One of my heroes who fought unceasingly for liberty and freedom his entire life is John Lilburne. As we study individuals like him, we gain a better appreciation for what we have and gain a better understanding of what we should do to spread principles and ideas of freedom.
One of his greatest legacies is the notion of rights that all individuals are born with. At his time in England, there was a class structure (there still is, to some extent). Royalty was at the top, followed by lords and gentlemen. Commoners or peasants were at the bottom. John was part of the middle-class. Of course, those born into royalty or lordships were treated differently because of their perceived social status. On the other end of the spectrum, peasants were looked down upon by nearly everyone. There was this idea that rights were correlated with social or class status. Royalty had more rights than lords and gentlemen, for instance, who had more rights than the middle-classes, who had more rights than peasants and commoners.
The idea of freeborn rights was revolutionary: all people are born with certain rights, regardless, (so the implication went) of social status. Similarly, John fought for equality before the law, regardless of social status, increased voting rights, and religious tolerance.
John fought for his individual rights in remarkable ways. For instance, early in his life, he smuggled in literature which went against licensing laws, a prime example of civil disobedience. He was brought before the Star Chamber, a high court in England. He demanded to know the charges brought against him in English, as the court spoke French in those days. Thus began a series of trials and imprisonments which lasted nearly his whole life.
He was also revolutionary in writing proposed Constitutions for England. Prior to this time, the idea of a constitution was much different than our conception; the English constitution was what constituted the body of English judicial, executive, and legislative tradition and legal history. There was no such thing as a written Constitution; the concept was not even in the minds of Englishmen. John Lilburne’s two attempts to write Constitutions for England were again revolutionary and paved the way for the founding of our nation, founded, as it were, by a written Constitution, which, in the minds of the Framers, bound the government by chains and fetters to enable a system based on individual liberty.
As we study the lives of people like John Lilburne, we better understand what we can do to further the cause of freedom; we are enlightened, enriched, and encouraged by his example. In examining history, we see so much of growth of government, tyranny, and the shrinking of liberty. But there are also shining lights which give us hope in greater liberty and freedom. John Lilburne is one of those lights.