The historical significance of the Levellers has been the subject of long-standing controversy. There is arguably no prevailing scholarly consensus on the Levellers and their role in the development of Anglo-American constitutionalism or the emergence of liberal democracy in the West. Historians and historians of political thought have portrayed them variously as proto-proletarian revolutionaries, proto-democrats, proto-liberals, ideologues of possessive individualism and, more recently, as advocates of a populist form of civic republicanism. Liberals, neo-liberals, Marxists and neo-Marxists have obsessed over them, while revisionists have disparaged or dismissed them in their efforts to recast England's troubles of the mid-seventeenth century, not as an ideologically driven contest for sovereign power or a struggle for liberty, but as a catastrophic breakdown in a hitherto successfully functioning system of monarchical government. Indeed, for the revisionism of the 1970s the significance of the Levellers lay largely in their insignificance. However, as the first popular political ‘movement’ to advocate the establishment of a written constitution, liberty of conscience, the extension of the franchise to all male heads of households and concomitantly the abolition of most property requirements, they remain an important object of historical enquiry.
This chapter addresses the writings of the Leveller leader John Lilburne (1614?–1657) during the mid to late 1640s. During this period Lilburne either wrote from his prison cell or under the imminent threat of arrest and imprisonment; for Lilburne, the experience of revolution was largely the experience of incarceration.