Friday, 29 August 2014

Levellers, Agitators and Diggers

I love secondhand books. On a recent trip I stumbled on a secondhand book sale in the late afternoon where they were desperate to get rid of as many books as possible. I got three books for 20p. One of them was Britain's First Socialists: The Levellers, Agitators and Diggers of the English Revolution by Fenner Brockway.

It's a great overview of some of the ideas that emerged during this time, and the political and military context in which they sprung from. It also includes a few pages of paintings of some of the key figures, and pictures of important places, plus some front covers of some of the key pamphlets. 

I was quite interested to see that some of the Levellers were early advocates of Irish independence, the abolition of the death penalty for most crimes, interest rate caps and so on, alongside more obvious political reforms like  universal male suffrage (excluding Royalists, servants and, of course, women), equality before the law etc. 

Also grimly amusing to see the content of the Treason Act passed by the Rump Parliament, and clearly intended to target the Levellers. Under this you could be charged with treason - a crime carrying the death penalty - for (amongst other things) arguing that the government was tyrannical. 

I would have definitely paid more than 7p for all this!

I thought I'd post up some good snippets of original texts and speeches. The following bits are from Levellers and supporters. I'll post some from the Diggers when I've finished that section.

Thomas Rainsborough
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 at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under. 
Henry Marten
Ye have, by corruption in government, by unjust and unequal laws, by fraud, cosenage, tyranny and oppression, gotten most of the land of this distressed and enslaved nation into your ravenous claws. Ye have by monopolies, usurers and combinations engrossed all the wealth, monies and houses into your possessions; yea and enclosed our commons in most counties.
William Walwyn
The King, Parliament, great men in the City and the Army have made you but the stairs by which they have mounted to honour, wealth and power. The only quarrel that hath been and at present is but this, namely whose slaves the people shall be.  

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