The Putney Debates
The Putney Debates were a series of discussions between factions of the New Model Army and the Levellers concerning a new constitution for England. The debates were held at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney, Surrey, in October and November 1647.
During the summer of 1647, the attempts by the "Grandees" Cromwell and Ireton to negotiate a settlement with King Charles in the aftermath of the First Civil War had lost them the support of military and civilian radicals. The Levellers criticised Ireton in particular for servility in his negotiations with the King and Parliament, and accused the Grandees of betraying the interests of the common soldiers and people of England. In October 1647, five of the most radical cavalry regiments elected new Agitators — known as the "New Agents" — to represent their views. The New Agents issued a political manifesto: The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, and endorsed the constitutional proposals drafted by civilian Levellers in the Agreement of the People. The radicals wanted a constitution based upon manhood suffrage ("one man, one vote"), biennial Parliaments and a reorganisation of parliamentary constituencies. Authority was to be vested in the House of Commons rather than the King and Lords. Certain "native rights" were declared sacrosanct for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment into the armed forces and equality before the law.
The Grandees responded by inviting the New Agents and their civilian supporters to debate their proposals before the General Council of the Army. In the absence of General Fairfax, the discussions were chaired by Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell. A committee was formed to finalise all constitutional proposals. Cromwell vetoed demands made by radicals who called for the overthrow of the Monarchy, and worked with Commissary-General Henry Ireton to moderate the extremism of the Levellers. Ireton insisted that his own Heads of the Proposals covered all the issues raised in the Case of the Armie and the Levellers' Agreement with far less radical disruption of society. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough emerged as the highest-ranking Leveller sympathiser, calling for Parliament to break off negotiations with the King and to force through a new constitution on its own terms. Other Leveller spokesmen were the Agitators Edward Sexby and William Allen, and civilians John Wildman and Maximilian Petty.
“...for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath 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 bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under...”
Extract from Colonel Rainsborough's famous appeal for democratic rights for all men.
“...I think that no person hath 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 hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom...”
Extract from Henry Ireton's response to Rainsborough.
The debates began on 28 October 1647. For three days, the proceedings were transcribed verbatim by the secretary William Clarke and a team of stenographers. From 2 November, however, all recording ceased. The debates were not reported and Clarke's minutes were not published at the time. They were lost until 1890 when they were rediscovered at the library of Worcester College, Oxford, by the historian C.H. Firth and subsequently published as part of the Clarke Papers.
Much of the recorded debate centred around the franchise. The radicals regarded the right to vote as fundamental to all freeborn Englishmen — a right which had been acquired by fighting for English freedom in the civil war. Cromwell and Ireton, however, regarded the idea of manhood suffrage as tantamount to anarchy. To the indignation of the radicals, they insisted that the vote should be restricted to property owners, prompting Sexby, Rainsborough and others to ask what it was that the ordinary soldiers had been fighting for. After several days spent in heated debate, both sides appeared willing to compromise to a certain extent. The Levellers agreed that servants and alms-takers should be excluded from the franchise; the Grandees conceded that soldiers who had fought for Parliament should be granted the vote.
Although the Army Council did not carry the Levellers' proposal that the Agreement of the People should be adopted as the Army's official constitutional programme, a vote was secured for a mass rendezvous at which the Agreement would be presented to the troops. The radicals hoped that it would be adopted by popular consent of the soldiers, then pressed upon Parliament and the nation. However, Cromwell and Ireton were alarmed at the extremism of the Levellers. Fearing a collapse of constitutional authority, Cromwell was determined to maintain discipline in the Army at all costs. On 8 November, he proposed and carried a motion that the meeting of the Army Council should be temporarily suspended. The Agitators and representative officers were ordered back to their regiments. A new committee, consisting only of officers, was formed to draw up a manifesto in the name of Fairfax and the Army Council to be presented to the troops in place of the Levellers' Agreement. The proposed general rendezvous was modified to three smaller reviews — resulting in the near-mutiny at Corkbush Field on 15 November 1647 and the suppression of the Army radicals.
Meanwhile, the escape of King Charles from Hampton Court on 11 November 1647 had dramatically changed the situation. The Army closed ranks as a Second CIvil War threatened. The representation of rank-and-file soldiers on the Army Council was quietly dropped early in 1648, and never tried again.
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vols. iii & iv (London 1889-94)
Michael Mendle (ed), The Putney Debates of 1647 (Cambridge 2001)
The Putney Debates transcription
Heads of the Proposals text
Agreement of the People as originally drafted in 1647
The Case of the Armie Truly Stated text