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"Though we fail, our truths prosper" - celebrating the Leveller John Lilburne's 400th birthday!

John Merrick12 March 2015

Image for blog post entitled "Though we fail, our truths prosper" - celebrating the Leveller John Lilburne's 400th birthday!

This year marks the 400 anniversary of the birth of one of the great revolutionary democrats of British history, John Lillburne. 200 years before the Chartists and 300 before the universal suffrage became a reality in Britain, ‘freeborn John’ and the Levellers campaigned tirelessly for freedom and justice during the turbulent years of the English Revolution.

In honour of this, and to mark this weekend’s conference to celebrate this life and work at the Bishopsgate Institute (featuring John ReesGeoffrey Robertson QC, Peter Flannery and more) we have an extract from John Lilburne’s pamphlet ‘England’s New Chains Discovered’. Written in 1649, and thus after the execution of Charles I, the abolition of the House of Lords, and the people being declared the origin of all power by the House of Commons, Lilburne argues that the republican government is reverting to a new form of tyranny. This marked the beginning of the end for the possibilities for radical change that emerged during the great social upheavals of the ‘century of revolution’. Yet, Lilburne’s pamphlet shows that the seeds of liberty still remained. As the incomparable historian of the 17th century Christopher Hill argued, ‘Each generation ... rescues a new area from what its predecessors arrogantly and snobbishly dismissed as 'the lunatic fringe,”’ and perhaps now more than ever can we learn anew from the Leveller’s fight for freedom.

So that now at length, guessing all to be sure and their own (the king being removed, the House of Lords nulled, their long-plotted council of state erected and this House awed to their ends), the edge of their malice is turning against such as have yet so much courage left them as to appear for the well-establishment of England's liberties. And because God has preserved a great part of the army untainted with the guilt of the designs aforementioned, who cannot without much danger to the designers themselves be suppressed, they have resolved to put this House upon raising more new forces (notwithstanding the present necessities of the people in maintaining those that are already); in doing whereof, though the pretence be danger and opposition, yet the concealed end is like to be the over-balancing those in the army who are resolved to stand for true freedom as the end of all their labours, the which (if they should be permitted to do) they would not then doubt of making themselves absolute seizures, lords and masters, both of Parliament and people; which, when they have done, we expect the utmost of misery. Nor shall it grieve us to expire with the liberties of our native country. For what good man can with any comfort to himself survive then?

But God has hitherto preserved us; and the justice of our desires, as integrity of our intentions, are daily more and more manifest to the impartial and unprejudiced part of men; in so much that it is no small comfort to us that notwithstanding we are upon all these disadvantages that may be, having neither power nor pre-eminence (the common idols of the world) our cause and principles do through their own natural truth and lustre get ground in men's understandings; so that where there was one, twelve months since, that owned our principles, we believe there are now hundreds: so that though we fail, our truths prosper.

And posterity we doubt not shall reap the benefit of our endeavours whatever shall become of us. However, though we have neither strength nor safety before us, we have discharged our consciences and emptied our breasts unto you, knowing well that if you will make use of your power and take unto you that courage which becomes men of your trust and condition, you may yet through the goodness of God prevent the danger and mischief intended and be instrumental in restoring this long-enthralled and betrayed nation into a good and happy condition. For which end we most earnestly desire and propose, as the main prop and support of the work:

1. That you will not dissolve this House nor suffer yourselves to be dissolved until as aforesaid you see a new representative the next day ready to take your room; which you may confidently and safely insist upon, there being no considerable number in the army or elsewhere that will be so unworthy as to dare to disturb you therein.

2. That you will put in practice the Self-denying Ordinance, the most just and useful that ever was made, and continually cried out for by the people, whereby a great infamy that lies upon your cause will be removed, and men of powerful influences and dangerous designs, deprived of those means and opportunities which now they have to prejudice the public.

3. That you will consider how dangerous it is for one and the same persons to be continued long in the highest commands of a military power, especially acting so long distinct and of themselves as those now in being have done, and in such extraordinary ways whereunto they have accustomed themselves, which was the original of most regalities and tyrannies in the world.

4. That you appoint a committee of such of your own members as have been longest established upon those rules of freedom upon which you now proceed to hear, examine and conclude all controversies between officers and officers, and between officers and soldiers; to consider and mitigate the law-martial, and to provide that it be not exercised at all upon persons not of the army; also to release and repair such as have thereby unduly suffered, as they shall see cause; to consider the condition of the private soldiers, both horse and foot, in these dear times, and to allow them such increase of pay as wherewithal they may live comfortably, and honestly discharge their quarters. That all dis- banding be referred to the said committee, and that such of the army as have served the king may be first disbanded.

5. That you will open the press, whereby all treacherous and tyrannical designs may be the easier discovered and so prevented, which is a liberty of greatest concernment to the commonwealth, and which such only as intend a tyranny are engaged to prohibit: the mouths of adversaries being best stopped by the sensible good which the people receive from the actions of such as are in authority.

6. That you will (whilst you have opportunity) abate the charge of the law, and reduce the stipends of judges and all other magistrates and officers in the commonwealth to a less, but competent, allowance, converting the over-plus to the public treasury, whereby the taxes of the people may be much eased.

7. But above all that you will dissolve this present council of state, which upon the grounds fore-mentioned so much threatens tyranny, and manage your affairs by committees of short continuance and such as may be frequently and exactly accountable for the discharge of their trusts.

8. That you will publish a strict prohibition and severe penalty against all such, whether committees, magistrates or officers of what kind so ever, as shall exceed the limits of their commission, rules or directions; and encourage all men in their informations and complaints against them.

9. That you will speedily satisfy the expectations of the soldiers in point of arrears, and of the people in point of accounts, in such a manner as that it may not (as formerly) prove a snare to such as have been most faithful, and a protection to the most corrupt in the discharge of their trust and duties.

10. That the so-many-times complained of Ordinance for Tithes upon treble damages may be forthwith taken away.

All which, together with due regard showed to petitioners, without respect to their number and strength, would so fasten you in the affections of the people and of the honest officers and soldiers, as that you should not need to fear any opposite power whatsoever, and for the time to come of yourselves enjoy the exercise of your supreme authority whereof you have yet but the name only, and be enabled to vindicate your just undertakings; wherein we should not only rejoice to have occasion to manifest how ready we should be to hazard our lives in your behalf, but should also bend all our studies and endeavours to render you honourable to all future generations.