An Agreement of the People was a series of manifestos, published between 1647 and 1649, for constitutional changes to the English state. Several versions of the Agreement were published, each adapted to address not only broad concerns but also specific issues during the fast changing revolutionary political environment of those years. The Agreements of the People have been most associated as the manifestos of the Levellers but were also published by the Agitators and the General Council of the New Model Army.
Major published versions of the Agreement include:
"An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right", presented to the Army Council in October 1647.
"An Agreement of the People of England, and the places therewith incorporated, for a secure and present peace, upon grounds of common right, freedom and safety", presented to the Rump Parliament in January 1649.
"AN AGREEMENT OF THE Free People of England. Tendered as a Peace-Offering to this distressed Nation", extended version from the Leveller leaders, "Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburne, Master William Walwyn, Master Thomas Prince, and Master Richard Overton, Prisoners in the Tower of London, May the 1. 1649."
Soon after the First English Civil War, the Agreement was the subject of the Putney Debates in 1647. The major tenets of this first version of the Agreement were: freedom of religion, the frequent convening of a new Parliaments and equality for all under the law. These tenets also appeared in the later versions of the manifesto. As these basic proposals were queried, other provisions were added; for example Roman Catholics were exempt from the right to religious freedom, and the electorate was to be made up of adult male property holders. The Levellers hoped to base England's new constitution on the Agreement of the People, but in the end, the New Model Army based their demands on an alternative less revolutionary document, the Heads of Proposals, that was proposed and supported by the Grandees (senior officers) of the Army.
The Putney Debates
he Putney Debates were a series of discussions between factions of the New Model Army and the Levellers concerning a new constitution for England. The debates were held at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney, Surrey, in October and November 1647.
During the summer of 1647, the attempts by the "Grandees" Cromwell and Ireton to negotiate a settlement with King Charles in the aftermath of the First Civil War had lost them the support of military and civilian radicals. The Levellers criticised Ireton in particular for servility in his negotiations with the King and Parliament, and accused the Grandees of betraying the interests of the common soldiers and people of England. In October 1647, five of the most radical cavalry regiments elected new Agitators — known as the "New Agents" — to represent their views. The New Agents issued a political manifesto: The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, and endorsed the constitutional proposals drafted by civilian Levellers in the Agreement of the People. The radicals wanted a constitution based upon manhood suffrage ("one man, one vote"), biennial Parliaments and a reorganisation of parliamentary constituencies. Authority was to be vested in the House of Commons rather than the King and Lords. Certain "native rights" were declared sacrosanct for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment into the armed forces and equality before the law.
The Grandees responded by inviting the New Agents and their civilian supporters to debate their proposals before the General Council of the Army. In the absence of General Fairfax, the discussions were chaired by Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell. A committee was formed to finalise all constitutional proposals. Cromwell vetoed demands made by radicals who called for the overthrow of the Monarchy, and worked with Commissary-General Henry Ireton to moderate the extremism of the Levellers. Ireton insisted that his own Heads of the Proposals covered all the issues raised in the Case of the Armie and the Levellers' Agreement with far less radical disruption of society. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough emerged as the highest-ranking Leveller sympathiser, calling for Parliament to break off negotiations with the King and to force through a new constitution on its own terms. Other Leveller spokesmen were the Agitators Edward Sexby and William Allen, and civilians John Wildman and Maximilian Petty.
The debates began on 28 October 1647. For three days, the proceedings were transcribed verbatim by the secretary William Clarke and a team of stenographers. From 2 November, however, all recording ceased. The debates were not reported and Clarke's minutes were not published at the time. They were lost until 1890 when they were rediscovered at the library of Worcester College, Oxford, by the historian C.H. Firth and subsequently published as part of the Clarke Papers.
Much of the recorded debate centred around the franchise. The radicals regarded the right to vote as fundamental to all freeborn Englishmen — a right which had been acquired by fighting for English freedom in the civil war. Cromwell and Ireton, however, regarded the idea of manhood suffrage as tantamount to anarchy. To the indignation of the radicals, they insisted that the vote should be restricted to property owners, prompting Sexby, Rainsborough and others to ask what it was that the ordinary soldiers had been fighting for. After several days spent in heated debate, both sides appeared willing to compromise to a certain extent. The Levellers agreed that servants and alms-takers should be excluded from the franchise; the Grandees conceded that soldiers who had fought for Parliament should be granted the vote.
Although the Army Council did not carry the Levellers' proposal that the Agreement of the People should be adopted as the Army's official constitutional programme, a vote was secured for a mass rendezvous at which the Agreement would be presented to the troops. The radicals hoped that it would be adopted by popular consent of the soldiers, then pressed upon Parliament and the nation. However, Cromwell and Ireton were alarmed at the extremism of the Levellers. Fearing a collapse of constitutional authority, Cromwell was determined to maintain discipline in the Army at all costs. On 8 November, he proposed and carried a motion that the meeting of the Army Council should be temporarily suspended. The Agitators and representative officers were ordered back to their regiments. A new committee, consisting only of officers, was formed to draw up a manifesto in the name of Fairfax and the Army Council to be presented to the troops in place of the Levellers' Agreement. The proposed general rendezvous was modified to three smaller reviews — resulting in the near-mutiny at Corkbush Field on 15 November 1647 and the suppression of the Army radicals.
Meanwhile, the escape of King Charles from Hampton Court on 11 November 1647 had dramatically changed the situation. The Army closed ranks as a Second CIvil War threatened. The representation of rank-and-file soldiers on the Army Council was quietly dropped early in 1648, and never tried again.
Commonwealth of England
The Commonwealth of England was the republic which ruled first England, and then Ireland and Scotland from 1649 to 1660. Between 1653–1659 it was known as the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. After the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I, the republic's existence was initially declared by "An Act declaring England to be a Commonwealth" adopted by the Rump Parliament, on 19 May 1649. Executive power had already been entrusted to a Council of State. The government during 1653 to 1659 is properly called The Protectorate, and took the form of direct personal rule by Oliver Cromwell and, after his death, his son Richard, as Lord Protector; this arrangement led to the state being labelled a "crowned republic". The term Commonwealth is, however, loosely used to describe the system of government during the whole of 1649 to 1660, when England was de facto, and arguably de jure, a republic (or, to monarchists, under the English Interregnum).
The Diggers were an English group of Protestant agrarian communists, begun by Gerrard Winstanley as True Levellers in 1649, who became known as Diggers due to their activities.
Their original name came from their belief in economic equality based upon a specific passage in the Book of Acts. The Diggers tried (by "levelling" real property) to reform the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based on their ideas for the creation of small egalitarian rural communities. They were one of a number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around this time.