An Agreement of the People: The Levellers and the Beginnings of English Democracy

One of the most significant but least known political documents from the English Civil War is the manifesto ‘An Agreement of the People’, issued in 1647. It’s full title is ‘An Agreement of the People for a Firm and Present Peace, upon Grounds of Common-Right and Freedom; as It was Proposed by the Agents of the Five Regiments of Horse; and Since by the General Approbation of the Army, Offered to the Joint Concurrence of All Free Commons of England’. The Levellers have been described by the historian David Wootton as the first secular political party defending the inalienable rights of man. The Levellers were primarily concerned to advance and protect freedom of worship. They were active in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and were the first political organisation in English history to have a rudimentary party organisation. They initially demanded that all adult men should have the vote. In the Putney Debates with Cromwell, in which the victorious Parliamentarian Army debated what form of government the new English state should have, they retreated from this to advocate that all male heads of households should have the vote. They also advocated complete freedom of conscience, demanded biannual parliaments and an end to conscription. Their manifesto, An Agreement of the People, is the first time a written constitution, rather than tradition, was recommended as the basis for British government. The Agreement of the People appears to be mostly the work of the great radical theorist, John Lilburne. Like Locke and Hobbes later in the century, their arguments were based on Social Contract theory. While their high opinion of reason looks forward to the radical scepticism of the Enlightenment, nevertheless it was based on the right reason of Christian tradition, synonymous with Christ’s law. They did not attack the churches or organised religion, and believed that salvation was still only through Christ. Despite its specific basis in Christianity, the Levellers and the Agreement of the People remain some of the most basic foundations of modern parliamentary British documentary.

The manifesto states

‘Having by our late labours and hazards made it appear to the world at how high a rate we value our just freedom, and God having so far owned our cause as to deliver the enemies thereof into our hands, we do now hold ourselves bound in mutual duty to each other to take the best care we can for the future, to avoid both he danger of return into a slavish condition, and the chargeable remedy of another war. For as it cannot be imagined that so many of our countrymen would have opposed us in this quarrel if they had understood their good; so may we safely promise to ourselves that when our common rights and liberties shall be cleared, their endeavours will be disappointed that seek to make themselves our masters. Since, therefore, our former oppressions and scarce yet ended troubles have been occasioned, either by want of frequent national meetings in council, or by rendering those meetings ineffectual, we are fully agreed and resolved to provide that hereafter our representatives be neither left to an uncertainty for the time, nor made useless to the ends for which they are intended, in order whereunto we declare,’

Equal Electoral Districts

‘That the people of England, being at this day very unequally distributed by counties, cities, and boroughs for the election of their deputies in parliament, ought to be more indifferently proportioned, according to the number of inhabitants: the circumstances whereof, for number, place, and manner, are to be set down before the end of this present Parliament.’

Parliament to be Held Once Every Two Years

‘That to prevent the many inconveniences apparently arising from the long continuance of the same persons in authority, this present Parliament be dissolved upon the last day of September, which shall be in the year of our Lord, 1648.’

‘That the people do, of course, choose themselves a parliament once in two years, viz., upon the first Thursday in every second March, after the manner as shall be prescribed before the end of this Parliament, to begin to sit upon the first Thursday in April following at Westminster, or such other place as shall be appointed from time to time by the preceding representatives; and to continiue till the last day of September, then next ensuing, and no longer.’

The Power of the State and Its Officers Is Based on the People

That the power of this and all future representatives of this nation is inferior only to theirs who choose them, and does extend, without the consent or concurrence of any other person or persons, abolishing of offices and courts; to the appointing, removing, and calling to account magistrates, and officers of all degrees; to the making war and peace; to the treating with foreign states; and, generally, to whatsoever is not expressly or implicitly reserved by the represented to themselves.

Which are as follows

Freedom of Conscience

‘1. That matters of religion, and the ways of God’s worship, are not at all entrusted by us to any human power, because therein we cannot remit or exceed a title of what our consciences dictate to be the mind of God, without wilful sin: nevertheless, the public way of instructing the nation (so it be not compulsive) is referred to their discretion.’

No Conscription

‘2. That the matter of impressing and constraining any of us to serve in the wars is against our freedom; and therefore we do not allow it in our representatives; the rather, because money (the sinews of war) being always at their disposal, they can never want numbers of men apt enough to engage in any just cause.’

Amnesty after the Cessation of the War

‘3. That after the dissolution of this present Parliament no person be at any time questioned for anything said or done in reference to the late public differences, otherwise than in execution of the judgements of the present representatives, or House of Commons.’

All Citizens to be Equal Under the Law, Regardless of Social Station

‘4. That in all laws made, or to be made, every person may be bound alike, and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place do confer any exception from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected.’

Law and Government to have the People’s Welfare as their Objective

‘5. That 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.

These things we declare to be our native rights, and therefore are agreed and resolved to maintain them with our utmost possibilities, against all opposition whatsoever, being compelled thereunto, not only by the examples of our ancestors, whose blood was often spent in vain for the recovery of their freedoms, suffering themselves, through fraudulent accommodations, to be still deluded of the fruit of their victories, but also by our own woeful experience, who, having long expected, and dearly earned, the establishment of these certain rules of government, are yet made to depend for the settlement of our peace and freedom upon him that intended our bondage, and brought a cruel war upon us.’

The Levellers have also had an influence on Punk rock. The 1980s Punk band, New Model Army, were strongly influenced by the Levellers and their demands for a ‘Godly Reformation’. The merchandise stand at their concerts contained not just the usual rock T-shirts, but also copies of the Bible and the works of the Marxist historian, Christopher Hill, on the English Revolution/ British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. And of course they gave their name to that other rock band, The Levellers, who were originally New Model Army’s support act.

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6 Responses to “An Agreement of the People: The Levellers and the Beginnings of English Democracy”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    And here’s more about early democracy from my bro’s blog.

  2. rainbowwarriorlizzie Says:


  3. Geraldine Mitchell Says:

    I have long been a Ranter myself, ever since reading The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill. Ranting seems to be all I do nowadays……

  4. aussieeh Says:

    I thought this was ingrained in all working class and freemen of this once Great Nation. COMMON SENSE.

  5. Christopher Thompson Says:

    Elliot Vernon and Philip Baker showed in The Historical Journal in 2010 that the first Agreement of the People (1647) was not a Leveller document at all but one produced by Henry Marten, M.P., and his London circle.

  6. beastrabban Says:

    That’s interesting. Nevertheless, even if it was not initially produced by them, it is still one of the great foundational documents of British democracy.

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