Liberty Matters

The Vital Role of Puritanism

I'd like to thank Steve Davies for his thoughtful essay on the Levellers. The points I wish to make in response are primarily directed at extending rather than criticizing his account.
The modern literature on the Levellers really has two quite distinct origins. On the one hand, there is a group of scholars, beginning with William Haller, Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution (1934) (which represents the "discovery" of William Walwyn), and A. S. P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty (1938), who wanted to show that modern democracy (and the American Constitution) emerged out of Puritanism. And on the other hand a group of socialist intellectuals, beginning with Henry Holorenshaw, The Levellers and the English Revolution (1939), obliged by Stalinist orthodoxy to claim that the English Civil War was a bourgeois revolution, sought to find in the Levellers the origins of English radicalism. (Theodore Pease's The Leveller Movement [1916] is very much an outlier.) Out of these two traditions there emerged a technical academic debate about the Leveller views on the franchise; its origins are to be found in C. B. Macpherson's The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962). Macpherson, an idiosyncratic Marxist, sought to emphasize the limits of bourgeois radicalism, where others had sought to stress its continuity with later socialist movements.
By 1979, what came to be called "revisionism" (the rejection of the socialist interpretation of the Civil War propounded by Christopher Hill and Brian Manning) began to dominate the academic community: Mark Kishlansky, a leading revisionist, argued in the Historical Journal (the house journal of the revisionists) that the Levellers were scarcely a movement and had little influence in the New Model Army.
These three intellectual traditions — Puritan, socialist, and revisionist — formed the background to my chapter on the Levellers in The Cambridge History of Political Thought (1991). That volume was long in gestation, and when it was first commissioned I remember attending a meeting of contributors at which it was argued that — in the light of Kishlansky's work — there was no need for a chapter on the Levellers at all. The revisionist phase in English Civil War history has ended (Conrad Russell, its most impressive proponent, died in 2004), but in our postmodern age no grand narrative has been propounded to replace the religious story of a Haller or the socialist story of a H. N. Brailsford.
Leaving our suspicion of grand narratives aside, the problem for anyone who wants to give the Levellers a central place in the history of liberty is the sheer difficulty for anyone after 1660 in obtaining a copy of anything they had written. Take William Walwyn. His Compassionate Samaritane appeared in three editions in 1644; of these three editions, the English Short Title Catalogue records only 11 surviving copies; the text was first reprinted by William Haller in 1934. (Compare the 32 surviving copies in major libraries of the two editions of Roger Williams's Bloudy Tenent of the same year, or the 45 copies of the crucial radical pamphlet Plaine English of the previous year.) No text of Walwyn's dealing with politics or religion appeared between 1654 and 1934. Walwyn sank into obscurity. But consider also John Lilburne, whose place in history would seem secure. Texts by Lilburne flooded from the presses up until his death in 1657. There were six reprints between then and 1800, but most are and were utterly obscure: of four, only seven copies survive in major libraries, and for one (the 1752 edition of Unhappy Game), no copy (as far as I can tell) survives. Only one edition survives in quantity: the 1710 edition of The Tryal.
The reasons for the disappearance of the Leveller tracts are simple: in the first place, they were cheap pamphlets, shoddily printed, quickly turned into fire lighters or toilet paper, or (as rag paper frequently was) recycled to make new paper; in the second, their ideas soon became unfashionable.But, a third reason is equally, perhaps more, important: many of their original purchasers came from the lower classes. If more copies of Plaine English and the Bloody Tenent survive than of The Compassionate Samaritane,it is not that more were printed; rather they were written by Cambridge-educated clergymen and were purchased by clergymen and gentlemen who could afford to have their tracts bound and placed on library shelves. Only a few determined individuals were thus able to obtain access to a significant number of Leveller tracts: Catherine Macaulay (1731-1791), who owned 30 Leveller tracts, is a striking but completely exceptional case. (See Frederick K. Donnelly, "Levellerism in Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Britain," Albion,1988). The key resource for all later scholarship, the Thomason collection of tracts now in the British Library, was in private hands until 1762; the other major resource, the McAlpin collection at the Union Theological Seminary in New York (which contains, for example, a dozen tracts by Walwyn) only began to be assembled after 1872 — David H. McAlpin, who funded the collection, was a vastly wealthy tobacco manufacturer.
William Haller and Godfrey Davies's Leveller Tracts and Don M. Wolfe's Leveller Manifestoes (both 1944) made the Leveller texts widely available for the first time; it is easy to forget just how inaccessible they were before then, and indeed many of them remained inaccessible thereafter. It was only in 1977 that the Thomason Tracts were published in microfilm. Now the digital revolution represented by Liberty Fund's OnLine Library of Liberty and other collections, which makes access to rare works almost effortless, ushers in a new era of scholarship; but we should not forget that Haller had to travel from New York to London to place the tracts he had found in the McAlpin collection in context.
The notion that the Levellers had some long-term influence on radical or democratic thinking requires one to argue that Leveller ideas were somehow transmitted to later generations not directly but by some intermediary: Ashcraft tried to argue that Locke was that intermediary, but Locke had no Leveller texts in his library and his arguments clearly derive from a much different tradition. (See my essay "John Locke and Richard Ashcraft's Revolutionary Politics," in Political Studies, 1992.) Thus when Steve identifies three foundational Leveller arguments — liberty of conscience, popular sovereignty, and fundamental law — he also correctly acknowledges that not one of these arguments was new with the Levellers. It is, consequently, important to place the Leveller arguments within longer traditions of constitutionalist, natural law, and tolerationist debate. Much of parliamentary polemic in the Civil Wars consisted simply of repurposing arguments that had been developed by the conciliarists to limit the powers of the papacy and arguments that had been used to justify tyrannicide in the 16th-century religious wars. (Brian Tierney, Religion, Law and the Growth of Constitutional Thought [1982]; J. H. M. Salmon, The French Wars of Religion in English Political Thought [1959].) The weakness of both these intellectual traditions was that they sought to restore an "original," idealized constitutional order in response to tyranny and corruption.
But within scholasticism, there was a long tradition arguing that society originated in an agreement between individuals (or heads of households) meeting as equals. The crucial intellectual move, therefore, was the claim that an existing constitution could, in the face of tyranny, be dissolved, requiring the construction of a new constitutional order, re-founded on new principles. This move predates the appearance of the Levellers, for it dates to the winter of 1642-43, when it seemed likely that the king would reestablish control and successfully isolate his more militant opponents, who faced the prospect of trials and executions, and it first appears in tracts such as Plaine English. The Leveller notion of an Agreement of the People depended on this earlier claim that the old constitutional order could no longer be relied on and that a new order must be established, as if from a state of nature. (See my "From Rebellion to Revolution," The English Historical Review [1990] and the recent book by David Como, Radical Parliamentarians and the English Civil War [2018].) So too arguments for liberty of conscience had appeared earlier, for example, in Roger Williams's Bloudy Tenent.
This brings us to the important question of the relative contribution of circumstances and ideas, or as Steve formulates the question: "Are ideas primary, with the ideas being developed and then leading to action and application, or is it rather the other way round, with the pressures of actual political conflict and debate leading to the working out and formulation of more abstract justifications for particular positions?" The answer to this question, I think, is to be found in the story of the Sea Venture, wrecked in the Bermudas in 1609 on its way to Jamestown Virginia. (The key source for download is at; for the story see Alden T. Vaughan, "William Strachey's 'True Reportory' and Shakespeare: A Closer Look at the Evidence." Shakespeare Quarterly [2008].) Sir Thomas Gates, on his way to take up the position of governor of Virginia, insisted that new ships be built and the voyage continued. But a number of crewmen very sensibly preferred to stay where they were, in a land of plenty.
They alleged substantial arguments, both civil and divine (the Scripture falsely quoted), that it was no breach of honesty, conscience, nor religion to decline from the obedience of the governor, or refuse to go any further led by his authority (except it so pleased themselves), since the authority ceased when the wreck was committed, and with it they were all then freed from the government of any man. And for a matter of conscience it was not unknown to the meanest how much we were therein bound each one to provide for himself and his own family.
These Englishmen (and religious sectarians) were thus quick to develop what would later become Leveller arguments; the Levellers, as soon as it became apparent that the ship of state had been wrecked on the rocks of civil war, had no difficulty inventing similar arguments, both civil and divine. (See my essay in John Dunn, ed., Democracy: The Unfinished Journey [1992].) The notion that one could be freed from the government of any man, and thus freed to construct a new government on a basis of equality, was, as far as we can tell, a new one; but its preconditions must be sought before 1609, not merely before 1645. Haller, we may suspect, was right: without Puritanism there would have been no modern democratic theory.