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The Levellers (17th century)

Black and white illustration showing a contemporary view of religious radicalism
No way to the old way: a contemporary view of religious radicalism 
'The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately.' Thomas Jefferson, quoting the words of Leveller Richard Rumbold.

The Levellers were an informal alliance of pamphleteers and army agitators who emerged during the upsurge of political and religious freethinking unleashed by the conflict between Parliament and king in the 1640s. The most prominent Levellers were John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn, John Wildman, Edward Sexby and Colonel Thomas Rainborough. By the end of the first civil war in 1646 their ideas had come to dominate the thinking of soldiers and officers in the all-powerful New Model Army, and the Levellers briefly held the balance of political power.

Their programme - published as The Agreement of the People in 1647 - was sweepingly democratic. They held (in the words of Richard Overton) that 'by natural birth all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedom', and that government should be a contract between equal citizens. They called for a secular republic, with separation of legislative and executive powers and abolition of the House of Lords; equality before the law; the right to vote for all except beggars and servants; free trade; abolition of censorship, freedom of speech and complete religious toleration.

In March 1647 the Army's rank-and-file began to elect agitators to voice their demands for radical political reform. Cromwell, Ireton and Fairfax, the army's high command, were deeply alarmed, but needed the Army's co-operation to maintain control over Parliament and the country. The result was one of the most remarkable contests of the civil war, as ordinary soldiers sat down with generals in a church in Putney to deliberate the rights and wrongs of revolution. At this meeting Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainborough argued the case for universal suffrage as the only way of ensuring the consent of the governed:

I think the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.

Over the next year the outbreak of the second civil war and the despatch of part of the Army to fight in Ireland helped the generals to re-established their authority, and by 1649 Leveller influence in the New Model was waning. An attempted mutiny by radical regiments in Berkshire was crushed at Burford church, and three Leveller soldiers - Corporals Church and Perkins and Cornet Thompson - shot by Cromwell's men. John Lilburne was tried for high treason, convinced the jury of his innocence and was acquitted - only to be re-tried by Parliament a year later, convicted and sent into lifelong exile in the Netherlands.

But Leveller ideas lived on in the profoundly influential 'natural right' theories of John Locke, in Rousseau's social contract, and in the thinking of democrats ever since.

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