons, such as failing to prevent prison rape which seemed to be endemic. Even the absence of their beloved books did not seem to stop them quoting endlessly from their holy texts, which consisted of the Bible, Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of English Law, and the Magna Carta (and other charters of English liberties). They seemed to know them all off by heart. Even when he was eventually dragged before the House of Lords Overton refused to answer any questions and angered the Lords further by refusing to doff his hat appropriately. He argued that it was his right as a freeborn Englishman not to.

More Quotations