The Leveller concept of individual sovereignty – Overton and Lilburne contrasted


(Part II of a series of posts on the Levellers. Part I can be found here and a speech I gave on the subject can be found here)

From the outbreak of the Civil War, the old constitution of England, wherein sovereignty resided somewhere within a sort of mystical triumvirate of King, Lords and Commons, was broken apart, although both sides were keen to deny such an obvious conclusion, keeping up the fiction that each was fighting to uphold and restore the traditional balance. However, by the old rules, without the approval of Parliament, the King’s actions were illegitimate, and likewise the Parliament’s acts without the King’s approval. If individuals were bound to obey lawful authority, how was anyone to judge what authority was lawful? (William Walwyn’s pamphlet “The Bloody Project” makes this point at the time of Second Civil War in 1648).

To a number of the Levellers, the collapse of the government into warring factions signified that the nation had returned to a state of nature, wherein it would be necessary to re-establish a legitimate and lawful government, the question being; upon what basis? Taking their lead from the arguments presented by Parliament’s supporters, informed by Sir Edward Coke’s conception of the common law, the Levellers developed their political ideas based on the following key principles: firstly, that each individual had, through the laws of God and Nature, certain inalienable rights and properties in himself, and that all legitimate authority, whether of King or Parliament, derived from the individual’s right to self-preservation. The Leveller position interpreted the notion of “Salus Populi Suprema Lex”, a notion asserted by Parliament’s supporters in justification of all acts which could not be justified by precedent, in a fundamentally individualistic way.

One of the most quoted Leveller statements of this viewpoint comes from Richard Overton’s work “ An Arrow Against All Tyrants”, (full title; “An Arrow Against All Tyrants and Tyranny, shot from the prison of Newgate into the prerogative bowels of the arbitrary House of Lords and all other usurpers and tyrants whatsoever”). Thus:

“To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man. Mine and thine cannot be, except this be. No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man’s…”

“For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom; and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a natural, innate freedom and propriety — as it were writ in the table of every man’s heart, never to be obliterated…”

“It is nature’s instinct to preserve itself from all things hurtful and obnoxious; and this in nature is granted of all to be most reasonable, equal and just… And from this fountain or root all just human powers take their original — not immediately from God (as kings usually plead their prerogative) but mediately by the hand of nature, as from the represented to the representers…”

“And no more may be communicated than stands for the better being, weal, or safety thereof. And this is man’s prerogative and no further; so much and no more may be given or received thereof: even so much as is conducent to a better being, more safety and freedom, and no more. He that gives more, sins against his own flesh; and he that takes more is thief and robber to his kind — every man by nature being a king, priest and prophet in his own natural circuit and compass, whereof no second may partake but by deputation, commission, and free consent from him whose natural right and freedom it is. “

After comparing the relationship between the people and the government to that between the parents of a child and a tutor hired to teach that child (thus the tutor is empowered only in a strictly limited sense and can be dismissed and replaced if derelict in his duties) he goes on:

“It is in vain for you to think you have power over us to save us or destroy us at your pleasure, to do with us as you list, be it for our weal or be it for our woe…For the edge of your own arguments against the king in this kind may be turned upon yourselves. For if for the safety of the people he might in equity be opposed by you in his tyrannies, oppressions and cruelties, even so may you by the same rule of right reason be opposed by the people in general in the like cases of destruction and ruin by you upon them; for the safety of the people is the sovereign law”.

This principle of self-ownership is echoed fifty years later by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government, thus:

“Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.”

The same idea, along with the notion that all just powers of government derive from self-ownership, is also asserted by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be [sacred and undeniable] self evident, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

With self-ownership forming the bedrock of Overton and the Levellers’ political ideas, their stances on freedom of conscience, free trade, representative government, consent etc. naturally follow. It is also worth noting how such views struck at the very foundations of the existing government at the time, and that, given Overton’s position as a prisoner by order of the “arbitrary and tyrannical” House of Lords, it took a man of some courage to state it so unambiguously.

Similar ideas are expressed by Lilburne, which I will quote to illustrate the differences in writing style, as well as perhaps a difference in underlying philosophy, with Overton leaning more on reason than theology. The following is taken from “The Freeman’s Freedom Vindicated”:

“God, the absolute sovereign lord and king of all things in heaven and earth, the original fountain and cause of all causes; who is circumscribed, governed, and limited by no rules, but doth all things merely and only by His sovereign will and unlimited good pleasure; who made the world and all things therein for His own glory; and who by His own will and pleasure, gave him, His mere creature, the sovereignty (under Himself) over all the rest of His creatures (Genesis 1: 26, 28-9) and endued him with a rational soul, or understanding, and thereby created him after His own image (Genesis 1: 26-7; 9: 6). The first of which was Adam, a male, or man, made out of the dust or clay; out of whose side was taken a rib, which by the sovereign and absolute mighty creating power of God was made a female or woman called Eve: which two are the earthly, original fountain, as begetters and bringers-forth of all and every particular and individual man and woman that ever breathed in the world since; who are, and were by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority, and majesty — none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power, one over or above another. Neither have they or can they exercise any but merely by institution or donation, that is to say by mutual agreement or consent — given, derived, or assumed by mutual consent and agreement — for the good benefit and comfort each of other, and not for the mischief, hurt, or damage of any: it being unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked and unjust for any man or men whatsoever to part with so much of their power as shall enable any of their parliament-men, commissioners, trustees, deputies, viceroys, ministers, officers or servants to destroy and undo them therewith. And unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked, unjust, devilish, and tyrannical it is, for any man whatsoever — spiritual or temporal, clergyman or layman — to appropriate and assume unto himself a power, authority and jurisdiction to rule, govern or reign over any sort of men in the world without their free consent; and whosoever doth it — whether clergyman or any other whatsoever — do thereby as much as in them lies endeavour to appropriate and assume unto themselves the office and sovereignty of God (who alone doth, and is to rule by His will and pleasure), and to be like their creator, which was the sin of the devils’, who, not being content with their first station but would be like God; for which sin they were thrown down into hell, reserved in everlasting chains, under darkness, unto the judgement of the great day (Jude verse 6). And Adam’s sin it was, which brought the curse upon him and all his posterity, that he was not content with the station and condition that God created him in, but did aspire unto a better and more excellent — namely to be like his creator — which proved his ruin. Yea, and indeed had been the everlasting ruin and destruction of him and all his, had not God been the more merciful unto him in the promised Messiah (Genesis 3).”

Amen. Notwithstanding the more verbose style and faith-based phraseology, the underlying argument is much the same. It is interesting to note in the above how Lilburne defines what it means for a man or woman to be made in the image of God, namely, it is the possession of “a rational soul, or understanding”. Also important is the key notion of consent, that the only governmental power that can be justly exercised is that which derives from “mutual agreement or consent … for the good, benefit and comfort each of other, and not for the mischief, hurt or damage of any”. This notion of consent is found in one of the most well-known quotes from the period; Thomas Rainsborough, the highest-ranking army Leveller, speaking in the Putney Debates of the General Council of the Army, October 1647 (to be discussed in a later post):

“For really I think that 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; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that, when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, insomuch that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no, that should doubt of these things.”

The above quote can be found in “Puritanism and Liberty” page 111

A great deal hinges upon what we understand by and how we define the term consent (coincidentally the subject of Thursday’s speech by Christian Michel at Libertarian Home). If the legitimacy of all or any government power derives from the consent of the people, the more literally it is taken, the more limited the government must be, tending towards the vanishing point of anarchism. However, it is republicanism rather than anarchism which the Levellers sought, although the latter was imputed to them by their enemies. The pamphlet “A Manifestation” signed by Overton, Lilburne, Thomas Prince and Walwyn (the principle writer) in 1649 during their captivity in the Tower of London, addresses this accusation;

“‘Tis somewhat a strange consequence to infer that because we have laboured so earnestly for a good government therefore we would have none at all, because we would have the dead and exorbitant branches pruned and better scions grafted therefore we would pluck the tree up by the roots.”

In conclusion (for the time-being) the Levellers’ political philosophy is founded on the principle of individual self-ownership. That there must be a government is not doubted, however its legitimacy can only be bestowed by the freely-given consent of the governed. Given the inalienability of self-ownership and the over-arching “sovereign law” of the people’s safety, there are limits to what any individual can consent to and thus there are limits which no government can ever legitimately exceed – as Overton states above: “He that gives more, sins against his own flesh; and he that takes more is thief and robber to his kind“.


  1. ” …and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under;”

    One root is to consider ensuring a “none of the above” option, as a false choice is no choice at all. At least then, if the majority desire not a government, no government is imposed.



    1. I’d favour a ‘none of the above’ option in elections now, although I would point out that the means of electing representatives, the party system and the size and scope of government which now exist are all very different from that of the time of Rainsborough’s comment.



  2. A good and interesting article.

    It is noteworthy that both Overton and Lilburne are arguing from a natural law perspective. The Anglican and Royalist Richard Hooker (back in the 16th century) would not have disputed their philosophical principles – however much he might have dissented from some of their conclusions.

    Even Charles the First (on his speech before his execution – and in the “Kings Book”) shared the same basic philosophy, He just believed that liberty and property of the population (including the poor) were best protected under a system where the King (himself) controlled the government (the executive) rather than Parliament controlled it.

    Experience has shown that liberty and property are often poorly protected (indeed actively threatened) by both Kings and Parliaments (including Parliaments elected by the general population).



    1. “The judicious Hooker” is quoted a number of times by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government”. I expect the key disagreement between Hooker and the Leveller writers would be on the definition of “consent”, with the former seeing it as embodied in the long-standing laws and institutions, rather than a “live issue” for individuals in the here and now.

      Experience indeed shows how poorly liberty and property are protected by kings and parliaments, neither of which show any inclination for their powers to be circumscribed and limited, as intended by the Levellers.



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