Quentin Skinner is the Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Christ's College Cambridge. His chief publications include The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (2 volumes, 1978); Machiavelli (1981); Meaning and Context (1988) Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996); Liberty Before Liberalism (1998) and Visions of Politics (3 volumes, 2002).
The aim is to reopen a question over which there seems to be substantial agreement among rival schools of thought about the English revolution. Although scholars remain divided over how far the liberty of subjects was being encroached upon by the end of the 1630s, they generally agree that, if liberty was indeed being undermined, this was because subjects were being illegally deprived of their rights. The article first examines a different view of civil liberty, stemming from Roman law as well as common law sources, according to which it is possible to forfeit the status of being a free-man even if your rights are not being interfered with at all. This possibility is held to arise from the fact that you count as a free-man if and only if you are not dependent on the will of another. If you live in dependence you count as a slave, even if you remain capable of exercising your rights. After illustrating this argument, the article goes on to suggest that, if we were to give it due prominence, we might gain a better understanding of two puzzles about the politics of the 1640s. One concerns the nature of the principles in the light of which the Levellers as well as their opponents excluded certain social groups from the right to vote. The other concerns the nature of the grounds on which Parliament attempted in 1642 to legitimize its decision to resist the king by force.