John Lilburne rails against his unjust imprisonment (1646)

John Lilburne

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

The English Leveller John Lilburne (1615-1657) denounces the government for his false imprisonment, his jailers for their corrupt practices, and demands his rights as an Englishmen under Common Law to face a jury of his peers, otherwise … :

… these extorting, barbarous and murthering Gaolors, and all other ministers of State, who make their rise and fortunes, by the mines and spoylings of the people, and as they tread in the steppes of their predecessours (and rather exceed them in iniquity) so small they run into the same destruction, for as the overflowing of water doe at length make the river loose its proper channell, so those that seeke to extend their power beyond their bounds, have ever hitherto lost not only their powers by them usurped, but often even that also which by right belonged unto them …

John Lilburne was imprisoned repeatedly for violating the censorship laws, advocating heretical religious views, and opposing the suppression of liberty in general. In August 1646 he smuggled out of prison a pamphlet called “Liberty Vindicated against Slavery” in which he denounced his imprisonment, condemned the mistreatment of prisoners by the jailers, and demanded his right as an Englishmen to be formally charged with any crimes he may have committed and to able to defend himself before a group of his peers as guaranteed under Magna Carta. What is notable about his long pamphlet is his deep knowledge of English common law, especially the work of Sir Edward Coke, whom he quotes repeatedly and at length presumably without having access to his own copy in jail, and his conviction that English liberties had been the norm until they had been usurped by a new form of centralising and oppressive monarchy and established Church. The second thing, is his courage in pulling no punches in his criticism of his jailers and the politicians who sent him there, calling them in an extraordinary burst of anti-state rhetoric so many “Lyons, Tygers, Wolves, and Beares”. When he did finally confront them in person in court he argued with them as an equal and often got the better of them, to their considerable embarrassment. And finally, there are the barely concealed threats that if the government does not reform itself soon then freedom loving Englishmen will rise up like a river overflowing its banks and will sweep them aside.