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The Putney Debates (1647)

At Putney, the officers of the Parliamentary army debated the Levellers, who proposed that all men of England should have the right to vote. General Ireton represents the Parliamentary Army view.

General Ireton: The exception that lies [in the Leveller proposal to extend voting rights] is this. It is said, they [seats in Parliament] are to be distributed according to the number of the inhabitants; "The people of England" etc. And this doth make me think that the meaning is, that every man that is an inhabitant is to be equally considered, and to have an equal voice in the election of those representers.

Leveller Petty: We judge that all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in elections.

Leveller Rainborough: I desired... that every man that is to live under that 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 hath not a voice to put himself under....

Ireton: . . . I think that. . .no person hath a right to this that hath not a permanent fixed interest [i.e. landed property] in this kingdom, and those persons together are properly the represented in this kingdom, and consequently are to make up the representers of this kingdom, who taken together do comprehend whatsoever is of real or permanent interest in the kingdom.... We talk of birthright. Truly [by] birthright there is thus much claim. Men may justly have by birthright, by their very being born in England, that we should not seclude them out of England, that we should not refuse to give them air and place and ground, and the freedom of the highways and other things, to live amongst us - not any man that is born here, though by his birth there come nothing at all (that is part of the permanent interest of this kingdom) to him. That I think is due to a man by birth. But that by a man's being born here he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of lands here, and of all things here, I do not think it a sufficient ground....

Rainborough: Truly, sir, I am of the same opinion I was, and am resolved to keep it till I know reason why I should not. . . . 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. . . . I do not find anything in the law of God, that a lord shall choose twenty burgesses, and a gentleman but two, or a poor man shall choose none; I find no such thing in the law of nature, nor in the law of nations. But I do find that all Englishmen must be subject to English laws, and I do verily believe that there is no man but will say that the foundation of all law lies in the people....

Ireton: All the main thing that I speak for, is because I would have an eye to property. . . . He that is here today, and gone tomorrow, I do not see that he hath such a permanent interest. Since you cannot plead to it by anything but the law of nature, [or for anything] but for the end of better being, and [since] the better being is not certain, and [what is] more, destructive to another; upon these grounds, if you do, paramount [to] all constitutions, hold up this law of nature, I would fain have any man show me their bounds, where you will end, and [why you should not] take away all property.

Rainborough: To the thing itself -- property. I would fain know how it comes to be the property [of some men and not of others].... I deny that it is a property, to a lord, to a gentleman, to any man more than to another in the kingdom of England.... And I would fain know what we have fought for. [For our laws and liberties?] And this is the old law of England -- that which enslaves the people of England -- that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all!...

Ireton: If you admit any man that hath a breath and being, I did show you how this will destroy property. It may come to destroy property thus. You may have such men chosen, or at least the major part of them, [as have no local and permanent interest]. Why may not those men vote against all property? You may admit strangers by this rule, if you admit them once to inhabit, and those that have interest in the land may be voted out of their land....

Leveller Wildman: Our case is to be considered thus, that we have been under slavery. That's acknowledged by all. Our very laws were made by our conquerors.... We are now engaged for our freedom. That's the end of Parliaments: not to constitute what is already [established, but to act] according to the just rules of government. . . And therefore I should humbly move, that if the question be stated -- which would soonest bring things to an issue -- it might be thus: whether any person can justly be bound by law, who doth not give his consent that such persons shall make laws for him?

Ireton: Let the question be so: whether a man can be bound to any law that he doth not consent to? And I shall tell you, that he may and ought to be [bound to a law] that he doth not give a consent to, nor doth not choose any [to consent to] and I will make it clear. If a foreigner come within this kingdom, if that stranger will have liberty [to dwell here].... It is a piece of hospitality, of humanity to receive that man amongst us. But if that man be received to a being amongst us, I think that man may very well be content to submit himself to a law of the land; that is, the law that is made by those people who have a property, a fixed property, in the land. . . .

Question: What is the basic argument of each side?