Liberty Matters

The Levellers and Foundational Ideas


As a scholar whose first published work — some 45 years ago now — was on the Levellers, it is a pleasure and a privilege to be asked to write about them for Liberty Fund.[1] Steve's presentation captures important aspects of the Levellers' significance and an overview of their historiography, and he offers an interpretation of their thought. I can only focus on the last of these in the space available.
Thinking about past writers invariably involves a degree of what, in the trade, is called "interpretive charity." No writer (then or now) establishes their starting premises ex nihilo. Writing is "always already" situated in a cognitive space where certain things are taken for granted, unexamined, but nevertheless essential for the coherence or defensibility of what is expressly stated. The task of historical exegesis involves suspending critical judgment until such cognitive underpinnings or presuppositions have been recovered and supplied.
But the virtue of such cognitive charity has a corresponding vice of excess: the pursuit of coherence at all evidential costs.Achieving a virtuous mean is more problematic in the case of publicists and pamphleteers whose relationship to their audience is more rhetorical than philosophical and concerned more with persuasion than logical demonstration. And in the case of the thought of groups or movements, the extension of interpretive charity has also to negotiate the fact that identifying coherence amongst several minds is more difficult than in one. With minds as different as the raffish mortalist Richard Overton and the pious, "whispering"[] William Walwyn, the Levellers are a difficult case — perhaps more vulnerable than most to having modern writers – Marxists, Whiggish liberals, Radical Democrats – recruit them as ancestors or spoilers.[2]
Steve identifies three "foundational ideas":a radical doctrine of religious liberty, "popular sovereignty as embodied in parliament," and "fundamental law." It is the synthesis or melding of these three that he sees as yielding "a politics that was novel and radical for the time and which remains radical today." I don't disagree, but there are historical problems in understanding what these ideas meant in the 17th century, and there were problems then – some of which remain today – in how, and if, they can be "melded" together.
Religious liberty: That Levellers championed religious liberty is not, I think, contentious, although I see them doing so on a more principled (radically Protestant — and recognizably Lockean) grounds than Steve allows. How about this:
"All true religion is founded on the inward consent of [men's] understanding.… [S]hould he resist that seeming light (though it should in truth be darkness) his sin would be much greater." To constrain belief is to "banish all dependence on the spirit of God for light, … that is the light of their own understandings, and … for their worldly respects and safety to profess a faith, and practice a worship which they neither do, nor dare, understand."[4]
Moreover, to separate out the doctrine of religious liberty from their political radicalism may be misleading. J. C. D Clark wants to deny to any thinkers before the 1790s the epithet radical, claiming that all such thought or movements before that time were"dissenting" in the religious sense."[5] This might suggest that the three foundational ideas are hierarchically related – with the religious structuring the other two. I think there is something in this, although less in Clark's ecclesiological sense than in a theologically normative one.
Fundamental law:Some Levellers sometimes (especially Lilburne early on, as Steve points out) construe fundamental law historically, identifying it with pre-Norman rights or Magna Carta, but they increasingly realized this was slippery ground. As Overton complained, Magna Carta was "but a beggarly thing…. [O]ur very laws were made by conquerors.""[6] And at the end of his radical career Lilburne also couched his appeal not in constitutional history but, in a radical appropriation of Coke, in reason ("for where reason ceases, there law ceaseth.""[7]), "which is the proper measure of our liberty.""[8]
Lilburne and Overton can be found making virtually identical claims about the origins of our radical individual right in the coincidence of God's Command and Natural Reason."[9]
The recognition of a theologically grounded (or indeed any deontological)fundamental law renders the use of the term popular sovereignty problematic in important ways.Firstly, as in the case of Locke (who may owe more than we have recognized to Leveller ideas), there is a complicated relationship between what we may loosely call popular sovereignty and the criteria deriving from fundamental law that bear on the legitimacy of the exercise of political power or the designation of those entitled to exercise it.
Popular sovereignty as embodied in parliament:The notion of popular sovereignty stricto sensu entails that the opinion of the (majority of the)people is itself the source of legitimacy and should prevail.But noone in early modernity held this view. And if they seemed to articulate it, they did so against a background presumption of the moral or theological (and possibly behavioral) limitations of what a popular majority might wish and what the moral implications of that wishing might be. For the Levellers, as for Locke, there were background limits as to what could legitimately be consented to. Consent only operates within limits broadly limned out by a natural and theological duty of self-preservation.
Whilst the old tag of Salus Populi Suprema Lex could easily be (and was) recruited to defend a parliament resisting the king, the Levellers extended this to defend a people resisting parliament or its officers. It was "Unnaturall, irrational, sinfull, wicked and unjust … for any man ... to part with soe much of their power as shall enable any of their Parliament Men, Commissioners Trustees, deputues, Viceroys, Ministers, officers or servants to destroy and undoe them therewith.""[10]
The Leveller conception of fundamental law thus not only blew apart the easy (for parliamentarians) assimilation of "The People" to parliament; it also rendered problematic any claim that the people's (empirical) will was sovereign.
Propositions that contravene Natural Law/Law of Reason (Levellers used both vocabularies) may not be consented to, and if they are, such acts carry no legitimating force.A prominent corollary of this is that persons who have shown themselves willing to support regimes which contravene such principles (Delinquents — Royalists, e.g.), were, at least temporarily, not to be regarded as part of the "people," nor are they to be enfranchised. A feature of the Agreements of the People was the exclusion from the franchise of "delinquents" – those who had supported the monarchy; such people had displayed a failure to keep their "consent" within the moral limits presupposed by an axiomatic principle of autonomous moral agency.
My reading of the Levellers renders their thinking radical indeed not only for their own time, but also for ours. But it is surely their sense of the limitations that would constrain will, rather than their championship of its unconstrained competence, that render them radical today. Popular arguments or presumptions (and even many academic ones) in favor of popular sovereignty rarely take care to articulate limits on its scope – perhaps because there is (or has been until recently) a presumption that "a people" as a whole cannot will things that we might regard as unconscionable. But of course they can.The political problem is surely how to obtain good governance, not how to translate the will of any majority as expeditiously as possible into political reality.
[1.] "The Political Theory of the Levellers, Putney, Property and Professor Macpherson,"Political Studies, XXIV, no 4 (1976).
[2.] The brilliant epithet was Ivan Roots's, alluding to Walwyn's anti-Presbyterian tract "A Whisper in the Ear of Mr Thomas Edwards" (1646).
[3.] Eduard Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (trans. 1930), saw the Levellers as proto-social democrats; C. B. Macpherson – a fellow Marxist – saw them as apologists for a proto-capitalist "possessive individualism" (The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism[1962].) A range of liberal interpreters, such as H. N.Brailsford (The Levellers and the English R__evolution[1961]) and C. M. Firth (who edited the Putney Debates) have seen them as proto-social democrats.
[4.] The Leveller (1659),and "A Remonstrance": "truly … neither you nor none else, can have any Power at all to conclude the people in matters that concerne the Worship of God… for ye have no Power from Us so to doe, nor could you have; for we could not conferre a power that was not in our selves.' "A Remonstrance of many thousand citizens and other free-born people…" (1646), in D. M. Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes (London and New York, 1967), p. 122.
[5.] J. C. D Clark, "Religion and the Origins of Radicalism in Nineteenth-century Britain," in English Radicalism: 1550-1850, Matthew Festenstien and Glenn Burgess, eds., (Cambridge, 2007).
[6.] "A Remonstrance,"in Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes, p. 124
[7.]Lilburne, "Legall Fundamental Liberties of the People of England" (1649);The Afflicted Man's Outcry (1653): "for where reason ceases, there law ceaseth." – citing Coke Institutes, 4, fol. 330.
[8.]Lilburne, "The Afflicted Man's Outcry."
[9.]Lilburne, "The Afflicted Man's Outcry," p. 1: 'the Law of God, or Law of Reason [which is] written in the heart of every man teaching him what is to be done."And Overton refers to 'a firme Law and radicall principle in Nature engraven in the tables of the heart by the fingers of God," establishing both individual rights and reciprocal respect for them. ("An Arrow against All Tyrants," 1646, p. 3).
[10.] Lilburne, Free Man's Freedom Vindicated (1646), p. 11.