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Levellers and the English Revolution (Socialist Classics) Paperback – 9 Sep 1976

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Product details

  • Paperback: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Spokesman Books; New Ed edition (9 Sept. 1976)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0851241549
  • ISBN-13: 978-0851241548
  • Product Dimensions: 12 x 3.5 x 18 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 405,524 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

From the Author

To our generation fell the good fortune of re-discovering the
Levellers. To the classical liberal historian they meant rather less than
nothing, this neglect is puzzling. At the crisis of the English Revolution
it was from the Levellers and not from its commanders that the victorious
New Model Army derived its political ideas and its democratic drive. Even
on a superficial glance the Levellers leaders are as personalities unusual
and, indeed, unique. King Charles had Lilburne flogged as a youngster from
Ludgate Hill to Palace Yard; Cromwell banished him in middle age to a
dungeon in Jersey.

But what we have rediscovered is not merely the fact that the Levellers
anticipated our fathers in most of the social and political reforms of the
next 300 years; the theme of this book is rather that they were, until
Cromwell crushed them, the dynamic pioneers, who had the initiative during
the most formative years of the Inter-regnum. They would have won for our
peasants in the mid-17th century what the Great Revolution gained for those
of France at the close of the 18th.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Ross Burns on 23 Dec. 2009
Format: Paperback
I cannot, cannot recommend this book highly enough. Ten stars. It's written by the finest journalist of the first half of the 20th century. His style of writing is simply to be envied; his talent as a historian is really first-rate. Buy Buy Buy.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By P. Stavris on 21 May 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a tremendous work of scholarship and a very enjoyable book. Brailsford was a prolific journalist and writer in the first half of the 20th Century and began work on this history of the Levellers on his retirement in 1946. On his death in 1958 the manuscript was almost complete. Christopher Hill edited the manuscript for publication, including some preparatory Notes and previous Articles to provide additional material on the Diggers and the later careers of the Levellers.
This is much more than a history of the English Civil War: Brailsford has brought to life the exciting and turbulent days of the English Revolution, populating the book with the passionate characters of the period, with their eccentricities, their boldness and their determination. Brailsford did much to rescue the Levellers from being "a footnote in history" to the central characters in the first faltering steps towards democracy. Diggers, Ranters, Anabaptists and atheists came bursting out of the intellectual, political and military cauldron of the Civil War, with their visions and demands for a new society.
Recent scholarship and broadcasting have made many of the characters and the debates of the period more familiar to us, but when I first read this book in the 1970's, this was the first time I had heard of John Lilburne and his gutsy wife Elizabeth. of Edward Sexby, William Walwyn and the tragic Thomas Rainsborough, of Richard Overton and Hugh Peters. Most importantly Brailsford underlines the importance of the Putney Debates, when Cromwell and the rank and file of the New Model Army gathered to debate the nature of government, Today the Putney Debates are recognised as a pivotal moment in the development of democracy in Britain.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fine addition to collection of history books relating to this epic period in history!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 1 review
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Levellers: Sea Green and Sprig of Rosemary 10 Feb. 2012
By J. Aronson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
We here in the US like to think of the American Revolution as something that could only have happened here and that it was the first manifestation of American Exceptionalism. Of course this is nonsense. What is striking is how the American Revolution was in so many ways a reprise of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. The republican Levellers and anti-Federalists are obvious matches as are the Whigish Grandees and Federalists. The remote and arbitrary English Parliament of the mid 18th Century represents Charles I and the Long Parliament of the 1640s.

Technically, this book was in manuscript form when the author, N. H. Brailsford, died in 1958. Brailsford's manuscript was substantially complete but lacked an introduction and conclusion. Christopher Hill so respected what Brailsford had produced that he essentially gathered Brailsford's notes, with little editing, into a first and last chapter. These are not smooth reading but everything in between is well written and obviously the work of someone who had deep affection for his topic.

The Levellers lost to Cromwell and the Puritan Grandees after 1650 and they were written out history after the Restoration of 1660 but they seem to have gone to ground in America. Roger Williams was a Leveller and an Anabaptist and the founder of Rhode Island, the first bastion of individual liberty in America. While the Puritan Grandees controlled Boston and the New England sea coast, Leveller-like sentiments prevailed in Rhode Island and in the hinterlands and cropped up again and again during the ratification debates of 1788-89. Samuel Adams between 1760 and 1776 begs to be compared to John Lilburne between 1640 and 1650. The Bill of Rights seems to be nothing more than a highly refined restatement of the several "Agreements of the People of England" that issued from illegal Leveller presses after 1645. Thomas Jefferson begs to be compared to William Walwyn. Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren beg to be compared to Elizabeth Lilburne. George Washington seems to be a fusion of the best of the Grandee Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Rainsborough, a Leveller colonel in the New Model Army with substantial connections to Massachusetts. Populist English republicanism crops up everywhere during the American Revolution and can be clearly seen in the writings and actions of Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, Richard Lee and Patrick Henry; as they are described by Pauline Maier in "Ratification.". The native republicanism that brought the yeoman farmers and militia men of Massachusetts and New Hampshire to Lexington Green, Concord Bridge and Bunker Hill in 1775 must have come from somewhere and it has Leveller and New Model Army written all over it. They were all of the Leveller type.

The Leveller color is sea green, its symbol is a sprig of rosemary. To my eye the Bunker Hill flag would not have looked out of place in any New Model Army regiment and the three colors typically used for the field on early Patriot flags in 1775, red, blue and green, were the same colors used by the New Model Army after 1645.

Massachusetts after 1630 was the model for Cromwell's Commonwealth but Brailsford reminds us that the statist Puritans and the libertarian and Leveller Anabaptists, Quakers and religious independents of all kinds, both in Massachusetts and in England, always thought they had more in common with each other than they did with the statist Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Catholics. This is clearly reflected in the experience of Harvard College. In 1660 their graduates were hanging Quakers, in 1692 they were burning witches but by 1800 they were graduating Unitarians and abolitionists.

Brailsford also observes that there are similarities between the Leveller influenced New Model Army of 1645 to 1649 and the Red Army of 1918 to 1921. That leads to the suggestion that the difference between a democratic republican and a "Red" may turn only on the question of property rights. Brailsford also observes that the Levellers were opposed to the execution of Charles I and stridently opposed to Cromwell's subjugation of Ireland but, when forced to pick between supporting Cromwell and the Puritan Rump Parliament or Prince Charles and the threat of invasion from Scotland in 1650, the Levellers immediately became strong and unconditional supporters of Cromwell; this even though Cromwell and the Puritan Rump Parliament had put John Lilburne on trial for his life on charges of treason only a year earlier.

How Lilburne, appearing pro se, won an acquittal from a high court of Oyer and Terminer in 1649 (the same kind of special court that conducted the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1692) is one of the high points of Anglo-American legal history but it is virtually unknown in the US. In essence, he won his acquittal from a sympathetic jury on arguments based on due process, fundamental fairness and the idea that the jury, acting as the representatives of the people in individual cases, could nullify bad laws by returning a verdict of "not guilty" even if the evidence showed beyond doubt that the defendant had violated the particular provisions of the law in question. That is the practical, day to day meaning of the idea that people being governed, not the institutions of government, are sovereign. Here, it must be noted that this same argument was consciously and successfully made to individual juries in New England and the old Northwest in the context of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and many juries did, on a case by case basis, nullify the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Levellers were simply amazing and they came within a duce of establishing the first secular, democratic republic based on the idea of the sovereignty of the people, not the institutions of government, in England in 1649. The English Revolutions of the 1640s have pride of place among the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. They should be much better known. I find it distressing that I was born in Masssachusetts, graduated from college, went to law school and lived to be 60 years old without ever hearing the names of John Lilburne, Elizabeth Lilburne, William Walwyn, Richard Overton and Thomas Rainsborough.

The fundamental question posed by the Levellers remains unanswered: Which is sovereign; the people being governed or the institutions of government? The Levellers said the people but it seems that in the end the institutions always win.

American history desperately needs a total re-write. The first chapter of the re-write should begin in England on April 18, 1638, the day John Lilburn was flogged through the streets of London after being tried and sentenced by the Star Chamber and for publishing seditious pamphlets. Free speech and freedom of the press is a Leveller idea.
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