ENGLAND’S DEBATE OVER FREEDOM

The idea of freedom suddenly took on new and expanded meanings between 1640 and 1660. The writer John Milton, who in 1649 called London “the mansion-house of liberty,” called for freedom of speech and of the press. New religious sects sprang up, demanding the end of public financing and special privileges for the Anglican Church and religious toleration for all Protestants. The Levellers, history’s first democratic political movement, proposed a written constitution, the Agreement of the People, which began by proclaiming “at how high a rate we value our just freedom.” At a time when “democracy” was still widely seen as the equivalent of anarchy and disorder, the document proposed to abolish the monarchy and House of Lords and to greatly expand the right to vote. ‘The poorest he that lives in England hath a life to live as the greatest he,” declared the Leveller Thomas Rainsborough, and therefore “any man that is born in England... ought to have his voice in election.” Rainsborough even condemned African slavery.

The Levellers offered a glimpse of the modem definition of freedom as a universal entitlement in a society based on equal rights, not a function of social class. Another new group, the Diggers, went even further, hoping to give freedom an economic underpinning through the common ownership of land. Previous discussion of freedom, declared Gerard Winstanley, the Diggers’ leader, had been misguided: “You are like men in a mist, seeking for freedom and know not what it is.” True freedom applied equally “to the poor as well as the rich”; all were entitled to “a comfortable livelihood in this their own land.” Even before the restoration of the monarchy, the Levellers, Diggers, and other radical movements spawned by the English Civil War had been crushed or driven underground. But some of the ideas of liberty that flourished during the 1640s and 1650s would be carried to America by English emigrants.

A 1629 portrait by John Aubrey depicts John Milton, the philosopher of liberty, when he attended Cambridge University.

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