How we should remember the Levellers


Reproduced from my article in BBC History Magazine Oct 2007,

 The Levellers Legacy

The Putney debates are some of the most important political discussions in English history, but their significance is being distorted by recent attempts to commemorate them.


E.P. Thompson wrote his classic history of English working-class radicals to save them from the ‘condescension of posterity’. Now it seems historians must write to save radicalism from the condescension of the tourist industry.

The Putney Debates were voted the most overlooked radical moment in British history in a recent competition sponsored by the Guardian newspaper. Tristram Hunt, who launched the competition, hopes that this revived interest in Britain’s democratic heritage will lead to the creation of a ‘freedom trail’ of radical history visitor attractions based on the American model. As a starting point, St. Mary’s Putney was awarded £1000 for winning the contest, which will help fund a week’s events commemorating the debates plus a permanent exhibition. The timely raising of awareness of these historic events is welcome. However, the broader project of commemorating the development of British democracy threatens to replace genuine history with a politically-motivated fiction.

The Putney debates began on 28 October 1647, as the General Council of the Parliament’s New Model Army met to discuss The Agreement of the People. This paper, produced by civilian Levellers, called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law.

Colonel Thomas Rainborowe, MP for Droitwich, vice-admiral of the English Navy and an implacable opponent of Oliver Cromwell, expressed his belief that all men that signed the Agreement should be eligible to vote:

‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent put himself under that government’.

An irate Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, responded:

‘no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affairs of the kingdom … that has not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’.

The confrontation between Rainborowe and Ireton is often seen as the defining moment of the Putney Debates of 1647 between the army leadership, rank and file ‘Agitators’ and civilian Levellers: the radical advocate of the rights of all free-born Englishman versus the defender of the landed interest who ‘would have an eye to property’. The Putney Debates have been celebrated as a seminal moment in the history of British democracy by a host of twentieth-century historians and politicians.  Marxists scholars such as Christopher Hill saw the Levellers as representing the English petty bourgeoisie. American liberals like William Haller praised John Lilburne as an early advocate of ‘free enterprise’. The celebration of the Levellers’ contribution to the development of democracy has spread into the political arena. Since 1975, left-wingers have commemorated the suppression of the Leveller-inspired mutiny at Burford in 1649. The socialist icon Tony Benn used his speech at the second ‘Leveller Day’ to applaud them for their forward-looking ideals which ‘anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.’ Paraphrasing Benn, Tristram Hunt has described Rainborowe’s comments as expressing the ‘ethical ideal of socialism’ and suggested that the ‘language and ideas expressed in the US constitution were lifted straight from the Putney debates’.

It is doubtful that the words spoken at Putney influenced the Founding Fathers, given that the text of the debate was not published until 1891. In 1649, the imprisoned John Lilburne had defiantly predicted that ‘posterity … shall reap the benefit of our endeavours whatever shall become of us.’ Yet, for over two hundred years, references to the Putney debates and the Levellers were few and far between. Although a permanent record of the debates was kept by the general secretary of the army, William Clarke, all reporting of the debates in the press was banned. They were barely mentioned in contemporary newssheets and pamphlets.

This secrecy was unsurprising. The discussion of the franchise, the most celebrated element of the debate for recent historians and commentators, was neither the most significant nor the lengthiest portion of the discussions. The focus instead was on settling the kingdom: in particular, the King’s role in any future peace negotiations. During the debates, two soldiers referred to Charles I as a ‘man of blood’, a tyrant who had waged war against his people and must be brought to retributive, divinely-willed justice. Religious language suffused the talk at Putney. People attending the debates also gathered for prayer meetings charged with apocalyptic language. New historical research suggests that Putney saw a shift from the pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the King to the decision to bring Charles I to trial. In the chaotic political situation following the first civil war, few of the participants in the debate, Cromwell least of all, were prepared to leave hostages to fortune by letting the proceedings be reported in public.

Celebration of the Levellers, including the Guardian’s recent competition, has been driven by a desire to fit them into a tradition of British radicalism, as forerunners of democracy, liberalism and socialism. But if the Levellers are part of a ‘democratic tradition’, it is a tradition which has largely been invented by twentieth and twenty-first century historians, journalists and politicians, not one created by radical movements themselves. Until the late nineteenth century there was very little reference to the Levellers and there is, frankly, scant evidence that their works influenced any subsequent radicals either in Britain, America or France. Even once C. H. Firth’s transcriptions of the Putney debates had been published, they were mainly seen as being of interest to military historians. It was not until the publication in 1938 of A. S. P. Woodhouse’s  provocatively titled Puritanism and Liberty, that Putney was established as a milestone in British constitutional history. Woodhouse’s edition of the debates had an explicitly political aim: to provide ideological ammunition for the public in the battle against the forces of Fascism and, later, Soviet totalitarianism. It is his re-interpretation of Putney as a crucible of democratic thought which has proved most influential to the present day.

Historians have now begun to ask if the Levellers have been given disproportionate attention; and whether, indeed, we can talk of the ‘Levellers’ at all. Recent scholarship has argued that there was no coherent ‘Leveller’ programme before the autumn of 1647. The term ‘Leveller’ itself did not appear until after the Putney Debates and was a pejorative label attached to these London radicals by their opponents. The radicals’ critics claimed they wanted to ‘level’ all social distinctions and do away with private property. The leading ‘Leveller’ writers, William Walwyn, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, were always keen to disassociate themselves from the term. In A Manifestation (1649) they complained that they ‘never had it in our thoughts to level men’s estates, it being the utmost of our aim … that every man may with as much security as may be enjoy his propriety’. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, we have been guilty of accepting the words of the Leveller’s critics too literally and have viewed them as a more radical, more modern and more coherent group than they really were.

The proposals for St Mary’s Church Putney to remember the 360th anniversary of these debates threaten to set the anachronistic interpretation of the Levellers as the first democrats/liberals/socialists in stone, institutionalising an invented tradition of British radicalism through museum displays, heritage centres, and public memorials. Hunt has argued that commemorations of this kind provide an antidote to a heritage industry fixated on the lives of our kings and queens but, in fact, this version of Putney really only offers its ‘radical’ equivalent: a romantic vision of great historical democrats (Lilburne, Walwyn) struggling against oppressive tyrannical ‘baddies’ (Cromwell, Ireton). Good melodrama perhaps, but bad history. E. P. Thompson, whom Hunt invokes to promote his project, would, I suspect, be horrified at the proposed ‘heritage- ization’ of British radicalism. Thompson believed that the role of radical history was to arm the people for the political struggles that they faced in the future. Yet the recent Guardian competition offered only an opportunity to ‘celebrate’, through a Whiggish narrative of ever-broadening British freedom, the rights we enjoy at present. The history of the Levellers themselves, crushed by the army leadership and largely forgotten for nearly a quarter millennia, should warn us against this smug complacency about the security of our civil liberties.

So should we bother to commemorate Putney at all? Yes – but in ways which will allow us to continue to benefit from the most recent historical research on the subject. The Levellers are important. They were the first western Europeans to develop the idea of an essentially secular written constitution (though they did so to preserve their own deeply held religious beliefs). Consequently, they were the first to approach a more modern understanding of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech as natural, human rights. Their analysis of the politics of the 1640s remains very relevant today. They saw that an over-mighty Parliament could be as dangerous (if not more so) than a tyrannical King and called both for greater accountability in government and the establishing of civil liberties which could not be undermined by either the monarch or his ministers (even under the pretence of ‘emergency’ or ‘necessity’).

This month sees the release of a new paperback edition of the debates, and a major new collection is forthcoming on the Agreements of the People. These publications and the celebrations of the 360th anniversary of these remarkable debates should be used to spark a discussion of the enduring importance of these English writers and politicians. Leveller writing has much to say about present threats to our rights and freedoms, if we read their own words and not the anachronistic bowdlerisations of their twentieth-century interpreters. Those who spoke, wrote and gave their lives for liberty deserve more than to have their ideas reduced to ignominious (and inaccurate) banalities on a blue plaque.

Published in: on November 6, 2007 at 10:02 am  Comments (8)  
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  1. A most interesting piece, and one that has got me thinking.

    I really don’t know enough about this period, but i have a vague question/problem/rant.

    Your article implies that leveller ideas were essentially forgotten by, let’s say, the Restoration of 1660, and so similar radical ideas in other parts of the world evolved in isolation from and ignorance of Leveller thinking.

    This to me seems an overstatement, although i have only a vague and fairly rubbish hypothesis as to why. That is, in 1651 Hobbes publishes Leviathan, a fairly unconditional assertion of absolute executive power. In 1689 Locke published the 2nd Treatise – which in many parts i take to be an explicit refutation of Hobbesian thinking. Now many factors will explain the difference between the two texts; Hobbes’ proximity to the Civil War, the fact they are two different people etc.

    But reading the 2nd Treatise and reading some of the Leveller demands at the Putney debates, I cannot help but feel that much of the latter seeped into the former. At this stage i have absolutely no hard evidence for this. It’s just that the massive change in political emphasis in these 38 years was always, for me at least, in part explained by the impact pioneers like Rainsborowe had upon established political thinking.

    As i said, it’s kind of a rubbish, un-worked-out hypothesis. But if the claim that the Levellers influenced Locke can be got off the ground, then the it follows that the Levellers certainly *did* contribute, in a pretty big way, to the evolution of modern liberal-democratic thinking.

  2. Thanks for the comment. The argument has been made that Leveller writing (and, indeed, Leveller political practice -mass petitioning, political pamphleteering and, perhaps most important of all, the idea of an essentially secularised social contract) had an impact on Locke – see R. Ashcraft on this. (There’s a decent article too by Tim Harris on the impact of the Levellers’ political practice post-Restoration.) But, as far as I am aware, there isn’t any real evidence that Locke consciously borrowed Leveller ideas (on which see G. Aylmer’s ‘Locke no Leveller’), so all we can really say – which I think is reasonable – is that some Lockeian ideas look a bit like Leveller ideas. We can’t say for definite that this is ‘influence’ except in a very indirect way. Locke did have some connections via radical whig circles with John Wildman, the one participant at Putney to have a long enough political career to still be involved in the events of 1688-9. However, I think Locke had already written most of the two treatises by the time that he met Wildman in exile in Cleves in 1685.

    My brief article makes a bit of a generalisation – certainly some later radical individuals and groups were reading Leveller books. (However, Jason McElligott has found that though members of the London Corresponding Society held copies of Leveller pamphlets in their libraries, they didn’t publicly make use of Leveller arguments.)What I am saying is that the prominence accorded to the Levellers in the history of the English revolution is a recent phenomenon and has a lot to do with anachronistic appropriations of them as ‘the first socialists’ etc.
    I agree with you that the Levellers are important, though I think the idea that they form part of a democratic tradition is problematic for the reasons above.

  3. Had the enclosures of the previous two centuries been torn down, as some Levellers proposed, and copyhold tenure been confirmed under royal law, there would have been a popular majority with a “fixed interest” in the kingdom.

    Re the effect on the American revolution, I think there is probably a line of influence in regard to some legal concepts. That’s particularly true of the American understanding of “due process of law,” as applying to the legislature as well as the executive. It’s hard to draw a direct line of influence through intellectual history, but I think it likely that Leveller ideas of due process persisted in the thought of the commonwealthmen and in the “Good Old Cause,” and were passed to the Americans via the eighteenth century commonwealthmen or oppositionists.

    Most of the minority radical tradition, in matters of the common law, became the standard interpretation in America (for example, the influence of the Wilkes affair on the “search and seizure” provisions in our various constitutions, and the root and branch rejection of prerogative law in the case of the Admiralty court and the writs of assistance). At least, that was true until American law was reconquered by Blackstone and Mansfield in the nineteenth century, and prerogrative law was gradually reintroduced by administrative bodies.

  4. Thanks for the comment Kevin,

    Re- influence on American via Commonwealthsmen, yes, probably some, though it is not very overt in English texts due to the fact that acknowledging you were influenced by Leveller writers was still a very politically damaging thing to do. One reason, out of many, for there being more references to aristocratic republicans like Algernon Sidney and Sir Henry Vane in eighteenth-century English Whig thought. But ‘Leveller’ terminology may have been more overt in American writing of the same period. I have to plead ignorance on that one!

  5. […] 5 December, 2007 Edward Vallance on the Levellers […]

  6. Hi Edward

    I started reading your book and came across the ref to the Guardian radical moment in history etc and that led me here.

    The lineage of political thought is of course hard to prove and follow from C18th, given as you note no one in England is going to admit being influenced by Levellers during that period. Interestingly Eduard Bernstein, the reformist German Marxist, wrote about the Levellers fairly extensively in Cromwell and Communism in 1895- although it wasnt translated into English until the 1930s… My edition has an intro by Eric Heffer!

    I think its likely that political thought gets submerged in popular consciousness- another reason for understanding the importance of history- but we find them again. For example I was looking for the origins of the Woodcraft Folk in radical proletarian education. I camp across various educational movements in the Hampden Clubs, Chartists Sunday Schools and the Socialist Sunday schools. The founder of the WF- Leslie Paul, appeared to be aware of SSS but not the others. I guess like radicals elsewhere he reinvented the same elements created by earlier generations of radicals. So even though there might not always be a direct lineage, the re-emergence of thought and organisation is a direct consequence of experience and the radical impulse to achieve “freedom”

    • Thanks for your comment – yes, I agree the European re-discovery of English radicalism is v. important and arguably its this, plus American liberal readings in the early 20thC, more than British socialist/marxist historiography which really revives interest in the Levellers, Diggers etc.

  7. lol when i started reading this, i thought it was a blog abound the band Levellers. Oh well it was nice to be educated anyway. My lesson learnt for the day 🙂

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