The term leveller has a long history. It seems to have emerged in its modern understanding during the early years of the English Revolution (1640–1660), when it was used to designate the perceived political aims of the Long Parliament (so called because the Parliament sat from 1640–1653, long after it would ordinarily have been disbanded). Later, it referred to a group of agitators both within and outside of the New Model Army (NMA), which had been formed in 1645 by Parliament in the course of the Civil War/Revolution against Charles I. Yet the Levellers are notoriously difficult to pin down, due in part to the heterogeneity of their composition, the shifting nature of their demands, and the fact that the group of radicals the term is understood to designate rejected the appellation.
The Levellers arose out of agitation for the release of John Lilburne (1615–1657). Lilburne had been a radical cause célebre under King Charles I (r. 1620–1649), who had him publicly whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned in 1638 for publishing Puritan tracts. Lilburne was released from prison in 1641 and became a soldier in the Parliamentary army. He was imprisoned again in 1644 for advocating liberty of conscience and the interests of common soldiers, both of which would be successful planks in later Leveller agitation.
In what is generally understood to be the founding document of the Leveller movement, Richard Overton and William Walwyn published A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens in 1646. They demanded the release of Lilburne and listed a number of political and social demands that would become the backbone of Leveller ideology. Most significantly, the Remonstrance demanded annual parliaments, an expansion of the voting franchise, a form of progressive taxation, the abolition of the House of Lords, liberty of religious conscience, and a written constitution.
Though the Levellers propagandized with success among civilians, their greatest inroads were made in the New Model Army, which at this time had become the de facto government of England. They combined the political concerns of the Remonstrance with the concerns of the army, including inaction on back pay and the failure of Parliament to produce amnesty for acts committed during the Civil War. Plans to disband the NMA and raise a new army for the invasion of Ireland made these concerns more acute, as they threatened to eliminate the political clout of the army.
The NMA Levellers elected Agitators, or New Agents, from each regiment to press these concerns, and with Overton, Lilburne, and Walwyn they produced The Case of the Armie Truly Stated and the Agreement of the People (1647), vowing that the army would not disband or be deployed until their demands were met.
The tracts were debated at Putney in October and November of 1647, with much of the debates centered around the franchise. Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and a handful of officers represented the Grandees (the officers of the NMA) against the Agitators, with Ireton taking the lead. Ireton began the attack by cynically arguing that the Agitators had presented a “levelling” scheme (hence the term) that would result in “communism” and ultimately “anarchy.” He claimed that the Agreement, if adopted, would extend the franchise to persons (including “foreigners”) “with no interest” (as manifested in land) in England, and that it would therefore threaten the country’s stability. The Agitators responded that they had risked their lives in war, and thus had more “interest” in England than those who had merely risked land. Though arguments for universal manhood suffrage were made, this does not seem to have been the general aim of the Agitators, and such arguments appear for the most part specifically related to suffrage among soldiers.
The general mood of the Agitators tended toward suffrage of persons considered “independent” (i.e., holders of small property) and did not include such persons as “servants and beggars.” This position met with surprising success among NMA officers, including Colonel Thomas Rainborough, who became an eloquent spokesman for their cause. On the whole, the Agitators’ aims may be summed up in their oft-repeated self-designation—they were for “liberty and propriety,” as opposed to “community and levelling.”
Though the Agreement enjoyed the support of a wide swath of officers and rank-and-file soldiers, it was scuttled by a familiar Cromwellian combination of force, fraud, and circumstance. The Levellers ceased to be a political force after 1648. The terms leveller and levelling, however, almost immediately entered the political lexicon, mostly on Ireton’s terms. As early as 1649, the term leveller was in use by Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard, the founders of the Digger colony at St. George’s Hill in Surrey, which sought to lay the foundations of a communist society. The group alternately referred to themselves as “True Levellers.” A popular Ranter named Abiezer Coppe decried the murder of the “Levellers (so called)” and (in a typically apocalyptic flourish) promised that, as a result, the risen Lord was now going to “levell … in good earnest.”
Though Leveller arguments could, in part, be seen at the root of John Locke’s Two Treatises and other Whig thinking, the terms leveller and levelling came to represent a sort of radical redistribution of political and economic power, usually synonymous with anarchy. As such it was something of a “hot potato” for those so accused, with the notable exception of the eighteenth-century revolutionary Irish underground organization called the White Boys, who also referred to themselves as Levellers.
The term enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in England around the time of the French Revolution. Elites bankrolled societies for “the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers,” with “republican” replacing “community.” Edmund Burke categorized republican agitation as “mad” levelling schemes that sought to “pervert the natural [i.e., hierarchical, hereditary] order.” Levelling thus retained a strong association with “anarchy,” “chaos,” and rule by the “rabble.” The radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine, whose writings owe a deep (if unwitting) debt to the seventeenth-century Levellers, sought to distance himself from such accusations and turn them on his critics, arguing that a hereditary aristocracy was itself a levelling scheme that ignored merit and elevated the bad, corrupt, and incompetent to positions of power by virtue of birth.
If Paine sought to distance democratic reform from accusations of levelling, plebeian revolutionaries who followed in his wake were less skittish regarding the term, which was used interchangeably in such circles with radical reformer. The radical writer Thomas Spence (1750–1814) derived some of his ideas regarding land redistribution from the Diggers, or True Levellers, and he was publishing excerpts from seventeenth-century Leveller writings in his Pig’s Meat, or Lessons for the Swinish Multitude in the late eighteenth century. In Spence’s example, British ultra-radicals reveled in accusations of levelling (and in being part of the “swinish multitude”). The publisher Samuel Waddington’s Medusa, an ultra-radical publication, spoke approvingly of “levelling,” as did the poet Richard “Citizen” Lee, who, perhaps confirming reactionary fears, combined the term with an affection for the guillotine. The wildly popular ultra-radical preacher (and son of a slave) Robert Wedderburn was enormously fond of metaphors of levelling, and he was tried for seditious blasphemy in 1819 partly for linking Jesus Christ with such concerns.
Levelling tended to fall from use in the nineteenth century, when it was replaced by radical, socialist, communist, and other terms that reflected the political landscape of the time. The seventeenth-century Levellers became a subject of great interest both for socialist and Whig historians in the early twentieth century after the discovery of Clarke’s minutes of the Putney Debates. These permitted a serious appraisal of just what the Levellers had stood for, and the term has lost its pejorative sense as many of their demands have been achieved and even superseded.
Gentiles, Ian. 1992. The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland 1645–1653. London: Blackwell.
Herzog, Don. 2000. Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hill, Christopher. 1961. The Century of Revolution 1603–1714. Edinburgh: T. Nelson.
Hill, Christopher. 1972. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution. London: Temple Smith.
MacPherson, C. B. 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Clarendon.
Morton, A. L. 1970. The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Morton, A. L., ed. 1975. Freedom in Arms: A Collection of Leveller Writings. New York: International Publishers.
Underdown, David. 1971. Pride’s Purge: Politics in the Puritan Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon.
Wolfe, Don, ed. 1944. Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution. New York: Thomas Nelson.
Christopher J. Lamping
The Levellers' claim to be true democrats has been challenged, because they later qualified their demands for manhood suffrage by excluding those who subsisted by alms or worked as servants in a master's household; but this modification was tactical rather than principled. It was their principle, however, to preserve property, and not ‘level men's estates’; here they differed from the self-styled True Levellers, or Diggers.