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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism
The Agreement of the People
by Wormuth, Francis D.

The Leveller movement was closely identified with the career of John Lilburne. Lilburne was the son of a gentleman of Durham, and in 1630 was apprenticed to a London merchant. In London he became involved in the Presbyterian attack upon episcopacy. Partly as a commercial venture, apparently, and partly from disinterested motives he imported an anti-episcopal book from the Netherlands for sale in England. For this he was examined by the Star Chamber and was fined, pilloried, and imprisoned. In this ordeal he showed the bellicose and litigious character, and the insistence upon the rights of "free-born" Englishmen, that marked his whole public career. Lilburne was liberated by the Long Parliament and entered the Parliamentary Army, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. But his religious convictions were Independent and he refused to accept the Presbyterian Covenant imposed by Parliament in 1645. He quit the Army and immediately became a center of opposition to constituted government. He continued his subversive activities, in and out of prison, for most of the remainder of his life.

But Lilburne was by no means the only Leveller leader. Closely associated with him was Richard Overton, who in 1643 published a little book called Man's Mortality, which argued from a materialistic philosophy like that of Hobbes that the soul does not survive death. From Overton's teaching arose the sect of "soul-sleepers." John Wildman was active in the Leveller agitation in its period of greatest activity from 1647 to 1649, and thereafter had a chequered career as insurrectionist, Royalist agent, and Cromwellian spy. Edward Sexby was perhaps the ablest of the Agitators in the Leveller period; he later came to believe that the Stuarts might be used to advance the Leveller cause, and in 1657 he acted as intermediary in the Royalist plot against Cromwell for which Sindercomb was convicted. Sexby was author, or co-author with Titus, of the pamphlet Killing No Murder (1657), which advocated the assassination of Cromwell. William Walwyn was a retired merchant of London who appeared in all the radical intellectual movements. He taught rationalism and free inquiry and welcomed the religious experiments of the period. With Lilburne, Overton, and Thomas Prince, he was jailed by the Council of State in 1649.

Underlying the thinking of men as different as Lilburne, Overton, and Walwyn were two common assumptions, the basic assumptions of all the radical religious sects. First was the belief in the utility of free inquiry, which expressed itself in the demand for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. In its extreme form this led to the Quaker doctrine of the inner light. Second was the expectation of a glorious outcome, of a new and brighter day about to dawn. This optimism took various forms. There was a belief in an impending revelation of new religious truths for which men should seek and hold themselves in readiness. Cromwell was forever talking of new dispensations. When this idea was translated to the political field, it meant the imminent achievement of liberty from "Norman bondage." Milton gave the most eloquent expression of the radical creed in his Areopagitica, which describes the vision of an England "purging and unsealing her undazzled eyes at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance," while those that love the twilight "flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble prognosticate a year of sects and schisms."

The political creed of the Levellers was the logical outcome of the argument adopted by Parliament at the opening of the wars. Political power derived from the people. The king therefore held his power in trust and was responsible to Parliament for its misuse. Thus far went Pym and his associates of the Long Parliament. But as early as 1646 the Levellers took a more radical step; they declared that kingship was incompatible with the liberty of the people. Moreover they interpreted the consent of the people to imply manhood suffrage. As Colonel Rainsborough, whose mysterious death was laid by the Levellers at the door of Cromwell and Ireton, told the Council of the Army, "The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he." With the demand for political equality went the attack upon the privileges of the nobility and the power of the House of Lords. Finally Parliament itself, according to the Levellers, was a mere trustee for the people and might not deny to them the rights of freeborn Englishmen. We can trace the stages by which these propositions were formulated into the proposed constitution called the Agreement of the People.

The first significant document is A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, and other Free-born People of England, to their own House of Commons. This was written in 1646, apparently by Richard Overton.1 It reminds the Commons that they have been chosen only to exercise a power in trust, and rebukes them for ignoring that trust. The continual oppressors of the nation have been kings, yet the Parliament flatters Charles and begs him to return to his royal office. The people expect Parliament to denounce him as an enemy and to declare its resolution never to have any more kings. Likewise the Commons should affirm that the House of Lords has no voice in legislation and should relieve the commoners from the oppressions of the Lords. The Commons have opened the printing presses only to Presbyterians; this is an imposition on consciences. The laws of the land, the courts and lawyers are vexatious and abusive. Imprisonment for debts is un-Christian; and to press men for war is to enslave them.

And therefore our advice is, that ye order a meeting for the choosing of Parliament-men, to be expressly upon one certain day in November yearly throughout the land in the places accustomed, and to be by you expressed, there to make choice of whom they think good, according to law, and all men that have a right to be there, not to fail upon a great penalty, but no summons to be expected. ...

And that a Parliament, so chosen in November, succeeding year by year, may come instead of the preceding Parliament, and proceed with the affairs of the commonwealth; nor would we have it in the power of our Parliament, to remove any member from his place or service of the House, without the consent had of those counties, cities and boroughs respectively that chose him; great inconveniences depending thereon, whereof we have seen and felt too much.

Until 1647 the movement was largely a civilian affair. Its leaders were the authors of manifestoes and petitions — Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn, and others; the followers were the radical sectarians of London. But there was close contact between the gathered churches and the men in the ranks of the New Model Army, and Lilburne's doctrines won many adherents among the common soldiers. The selection of the Agitators gave expression to the opinions of the radical soldiers and led to the further extension of Lilburne's influence in the Army.

In the spring of 1647 relations between the Army and the Presbyterian House of Commons were strained. The officers were afraid the Parliament would make a settlement inconsistent with their interests and beliefs. The common soldiers were resentful because Parliament had failed to provide adequate indemnity for acts committed during the war and was attempting to disband the Army without paying the arrears of wages due. On April 27, 1647, eight regiments agreed each to choose two Agitators or agents to watch over their interests and to make representations to authority on their behalf. The practice spread; soon there was an entire organization of Agitators, a sort of soldiers' soviet, disseminating radical ideas and laying plans for collective action by the Army.

The officers were obliged to recognize the Agitators. On June 5 the entire Army accepted the Solemn Engagement. This was a declaration to the nation that the Army would permit itself to be disbanded as soon as Parliament offered the soldiers satisfaction of their grievances and security against oppression by their enemies in Parliament. More important, it provided that the proposals of Parliament should be approved or rejected by majority vote of a General Council of the Army, which was to consist of two Agitators and two commissioned officers from each regiment and those of the general officers who accepted the Engagement. This arrangement was probably more advantageous to the officers than to the Agitators, for the Council was to meet only when General Fairfax summoned it, and the Agitators, even though they had sympathizers among the officers, were in the minority.

Ireton framed the Engagement, probably with the assistance of Cromwell and Lambert. The same authors produced the Representation from Sir Thomas Fairfax and the Army nine days later. This was addressed to Parliament. The Army appealed to the law of nature to justify its insubordination. It demanded the ouster from Parliament of persons who for delinquency, corruption, abuse of the state, or undue election ought not to sit, and also of the eleven members guilty of misrepresenting the Army to the Parliament. Since the House of Commons possessed the legislative power, which was supreme and arbitrary, its members should sit only for a limited term. Parliament should be chosen and meet at a regular time, and be dissolved at its own rather than the king's pleasure. The representation of decayed towns in the House of Commons gave "men of power" the opportunity to frame parties to promote particular interests, to the detriment of the common interest; therefore the seats should be reapportioned among the communities according to the taxes paid, or by some such rule. When the king should agree to a bill establishing these and other reforms, his rights should be taken into consideration and settled in a way consistent with the freedom and security of the people. Finally, indulgence should be given to tender consciences. The subsequent negotiations between Army, Parliament, King, and Scots were too intricate to be recounted here. Fortunately, it is possible to trace the course of constitutional discussion in the Army without detailed reference to events. Ireton now busied himself with the Heads of the Proposals for the settlement of the kingdom. Parliament was to meet biennially, not to sit more than 240 days nor to be adjourned in less than 120. The representation of decayed towns in the Commons was to be apportioned among the counties in proportion to their share of the tax burden. Commoners were not to be tried or imprisoned by the Lords on their sole authority. For ten years the control of the militia was to be in the two Houses, and after that time in the King with the advice and consent of Parliament. The great officers for the kingdom should be chosen by Parliament for ten years, and thereafter when a vacancy occurred Parliament was to nominate three candidates from whom the King might choose one. For seven years the King's Privy Council was to consist of persons selected by the present Parliament.

The Heads of the Proposals was accepted by the General Council of the Army. However, many of the common soldiers were impatient at the temporizing and the conservatism of the Council. Five regiments, believing that their Agitators had been corrupted by the officers, elected new ones, and these in October published a manifesto called The Case of the Army Truly Stated. Ireton charged that Wildman was the author; however that may be, the document demonstrates the complete conjunction of Lilburne's faction with the Agitators. The demand was for a democratic government. Power was in the whole body of the people of the nation. Therefore Parliaments should be chosen by manhood suffrage, excluding delinquents. Neither King nor Lords were to have any share in government. The present Parliament must dissolve within nine or ten months and make way for a constant succession of biennial Parliaments.

The sponsors of the Case of the Army then proceeded to frame an Agreement of the People, which was to be offered to all the people of the nation for subscription. This first Agreement was a brief document. It called for reapportionment of seats in proportion to population. The present Parliament was to dissolve on September 30, 1648, and thereafter biennial Parliaments were to be chosen to sit for a fixed time. King and Lords were tacitly abolished. All power was declared to be in a popular Representative, except for the rights which the people expressly or impliedly reserved to themselves. There were five such reserved rights: there was to be no power over consciences; no man was to be impressed to serve in war; all were to have indemnity for actions in the wars save those under judgment of the present House of Commons; there was to be no privilege from equal operation of the law; and, "as the laws ought to be equal, so they must be good, and not evidently destructive to the safety and well-being of the people."

On October 28 the Agitators of the five regiments presented the Agreement to the General Council as a substitute for the Heads of the Proposals. Wildman and other civilian supporters of the Agreement were permitted to be present. The debate was hot. Ireton protested that the notion of natural rights would undermine all law and property. Government belonged to those that "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."2 It was to settle power thus that the war had been fought. To this the Agitator Sexby replied that "it would have been good in you to have advertised us of it, and I believe you would have had fewer under your command to have commanded." On November 3, while the Council was still considering the Agreement, the five regiments published the text, announcing that it had received the concurrence of eleven other regiments and more would follow, and inviting the subscription of the general public. The Council debated the Agreement until November 9, when it adjourned to prepare for a general rendezvous of the Army announced for the fifteenth. In this debate the Agitators succeeded in carrying a vote for manhood suffrage but for no other part of the Agreement. The officers, fearing the temper of the soldiers, divided the Army and held three separate rendezvous. There were demonstrations for the Agreement of the People, but Cromwell faced the soldiers down and carried the day.

It was about this time that the term "Leveller" was first used to describe the party of the Lilburnites and the Agitators. Lilburne himself charged Cromwell and Ireton with fastening the name upon the faction in order to make it odious to the people. Lilburne preferred to call his party "the Agreers of the People." It was not until 1659 that the Levellers accepted the name by which they were commonly known.

The Levellers could exercise influence on Army policy only when the officers were at odds with Parliament. The Scotch invasion and the Royalist risings of 1648 caused the Army and the Parliament to draw together. But in the fall of 1648, when peace had been restored, the Presbyterian Parliament reopened negotiations with Charles. Ireton, Cromwell, and Harrison realized that an agreement between the King and the Parliament would make the position of the Army untenable. The dissolution of Parliament seemed to be the only course open, but before undertaking it they must secure the consent of the Levellers, who by virtue of their influence in the Army and in London held the balance of power between the officers and Parliament. Ireton undertook to win the Council of War to his view and at the same time opened negotiations with Lilburne. Lilburne and his friends agreed to countenance the action only if an Agreement of the People were framed and offered to the Army and the people. Ireton acceded to this demand and also permitted Lilburne to introduce modifications in the resolution he had drafted for the Council of War.

This resolution was entitled A Remonstrance of His Excellency, Thomas Lord Fairfax ... and of the General Council of Officers Held at St. Albans. On November 18 the Council adopted the Remonstrance and voted to send it to Parliament. The proposals of the Remonstrance were a curious medley of the ideas of Ireton and Lilburne. They called upon the Parliament to bring the king to trial for his crimes. There was to be no king in the future unless chosen by the Commons, nor should he possess a negative voice in legislation. There should be a certain succession of Parliaments, annual or biennial, with secure provision for the certainty of their meeting, sitting, and ending. There should be a reapportionment of seats "to render the House of Commons, as near as may be, an equal Representative of the whole people electing." This Representative was to possess supreme legislative power, and the ordinary government of the people was to be carried out by administrative officers following fixed rules. However, the Representative was not to be entrusted with power to question anyone for actions performed during the late wars and public differences except those already under censure for serving the king, nor might it "render up, or give or take away, any of the foundations of common right, liberty, or safety contained in this settlement and agreement." Specific reference was made to an Agreement embodying the settlement, subscription to which was to be the condition of holding office or claiming benefit under the Agreement.

As Ireton no doubt expected, the House of Commons refused to act on the Remonstrance. On November 30 the Army published a Declaration in which it announced that it was marching to London, "there to follow Providence as God shall clear our way." The Declaration invited those members of the House who had remained faithful to their trust to take refuge with the Army, which would acknowledge them as the lawful power until a more formal settlement could be made. The Independent members of the House, however, would consent to a purge but not a dissolution. Accordingly, on December 6 Colonel Pride arrested the Presbyterian members as they sought to enter the House.

The task of framing an Agreement of the People had been entrusted to a committee consisting of four Levellers, four officers, four civilian Independents, and four members of the House. The Levellers did the actual writing, but they were obliged to modify their proposals in order to win the approval of the committee. Eventually a compromise version was ratified by a majority of the members. Lilburne presented the text of the Agreement in a pamphlet entitled Foundations of Freedom published on December 10. The Agreement stipulated that the Parliament should dissolve on or before April 30, 1649. In the future the Representative of the nation was to consist of 300 members, chosen from districts recited in the instrument. The electors were to be "natives or denizens of England, such as have subscribed this Agreement, not persons receiving alms, but such as are assessed ordinarily towards the relief of the poor; not servants to, or receiving wages from, any particular person." Executive power was to be in the hands of a Council of State chosen by the Representative. Eight limits were placed on the Representative: there was to be no compulsion in religion; men should not be impressed to serve in war; no one should be further questioned for actions performed during the wars; no privilege of exemption from the laws should be given in the future; all past exemptions were to be void; the Representative should not meddle with the execution of the laws, except to call public officers to account; no member of a future Representative might hold another post at the same time, saying that of member of the Council of State; no Representative should render up, or give, or take away the foundations of common right, liberty, or safety contained in the Agreement, or level men's estates, destroy property, or make all things common.

The Agreement was referred to the Council of Officers and was debated extensively there. Modifications were introduced, the most important of which was a great narrowing of the provision for religious toleration. Lilburne disowned the Agreement as it left the officers' hands. Nevertheless it was presented to the House of Commons on January 20, 1649. There it was laid to sleep.

The officers were now able to dispense with the Levellers. An attempt was made in February to revive the Agitators and the Council of the Army, but the officers refused to permit it. Mutinies of the Leveller soldiers in April and May were suppressed. On May 1 Lilburne published another Agreement of the People in which manhood suffrage was restored and a considerable number of additional limitations were placed on the Representative. Throughout 1649 Leveller tracts continued to appear, but the circumstances which had made the party important no longer existed. Individual Levellers played prominent parts in the 1650's, and there was a kind of Leveller revival in 1659. One Leveller, Richard Rumbold, participated in the Rye House Plot in 1683; John Wildman actually attained a knighthood under William and Mary.

There were two great, and indeed fatal, flaws in the Leveller scheme. The first error was the assumption that the people of England would consent to a democratic government. Cromwell knew better. When Ludlow in 1656 told Cromwell his government was not legitimate because it was not based on consent, Cromwell replied, "I am as much for a government by consent as any man; but where shall we find that consent? Amongst the prelatical, Presbyterian, Independent, Anabaptist, or Levelling parties?"3 This was unanswerable.

The second weakness was the failure of the Agreement to provide any sanction for its enforcement. It did indeed authorize resistance to any Representative that should violate the Agreement, but as William Ashurst, a Presbyterian member of the House, pointed out, this left every man to judge whether the Agreement was broken: "Therefore every man that will but say they have broken this Agreement, and hath power to make it good, shall not offend, but justify his disobedience, opposing their laws and orders by force."4 The Levellers of 1659 undertook to remedy this by supplying regular machinery for supervision of the Representative.


(1) The pamphlet is attributed to Overton by William Haller, Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution (New York, 1938), III, Pt. II, p. 349.

(2) A. S. P. Woodhouse, ed., Puritanism and Liberty, Being the Army Debates (1647-1649) from the Clarke Manuscripts (London, 1938), p. 54.

(3) C. H. Firth, ed., The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow (Oxford, 1894), ii, 11.

(4) Reasons against Agreement with a Late Printed Paper, Entitled Foundations of Freedom: Or, The Agreement of the People (London, 1648).


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