The Levellers were the left wing of Cromwell’s revolution. You might call them the progressives, while the Diggers were the radical left. They did not name themselves Levellers; it was a term of abuse used for rural rebels who leveled hedges in riots against enclosure (the enclosure of common land for private use) in the early 17th century. By the time of the English Revolution, the leveling that the Levellers were said to be advocating was the leveling of social and political distinctions.
The political ideas of the Levellers were astoundingly advanced. They were advocating positions that looked new and radical when they came out of France a century later: popular sovereignty (government of, by and for the people); universal male suffrage; freedom of religion (except for Roman Catholics); ultimate authority belonging to parliament, instead of the king or lords; the elimination of debtors prisons (which had to wait until the second half of the 19th century); laws to be written in English instead of Latin or French; and acknowledgement of what they called the natural rights of man (which they derived from the Bible).
Cromwell’s army was headquartered at Putney, preparing to march on London in October, 1647. The army, called the New Model Army, was nominally democratic in nature, with representatives from its various divisions, known as agitators (the word didn’t have the dire ring it has today), who presented their views to the general staff.
Many of these agitators were Levellers or sympathetic with Leveller ideas, and were in direct ideological conflict with Cromwell and the army’s aristocratic upper echelons. In order to ensure a unified force before the attack on London, Cromwell organized a series of debates. This basically was done to humor the agitators; the outcome – the continuance of Cromwell’s more moderate ideas – was, in hindsight, a foregone conclusion.
To read these debates today is a stirring experience. Our founders evidently thought so too, since many of the ideas propounded by the Levellers found their way almost verbatim into Revolutionary writings, including the Declaration of Independence.
The debates were transcribed and the text is available. Amazon has an expensive paperback, edited by Michael Mendel, and another less expensive, and shorter one, which may or may not be abridged, edited by Geoffrey Robinson. The book I own is Puritanism and Liberty by A. S. P Woodhouse. It includes the Putney debates and the Whitehall debates of a year later and essays by Woodhouse about the Levellers and the Civil War.
The leaders of the Levellers were John Lilburn, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, but one of the most eloquent speakers in the Putney debates was William Rainsborough, who said, “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”
Comparing the intelligence, principles, and depth of thought of the Putney debaters, on both the radical and moderate sides, with what passes for debate and political discourse today is enough to make you puke.