Then Again




Sir William Clarke

The Putney Debates



This is a record of a debate held in 1647 between representatives of Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army and a group of citizens. The debate concerns "Agreement of the People," a kind of social contract for the revolutionary English government, written by John Wildman (1623-1693). 

The Paper called the Agreement read: The first article is, "That the people of England, being at this day very unequally distributed by Counties, Cities, and Burroughs, for the election of their Deputies in Parliament ought to be more indifferently proportioned, according to the number of the Inhabitants; the circumstances whereof, for number, place, and manner, are to be set down before the end of this present Parliament."

COMMISSARY IRETON: The exception that lies in it is this: It is said, "The people of England" etc. . . . They are to be distributed "according to the number of the inhabitants;" and this doth make me think that the meaning is that every man that is an inhabitant is to be equally considered, and to have an equal voice in the election of the representors, those persons that are for the General Representative; and if that be the meaning then I have something to say against it.

MR. PETTY (a soldier): We judge that all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in Elections.

COL. RAINBOROW: I desired that those that had engaged in it [should speak] for really 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, something will be said to answer those reasons, insomuch that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or not that should doubt of these things.

COMMISSARY IRETON: That's [the meaning of] this ["according to the number of the inhabitants."] Give me leave to tell you that if you make this the rule I think you must flee for refuge to an absolute natural Right, and you must deny all Civil Right; and I am sure it will come to that in the consequence. For my part, I think it is no right at all. I think that no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affairs of the Kingdom, and in 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, and consequently are to make up the Representors of this Kingdom who, taken together, do comprehend whatsoever is of real or permanent interest in the Kingdom. And I am sure I cannot tell what otherwise any man can say why a foreigner coming in amongst us--or as many as will be coming in amongst us, or by force or otherwise selling themselves here, or at least by our permission having a being here--why they should not as well lay claim to it as any other. We talk of birthright. Truly [by] birthright there is thus much claim. Men may justly have by birthright, by their very being born in England, that we should not seclude them out of England, that we should not refuse to give them air, and place, and ground, and the freedom of the highways and other things, to live amongst us; not [to] any man that is born here, though by his birth there come nothing at all to him that is part of the permanent interest of this Kingdom. That I think is due to a man by birth. But that by a man's being born here he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here, and of all things here, I do not think it a sufficient ground. 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, [if we] look upon that which is most radical and fundamental, and which if you take away there is no man has any land, any goods, [or] any civil interest, that is this: that those that choose the Representors 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, 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. It is true as was said by a Gentleman near me, the meanest man in England ought to have [a voice in the election of the government he lives under] . . . I say this, that those that have the meanest local interest, that man that has but forty shillings a year, he has as great voice in the Election of a Knight for the shire as he that has ten thousand a year or more.

COL. RAINBOROW: Truly, Sir, I am of the same opinion I was; and am resolved to keep it 'till I know reason why I should not. Therefore I say that either it must be the law of God or the law of man that must prohibit the meanest man in the Kingdoms to have this benefit as well as the greatest. I do not find anything in the law of God that a lord shall choose 20 Burgesses, and a Gentleman but two, or a poor man shall choose none. I find no such thing in the law of nature, nor in the law of nations. But I do find that all Englishmen must be subject to English laws, and I do verily believe that there is no man but will say that the foundation of all law lies in the people, and if [it lie] in the people, I am to seek for this exemption. And truly I have thought something [else], in what a miserable distressed condition would many a man that has fought for the Parliament in this quarrel be? I will be bound to say that many a man whose zeal and affection to God and this Kingdom has carried him forth in this cause has so spent his estate that in the way the State, the Army are going, he shall not hold up his head; and when his estate is lost, and not worth 40s. A year, a man shall not have any interest, and there are many other ways by which estates men have do fall to decay, if that be the rule which God in his providence does use. A man when he has an estate has an interest in making laws, when he has none, he has no power in it. So that a man cannot loose that which he has for the maintenance of his family, but he must loose that which God and nature has given him. Therefore I do [think] and am still of the same opinion: that every man born in England cannot, ought not, neither by the law of God nor the law of nature, to be exempted from the choice of those who are to make laws, for him to live under, and for him, for ought I know, to loose his life under. Therefore I think there can be no great stick in this.

COMMISSARY GEN. IRETON: All the main thing that I speak for is because I would have an eye to property. I hope we do not come to contend for victory, but let every man consider with himself that he do not go that way to take away all property. For here is the case of the most fundamental part of the Constitution of the Kingdom, which if you take away, you take away all by that. Here are men of this and this quality are determined to be the Electors of men to the Parliament, and they are all those who have any permanent interest in the Kingdom, and who, taken together, do comprehend the whole interest of the Kingdom. I mean by permanent, local, that is, not anywhere else. As for instance; he that has a freehold, and that freehold cannot be removed out of the Kingdom; and so there's a [freeman of a] Corporation, a place which has the privilege of a market and trading, which if you should allow to all places equally, I do not see how you could preserve any peace in the Kingdom, and that is the reason why in the Constitution we have but some few market towns. Now those people [that have freeholds] and those that are the freemen of Corporations, were looked upon by the former Constitution to comprehend the permanent interest of the Kingdom. For [firstly] he that has his livelihood by his trade, and by his freedom of trading in such a Corporation which he cannot exercise in another, he is tied to that place, his livelihood depends upon it. And secondly, that man has an interest, has a permanent interest there, upon which he may live, and live a freeman without dependence. These Constitutions this kingdom has looked at. Now I wish we may all consider of what right you will challenge, that all the people should have right to Elections. Is it by the right of nature? If you will hold forth that as your ground, then I think you must deny all property too, and this is my reason. For thus: by the same right of nature, whatever it be that you pretend, by which you can say, "one man has an equal right with another to the choosing of him that shall govern him", by the same right of nature, he has an equal right in any goods he sees: meat, drink, clothes, to take and use them for his sustenance. He has a freedom to the land, [to take] the ground, to exercise it, till it; he has the [same] freedom to any thing that any one does account himself to have any propriety in.

COL. RAINBOROW: To the thing itself property. I would fain know how it comes to be the property [of some men, and not of others]. As for estates, and those kind of things, and other things that belong to men, it will be granted that they are property; but I deny that that is a property, to a Lord, to a Gentleman, to any man more then another in the Kingdom of England. 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.

MR. PETTY: For this [argument] that it destroys all right [to property] that every Englishman that is an inhabitant of England should choose and have a choice in the Representatives, I suppose it is [on the contrary] the only means to preserve all property. For I judge every man is naturally free; and I judge the reason why men when they were in so great numbers [chose representatives was] that every man could not give his voice; and therefore men agreed to come into some form of Government that they who were chosen might preserve property. I would fain know, if we were to begin a Government, [whether you would say] 'you have not 40s. a year, therefore you shall not have a voice'. Whereas before there was a Government every man had such a choice, and afterwards for this very cause they did choose Representatives, and put themselves into forms of Government that they may preserve property, and therefore it is not to destroy it [to give every man a choice].

COL. RICH (a Cavalry officer): I confess [there is weight in] that objection that the Commissary General last insisted upon; for you have five to one in the kingdom that have no permanent interest. Some men [have] ten, some twenty servants, some more, some less. If the Master and servant shall be equal Electors, then clearly those that have no interest in the Kingdom will make it their interest to choose those that have no interest. It may happen, that the majority may by law, not in a confusion, destroy property; there may be a law enacted, that there shall be an equality of goods and estate. I think that either of the extremes may be urged to inconvenience. That is, men that have no interest as to Estate should have no interest as to Election.

COL. RAINBOROW: I should not have spoken again. I think it is a fine guided pill, but there is much danger, and it may seem to some that there is some kind of remedy, I think that we are better as we are. That the poor shall choose many, still the people are in the same case, are over voted still. And therefore truly, Sir, I should desire to go close to the business; and the thing that I am unsatisfied in is how it comes about that there is such a propriety in some freeborn Englishmen, and not [in] others.

COM. COWLING (an officer of the General Staff): Whether the younger son have not as much right to the Inheritance as the eldest?

COM. GEN. IRETON: Will you decide it by the light of nature?

COM. COWLING: Why Election was only 40s a year, which was more then 40;E a year now, the reason was [this], that the Commons of England were overpowered by the Lords, who had abundance of vassals, but that they might sill make their laws good against encroaching prerogatives, therefore they did exclude all slaves. Now the case is not so; all slaves have bought their freedoms. They are more free that in the commonwealth are more beneficial. There are men in the country . . . there is a tanner in Stanes worth 3000£:, and another in Reading worth 3 horseskins.

COM. GEN. IRETON: In the beginning of your speech you seem to acknowledge [that] by law, by civil Constitution, the propriety of having voices in Election was fixed in certain persons. So then your exception of your argument does not prove that by civil constitution they have no such propriety, but your argument does acknowledge [that] by civil [constitution they have such] propriety. You argue against this law, that this law is not good.

MR. WILDMAN: Unless I be very much mistaken we are very much deviated from the first Question. Instead of following the first proposition to inquire what is just, I conceive we look to prophesies, and look to what may be the event, and judge of the justness of a thing by the consequence. I desire we may recall [ourselves to the question] whether it be right or no. I conceive all that has been said against it will be reduced to this and another reason; that it is against a fundamental law, [and] 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.

COM. GEN. IRETON: If you will take it by the way, it is not fit that the Representees should choose the Representors, or the persons who shall make the law in the Kingdom, who have not a permanent fixed interest in the Kingdom.

MR. WILDMAN: Sir I do so take it; and I conceive that that is brought in for the same reason, that foreigners might come to have a voice in our Elections as well as the native Inhabitants.

COM. GEN. IRETON: That is upon supposition that these should be all Inhabitants.

MR. WILDMAN: Every person in England has as clear a right to Elect his Representative as the greatest person in England. I conceive that's the undeniable maxim of Government: that all government is in the free consent of the people. If [so], then upon that account, there is no person that is under a just Government, or has justly his own, unless he by his own free consent be put under that government. This he cannot be unless he be consenting to it, and therefore, according to this maxim, there is never a person in England [but ought to have a voice in elections]. And therefore I should humbly move, that if the Question be stated which would soonest bring things to an issue--it might rather be this: whether any person can justly be bound by law, who doth not give his consent that such persons shall make laws for him?

COM. GEN. IRETON: Let the Question be so; whether a man can be bound to any law that he doth not consent to? And I shall tell you that he may and ought to be [bound to a law] that he doth not give a consent to, nor doth not choose any [to consent to], and I will make it clear. If a foreigner come within this Kingdom, if that stranger will have liberty [to dwell here] who has no local interest here--he is a man it's true, has air that by nature we must not expel our Coasts, give him no being amongst us, nor kill him because he comes upon our land, comes up our stream, arrives at our shore. It is a peace of hospitality, of humanity, to receive that man amongst us. But if that man be received to a being amongst us I think that man may very well be content to submit himself to the law of the land: that is, the law that is made by those people that have a property, a fixed property, in the land.

COL. RAINBOROW: Sir I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If it be laid down for a rule, and if you will say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier has fought for all this while. He has fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him a perpetual slave.

COM. GEN. IRETON: 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 be concluded [but] by the Representative of those that had the interest of the Kingdom. Some 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 [fought] 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 [in them], and from that way [said they] I shall know a law and have a certainty. Every man that was borne 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 this interest, though this be not the utmost interest that other men have, yet they had some interest.

From: William Clarke, The Clarke Papers. Volume I, C. H. Firth, ed., (London; Royal Historical Society, 1891) pp. 299-307, 311-312, 315-317 and 325-327. Reprinted in Mark A Kishlansky, ed., Sources of World History, Vol. II, (n.p.; Harper Collins, 1995) pp. 13-18.

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