An informal review of Rachel Foxley’s The Levellers: Radical political thought in the English Revolution

A second post! I can’t promise a lot of further updates here, but I have been more in the mood for this sort of thing of late. We had our second child about a year ago, and between work and home, there hasn’t been a lot of time left over for writing things on a blog that no one reads and does not contribute to either raising children or promotion at work. However, I am in the midst of a few different projects, one of which is to revamp part of the old dissertation for an article. I am currently thinking about doing a reappraisal of The Moderate because it has been quite a long time, as far as I can tell (someone could let me know if I am wrong)  that there has been a scholarly reexamination of that infamous newsbook. I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, so I expect progress to be slow, but in an effort to get some of my thoughts together, I thought that I would write a review of Rachel Foxley’s recent monograph The Levellers: Radical political thought in the English Revolution as I catch up on Leveller historiography.

Foxley’s book is an outgrowth of her dissertation. It is the larger work behind her chapter in Vernon and Baker’s The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution (2012) and her article “Problems of Sovereignty in Leveller Writings” (2007). I will begin with brief summaries of each of the chapters. Because this is more to help me sort some things out, this will not be as formal a review as I might otherwise try to write. In case you are wondering why I don’t just write something up for myself and not publish it here: 1. This site doesn’t get enough traffic to be considered public and 2. Writing where someone might see what I am writing forces me to focus much more than when I write solely for my self.

The first two chapters are paired. In the first chapter, “Consent and the Origins of Government,” Foxley situates the Levellers in and against parliamentarian rhetoric about popular sovereignty and parliamentary supremacy. The Levellers were not just a further extension or radicalization of parliamentarian propaganda. She points out that the Leveller came to draw on two fundamentally opposed principles: the supremacy of the Commons and the appeal to the people. These two ideas came from different sources within the parliamentarian coalition, the former the more “radical,” the latter more conservative.

One of the key arguments is that the Levellers were not arguing for a social contract, despite what many historians have said. They viewed contemporary England as still being in a state of nature and that “the transition to benign consensual government was not a decisive break, but simply a development of the right and natural state of things” (28). Therefore, the Levellers could not and would not argue that it was time to create a new social contract with the Agreement; that would indicate that representative government was not part of the state of nature.

The Levellers drew on Henry Parker and others to argue against England’s mixed constitution and in favor of the supremacy of the Commons. The Commons could be supreme because MPs were elected. This led the Levellers, as they grew disillusioned with the Commons, to argue that without proper and frequent elections, the representative could fail to be truly representative.

The second chapter, “The Appeal to the People,” argues that the Levellers’ later tendency to appeal to the people was difficult to reconcile with their belief in the Commons’ supremacy. When they did begin to do so, ideas came not from the more radical polemicists like Parker, but from Presbyterians. These more conservative writers worked hard to avoid implications of parliamentary supremacy in an their effort to preserve the mixed constitution. In so doing, they inadvertently left room for the people to be involved. For instance, Philip Hunton could not allow one part of the government to be superior to the others, so he allowed people to use their consciences to choose which side of the civil war to support.

All of this leads to a reinterpretation of the third Agreement. Instead of reading it as a full statement of all the things the Levellers always wanted but were too afraid to say, she sees it as a result of the “changed circumstances” that the Levellers and England now found themselves in. The Commonwealth was too tyrannical. Interestingly, Foxley also ties the decentralization of offices in the third Agreement to these changed circumstances. It was an attempt to create a “halfway house between the sovereignty of the people and that of their representatives in Parliament” (71).

The third chapter, “The laws of England and the ‘free-born Englishman’” discusses how Lilburne could use natural law, Coke’s common law arguments, and statute law to support his ideology. This was done through a radical reinterpretation of Coke’s language. Much of the chapter is around Lilburne’s language, particularly the terms “free-born Englishman” and “birth-right.” Both terms were inclusive rather than exclusive. Following some of the work done on the Levellers and their involvement in London politics, she argues that although the concept of citizenship, for which “free-born Englishman” is an alternate term, did come from London politics, but its inclusiveness was intended to override the exclusive term citizen.

The term “birth-right” was what the “free-born Englishman” had. It was a term that roped together a variety of rights, privileges, and immunities that, while some of these might previously have been the exclusive domain of particular groups, now became the domain of the free-born.

These rights and terms came with duties. That was part of the active citizenship required of an Englishman. He was expected to defend his birth-right. Lilburne would use “English” as “a moral shorthand” (108).

The fourth chapter, “Religion, politics, and conscience,” explores the Leveller commitment to liberty of conscience. Foxley argues that Lilburne’s and frequently the Levellers’ political and religious agendas were parallel; one did not come from the other. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that arguments about covenant theology and congregations for motivating or shaping the Levellers are unnecessary; “parliamentarian thinking, whether tolerationist or not, is a viable source for all the structural elements of Leveller political thought” (121). The Levellers just kind of thought about politics and religion in the same way. There were rights and duties for the free-born Englishman and the good Christian.

Foxley argues that the liberty of conscience, to the Levellers, was positive, in that your conscience was your own, and that “the Levellers thus emphasized the importance of everyone, from the lowest to the highest, taking responsibility for their own views” (130). This also meant that the use of your own conscience was necessary in both religion and politics.

People thus needed to be able to understand themselves. “These types of self-understanding could line up neatly with the self-understanding which Lilburne required of his audience of free-born Englishmen. For the Levellers, they should also enable people to be aware of duties towards God and one’s fellow citizens, and of the rights which sometimes had to be asserted in order to fulfill those duties” (131-32). Thus, Leveller view on politics and religion were not dependent one way or the other, but parallel.

Foxley also argues that the Levellers were not proposing a separation of church and state. That would oversimplify their position. Rather, in looking at Overton and Walwyn in particular, she finds that Levellers tended to blur the distinctions between reason, nature, and the divine. She also notes that the Levellers were okay with the creation of a national church so long as it had not power of compulsion or restriction (Ireton, at the Whitehall Debates, also opposed compulsion, but he was okay with restriction).

Foxley goes on to argue that the Levellers placed the reserve on religion in the Agreements because it was not within a person’s power to go against his own religion. Therefore, that power could not be granted to a magistrate. However, as Foxley argued, the conscience was owned by the person, not by God, and thus theoretically controlled it. Foxley goes on to note that “this paradoxical ‘reservation’ by the people of a power which they did not in fact possess” was part of Leveller philosophy.  “In religion, we are forced to own our consciences and not give them away; in politics, we are forced to own our basic physical security and political freedom and not give it away” (139). Thus, as with the “free-born Englishman,” rights are also duties.

One of the most interesting observations in this chapter, to be revisited in the next, was the overlap in style and wording between the Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens (1646), printed by Overton, and the reserve concerning religion in the first Agreement (1647). This argument was made previously in Walwyn’s A Helpe to Right Understanding (1645). “A consistent Leveller argument, perhaps linked by Walwyn’s involvement, runs throughout these three texts” (137).

The most important chapter for my interests is the fifth: “Levellers and the army: England’s freedom, soldiers’ rights.” Foxley modifies current historiography in some ways. She frequently comes into conflict with the interpretations of John Morrill, Philip Baker, and Elliott Vernon, though often agreeing on core concepts. There is still a fracturing “Independent alliance,” coined by David Underdown and modified and developed by Jason Peacey, Morrill, Baker, and Vernon. This alliance housed a variety of radicals and this tends to complicate the history of the creation of the Case of the Armie and the first Agreement. Morrill and Baker have argued that there was little overlap between the civilian Levellers and the soldier authors of the Case. Similarly, Vernon and Baker find the genesis of the Agreement to be more mixed, but still more squarely responding to parliamentarian discourse and the army’s own declarations. However, Foxley argues for greater involvement by Levellers, or at least their ideas, in both documents: “none of the attempts in the literature to slice a clean line between one set of texts and people and another (whether those are ‘Leveller’, ‘Independent’ or ‘army’) is entirely convincing. Both at the level of written ideas and at the level of personnel, the threads which connect these three groups are too tangled to undo” (153).

After questioning what we can really know about the personal connections between civilian and army radicals, she argues that Lilburne’s concepts of the “free-born Englishman” and his “birth-right” did deeply inform the first Agreement. She takes on Kishlansky directly: “the Agreement itself . . .was a distillation of fundamental principles designed to render civilian and army demands compatible. It may have had army origins, but it was taken up and promoted in an energetic campaign by the civilian radicals who were now named Levellers; and their further ‘Agreements of the People’ were similarly designed to appeal to army support. The Putney Debates and the promotion of the Agreement marked not the end but the beginning of a potentially fertile alliance between civilian Levellers and army radicals” (158).  Rather than viewing the Leveller infiltration of the army in 1647 as small and the mutiny at Ware as weak, she asks “if the Levellers and the army did approach Putney ‘from opposite directions’, as Kishlansky claims, why did they keep converging for so long afterwards” (158)? She notes the repeated actions with and against the Levellers in the army, ending with the May and September 1649 mutinies that posed a serious threat. “The revisionist story about Putney and its aftermath cannot easily account for these continuing connections” (159).

Most relevant to my interests, she has about five pages on The Moderate. She finds that it evinces a kind of army radicalism. It was one conversant with the Levellers, but still different. For instance, The Moderate rejected all the laws of the land as part of the Norman yoke, but we know that Lilburne had incorporated the law into his vision. The Moderate and the Levellers both complained about the new Council of State, but while The Moderate complained about the inclusion of Lords and anti-regicides, Lilburne opposed army commanders, Star Chamber judges, and those that rejected the dissolution of the monarchy and the Lords. “The Moderate’s army-oriented radicalism overlapped with Leveller concerns about the direction of the revolution, even though any Leveller endorsement of the regicide was far more wary and conditional” (164).

Foxley also notes that the Moderate was careful not to challenge the army’s leadership. It did not condone the Leveller uprisings and unrest in 1649, though it did report approvingly on the Levellers. “and while it cautiously omitted to print the Agreement of the People, it dropped heavy hints of its continued support for ‘Leveller’ doctrines in the wake of the mutiny’s defeat . . . . On the evidence of the Moderate, support for the Leveller programme in the army did not wither away in the aftermath of Burford, and some might still be significant supporters who had not thrown themselves into mutiny” (164).

Foxley ends her discussion of the Moderate by discussing its efforts to conciliate radicals, Independent and otherwise. She argues that the paper shows the continued support of Levellerism by army radicals, even after the mutinies, and even though some may not “endorse Leveller violence” (165).

Before finishing the chapter with a comparison between Leveller and army demands for England’s constitution, she discusses the origins of army radicalization. Effectively, she argues that over 1647, the soldiers were encouraged, or perhaps forced, to think of themselves as soldiers and as Englishmen. These dual identities sometimes came into conflict, but by following this line, Foxley argues that even the Case was not strictly army-oriented because it demanded that the soldiers be considered as citizens.

The Levellers tried to push the soldiers to think of themselves as Englishmen, with the attendant rights and duties. As a result, “from 1647 the army stressed their rights as Englishmen in ways which strongly recalled, and were certainly compatible with, Lilburne’s discourse of the citizenship of free-born Englishmen. This gave the army a position from which to intervene politically; and it gave the Levellers a platform for grafting their thought onto army radicalism and trying to steer army radicals towards their own political programmes” (175).

The last chapter, “Levellers into republicans?,” discusses both the mixing and incompatibility of Leveller and classical republican thought. This review has already gone on a bit long, so to summarize this chapter very quickly, most republicans in the 1650s were unwilling to invoke the Levellers for fear of accusations of democracy, except for John Streater. The chapter primarily discusses Lilburne, Marchamont Nedham, John Harrington, and Streater.

This book takes on the revisionist view of the Levellers at a number of points. In general, it argues for their greater importance and power. It does so by emphasizing the strength and appeal of their ideas, even where there may not be much overlap in personnel between Levellers and other radicals. For instance, while Lilburne did not invent the words “free-born Englishman” and “birth-right” (certainly terms strongly identified with Lilburne) he did popularize them and give them their meanings. By following these concepts, Foxley points out to the extensive Leveller influence on other people and texts.

The book also disagrees with literature that tries to either make the Levellers secular or religious. For instance, Colin Mason has recently argued that the Levellers’ belief in religious toleration came from the General (not Particular) Baptists. Foxley also denies that the Agreement was based on congregational oaths or covenant theology, as some have. For Foxley, such arguments are unnecessary because “parliamentarian thinking, whether tolerationist or not, is a viable source for all the structural elements of Leveller political thought” (121). As mentioned previously, the Levellers thought about politics and religion in parallel; one did not depend on the other.

There are a few underlying assumptions about the Levellers and the period. First, it was a mess. The Independent alliance was messy, the sharing of ideas and people was messy, and the histories of the parliament, army, and radicals were messy. It is therefore impossible to entirely separate all of these apart. It is reminiscent of J. C. Davis’s line about historians who viewed the Levellers as democrats as being “too insistent on consistency.”

Second, there was a belief in continuity. Although Foxley disagrees with R. B. Seaberg on a few important points, continuity is central to her discussions. Seaberg argues that the Levellers as a whole, not just Lilburne, embraced the common law and Magna Carta while rejecting Norman practices. Foxley objects to these arguments, but both agree that Levellers felt that they were a part of an eternal battle between people’s liberty and those who would take away that liberty. Thus, for Foxley, the Agreements were an attempt end the cycle of fighting over English rights.

Beyond that, there is Foxley’s argument that the Levellers believed that rule by a representative was continuous with the state of nature. There was no moment where English society broke away from prepolitical society; government by representation was part of the state of nature.

Foxley also has a radical reading of the Agreement. It was not intended as a social contract or an agreement between the people, but an agreement between the army and the people. The Agreement “was an audacious proposal for a treaty not between king and Parliament—the parties which had fought the civil war—but between army and people. And yet it did not presuppose the maintenance of the army for the future; rather, it was designed to bring the army’s and people’s interests into a close enough alignment that both soldiers and ex-soldiers would be secured from political malice, alongside their fellow commoners” (171). The Agreement, then, in addition to attempting to appeal to both civilians and soldiers, was an attempt to unite the soldiers’ two identities of soldier and Englishman.

Foxley challenges much of the inherited wisdom on the Levellers. She challenges earlier historians who saw them as largely secular, more recent historians who see them as chiefly religious, and revisionists who have doubted their strength. However, in some cases, such as in dealing with the revisionists, Foxley has modified arguments more than refuted them (except in arguing that the Levellers were strong enough to be taken seriously). She has typically done so by emphasizing messiness and continuity.

One of the things I appreciate most about this book is its attention to language. The discussions of the meanings of free-born and birth-right give the terms and ideas behind them their due. These discussions and their consequences for thinking about the Levellers are some of the most powerful in the book.

In discussing the continuity between the present and ancient past, the Levellers are allowed to speak for themselves more than having their ideas imposed on other schemas. It is a salient reminder that we all take our preconceptions with us, even those of us who should know better. Although this book did not propose to tie all Leveller developments the larger political contexts, it was sensitive to changes in the political situation and good at tracing how these forced the Levellers into some contorted positions. The central example of this, to which the book returns repeatedly, is the uncomfortable embrace of parliamentary sovereignty and the decision to begin appealing to the people. Leveller philosophy required the Commons to be synonymous with the people, making an appeal to the people disingenuous at best. However, this then shaped their view of representation and elections, ultimately explaining why so much attention was paid to it in the third Agreement. I have always been uncomfortable with the arguments made about Leveller belief in decentralization and that this belief was incompatible with the soldiers’ demands, thus making the soldiers turn away from the Levellers. If Leveller influence was weakened by their trend toward decentralization, why did Cromwell continue to fear them? Why did Lilburne have to be exiled and then imprisoned? How could there be mutinies into September 1649? Could soldiers have been so willing to betray their longterm interests as Englishmen for their short term interests of not-being-entirely-certain-how-they-were-going-to-be-paid? They did famously protest that they were not “a meer mercinary army.”

Overall, this book is a strong contribution to the historiography of the Levellers. For my part, I largely agreed with the interpretation of The Moderate as being more representative of army radicalism than Levellerism (that was a big part of my dissertation, after all). It might be beyond the scope of the book, but I would have liked to have seen more about the Levellers’ many other demands. For instance, there has been a lot written about the Levellers and monopolies and a large variety of particular reforms (legal reform, poor law reform, prison reform, freedom of the press, and others) and many of these were not addressed and do not appear to easily fall into the discussions of sovereignty. I can see how freedom of the press would be important, and I think I remember a brief discussion of monopolies, but are these other reforms simply tacked on, or are they also part of an organic development within the Leveller movement? Perhaps that is a whole other book. In any case, I would certainly recommend this book as a major work in the field.

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