Camped between two epochs in English history and two factions in a civil war, the New Model Army debates republicanism, slavery, and freedom.

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

As the New Model Army camped at Putney from October 28 to November 11, 1647, the soldiers stood between two epochs in English history. At Hampton Palace, southwest of London, King Charles I and England’s feudal past wallowed under house arrest. The King’s Cavalier army had won a few victories, but decidedly lost the First English Civil War. The victorious Parliament occupied Westminster in the capitol. From there, they now directed England’s evolving interests in corporate and colonial capitalism. Cromwell and his leadership corps of Grandees in the Parliament and Army did not necessarily want to remove the King–much less kill him–nor did they want to dissolve his special powers and privileges. Rather, they wanted a greater share in the absolutist take.

Since their arrival on the throne after Elizabeth’s death, the Stuarts had attempted to aggrandize royal power to dangerous new levels. Charles had even experimented with solitary royal governance; though playing the part of a continental monarch was difficult without Parliament’s power to tax. Without modern taxes laid on a modern imperial population, the king could raise neither armies nor ships. The hydra of rebellion drew strength from the void–first in Scotland in 1639, then spontaneously throughout the countryside over the next two decades. The Scots were resisting Charles’ attempts to impose a uniform Anglicanism throughout his empire. Unable to crush the rebels, Charles summoned Parliament and requested funding. They refused, and war seemed imminent. The country quickly divided into Royalists and Commonwealthmen. After years of the bloodiest warfare in English history, the many factions gathering at Putney debated what now remained to be done.

In our first of five selections from the debates at Putney, the contest concludes its first day. The primary issue at hand was the extension of suffrage; the primary actors are future Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, Cromwell’s son‐​in‐​law General Ireton, and the Leveller champion chosen from the Army’s ranks, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough. Cromwell’s leadership called for the debate in response to the army’s own spontaneous organization, publications, and bottom‐​up reformism. From the start, the Cromwellian plan appears to be coopt what they can, ignore the rest, and use the continued state of crisis as an excuse to conclude these arcane, philosophical debates on the natures of freedom and slavery.


…I am far from holding that if a man have engaged himself to a thing that is not just—to a thing that is evil, that is sin if he do it—that that man is still bound to perform what he hath promised; I am far from apprehending that. But when we talk of just, it is not so much of what is sinful before God (which depends upon many circumstances of indignation to that man and the like), but it intends of that which is just according to the foundation of justice between man and man. And for my part I account that the great foundation of justice, [that we should keep covenant one with another]; without which I know nothing of [justice] betwixt man and man —[in] particular matters I mean, nothing in particular things that can come under human engagement one way or other. There is no other foundation of right I know, of right to [any] one thing from another man, no foundation of that [particular] justice or that [particular] righteousness, but this general justice, and this general ground of righteousness, that we should keep covenant one with another. Covenants freely made, freely entered into, must be kept one with another. Take away that, I do not know what ground there is of anything you can call any man’s right. I would very fain know what you gentlemen, or any other, do account the right you have to anything in England—anything of estate, land or goods, that you have, what ground, what right you have to it. What right hath any man to anything if you lay not [down] that principle, that we are to keep covenant? If you will resort only to the Law of Nature, by the Law of Nature you have no more right to this land, or anything else, than I have. I have as much right to take hold of anything that is for my sustenance, [to] take hold of anything that I have a desire to for my satisfaction, as you. But here comes the foundation of all right that I understand to be betwixt men, as to the enjoying of one thing or not enjoying of it: we are under a contract, we are under an agreement, and that agreement is what a man has for matter of land that he hath received by a traduction from his ancestors, which according to the law does fall upon him to be his right. That [agreement is] that he shall enjoy, he shall have the property of, the use of, the disposing of [the land], with submission to that general authority which is agreed upon amongst us for the preserving of peace, and for the supporting of this law. This I take to be [the foundation of all right] for matter of land. For matter of goods, that which does fence me from that [right] which another man may claim by the Law of Nature, of taking my goods, that which makes it mine really and civilly, is the law. That which makes it unlawful originally and radically is only this: because that man is in covenant with me to live together in peace one with another, and not to meddle with that which another is possessed of, but that each of us should enjoy, and make use of, and dispose of, that which by the course of law is in his possession, and [another] shall not by violence take it away from him. This is the foundation of all the right any man has to anything but to his own person. This is the general thing: that we must keep covenant one with another when we have contracted one with another. And if any difference arise among us, it shall be thus and thus: that I shall not go with violence to prejudice another, but with submission to this way. And therefore when I hear men speak of laying aside all engagements to [consider only] that wild or vast notion of what in every man’s conception is just or unjust, I am afraid and do tremble at the boundless and endless consequences of it. What [are the principles] you apply to this paper? You say, ‘If these things in this paper, in this engagement, be just, then’—say you—‘never talk of any [prior] engagement, for if anything in that engagement be against this, your engagement was unlawful; consider singly this paper, whether it be just.’ In what sense do you think this is just? There is a great deal of equivocation [as to] what is just and unjust.


Mr. Wildman says, if we tarry long, if we stay but three days before you satisfy one another, the King will come and say who will be hanged first.


Sir, I was saying this: we shall much deceive ourselves, and be apt to deceive others, if we do not consider that there are two parts of justice. There may be a thing just that is negatively [so], it is not unjust, not unlawful—that which is not unlawful, that’s just to me to do if I be free. Again, there is another sense of just when we account such a thing to be a duty—not only a thing lawful, ‘we may do it,’ but it’s a duty, ‘you ought to do it.’ And there is a great deal of mistake if you confound these two…

If the things engaged to were lawful to be done, or lawful for me to engage to, then [I] by my engagement am bound to [perform] it. On the other hand, if the thing were not lawful for me to engage, or [if it were] a duty for me to have done to the contrary, then I am not bound positively and actively to perform it. Nay, I am bound not to perform it, because it was unlawful [and] unjust by another engagement. But when I engage to another man, and he hath a prejudice by believing, I not performing it, I am bound to repair that man as much as may be, and let the prejudice fall upon myself and not upon any other. This I desire we may take notice of, on that part, to avoid fallacy. For there is [an] extremity to say, on the one hand, that if a man engage what is not just he may act against it so as to regard no relation or prejudice; [as] there’s an extremity for a man to say, on the other hand, that whatsoever you engage, though it be never so unjust, you are to stand to it.

One word more to the other part which Mr. Wildman doth hold out as a dangerous principle acting amongst us, that we must be bound to active obedience to any power acting amongst men—

Wildman [interrupting]:

You repeat not the principle right—‘To think that we are bound so absolutely to personal obedience to any magistrates or personal authority, that if they work to our destruction we may not oppose them.’


That we may not deceive ourselves again [by arguments] that are fallacious in that kind, I am a little affected to speak in this, because I see that, [in] those things the Army hath declared, the abuse and misapplication of them hath led many men into a great and dangerous error and destructive to all human society. Because the Army hath declared, in those cases where the foundation of all that right and liberty of the people is (if they have any), that in these cases they will insist upon that right, and that they will not suffer that original and fundamental right to be taken away, and because the Army, when there hath been a command of that supreme authority, the Parliament, have not obeyed it, but stood upon it to have this fundamental right settled first, and [have] required a rectification of the supreme authority of the kingdom—therefore, for a man to infer [that] upon any particular [issue] you may dispute that authority by what is commanded, whether [it] is just or unjust, [this would be the end of all government]. If in your apprehension [it is unjust, you are] not to obey (and so far it is well); and if it tend to your loss, [it is no doubt unjust, and you are] to oppose it!

Wildman [interrupting]:

If it tend to my destruction—that was the word I spoke.


Let us take heed that we do not maintain this principle [till it] leads to destruction. If the case were so visible as those cases the Army speaks of, of a general’s turning the cannon against the army, the bulk and body of the army, or [of] a pilot that sees a rock [and] does by the advantage of the stern put the ship upon’t; if you could propose cases as evident as these are, there is no man but would agree with you. But when men will first put in those terms of destruction, they will imagine anything a destruction if there could be anything better [for them]; and so it is very easy and demonstrable that things are counted so abhorred and destructive, when at the utmost a man should make it out by reason, that men would be in a better condition if it be not done, than if it be done. And though I cannot but subscribe to [it], that in such a visible way I may hold the hands of those that are in authority as I may the hands of a madman; yet that no man shall think himself [bound] to acquiesce particularly, and to suffer for quietness’ sake, rather than to make a disturbance (or to raise a power, if he can, to make a disturbance) in the state—I do apprehend and appeal to all men whether there be not more folly or destructiveness in the spring of that principle than there can be in that other principle of holding passive obedience. Now whatsoever we have declared in the Army [declarations], it is no more but this. The Parliament hath commanded us [to do] this; we have said, no. First we have insisted upon [the] fundamental rights of the people. We have said, we desire [first] to have the constitution of the supreme authority of this kingdom reduced to that constitution which is due to the people of this kingdom, and, reducing the authority to this, we will submit to it, we will acquiesce, we will cast our share into this common bottom; and if it go ill with us at one time, it will go well at another. The reducing of the supreme authority to that constitution, by successive election, as near as may be, we have insisted upon as an essential right of the kingdom; and no man can accuse the Army of disobedience, or holding forth a principle of disobedience, upon any other ground.


Let me speak a word to this business. We are now upon that business which we spake of consulting with God about, and therefore for us to dispute the merit of those things, I judge it altogether unseasonable unless you will make it the subject of debate before you consider it among yourselves. The business of the Engagement lies upon us. They [claim that they] are free in a double respect: they made none; and if they did, then the way out is now, and [it is a way] which all the members of the Army, except they be sensible of it, [may take], and, at one jump, jump out of all [engagements]. And it is a very great jump, I will assure you. As we profess we intend to seek the Lord in the thing, the less we speak in it [now] the better, and the more we cast ourselves upon God the better.

I shall only speak two things to Mr. Wildman in order to our meeting. Methought he said, if there be delay he fears this business will be determined, the propositions will be sent from the Parliament, and the Parliament and King agree, and so those gentlemen that were in that mind to go on in their way, will be cut off in point of time to their own disadvantage. And the other thing he said was that these gentlemen who have chosen Mr. Wildman, and that other gentleman, to be their mouth at this meeting to deliver their minds, they are, upon the matter, engaged by what they have resolved upon, and they come as engaged men upon their own resolution. If that be so, I think there neither needs consideration of the former [nor the latter]. For you will not be anticipated. If that be so, you [can] work accordingly. And though you meet us, yet, having that resolution in your way, you cannot be prevented by any proposition, or any such thing; [even] though we should have come hither [with propositions] and we should [not] meet to‐​morrow as a company of men that really would be guided by God.

…If we may come to an honest and single debate, how we may all agree in one common way for public good; if we [may] meet so, we shall meet with a great deal the more comfort, and hopes of a good and happy issue, and understanding of the business. But if otherwise, I despair of the meeting; or at least I would have the meeting to be of another notion, a meeting that did represent the Agitators of five regiments to give rules to the Council of War. If it signify this, for my own part I shall be glad to submit to it under this notion. If it be a free debate what may be fit for us all to do, with clearness and openness before the Lord, and in that sincerity, let us understand [it], that we may come and meet so. Otherwise, I do verily believe, we shall meet with prejudice, and we shall meet to prejudice—really to the prejudice of the kingdom, and of the whole Army—if we be thus absolutely resolved upon our way and engaged beforehand. The kingdom will see it is such a real actual division as admits of no reconciliation, and all those that are enemies to us, and friends to our enemies, will have the clearer advantage upon us to put us into inconveniency. And I desire if there be any fear of God among us, I desire that we may declare ourselves freely, that we do meet upon these terms.


I wish that the motion of Lieutenant‐​Colonel Goffe might have taken effect, not only to the time and place for meeting, [but without further preliminary] as he desired. But, sir, since it is gone thus far, and since I hear much of fallacy talked of, I fear it as much on the one side as the other. It is made a wonder of, that some gentlemen without should have principles to break engagements, yet [no wonder of], that some gentlemen within should so much insist upon engagements. I do not consider myself as jumping, but yet I hope when I leap I shall take so much of God with me, and so much of just and right with me, as I shall jump sure. But I am more unsatisfied against [another of] those things that have been said, and that is as to another engagement. For all that hath been said hath been [as to engagements] between party and party: if two men should make an agreement and the like, and there were no living one with another if those engagements were not made [good]. Yet I think under favour that some engagements may be broke. No man takes a wife but there is an engagement, and I think that a man ought to keep it; yet if another man that had married her before claims her, he ought to let him have her and so break the engagement. But whereas it is told [us that] this engagement is of another nature, that the party to whom we make the engagement relied upon [it], and becomes thereby prejudiced, [and so] we ought to take it rather upon ourselves than to leave it upon them—this may serve in a particular case: if any men here will suffer they may. But if we will make ourselves a third party, and engage between King and Parliament, [it is not a particular case], and I am of that gentleman’s mind that spoke: the King’s party would have been about our ears if we had not made some concessions as concerning them. Here is the consideration now: do we not engage for the Parliament and for the liberties of the people of England, and do we not engage against the King’s party? We have got the better of them in the field, but they shall be masters of our houses. Never were engagements broken more than [as] we do [break them]. We did take up arms with all that took part with the Parliament, and we engaged with them; [but now we are to be engaged to bring the King in]. For my part, it may be thought that I am against the King; I am against him or any power that would destroy God’s people, and I will never be destroyed till I cannot help myself. Is it not an argument, if a pilot run his ship upon a rock, or [if] a general mount his cannon against his army, he is to be resisted? I think that this [is] as clear[ly] the very case as anything in the world. For clearly the King and his party could not have come in upon those terms that he is [to] come in [on], if this very Army did not engage for him; and I verily think that the House had not made another address, if it had not been said that it was the desire of the Army and the Army were engaged to it. Therefore, I say, I hope men will have charitable opinions of other men. For my part, I think I shall never do anything against conscience, and I shall have those hopes of others. That which is dear unto me is my freedom. It is that I would enjoy, and I will enjoy if I can…