Levelers

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Levelers

or

Levellers,

English Puritan sect active at the time of the English civil warEnglish civil war,
1642–48, the conflict between King Charles I of England and a large body of his subjects, generally called the "parliamentarians," that culminated in the defeat and execution of the king and the establishment of a republican commonwealth.
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. The name was apparently applied to them in 1647, in derision of their beliefs in equality. The leader of the movement and its most indefatigable propagandist was John LilburneLilburne, John,
1614?–1657, English political leader and pamphleteer of the Levelers. He was tried before the court of the Star Chamber as early as 1638 for printing and distributing antiepiscopal works.
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. The Levelers demanded fundamental constitutional reform—a written constitution, a single supreme representative body elected by universal manhood suffrage, proportional representation, and the abolition of monarchy and noble privilege. Their ideals, far in advance of their time, were those of complete religious and political equality. They were adept at the use of mass petitions and extensive pamphleteering to arouse the public. When the Long Parliament did not respond to their ideas, they tried to build support in the ranks of the army, with some success. They identified themselves with the army's demands for arrears of pay, and Lilburne's pamphlet The Case of the Army Truly Stated was presented (1647) to Thomas Fairfax (later 3d Baron Fairfax of CameronFairfax of Cameron, Thomas Fairfax, 3d Baron,
1612–71, English general. He was the son of Ferdinando Fairfax, 2d Baron Fairfax of Cameron (1584–1648), whose title he inherited and under whom he fought in the
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). An expanded version, Foundations of Freedom; or, An Agreement of the People, describing the whole Leveler program, was discussed at the Putney debates (Oct., 1647) between the elected army council and their commanding officers. The Leveler proposals were totally rejected by Gen. Henry IretonIreton, Henry
, 1611–51, English parliamentary general; son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell. He held various commands in the parliamentary army during the first civil war (see English civil war) and in 1646 married Cromwell's daughter Bridget.
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 as subversive of property interests. A later pamphlet, England's New Chains, published after the execution of Charles I, and several Leveler mutinies (1649) resulted in severe suppression of the Levelers by Oliver Cromwell, who had constantly opposed them.

Bibliography

See T. C. Pease, The Leveller Movement (1916, repr. 1965); W. Haller and G. Davies, ed., The Leveller Tracts, 1647–1653 (1944, repr. 1964); J. Frank, The Levellers (1955, repr. 1969); N. H. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (1961); C. H. Shaw, The Levellers (1968).

Levelers

 

a radical petit bourgeois democratic party in the English Bourgeois Revolution of the 17th century.

The Levelers established themselves as an independent national group in 1647 (previously they existed as a left group of the Independents). The Levelers were headed by J. Lilburne, R. Overton, and W. Walwyn. The petit bourgeois stratum of the urban population (artisans and small traders) made up the social base of the Levelers; up to 1649 they were supported by the urban and village poor. They enjoyed much influence among the soldiers of the New Model Army and played an important role during the first (1642–46) and second (1648) civil wars. Councils of soldier agitators (representatives) operated in the army in 1647 under the leadership of the Levelers.

The Levelers’ program was reflected in the pamphlets of their leaders and in manifestos (including The Case of the Army Truly Stated and An Agreement of the People). In 1647, arguing on the basis of popular sovereignty and natural right, the Levelers came out for the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords, and social-estate privileges; they supported the transformation of England into a republic with a unicameral parliament elected on the basis of universal suffrage. However, in the course of discussions with the Independents at a conference in Putney in late October and early November 1647, they agreed to exclude workers and domestic servants from the ranks of voters. The Levelers stood for equality before the law and for fundamental reforms of the courts and the law. In the socioeconomic sphere, they demanded the abolition of monopolies and patents, the alleviation of the tax burden, the abolition of the church tithe, and the return of enclosed land to the peasants.

However, the Levelers were staunch opponents of the abolition of private ownership and noble landownership. They opposed the equalizing demands of the urban and rural poor and sharply demarcated themselves from the Diggers, who were sometimes called the “true Levelers.” (It is characteristic that the Levelers disowned the very name “Levelers,” which had been bestowed on them by their opponents.) Such a position alienated the most disenfranchised strata of the population from the Levelers. This was the primary cause for their defeat. The soldiers’ uprisings stirred up by the Levelers in May and September 1649 were defeated, and the Leveler movement thereafter declined. This process was furthered by the persecution directed by the Independent authorities against the Levelers. In the 1650’s, the Levelers disintegrated into isolated groups; a segment of the Levelers, disenchanted with political struggle, shifted to the Quaker position.

REFERENCES

Popov-Lenskii, I. L. Lil’bern i levellery. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928.
Levin, G. R. Demokraticheskoe dvizhenie v angliiskoi burzhuaznoi revoliutsii. Leningrad, 1973.

G. R. LEVIN

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