Levellers, Diggers, and other riff-raff

Perhaps one lesson which should have been learned from history is that revolutions go awry: especially when it is framed as a popular revolution. I’m going a bit further back from the War for American Independence to the English Civil War to a couple of movements the Levellers and the Diggers which were two of the many nonconformist dissenting groups that appeared during this period.

The Levellers were a rather diverse group which believed in popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance, all of which were expressed in the manifesto “Agreement of the People”. Although, the concepts that the Levellers believed in would hardly be considered very egalitarian by today’s standard: for example, Roman Catholics were exempt from the right to religious freedom and the electorate was to be made up of adult male property holders. Still, it was a break from the aristocratic society that was 17th Century England. The Levellers, along with the other opposition groups (e.g., the Diggers), were marginalized by those in power and their influence waned. By 1650, they were no longer a serious threat to the established order.

The Diggers, while far less historically significant, is far more important to my point here. Gerrard Winstanley decried the burden of taxes, but unlike today’s tax protestors, the diggers proposed that: “That the earth shall be made a common Treasury of livelihood to whole mankind”. The Diggers would fall under the label of being a communistic organisation in that property was to be used for communal benefit, not personal gain.

An important factor in these groups was their reliance upon scripture. Also Levellers tended to hold fast to a notion of “natural rights” that had been violated by the king’s side in the Civil Wars. At the Putney Debates in 1647, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough defended natural rights as coming from the law of God expressed in the Bible. While the rhetoric of these groups would sound quite a bit like some of that we hear from the Radical right these days, these groups would be on the extreme left of the US political spectrum.

In fact, it would have been quite amusing to have these people at Glenn Beck’s rally!

The important point is that when the religious right discussed religion and religion in the US, they need to remember that the US was founded upon these dissenter’s principles. I would also add in the Scottish Covenanters since the Puritans and the Covenanters shared a belief about the legitimacy of government. Although, the Puritans were unabashedly inclined toward theocracy.

Again, a reason alarm bells should ring in the head of any US citizen when people try to infuse religion into public life.

The upshot is that anyone who believes that the US was intended to be anything other than a secular republic is a fool since the founders knew full well the religious wars and the Killing Time wasn’t that far in the past. The Constitution is undeniably secular and Thomas Jefferson wrote The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1779. James Madison wrote Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments which is a powerful argument against state supported religion:

Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.

The right to personal convictions and religious freedom were what the founders fought for, not people being compelled to believe.

16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.–Virginia Declaration of Rights,12 June 1776, sec. 16

Whether Religious or Secular, The founders of the United States believed religious freedom to be the “first liberty” which was one which was a personal decision, not one to have forced upon people by society.

See also

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