The Levellers were an informal alliance of agitators and pamphleteers
who came together during the English Civil War (1642-1648) to demand
constitutional reform and equal rights under the law. Levellers believed
all men were born free and equal and possessed natural rights that resided
in the individual, not the government. They believed that each man should
have freedom limited only by regard for the freedom of others. They
believed the law should equally protect the poor and the wealthy. The
Levellers were the social libertarians of the day (or classic liberals). "Leveller"
was a term of abuse, coined by their opponents to exaggerate the threat of
The main leader of the Levellers was John Lilburne (known as Freeborn
John). Lilburne was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Parliamentarian Army.
Through his extensive writing and publishing of pamphlets, he was able to
gain wide support for his ideas among army soldiers and the common people.
Who was John Lilburne?
Lilburne "was, or became, a radical in everything — in
religion, in politics, in economics, in social reform, in criminal justice
— and his ideas were far ahead of his time. From 1637 when he was but
twenty-three years old. until his death twenty years later, he managed to
keep his government in a hectic state. In successive order he defied king,
parliament, and protectorate, challenging each with libertarian
principles. Standing trial for his life four times, he spent most of his
adult years in prison and died in banishment. Yet he could easily have had
positions of high preferment if he had thrown in his lot with Parliament
of Cromwell. Instead, he sacrificed everything in order to be free to
attack injustice from any source. He once accurately described himself as
`an honest true-bred, freeborn Englishman that never in his life loved a
tyrant or feared an oppressor.'"
— Levy, Leonard W., Origins of the Fifth Amendment, New York:
Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 272.
In 1649, Lilburne published the "Agreement of the People", a
manifesto for constitutional reform in Britain that gave birth to many of
the ideas that are embodied in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Agreement Of The People (1649)
This particular version was smuggled out of the Tower of London, where
Lilburne and the others were being held captive.
All Leveller soldiers, and they were the majority in many regiments,
carried this agreement proudly tucked into their hat-band. The agreement
proposed a written constitution to define England's government, abolish
arbitrary power, set limits to authority, and remove grievances.
Included in the Agreement of the People (1649):
Right to for all people to vote for their representatives
Right against self-incrimination
Freedom of religion and press
Equality of all persons before the law
No judgment touching life, liberty or property but by jury trial
Abolition of capital punishment except for murder
No military conscription of conscientious objectors
No monopolies, tithes, or excise taxes
Taxation proportionate to real or personal property
Grading of punishments to fit the crime
Abolition of imprisonment for debt
Although the Leveller movement ended, and John Lilburne eventually died
in prison, the ideas of the Levellers live on.