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Levelers

Levelers or Levellers, English Puritan sect active at the time of the English civil war. The name was apparently applied to them in 1647, in derision of their beliefs in equality. The leader of the movement and its most indefatigable propagandist was John Lilburne. The Levelers demanded fundamental constitutional reform—a written constitution, a single supreme representative body elected by universal manhood suffrage, proportional representation, and the abolition of monarchy and noble privilege. Their ideals, far in advance of their time, were those of complete religious and political equality. They were adept at the use of mass petitions and extensive pamphleteering to arouse the public. When the Long Parliament did not respond to their ideas, they tried to build support in the ranks of the army, with some success. They identified themselves with the army's demands for arrears of pay, and Lilburne's pamphlet The Case of the Army Truly Stated was presented (1647) to Thomas Fairfax (later 3d Baron Fairfax of Cameron). An expanded version, Foundations of Freedom; or, An Agreement of the People, describing the whole Leveler program, was discussed at the Putney debates (Oct., 1647) between the elected army council and their commanding officers. The Leveler proposals were totally rejected by Gen. Henry Ireton as subversive of property interests. A later pamphlet, England's New Chains, published after the execution of Charles I, and several Leveler mutinies (1649) resulted in severe suppression of the Levelers by Oliver Cromwell, who had constantly opposed them.

See T. C. Pease, The Leveller Movement (1916, repr. 1965); W. Haller and G. Davies, ed., The Leveller Tracts, 1647–1653 (1944, repr. 1964); J. Frank, The Levellers (1955, repr. 1969); N. H. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (1961); C. H. Shaw, The Levellers (1968).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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