Terms such as "democracy" get bandied about so often that one often forgets that these concepts were not sprung, fully formed from the Earth. Rather, they were developed over the centuries in response to historical developments and the problems faced by people in the past.
The Levellers were just such a group of people. The movement was short lived, lasting from 1645 to perhaps 1649. It was not a widespread phenomenon. What it was, however, was a significant moment in the development of the "liberal democratic" ideal with which we wrestle to this day.
So below I intend to offer four reasons why these scarcely read pamphleteers and radicals of seventeenth century England matter to us today.
First, the Levellers form an important point in the development of the idea of government by consent. Leveller leaders Richard Overton and William Walwyn argued in 1646 that the people had, again and again, been abused by governments and their agents. This fact could not be denied. The reason given by Overton and Walwyn was that these governments had no interest in the people but only in themselves and their preservation. This led to arbitrary government by whim where the ordinary citizen was kept in line through fear and intimidation. This would not do for free-born Englishmen. The people deserved better. So, we owe the Levellers no small debt in advancing the idea of government through consent of the governed.
Religious toleration, secondly, was also of central concern to the Levellers. The English Civil Wars were fought in a time of continued religious ferment. Henry VIII's rejection of Rome and establishment of the Church of England was not the end of the issue for religion in England. Quite far from it. The Levellers attacked this imposition of religion on the parts of the C of E and the Presbyterians who had come to rule people's minds and actions from the pulpits of the Scottish kirk. Walwyn, again writing in 1646, calls upon people to think for themselves in matters of faith and suggests nothing less than the disestablishment of the church and separation of church and state.
Thirdly, the debates at Putney in July of 1647 represent a curious milestone in the formation of a new system of government. Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, who's New Model Army was winning the day against the royalists, agreed to meet with representatives of the Leveller cause from their own ranks in the New Model. The debate was over what was to become the official policy of the army as their victory was surely drawing near (and it was). In a stirring bit of oratory, Thomas Rainsborough (the highest-ranking Leveller supporter in the army) proclaimed that:
I think that the poorest he that is in England have a life to live, as the
greatest he: and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that
is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself
under that government.
Cromwell did not accept these ideas, was put off by the radicalism of the Levellers, and had them jailed. It was this head to head meeting of the minds, however, that showed new promise in the delineation of debate in a government.
The fourth reason, and the most important, stems from Cromwell's rejection of the Leveller program and his subsequent seizure of power upon the execution of Charles I on January 30, 1649. At Putney, the Levellers told Cromwell that to replace the king with himself was no real change at all because it was merely swapping the rule of monarch for that of Parliament and its army. What was really needed, they had argued in 1647, was a wholesale reappraisal of government itself in England.
Cromwell did none of this nor did he heed the Levellers' criticisms. After Pride's Purge and the execution of Charles I, Cromwell set out to establish in reality his Puritan vision of a heaven on earth in England, the new Jerusalem. In 1653, after expelling his council of ministers and dissolving parliament, he unleashed his corps of major-generals on the land. The regime was nothing less than an Puritan Taliban. Theaters and taverns were closed, people were terrorized, property was seized and Christmas was even cancelled. Cromwell's intentions of displacing the monarch had come full circle in Cromwell, the Puritan Caesar. One need only read about his slaughter of Irish Catholics at Drogheda and elsewhere to see that Cromwell, as Lord Protector of England, was protecting his own power and status and not much more.
In conclusion, the Levellers (like John "Free-Born John" Lilburne pictured above) were ahead of their time and may indeed be called "liberal democrats," although they were not though of as such in their own time. Their ideas of toleration and consent ring across the ages as a example of popular government and radical dissent in the face of insurmountable odds.
Lastly, keep in mind their warnings to Cromwell at Putney. My reflections on Independence Day will concern revolutions that were and those that really weren't. The words of the Levellers echo throughout these revolutionary movements. Whether they were heeded is quite another story.