Category Archives: Levellers

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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Philip Baker and Elliott Vernon, eds., The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution (review)

Baker, Philip and Elliott Vernon. The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Sorry for the delay. I finished reading the book a little while ago, but had other work to do. I also read (most of) another book, and I will probably post some thoughts on that when I get the chance.

Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. However, if you are planning on getting started with the Levellers, you should not start here. This book does not provide an overview or context for a lot of what was happening in the 1640s. That is not a criticism; that was not the point of the book. But this book is a big step toward establishing some new orthodoxies about the Leveller movement and the army’s radicalism during the Civil Wars.

A lot of the chapters in this book drew on some ideas put forward by Vernon and Baker in their article “What was the first Agreement of the People?” I believe I discussed it in an earlier post. They argue that first Agreement was not a Leveller document. It was written by soldiers and agitators, led by Wildman, who had little to no direct contact with the civilians who would become the leaders of the Leveller movement. The Agreement itself was a product of the radicalism of some of the army’s own members and a response to what these members thought was an overly generous peace proposal in the Heads of the Proposals. Not all of the contributors to the book entirely go along with this redefinition. In particular, Rachel Foxley, who recently published a book on the Levellers, is not willing to take the Levellers out of the Agreement, citing enough similar phrasings and patterns of thought with earlier pamphlets by later Levellers to show consistency, even if Vernon and Baker are correct about the genesis of the document. For my part, I think that Vernon and Baker’s reading of the origins of the first Agreement make a lot of sense. It never made sense to me that Cromwell and the other senior officers would have been willing to give a serious hearing to the Agreement those fateful days in October and November 1647 if it had not been a product of the army. We simply have to take at face value that it was written by representatives from five regiments and not part of a Leveller plot. More on this point later, but suffice it to say that many of the contributors, particularly in the earlier chapters, support this reading of the first Agreement. This will be the new orthodoxy.

Baker and Vernon also establish a new chronology for the Agreements. Traditionally, historians discussed the first Agreement (Nov. 1647), the second Agreement (the account that Lilburne published in Dec. 1648 purporting to be the version agreed upon by the committee of sixteen), the officers’ Agreement (Jan. 20, 1648), and the third Agreement (May 1649). There was also an Agreement by John Jubbes (Dec. 1648) which was generally ignored or marginalized because Jubbes was not a Leveller. Baker, Vernon, and many of the contributors to the volume rename and reorganize this timeline. After the first Agreement, there is a series of compromises worked out between Wildman and a committee to reconcile the Agreement and the Heads on Nov. 2. Throughout 1648, Levellers and army supporters continued to develop the Agreement to include many of the social and legal reforms promoted by the Levellers, and the various published versions are collectively referred to as New Engagements. The second Agreement is now Foundations of Freedom, because it can no longer be second if the first was not a Leveller document and there were New Engagements in between. Jubbes’s Agreement is reconsidered as an authentic Agreement because if the first Agreement was not a Leveller document, then the fact that Jubbes was not a Leveller should not discount his Agreement. The officers’ Agreement is still referred to as such by most of the contributors, but it was also called the January 1649 Agreement. Finally, the third Agreement is redubbed the May 1649 Agreement, because it can no longer be third. The names reflect the new understanding of the Agreements as an ongoing series of attempts by different parties to resolve England’s constitutional crisis of the 1640s. While the Levellers were heavily involved, they cannot be given pride of place when so many others contributed. The result is messier, but more accurately reflects the complexities of the history. The crux of the Agreement is not Leveller infiltration of the army but the quest to settle England.  As Baker and Vernon write at the end of their introduction (which was a superb survey of Leveller historiography, “the Agreements of the People were documents that represented a particularly early modern attempt to remodel the constitution in a time of political crisis” (20-21).

In the interests of space and time, I will try to limit myself to a few thoughts on each individual chapter.

Ch. 1: Edward Vallance, “Oaths, Covenants, Associations and the Origins of the Agreements of the People: The Road to and from Putney”

This chapter argued that the Agreements adapted the use of loyalty oaths that proliferated in the 1640s and 50s, particularly the Covenant, from their earlier medieval, communal roots into “natural rights-based individualism” in a “quintessentially ‘early modern’ transitional phase” (30). Time is given to looking at Collinson’s take on the 1584 bond of association and earlier precedents of oaths of association. The Levellers came to emphasize the contractual language and invitation to mass political involvement, making the oaths a kind of social contract. Vallance notes the importance placed upon engagements and covenants by the Levellers and the soldiers, pointing out that the debate that preceded the famous debate over the franchise was an extended debate over the keeping of those oaths. Therefore, the radicalism of the Levellers does not rest in the franchise or any particular part of their platform (though there were radical elements), but in taking “the sectional democracy of the medieval commune and transform[ing] it radically, into a national written constitution, guaranteeing fundamental, natural, human rights” (43).

One thing that Vallance notes, which I have not seen elsewhere, but I am quite behind on my Leveller historiography, is that Rainsborough’s famous “greatest hee” speech was borrowed from Lilburne’s The Charters of London (1644).

I think that many historians are reimagining the Levellers as radicals who happened to get along for a while. Historians long struggled over what to call the grouping. Is it a party? Is it a movement? This view of the Agreement and the Levellers emphasizes the view of the Levellers as part of the fracturing Independent alliance (also not a new interpretation, but increasingly in vogue). These were men who read parliamentary declarations in a particular way, and thus drew on the same material as Independents and even Presbyterians, but drew wildly different conclusions. In this case, it is a matter of how they interpreted oaths. Is there any greater symbol for variant interpretation than the Solemn League and Covenant? Both Presbyterians and Independents found ways to bash each other with it.

Ch. 2: Jason Peacey, “The People of the Agreements: The Levellers, Civil War Radicalism and Political Participation”

At heart, this chapter was about the people: who they were and what they were required to do, according to the Agreements. Peacey compares the various documents and finds that while all of them required a mechanism for popular approval, the Levellers were radical in that they imagined that the people bound themselves to maintain the Agreement in an active way. There would be frequent elections, impeachments, free press, and regular political reporting to keep MPs accountable.

I am always a fan of Peacey’s work. However, I struggled with this one a little. I think that the analysis and argument were strong and I am always amazed at his grasp of the historiography (seriously, I sometimes wonder if I have read as many books in my entire life as he cites in a single article), but got bogged down in the language from time to time. This sentence got me: “the texts of the various Agreements thus contained a range of different ideas and they performed different functions for different groups, and within individual schemes they could be understood to have had multiple uses” (66). Still, if this is what I can expect to find out of his new book (which I have not been able to read yet because no school in the University System of Georgia seems to have it), I am on board.

Ch. 3: Alan Orr, “Constitutionalism: Ancient, Modern and Early Modern in the Agreements of the People

Orr argues that the Levellers were not trying to create anything new. Rather, the focus of the Agreements and the Levellers was about the restoration of the English birthright, no matter how mythical. The goal was to return to a time before the Norman Conquest and restore the English birthright to its proper state of freedom. This included creating a unicameral parliament and abolishing the power of the Lords.

The article is well argued and clearly written. Considering how much time the Levellers and others spent considering birthright, not to mention the extended debate at Putney, it is surprising that there has not been more discussion of what exactly the birthright meant.

Ch. 4: Philip Baker, “The Levellers, Decentralization and the Agreements of the People

Baker argues that the Leveller platforms and the Agreements were shaped the Levellers experiences, good and bad, with local government, particularly London’s. The Levellers and the Agreements developed over time was “a reaction against longer-term changes in civic governance as in more recent national developments” (98). The Levellers particularly wanted to decentralize the English government. The emphasis on decentralization in the Leveller tracts is well known, but the examination of their knowledge of city governments is revealing.

The Leveller demand for decentralization was at least in part sparked by perceptions of parliamentary tyranny. It was their experiences in being part of the “unacknowledged republic” of England (there are a few points in this chapter in which the reader is reminded of John Morrill; this is one of them) and the self-governing city of London that led them to believe such decentralization desirable. Baker shows that William Walwyn and Thomas Prince both occupied positions in London, and that Prince and Wildman worked for other city governments, too. In addition, Baker shows that their experiences with groups in London (Lilburne’s fight with the Stationers’ Company and Merchant Adventurers, Prince being denied a voice in an election, Walwyn’s plan to raise a citizen army to guard the Tower) all are represented in some way in the Agreements. These experiences and fears of losing local autonomy as the English government continued to centralize encouraged the Levellers to push for decentralization.

In the late 1970s, Morrill argued that Leveller and army aims were incompatible, something that the soldiers eventually realized, because the Leveller emphasis on decentralization would have made it impossible for the army to find relief for its material grievances (“The Army Revolt of 1647”). This chapter drew on an explored this aspect further in a very interesting way. I am curious as to why I have not heard more about the Levellers in city government. Baker argues that the leadership and the rank-and-file of the army opposed this decentralization, and so relevant proposals were withdrawn from later Agreements. However, Baker also argues that the Levellers themselves lost some of their steam for decentralization as their experiences with national and local governments made them doubt the “support and the judgment of their fellow man”(108). I really liked that last point.

Ch. 5: Rachel Foxley, “Freedom of Conscience and the Agreements of the People

This was a fascinating piece. Foxley is explaining the roots of the Levellers’ views on religious toleration and how those were different from Ireton and others.’ Religious toleration was fundamental to the Levellers in ways that it was not to others. It was the same as having political liberty.

The Levellers believed that, because compulsion in religion was not a power that an individual had, it could not be given by the people to the state. This is a fairly well known Leveller position. However, Foxley illustrates that the Levellers believed that the power of religion needed to be listed as a reserve from the government to make clear that it had no authority there. This was fundamental, because the Levellers believed that true government came from the people, not from God. For Ireton, magistrates did have divine approval. This illustrates the radicalism of the Leveller emphasis on government as a human institution, a belief that cost them the support of London congregations and put them at odds with the army grandees. Therefore, for Ireton, any Agreement should say that the government could not compel in matters of religion, but he fully believed that it had the authority to restrict in matters of religion, particularly to marginalize Catholics and prelacy.

The Levellers also argued that a person’s conscience was God-given, and therefore it was up to each person to make his or her own decisions, based on the way that God spoke to him or her. Foxley points out that this was also the motivation behind outlawing the draft. “Perhaps, indeed, it would not be going too far to say that the exercise of (individual) conscience in politics became one of the shibboleths that divided grandees from more radical army men” (16).

Ch. 6: Ian Gentles, “The New Model Army and the Constitutional Crisis of the Late 1640s”

This is a good article for getting context and background for the develops in the army and its relationship with the Levellers in the later 1640s. There is not a single argument that I can discuss here; it is more of a narrative.

Ch. 7: Frances Henderson, “Drafting the Officers’ Agreement of the People, 1648-49: A Reappraisal”

I am sometimes envious of Dr. Henderson and the amount of time she has been able to spend with the Clarke Papers. It seems like she is always finding something new and interesting. In this case, she is looking over an interim copy of the officers’ Agreement from Dec. 14, 1648. The discussion is very detailed, and I am not sure how much I can get into, especially considering this post’s current word count. Henderson argues that this draft of the Agreement in the Clarke Papers is a working draft of the Agreement, and not the Agreement decided on by the committee of 16 established by Lilburne and Ireton to draft a new Agreement. Henderson argues that Lilburne was writing truthfully when he wrote that he published the committee’s Agreement on Dec. 15, the day after he walked out of the Whitehall Debates. Henderson then uses the draft to show what the General Council had been up to on Dec. 12th and 13th, dates for which we have few sources to show what was being debated. The chapter ends with a transcript of the interim draft.

One takeaway from this piece, other than the usefulness of knowing what the General Council was up to during this busy period, is that Ireton was not playing the Levellers for fools. Lilburne came to believe that the debates over the Agreement were a ploy to keep the Levellers busy while the army set about executing the king and establishing its own power. The “painstaking” amount of work exhibited here suggests that Ireton and the army had every intention of settling the country through such an Agreement.

Ch. 8: Elliot Vernon, “‘A Firme and Present Peace; Upon Grounds of Common Right and Freedome’: The Debate on the Agreements of the People and the Crisis of the Constitution, 1647-59”

This chapter examined the Agreements as attempts to solve England’s constitutional crisis and the reception of the Agreements at large. This chapter examines how the Levellers became so closely associated with the first Agreement, despite that fact that it was not a Leveller document and that there was not group called “Levellers” before Putney. The innovative take on this part of Leveller history is that, simply, it was convenient for detractors to mash the two concepts together.

Vernon argues that the term Leveller came from the growing fears of social and religious disorder. Heresiographers, like Thomas Edwards, had stoked fears of social revolution. With the appearance of the Agreement and the threat of military imposition of that Agreement, people became convinced that there was a plot to kill the king and level society. The Agreement was the proof of such a plot, and it “would never lose this association in the polemical debates of the late 1640s and early 1650s” (200).

The Agreement also made people afraid of a future where people had too much freedom and society, as a democracy, would tear itself apart. It was perhaps made worse by the “secular formalism” of the proposed government that irked many fellow radicals. This included army divines like Joshua Sprigge and Sedgwick, who called it an “Agreement with death” (I always liked that one).

I like this piece because it ties together loose ends. It explains the appellation of Leveller, its links to the Agreement which was not originally a Leveller document, and how it played on fears across a broad political and religious spectrum. It is no wonder that no Agreement ever became the English constitution, despite eventually having the support of the army.

Ch. 9: Ann Hughes, “Diggers, True Levellers and the Crisis of the English Revolution”

Hughes makes the excellent point here that the Diggers and the Levellers were not related. Hughes has had a great deal of experience with the Diggers lately as one of the editors of the works of Gerrard Winstanley, and she notes that Winstanley himself rarely made common cause with the Levellers (I think it showed up in one or two pamphlets, but was probably more of an attempt at finding common cause rather than a demonstration of it) and that they wanted fundamentally different things. The Levellers wanted to create secular government, Winstanley wanted to God to help humanity recreate the beginning of the world. Winstanley’s project was inherently divine in nature. It was just convenient for commentators to lump the two groups together because the Levellers drew more attention, whereas the Diggers were what people thought that the Levellers were trying to be. In other words, the Diggers were actually trying to level men’s estates, so why not put them together with the group had been dubbed Levellers?

Ch. 10: David L. Smith, “The Agreements of the People and the Constitutions of the Interregnum”

This chapter traces the influence of the Agreements on reform and constitutional developments in the 1650s. Smith notes that the Rump had begun some piecemeal reforms regarding elections, religion, and justice. However, it was the Instrument of Government that showed the most influence from the Agreements, primarily in the franchise and distribution of seats, mainly drawing on the officers’ Agreement. However, with the Humble Petition and Advice, there was a distinct move away from the Agreements over religious toleration, the franchise, the distribution of seats, and the creation of a second house of parliament. The piece was frequently cited throughout the rest of the volume and is worth a read.

Wrap it up

Sorry for finishing so abruptly, but I saw how long this review was getting. The volume is really worth a read. I do think that Leveller and army history is being rewritten right now, and this book is making a significant contribution.

I hope that I will be able to keep up this more regular pace for writing posts. I am not sure what I will review next. I have some other recent books to look at, like Foxley’s book, I have some books on public history that I am reading, and I need to buckle down on some of my own research. I want to keep working on the history of the London agent, perhaps looking at what I can find on Sir Thomas Clarges and Capt. Adam Baynes. I am not sure if I have the money on hand to get copies of the volumes of Baynes’s correspondence at the BL right now, though. I may also want to go back in time and look at a Jacobean or an Elizabethan agent, but I am better prepared to work on another Civil War era agent. I will figure that out soon, hopefully. Suggestions are welcome.

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Filed under Levellers, Long Parliament, New Model, William Clarke

The Lilburne Infection and more on Walker and Mabbott

I found another pamphlet with folks locked up in the Tower with Lilburne borrowing some of his arguments.  This time, it’s about the Lords not being allowed to try a commoner.  What’s interesting is that this time, at least one of them (the only one I’ve checked up on), was a staunch Presbyterian, imprisoned for his role in the attempted 1647 counter-revolution.  Yet even he borrows from Lilburne.  I can see why Lilburne was considered to be so dangerous.  He was infectious.

I had one other thought on Walker and Mabbott’s relationship.  In one of his petitions to the Lords, Walker complained that Mabbott (among other things) would refuse to license some news items.  Perhaps Walker’s distaste for Mabbott was simply due to Mabbott’s censorship of Walker.  I’m not sure about that, though.  I still need to think about some of the ramifications.  The problem still seems to run deeper than that, especially considering Walker’s connections to the Headquarters.  I’ll keep working on it.

I also ran across a pamphlet on the trial and execution of Sir Walter Raleigh.  I’m sure it has import to early 1648, but I can’t quite tell what.  Since it was licensed, my best guess is that was an attempt to show a particularly “tyrannical” proceeding (part of the campaign to get England ready to fight again), but it’s another thing I still need to think over.  I tried to compare it to reprints of Strafford’s trial or Buckingham’s escapades, but it seems to be a wholly different animal.

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Filed under Henry Walker, Levellers, Long Parliament, Mabbott, New Model, Print Culture

Strange Things in the Archives

This is strange if not unknown.  When Sir John Maynard was imprisoned in 1647, he connected with John Lilburne in the tower.  He was one of the 11 members singled out by the New Model earlier that year.  John Wildman and John Harris (two other Levellers) then waged a small campaign against the Lords on his behalf.  Considering how strongly the Levellers tried to ally with the army, it is strange that they would link Maynard’s case to Lilburne’s.  It almost seems like Lilburne made friends with anyone tossed in the Tower with him.

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The Agreements of the People

I’m also working on a project discussing the failure of the first two Agreements of the People.  Barbara Taft and Austin Woolrych, who admittedly draws on Taft, both make persuasive arguments.  While Taft focuses more on the timing of the second agreement, Woolrych emphasizes the apostacy of the Levellers.  I am inclined to argue that the frequent Leveller attempts to divide the army defeated the grandees’ purpose for negotiating with them: to unify the army.

This fits into my larger argument that support of the Levellers within the army was much more widespread than argued by recent historians.  Cromwell, Fairfax, and Ireton seemed willing, if unhappy, to go along with debating the first Agreement until Rainsborough hijacked the General Council.  Interestingly, the group behind the Case of the Armie was treated with contempt until it was discovered that Sexby (I think it was him, though I’ll need to verify) was involved.  Sexby was one the legitimate agitators.  To me, this aboutface indicates a desire to reconcile with the more Levellerish section of the army.

In the case of the second Agreement, Leveller recriminations and Lilburne’s A Plea for Common-Right and Freedom, which again threatened the authority of the senior officers, showed the officers for the second time that the Levellers were enemies rather than allies.  Why would an Agreement even be seriously considered unless the senior officers believed Levellerism to be a potent force within the ranks, and then why would so many junior officers show such a willingness to defy their seniors during the votes on its articles unless Levellerism was a serious force?

The only real reason I can see for the failure of Agreement is the lack of persistence by men like Ireton and Cromwell, who were in turn most threatened by Leveller attempts to divide the army from its commanders.

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Filed under Levellers, New Model