Thomas Jefferson, John Lilburne and the English Levellers
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the third President of the United States of America from 1801 to 1809, and the holder of many other offices, including American Plenipotentiary to France, Governor of Virginia, and Vice-President of the USA. Among his presidential achievements were the introduction of decimal coinage, and the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly expanded the territory of the United States. Yet, famously, his tombstone in Monticello, Virginia commemorates only three events in his life: his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, along with his foundation of the University of Virginia. Jefferson's many soaring accomplishments tend to obscure an interesting aspect of his background.
For the first two decades of his adult life, until the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Thomas Jefferson was a colonial English land-owning gentleman, trained in English law at William and Mary College in Virginia. While little is known of the Jefferson side of the family and its Welsh origins, the Jeffersons were very conscious of their English antecedents. The topographical nomenclature of their part of Virginia echoes English places and ducal names. They lived in Albemarle County, and nearby were estates called Monteagle and Edgehill, the latter named by the Randolph family after the place in Warwickshire where the English Civil War began in October 1642 (Mead, 66). Thomas Jefferson was born at his father's estate, Shadwell (commemorating the London parish where his mother Jane Randolph was born). Some distance away was another Jefferson family estate, Snowden, a misspelling of Snowdon in Wales. In addition, Thomas Jefferson had a matrilineal connection to one of the most famous English seventeenth-century families: the Lilburnes. Three Lilburne brothers, Robert, John, and Henry, fought in the English civil wars of the 1640s. Of these John Lilburne (c.1615-1657) achieved considerable fame as a political pamphleteer and agitator. It should be noted that Thomas Jefferson was not a direct descendant of any of the brothers, whose fifteen known children appear to have died without issue. Instead he was a fifth generation descendant of their uncle, one George Lilburne (1586-1676), a substantial businessman of Sunderland who was briefly John Lilburne's financial partner in a London brewery (Gregg, 87-88 and 360). While this genealogical connection is known to biographers of Thomas Jefferson (Malone, 1948, 14), its significance has never been thoroughly examined. In order to do this we need first to understand the place of the Lilburnes, and especially John, in the English Civil Wars of 1642-1646, 1648 and 1651.
Although born in Sunderland, John Lilburne was apprenticed to a London clothier around 1630. After undergoing a "born-again" Puritan religious experience he championed those persecuted under the harsh Protestant religious conformity laws of Charles I. In 1638 he was tried before the Star Chamber for importing controversial religious materials from the Netherlands. Found guilty and further condemned for contempt of court during his trial, he was whipped and pilloried in public. When the Civil War began John joined the Parliamentary Army, fought at Edgehill, was later captured and exchanged for Royalist prisoners, rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and fought again in the great Parliamentary Army victory at Marston Moor in Yorkshire. In 1645 he resigned his army commission over political disagreements with his former comrades. Meanwhile he also fell out with his former religious friends, in a pattern of quarrelsome behaviour that was to be the hallmark of his career. His character was summed up by his friend Henry Marten: "That if there were none living but himself, John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John" (Rushworth, Part II, vol. 1, 468). He became a pamphleteer, projecting himself as a martyr who was owed compensation for ill-treatment by the Star Chamber. His grievances were many: he wanted freedom of assembly and religious toleration, an end to tithes and government-chartered monopolies in economic life, trial by a jury of one's peers, the replacement of Latin with English in court, and so on. He churned out more than forty pamphlets on such topics, attracting libel charges along the way as he criticised Oliver Cromwell, his one-time friend, along with corrupt peers of the realm and churchmen with elitist agendas. Lilburne spent much of the latter part of his life either in prison or in exile in Amsterdam. While in the Tower of London in 1649, he and others proposed a new constitution for England in a pamphlet entitled An Agreement of the People, although they had put forward earlier versions in 1646 and 1647 (Wolfe, 225-234, 293-303, 400-410). The Agreement was a petition for a written constitution, to be agreed on by the population in large public assemblies. It envisioned making Parliament the supreme legislative authority, expansion of the franchise, equality before the law, religious toleration and civilian oversight of the military. The advocates of such policies were labelled 'Levellers,' suggesting derogatorily that they would make everyone economically equal, a charge which the Levellers rejected: they advocated only political and legal equality. Lilburne was a hero to many in London and in the army, but Oliver Cromwell and his supporters crushed the Leveller movement in 1649 (Hutton, 12-19).
John Lilburne died in 1657 after withdrawing from political life and converting to Quakerism. He was a fractious, controversial person, often in bitter conflict with former allies both political and spiritual. Yet the modern observer can identify some precocious aspects of his complicated life. In his trials Lilburne argued in a primitive way against self-crimination, and called upon juries to be arbiters of law, not just of fact under the judges' direction. The Agreement of the People, while not a fully democratic proposal for adult male suffrage, nevertheless anticipates the characteristics of the modern democratic state.
The fundamental issues of political liberty raised by the English Leveller movement are echoed in the political discourse of late eighteenth century America. Moreover, there was a shared belief in 'natural law,' the fundamental principles on which society was thought to be based. While this concept faded somewhat in England after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it remained a foundation of political theory in colonial America (Sabine, 489-490 and Chakravarty, 57-105). This in turn connected with the notion of an 'ancient constitution' that predated the Norman Conquest and contained a heritage of basic freedoms, liberties and property rights. The Levellers, Thomas Jefferson, and many others shared a litigious argumentative framework in which "ancient constitutionalism was the instrument that lawyers, constitutionalists, and parliamentarians used over several centuries to neutralize arbitrary power by placing a rein on discretionary decision making" (Reid, 7, 109-110, 145 n. 38 and passim). This also explains how legal training in the Anglo-American system of the eighteenth century led some to take up radical political positions.
Thomas Jefferson was a major participant in the revolutionary struggles for political liberty, written constitutions and religious toleration in eighteenth century America. So when we find that Jefferson was connected to the Lilburne family, a basic question arises: Was Jefferson influenced by John Lilburne and the Levellers? Here we encounter a problem, as Jefferson never mentions Lilburne in his vast correspondence. The early Jefferson family papers were burned in a fire at Shadwell in 1770, while a surviving family Bible and Book of Common Prayer (1752), now held in the Special Collections at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, contain only genealogical entries in which the Lilburne name does not appear. These facts place serious limitations on the inquiry at hand and force the investigator to take an indirect approach to any Jefferson-Lilburne connection.
It might first be asked whether Jefferson even knew the Lilburne name. It is not a common English surname and was geographically specific to a wide kinship network in Northumberland, Durham and the northern part of Yorkshire. The name is derived from topography: East and West Lilburn were villages in the parish of Bamburgh in Northumberland (Gregg, 22). The place name appears to be a Norman-French and Saxon compound: 'l'isle' (island) and 'bourne' or 'burn' (stream). It is important to note that for generations, the Lilburne name was carried forward in the Jefferson and related Virginian families. So Thomas Jefferson's sister Lucy married her first cousin Charles Lilburne Lewis of Monteagle, and their son Lilburne was born in 1776. The future president's younger brother Randolph also married into the Lewis family and had a son named Lilburne, born c. 1789. Notoriously, Thomas Jefferson's nephews Isham and Lilburne Lewis gruesomely murdered a slave in Kentucky in 1811 (Merrill, 258-265 and passim). The observer of the planter class kinship network of old Albemarle County, Virginia quickly realises that a good proportion of forenames are combinations of the surnames Jefferson, Randolph, Lewis, Isham, Warner and Lilburne. Jefferson also owned two slaves named 'Lilburn,' one born in 1809, and the other in 1818 (Reed, vol. I, 197, 217, 220, 251, 271 and 394). It appears perverse to name a slave 'Lilburn' when the sobriquet of the famous Lilburne was 'Free-Born John.' Perhaps no slight was intended, since slaves were often given heroic names (popular examples included Caesar, Moses, Jupiter, Solomon, etc), but on the other hand it may represent another of Jefferson the slave-owner's failings towards Afro-Americans (Finkelman, 181-221). The point here is that Thomas Jefferson was very familiar with the unusual surname, since it was part of his family's naming pattern. We should also note the strength of naming patterns along the female line. Thomas Jefferson named his daughter Jane Randolph Jefferson, after his mother Jane Randolph. Her mother was Jane Rogers and her grandmother, Jane Lilburne, was second cousin to "Free-born" John Lilburne.
This brings our investigation to its next stage. We need to know whether Jefferson came across the historical Lilburnes and the Leveller movement in his various readings on law and history. Growing up at Shadwell, young Thomas had limited exposure to the world of books. His father Peter Jefferson owned some forty-nine books, depending on how the multi-volume items are counted. Many of these were history and legal works long since lost, but their titles can be reconstructed from probate records (Kern, 51-52 and 448-455 and Hayes, 26-29). The precocious Thomas had access to and probably read such works as Rapin's History of England (Rapin de Thoyras) and Thomas Salmon's A Complete Collection of State Trials (Salmon). Proper bibliographical information is not available, but the editions that Peter Jefferson is likely to have owned contain many references to John Lilburne. According to family tradition, young Tom read all his father's books by the age of five before receiving any schooling (Randall, 11 and Randolph, 34).
Writing much later in his 1821 Autobiography, Jefferson recalled an episode from early in his political career as a member of the House of Burgesses in colonial Virginia. Upset by the Boston port bill of 1774, by which that city's trade was to be closed by government decree, Jefferson and others in Virginia proposed a fast day in sympathy with Massachusetts, their sister colony. (The situation resembled the troubles leading to the outbreak of the 1642 English Civil War in more ways than one: the Governor immediately dissolved the Virginia House of Burgesses, just as Charles I had dissolved some of his Parliaments.) For the wording of their motion the Virginians turned to a standard English reference work:
"With the help, therefore, of Rushworth, whom we rummaged over for the revolutionary precedents and forms of the Puritans of that day, preserved by him, we cooked up a resolution, somewhat modernizing their phrases...to implore Heaven to avert us from the evils of civil war, to inspire us with firmness in support of our rights, and to turn the hearts of the King and Parliament to moderation and justice" (Jefferson/Basic Writings, 413).
John Rushworth (c. 1612-1690) was a lawyer skilled at shorthand who served as a secretary to the Parliamentary Army in the 1640s and wrote a history of the English Civil Wars. This multi-volume reference work appeared from 1680 to 1691 and was commonly cited as Rushworth or as his Historical Collections (Raymond). Although this standard work was commonly found in big libraries, especially law collections, Thomas Jefferson had his own personal set at Monticello. His original volumes of Rushworth are now in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and this important work was reprinted in its entirety as recently as 1969 by Gregg International Publishers of Westmead, Hants.
Turning the pages of this vast indexed history it is scarcely possible not to come across Lilburnes, either Robert, a senior officer in the Parliamentary Army, or his famous brother John. In a curious genealogical connection the third Lilburne brother Henry, who changed sides to become a Royalist, married John Rushworth's sister Ann (Gregg, 205). This is not the coincidence that it first appears, since the Lilburnes and Rushworths shared three things in common: family origins in the north-east of England, land-owning (but not aristocratic) social rank, and service as officers in the Parliamentary Army. However, it seems extremely unlikely that when Jefferson consulted his volumes of Rushworth he had any idea that he was reading a work written by a distant relation.
In Rushworth the reader can easily find a transcript of John Lilburne's 1637-1638 trial, at which he refused to swear the required oaths or answer questions, claiming that this was his right as a free-born Englishman. When serving his sentence in the pillory he "scattered sundry Copies of Seditious Books amongst the People...for which very thing...he had been Censured in the...Court" (Rushworth, Part II, vol 1, 463-469). Most interesting is Rushworth's insertion of an early version of the Levellers' Agreement of the People. This includes a call for government by "the Peoples Representatives," elected on an expanded franchise which would however exclude servants, wage earners employed by a "particular Person," and those receiving alms or charitable relief. Note the use of the term "representatives," in what appears an anticipation of later American usage, instead of the more conventional English expression "Members of Parliament." On religious toleration, the Agreement states that "We do not empower our Representatives to continue in force, or make any Laws, Oaths and Covenants, whereby to compel by Penalties or otherwise any Person to any thing in or about matters of Faith, Religion or God's Worship; or to restrain any Person from the professing his faith or exercise of Religion, according to his Conscience." There then follows a typical seventeenth-century Protestant clause excepting the advocacy of "Popery" or Roman Catholicism. Compare the above wording with Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, drafted in 1779 and enacted in 1785: "....no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions, or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." Two sections of the Agreement speak to the matter of equality before the law. One reads "that in any Laws hereafter to be made, no Person by virtue of any Tenure, grant, Charter or Patent, Degree or Birth, shall be privileged from Subjection thereto, or being bound thereby as well as others." Another addresses the hostile response to Leveller proposals and promises not to "level Mens Estates" or to "make all things common." This version of the Agreement concludes "These things we declare to be essential to our just Freedoms" (Rushworth, Part IV, Part 2, 1358-1361).
It is likely that Jefferson read this version of the Agreement (for which Rushworth does not provide the author[s]), since he habitually used Rushworth as an historical and legal reference. He cites Rushworth twenty-two times in a work entitled Parliamentary Pocket-Book, and another eleven times in A Manual of Parliamentary Practice of 1801 (Howell, 74, 77, 78, 80, 85, 88, 107, 110, 115, 116, 120-2, 124, 126, 155-6). Moreover, many standard histories of the English Civil War (then and now) use Rushworth as a primary source for the Parliamentary side in the conflict.
At this juncture we might remind ourselves of the striking parallels between the English Civil Wars of the 1640s and the American War of Independence of 1776 to 1783. Two basic questions marked both conflicts. Could the King tax his subjects illegally (i.e. without their consent in Parliament)? Could subjects rebel if the King took an illegal course of action? In both the English and the American colonial situations, a sizeable proportion of the population said "No" to the first and "Yes" to the second. Moreover, their position prevailed in the subsequent military actions. For a student of history and law like Thomas Jefferson, the seventeenth century English conflict provided a precedent for subsequent American events. The heroic refusal of John Hampden (1594-1643) to pay Charles I's Ship Money tax on the ground that it had not been approved by Parliament was seen as a precursor to the American colonial situation of the late eighteenth century: Rushworth recorded the whole episode, including Hampden's trial, in his history. Moreover, John Lilburne's father Richard and his uncle George (the Jefferson ancestor) had also resisted the payment of this tax (Gregg, 75).
In 1786 Jefferson crossed over the English Channel from France on a diplomatic mission to London. In the course of his short English sojourn he and John Adams went on a week-long trip from London to Birmingham and Stratford-on-Avon, visiting great estates like Blenheim along the route (Brandt, vi-vii, Watson and Shackelford, passim). These two future American presidents also visited two sites of English Civil War significance:
"Edgehill and Worcester were curious and interesting to us, as scenes where freemen had fought for their rights. The people in the neighbourhood appeared so ignorant and careless at Worcester, that I was provoked and asked, 'And do Englishmen so soon forget the ground where liberty was fought for? Tell your neighbors and your children that this is holy ground; much holier than that on which your churches stand. All England should come in pilgrimage to this hill once a year.' This animated them, and they seemed much pleased with it. Perhaps their awkwardness before might arise from their uncertainty of our sentiments concerning the civil wars" (Adams, 394).
Edgehill, Warwickshire was the place where the Civil Wars began in October of 1642, with both sides claiming victory in a clumsy battle. Worcester was the city where Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentary forces crushed an invading Royalist army from Scotland in 1651, an event sometimes referred to as the third (and final) Civil War. These lines from John Adams' diary reveal the pro-Parliamentary sentiments of the two Americans, but only Adams engaged with the locals over their apparent lack of historical respect. We have little clue as to Jefferson's views, since he does not mention the incident in his writings, yet it does seem suggestive that of the many places of importance in English history, he would include Edgehill in his itinerary. Let us consider the following facts. John Lilburne fought bravely and distinguished himself at the battle of Edgehill. His brother Robert may have fought at the same battle, but the records of combatants, too often limited to senior officers, do not mention him. Robert joined the Parliamentary Army in 1642, serving in Lord Brooke's Regiment of Foot under the Earl of Essex as a cornet (Firth and Davies, 453 and passim). This unit fought at Edgehill, where it suffered heavy casualties (Young, 242). Robert later went on to many higher commissions, including Commander in Chief of Cromwell's army in Scotland. Meanwhile, in Colonel John Hampden's Regiment of Foot at Edgehill, one of the officers was Capt.-Lieut. Henry Isham. While the former was the hero of the Ship Money resistance, the latter may have been related to the Ishams of Virginia who were Jefferson's relations (Young, 242, 249, 250). Indeed, Thomas Jefferson's great-great-grandfather was also a Henry Isham. Having at least one officer ancestor (and possibly two or three) in a great battle, even one that took place almost 144 years earlier, is the sort of thing that gets passed down in family oral histories. This raises the question: When Jefferson visited Edgehill in 1786 was he generically honouring "freemen" who "fought for their rights," or was he also honouring his ancestors?
Jefferson returned to France and stayed there long enough to witness the beginning of the French Revolution, before returning to America via a very brief sojourn on the Isle of Wight in October 1789. In Paris during the week after the fall of the Bastille, Jefferson wrote to a French cleric on the subject of the English and American doctrine of juries. Here he outlined a basic concept of the radical notion of trial by jury:
"It is left therefore to the juries, if they think the permanent judges are under any biass (sic) whatever in any cause, to take upon themselves to judge the law as well as the fact. They never exercise this power but when they suspect partiality in the judges, and by the exercise of this power they have been the firmest bulwarks of English liberty" (Jefferson to Arnoux, 19 July 1789/Boyd/Papers, vol. 15, 282-283).
Included in the letter is a list of six books which Jefferson states are all that he could recollect on the topic. Two of them establish another layer of connections between Jefferson and Lilburne. John Jones' Jurors Judges of Law and Fact (London, 1650) is a strong defence of John Lilburne's acquittal in his trial at the Guildhall, London in 1649, where he successfully appealed to the jury to find the law, not just the facts. William Walwyn's Juries Justified: Or, A Word of Correction to Mr. Henry Robinson... (London, 1651) is an argument for jury trial as a basic liberty, as opposed to trials by special judges. Walwyn (c. 1600-1681) was a Leveller leader, a strong advocate of religious toleration, and a sometime prisoner in the Tower of London with John Lilburne, where they co-authored The Agreement of the People of 1649 (Taft).
The doctrine of trial by jury as a protection against tyranny was one of Jefferson's fundamental beliefs. In the Declaration of Independence of 1776 he criticises George III's regime for undermining jury trial in the American colonies, and likewise one of his complaints in "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" of 1774 is that the colonist has been "stripped of his privilege of trial by peers of his vicinage" (Jefferson/Basic Writings, 13 and 23). The jury doctrine is sometimes referred to as "jury nullification," meaning the process by which juries' 'not guilty' verdicts nullify statutes. It is unlikely that Jefferson, a trained lawyer, could have worked through the cases supporting the radical principle of trial by jury without encountering the Lilburne case (Lawrence, passim and Schwoerer, 39-54).
In England, the issue of jury trial flared up again in the 1780s and 1790s, when juries refused to convict in cases of seditious libel even when so instructed by judges. One such prominent case was the Dean of St. Asaph's of 1783, in which a Church of England Dean, William Shipley (1745-1826), was charged in connection with publication of an anonymous pamphlet entitled The Principles of Government, in a Dialogue between a Scholar and a Peasant (London: Society for Constitutional Information, 1782). Written by his brother-in-law, the Oriental scholar William Jones, it argued (among other things) the right of resistance to illegal government action. It is important to remember that at the time, Britain was in a state of war with its American colonies over this very issue. The jury in the case, influenced by the 'find the law' argument, rendered a sort of non-verdict of 'guilty of publishing,' instead of 'guilty of libel' as the prosecution's 'find the facts' argument demanded (Page, 21-35). As a result, English libel law was changed in the 1790s to grant greater powers to juries. So Shipley escaped the fate that the British government had planned for him, and his popularity in Virginia was reflected in the fact that St Asaph Street, Alexandria was named after him.
The Society for Constitutional Information, founded by Major John Cartwright in 1780, consisted of gentlemen of Whig-Radical and dissenting religious tendencies. They published pamphlets in favour of religious toleration, parliamentary reform, a wider franchise, liberty of the press, and trial by jury. Most of them favoured the American position in the War of Independence, and indeed some, like John Paradise and Edward Bridgen, were American colonials resident in London. In addition, their members included Sir John Sinclair, Thomas Brand Hollis and Henry Beaufoy, MP. Thomas Jefferson met these men during his 1786 stay in London (Boyd/Papers, vol. 14, 363-364 note). Another member, the reformist lawyer Samuel Romilly, he met in Paris. Still others more peripherally involved in the society were emigrants to America and sometime associates or correspondents of Jefferson's: Thomas Paine, Thomas Cooper and Joseph Gales (Malone, 1926, Donnelly, 2004, passim). The Society for Constitutional Information defended Shipley with pamphlets and some money for legal expenses, according to its usual practice. Jefferson had several of their tracts in his library at Monticello, and one, from 1783, contained a short "Extract from the life of John Lilburne, in the sixth volume of Dr. Towers's British Biography" (Society for Constitutional Information, 1-6). Joseph Towers, a long-time member of the society, also published on the jury system and the life of John Lilburne in 1784, portraying his 1649 trial as a key precedent (Donnelly, 1987, passim). It is not known whether Jefferson ever followed up on Towers' citations to read more of his work on juries and John Lilburne.
Jefferson also owned a copy of The Principles of Government, in a Dialogue between a Scholar and a Peasant, subtitled "Written by a Member of the Society for Constitutional Information" (1783), the focus of the Shipley case. Jefferson's copy is in the Library of Congress, and on the cover, in what appears to be Jefferson's handwriting, the words "By Sr William Jones" suggest that he was aware of its true authorship. A caveat is required here regarding the original contents of Jefferson's Monticello library. When in 1814 the British invaded Washington during the War of 1812, the Library of Congress was burned. Jefferson stepped in with an offer to sell his personal Monticello library of 6707 volumes to the government for $23, 950 (Wilson, 11-15). These volumes became the foundation of the current Library of Congress collection, and most of the Jeffersonian originals are still there. Some books have marginal and cover notations in what looks like Jefferson's hand, but one cannot be certain that these are not the work of another, perhaps later reader.
The contents of Thomas Jefferson's library reveal that he was widely read in the history of seventeenth century England. In addition to Rapin and Rushworth he had works by, for example, Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon, author of a seventeenth century Royalist history, and David Hume's eighteenth century "Toryish" interpretation (Hyde/Clarendon and Hume, passim). Jefferson tried to have the latter banned from the University of Virginia in favour of an alternative written in 1796 by John Baxter, a member of the radical London Corresponding Society (Baxter, 411 and 421 and passim; Levy, 142-157).
All these works make references—some favourable, others not—to John Lilburne and the Levellers. Sometimes Robert Lilburne (1614-1665) appears, and his colourful career surely drew Jefferson's attention. A prominent Cromwellian commander and one of the signatories to Charles I's death warrant in 1648-9, after the Restoration in 1660 Robert was convicted of regicide. He entered a rather pathetic plea that he had acted ignorantly, and his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, where he died (Coward). Jefferson owned several books mentioning the elder Lilburne, including one by J. Nalson which traced Robert's attendance at the King's trial in an effort to establish his guilt (Nalson, passim).
As a final note in this discussion of Thomas Jefferson's connections with the Levellers, mention must be made of a curious episode near the end of his life. In July 1826, too feeble to give a public speech, he committed some thoughts to paper:
"All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God."
The last words are a paraphrase of Colonel Richard Rumbold's deathbed confession in 1685, quoted by several authors whose books were in Jefferson's library (Adair, 523n, 526n, and 526-531). Richard Rumbold was a Leveller during the late 1640s who was also on guard duty at Charles I's execution in 1649. Never reconciled to the 1660 restoration of the monarchy, he was involved in many conspiracies including the Rye House Plot to assassinate Charles II in 1683. Rumbold and other plotters managed to escape to the Continent, but more prominent Whig politicians were falsely implicated in his scheme. (One of them was Algernon Sidney [1622-1683], a Parliamentary Army veteran who had been wounded at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, and the author of various political treatises. After his execution for treason in 1683 he joined John Hampden in the Whig-Radical pantheon of heroes who had given their lives in the cause: hence, for example, the prestigious Hampden-Sydney [sic] College in Virginia, founded in 1775.) Rumbold himself returned to Britain, was wounded and captured in a Scottish rebellion and executed in Edinburgh in 1685, where he uttered his famous lines. While a possible French origin has been found for Jefferson's last words before his death, it seems more likely that Rumbold was his source for this egalitarian flourish (Holstun, 311).
So that leaves some questions: Why would Jefferson quote a serial plotter like Richard Rumbold and never mention, much less quote, John Lilburne? What conclusions can we draw in this inquiry into Thomas Jefferson's English background?
First, the overwhelming evidence is that he must have been aware of the Lilburnes' role in the English Civil War and his family's connection to them. Secondly, some aspects of Leveller ideology were attractive to Jefferson, particularly their doctrine of trial by jury but also, perhaps, some of their egalitarian phrases. This is not unusual, since Leveller ideas, pamphlets and phrases survived well into the nineteenth century in Britain (Donnelly, 1987, and Worden, passim). At the same time, it cannot be concluded that Jefferson was heavily influenced by Leveller political thought: he read too widely in the classics, the French philosophes and the English jurists for that. John Locke, for example, had an impact on Jefferson, but Locke was fundamentally opposed to Levellerism (McNally, 39-40). Yet it is remarkable that Jefferson admired all the main heroes of the seventeenth century struggle against royal tyranny—Algernon Sidney, John Hampden, even Richard Rumbold—everyone, that is, with the apparent exception of John Lilburne, his famous relation. Some possible explanations can be advanced to explain this omission. Perhaps Jefferson was unsure of his precise family connection to the English Lilburne family. It may be that the fire at Shadwell in 1770 destroyed family documents, and any Jefferson-Randolph family oral tradition did not explain the genealogical relationship in sufficient detail. Such investigations remain open-ended, since there are still Jefferson correspondence projects in progress. It may be that some as-yet-undiscovered document will provide a clearer insight into Jefferson's knowledge of the Lilburnes and the Levellers.
Another possibility is that Jefferson did not want his family's earlier history in the English Civil Wars to intrude upon his role in the American War of Independence. The Lilburnes are difficult to explain succinctly, with one a regicide, another a quarrelsome, self-promoting political martyr, and the third a turncoat. Jefferson probably did not want to have his policies and writings dismissed as deriving from some personal family grudge carried over the sea to the Virginia colony. With regard to John Lilburne in particular, there is also the matter of religion. Jefferson advocated a rational Christianity very close to Unitarianism, while Free-Born John was a sectarian Puritan extremist (Conkin and Holmes, passim). Lilburne's articulation of religious toleration for Protestant denominations from such a perspective did not fit well with Jefferson's more rational notion of toleration.
Perhaps we are dealing with a logic problem sometimes referred to as "the dog that didn't bark," based on Arthur Conan Doyle's story The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). The reason that the hound does not bark at a particular individual is explained by familiarity: the latter is the dog's master, so that the unexpected silence paradoxically reveals their relationship. Writing his Autobiography at age seventy-seven, Thomas Jefferson sets out a sort of challenge to his readers and, perhaps, to posterity. After explaining how little he knows of his Jefferson ancestry, he states that his mother's family, the Randolphs, "trace their pedigree far back in England and Scotland, to which let everyone ascribe the faith and merit he chooses" (Jefferson/Basic Writings, 409). It was through the Randolphs that Jefferson was connected to the Lilburnes, and we are now able to make a fuller assessment of that important part of his English heritage.--Fred Donnelly
Fred Donnelly teaches History at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, NB, Canada. Thanks are due to the Robert H. Smith Fellowship program at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, Virginia, and to participants in the centre's seminar, especially Albert Zamboni and Andrew O'Shaughnessy.
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