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."