Today most people who live in western nations enjoy a broad range of liberties enshrined in law. Basic rights such as freedom of speech, the right to assemble, freedom to protest, etc. are the base upon which we have built modern society. It has become a normality of life, something that most people don’t think about. Such is the norm when people have known something for so long, we tend to forget their importance and roots.
In today’s world where we are faced with such strong divisions and clashing viewpoints, I cannot help but ask why liberty is not contemplated as an alternative to conflict. Instead of seeking to impose our viewpoints on others who do not and will not share them; we should seek to permit different societal structures where people are truly free to pursue their happiness as they see fit. I cannot help but think that the reason such an option is not considered is that people have forgotten the value of freedom and with it all the sacrifices made to obtain the liberties we so readily enjoy. As history has shown forgetting the mistakes and lessons of our past only lead us to repeat them in the future.
With this in mind, I wish to touch upon the Levellers of XVII century England and their struggle for freedom. The Levellers were a political movement of, at the time, radical freethinkers that came to prominence during the English Civil War (1642 – 1651). Among the many things, they fought for were popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, freedom of printing, and religious tolerance. Beliefs that were summed up in their manifesto “Agreement of the People” which served as a major influence in the later Constitution of these United States of America.
Many Levellers distinguished themselves in their time. For example, John Lilburne a Leveller loved by the people, was a lifelong activist who fought for what he coined as “Freeborn Rights” a term that earned him the nickname “Freeborn John”. Among them was the right to hear the accusation, the right to face one’s accusers, and the right to avoid self-incrimination. He is also well known for printing illegally and distributing pamphlets that espoused these ideas. All of this didn’t go unnoticed; in his life, he was imprisoned, flogged, dragged through the streets and ultimately exiled for a time to the Netherlands.
The Levellers rise to prominence was no accident. With political turbulence at the time between commoners, king, and parliament, a fertile ground for beliefs that sought to curve authoritarian power was sowed. The Civil War led to the need for a professional army to be formed. Parliament and its supporters created the New Model Army which incorporated full-time soldiers and a professional officer staff. It was among the common soldiers that the ideas of the Levellers gained the greatest support. This was in no small fact due to the army being structured as a meritocracy. No longer where the nobility granted the positions of leadership, it was reserved for the one who best performed. This equalized the average commoner with the noble ending previous taboos of social class. Unfortunately, the influence of the Levellers only lasted to the point where parliament won. Seeing the standing army as a threat to its power they were ordered to disband and return home. What remained of the Leveller movement was quickly dealt with through persecution, imprisonment, and execution.
While their movement might have been short-lived their legacy was not. The Levellers where the inspiration for the democratic reforms undertaken in England during the Glorious Revolution which saw the implementation of numerous Leveller ideals. They are also credited with influencing the principles of the American Revolution and the thought of numerous philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. By themselves, they set off a chain of event that shaped the world we live in today. Their ideals of freedom and liberty and the sacrifices that they and so many others have made must not be forgotten.