Agreement of the People
The Agreement of the People was the principal constitutional manifesto issued by the Levellers. It was intended to be signed by all those who wished to enjoy rights of citizenship. The Agreement developed over several versions between October 1647 and May 1649.
Original Draft, 1647
The Agreement was first drafted in October 1647 when Agitators of the New Model Army and civilian Levellers collaborated to propose a new constitution in the aftermath of the First Civil War.
Stating that sovereign power should reside in the people of England rather than with the discredited King or Parliament, the original Agreement consisted of four clauses:
- The peoples' representatives (i.e. Members of Parliament) should be elected in proportion to the population of their constituencies
- The existing Parliament should be dissolved on 30 September 1648
- Future Parliaments should be elected biennially and sit every other year from April to September
- The biennial Parliament (consisting of a single elected House) should be the supreme authority in the land, with powers to make or repeal laws, appoint officials and conduct domestic and foreign policy
Certain constraints were placed on Parliament: it was not to interfere with freedom of religion; it was not to press men to serve in the armed forces; it could not prosecute anyone for their part in the recent war; it was not to exempt anyone from the ordinary course of the law; all laws passed by Parliament should be for the common good.
The Agreement was debated at the Putney Debates of October and November 1647 where the Grandees Cromwell and Ireton tried to curb the perceived extremism of the Levellers, particularly over a proposal to extend the franchise to all adult males. Attempts to gain general support for the Agreement at the Army rendezvous at Corkbush Field were forcibly opposed by the Grandees.
The Whitehall Debates, 1648-9
After the King's defeat in the Second Civil War, an extended version of the Agreement was promoted by John Lilburne who hoped to find a middle way between royal despotism and military dictatorship. The new Agreement was discussed by Levellers, London Independents and the Army Council at Whitehall in December 1648 in the aftermath of Pride's Purge. Lilburne wanted to secure Parliament's acceptance of the Agreement before the King was brought to trial so that the trial would have a basis in a legitimate and legal constitution. However, Lilburne and his colleague Richard Overton walked out of the discussions when Army officers led by Henry Ireton insisted upon making further modifications to the Agreement before it was presented to Parliament.
The discussions continued in Lilburne's absence. While Ireton appeared to make concessions to the Levellers over the franchise, it is probable that he was playing for time to distract the Army Levellers while preparations for the King's trial went ahead. The revised Agreement was finally presented to the House of Commons as a basis for a new constitution on 20 January 1649, the very day that the public sessions of the High Court of Justice began. As Ireton had calculated, MPs postponed discussion of the Agreement until after the King's trial, and it was never taken up again by Parliament.
Final version, May 1649
A fully developed version of the Agreement of the People was published in May 1649. Its proposals included:
- The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists)
- No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP (to prevent conflict of interest)
- Annual elections to Parliament with MPs serving one term only
- Equality of all persons before the law
- Trials should be heard before 12 jurymen, freely chosen by their community
- No-one could be punished for refusing to testify against themselves in criminal cases
- The law should proceed in English and cases should not extend longer than six months
- The death penalty to be applied only in cases of murder
- Abolition of imprisonment for debt
- Tithes should be abolished and parishioners have the right to choose their ministers
- Taxation in proportion to real or personal property
- Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes
This version was published after the Leveller leaders Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince had been imprisoned by order of the Council of State and a few weeks before the suppression of the Army Levellers at Burford, after which the Leveller movement was effectively finished.
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vols. iii & iv (London 1889-94)
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)
David Underdown, Pride's Purge (Oxford 1971)
Agreement of the People, as originally drafted in 1647
Agreement of the People, as presented to Parliament in January 1649
Agreement of the People, extended version from the imprisonment of the Leveller leaders, May 1649