John Lilburne on one’s duty to respect “the Right, Due, and Propriety of all the Sons of Adam, as men” (1646)

John Lilburne

Found in Tracts on Liberty by the Levellers and their Critics Vol. 3 (1646).

The Leveller John Lilburne (1615-1657) wrote some of his best material while he was in prison, such as this appeal to his fellow Christians to recognize the right to liberty and property held by “all the Sons of Adam”:

(T)he greatest good that I know of, that any man can do unto the Sons of Men besides the discovery of the knowledge of Christ, and the benefits and priviledges that are to be injoyed by him; is, rationally to discover the privilege, that is, the Right, Due, and Propriety of all the Sons of Adam, as men: that so they may not live in beastlinesse, by devouring one another: and not onely so, but also to stand for, and maintain those Rights and Priviledges in any Kingdome, or Nation, wheresoever they are in any measure established: that so the trusted, made great and potent, by a power conferred upon them; may not there-with (as is too commonly seene) Lord it, domineer over, and destroy by their Prerogative-will and pleasure, the Betrusters: yea, and also to maintain the liberties and priviledges established in a Land, by Law, against the incroaching usurpations of some great and mighty Nimrods of the world, made so by wayes and meanes; more immediatly and properly flowing from the Divell, then God: and by their false-assumed incroaching power, tyrant-like tread under their feet, all just, and innocent persons: and protect, defend, and countenance none but those, that will comply, applaud, and assist them, in their brutish, woolvish, and tyrant-like proceedings: which practises are contrary to the very end of Government; and Magistracy; …

John Lilburne, along with Richard Overton and William Walwyn, were the most prolific of the Levellers with their outpouring of tracts denouncing the abuses of liberty by the Crown, often written while they were in prison for various offences. This one was written in October 1646 and is an interesting mixture of Lilburne’s typical appeal to the ancient charters of cities like London and Magna Carta which in his view clearly limited the power of the Crown, and a more general defense of liberty based upon idea of natural law and natural rights. In this passage Lilburne appeals to his Christian readers to recongnize the god-given “right, due, and property” that every man has to be left free to go about their own business without interference from those who would “domineer” over them and “devour” their property. The great mental jump he was making here was to go beyond “the liberties of Englishmen” and to see that these principles of liberty and property applied to all men “in any Kingdome, or Nation, wheresoever”. In other words, that they had universal applicability to “all the Sons of Adam, as men.”