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The Levellers’ Declaration of Independence (March 1647)

In the “Large Petition” of March 1647 the Levellers unsuccessfully demanded that Parliament introduce many reforms to protect the rights of “free born Englishmen” in what may rightly be called their “Declaration of Independence” from both kingly and parliamentary tyranny:

That as no Civill Government is more just in the constitution, then that of Parliaments, having its foundation in the free choice of the people; and as the end of all Government is the safetie and freedome of the governed, even so the people of this Nation in all times have manifested most heartie affections unto Parliaments as the most proper remedie of their grievances; yet such hath been the wicked policies of those who from time to time have endeavoured to bring this Nation into bondage; that they have in all times either by the disuse or abuse of Parliaments deprived the people of their hopes … And do most earnestly entreat, that ye will stir up your affections to a zealous love and tender regard of the people, who have chosen and trusted you, and that ye will seriously consider, that the end of their trust, was freedome and deliverance from all kind of temporall grievances and oppressions.

To the Right Honourable and Supreme Authority of this Nation, the Commons in Parliament assembled. The humble Petition of many thousands, earnestly desiring the glory of God, the freedome of the Commonwealth, and the peace of all men.

Sheweth,

That as no Civill Government is more just in the constitution, then that of Parliaments, having its foundation in the free choice of the people; and as the end of all Government is the safetie and freedome of the governed, even so the people of this Nation in all times have manifested most heartie affections unto Parliaments as the most proper remedie of their grievances; yet such hath been the wicked policies of those who from time to time have endeavoured to bring this Nation into bondage; that they have in all times either by the disuse or abuse of Parliaments deprived the people of their hopes: For testimony whereof the late times foregoing this Parliament will sadly witnesse, when it was not onely made a crime to mention a Parliament, but either the pretended negative voice, (the most destructive to freedome) or a speedie dissolution, blasted the fruit and benefit thereof, whilst the whole Land was overspread with all kinds of oppressions and tyranny, extending both to soule and body, and that in so rooted and setled a way, that the complaints of the people in generall witnessed, that they would have given any thing in the world for one six moneths freedome of Parliament. Which hath been since evidenced in their instant &: constant readinesse of assistance to this present Parliament, exceeding the Records of former ages, and wherein God hath blessed them with their first desires, making this Parliament the most absolute and free of any Parliament that ever was, and enabling it with power sufficient to deliver the whole Nation from all kinds of oppressions and grievances, though of very long continuance, and to make it the most absolute and free Nation in the world. …

And last, as those who found themselves aggrieved formerly at the burdens & oppressions of those times, that did not conform to the Church-government then established, refused to pay Shipmoney, or yeeld obedience to unjust Patents, were reviled and reproached with nicknames of Puritans, Hereticks, Schismaticks, [4-096] Sectaries, or were termed factious or seditious, men of turbulent spirits, despisers of government, and disturbers of the publike peace; even so is it at this day in all respects, with those who shew any sensibility of the fore-recited grievances, or move in any manner or measure for remedy thereof, all the reproaches, evills, and mischiefs that can be devised, are thought too few or too little to bee laid upon them, as Roundheads, Sectaries, Independents, Hereticks, Schismaticks, factious, seditious, rebellious disturbers of the publike peace, destroyers of all civill relation, and subordinations; yea, and beyond what was formerly, nonconformity is now judged a sufficient cause to disable any person though of known fidelity, from bearing any Office of trust in the Commonwealth, whilest Neuters, Malignants, and dis-affected are admitted and continued. And though it be not now made a crime to mention a Parliament, yet is it little lesse to mention the supreme power of this honourable House. So that in all these respects, this Nation remaineth in a very sad and disconsolate condition; and the more, because it is thus with us after so long a session of so powerfull and so free a Parliament, and which hath been so made and maintained, by the aboundant love and liberall effusion of the blood of the people. And therefore knowing no danger nor thraldome like unto our being left in this most sad condition by this Parliament, and observing that ye are now drawing the great and weighty affaires of this Nation to some kind of conclusion, and fearing that ye may ere long bee obstructed by somthing equally evill to a negative voice, and that ye may be induced to lay by that strength, which (under God) hath hitherto made you powerfull to all good workes: whilest we have yet time to hope, and yee power to help, and least by our silence we might be guilty of that ruine and slavery, which without your speedy help is like to fall upon us, your selves and the whole Nation; we have presumed to spread our cause thus plainely and largely before you: And do most earnestly entreat, that ye will stir up your affections to a zealous love and tender regard of the people, who have chosen and trusted you, and that ye will seriously consider, that the end of their trust, was freedome and deliverance from all kind of temporall grievances and oppressions.

About this Quotation:

In one of the most important Leveller political tracts of the period, a group of Levellers (probably written by William Walwyn) petitioned Parliament with a list of their grievances which prefigure the American Declaration of Independence of July 1776 and its grievances against King George III. After 5 years of successful civil war against King Charles and his supporters the Levellers hoped that Parliament would have done more to protect the liberties the Levellers had been fighting for. They provocatively call Parliament the “supreame Authority of this Nation” thus challenging the King to his face and the very notion of divine right to rule. They then go on to list the good things Parliament had done to increase the liberties of Englishmen, and then to list the things that still remained to be done. This infuriated the Parliament which first refused to accept the Petition (the person who delivered it was arrested) and then had it publicly burned by the hangman, which was a severe warning to the Levellers and their supporters about what might happen to them if they persisted in their endeavours. The Petitioners list 13 specific demands among which were to ban self-incrimination in court cases, end the need for taking oaths, that there be a free press in religious matters, the abolition of the monopolist Company of Merchants, that the cost of going to court be lowered and that English (not Norman French) be the court’s language, that punishments should fit the crime and that trials be held speedily, the abolition of religious tythes, and that they put an end to prison for debtors. The “Petition of March” (also known as “The Large Petition”) was only the first of 6 petitions which appeared during 1647-48. Given the radicalism of the Levellers’ demands it is not surprising that they made little progress in having them adopted. That would take another 130 years.

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