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ENGLAND from JAMES to WILLIAM & MARY (4 of 10)

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Diggers and Levellers

 

With the king beheaded and no succession, Parliament declared England a commonwealth and "free state," without a king or House of Lords (commonwealth referring to national unity for the common good). Not yet a democracy, the commonwealth of England was functioning as a military dictatorship.

Some in England were eager to extend the revolution. In London were those called Diggers. They believed that common people would not benefit from the overthrow of monarchy unless landlords lost their privileges and their lands transferred to common ownership. They saw the buying and selling of land as the cause of all oppression, bondage and war. "True freedom," wrote their leader, Gerard Winstanley, "lies in free enjoyment of the earth." These were god-fearing people who disliked the association between church authorities and established power, and they claimed that existing religious authorities were instruments of class rule.

Those opposed to the Diggers but in favor of democracy were called Levellers, a name given them by people who disliked democracy. The Leveller movement was based in London. They were inclined to lift quotations from the Bible, as were their opponents – while both sides considered also their political and economic interests. As a goal during the war years (1645-46) against Charles, the Levellers advocated giving the vote to all males in elections for local offices and representation to the House of Commons. They advocated supremacy for the House of Commons, and they advocated constitutional guarantees of liberty, religious toleration and annual meetings of Parliament. The Levelers favored fairness in applications of the law, faster legal proceedings, prison reform and the closure of debtor prisons. The Levellers attracted the support of small farmers, small shopkeepers and artisans, but their hold on others was minor. Conservative Puritan ministers accused the Levelers of adultery, incest, fornication, drunkeness, card playing and lying.

Members of the House of Commons representing landowners, merchants and the middleclass were afraid of the Levellers. Many in the army had more humble origins, and some of them joined the Leveller movement. Levellers within the army rebelled at Burford in May, 1649, while most soldiers remained loyal to their commanders. The Leveller rebellion was crushed – the first great victory of republicans against democrats in modern times.

Soon after the Leveller rebellion was crushed, so too was Digger activism. About thirty Diggers had tried to establish themselves on wasteland at St. George's hill in Surrey. Fear of a communist takeover spread among local ministers and small property owners. The Diggers at St. Georges Hill suffered insults and assaults, and several Diggers were arrested for trespassing on St. Georges Hill. In March 1650, the small community of Diggers was dispersed. In April, a small Digger community in Cobham was also dispersed after a local Lord of the Manor, Parson Platt, and others destroyed Digger houses, furniture, and scattered their belongings. The Diggers were threatened with death if they returned, and several guards were posted at the property. Lacking public support, the Digger movement faded into oblivion.

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