English Civil War

Misc, to do

Clean this up

There had been real hopes among the lower orders that the uprising
against the king was going to result in the establishment of a more
egalitarian system—a notion that was often encouraged by rebel
leaders in order to keep the common people willing to fight in the
rebel army. Specifically, therewere expectations that bringing an end
to the absolute power of the monarchy would lead to the restoration
of "common rights." Some groups had organized to press for this
result.TheDiggers andthe Levellers, for instance, wereordinary folk
who saw the overthrow of the king as a chance to enhance the power
of all the people, not just rich people. The Levellers wanted to level
the playing field for all. TheDiggers, it will be no surprise to learn,
believed that everyone should have the right to dig and plant on the
common lands.
This dream of reviving common rights is reflected in the views of
the Digger leader, GerardWinstanley, who argued that bringing an
end to the despotic powers of the king was just the beginning.
"[KJingly power is like a great tree spread… . That top bough is
lopped off the tree of tyranny … but alas oppression is a great tree
still, andkeeps offthe sunandfreedom from the poor commons still."
Winstanley insisted that the next step was for Parliament to "give
consent that those we call Poor should Dig and freely Plant theWaste
and Common Land for a livelihood… .We claim our freedom in the
Commons."ToWinstanley, the private property rights the rich were
establishing for themselves amounted to a kind of theft that permit
ted them to "lock up the treasures of the earth from the poor." The
Diggers envisioned a revival of traditional common rights—without
the dominance of king and landowner that had been part of the
system in the past. In other words, they wanted to preserve the
communal aspects of traditional society while rejecting its repressive,
hierarchical structure. Nowthere's an appealing idea.
This perhaps seems like a Utopian fantasy, but it might not have
been as far-fetched as it sounds. It should be remembered that
roughly one-third of the landin England at the time was common or
waste land—that is, landthatwas already effectively administered for
common purposes by local townships and villages. It was this land
that the Diggers wanted made available for the common people to
cultivate—land that was already largely available to them. In other
words, it was those in the propertied classes who wanted to change
things radically by gaining full control themselves over otherwise
shared property. By contrast, the common folks who made up the
ranks of the Diggers simply wanted to reaffirm and strengthen their
claim to what they already had access to.Winstanley justified their
case byarguing that the land should belong to those wholabour on it,
and that only through one's labour does one acquire a claim to the
land. This argument about labour being the root of property rights is
later echoed in theworks of John Locke, although with very different
results—a subject we will return to in the next chapter. For
Winstanley, the vision was clearly oneof a society of small stakehold
ers, each entitled to enjoy nothing more than the fruits of the land
where he personally laboured.
Of course, things didn't turn out this way.Whenkingship was offi
cially abolished on March 17, 1649, Winstanley and his fellow
Diggers were disappointed—although probably not surprised—to
discover that the declaration of England as a free state and a
"commonwealth" didn't actually mean that the wealth would be
shared in common. By the early months of 16^0, groups of Diggers
had decided to proceed without parliamentary approval, establishing
little communal colonies on the waste lands, where they were busy
digging and planting. At least ten such colonies were established in
central and southern England, and the local gentry and clergy called
for army intervention to eject the squatters. Convinced that the
Diggers represented a dangerous idea, thegovernment responded in
April 16^0 by driving Winstanley's Digger colony out of Cobham
Heath, andtaking similar steps against the otherDigger colonies soon
afterwards. The unarmed colonies put up little resistance. Still, their
easy suppression by the newforces of private property probably had
little to do with the level of popular support for their different
approach, and a great deal to do with who had the guns. Had the
common people been better organized and armed, the result could
well have been different.
- McQuaig, All You Can Eat

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