During the English Civil War of 1642-1651, the ousting of the King invited a new constitution. Various factions put forward their proposals, including the Levellers, who produced a remarkably modern approach to liberty: the Agreement of the People
How did the Civil War come about?
Disagreements between Charles I and the Parliament had been simmering for several years before full-blown civil war broke out in 1642. At first, Charles's Royalist forces had the upper hand, with further promise of support from the Irish Catholic Confederation, which was fighting Parliamentarian forces in Ireland.
But in 1643 an agreement between English and Scottish parliaments brought the Scottish army into the war, and the balance changed. At the battles of Naseby and Langport in June and July 1645, the first showing of the Parliamentarian New Model Army under Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, the Royalists suffered major losses.
Charles I's surrender in May 1646 concluded the first phase of the civil war, though he rejected all proposals intended to bring a peace. However, he did reach a secret agreement with the Scots regarding Presbyterianism in England, which incensed the English Parliament.
Why was a new constitution needed?
There was also growing unrest between Parliament and the New Model Army, many of whom were still to be paid. It was important to reach a constitutional agreement with the King. The Council of the Army, under Henry Ireton, put forward a draft document, the “Heads of Proposals”, based largely on old constitutional principles.
A more radical proposal, the Agreement of the People, came from extremists in the army, known as the Agitators, and their political allies, the Levellers. A debate about both documents was held during the autumn of 1647 at Putney, where the New Model Army was based, chaired by Oliver Cromwell. The discussion found itself focussing on who should have the vote. Ireton and his Proposals had gone for householder suffrage, while the Levellers were after a wider franchise including small traders and craftsmen.
How was the Agreement received?
When Parliament discussed the Agreement of the People, it dismissed them as “destructive to the being of Parliaments, and to the fundamental government of the kingdom." The original Agreement had been written in haste and not all Levellers agreed with it. It was twice revised, the final version completed by the leaders of the Levellers - John Lilburn, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton - while they were imprisoned in the Tower of London charged with treason and inciting mutiny.
What did the Agreement say?
Fundamental to the Agreement was what the Levellers called native or natural rights:
- freedom of worship
- freedom from compulsory conscription
- all men should be treated as equal under the law
- all laws should be good and not detrimental to the well-being of individuals
In addition, they advocated the following political rights:
- suffrage for all men aged 21 and over, except servants, beggars or Royalists
- annual Parliamentary elections
- members serve only one term
- no one to be punished for refusing to testify against themselves ( the right to remain silent)
- all those on trial have the right to call witnesses in their defence
- trials to be in front of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood, freely chosen
- no hindrance to free trade
- no one to be imprisoned for debt
- death penalty abolished except for murder
What happened to the Agreement?
The Agreement itself was a large vellum document, probably paraded through London. When the Agreement was discussed by Parliament in January 1649, it was set aside because of the execution of the king and was not discussed again. Except for annual Parliaments, all would be achieved - but not for nearly 300 years.
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