For many historians, the Levellers have come to represent an early foreshadowing of the political and social advances that later became a hallmark of the American and French Revolutions. But for other historians, the Levellers represent how a 21st century perspective can thwart objective scholarly inquiry. For these historians, the legacy of the Levellers has been immersed in a modern mythology that has the appearance of 17th century history but is, in reality, more akin to modern interpretations of social equality. In other words, the Levellers have fallen victim to the dangerous plague of "presentism."
Historian Edward Vallance of Roehampton University is a champion of such an interpretation. In his October, 2007 article from BBC History Magazine, Vallance explains that modern Leveller historiography has fallen victim to, "the condescension of the tourist industry." Regarding the modern historiographical approach to Leveller history, Vallance writes:
Marxists scholars such as Christopher Hill saw the Levellers as representing the English petty bourgeoisie. American liberals like William Haller praised John Lilburne as an early advocate of ‘free enterprise’. The celebration of the Levellers’ contribution to the development of democracy has spread into the political arena. Since 1975, left-wingers have commemorated the suppression of the Leveller-inspired mutiny at Burford in 1649. The socialist icon Tony Benn used his speech at the second ‘Leveller Day’ to applaud them for their forward-looking ideals which ‘anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.’ Paraphrasing Benn, Tristram Hunt has described Rainborowe’s comments as expressing the ‘ethical ideal of socialism’ and suggested that the ‘language and ideas expressed in the US constitution were lifted straight from the Putney debates’.Regarding the alleged impact that the Levellers had on future figures like Locke, historian Julian Franklin writes the following:
It is doubtful that the words spoken at Putney influenced the Founding Fathers, given that the text of the debate was not published until 1891. In 1649, the imprisoned John Lilburne had defiantly predicted that ‘posterity … shall reap the benefit of our endeavours whatever shall become of us.’ Yet, for over two hundred years, references to the Putney debates and the Levellers were few and far between. Although a permanent record of the debates was kept by the general secretary of the army, William Clarke, all reporting of the debates in the press was banned. They were barely mentioned in contemporary newssheets and pamphlets.
This secrecy was unsurprising. The discussion of the franchise, the most celebrated element of the debate for recent historians and commentators, was neither the most significant nor the lengthiest portion of the discussions. The focus instead was on settling the kingdom: in particular, the King’s role in any future peace negotiations. During the debates, two soldiers referred to Charles I as a ‘man of blood’, a tyrant who had waged war against his people and must be brought to retributive, divinely-willed justice. Religious language suffused the talk at Putney. People attending the debates also gathered for prayer meetings charged with apocalyptic language. New historical research suggests that Putney saw a shift from the pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the King to the decision to bring Charles I to trial. In the chaotic political situation following the first civil war, few of the participants in the debate, Cromwell least of all, were prepared to leave hostages to fortune by letting the proceedings be reported in public.
Celebration of the Levellers...has been driven by a desire to fit them into a tradition of British radicalism, as forerunners of democracy, liberalism and socialism. But if the Levellers are part of a ‘democratic tradition’, it is a tradition which has largely been invented by twentieth and twenty-first century historians, journalists and politicians, not one created by radical movements themselves. Until the late nineteenth century there was very little reference to the Levellers and there is, frankly, scant evidence that their works influenced any subsequent radicals either in Britain, America or France. Even once C. H. Firth’s transcriptions of the Putney debates had been published, they were mainly seen as being of interest to military historians. It was not until the publication in 1938 of A. S. P. Woodhouse’s provocatively titled Puritanism and Liberty, that Putney was established as a milestone in British constitutional history. Woodhouse’s edition of the debates had an explicitly political aim: to provide ideological ammunition for the public in the battle against the forces of Fascism and, later, Soviet totalitarianism. It is his re-interpretation of Putney as a crucible of democratic thought which has proved most influential to the present day.
Historians have now begun to ask if the Levellers have been given disproportionate attention; and whether, indeed, we can talk of the ‘Levellers’ at all. Recent scholarship has argued that there was no coherent ‘Leveller’ programme before the autumn of 1647. The term ‘Leveller’ itself did not appear until after the Putney Debates and was a pejorative label attached to these London radicals by their opponents. The radicals’ critics claimed they wanted to ‘level’ all social distinctions and do away with private property. The leading ‘Leveller’ writers, William Walwyn, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, were always keen to disassociate themselves from the term. In A Manifestation (1649) they complained that they ‘never had it in our thoughts to level men’s estates, it being the utmost of our aim … that every man may with as much security as may be enjoy his propriety’. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, we have been guilty of accepting the words of the Leveller’s critics too literally and have viewed them as a more radical, more modern and more coherent group than they really were.
The proposals for St Mary’s Church Putney to remember the 360th anniversary of these debates threaten to set the anachronistic interpretation of the Levellers as the first democrats/liberals/socialists in stone, institutionalising an invented tradition of British radicalism through museum displays, heritage centres, and public memorials. Hunt has argued that commemorations of this kind provide an antidote to a heritage industry fixated on the lives of our kings and queens but, in fact, this version of Putney really only offers its ‘radical’ equivalent: a romantic vision of great historical democrats (Lilburne, Walwyn) struggling against oppressive tyrannical ‘baddies’ (Cromwell, Ireton). Good melodrama perhaps, but bad history. E. P. Thompson, whom Hunt invokes to promote his project, would, I suspect, be horrified at the proposed ‘heritage- ization’ of British radicalism. Thompson believed that the role of radical history was to arm the people for the political struggles that they faced in the future. Yet the recent Guardian competition offered only an opportunity to ‘celebrate’, through a Whiggish narrative of ever-broadening British freedom, the rights we enjoy at present. The history of the Levellers themselves, crushed by the army leadership and largely forgotten for nearly a quarter millennia, should warn us against this smug complacency about the security of our civil liberties.
So should we bother to commemorate Putney at all? Yes – but in ways which will allow us to continue to benefit from the most recent historical research on the subject. The Levellers are important. They were the first western Europeans to develop the idea of an essentially secular written constitution (though they did so to preserve their own deeply held religious beliefs). Consequently, they were the first to approach a more modern understanding of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech as natural, human rights. Their analysis of the politics of the 1640s remains very relevant today. They saw that an over-mighty Parliament could be as dangerous (if not more so) than a tyrannical King and called both for greater accountability in government and the establishing of civil liberties which could not be undermined by either the monarch or his ministers (even under the pretence of ‘emergency’ or ‘necessity’).
This month sees the release of a new paperback edition of the debates, and a major new collection is forthcoming on the Agreements of the People. These publications and the celebrations of the 360th anniversary of these remarkable debates should be used to spark a discussion of the enduring importance of these English writers and politicians. Leveller writing has much to say about present threats to our rights and freedoms, if we read their own words and not the anachronistic bowdlerisations of their twentieth-century interpreters. Those who spoke, wrote and gave their lives for liberty deserve more than to have their ideas reduced to ignominious (and inaccurate) banalities on a blue plaque.
The main point, in any effect, is that Leveller ideas were not, unfortunately, were not to have any direct effect on subsequent generations...as is often taught to be the case...Critics of Dr. Vallance and other skeptics of modern Leveller historiography argue that if the Levellers are simply the mere invention of modern enthusiasm, how was it possible for men like Lilburne to have such a direct and dramatic influence on 17th century England? David Hoile, a pro-Libertarian author and supporter of the modern Levellers scholarship, argues that skeptics of the current Leveller scholarship are often too quick to throw men like Lilburne and others under the bus, simply because the Leveller movement eventually faded away. He writes:
The Leveller movement failed because of the several factors mentioned above. They had tried to work through a parliament which was ultimately unsympathetic and suspicious of the movement, its leaders and its political aspirations. It was a parliament deeply uneasy with any break with the Crown, nurturing as it did for much of the 1640s a hope for a rapprochement with the king. And when the break did come, with the execution of Charles Stuart, Leveller views were still seen as too radical for the English body politic under Cromwell, a man more concerned, at that stage at least, with the nature of political power than with political philosophy. It was this growing gulf between the Levellers and the government of the Commonwealth which saw a stepping-up in the extra-parliamentary activity such as the political propaganda petition which was the hallmark of the movement. It would lead ultimately to the advocacy of armed struggle against what was perceived as an illegitimate authority.In comparison, Marxist apologist and historian William F. Warde offers roughly the same pro-Leveller interpretation:
The Levellers called for sweeping democratization of both Church and State. Among the religious reforms were full freedom of religious belief, separation of Church and State, the suppression of tithes; among the political reforms were a constitutional republic, annual election of a Parliament responsible to the people alone, general manhood suffrage; among the legal reforms, the right to a trial by jury, no star-chamber hearings, no capital punishment or imprisonment for debt; among the civil rights, freedom of the press and no license on printing.And while I remain somewhat uncertain as to the actual role that the Levellers played in history, I am of the opinion that both camps probably contain more than just a kernel of truth. Is modern Leveller historiography influenced by "presentism?" I'm sure it is. But does that simple fact therefore eliminate the prospect that the Levellers were a legitimate and influential movement? I doubt it. Finding the balance is now, in my opinion, where the discussion should lead.
Although they have since become commonplace, in their day such doctrines were audacious revolutionary innovations which their advocates like Lilburne and others paid for with tortures, fines and prison terms.
The Levellers started as a propaganda group and transformed themselves into a party as their mass influence extended and the revolutionary movement mounted. They were the first popular revolutionary party in English history, playing a role comparable to that of the Sons of Liberty in the First American Revolution. They were essentially a party of mass action. Like Tom Paine, their leaders addressed themselves first and foremost to the common people, educating, arousing, guiding and organizing them for direct intervention on the key questions of the hour.