"Come What, Come Will!"
Richard Overton, Libertarian Leveller
by Carl Watner
Levellers were a group of politically active soldiers and civilians
whose organized efforts during the English Civil War (1642-1649) were
based on their beliefs in individual liberty. John Lilburne was
their popularly recognized leader, but it is in the works of his associate,
Richard Overton, that we find the most consistent expression of their
incipient libertarianism. In this essay, we will make first a
preliminary survey of the libertarian aspects of the Leveller movement,
and then a more detailed examination of the pamphleteering career of
our vantage point in the twentieth century, not all Leveller thinking
is consonant with modern libertarianism, but it is probably a fair statement
to say that the Leveller organization was the first modern political
movement to embrace the principles of individual liberty to any great
extent. One modern historian of the movement, H. N. Brailsford,
has distinguished three basic ideas in the web of Leveller thought.
First, the Levellers were quite concerned with the realm of each person's
individuality or self-propriety, as they termed it. Although they
never explicitly used the term self-ownership, self-propriety had the
same connotation: the right of each and every person to control his
or her own body and soul free of coercive molestation. During a period
of bitter religious strife, the Levellers stressed religious freedom--the
right of each person to worship (or not to worship) as he or she chose.
They also emphasized the right of the individual to decide whether or
not to bear arms; in short, the right to be free of conscription. Secondly,
the Levellers affirmed the individual's right of association with other
like-minded people, whether it be a voluntary church or a group of people
printing their own books and pamphlets without government censorship.
This also included the right of combination for political ends, which
at that time meant the writing and distribution of petitions and all
the meetings and publicity that this entailed. Their third basic
idea involved equality of all before the law, both of rich and poor,
noble and simple; and, particularly and most importantly, the equality
of all in the sphere of political power. The Levellers advocated
the abolition of all class privileges and government grants of monopoly,
the simplification of legal procedure, and a more widespread form of
manhood suffrage. They also called for an end to tithes, excise
duties, customs duties, imprisonment for debt, and conscription.
Levellers were not socialists or left-wing supporters of Cromwell, but
rather individualist. Following the Anabaptist tradition, they
disowned coercion of all innocent people and affirmed a position of
broad religious tolerance. They were the first political movement
outside of the Netherlands to stand for unqualified toleration, including
acceptance of Jews and Catholics in England. Nor did they wish
to charge the state with the responsibility for enforcing personal morality.
No Leveller petition ever included among the reforms demanded the repression
of swearing and drinking, or the more strict observance of the Sabbath,
or the banishment of fiddlers from the taverns. The Levellers
made the final breach with theocracy when they modified their appeal
for religious toleration to a plea for the complete divorce between
religion and the state. Theirs is the distinction of being the first
movement in the modern world to call for a secular republic.
they were accused of "setting up an utopian anarchy of the promiscuous
multitude," they were not outright anarchist. Towards
the end of their existence as an organized political party, Walwyn,
one of their four recognized leaders, wrote:
we are for Government and against Popular Confusion, we conceive all
our actions declare, when rightly considered, our aim having been all
along to reduce it as near as might be to perfection, and certainly
we know very well that depravity and corruption of man's heart is such
that there could be no living without it; and that though Tyranny is
excessively bad, yet of the two extremes, Confusion is the worst: Tis
somewhat a strange consequence to infer that because we have labored
so earnestly for a good Government, therefore we would have none at
all; Because we would have the dead and exorbitant Branches pruned,
and better sciens grafted, therefore we would pluck the Tree up by the
they recognized that no man could be bound, in a political sense, but
by his own consent. They admitted of no sovereignty anywhere
except in the individual. The Levellers "seriously accepted
the possibility of any man refusing obedience to commands incompatible
with his idea of reason or justice. This may appear anarchic,
but to them it was the ultimate guarantee of liberty."
the context of the English Civil War, the Levellers believed that resistance
to King Charles I and his party was not resistance to "magistracy",
as government was called, but rather resistance to tyranny. Overton
wrote that tyranny could never be true magistracy and that every man
was duty bound to endeavor to bring about the extirpation and removal
of the usurpers and oppressors from the seat of government.
Therefore the Levellers held that resistance and rebellion against an
existing tyrannical government was lawful and right. Although the Levellers
were originally aligned with Cromwell and the Independents, they soon
realized that Cromwell, with Parliament under his control, was merely
another usurper. Thus, if tyranny was resistible in a king, then
they concluded that it was also resistible in Parliament.
Leveller's general devotion to English common law and the traditional
British liberties is best exemplified in Lilburne's attitude towards
the trial and execution of Charles I. Lilburne opposed trying
the king by a special court. He had no objection in principle
to the trial of the king, or to his execution if he were found guilty.
However, according to Lilburne's view, neither the Long Parliament nor
the Rump was entitled to try the king or send him to trial. He
wished to postpone all action against the king until some sort of constitutional
settlement could be made. To Lilburne, this meant the acceptance
by the people at large of the Agreement of the People. Any action
which the Rump took against the king would be arbitrary and an abuse
of the power of the sword. The High Court of Justice, which was
appointed to try the king, was an extraordinary tribunal, an invention
of a political emergency and packed with partisans. The vague
charge of treason against the king was open to the fatal criticism that
it was based on no known law. Instead, Lilburne urged that the
king was entitled to a trial by jury in the regular courts of the land
and subject to the judgment of twelve jurors, like every other Englishman.
The charge for which he should stand was that he had counseled and commissioned
murder (on the battlefield). Despite their enmity towards
the king, Lilburne and most of the other Levellers were objective enough
in their thinking to realize that if arbitrary treatment could be meted
out to the king, contrary to known forms of law, then they, too, might
be subject to such capricious treatment. Overton, alone among
the Leveller leaders, approved without reservation the manner and execution
of judging the king; he called it the finest piece of justice that was
ever had in England.
much Leveller support originated in the Army, they were always cautious
lest the military power of the Army supersede civilian legal authority.
Of course, their fears were borne out. In their eyes, an English
soldier was first an English citizen, with all the concomitant rights
and duties of a citizen; and then, only secondarily, were they "volunteer"
soldiers who had taken up arms to defend the parliamentary cause.
In their estimation, they could not be sent overseas without their own
consent. Therefore Cromwell's attempt to subdue Ireland, together
with the chronic shortage and lateness of pay for the soldiers, generated
much discontent in the Army, manifesting itself in a libertarian opposition
to imperialism and militarism. The Levellers saw the Catholic
Irish as their fellow men, who were as much entitled to claim their
own liberty as were the Levellers themselves. Their code of ethics
bridged foreign borders. In general, the Levellers rated the sovereignty
of the individual's conscience high above the commands of military generals
or the jurisdiction of the state. The Levellers established the
moral foundation for opposition to Cromwellian imperialism by recognizing
the individual Irishman’s claim to his own land. They asked
if it was not as unjust to take away the laws and liberties of the Irishmen
as it was to deprive an Englishman of his. Leveller anti-militarism
and anti-imperialism was climaxed by the death of a young Leveller soldier,
who was cashiered, court-martialed, and shot by Cromwell's orders.
Refusing to wear the usual bandage over his eyes, Robert Lockyer faced,
without fear, the firing squad which shot him to death. Before
he fell he told those firing the shots that their obedience to superior
orders did not acquit them of murder. The Leveller defense
of the right of the Irish to keep their own fields and practice their
own faith is the earliest, and not the least distinguished, example
in English history of the struggle of a popular party against imperialism."
Leveller opinion, Cromwell's imperialism was just another instance of
his and Parliament's failure to govern by law after having succeeded
Charles I to power. Lilburne and Overton saw the English nation
as having therefore been reduced to the original law of nature, and
they reasoned that individual citizens no longer owed any obedience
or allegiance to these tyrannical politicians. The Levellers proposed
that a new political settlement be made in which all Englishmen would
give their consent to the Agreement of the People. The Agreement
was a written, "constitutional" document prepared and revised
several times by the Leveller leaders. It called for the abolition
of the Long Parliament and the selection of a new Parliament based on
more equitable and democratic rules. The Agreement itself was
not to be passed upon by Parliament, since it was meant to be superior
to Parliament. The Levellers hoped that the document would be
unanimously adopted by members of the Army and then be signed by the
people at large at the first general election. It was clearly
the forerunner of our modern constitutions and plainly illustrates the
Leveller's premise that society could be constituted on an entirely
adoption by Leveller thinkers of a "state of nature" theory
was quite evident in the Putney Debates, which took place between the
Levellers and the Army grandees in 1647. The debates illustrate
the radical nature of Leveller thought. In regard to the Army's past
promises, the Levellers theorized that nothing was binding if it conflicted
with reason, justice, and the safety of the people. When Henry
Ireton, Cromwell's son-in-law, claimed that the Levellers would destroy
all property, they confidently appealed to the law of nature to demonstrate
that the right to property is guaranteed by the law of nature, and not,
as Ireton maintained, merely by positive government laws.
Clarke, one of the Leveller debaters, argued that the Law of nature
is the basis of all constitutions. "Yet really properties
are the foundations of constitutions, and not constitutions of property.
For if so be there were no constitutions, yet the law of nature does
give a principle for every man to have a property of what he has or
may have which is not another man's. This natural right of property
is the ground of mine and thine." Furthermore, it is
the law of nature that teaches the individual his rights and their attendant
duties: the right and duty of self-preservation, and the natural limits
of obedience, and the right and duty of resistance to tyrannical rulers.
It teaches him what are the ends of government; and it inculcates the
basic principles of social life--the principles of natural justice and
equity which dictate the political equality of all men within the state
and which are based upon the maxim "to do unto others as you would
have them do unto you.”
Levellers, especially Lilburne, were sensitive about their name and
its connotations, and they protested repeatedly that they had no intention
of levelling men's estates (i.e., forcefully distributing property from
the rich to the poor). There is no question, however, that it
was their intention to end every form of political and legal privilege,
privilege which served to enrich members of the governing class.
The basic rift in society, for the Levellers, was not the division between
wage earner and capitalist, but between the rich who profited from government
monopolies and privileges and the poor and middle class who suffered
from such favoritism. In effect, the Levellers saw a conflict
between the producers and the politicians in society. Within a
few months after the Putney Debates, the Levellers were espousing a
remarkably class-conscious theory of the State, in which the Independent
leaders were seen as part of a conspiracy of the rich and powerful to
keep down the poorer and more industrious people.
was one of the firmest defenders of a positive social order based on
property. He was not opposed to the taking of interest on money
loans nor for the renting of land. He claimed that the Levellers
were the truest and most constant asserters of liberty and property
("which are quite opposite to community and levelling").
In one of his later books, Lilburne states his strongest disavowal of
levelling. He not only denies his party's intention to level property,
but also condemns any who do aim to level property. In Lilburne's
opinion and judgment,
Conceit of Levelling of property and Magistracy is so ridiculous and
foolish an opinion, as no man of brains, reason, or ingenuity, can be
imagined such a sot as to maintain such a principle, because it would,
if practiced destroy not only any industry in the world, but raze the
very foundation of generation, and of subsistence or being of one man
by another. For as industry and valour by which the societies
of mankind are maintained and preserved, who will take the pains for
that which when he hath gotten is not his own, but must be equally shared
in, by every lazy, simple, dronish sot? or who will fight for that,
wherein he hath no other interest, but such as must be subject to the
will and pleasure of another, yea of every coward and base low spirited
fellow, that in his sitting still must share in common with a valiant
man in all his brave and noble achievement? The ancient encouragement
to men that were to defend their Country was this: that they were to
hazard their persons for that which was their own, to wit, their own
wives, their own children, their own Estates. And this, give me
leave to say, and that in truth, that those men in England, that are
most branded with the name of Levellers, are of all in that Nation,
most free from any design of Levelling, in the sense we have spoken
Leveller leader ever called for the compulsory redistribution of property,
but Walwyn did go so far as to advocate a voluntary sort of communism,
if it were first agreed upon unanimously by those participating.
In Walwyn's opinion the attempt to induce the levelling of men's estates
was most injurious, "unless there did precede an universal assent
thereunto from all and every one of the People." He further
Community amongst the primitive Christians, was Voluntary, not
Coercive; they brought their goods and laid them at the Apostles feet,
they were not enjoined to bring them, it was the effect of their Charity.
. . .
[the Levellers] profess therefore that we never had it in our thoughts
to Level men's estates, it being the utmost of our aim that the Commonwealth
be reduced to such a pass that every man may with as much security as
may he enjoy his propriety.
Leveller leader had his own opinion on the subject, their commonly subscribed
statements explicitly demanded that Parliament be legally bound not
to level men's estates, destroy propriety, or make all things common.
They all insisted that property was a natural right of the individual.
It was on this concept of natural right that they based their case,
not only for individual property, but also for government by consent
and for civil and religious liberties. Their fundamental position was
that every man is naturally the proprietor of his own person.
fundamental position is most strikingly set forth in some of Richard
Overton's pamphlets, which were written as Leveller propaganda.
Both in his An Arrow Against All Tyrants (October 10, 1646) and
in his Appeal (July 1647) he endorses a principled and far-reaching
theory of natural rights from which he derives all civil and political
rights. The two opening paragraphs of the Arrow deserve
being quoted in full:
every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature,
not to he invaded or usurped by any: for every one as he is himself,
so he hath a self propriety, else could he not be himself, and on this
no second may presume to deprive any of, without manifest violation
and affront to the very principles of nature, and of the Rules of equity
and justice between man and man; mine and thine cannot he, except this
be; No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man's;
I may he but an Individual, enjoy my self, and my self propriety, and
may write myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I
do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon an other man's Right, to
which I have no Right. For by natural birth, all men are equally
alike and born to like propriety, liberty, and freedom, and as we are
delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with
a natural, innate freedom and propriety (as it were writ in the table
of every man's heart, never to be obliterated) even so are we to live,
every one equally and alike to enjoy his Birth-right and privilege;
even all whereof God by nature hath made him free.
this by nature every one desires aims at, and requires for no man naturally
would be befooled of his liberty by his neighbor's craft, or enslaved
by his neighbor's might, for it is nature's instinct to preserve it
self, from all things hurtful and obnoxious, and this in nature is granted
of all to be most reasonable, equal and just, not to be rooted out of
the kind, even of equal duration with the creature: And from this fountain
or root, all just human powers take their original; not immediately
from God (as Kings usually plead their prerogative) but mediately by
the hand of nature, as from the represented to the representors; for
originally, God hath implanted them in the creature, and from the creature
those powers immediately proceed; and no further: and no more may be
communicated than stands for the better being weal, or safety thereof:
and this is man's prerogative and no further, so much and no more may
be given or received thereof: even so much as is conducent to a better
being, more safety and freedom, and no more; he that gives more sins
against his own flesh; and he that takes more, is a Thief and Robber
to his kind: Every man by nature being a King, Priest and Prophet in
his own natural circuit and compass, whereof no second may partake,
but by deputation, commission, and free consent from him, whose natural
right and freedom it is.
In the Appeal
Overton makes an even more positive assertion of the reason for natural
right and self-propriety:
is a firm Law and radical principle in Nature, engraven in the tables
of the heart by the finger of God in creation for every living moving
thing, wherein there is a breath of life to defend, preserve, award,
and deliver it self from all things hurtful, destructive and obnoxious
thereto to the utmost of its power: Therefore from hence is conveyed
to all men in general, and to every man in particular, an undoubted
principle of reason, by all rational and just ways and means possibly
he may, to save, defend and deliver himself from all oppression, violence
and cruelty whatsoever, and (in duty to his own safety and being) to
leave no just expedient unattempted for his delivery therefrom: and
this is rational and just; to deny it is to overturn the law of nature,
yea, and of Religion too; for the contrary lets in nothing but self
murder, violence and cruelty.
is Overton's ultimate justification for himself and the Leveller movement.
In tones that presage those of John Locke of the 1680's and Thomas Paine
of the 1770's, Overton marshals the dogmas of natural liberty in support
of popular government by consent, toleration, and freedom of the press.
Here is the "proprietorial quality of the Levellers' individualism."
Every man and woman, being an individual person, is entitled to self-propriety.
"What makes a man human is his freedom from other men."
Man's essence is his freedom and that can only mean self-control over
one's own person and capacities. However, self-proprietorship
did not mean passive enjoyment. "The Levellers demanded this
manifold property in one's own person as a prerequisite of active use
and enjoyment of one's capacities. Men were created to improve,
and enjoy by improving, their capacities. Their propriety in themselves
excluded all others, but did not exclude their duty to their creator
and to themselves."
little known of Overton's career is that it was short and hectic.
The best of his writings were written while he was in jail. He
probably spent some part of his early life in Holland, where he learned
the printing trade and imbibed the Anabaptist tradition of dissent.
By the mid-1640's he had made the acquaintance of John Lilburne and
joined with him in attacking the established church. In 1643,
Overton wrote an anonymous tract entitled Man's Mortality, setting
forth his sectarian views on religion. He was repeatedly denounced
as a heretic, but kept writing his various satirical and anti-clerical
pamphlets which he printed on his own press. In 1646, Overton
became concerned over the imprisonment of Lilburne and participated
in drafting A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, and Other Free-Born
People of England, to Their Own House of Commons. Occasioned Through
the Illegal and Barbarous Imprisonment of that Famous and Worthy Sufferer
for His Country's Freedoms, Lieutenant Col. John Lilburne
(July 7, 16461.
Remonstrance opens with a very clear statement of the Leveller theory
of government-- one based on consent of the governed and on a delegation
of powers from the citizenry to their elected representatives.
are well assured, yet cannot forget, that the cause of our choosing
you to be Parliament-men, was to deliver us from all kind of Bondage,
and to preserve the Common-wealth in Peace and Happiness: For effecting
whereof, we possessed you with the same Power that was in our selves,
to have done the same; For we might justly have done it our selves without
you, if we had thought it convenient. . . .
ye are to remember, this was only of us but a Power of trust, (which
is ever revokable, and cannot be otherwise,) and to be employed to no
other end, than our own well-being. . . . We are your Principals, and
you our Agents; it is a Truth which you cannot but acknowledge; For
if you or any other shall assume, or exercise any Power, that is not
derived from our Trust and choice thereunto, that Power is no less than
usurpation and Oppression, from which we expect to be freed, in whomsoever
we find it; it being altogether inconsistent with the nature of just
Freedom, which ye also very well understand.
the historical failure of former kings to maintain the people's liberties,
the Remonstrance declares that men of the present age will no
longer bear the tyranny of Charles I and that the members of Parliament,
chosen to work our deliverance, and to Estate us in natural and just
liberty agreeable to Reason and common equity; for whatever our
Fore-fathers were; or whatever they did or suffered, or were enforced
to yield unto; we are men of the present age, and ought to be absolutely
free from all kinds of exorbitances and molestations or Arbitrary Power,
and you we choose to free us from all without exception or limitation,
. . .and we were full of confidence that ye also would have dealt impartially
on our behalf, and made us the most absolute free People in the world.
Remonstrance also illustrates the Leveller attitude towards religious
toleration. Although it admits that the House of Commons might
propose what form of religion they deem best and might offer such to
the public, the authors of Remonstrance
firmly declare that no Englishman can be compelled to embrace a state
truly we are well assured, neither you, nor none else, can have any
into Power at all to conclude the People in matters that concern the
Worship of God, for therein every one of us ought to be fully assured
in our own minds, and to be sure to Worship him according to our Consciences.
may propose what Form ye conceive best, and most available for Information
and well-being of the Nation, and may persuade, and invite thereunto,
but compell, ye cannot justly; for ye have no Power from Us so to do,
nor could you have; for we could not confer a Power that was not in
our selves, there being none of Us, that can without wilfull sin bind
our selves to Worship God after any other way, than what (to a tittle,)
in our own particular understandings, we approve to be just.
Remonstrance ends with a list of grievances that the Levellers have
against the House of Commons, by whom they believe that they have been
betrayed. A call is made for an "agreement of the people,"
since the members of the House of Commons know that the "Laws of
this Nation are unworthy a Free-People, and deserve from first
to last, to be considered, and seriously debated, and reduced to an
agreement with common equity, and right reason, which
ought to be the Form and Life of every Government." The
Levellers were particularly grieved about the practice of conscription,
and in probably one of the earliest attacks on that practice they wrote:
entreat you to consider what difference there is, between binding a
man to an Oar, as a Gally-slave in Turkey or Algeria,
and Pressing of men to serve in your War; to surprise a man on the sudden,
force him from his Calling, where he lived comfortably, from a good
trade; from his dear Parents, Wife or Children, against inclination,
disposition to fight for a Cause he understands not, and in Company
of such, as he has no comfort to be with; for Pay, that will scarce
give him sustenance; and if he live, to return to a lost trade, or beggary,
or not much better: If any Tyranny or cruelty exceed this; it must be
worse than that of a Turkish Gally-slave.
also complained about the imposition of customs duties on imports and
claimed that their collection was most prejudicial to the nation.
There were so many customs officers that "it is a very slavery
to have any thing to do with them." The Levellers lamented
that "Truly it is a sad thing, but too true, a plain quiet-minded
man in any place in England, is just like a harmless sheep in
a Thicket, can hardly move or stir, but he shall be stretched, and loose
continued to express his support for Lilburne, and about August 1, 1646
he published another one of his anonymous pamphlets, An Alarum to
the House of Lords. In it Overton rebelliously warned the
Lords that "if timely cautions will not avail with you, you must
expect to be bridled, for we are resolved upon our natural Rights and
Freedoms, and to be enslaved to none, how magnificent so ever, with
rotten titles of honor." Lilburne had been imprisoned
partly because of his written attacks on the vested interests of the
day. According to Overton, Lilburne's writings
been dangerous to all corrupt Interests in the Commonwealth;
to all Arbitrary Power, In King, or Lords, or any other.
To the Power and delusion of the Clergy, and their oppression
of Conscionable Religious People.
to the most prejudicial ways of our Legal Trials in all Courts,
and to the burdensome Society of Lawyers; that live upon the impoverishing
of the industrious and laborious People; things which he proveth to
have been forced upon this nation by Conquest, and continued against
Reason, and the weal of the People.
To all Monopolists, and engrossers of trade: as the Merchant
Adventurers, and the like: all which he hath (as others), proved
to the Ruin of the People: and because of this his love to Truth, Justice,
and his Country; and his opening of these things; and his opposition
thereof to the uttermost of his Power: all these mighty Parties, put
all their policy and strength in one, utterly to destroy him.
he hath a good cause: and all good people (that desire not to 1ive by
the Oppression of others,) on his side: and that your Lordships will
find; for all these things will be laid open at the Sun, and every man
will see wherefore it is you call his Books scandalous, seditious,
dangerous Pamphlets, and why the Clergy, the Judges, Lawyers,
and Monopolists, are his deadly adversaries, even because he deals
plainly between you all; and the people, whom you labor by all means
jointly to keep in bondage and Vassalage to your wills.
House of Lords reacted against Overton's Alarum by issuing orders
for his immediate arrest, which took place on August 11, 1646, less
than two weeks after the appearance of the pamphlet. Overton was
held as a prisoner of the Lords and eventually lodged in Newgate prison.
It was not until September 16, 1647, after more than a year in prison,
that he was freed by order of the House of Commons. While imprisoned,
Overton wrote and published some of his best pamphlet attacks on the
Lords and Parliament.
Defiance, the first of his "prison" pamphlets, appeared
on September 9, 1646, less than a month after his initial arrest.
In his confrontations with the House of Lords, Overton took exactly
the same stand as had Lilburne. Overton simply denied their authority
to question him, as he believed that, as a commoner, he was not at all
subject to their jurisdiction.
bid defiance to their injustice, usurpation and tyranny, and scorn even
the least connivance, glimpse, jot, or tittle of their favor: let them
do as much against me by the Rule of Equity, Reason, and Justice for
my Testimony and Protestation against them in this thing as possibly
they can, and I shall be content and rest: for Nihil quod est contra
rationem est licitum; Nothing which is against reason is lawful,
it is a sure maxim in law, for Reason is the life of Law. But
if they transgress, and go beyond the hounds of rationality, justice,
and equity, I shall to the utmost of my power make opposition and contestation
to the last gasp of vital breath; and I will not beg their favor, nor
lie at their feet for mercy; let me have justice, or let me perish.
I’ll not sell my birth-right for a mess of pottage, for Justice is
my natural right, my heirdom, my inheritance by lineal descent from
the loins of Adam, and so to all the sons of men as their proper
right without respect of persons. The crooked course of Favor,
greatness, or the like, is not the proper channel of Justice; it is
pure, and individual, equally and alike proper unto all, descending
and running in that pure line streaming and issuing out unto all, though
grievously corrupted, vitiated, and adulterated from generation to generation.
of the great issues between Lilburne and Overton, and the House of Lords,
was the question of self-incrimination. Literally, these were
the men who made the U. S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment privilege
against self-incrimination a reality. According to Overton, the
law of England bound no man to betray himself, as the abolition of the
Star Chamber proceedings had confirmed, and his refusal to answer the
interrogatories of the Lords, he asserted, was not evidence of his guilt,
but only of his obstinacy in adhering to his legal rights.
Arrow, Overton's next pamphlet, was issued from prison on October
12, 1646. As quoted earlier, the opening passages from An Arrow
set forth Overton's theory of natural self-propriety. Overton
then goes on to discuss representation and "magisterial,"
or governmental, powers. He points out that a holder of governmental
office is not immune to breaking either the common or natural law, and
that government office must not be used as a shield or excuse for law-breaking.
Any government officer, whether king or member of parliament, may be
rightfully resisted if he has not complied with the law. In Overton's
circumstances, this meant that neither King nor Lords could legally
direct his apprehension or imprisonment until he had first been tried
and convicted by a jury of his peers. In a case such as his, any
commoner might rightfully resist the agents or ministers of government,
much as they would resist the unlawful advances of trespassers, thieves,
burglars, felons, and murderers. "No legal conviction being
made, the person invaded and assaulted by such open force of Arms may
lawfully arm themselves, fortify their Houses (which are their Castles
in the judgment of the Law) against them, yea disarm, beat, wound, repress
and kill them in their just necessary defense of their own persons,
houses, goods, wives, and families, and not be guilty of the least offense."
imprisoned in 1647, Overton issued yet another of his "prison"
pamphlets on February 10th of that year. He was still bound to
state his case to the world and bring attention to his plight and that
of his wife and family. Overton's intransigence had not waned
even though he had been imprisoned since August 1646. Around November
3, he had been brought before a Committee of the House of Commons, at
their order, for an inquiry into the reason for his incarceration by
the House of Lords. He had hoped for justice at the Committee's
hands and, in this new pamphlet, entitled Commoners Complaint,
myself, that as in heart I defied all injustice, cruelty, tyranny, and
oppression, all arbitrary usurpation and usurpers whatsoever, so in
person (come life, come death, come what come would) I would not be
so treacherous to my own self, to my wife and children, and especially
to this Nation (the Land of my Nativity) in general, as personally to
yield my active submission of any limb that was mine (either in substance
or in show).
In effect his
attitude was that, if his jailers did not have a valid warrant for remanding
him back to Newgate prison, then he would not "set forth one leg
before another" for them and they should have to carry him if he
was to be returned to jail.
of the Commoners Complaint is devoted to explaining Overton's
reasons for his course of resistance. He wanted his reasons to
be known, lest his actions be misunderstood by the public. He begins
his defense by pointing out:
State-Deprivation of life, limb, goods, liberty or freedom, either
is, or should be, all and every particle thereof, the just execution
of the Law executing: For in Equity, the Action executing is
indivisible from the Law, and only and precisely proper thereto, and
not at all to the party executed: yea, though a man legally guilty of
death should be condemned by the same legal Authority (or rather by
persons therein entrusted) to cut his own throat; yet were he
in equity not bound thereunto, but in so doing should
be guilty of his own blood.
And the Law of our Land makes no man his own Executioner. . . .and
nature itself teaches that no man shall be his own Butcher or Executioner,
for in so doing, he should sin against his own flesh, which is a thing
most unnatural and inhumane.
my rejection of carrying my own Body to the Gaol, was no other
but the refusal to be my own Executioner therein, for though it were
not of that degree of cruelty and inhumanity to my own flesh, as to
cut my own throat; yet was it of the same nature and kind. And
therefore if the one must be condemned as unjust, illegal and unnatural,
so must the other in its kind, so that as I was not bound, with my hands
to cut my own throat, so with my feet, I was not bound to carry myself
then discourses on the relationship of Equity and Law and is not afraid
to place the reason and equity of the law above Law itself:
the Letter of the Law should enjoin its Condemnants to be their own
executioners, yet were that by its own equity condemned, nulled, and
made void, for the letter must be subject to the equity: and look how
much the letter transgressed the equity, even so much it is unequal,
and is of no validity or force, for the Law taken from its original
reason and end is made a shell without a kernel, a shadow without a
substance, a Carcass without life: for the equity and reason thereof
is that which gives it a legal being and life, and makes it authoritative
and binding, if this be not granted, injustice may be a Law, tyranny
may be a Law, lust, will, pride, covetousness, and what not? may be
Laws; for if equity be not the bounder of the Law, over the corrupt
nature of man, all will fall into confusion, and one man will devour
not want it said of him that he "went to prison"; rather it
must be said of him that "he was carried there." Though
his actions and resistance had no precedent in law he was prepared to
argue the rationality of his behavior. "Reason" was
his only justification and "reason has no precedent; for reason
is the fountain of all just precedents." He was prepared
to live or die to uphold his principles:
as I am a Freeman by Birth, so I am resolved to live and die,
both in heart word and deed, in substance and in show, maugre the Arbitrary
malice of the House of Lords: yea if ought else I can devise to show
my actual enmity and defiance against their arbitrary power, I'll do
it, though it cost the life of me, and mine, and therefore I care not
who lets them know.
attitude with a bit of humor, Overton claimed that his legs were not
subject to the jurisdiction of the Lords. Being free of their jurisdiction
“from the Crown of my head to the Sole of my feet,"
he knew no reason why he should “foot it for them," or
"dance" to their arbitrary warrants, except that they
might "play to the good old tune of the Law of the Land."
his appearance before the Committee of the House of Commons, Overton
engaged in a debate on which House of Parliament had jurisdiction over
him. It was his contention that, if the House of Commons had authority
to recall him from jail and question him in committee, then he must
be subject to their jurisdiction and not the jurisdiction of the House
of Lords. Therefore his jailers from Newgate had no authority
to return him to prison, especially since the Commons' Committee had
not issued a warrant for his return. Overton was playing a dangerous
game, but he even went so far as to offer to return with his jailers,
if he were entreated to do so by the Committee. Though offering
the Committee more in law than he had to, he was baiting them. They
refused to urge him back to prison; but had they done so, Overton could
have claimed that he was thereby subject to their jurisdiction.
Nevertheless, Overton reveals that he was prepared to defy the Committee,
even had it requested his voluntary return to Newgate:
do you think that 1 am such a fool to part with my liberty, for nothing.
Sir, our liberties have been bought at a dearer rate, then to be trifled
and slighted away. . . .
now Sir, I would not have you think from these demands of mine, that
I would be subject to an arbitrary power more in you then in the other,
for truly in those demands there was tacitly couched a supposition of
that which I knew could not be granted. . . .but and if I had been imprisoned
thereon, after I had given their Lordships that Sob, you should
have heard from me with a witness; for I cannot suffer oppression and
any rate, Overton's jailers dragged him away from the Committee and
carried him by boat toward Newgate. When he was landed, they pleaded
with him to walk up a long hill under his own power.
was not minded to be their DRUDGE, or to make use of my feet to carry
the rest of my body to the Gaol, therefore I let them hang as if they
had been none of my own, or like a couple of farthin Candles dangling
at my knees, and after they had dragged me in that admireable posture
a while, the one took me very reverently by the head, and the other
as reverently by the feet, as if he had intended to have done Homage
to his Holiness' great Toe, and so they carried me: but truly Sir, I
laughed at the conceit in my sleeve. [Eventually they wearied and soon
carried me] just as if I had been a dead Dog, they dragged and trailed
my body upon the stones, and without all reverence to my cloth, drew
me through the dirt and mire.
Upon his arrival
at Newgate prison, they placed him in the lower room, or the Lodge as
it was called. Somehow Overton still managed to have a copy of
Sir Edward Coke's Institutes on the Magna Charta in his possession.
Mr. Briscoe, the jailer, spying the book, demanded to have it, which
Overton promptly refused. Overton was mobbed and eventually the
book was wrestled from him. "And thus by an assault they
got the great Charter of Englands Liberties and Freedoms,"
and thus being "stripped of my armour of proof, the Charter of
my legal Rights, Freedoms, and Liberties, after the aforesaid barbarous
manner, they hurried me up into the common Gaol.'' There,
although he was placed in a pair of leg irons, he purposefully refused
to either answer the call of the warden, or commission anyone to knock
off the leg irons. Finally the warden had Overton carried to his
office, where Overton preached to the warden. Overton told the
warden that he
to crouch or debase his Spirits to the lawless cruelty of any merciless
tyrants or Gaolers whatsoever: they may devour my Carcass, and make
that bend and break with their cruelty, but I trust in God, that in
heart and action to the utmost of my power in the pursuance of justice
and truth, 1 shall bid defiance to the last gasp of breath to all their
oppressions and tyrannies whatsoever."
the course of his imprisonment, around January 6, 1647, Overton's wife
and his brother had been arrested and committed to Maiden Lane prison
by order of the House of Lords. The following day another raid
was perpetrated on his dwelling, when agents of the Lords were searching
for Overton's sister and her husband. Fortunately, the two escaped
along with Overton's three children. Rightfully he laments, "so,
Father, Mother, Children, and All, being driven out of House and home,
the Doors were shut up; and I, and mine, exposed to the utter ruin
and confusion of those insulting, domineering, merciless, Usurpers and
Tyrants, The House of Lords." Overton then relates
how his wife was commanded by the City Marshall to be moved from Maiden
Lane prison to Bridewell, "that common Center and receptacle of
bauds, whores, and strumpets, more fit for their wanton retrograde Ladies,
than for one, who never yet could be taxed of immodesty, either in
countenance, gesture, words, or action."
wife refused to budge and told the Marshall that she would not stir
except upon order or warrant of the House of Commons. The Marshall
flew into a fit of angry rage and called for a couple of porters to
move her. When they came, Overton relates, the porters told the
Marshall "that they would not meddle with a woman that was with
child, and had a young sucking infant in her arms, lest in doing so
they might do that today which they might answer for tomorrow."
 A cartman similarly refused to haul Mary Overton to Bridewell.
Finally the Marshall gathered his sheriffs and deputies and they broke
down the door in order to violently lay hands on her. They "dragged
her down the stairs, and in that infamous barbarous manner, drew her
headlong upon the stones in all the dirt and the mire of the streets,
with the poor Infant still crying and mourning in her Arms, whose life
they spared not to hazard by that inhumane barbarous usage."
Overton was concerned not only for her life and the brutal treatment
she had received, but thought that her reputation would be ruined forever
by being jailed in Bridewell.
concluding the Commoners Complaint, Overton stressed that the
House of Commons should redress the situation of all those arbitrarily
imprisoned by the House of Lords. If the Lords may rule by prerogative,
farewell all liberty and property, all Laws; justice, and equity; and
if it must be so, I pray you bear us no longer in suspense and expection
of redress, hut forthwith let our Doom be proclaimed to the whole world,
that the Commons of England may know what to trust to; that we may loose
our labor no longer in petitioning, appealing, complaining, and seeking
for relief at your hands. . . .for my part I care not though you and
all men forsake me, so long as I know the Lord liveth, who will once
judge every man according to his deeds, whether good or evil, and then
I am sure I shall have righteous judgment. . . .
scorn their mercy, and dare them to do their worse: let them find Prisons,
Dungeons, Irons, Halters, etc., and I'll find Carcass, Neck, and Heels,
for one in contempt to their usurped jurisdiction; for resolved I am
to break before I bend to their oppressions.''
in 1647, Mary Overton wrote her own petition to the House of Commons,
addressed To the Right Honorable, the Knights, Citizens, and Burgesses,
the Parliament of England, Assembled at Westminster, the Humble Appeal
and Petition of Mary Overton, Prisoner in Bridewell.
In it she related the story of her own arrest and the tribulations of
herself, her husband, and family at the hands of the House of Lords.
Her petition is full of legal citations, unlike the writings of her
husband. Overton had apparently been misinformed, for Mary states
that Thomas Overton and also her own brother were taken in the raid
upon her home.
Overton's main plea is that justice be dispensed towards her and towards
her husband and the rest of their family.
case by Law it shall be found that your Petitioners husband, herself
and her brother have done ought worthy of death, or other exemplary
punishment, that they may forthwith receive their just execution accordingly.
But and if your Petitioner, her husband and brother be legally found
not guilty of any transgression of the known Laws of the Land, that
then by an Order from this House they may forthwith be discharged from
under the vassallage and bondage of those insulting and tyrannizing
lords; and that for the future you would be pleased to protect them
and the rest of their National Brethren the free Commoners of England
from the like Prerogative-insolencies, cruelties and oppression: and
that in case this House by the Law of the Land shall find your Petitioners
husband, her self and her brother wronged and abused, that you would
according to justice give them full and ample reparations for their
long and unjust imprisonment, like as you have done of late to sundry
of your own Members your Petitioners Fellow Commoners; that you will
not any longer deny them the benefit of the Law, which is their birthright
and inheritance, and let them not be deprived of that which every monthly
Sessions you do allow to thieves and murderers, to have a free and speedy
Richard Overton was still in Newgate, and on July 8, 1647 he published
yet another "prison" pamphlet. His Commoners Complaint
had been directed to the House of Commons and had no appreciable effect.
Having obviously lost some confidence in the ability of the House of
Commons to secure his release, Overton took the unprecedented step of
appealing directly to the English populace and Army. Realizing
that he might he condemned for this bold appeal, Overton again used
an argument which he had presented in his Commoners Complaint: "That
Reason has no precedent, for Reason is the fountain of all just precedents.
. . . therefore where that is, there is a sufficient and justifiable
if this Principle must be granted of, and obeyed by all, as by
no rational man can be denied, then. . .[my] Appeal in this nature
if grounded upon right Reason is justifiable and warranted, even
by That which gives an equitable Authority, life and being to all just
Laws, precedents and forms of Government whatsoever, for Reason is their
very life and spirit, whereby they are all made lawful and warrantable.
. . ; which is the highest kind of Justification
and Authority for human Actions that can be; . . .right
Reason (the fountain of all justice and mercy to the creature) shall
and will endure for ever; it is that by which in all our Actions
we must stand or fall, be justified or condemned; for neither Morality
nor Divinity among Men can or may transgress the limits
of right reason, for whatsoever is unreasonable cannot be
justly termed Moral or Divine, and right reason is
only commensurable and discernable by the rule of merciful Justice
and just mercy."
then justifies his own Appeal by referring to "right reason."
First he points out that it is a law of nature and religion that people
may use all just and expedient means to free themselves from oppression.
His Appeal is such a means and is therefore legitimate.
Secondly, "necessity" justified his course of action in the
Appeal. Parliament had taken up arms against the King out
of "necessity" and had proclaimed it "no resistance of
Magistracy to side with the just principles and law of nature."
Therefore if any from the House of Commons condemned his Appeal,
they were implicitly condemning their own rebellion against the King.
Lastly, referring to his arguments of self-propriety, which appeared
in An Arrow, Overton argues that in appealing to the commoners
and soldiers he is tracing "sovereignty" to its actual source:
authority is fundamentally seated in the office, and but ministerially
in the persons; therefore, the persons in their Ministrations
degenerating from safety to tyranny, their Authority
cease and is only to be found in the fundamental original, rise and
situation thereof, which is the people, the body represented;
for though it ceaseth from the hands of the betrusted, yet it does not,
neither can it cease from its being, for Kings, Parliaments, and etc.
may fall from it, but it endure forever, for were this not admitted,
there could be no lawful redress in extremity. . . : it always is either
in the hands of the Betrusted
of the Betrusters, while the Betrusted are dischargers
of their trust, it remains in their hands, but no sooner the
Betrusted betray and forfeit their Trust, but (as all things
else in dissolution) it returns from where it came, even to the hands
of the Trusters: for all just human powers are betrusted,
conferred, and conveyed by joint and common consent, for to every
individual in nature, is given an individual propriety by nature,
not to be invaded or usurped by any, (as in my Arrow Against
Tyranny is proved and discovered more at large) for every one
as he is himself has a self propriety, else could not be himself,
and on this no second may presume without consent; and by natural birth,
all men are equal and alike born to like propriety and freedom, every
man by natural instinct aims at his own safety and weal.
After discussing the imprisonment of his family and his own encounter
with the House of Lords, Overton analyzes the war against the King.
Most important to his argument is the demonstration that Parliament
has shown that "resistance to tyranny" is an admissible principle
of action, even though tyrants be clothed in "magisterial"
it is in vain for our Members in Parliament to think that we will justify
or tolerate the same [tyranny] among them, which we will not endure
in the King, to pluck off the Garments of Royalty
from oppression and tyranny, and to dress up the same in Parliament
Robes: No, no, that was ever and is far from our hearts, and we
shall justify or allow the same no more in the one than in the other,
for to allow it in the one is to justify it in the other, for it is
equally unequal in both, and in it self resistable wheresoever it is
found, for were it not resistable, all defensive war whatsoever were
unlawful. . . . [W]e are bound to the utmost of our power to arm and
fortify ourselves for our just and necessary defense, and by force of
Arms to repel and beat back the invading assaulting enemy, whether it
be an enemy for the confusion and extirpation of our persons, or for
destruction and ruin of our Laws, our freedoms and liberties, for bondage
and slavery are not inferior to death, but rather to be more avoided,
condemned, and resisted than present destruction, by how much the more
that kind of destruction is more languishing than present, and in pursuance
of the just and necessary defensive Opposition
we may lawfully, and are in Conscience bound to destroy, kill, and slay
the otherwise irresistible enemy for our own preservation and safety
whether in our lives, our Laws or our liberties: And against the justice
of this defensive principle
no degrees, Orders or titles among men can or may prevail, all degrees,
Orders and titles, all Laws, Customs and manners among men must be subject
to give place and yield thereunto, and it unto none.
Thus he concludes
that those resorting to a "defensive resistance" do not become
traitors and rebels against true government.
tyranny is no Magistracy, therefore the resistance of Tyrants
is no resistance of Magistrates, except it be of such so nominally;
but really and essentially monsters and pests of humanity; . . .for
Magistracy has its proper compass and confines, and the actors and actions
in that compass are thereby rendered Magisterial actors and actions
to be obeyed by all, and resisted by none; and so such as are resisters
thereof, are no Resisters of Magistracy, Authority and Government; but
the resistance of the excursions or actions out of that compass and
capacity, is no resistance of Magistracy or Magistrates, for it is not
their persons which makes their Ministrations Magisterial,
but their Ministerial Magistrations
which makes their persons Magisterial persons: for Magistracy is not
inherent or consistent in the person, but in the office; their persons
must run a parallel line in their Ministration with their office, or
else their formal deputation or Commissions will not entitle them to
the true definition of Magistrates; for the office is but accidentally
consistent in the form or external Commission, radically and essentially
in the due Ministration.
the claims of religious pacifists, Overton recognizes that all people
are entitled to maintain their natural human "being" and subsistence
upon earth by resorting to self-defense, if necessary. Pacifism
he argues would result in the utter confusion of humanity and the depopulation
of nations. Nevertheless, he agrees that religious doctrine must
not be promulgated by the sword, although he sees no contradiction in
a religious person embracing the principle of self-defense when coercively
attacked: "And if the Magistrate should so far extend his compulsive
force under pretense of religion and conscience, to the destruction
of our human subsistence or being, we may upon the points of your human
subsistence and being, lawfully make our defensive resistance, for in
itself it is defendable against all opposition or destruction from whence
or from whomsoever it shall be." Overton concludes his
Appeal by urging all the commoners and soldiers to embrace his cause.
If they will not, he writes, then "I have reckoned my cost, and
can in this cause for my Country upon honest and just privileges, lay
down my life, as freely and willingly, as my most malicious enemies
can make it a sacrifice to their fury: Do therefore, as it seems good
in your own eyes; I have discharged my conscience, and what I have done,
I have done; and commit the issue thereof unto God."
was finally released from prison in September or November 1647, after
another inquiry by the House of Commons. Although Leveller agitation
continued throughout 1648, we do not find Overton back in print until
March 1649 with a pamphlet entitled The Hunting of the Foxes,
which set forth Leveller grievances against the Army. In the
meantime, the second phase of the Civil War had commenced and the Scottish
Army had been defeated by Cromwell. King Charles I had been seized
by the Parliamentary Army in December 1648 and executed on January 30,
1649. Although the King's trial and execution were the result
of "a fanatical minority of Independents," "ideologically
the trial of Charles and the abolition of kingship were the product
of Leveller propaganda.” The second Agreement of the People been
published by the Levellers in December 1648, and by mid-1649, they were
becoming increasingly disenchanted with Cromwell and the Independents.
The Army was moving towards a dictatorship; censorship and military
law had already been imposed, and Cromwell had refused to adopt the
second Agreement of the People.
was no wonder, then, that in 1649 Lilburne and other Levellers had composed
a new address to Parliament, titled The Second Part of Englands New
Chains Discovered (March 24, 1649). It was a direct and bitter
attack on the Army and the Independents, "provocative of mutiny
and disorder." One historian has described what ensued as
Independents had no choice but to resolve the dispute by suppression.
On March 24 the Rump declared the pamphlet contained "much false,
scandalous, and reproachful Matter." Further, it was "highly
seditious. . .destructive to the present Government. . .tended to Divison
and Mutiny in the Army." The authors they declared "guilty
of High Treason, and should be proceeded against as Traitors."
on March 28, between four and six in the morning, troops of horse and
foot surrounded the homes of Lilburne, Walwyn, Prince, and Overton,
roused them roughly from their beds, carried them off to Whitehall,
there to await questioning by the Council of State. The story
of their arrest and subsequent examination is told vividly by Lilburne,
Prince, and Overton, in The Picture of the Council of State,
published only six days later. The dramatic situation was ideal
for propagandistic effect, and the Levellers promptly identified the
principle of political justice with their own sufferings at the hands
of the Grandees. Each of the four men refused to answer interrogatories
that would have incriminated himself . . . , Lilburne and Overton .
. . denying the legality of both the Rump and the Council of State.
Lilburne was permitted to make a long speech pointing out that it was
not in the power of Parliament to execute the laws, denying the power
of the Council to imprison him in a military prison, and threatening
to burn the very military prison they should consign him to. Looking
fixedly at Cromwell, Lilburne said, "I must be plain with you,
I have not found so much Honor, Honesty, Justice, or Conscience, in
any of the principal Officers of the Army, as to trust my life under
their protection, or think it can be safe under their immediate fingers."
After Overton, Prince, and Walwyn had been questioned, Lilburne put
his ear to the door of the chamber: "I . . . heard Lieutenant General
Cromwell (I am sure of it) very loud, thumping his fist up the Council
Table, till it rang again, and heard him speak in these very words,
or to this effect; I tell you Sir, you have no other Way to deal
with these men, but to break them in pieces; and thumping upon the
Council Table again, he said Sir, let me tell you; yea, and bring
all the guilt of blood and treasure shed and
spent in this Kingdom upon your heads and shoulders; and frustrate and
make void all that work, that with so many years industry, toil and
pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world,
as the most contemptible generation of silly, low spirited men in the
Such was the
strength of the Leveller movement, that Cromwell had to resort to outright
repression in order to maintain his position.
his narrative in The Council of State, Overton describes the
rough and abusive treatment that he and his friends received during
the raid upon his living quarters. Always ready to assert his
legal rights, he demanded to see the warrant for his arrest and to see
the search warrant authorizing invasion of his quarters. When he was
finally brought before the Council of State, he again demanded the production
of their authority to detain him for questioning. He unequivocally refused
to answer their questions:
it is well known, and that unto your selves, that in cases criminal,
as now you pretend against me, it is against the fundamental Laws of
this Commonwealth to proceed against any man by way of Interrogatories
against himself, as you do against me. . . .So that for my part, Gentlemen,
I do utterly refuse to make answer unto any thing in relation to my
own person, or any man or men under heaven; but do humbly desire, that
if you intend by way of Charge to proceed to any Trial of me, that it
may be (as before I desired at your hands) by the known established
Laws of England, in some ordinary Court of Justice appointed for such
cases (extraordinary ways never being used, but abominated, where ordinary
ways may be had) and I shall freely submit to what can be legally made
good against me.
claiming a privilege against self-incrimination, Overton also pointed
out that he was innocent until proven guilty and that ex post facto
laws could have no bearing on his particular case.
am guilty of nothing, not of this paper, entitled The Second Part
of Englands New Chains, in case I had never so much an hand in it,
till it be legally proved: for the Law looks upon no man to be guilty
of any crime, till by law he be convicted; so that I cannot esteem myself
guilty of any thlng, till by the Law you have made the same good against
further Sir, I desire you to take notice, that I cannot be guilty of
the transgression of any Law, before that Law be in being; it is impossible
to offend that which is not: Where there is no Law there is no Transgression:
Now, those Votes on which you proceed against me are but of yesterdays
being; so that, had I an hand in that Book whereof you accuse me, provided
it were before those Votes, you cannot render me guilty by those Votes.
though he was facing the possibility of a second imprisonment, Overton
was as defiant and belligerent as ever, declaring that he could never
coexist with oppression:
is well known, and I think to some here [before the Council of State],
that I have ever been an opposer of oppression and tyranny. . . . I
suppose no man can accuse me, but that I have opposed Tyranny where-ever
I have found it: It is all one to me under what name, or title soever
oppression be exercised, whether under the name of King, Parliament,
Council of State, under the name of this, or that, or any thing else;
For tyranny and oppression is tyranny and oppression to me where-ever
I find it, and where-ever I find it I shall oppose it, without respect
know I am mortal and finite, and by the course of nature my days must
have a period, how soon I know not; and the most you can do, it is but
to proceed to life; and for my part, I had rather die in the just vindication
of the poor oppressed people of this Commonwealth, then to die in my
bed; and the sooner it is, the welcomer, I care not if it were at this
instant, for I value not what you can do unto me.
eloquent pleas for freedom, the Leveller leaders were kept in prison.
was probably next to impossible to stifle the outbursts of such men
as Lilburne and Overton, and from prison they soon published another
declaration, A Manifestation,
(April 14, 1649), which, although apparently written in the main by
Walwyn, reflected the ideas of all four prisoners. The Levellers
were concerned to demonstrate that they were not to he associated with
the communal land diggers and that they did not preach chaotic anarchy,
although they were firmly opposed to the military government of Cromwell.
Walwyn therefore attempted to defend the Levellers' course of action
during the Civil War. The Levellers had engaged in political activity
out of self-defense, but they were concerned to show that their own
politics would not end up in an oppressive government, were they to
succeed. This of course is a danger inherent in all radical political
parties: that they can end up replacing one set of oppressions with
whereas it is urged, That if we were in power, we would bear ourselves
as Tyrannically as others have done: We confess indeed, that the experimental
defections of so many men as have succeeded in Authority, and the exceeding
difference we have hitherto found in the same men in a low, and in an
exalted condition, makes us even mistrust our own hearts, and hardly
believe our own Resolutions of the contrary. And therefore we
have proposed such an Establishment, as supposing men to be too flexible
and yielding to worldly Temptations, they should not yet have a means
or opportunity either to injure particulars, or prejudice the Public,
without extreme hazard, and apparent danger to themselves. Besides,
to the objection we have further to say, That we aim not at power in
our selves, our Principles and Desires being in no measure of self-concernment:
nor do we rely for obtaining the same upon strength, or a forcible obstruction;
but solely upon that inbred and persuasive power that is all good and
just things, to make their own way in the hearts of men, and so to procure
their own Establishments."
Manifestation ends on a conciliatory note by referring to the revision
of the Agreement of the People, which the Leveller leaders were preparing.
The Agreement would allow the world to see what the Leveller movement
was about, and if accepted would lead to peace.
thus the world may clearly see what we are, and what we aim at: We are
altogether ignorant, and do from our hearts abominate all designs and
contrivances of dangerous consequence which we are said (but God knows,
untruly) to be laboring withall. Peace and Freedom is our Design;
by War we were never gainers, nor ever wish to be; and under bondage
we have been hitherto sufferers. We desire, however, that what is past
may be forgotten, provided the Commonwealth may have amends made it
for the time to come. And this from our soul we desire."
May 1, 1649, Lilburne, Walwyn, Prince, and Overton, still prisoners
in the Tower of London, published their revision of An Agreement
of the Free People of England. Tendered as a Peace Offering to
This Distressed Nation. The Agreement was composed
of thirty articles and incorporated all the Leveller demands as taken
from their most important petition. In the Agreement
they display a profound distrust of authoritarian power but do place
a great amount of confidence in the judgment of the voting public.
In the Agreement are such libertarian planks as:
We do not empower them [the representatives in Parliament] to impress
or constrain any person to serve in war by Sea or Land every mans Conscience
being to he satisfied in the justness of that cause wherein he hazards
his own life, or may destroy an others.
We agree and Declare That it shall not be in the power of any representative
to punish or cause to be punished, any person or persons for refusing
to answer questions against themselves in Criminal cases.
That it shall not be in their power to continue or make any Laws to
abridge or to hinder any person or persons from trading or merchandizing
in to any place beyond the Seas, where any of this Nation are free to
That it shall not be in their power to continue Excise or Customs upon
any sort of Food or any other Goods, Wares, or Commodities. . . .
That it shall not be in their power to make or continue any Law, whereby
men’s real or personal estates, or any part thereof, shall be exempted
from payment of their debts; or to imprison any person for debt of any
nature, it being both unchristian in itself, and no advantage to the
Creditors, and both a reproach and a prejudice to the Commonwealth.
That it shall not be in their power to make or continue any Law, for
taking away any mans life, except for murder, or other like heineous
offenses destructive to human Society, or for endeavoring by force to
destroy this Agreement, but shall use their uttermost endeavors to appoint
punishments equal to offenses: that so men’s Lives, Limbs, Liberties,
and estates, may not be liable to be taken away upon trivial or slight
occasions as they have been; . . . and in all other capital offenses
recompense shall be made to the parties damnified, as well out of the
estate of the Malefactor, as by loss of life, according to the conscience
of his jury.
was kept in the Tower until November 1649, and during that time he published
two pamphlets in support of the Agreement of the People. The first
was titled Overton's Defiance of the Act of Pardon (July 2, 1649)
and the second was The Baiting of the Bull of Bashan (July 9,
1649). In the first Overton makes it clear that the Agreement
is the summation and goal of his political activities. In his
estimation, no sacrifice would be too great, so long as it was adopted:
Friends, of this therefore be you confident, that my silence has not
proceeded from any degeneration or instability in me to that Righteous
Cause (summed up in our draft of an Agreement of the people, subscribed,
published, and offered by us four as a peace offering, to the consideration
of the people of England, May 1, 1649) that Paper (or rather the contents
or premises thereof) is the price, glory, and end of my endurance, neither
life, liberty or reparation or any thing that man or earth affords is
valuable with me in comparison thereof, that is my all in all;
I desire neither life, liberty or reparation (seeing God has called
me to the work) but as it may stand in subordination to that Agreement;
while I have life or breath it shall never want a truer asserter to
uphold and promote the same to the utmost of my power, let the hazard
and danger to myself be what it will . . . . for that Agreement, I will
have, or else I'll die at their feet; I'll have no accord or peace with
them at all till they have yielded that: whether at liberty or in prison,
it is all one to me."
It was Overton's
belief that without the Agreement there would be no security for either
person or property in the Commonwealth. He makes it plain that
he does not trust Cromwell and the army grandees. ("I'll trust
them no further than I can fling their great Bull of Bashan by the tail.")
He exhorts those Levellers still at liberty to promote the Agreement
and not to expect that their four imprisoned leaders can "remove
mountains"; at least not without their help.
the Leveller prisoners had been offered a pardon, on terms which Overton
found quite unacceptable. In the Defiance of the Act of Pardon
Overton also laments the defection of former comrades from the ranks
of the Levellers into the arms of Cromwell's faction. Referring
to himself as "little brisk Levelling Dick in the Tower,"
Overton makes it clear to both his followers and opponents that he will
not dishonor himself or the cause by renouncing the Agreement or changing
know all men by these presents, that I, Richard Overton . . .out of
a tender regard that I have to the Liberties of my Country, and credit
of that honorable cause, do hereby defy, renounce, abhor, detest and
scorn that Act of Pardon as to my Liberty thereby, and do rather choose
continuance and increase of Bonds, than conditional submission or assent
thereunto in the least: . . . I am so far from submission to their corrupt
and wicked interest, that I will first eat the flesh off from my bones;
first rot and perish in Gaol, before I will so far how to them, as in
the least to woo them or any of their creatures, either directly or
indirectly in person or by proxy for my liberty: my cause is not bad,
but with patience I can suffer till I be justly delivered without blemish
or speck of infamy to the same; the honor of it, I honor above my life
the Defiance, Overton had used some rather strong and vulgar language,
and in The Baiting of the Bull
he continues on with its use, incorporating it into some pointed and
satirical metaphors. Although the Agreement was not meeting with much
popular acceptance, Overton believed that undue gravity and melancholy
in the Levellers' cause was wrong. It was his opinion that "modest
mirth tempered with due gravity makes the best composition."
And he later adds, that "one pennyworth of the Agreement of
the People, with a little good resolution taken morning and evening,
will work out this corruption, cleanse, and purify the blood."
His earlier pamphlet, he says, seemed but "as music to the house
of Mourning" and did not seem to rouse the Levellers to action.
He points out a common characteristic of political movements, that "When
there is anything of venture or hazard, while tis in the Embryo,
who is not then but busy and forward [promoting it]? but when tis put
upon the personal test for execution, Oh then one has bought a piece
of ground, and must be excused; another a yoke of Oxen, and he must
go see them; and a third has married a wife." Yet he
believes that if the ordinary Leveller saw a person threatened with
danger, be would not hesitate to venture his own life in order to save
the other. Why then are the Levellers unwilling to aid their own
political cause? As Overton points out, there is much more at
risk in the triumph of their cause than in the rescue of a single person:
cause is of a more transcendent value, and we suffer for it; and can
you see it destroyed in us, and we for it, and
not be as natural as in a private relation? the lives, liberties and
freedoms of all is contained in it? If your neighbors
Ox or his Ass were in a ditch, it is a shame to pass by and not to help;
and behold, here's all in the ditch, then, why venture you not
your time, your labors, your moneys, etc. to redeem our all, our
Cause, the nation, and us in it, and with it."
was eventually released from the Tower in November 1649, when Lilburne
was placed on trial. Although acquitted, Lilburne and the Leveller
movement had reached their zenith and were literally spent. Little
record is left of the activities of Overton after he was freed.
There is record of his involvement in spying and fomenting rebellion
against the Protectorate, and in 1659 he was again in prison.
In 1663, he was ordered arrested for printing material contrary to the
government of Charles II.
pamphlets certainly offer a unique autobiographical assessment and perspective
of the Leveller movement. Richard Overton, in both word and deed,
was a fearless man, true to his ideals of justice, without regard for
personal consequence. The words of another Leveller, contemporary
to him, perhaps best epitomize Overton's spirit:
they [the Levellers] counted the cost, the difficulty when they had
taken up arms against the king? They were bound, . . . not by difficulties
but by justice. Though death lay ahead, and the sea on three sides,
they should unflinchingly carry on. Whatever great leap the
Agreement called for, [they] should have no fear: "When I leap
I shall take so much of God with me, and so much of just and right,
as I shall jump sure."
1. H. N. Brailsford,
The Levellers and the English Revolution
(London: Cresset Press, 1961). p. 418. There is a wide disparity in
secondary, historical interpretations of the Leveller movement. Probably
the two most individualistic interpretations of the Levellers are this
book by Brailsford and one by C. B. Macpherson, Political Theory
of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).
2. Howard Shaw,
The Levellers (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1968). p. 102. See
also Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution, pp.
The Levellers and the English Revolution, pp. 379-380.
5. D. B. Robertson,
The Religious Foundations of Leveller Democracy (New York: Kings
Crown Press, 1951). p. 74.
Overton, A Manifestation, in Don M. Wolfe, ed., Leveller Manifestoes
of the Puritan Revolution (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1944),
p. 391. This is one of several collections of Leveller documents which
are indispensable to the study of the general movement. Others include:
William Haller and Godfrey Davies, eds., The Leveller Tracts, 1647-1653
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1944); William Haller, ed.,
Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution, 1638-1647,
3 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934); and A. S. P. Woodhouse,
ed., Puritanism and Liberty Being the Army Debates, 1647-9, Clarke
Manuscripts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).
Religious Foundations, p. 73.
8. Perez Zagorin,
A History of Political Thought in The English Revolution (London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, l954), p. 41.
9. See Robertson,
Religious Foundations, pp. 76-81.
The Levellers and the English Revolution, pp. 457-58.
"Introduction," Puritanism and Liberty, p. 28.
"lntroduction," p. 91.
"Putney Debates," p.75.
"Introduction," p. 91.
The Levellers and the English Revolution, p. 315.
Political Theory, p. 152.
21. Brian Manning,
The English People and the English Revolution, 1640-1649 (London:
Hennemann Publishers, 1976). p. 296.
in Robertson, The Religious Foundations, p. 87.
A Manifestation, pp. 390-91.
Politica1 Theory, p. 138.
26. See Macpherson's
discussion in ibid., pp. 137-57.
An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646). pp. 3-4. Copy from the Huntington
Library collection. I would like to thank Carey Bliss, Curator of Rare
Books and Manuscripts at the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino,
Calif., who was most helpful in supplying copies of documents in the
collection. I also obtained a copy of An Arrow from Duke University,
Durham, N.C. It has also been reprinted by the Rota Press of the
University of Exeter, England (ISBN 0-90461745X).
The same quotation also appears in Macpherson, Political Theory,
An Appeal from the Degenerate Representative Body, in Wolfe,
Leveller Manifestoes, pp. 162-63. The same quotation appears
in Macpherson, Politica1 Theory, p. 141.
Tracts on Liberty, 1:114.
Political Theory, p. 142.
A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens,
in Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes, pp. 113-30.
An Alarum to the House of Lords (1646), p. 6. Copy from the Huntington
A Dance Against All Arbitrary Usurpations (l646). p. 6. From the
Huntington Library collection. The title of this essay . . ."Come
What, Come Will," is taken from A Defiance, p. 13.
41. See Leonard
Levy, The Origins of the Fifth Amendment (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1968), pp. 293-300.
An Arrow, p. 9.
Commoners Complaint (1647), p. 3. Copy from the Huntington
58. Mary Overton,
The Humble Appeal and Petition of Mary Overton (1647), p. 12. Copy
from Temple University, Philadelphia.
Overton. An Appeal, p. 158.
The Hunting of the Foxes, in Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes,
A Picture of the Council of State, in Haller and Davies, The
Leveller Tracts, p. 223.
A Manifestation, p. 394.
Leveller Manifestoes, p. 397.
Walwyn, Prince and Overton, An Agreement of the Free People of England,
in ibid., pp. 405-407.
Overton's Defiance of the Act of Pardon (1949), pp. 4-5. Copy
from the Huntington Library Collection.
The Baiting of the Great Bull of Bashan (1649). p. 3. Copy
from the Huntington Library collection.
83. C. H. Firth,
Dictionary of National Biography (London: Oxford University Press.
1967-68), 14:1281. Firth's "Richard Overton" entry,
from which this reference is made, lists Overton's writings and gives
a picture of his tumultuous life.
Leveller Manifestoes, p. 54.
more recent collection of Leveller documents, which re-sparked my interest
in the Leveller movement is G. L. Aylmer, ed.. The Levellers in the
English Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975).
Further interpretation of the movement can be found in Henry Holorenshaw,
The Levellers and the English Revolution (London: Victor Gollancz,
1939). Two (less helpful) articles which have come to my attention
are: Iain Hampsher-Monk, "The Political Theory of the Levellers,"
Political Studies 24, no. 4 (1976): 397-422; and J. C. Davis, "The
Levellers and Christianity," in Brian Manning, ed., Politics,
Religion, and the English Civil War (New York: St. Martin's Press,
1973), pp. 225-50.
it does not appear that any biography has been written detailing the
life of Richard Overton, there are several studies of the life and thought
of John Lilburne, Leveller leader. Two biographies that I referred
to are: M. A. Gibb, John Lilburne (London: Lindsay Drummond,
1947); and Pauline Gregg, Free-born John (London: Harrap Publishers.
reader is referred to the National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints,
vol. 435, in which the listings under Mary and Richard Overton provide
the names and locations of their material in the U. S