Online Library of Liberty

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

Advanced Search

The Leveller John Lilburne argues from prison that the King and the Magistrate must obey the law like everyone else (1648)

While in prison once again the Leveller John Lilburne (1615-1657) demanded his day in court and fulminated against the arbitrary acts of the magistrates who put him in prison:

I know nothing that makes a man a Magistrate over me but law, and while he walkes by the rules of that Law which make him a Magistrate, I shall own him as a Magistrate, but when he tramples it under his feet, and walkes by the law of his own will, I for my part in such a condition cannot own him for a Magistrate.

But yet in reason and equity I cannot apprehend a reason, why a King (who is but a meere creature as well as any other man, and at most is but a Magistrate of trust) for murder, he could not be as liable to punishment amongst men, as any other man, (though I confesse I never could see any thing by the Law of England to declare the King of England so) for this I am sure of, God the Supream King, never created any man whatsoever lawlesse, which he must be, that is free and above the punishment of all law, and I am sure nature and reason teacheth me to hold or tye my Fathers hands, (at least) if with them he should doe so unnaturall a thing as to goe about to destroy me, and therefore seeing in my apprehension there is a defect in this particular in the Law of England, I shall for the future wish, desire, and endeavour by all the full and iust wayes and meanes, that all whatsoever may be bounded by law, and subject to the punishment of the Law, professing before all the world, that I know nothing that makes a man a Magistrate over me but law, and while he walkes by the rules of that Law which make him a Magistrate, I shall own him as a Magistrate, but when he tramples it under his feet, and walkes by the law of his own will, I for my part in such a condition cannot own him for a Magistrate.

About this Quotation:

A key aspect of Leveller political thought was the idea that all Englishmen had rights to life, liberty, and property which must be defended equally in the courts of law. They believed strongly in the principle of “habeas corpus” (the right to be present in a court of law to hear the charges against them and to defend themselves against those charges), that the legal proceedings should be conducted in standard English (not Norman French legal jargon), that prison was to secure the prisoner before trial and was not a form of punishment, that their jailors should not be corrupt and steal their food money, and most importantly that the law applied equally to commoner, aristocrat, and monarch. In one of his many pamphlets written from prison demanding these rights John Lilburne, or “free-born John” as he was nicknamed, inserted this caustic reminder about equality under the rule of law in a side note. What is interesting and quite radical is his claim that the the King is only a “meere creature” like himself and that the Magistrate only has legitimate power to the extent he not only upholds the law but also lives by that law himself. When he does not, any claim to be a legitimate ruler evaporates and the contract between him, as Magistrate or even King, and the citizen evaporates. This is of course what happened in January 1649 when Parliament decided to execute King Charles I on just these grounds. Interestingly, Lilburne opposed the King’s actions but did not support his execution.

More Quotations