Democracy at Putney Church, continued

ImageThis post continues from my previous post about on the Putney Debates; a debate that took place between Cromwell and the Army Grandees on the one hand, and the representatives of the Leveller movement on the other. The debate signifies a milestone in the development of democratic ideas in England.

To this Ireton restates, in as clear a manner as he possibly can, the nature of his objection to the position on the franchise outlined in the Agreement. In so doing, he moves away from more abstract notions of natural right to concrete issues of political power and property. His response is worth quoting at length:

“The objection does not lie in that, the making of it more equal, but the introducing of men into an equality of interest in this government who have no property in this kingdom, or who have no local permanent interest in it…the objection lies still in this, that I do not mean that I would have it restrained to that proportion, but to restrain it still to men who have a local, a permanent interest in the kingdom, who have such an interest that they may live upon it as free men, and who have such an interest as is fixed upon a place, and is not the same equally everywhere. If a man be an inhabitant upon a rack rent for a year, for two years, or twenty years, you cannot think that man has any fixed permanent interest; that man, if he pay the rent that his land is worth, and he has no advantage but what he has by his land, that man is as good a man, may have as much interest, in another kingdom. But here I do not speak of enlarging this at all, but of keeping this to the most fundamental constitution in this kingdom. That is, that no person that has not a local and permanent interest in the kingdom should have an equal dependence in election; but if you go beyond this law, if you admit any man that has a breath and being, I did show you how this will destroy property. It may come to destroy property thus: you may have a major party, you may have such men chose, or at least the major art of them, why those men may not vote against all property…But here is the rule that you go by: for that by which you infer this to be the right of the people, of every inhabitant, and that because this man has such a right in nature, though it be not of necessity for the preserving of his being; therefore you are to overthrow the most fundamental constitution for this. By the same rule, show me why you will not, by the same right of nature, make use of anything that any man has for the necessary substance of me. Show me what you will stop at, wherein you will fence any man in a property by this rule.”

A permanent interest therefore refers not merely to the possession of land on a lease, but rather, the ownership of land in freehold tenure. For even a man who is a rent paying tenant on a customary tenure does not have a permanent local interest in the kingdom; he may, argues Ireton, have as much interest in another kingdom as this one. If the right to vote is granted to those who do not own property, there is nothing to stop them from voting against all property; that is, there is nothing to stop “the people” from using democracy to overthrow the existing social order and make all things common.

As the debate wages on, both sides entrench themselves in their positions, unwilling to concede much to the other. Indeed, at some points, the debate gets quite heated. Despite Cromwell’s and Ireton’s attempts to tone down the tenor of the debate by stating that positions, not persons, are what are being discussed, the passions aroused by the underlying principles of the debate can barely be contained. This is because the Agitators and Levellers remain unconvinced by the arguments put forth by the grandees. Wildman shows his impatience with the debate by urging the participants to focus on the principles of the reforms, rather than the speculated consequences. Seeming frustrated, he sums up Ireton’s position in a very dismissive manner:

“I conceive all that has been said against it will be reduced to this, that it is against a fundamental law; and another reason that every person ought to have a permanent interest: because it is not fit that those should choose parliaments that have no lands to be disposed of by parliament.”

Similarly, Sexby, in a demonstration of what Cromwell would disparagingly call “wilfulness,” states outright that the army has engaged in the present conflict in order to recover their birthrights and privileges as Englishmen, but it turns out that they have none, for the discussion of liberty has shown that, if the grandees have their way, there is not such thing as English liberty. Many of the soldiers, Sexby argues, do not meet the property qualification for the franchise that the grandees are attempting to conserve. This being the case, he asks, what did they fight for?

“There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little property in the kingdom as to our estates, yet we have had a birthright; but it seems now, except a man has a fixed estate in this kingdom, he has no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived. If we had not a right to the kingdom, we were mere mercenary soldiers. There are many in my condition, that have as good a condition; it may be little estate they have at present, and yet they have as much a rights as those too who are their lawgivers, as any in this place. I shall tell you in a word my resolution. I am resolved to give my birthright to none, whatsoever may come in the way; and be thought that I will give it to none, if this thing that with so much pressing after…I do think the poor and meaner of this kingdom, I speak as in that relation in which we are, have been the means of the preservation of this kingdom. I say, in their stations, and really I think that to their utmost possibility; and their lives have not been dear for purchasing the good of the kingdom. Those that act to this end are as free from anarchy or confusion as those that oppose it, and they have the law of God and the law of their conscience.”

The soldiers in the army, claims Sexby, who is speaking as a representative of five regiments, want to recover their lost birthright, not merely to act as mercenary soldiers at the whim of those men of substance who have a fixed interest in the realm. If the latter was the case, asks Sexby, what exactly is it for which the soldiers have staked their lives and estates?

In response to this, and a similar question posed later on by Rainsborough, Ireton presents what is essentially the parliamentary cause of 1642-3 in unequivocal terms. Popular sovereignty is meant to be parliamentary sovereignty in which the landed classes, through Parliament, enjoy supremacy over the crown:

“I tell you what the soldier of the kingdom has fought for. First, the danger that we stood in was that one man’s will must be a law. The people of the kingdom must have this right at least, that they should not [sic] be concluded by the representative of those that had the interest of the kingdom. So men fought in this because they were immediately concerned and engaged in it; other men who had no other interest in the kingdom but this, that they should have the benefit of those laws made by the representative, yet that they should have the benefit of this representative. They thought it was better to be concluded by the common consent of those that were fixed men, and settled men, that had the interest of this kingdom, and from that way I shall know a law and have a certainty. And every man that was born in it, that has a freedom, is a denizen; he was capable of trading to get money, and to get estates by; and therefore this man, I think, had a great deal of reason to build up such a foundation of interest to himself; that is, that the will of one man should not be a law, but that the law of this kingdom should be by a choice of persons to represent, and that choice to be made by the generality of the kingdom. Here was a right that induced men to fight, and those men that had not this interest, and though this be not the utmost interest that other men have, yet they had some interest.”

Ireton is defending the constitution of Parliament on the one hand against the encroachments of royal prerogative, in which the will of one man becomes law, and, on the other hand, from social levelling, from those who would base political participation on natural right and use that threaten the fundamental laws of the constitution – its basis in property.

The Putney Debates, therefore, have significance beyond the immediate importance of the quest for settlement, for they raise crucial questions regarding the nature of property and the state. Ireton and the grandees wish to maintain the status quo as it was established in 1642. A freeholder franchise would limit the right to vote to the propertied classes and members of corporations who have a fixed and permanent interest in the kingdom. In this sense, property, as Ireton states repeatedly, is the foundation of the constitution. The consequence of the Leveller position, argues Ireton, is to bestow upon all men in England a natural right which could be used to undermine the existing property relations of England. An attack on property is clearly an attack on the constitution itself. Popular sovereignty, therefore, is Parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of the landed classes in Parliament.

To put it another way, the questions and concerns raised by the Levellers give theories of popular sovereignty a social content. As the spokesmen for the “middling sort of men,” the Levellers’ articulation of popular sovereignty would have resulted in a significant level of democratization which could potentially threaten the powers and property rights of the ruling classes. It is here that we get a sense of the meaning of the term Leveller.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s