The Levellers and the Putney Debates

Kieran Connolly looks at the Levellers and the Putney Debates which foreshadowed many of the ideas of modern democratic republican thought.

The Ulster Plantation which basically involved transfer of ownership from the native Irish clans to settlers from Scotland and England took place following the “flight of the Earls” Hugh O’ Neill and Hugh O’ Donnell in September 1607 after their defeat by the English.

In 1641 the resentment of the dispossessed Irish combined with short term factors such as very poor harvests due to bad weather in a period known as the “little Ice Age” and an economic recession to provoke a rebellion. During the early years of the rebellion in Ulster thousands of Protestant settlers and many others fled to England. The scale of the atrocities taking place in Ireland was greatly exaggerated in England. The reports suggested 154,000 deaths but the best modern estimate is a figure of 4,000.

The English Government decided to raise an army to suppress the rebellion. The difficulty was whether the King, Charles I, or the Parliament would control the army. At the time the Parliament was attempting to limit the power of the King. The latter believed in the divine right of kings. This political crisis led to the beginning of the Civil War in England in August 1642 when the King mobilised an army loyal to himself. Parliament responded in a similar way, raising their own army.

Initially the Parliament relied on local militias and, when they were unwilling to fight far from their homes, the Parliament authorised the leading men on its side to organise private armies to fight for it.  At the end of 1644 Oliver Cromwell, a leading commander in the parliamentary army, said it could not win until it organised a more effective army along the following lines:

  • A centralized command structure
  • MP’s could not hold military office (despite this rule Cromwell did serve both as an M.P. and an army commander)
  • Regular payment for the soldiers
  • Peasants and craftsmen could become officers
  • This was called the New Model Army

The ideology of the soldiers was based on the Protestant interpretation of the Bible. This included the belief that God made all men equal. This was summarised in a simple verse to describe the situation in the Garden of Eden:

“When Adam delved (dug) and Eve span

Who then was the gentleman?”

That is, there was no class distinction in the Garden of Eden. This religion also said that a man could talk directly to God and did not need to go through a clergyman or look for the services of a saint. And, even more significantly, they were very taken by the concept of ‘covenant’ or ‘contract’. This, of course, occurred first in the old testament when God made a covenant with the Jewish people. While Charles I believed in the God-given right of a King to rule, they said that there was a contract between the King and the people he ruled. If the King broke the terms of the contract then they were entitled to reject his rule.

However the definition of “the people” meant male property owners. The franchise was confined to these people.

By the Summer of 1647 it was clear that the creation of the New Model Army was leading to a parliamentary victory. However the soldiers in the ranks, privates not senior officers, began to suspect that the leaders of their army known as “the grandees” were not willing to prosecute the war to a final victory over the King. “The generals. themselves members of the titled nobility, e.g. sir Thomas Fairfax, were seeking a compromise with the king. They did not commit fully to defeating the king because they feared that a shattering victory over the king would create an irreparable breach in the old order of things that would ultimately be fatal to their own position.”

Even worse from the soldier’s point of view they also looked set to betray the religious and political ideals the New Model Army had spent the previous five years fighting for, “we were not a mere mercenary army hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth … to the defence of the people’s just right and liberties,” the soldiers complained.

In addition they had not been paid regularly and on the end of hostilities, the conservative M.P.s  in parliament wanted to either disband the army or send them to fight in Ireland without receiving their back pay. And, since most parliamentarians wanted to restore the king without major democratic reforms or religious freedom, many soldiers asked why they had risked their lives in the first place.

Their grievances were taken up by “Levellers” in the army rank and file. They declared that “all degrees of men should be levelled, and an equality should be established”. They put forward a post-war manifesto entitled ‘An Agreement of the People’.

“It urged religious toleration (“The ways of God’s worship are not at all entrusted by us to any human power”), a general amnesty (for acts during the war) and an end to conscription; a system of laws that must be “no respecter of persons but apply equally to everyone: there must be no discrimination on grounds of tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth or place”; regular, two-yearly parliaments (“The Long Parliament” sat from 1641 until 1649); an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants. (Many constituencies were “rotten boroughs” in which the seats were controlled by the largest landowner, Blackadder depicted this as a borough where the only voter was Baldric). At its heart was a profound belief in human liberty and a conviction that politicians were as dangerous as princes when it came to undermining personal freedom. It was the people who were sovereign.”

By early June 1647 it had become clear that the Levellers had established support in the parliamentarian army where pay arrears were a key issue, as was the projected campaign in Ireland. The latter was designed to re-conquer Ireland and to punish the Irish rebels for the “massacres” in 1641. When parliament rejected the Levellers’ call for more radical reforms to be introduced to England and Wales, the leadership of the Levellers looked for support from the army’s rank and file.

The regiments of the army demanded the creation of an army council to which each unit would send representatives known as adjutators. (This is the source of the modern word ‘agitator’.) With Oliver Cromwell in the chair, the general council of the New Model Army came together at St. Mary’s church in  Putney from 28th October 1647 to 9th November 1647 to argue the case for a transparent, democratic state free from the taint of parliamentary or courtly corruption.

It proved to be one of the greatest intellectual encounters in western political thought. What was remarkable was the active involvement of the rank and file.

A major topic for discussion was, “who had the right to vote?” For the Levellers, the answer was clear, all those who placed themselves under government should have the right to elect it. The vote was a natural right, irrespective of property or position.

One of the most radical voices, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough said, “for really i think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he and therefore … 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 hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

Oliver Cromwell made it very clear that he very much opposed to the idea that more people should be allowed to vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes, saying: “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”.

The wealthy, socially conservative grandees were horrified by this spectre of egalitarian democracy. To their minds, it presaged anarchy and corruption with wealthy politicians able to buy up the votes of the uneducated, dependent masses. Instead, Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, proposed that the franchise be limited to those with a “fixed local interest”, that is, the independent, propertied sort.

For Rainsborough, such a solution was a wretched betrayal of the civil war sacrifice. “I would fain know what we have fought for: for our laws and liberties? (yet) this is the old law that enslaves the people of England – that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all!” In the end, they reached a compromise that the vote should be granted to all adult males – excluding servants, apprentices, foreigners, beggars and, obviously, women.

Rainsborough was sent to serve with a force besieging a castle. During the course of the siege a group of enemy soldiers managed to penetrate the camp and kill Rainsborough. It is suggested that Cromwell may have had a part in his death.

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. Cromwell and the Grandees opposed these ideas as too radical. The General Council instructed general Sir Thomas Fairfax to send all the agitators back to their units until he might think it necessary to call them together again. Of course, he never saw that need.

Three days later the King Charles I escaped from parliament’s control and began what became known as the second civil war. This required the army to focus on its military task. The Leveller leaders were arrested in 1649 and Cromwell crushed an attempted mutiny in that year. The army won the second civil war, it ended in 1649 with the execution of the King on 30th January, 1649.

The army was then sent to Ireland to reconquer the country. The records of the debates also seem to show that some of the delegates were opposed to the use of the army to suppress the Irish people. Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland included many massacres and included a renewed confiscation of lands held by the native Irish. The vicious reprisals were justified on the basis that the Irish people had massacred helpless Protestants in 1641. Cromwell and his supporters considered Irish Roman Catholics as little better than savages, barbarian in their lifestyle and habits, and capable of appalling atrocities against Protestant settlers. They were sub-human and dangerous, and were to be treated accordingly. It is estimated that around 500,000 people died from the war and its accompanying hardships.