Richard Overton argues that to submit to the unjust rule by another is to violate one’s right of self ownership (1646)

Richard Overton

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

The Leveller pamphleteer Richard Overton (16??-1664) defied the House of Lords from Newgate jail where he was incarcerated for refusing to recognize their right to question him without a warrant. To submit to their unjust demands he thought would be an infringement of his right to self-ownership:

Why therefore shall I crave my own, or beg my right? to turn supplicant in such a case is a disfranchising of my self, and an acknowledgement that the thing is not my own, but at another mans pleasure; so that I forsake and cast off my property, and am inslav’d to his arbitrary pleasure: if the other will, I may have possession, otherwise not. Which indignity to my own, or to my Countreys rights, their Lordships shall never enforce me; for it is no better then a branch of tyranny to force a man to turn supplicant for his own, and of self-robbery to submit thereto. Though this inslaved Nation be most deeply and miserably involved in that intolerable condition, so that indeed we cannot have our own naturall rights and immunities, but we must be either patient sufferers, or actuall Petitioners, as if our own were not our own of right, but of favour.

Richard Overton and his friend John Lilburne must have been quite a handful for their jailors when they were sent to Newgate prison, the King’s Bench, or the Tower of London for insisting upon their rights to practice their religion freely, to write what they wished and circulate it freely, to be tried by their peers and not their “betters”, for insisting that proper arrest warrants be issued, and for the traditional rights of Englishmen to be respected by the two Houses of Parliament.

Stints in jail did not stop the flood of pamphlets they wrote in defence of their liberties. Attempts to silence them or make their lives hard in jail only stimulated them further to expose the corrupt practices of the jailors, such as taking bribes for food and better lodging, and nailing boards to their windows so they could not get fresh air, or to denounce the appalling conditions in the prisons, such as failing to prevent prison rape which seemed to be endemic. Even the absence of their beloved books did not seem to stop them quoting endlessly from their holy texts, which consisted of the Bible, Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of English Law, and the Magna Carta (and other charters of English liberties). They seemed to know them all off by heart. Even when he was eventually dragged before the House of Lords Overton refused to answer any questions and angered the Lords further by refusing to doff his hat appropriately. He argued that it was his right as a freeborn Englishman not to.