The Agreements of the People, 1647-1649

The History’s Philip Baker tells us about his new book, out this week, on the Levellers’ Agreements of the People..

Many people might be surprised to learn that we need not have waited until the present day for fixed-term parliaments, or even until the 1832 Reform Act for a significant expansion of the franchise and redistribution of parliamentary seats, if proposals discussed at the height of the English civil war had been realised. Between 1647 and 1649, these and many other modern-sounding ideas – including the complete separation of the legislative and executive arms of government and the stripping away of the political powers of the monarchy and the House of Lords – were put forward in a series of draft written constitutions called the Agreements of the People. Written, variously, by the London-based petitioner movement known as the Levellers, officers and common soldiers of the parliamentarian New Model Army, and national and local London political figures, these documents represent the earliest attempts to produce a written constitution in the English-speaking world.

Unsurprisingly, the Agreements are awarded a significant position in the history of liberal democracy, and political commentators have cited their influence on the French and American Revolutions and home-grown movements like the Chartists. They also continue to inspire modern protest groups. Only last month, a number of organisations, including Occupy London, called for a ‘New Agreement of the People’ and staged the ‘New Putney Debates’, discussing law and democracy in St. Mary’s Church, Putney, where, 365 years earlier, men such as Oliver Cromwell, John Wildman and the MP and army colonel Thomas Rainborough argued over the first Agreement of the People, the latter declaring famously:

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.

Perhaps parallels can be drawn between the present and the context in which the Agreements were written: periods of war, economic crisis and minority disenchantment with Westminster politicians and their practices; times when some deem civil liberties, freedom of the press and freedom of expression to be under threat. Nevertheless, whatever their resonance with later periods, the Agreements of the People were very much the product of their own time and were designed to address a specific problem: that of settling the nation on common ‘foundations of freedom’ in the aftermath of a protracted and bloody civil war.

This week sees the publication by Palgrave Macmillan of the first ever book on these extraordinary documents, The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution, edited by Philip Baker, of HoP, and Elliot Vernon. The essays in the volume examine how the authors of the Agreements sought to rebuild the post-civil war English state on the basis of a mass subscription campaign – a literal agreement of the entire adult population – as a means of legitimating new constitutional structures aimed at guaranteeing the sovereignty of the people, but which also saw the people retain a number of ‘reserved powers’ to themselves. These included freedom of religious conscience, freedom from impressment and legal equality before the law. The introduction to the book, which charts the history and historiography of the Agreements from the civil war until the present day, may be read here for free, and its successive chapters explore the varied origins and influences on the documents, the reaction to them and their contemporary legacy, as well as shedding important new light on the Levellers. The book is essential reading for those fascinated by mid seventeenth-century British history but will also appeal to all those with an interest in the development of democracy and civil liberties over time.


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