Richard Overton

Richard Overton was born in about 1625. In 1646 he joined with John Lilburne, John Wildman 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, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, no taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and a maximum interest rate of 6%.

Overton made an attack on the House of Lords in his pamphlet, An Alarum to the House of Lords against their Insolent Usurpation of the Common Liberties and Rights of this Nation. As a result of this pamphlet he was arrested in August, 1646 and sent to Newgate Prison. While in prison he published An Arrow Shot from the Prison of Newgate into the Prerogative Bowels of the Arbitrary House of Lords. He was unconditionally released on 16th September, 1647.

Overton, along with John Lilburne and William Walwyn, published An Agreement of the People. He also joined with Lilburne and Thomas Prince to write England's New Chains Discovered. On 28th August 1649, the three authors were arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Lilburne was tried first and after a jury refused to convict him Overton and Prince were released on 8th November.

It is estimated that Overton wrote about fifty pamphlets arguing for political and religious liberty. His best known work was A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens and An Arrow Against All Tyrants.

Overton grew disillusioned with the dictatorial policies of Oliver Cromwell and in 1655 joined John Wildman and Edward Sexby in developing a plot to overthrow the government. The conspiracy was discovered and Overton fled to Flanders. He eventually returned to England but was once more in prison in 1663 for publishing a pamphlet criticizing Charles II.

Richard Overton died in 1664.

Primary Sources

(1) Richard Overton, A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens (July, 1646)

We are well assured, yet cannot forget, that the cause of our choosing you to be Parliament men, was to deliver us from all kind of Bondage, and to preserve the Commonwealth in Peace and Happiness: For effecting whereof, we possessed you with the same power that was in ourselves, to have done the same; For we might justly have done it ourselves without you, if we had thought it convenient; choosing you [as persons whom we thought qualified, and faithful) for avoiding some inconveniences.

But you are to remember, this was only of us but a power of trust, (which is ever revocable, and cannot be otherwise) and to be employed to no other end, then our own well-being: Nor did we choose you to continue our trust's longer, then the known established constitution of this Commonwealth will justly permit, and that could be but for one year at the most: for by our law, a Parliament is to be called once every year, and oftener (if need be,) as you well know. We are your principals, and you our agents; it is a truth which you cannot but acknowledge: For if you or any other shall assume, or exercise any power, that is not derived from our trust and choice thereunto, that power is no less then usurpation and an oppression, from which wee expect to be freed, in whom so ever we find it; it being altogether inconsistent with the nature of just freedom, which you also very well understand.

(2) Richard Overton, An Arrow Against All Tyrants (October, 1646)

To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man. Mine and thine cannot be, except this be. No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man's. I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man's right - to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom; and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a natural, innate freedom and propriety - as it were writ in the table of every man's heart, never to be obliterated - even so are we to live, everyone equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and privilege; even all whereof God by nature has made him free.

And this by nature everyone's desire aims at and requires; for no man naturally would be be fooled of his liberty by his neighbour's craft or enslaved by his neighbour's might. For it is nature's instinct to preserve itself from all things hurtful and obnoxious; and this in nature is granted of all to be most reasonable, equal and just: not to be rooted out of the kind, even of equal duration with the creature. And from this fountain or root all just human powers take their original — not immediately from God (as kings usually plead their prerogative) but immediately by the hand of nature, as from the represented to the representers. For originally God has implanted them in the creature, and from the creature those powers immediately proceed and no further. And no more may be communicated than stands for the better being, weal, or safety thereof. And this is man's prerogative and no further; so much and no more may be given or received thereof: even so much as is conducent to a better being, more safety and freedom, and no more. He that gives more, sins against his own flesh; and he that takes more is thief and robber to his kind - every man by nature being a king, priest and prophet in his own natural circuit and compass, whereof no second may partake but by deputation, commission, and free consent from him whose natural right and freedom it is.

(3) Richard Overton, John Lilburne and Thomas Prince, Englands New Chains Discovered (March, 1649)

If our hearts were not over-charged with the sense of the present miseries and approaching dangers of the Nation, your small regard to our late serious apprehensions, would have kept us silent; but the misery, danger, and bondage threatened is so great, imminent, and apparent that whilst we have breath, and are not violently restrained, we cannot but speak, and even cry aloud, until you hear us, or God be pleased otherwise to relieve us.

Removing the King, the taking away the House of Lords, the overawing the House, and reducing it to that pass, that it is become but the Channel, through which is conveyed all the Decrees and Determinations of a private Council of some few Officers, the erecting of their Court of Justice, and their Council of State, The Voting of the People of Supreme Power, and this House the Supreme Authority: all these particulars, (though many of them in order to good ends, have been desired by well-affected people) are yet become, (as they have managed them) of sole conducement to their ends and intents, either by removing such as stood in the way between them and power, wealth or command of the Commonwealth; or by actually possessing and investing them in the same.

They may talk of freedom, but what freedom indeed is there so long as they stop the Press, which is indeed and hath been so accounted in all free Nations, the most essential part thereof, employing an Apostate Judas for executioner therein who hath been twice burnt in the hand a wretched fellow, that even the Bishops and Star Chamber would have shamed to own. What freedom is there left, when honest and worthy Soldiers are sentenced and enforced to ride the horse with their faces reverst, and their swords broken over their heads for but petitioning and presenting a letter in justification of their liberty therein? If this be not a new way of breaking the spirits of the English, which Strafford and Canterbury never dreamt of, we know no difference of things.

(4) Richard Overton, Hunting the Foxes (March, 1649)

O Cromwell, O Ireton, how hath a little time and success changed the honest shape of so many officers! Who then would have thought the army council would have moved for an act to put men to death for petitioning? Who would have thought to have seen soldiers (by their order) to ride with their faces towards their horse tails, to have their swords broken over their heads, and to be cashiered, and that for petitioning, and claiming their just right and title to the same?

Was there ever a generation of men so apostate so false and so perjured as these? Did ever men pretend an higher degree of holiness, religion, and zeal to God and their country than these? These preach, these fast, these pray, these have nothing more frequent than the sentences of sacred scripture, the name of God and of Christ in their mouths: you shall scarce speak to Cromwell about anything, but he will lay his hand on his breast, elevate his eyes, and call God to record, he will weep, howl and repent, even while he doth smite you under the first rib.

(5) Richard Overton, John Lilburne and William Walwyn, Preamble to the third draft of The Agreement of the People (1st May, 1649)

We, the free People of England, to whom God hath given hearts, means and opportunity to effect the same, do with submission to his wisdom, in his name, and desiring the equity thereof may be to his praise and glory; Agree to ascertain our Government to abolish all arbitrary Power, and to set bounds and limits - both to our Supreme, and all Subordinate Authority, and remove all known Grievances. And accordingly do declare and publish to all the world, that we are agreed as followeth.

That the Supreme Authority of England and the Territories therewith incorporate, shall be and reside henceforth in a Representative of the people consisting of four hundred persons, but no more; in the choice of whom (according to natural right) all men of the age of one and twenty years and upwards (not being servants, or receiving alms, or having served the late King in Arms or voluntary Contributions), shall have their votes.