John Wildman was born in Norfolk in about 1621. After being educated at Cambridge University he studied law in London. He developed radical opinions about politics and religion and was a outspoken critic of King Charles I.
During the Civil War he became a member of the Parliamentary army and in 1646 joined with John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walwyn to form a new political party called the Levellers. Their political programme included: voting rights for all adult males, annual elections, complete religious freedom, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and a maximum interest rate of 6%.
On 18th October, 1647, Wildman had a meeting with General Thomas Fairfax, where he accused the government of not keeping faith with the soldiers by purging parliament. The Levellers started publishing their own newspaper, The Moderate. They also organised meetings where they persuaded people to sign a Petition supporting their policies.
In 1647 Leveller supporters were elected from each regiment of the army to participate in the Putney Debates. The debate was based on An Agreement of the People, a constitutional proposal drafted by the Levellers. Wildman argued: "Our case is to be considered thus, that we have been under slavery. That's acknowledged by all. Our very laws were made by our Conquerors... We are now engaged for our freedom. That's the end of Parliament, to legislate according to the just ends of government, not simply to maintain what is already established. Every person in England hath as clear a right to elect his Representative as the greatest person in England. I conceive that's the undeniable maxim of government: that all government is in the free consent of the people."
Wildman's ideas were opposed by officers in the New Model Army. One of them, Henry Ireton, argued: "First, the thing itself (universal suffrage) were dangerous if it were settled to destroy property. But I say that the principle that leads to this is destructive to property; for by the same reason that you will alter this Constitution merely that there's a greater Constitution by nature - by the same reason, by the law of nature, there is a greater liberty to the use of other men's goods which that property bars you." A compromise was eventually agreed that the vote would be granted to all men except alms-takers and servants.
His biographer, Richard Lee Greaves, has argued: "He (Wildman) also denied any power in the House of Lords or monarch to veto legislation approved by the Commons, insisting that all authority be vested in the Commons, and called for Charles's trial. Shortly thereafter the general council of the army appointed Wildman (the only citizen to be included) to a committee assigned to examine the extent to which The Case of the Armie and the agreement were compatible with the army grandees' position. In the meantime Wildman and John Lilburne were organizing a campaign in London against the grandees and parliament... At a meeting in Smithfield, Wildman warned that civil war would resume if the government were not quickly settled, and he again assailed Cromwell."
A compromise was eventually agreed that the vote would be granted to all men except alms-takers and servants and the Putney Debates came to an end on 8th November, 1647. The agreement was never put before the House of Commons. Leaders of the Leveller movement, including Wildman and John Lilburne, were arrested and their pamphlets were burnt in public. Oliver Cromwell is reported to have said: "What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces."
In 1654 Wildman was elected to the House of Commons. Wildman now turned against the government. Along with Edward Sexby, Wildman not only sowed discontent among army units but plotted to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. He was arrested in February 1655 but was released after the death of Cromwell. Wildman continued to work against the government and in 1683 was arrested and accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Charles II and the future James II. Wildman managed to escape to the Netherlands where he gave his support to William of Orange.
In 1688 Wildman returned to England with the new joint monarchs, William IIIand Mary II. He was made Postmaster General but was soon ousted when it was discovered that he had used his position to discredit his political opponents.
His biographer, Richard Lee Greaves, has argued: "Interpretations of Wildman have ranged widely, from Buckingham's reputed claim that he was one of England's wisest statesmen to Sir William Coventry's damning indictment that he had been false to everyone... Nevertheless, claiming to champion the rights of Englishmen, he seized every opportunity to profit from the misfortunes of others. His irresistible attraction to political intrigue, which proved to be his defining characteristic, overrode both political convictions and friendships."
Thomas Babington Macaulay was also highly critical of Wildman: "With Wildman's fanaticism was joined a tender care for his own safety. He had a wonderful skill in grazing the edge of treason. … Such was his cunning, that though always plotting, though always known to be plotting, and though long malignantly watched by a vindictive government, he eluded every danger, and died in his bed, after having seen two generations of his accomplices die on the gallows."
John Wildman died on 4th June 1693, aged seventy. He was buried in St Andrews Church, Shrivenham. He left instructions: "there should be some stone of small price set near to his ashes, to signify, without foolish flattery, to his posterity, that in that age there lived a man who spent the best part of his days in prisons, without crimes, being conscious of no offence towards man, for that he so loved his God that he could serve no man's will, and wished the liberty and happiness of his country and all mankind."
(1) The Putney Debates (October, 1647)
Thomas Rainsborough: I desire that those that had engaged in it should speak, for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath 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; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, in so much that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no that should doubt of these things.
Henry Ireton: Give me leave to tell you, that if you make this the rule I think you must fly for refuge to an absolute natural Right, and you must deny all Civil Right; and I am sure it will come to that in the consequence ... I would fain have any man show me their bounds, where you will end, and why you should not take away all property?
Thomas Rainsborough: As to the thing itself, property (in the franchise). I would fain know how it comes to be the property of some men and not of others. As for estates, and those kind of things, and other things that belong to men, it will be granted that they are property; but I deny that that is a property to a Lord, to a Gentleman, to any man more than another in the Kingdom of England.
If it be a property, it is a property by a law; neither do I think that there is very little property in this thing by the law of the land, because I think that the law of the land in that thing is the most tyrannous law under heaven, and I would fain know what we have fought for, and this is the old law of England, and that which enslaves the people of England, that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all. The thing that I am unsatisfied in is how it comes about that there is such a property in some freeborn Englishmen, and not in others.
John Wildman: Our case is to be considered thus, that we have been under slavery. That's acknowledged by all. Our very laws were made by our Conquerors; and whereas it's spoken much of Chronicles, I conceive there is no credit to be given to any of them; and the reason is because those that were our Lords, and made us their vassals, would suffer nothing else to be chronicled.
We are now engaged for our freedom. That's the end of Parliament, to legislate according to the just ends of government, not simply to maintain what is already established. Every person in England hath as clear a right to elect his Representative as the greatest person in England. I conceive that's the undeniable maxim of government: that all government is in the free consent of the people.
And therefore I should humbly move that if the Question be stated which would soonest bring things to an issue - it might perhaps be this: Whether any person can justly be bound by law, who doth not give his consent that such persons shall make laws for him?
Edward Sexby: We have engaged in this kingdom and ventured our lives, and it was all for this: to recover our birthrights and privileges as Englishmen - and by the arguments urged there is none. There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little property in this kingdom as to our estates, yet we had a birthright. But it seems now except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom, he hath no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived. If we had not a right to the kingdom, we were mere mercenary soldiers.
There are many in my condition, that have as good a condition, it may be little estate they have at present, and yet they have as much a right as those two (Cromwell and Ireton) who are their lawgivers, as any in this place. I shall tell you in a word my resolution. I am resolved to give my birthright to none. Whatsoever may come in the way, and be thought, I will give it to none. I think the poor and meaner of this kingdom (I speak as in that relation in which we are) have been the means of the preservation of this kingdom.
Thomas Rainsborough (to Ireton) Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If it be laid down for a rule, and if you will say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him a perpetual slave. We do find in all presses that go forth none must be pressed that are freehold-men. When these Gentlemen fall out among themselves they shall press the poor scrubs to come and kill each other for them . . .
Henry Ireton: First, the thing itself (universal suffrage) were dangerous if it were settled to destroy property. But I say that the principle that leads to this is destructive to property; for by the same reason that you will alter this Constitution merely that there's a greater Constitution by nature - by the same reason, by the law of nature, there is a greater liberty to the use of other men's goods which that property bars you.
(2) Lucy Hutchinson, The English Civil War (c. 1670)
These good-hearted people wanted justice for the poor as well as the mighty... for this they were nicknamed the Levellers... these men were just and honest.