Braddick’s book is sharply at odds with those by Foxley and Rees, which set Lilburne more firmly in the Leveller camp. Yet, like Rees, Braddick presents Lilburne as an activist rather than a political thinker, as primarily concerned with tactics and political mobilization. Lilburne’s ideas are interesting but, his real significance and legacy – Braddick suggests – are in the realm of political practice.
It is one of the many merits of Michael Braddick’s political biography of Lilburne that he restores a sense of jeopardy to the Pimpernel-like achievements of his subject... Braddick lists nearly 40 separate publications that Lilburne wrote or had a hand in, but for such a promiscuous political author, it is paradoxically not his words but his actions that account for his reputation. As Braddick makes clear, Lilburne’s claims as a champion of liberty depend less on what he wrote than on the principles he established when called before judge and jury to defend himself for having written it... The book strikes a delicate balance between telling the story of Lilburne’s life, almost all the details of which originate in his many court battles, and putting him in context. Occasionally the blizzard of radical names and involved political, ecclesiastical and commercial disputes becomes confusing. But overall this is a triumph of sympathetic biographical writing, without succumbing to the biographer’s trap of sticking up for everything his subject did or stood for.
Braddick’s book is a readable account of Lilburne’s life. It is the first biography of Lilburne to appear for nearly 60 years. This in itself establishes the significance of the work. It is clear and accessible, but like most modern academic writing, however, it studiously avoids anything that might be sensational or colourful. This is regrettable, since Lilburne’s life was one of the most eventful and dramatic of any polemicist in British history... The Common Freedom of the People is an important book. It draws on a wide range of sources, so I was surprised to see that it does not have a bibliography. I hope this trend is not continued by publishing houses as distinguished as Oxford University Press. The accuracy and fluency of Braddick’s writing are incontestable, although Lilburne’s story probably deserves a more popular and cinematic treatment. His life was simply too remarkable to be captured adequately in the pages of an academic biography.
One of the great strengths of this biography is the way in which Braddick is able to introduce the reader very succinctly and clearly to the wider context in which Lilburne’s ideas were formed. This is no mean feat given the complexity and rapidity of the political changes of the period... This more nuanced picture of Lilburne is sustained by a greater focus on his career after the demise of the Levellers as an effective political force in 1649. By giving more space to Lilburne’s later experiences, Braddick is able to ask important questions about his political outlook... Overall, although Braddick doesn’t attempt to hide his subject’s flaws, the portrait of Lilburne that he delivers is a largely sympathetic one. It is nonetheless quite distinct from that offered by earlier biographers. In place of the proto-democratic theorist or radical forefather is a Lilburne 18th-century historians would recognise... Braddick’s biography reminds us of the capacity of mainstream ideas, as well as those at the extremist ‘fringe’, to radicalise individuals.