Hello, and welcome to Revolutions,
As we’ve discussed, the really revolutionary part of the English Revolution got going after the end of the First Civil War, leading to things like the army mutiny and the Leveler influenced Putney Debates. Then it picked up steam after the Second Civil War, leading to things like Pride’s Purge and the execution of the King.
But off the main current of events, the turmoil and hardship of the wars had created little revolutionary eddies. Eddies that ultimately went nowhere, but are nonetheless fascinating little pools filled with political and economic philosophies that don’t gain traction again for centuries. One of the most famous and most fun of these revolutionary eddies are the Diggers. I would be doing you quite a disservice if we didn’t spend at least a little time talking about the Diggers.
Now, as with almost every group during these years, the name Digger was originally an insult. And at first they called themselves the True Levelers, which is kind of funny, since the name Leveler was itself initially a pejorative. We’ll get to why they were called Diggers in a second. But first we need to know what the difference is between a Leveler and a True Leveler.
As you’ll recall, the Levelers get their name because they were accused of promoting the leveling of wealth, income and property in order to create an egalitarian society. You’ll also recall that the Levelers were forever denying that this was actually their goal. They wanted constitutional reforms and, yes, pretty radical constitutional reforms, but they took great pains to defend private property rights.
The True Levelers, on the other hand, called themselves that because they did reject private property rights and actually did call for a leveling of wealth, income and property. Well, they didn’t want to level property so much as they want to abolish the whole notion altogether.
The basic foundation for their program came from the Book of Acts, Chapter Two:
All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.Acts 2:44-45
They extrapolated from this an entire system that denounced private property as unnatural and unjust and running counter to God’s will.
The first True Leveler pamphlet called Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was published in December, 1648, just as Colonel Pride was purging Parliament and said, among other things, that
all men being alike privileged by birth, so all men were to enjoy the creatures alike without property, one more than the other.
Which is exactly what the Levelers were going out of their way to deny they believed. And I can promise you they were more than a little embarrassed to have this kind of nonsense being propagated in their name. Well, sort of in their name, because the True Levelers were obviously taking pains to make sure that everyone knew that the other Levelers were nothing of the kind.
The reason they started getting called the Diggers, though, was not because of what they believed, but rather because of what they did. The winter of 1648-1649 was particularly harsh. Remember, this is after the crappy, terrible, no good summer of 1648. Food scarcity led to skyrocketing prices, which led to hunger, which became famine. So, come the spring of 1649, a group of True Levelers occupied St George’s Hill in Surrey, not far from London. The Community was led by a former army minister named William Everett, and the idea was that uncultivated wasteland could be claimed by the poor and worked to self-sufficiency. Everett reckoned that at least a third of all the land in England was just sitting around doing nothing, while poor families were busy starving to death.
By collectively occupying unused land and then collectively working it, the poor would be delivered from their plight and England would move into closer alignment with God’s will. The sight of these lowborn wretches diligently plowing away on the land is what earned them the name Diggers.
The community on St. George’s Hill is the best documented settlement, but it was not the only group of diggers at work. Historians have identified at least ten other settlements scattered across central and south England. So though their numbers were small, less than 100 people have been firmly identified as having taken part in the Digger experiment, it does look like something a bit more than just one small group of radical families, though, honestly, not much more.
Soon after the occupation of St. George’s Hill on April 1 649, the community was joined by the man who would become the leading light of the whole Digger movement, Gerrard Winstanley. Winstanley had been a textile merchant in London through the 1630s, but the Civil War had ruined him by 1643, and he was forced to go live with his wife’s family in Walton-on-Thames and get a job as a hired cattle herdsman. At some point in 1648, he had a religious vision that the earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind without respect of persons. And he started publishing radical economic and religious pamphlets.
In January 1649, he published The New Law Of Righteousness, wherein he said,
I am assured that if it be rightly searched into the inward bondages of the mind as covetousness, pride, hypocrisy, envy, sorrow, fears, desperation and madness are all occasioned by the outward bondage that one sort of people lay upon another.
So, in his mind, the entire political, economic and social system of England had created a race of slaves, both physically and spiritually.
Shortly after joining the community on St. George’s Hill, Winstanley wrote his most influential work, The True Leveler Standard Advanced, which argued, among other things, that
those that buy and sell land and our landlords have got it either by oppression or murder or theft.
So, yeah, he’s not really interested in pulling punches!
He went on to say that
this declares likewise to all laborers or such as are called poor people, that they shall not dare to work for hire for any landlord or any that is lifted above others. For by their labors they have lifted up tyrants and tyranny, and by denying to labor for hire, they shall pull them down again. He that works for another, either for wages or to pay him rent, works unrighteously and still lifts up the curse. But they that are resolved to work and eat together, making the earth a common treasury, doth join hands with Christ to lift up the creation from bondage and restores all things from the curse.
So, yeah, this is basically the Christian Communist Manifesto.
Of the community they were currently building, he said simply, the work we are going about is this to dig up George Hill and the waste ground thereabouts and to sow corn and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brow.
Now, as you can imagine, the local landowners didn’t think too highly of the Diggers, and they petitioned the newly created Council of State to do something about it. So both Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell got into it, visiting the community at St. George’s Hill and calling Winstanley and other leaders to testify at Whitehall. After much deliberation, Fairfax decided that the Diggers posed little threat to anyone and that any further complaints against them should be dealt with by the regular local courts.
The local landowners, of course, didn’t think that this went nearly far enough, so they organized gangs to harass and intimidate the Digger settlers. When the landowners finally did bring a suit, the judge decided that the Diggers did not even have standing to defend themselves. Facing facts, the Diggers decided to pull up stakes and move over to Cobham Heath, where they were able to keep working until they were broken up and dispersed in the summer of 1650, which brought an end to the very brief practical application of Christian Communism.
But two years later, Winstanley published a utopian pamphlet called The Law of Freedom in a Platform. In it he continued his denunciation of the existing sociopolitical economic system. There was a radical theory in vogue at the time called the Norman yoke, that argued that prior to the invasion of William the Conqueror, the English had lived in a sort of perfect state of freedom, and everyone’s trouble would be over if they simply cast off the Norman yoke. Winstanley, though, didn’t think that this went nearly far enough. He believed that pre-Norman England was just as tyrannical as post-Norman England. He wanted to return to the pure law of righteousness before the fall, essentially returned mankind to the state of nature, a philosophical concept that was just beginning to take hold.
He claimed in The Law of Freedom that the concept of property was introduced into the state of nature by the violence of a few treacherous villains who now hid behind an elaborate political and legal apparatus that justified their crimes. He wrote that
all laws that are not grounded upon equity and reason, not giving a universal freedom to all but a few respecting persons, ought to be cut off with the King’s head.
And he did not spare parliament of criticism either, even though they had cut off said King’s head.
The top bow is lopped off the tree of tyranny and the kingly power in that one particular is cast out. But alas, oppression is a great tree still and keeps off the sun of freedom from the poor common still.
In the utopian society he laid out, Winstanley wanted to abolish buying and selling, just abolish it altogether. He wanted universal education for both men and women. He wanted to punish idleness by forced labor, a measure that was aimed not at the beggar in the street, but at the comfortable Lord in his manner. He wanted men and women to wake up from the imaginary world where an imaginary God enforced an imaginary social hierarchy built on the imaginary concept of property. It’s all super radical, super utopian and super not convincing anyone anytime soon.
We’ll end with a nice long quote from the Law of Freedom:
Wheresoever there is a people united by common community of livelihood into oneness, it will become the strongest land in the world for they will be as one man to defend their inheritance, whereas on the other side, pleading for property and single interest divides the people of the land and the whole world into parties. This is the cause of all wars and all bloodshed and contentions everywhere. But when once the earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must, then this enmity of all lands will cease and none shall dare to seek dominion over the other. Neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more than the earth than another.
In the end, the Digger movement dissolved and most of its adherence, Winstanley included, drifted over to the Quakers. But as I said, they are a fascinating little revolutionary eddie, allowed to form in the radicalizing chaos of the 1640s. When we get to the communist revolutions of the 20th century it will be interesting to see just how how much they were anticipated by the Diggers of the 17th century.
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