“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.
I do hear nothing at all that can convince me why any man that is born in England ought not to have his voice in election of Burgesses. It is said that if a man has not a `permanent interest` he can have no claim; and that we must be no freer than the laws will let us be; and that there is no law in any chronicle will let us be freer than that we now enjoy. Something was said to this yesterday. I do think that the main cause why almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them. And truly, I think that half a loaf is better than none if a man be an-hungry.
This gift of reason without other property may seem a small thing, yet I think there is nothing that God has given a man that anyone else can take from him. And 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 kingdom to have this benefit as well as the greatest. ….But I do find that all Englishmen must be subject to English laws; and I do verily believe that there is no man who 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.
I am a poor man, therefore I must be oppressed? If I have no interest in the kingdom, I must suffer by all their laws — be they right or wrong? Nay thus: a gentleman lives in a country and has three or four lordships — as some men have (God knows how they got them) — and when a parliament is called he must be a parliament –man. He can crush them; I have known an invasion to make sure he has turned the poor men out of doors; and I would fain know whether the potency of rich men do not this, and so keep them under the greatest tyranny that was ever thought of in the world. “
~~ Thomas Rainsborough, The Putney Debates 1647 ~~
The church of St Mary, Putney is some 6 miles upriver from central London; on the north wall of it`s nave a small plaque commemorates a seismic event which took place there for some weeks in 1647 after the defeat of Charles 1st in the English Civil War, which went on to influence and shape politics at home and abroad for centuries. The real possibility of modern democracy was born from the debates which raged here between various factions of parliament`s victorious New Model Army over what kind of world they wanted to live in. With the destruction of absolutist royal tyranny, a different direction was being sought by the winners; a land of genuine democracy where all men (regardless of lack of property) had the God given right to cast their vote to elect their chosen member of parliament to represent their interests – be they ever so mean and humble. The ordinary man in the streets and fields who did the work which made the wealth for the rich to live a life of comfort and financial security, were seeking a universal franchise, where every man was equal before not just God, but the law of the land.
On October 28th, 1647, Oliver Cromwell and other members of the New Model Army met to discuss a new constitution for England. There were religious and political differences to be overcome; these would quickly find the light of day as the more conservative members of the army represented by Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton struggled against a rising tide of revolutionary zeal from the men they had led into battle against the king.
After a month of wrangling and tireless debate, the king had escaped and the meeting ended without result.
The Civil War was about king versus parliament; by 1640, Charles had been ruling without recourse to parliament for almost two decades, but now needed money to fight a war. Parliament was recalled to vote him extra taxes to raise funds: unfortunately for him, parliament had a long memory and refused to budge without serious concessions from Charles. For a monarch who believed he was second only to God in the celestial hierarchy, this was an insufferable interference of his divine right to rule over his mere mortal subjects, and so he abandoned a hostile London and scuttled off to the safe haven of Royalist Oxford, and declared all members of parliament who had opposed him as enemies of the state. He had effectively declared war on his own parliament and people, and thus started a war which would claim more lives per-head of population than the Great War of 1914-18.
Yet the English Civil War is scandalously over looked in the National Curriculum: these were years which established the foundations of what we term as universal values – the supremacy of parliament, independence of the judiciary, abolition of torture and of executive courts, freedom of speech and toleration of different forms of worship and religions. Yet virtually nothing of this is taught to pupils who leave school bereft of any kind of knowledge of this most important and seminal period in their national history.
The American Constitution is a direct result of the ideas and dreams of the men of vision who sat in that small, Thameside church in 1647, yet in England they are dismissed from the national psyche as “regicides” and the period is slurred and defamed by being euphemistically called “The Interregnum”. There is something perverse in teaching people about the indulged and pampered lives of kings and queens, but the “establishment”cannot cope with the idea of an English Republic without ( shock-horror) a monarch sitting benignly above us all!
The men in Putney church saw the king as a “man of blood” who waged war on his own people to preserve his absolute power and a way of life which was as far removed from the rest of his subjects as an amoeba is from a human being.
The history of the period (for what it`s worth) taught in British schools is a travesty of a truth of which Cromwell and Fairfax overthrowing a king, and then Cromwell beheading said monarch is but a part of a much larger and conveniently forgotten picture which has been shovelled under the carpet and hidden away.
Putney perfectly captures the euphoria of free flowing public debate: all the army “grandees” were there; including Cromwell and Ireton to listen to, and take part in the debates in which no stone was unturned, and no subject out of bounds. It was a melting pot of class and open public discussion the like of which had never been seen before. Then, as per usual, Charlie has to stick his considerable oar into the water and escape in the hope of raising another army, to continue war against his own people. The army is mobilised, and the moment is lost forever.
It has to be said that in the ensuing years, Cromwell silenced the voices heard in support of the universal franchise and destroyed the vision and dreams of those men at Putney; the king was out to make more mischief again, and now was not the time for intellectual concourse. But he had a strong belief in freedom of worship and the conviction of volunteers – whatever their class…….
“If you choose Godly honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them……..I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”
The king`s escape from house arrest enabled the conservative and cautious Cromwell to kick all social “levelling down” proposals into the long grass.
While it must be noted that the terms of the language of the debates are very much couched in religious terms, and were preceded by lengthy prayer meetings, the actual substance of the debates went far beyond religion. After all, everything in that day and age was imbued and drenched in biblical language and imagery – it was universally thought that the End of Days was near, and everyone were sinful creatures who had to make continual atonement for their wayward lives.
Ranged against the conservative “Grandees” of Sir Thomas Fairfax, Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, were the prominent “Levellers” , Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, John Lilburne, Richard Overton, Edward Sexby and John Wildman. Parliament was not only keen to slash the government budget and save money (times don`t change), by cutting army pay and disbanding regiments, but it was also set to betray the religious ideals which had been the fuel that fed the unquenchable thirst and vigour of the New Model Army`s engine. So the army had decided to hold a free-ranging discussion of the whys and wherefores of the situation facing them, and of how they could build a New Jerusalem, while at the same time spiking parliament`s guns by a written constitution which enshrined the concepts of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality long before the French ever thought up the idea.
The Putney Debates gave us the concepts of liberty of conscience; a government dependent upon the sovereign will of the people, for the people; equality before the law and religious toleration to practice what you believe, how you wish to believe it. In Britain, these philosophies remained firmly buried until late into the 19th century. What the Levellers proposed nearly 400 years ago is something which free democracies take for granted nowadays, but which, for a fleeting blink of an eye, almost changed the course of a nation`s history, and by definition, world history.
I would like to say it took a long time coming, but it`s still not what those men at Putney envisioned; the real issues of that far away time and place need to be revealed in all their magnificent glory; of how history has been buried because the establishment wish to keep hidden the concept of an English Republic, bereft of monarchy, peers of the realm and a clergy regaled in the raiments of a Byzantine emperor.
“Really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he………”