The radicals who met in my church in 1647 demanding the franchise for all men, irrespective of birth or wealth, were soon thwarted by the machinations of the fearful Oliver Cromwell (Comment, 26 October). The leaders of the first stirrings of English democracy were rounded up and shot in Burford Church. Others were cowed into silence.
Yet the dream was kept alive. Ships that sailed west to find a new land took with them the dream of democracy. What was first whispered in Putney came to fruition in that great experiment in democracy that is the United States.
Looking around Los Angeles, as I have just done, it is easy to miss the moral seriousness of the US. This is the spiritual home of cocaine-snorting movie producers, drive-by shootings, plastic breasts, and gas-guzzling Hummers. As I sit with my feet in the Pacific Ocean on the Malibu seafront, enjoying a great Chardonnay, the Puritans of Putney seem a million miles away.
Yet this is the land they created, a land greatly shaped by the Christian convictions of the Levellers: that all human beings are equal in the sight of God (hence levelled); and that the fight against tyranny (Pharaoh, Caesar, the Pope, the British monarch) is a religious imperative.
Of course, the Levellers would have been horrified to discover what many people have chosen to do with their freedom. But the decision to restrict freedom, even the freedom to be wastefully rich and superficial, can be a dangerous game. The more freedom is restricted, even in the name of some obviously higher good, the more chance there is for oppressive tyranny to assert itself. This is why, odd as it may seem, the LA party-set are sentinels on the outer flanks of human liberty.
But — and here is the great and painful contradiction of the United States — freedom is often defended at the expense of that other pillar of Leveller conviction: equality. Just behind the glitz of the Kodak Theater, where the Oscars are dished out, a huddle of black vagrants, dressed in little more than rags, hang out on the steps of the United Methodist Church. What freedom is there for such as these?
“The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he,” said Thomas Rainsborough in Putney. His brother-in-law, John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, made an even more famous speech: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”
That is uncomfortably near the knuckle.