Democracy at Putney Church

ImageOn October 28, 1647, an extraordinary debate occurred at Putney Church in London. Representatives of the New Model Army rank and file – Agitators – met with members of the Council of War – the grandees – in order to debate the terms of settlement laid out in the Heads of Proposals, The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, and The Agreement of the People, as well as resolve the problem of arrears and indemnity for the soldiers. The King had been defeated and the Civil War appeared to be drawing to a close, and now a new settlement had to be agreed amongst the prosecutors of the parliamentary cause.  The grandees, represented by Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, sought to defend the constitutional reforms put forth in the Heads of Proposals. This document, authored by Ireton himself, presented a moderate constitutional settlement that would secure the supremacy of Parliament within the traditional constitution of Crown, Lords and Commons. The Agreement of the People, in line with Leveller conceptions of popular sovereignty, sought to reform the English constitution by basing the rule of Parliament on the consent of the people as a multitude of individuals. 

The debate quickly focuses on an article in the Agreement that advocates the reform of the electorate. Cromwell, attempting to get clarification as to the precise meaning of the statement, asks whether the authors meant that the franchise should be redistributed in order to offset the overrepresentation of “rotten boroughs” or whether the right to vote was to be invested in each individual. The particular clause of the Agreement reads: “That the people of England, being at this day very unequally distributed by counties, cities, and boroughs for the election of their deputies in parliament, ought to be more indifferently proportioned, according to the number of inhabitants.” Cromwell says that if by this the Agreement simply means a redistribution of representation as it already exists in the kingdom then he has not problem with the reform. If, however, the article in the Agreement means that “every man that is an inhabitant is to be equally considered, and to have an equal voice in the election of those representers…then I have something to say against it.” The distribution of the franchise thus becomes linked to the principles of popular sovereignty; in other words, the right to vote becomes the vehicle through which the people, as a multitude of individuals, express their sovereign powers. The question them becomes, who are the people? If parliamentary sovereignty is insufficient to protect the rights and liberties of Englishmen, then the people must be able to delegate and reassume their sovereign powers. This implies the notion of consent to political authority. The point of contention comes down to what a redistribution of the franchise means politically – does equality of representation merely mean the reform of the voting system in terms of eliminating what later reformers would refer to as “rotten boroughs”? Or does it entail the extension of the right to vote beyond the 40 shilling franchise?

Much debate has revolved around the extent of the franchise that the Levellers were proposing. Early historians of the Levellers viewed them as radical democrats, espousing what was essentially a universal adult male franchise, one that would only exclude “delinquents” and “malignants.” C.B. Macpherson famously interpreted the Levellers to be exponents of a possessive individualism in which they were nothing more than radical liberals whose conception of self-propriety excluded wage-labourers. Yet Macpherson’s interpretation is highly problematic, both in terms of his understanding of property in the mid-seventeenth century, but also in terms of his selective assessment of the historical record.

There is a sense, however, in which this debate over the extent of the franchise neglects to understand the significance of the Leveller position as it is expressed in the Putney Debates. To be sure, the extent of the franchise is important in the history of democracy, but what is significant in these debates is the linkage between property and sovereignty as it is elucidated by the Levellers. The more radical Levellers like Rainsborough and Sexby articulate a radical form of popular sovereignty in which each (adult male) individual is invested with a right to choose his own representatives. Rainsborough famously remarks that even the “meanest he” has a life to live as the greatest, and that the poor are no more obliged to obey a constituted authority to which they have not consented than are the rich:

 “I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that, when I have heard the reasons against it, that something will be said to answer those reasons, insomuch that I should doubt whether I was an Englishman or no, that should doubt of these things.”

This position is backed up by Edward Sexby, John Wildman, and initially, Maximillian Petty. Yet, it stirs up concern amongst the grandees, particularly Ireton, clearly the dominant intellectual amongst the grandees.

Ireton, “having an eye” to the protection of private property, argues that Rainsborough and his fellow radicals would have to ground their political position in a natural right. But English rights and liberties, argues Ireton, are the product of history, not the product of some abstract natural right. Property as well as the franchise, are rights that have been determined by history. While the institution of private property may be divinely sanctioned, its particular form and distribution are the product of human convention. This being the case, Ireton argues that basing a political position on natural right threatens the continuity and stability of the ancient constitution and, by extension, the rights upon which they are based. More specifically, the Leveller position, according to Ireton, would force them to do away with private property altogether (i.e., “deny all civil right”). If men as men possess certain naturally defined inalienable rights, then what is to stop a man from laying claim to someone else’s goods? Worse yet, what would stop the propertyless from expropriating the landed property of the propertied classes, or doing away with the institution entirely? Ireton continues by saying that only those who have a permanent interest in the kingdom should be required to explicitly consent to political authority:

“I think that no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here, no person has a right to this that has not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom, and those persons together are properly the represented of this kingdom who, taken together, do comprehend whatsoever is of real or permanent interest in the kingdom.”

All the Leveller talk of birthright is not enough to convince Ireton that being born in England bestows upon and Englishman a right to chose his government. While it grants him certain rights and freedoms – the freedom to live and make use of the highways, etc. – it is not enough to bestow upon him a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom itself. Only property can do this:

“But I am sure if we look upon that which is the utmost, within man’s view, of what was originally the constitution of this kingdom, upon that which is most radical and fundamental, and which if you take away, there is no man has any land, any goods, you take away any civil interest, and that is this: that those that choose the representers for the making of laws by which this state and kingdom are to be governed are the persons who, taken together, do comprehend the local interest of this kingdom; that is, the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies. This is the most fundamental constitution of this kingdom, and which if you do not allow, you allow none at all. This constitution has limited and determined it, that only those shall have voices in elections.”

This objection puts the Levellers on the defensive, for as members of the “middling sort” of small property owners they do not seek to abolish the very basis of their livelihoods – as they consistently claim they do not advocate social levelling. Rainsborough states that he is not against property in itself, but rather how it has come to be that the right to choose the representatives of the land has itself become a property. Surely, it must be through civil law, the law of England, the most tyrannical law that Rainsborough knows of. And if, he says, the Army is agreeing to maintain the status quo then he does not know what they have fought for:

“If it be a property, it is a property by a law; neither do I think that there is very little property in this thing by the law of the land, because I think that the law of the land in that thing is the most tyrannical law under heaven, and I would fain know what we have fought for; and this is the old law of England and that which enslaves the people of England, that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all.”

Many soldiers, he says, are excluded from the franchise as it now stands; and many of those who did qualify for the forty shilling freehold franchise have since lost their estates. The choice, argues Rainsborough, is not between having rulers or no rulers, but rather, between right rulers and wrong rulers. It is not anarchy they seek, but rather, democracy. Petty jumps in by saying that the Agreement cannot be in favour of anarchy and social levelling since the very end of government is the maintenance of property.

To be continued….


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