The following sample essay on The Levellers discusses it in detail, offering basic facts and pros and cons associated with it. To read the essay’s introduction, body and conclusion, scroll down. As the Civil War drew to an end, the emergence of many radical groups became noticeable. The collapse of authority meant that they could now come of hiding, debate in public and develop their ideas. One of the radical groups that emerged were, as named by their opponents, the ‘Levellers’, as they wished to level out society.
They had many ideas on how they thought society should be won and these political and religious objectives were put forward to Parliament in ‘The Agreement of the People’ in 1647. This document was much more radical than those before it. In terms of political aims, the Levellers wanted to extend the franchise and achieve manhood suffrage, as they believed that everyone had equal rights to vote. They wanted to reform the legal system to give equality to everyone before the law and achieve recognition of people’s fundamental rights and liberties.
They also believed that the sovereign power should lay with the people, not with the King or Parliament. So, why did the Levellers movement fail to achieve these definite political and religious objectives after the Civil War? One major factor in the downfall of the Leveller movement is the bad leadership and organisation.
There was never one clear leader, but instead lots of leaders, all of whom had slightly different ideas and aims, which led to slight divisions within the Levellers themselves.
Also, some of the main leaders, for example, John Lilburne, were imprisoned for their actions. This meant that the leaders that were present could have no real effect on the way the Leveller movement was organised and this contributed to their failure. Another key factor that led that prevented the Levellers from achieving their political and religious objectives was the fact that they had never won national support. Their main base was in London and the South East, among merchants and traders who would benefit from their reforms. This played a large role in the collapse of the Leveller movement, as overall there were not enough Levellers throughout the country to allow it to continue. Another reason for the Levellers failure was their lack of a co-ordinated programme with full-blown policies. They all had definite aims that they wanted to achieve, but had not put much thought into how they would reach these targets. Also, they were neither numerous nor aggressive enough. A combination of these factors meant that they could easily be defeated and that their policies were not implemented. The Levellers also failed to capture the army, another key factor that contributed to the end of the Levellers.
Although some of the rank and file support them, as they too would benefit from some of their objectives, a lot of the army were more interested in pay and conditions than in theoretical schemes of government. They also had no support from the officers, the so-called ‘Grandees’, like Cromwell and Ireton as their power could be curbed by the Levellers ideas. This meant they had little support in Parliament. Another reason that the Levellers had little support in Parliament was because the rich and wealthy landowners felt threatened by the Levellers. If the Levellers achieved their objectives they felt that they would lose power, money and land and there would be a major destruction of social order. They also thought that people that didn’t own land shouldn’t get the right to vote, as they had nothing to lose, so couldn’t be trusted. This view was particularly emphasised by Ireton.
This lack of support from the wealthy meant that the most influential people in society did not support them, and this lack of support added to the factors that led to their failure. Cromwell’s strong opposition to the Levellers and their objectives, as he believed that society was based upon property and that if the Levellers ideas were implemented it would lead to anarchy. All in all, the Levellers ideas were much too radical for him to accept. He played a major role in the breakdown of the Leveller movement when he crushed their mutinies, especially the mutiny at Burford. This led to the execution of 3 of the leaders and a defeat from which the Levellers would find hard to recover from. Cromwell also had an affect on the outcome of the Putney Debates in 1647. It was here that that terms of the Agreement of the People, put forward by the Levellers, were debated. In the end, the meeting broke up without an agreement and ended in a stalemate. If the Levellers had been more successful they may not have failed. They were unsuccessful at the Putney debates mainly because the majority of the army trusted Cromwell, not the Leveller speaker, so support couldn’t be gained.
Also, Rainborough, a Leveller, had been killed, leaving them without their most dynamic speaker. This failure to gain support and force through their reforms at the Putney debates marked the beginning of the end of the Leveller movement. The Levellers emerged at a time when there was severe economic hardship and this made their policies attractive to the working class people, who would benefit from their reforms, but as the economic situation improved support for the Levellers started to decline. This was a major factor in their failure, once again, due to lack of support. In the words of Brailsford ‘it [the Leveller Movement] was neither defeated nor suppressed. It faded out because it had nothing to do’. This is still an idea argued by historians today. In any case, the Levellers failed to achieve their political and religious aims in search for a settlement after the war. This was due to a combination of factors, but mainly because of the lack of support, either due to opposition to their objectives or due to improvement in economic conditions. Either way, if there had been more support for the Levellers throughout the country they may have been able to achieve what they had set out to do.