Video: The Levellers, Falsely So Called: Libertarians of the English Revolution

Richard Carey explains how, when he encountered it as an adult, Libertarianism felt like something innate and yet unheard of, whereas in fact it is part of the deepest roots of English culture. The proto-Libertarian Levellers of the 17th century represent our heroes and forebears. Knowing that these roots exist is a useful antidote to the idea that Libertarianism is some childish newfangled import from the United States that no one has thought through.

The Levellers were slanderously named by a hostile elite after an earlier group that would flatten fences or hedges to gain access to the rightfully owned land of others to which they had lost traditional rights of access during enclosure. By the time of the 17th century the word had mutated to mean the levelling of estates – some kind of communistic or egalitarian notion that was in fact rejected by the Levellers themselves. The Levellers eventually adopted the label once it was seen that the propaganda war was over, and people had learned to whom specifically the term now applied. In this way, the label is in fact rather meaningless, but is used to refer to an intellectual movement that included John Lilburne (Freeborn John), Richard Overton, and William Walwyn, who campaigned for freedom of religion, freedom of the press and free trade, as well as property rights, the right to silence, and the rule of law.

From 34 mins Richard talks about the way the Levellers are remembered. Looking back it is easy to see that the Levellers were campaigning for policies that nowadays are rather popular and which in many cases have been achieved: the abolition of rotten boroughs (done), extension of the franchise (done) free trade and freedom of religion (getting there). The liberals of the 18th century had a remarkably similar agenda but saw the Levellers as headstrong and impractical. Richard speculates that this is because the existence and repression of this movement does not fit with the Whig theory of history in which conditions are believed to improve steadily. As such, the Levellers were before their time and went unappreciated until later Socialist historians “found them in the gutter of history” and “homesteaded them”. Richard is understanding, but makes it clear that they were exploiting the Levellers’s achievements for their own purposes.

The Levellers sought to bring about a reasonable and broadly supported  method of government at a time when the alternatives were forms of unsustainable dictatorships that – when put into practice – did not last. Scorned then, and long afterwards, they were nevertheless supportive of views similar to our own and indeed somewhat vindicated by history. The way they were regarded it not dissimilar to how Libertarians are regarded now, and so it is a source of encouragement that were continuing in this fine tradition.

 

For now, if you want to know all the gory details about what happened to the Levellers there is only the video; however, Richard is going to bring you a serialised written history of the Levellers studded with references. I’m looking forward to this immensely, and I sure you will be too, so don’t forget to follow Libertarian Home using Twitter, Facebook or RSS to avoid missing out.

Simon Gibbs

Simon is a London based IT contractor and the proprietor of Libertarian Home. Working with logic and cause-and-effect each day he was naturally attracted to nerdy libertarianism and later to harshly logical Objectivism. Find him on Google+ 

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  12 comments for “Video: The Levellers, Falsely So Called: Libertarians of the English Revolution

  1. May 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    “an earlier group that would flatten fences or hedges to gain access to the rightfully owned land of others to which they had lost traditional rights of access during enclosure”

    How is land “rightfully owned” by people who were given it by a state which stole it for them from those who actually homesteaded it, establishing rightful ownership (“traditional rights of access”)?

    • May 13, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      Hello, Thomas. This is off topic, sorry, but I’d just like to take this opportunity to say that I really enjoy your writing.

      • May 13, 2014 at 11:42 pm

        Thanks, Rocco! As far as I’m concerned, flattery is NEVER off-topic :D

    • Richard Carey
      May 13, 2014 at 11:39 pm

      Thomas,

      Simon was paraphrasing from the speech, and the point I made about the origin of the word ‘Leveller’. I did not put it quite as he did above, but I spoke fast and may have been misunderstood.

      With regard to the question, obviously land which has been stolen and then given away is not rightfully owned by the recipient. If you wish to hear what I said it starts at 3:55

      • May 13, 2014 at 11:43 pm

        Richard,

        Thanks for the reply! Obviously I was replying specifically to Simon’s paraphrasing … and I probably could have been more polite in doing so. I didn’t have time to listen to a 40 minute talk at the time, but do plan to do so soon.

        • May 13, 2014 at 11:53 pm

          Thomas,

          No problem. I hope you find it interesting if you get a chance to listen to it. There’s plenty left out due to time, and you may find plenty to remonstrate with me in what I included.

          • May 14, 2014 at 12:02 am

            Richard,

            I’ll try to go easy on the remonstrating :D

            I am not a scholar of this particular era, but my understanding is that at least some of the Enclosures violated property rights properly understood.

            The fact that peasant farmers held the land “in common” wouldn’t constitute an absence of property rights gained by homesteading/”mixing their labor with” the land. It would at most create some ambiguity as to who owned how much, etc. (undivided interest versus pro rata share and so forth). And Parliamentary Enclosure and so forth would not, it seems to me, constitute a “rightful” transfer of ownership.

            That’s really all I was trying to get at. I’ll check out your talk at my earliest opportunity!

            • May 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

              Thomas, I don’t disagree, but the people commonly referred to as “levellers” had nothing to do with breaking down fences, and were only called such in order to misrepresent their political aims.

  2. May 12, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    Alan Macfarlane traces the economic side of English voluntarism (belief in private property and hostility to government control of markets) into the middle ages (“The Origins of English Individualism” 1978).

    And on the “non economic” side what is trial-by-jury (celebrated IN CONTRAST to what was done on the Continent since at least Fortescue in the 1400s (hence the original title of his book “Of the difference between an absolute and limited monarchy”) if not the denial of the absolute power of appointed Judges?

    Under an “absolute” monarchy (as with the Roman Empire) the ruler may do what he likes, under a limited monarchy the ruler is just that – LIMITED in power.

    Where the Levellers may have gone wrong is in becoming to interested in the “form” of government (whether it is elected or not) rather than concentrating on what the limits on its powers were – whether it was elected or not.

    But then we have the benefit of hide sight.

    Of course those with a Classical education knew that popular governments had often fallen into folly (and worse) in ancient times.

    But the Levellers would not have believed that honest Englishmen would behave like the mob of ancient Athens and Rome (and so many places) – voting for those who promised “compassion” (as the expense of other people).

    • May 13, 2014 at 11:42 am

      “Where the Levellers may have gone wrong is in becoming to interested in the “form” of government (whether it is elected or not) rather than concentrating on what the limits on its powers were – whether it was elected or not.”

      I don’t think they can be criticised in this way. The issue was not of their making, but brought about by the Civil War breaking out between the King and Parliament. Thus, given the constitutional break-down, the question could not be avoided as to where the ultimate power lay. For the Levellers, the Commons, insofar as it represented the people, was the answer in preference to an hereditary monarch or House of Lords. The Commons was already being elected, but only by a small fraction of the people.

      As to the limits on government, they were very clear that certain rights and liberties were inalienable, and the limitations that they would have placed on the government and future Parliaments were sine qua non issues. It was the failure of the republican government to implement any such prohibitions on the governing power which led to Leveller opposition, The Levellers were more concerned with liberty than the form of government, and many statements note that they would have accepted a monarchy if its power was properly limited and liberties protected, so they were not doctrinaire republicans.

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