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.
Some of that history is now readable in these articles:
- The Levellers, falsely so called 2.0 part 1
- The Leveller concept of individual sovereignty – Overton and Lilburne contrasted