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John Lilburne's extensive writings were a major part of the pamphlet output of the Leveller movement. The apparent traditionalism of his language has obscured the extent to which he developed a radical line of thought. For Lilburne, all Englishmen are ‘free-born’; his radicalism lies in his assertion that this free status is to be seen as political status. The phrase ‘free-born Englishman’ comes to be a signifier of a uniform and inclusive citizenship, and the word ‘subject’ drops out of Lilburne's vocabulary. He reinterprets the language of the English legal tradition – following the lead of Sir Edward Coke – to make a collection of ‘liberties’, ‘franchises’, and ‘privileges’ into a uniform set of citizen entitlements. His writing suggests varying and sometimes incompatible grounds for this citizen status: historical arguments, and arguments depending on different notions of positive law, are employed alongside appeals to divine or natural law. However, Lilburne's attachment to the English legal tradition persists, and is an effective vehicle for the politicized vision of the English nation which he wants to convey.

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Thanks are due to John Morrill and Quentin Skinner for generous help with earlier versions of this article, and to the anonymous readers of the journal for their constructive criticisms.
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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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