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Nov 1, 1647

The Putney Debates: Kings, Lords, and Commons

In our final number from Putney, contenders clash over whether powerful elites or common people are the more likely tyrants.

Editor’s Note

For our final debate at Putney, we join with Colonel Rainsborough in discussing the House of Lords veto over acts passed by the Commons. Ireton, of course, simplifies such a titanic and historic question to a matter of “whether, honour, title, estate, liberty, or life” can survive a concerted assault from the Commons. Take away the king or the lord’s veto and parliament would run wild with agrarian levelling and general misrule. Ireton cleverly begs of Rainsborough: Why would you argue for government by consent from below, but refuse to allow kings and lords any protections from above? If good government is by consent, surely the lordly must also consent to the laws governing them. Certainly the Commons would have nothing to fear from restraining themselves to their own proper sphere and refraining from becoming their own sorts of tyrants.

Rainsborough replies that the wealthy and powerful tend to combine their efforts to protect shared, class interests, and their potential for misdeeds—so often realized in the ugly record we call History—was too great to be left alone. The power must be entirely levelled. When the colonel remarks that it seems as though “the laws that bind the Commons are exclusive of the Lords,” the general responds that all Englishmen are bound to the same laws and all are liable to be seized by a sheriff or officer of the court for lawbreaking. When tried, all Englishmen are adjudged by their peers—and Ireton notes that for the Lords, their peers are other lords. When Rainsborough suggests a simple melding of lordly peers into the same body as their commoner countrymen, Ireton is horrified: mixing the houses into the same democratic body would give the powerful an easy way to both pursue their interest and do so with an eye toward the immediate present. At best, merging the House of Lords into an elective body would give each member a perspective of only two years.

In the last exchange of barbs, General Ireton remarks that whatever government people choose to give themselves is ultimately a just one. The Levellers, their Agitators, and their myriad reformist allies throughout the English-speaking world lost the Putney debates and their version of democracy was not the one we have inherited. It was not because their argument was poor, and it was not because they lost the English Civil War. Their side of the war won, but its victory was thoroughly coopted by military and parliamentary leadership. With nearly four hundred years of experience with the problematic and illusory politics of representation, we may share Wildman’s concluding sentiments: “I am but a single man, I shall venture myself and [my] share in the common bottom.”

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Putney, 1st November 1647…

 

Rainborough  [He moved]: To debate whether or no, when the Commons’ Representative do declare a law, it ought not to pass without the King’s [or the Lords’] consent.

 

Ireton:

Truly this is all [that question amounts to]: whether, honour, title, estate, liberty, or life, [if] the Commons have a mind to take it away by a law, [they may do so]; so that to say you are contented to leave King and Lords all, this [negative] being taken away, is as much as to say you are to allow them nothing. Consider how much of this dispute is saved [by] this that is read to you. It gives the negative voice to the people, that no laws can be made without their consent. And secondly, it takes away the negative voice of the Lords and of the King too, as to what concerns the people; for it says that the Commons of England shall be bound by what judgments and also [by] what orders, ordinances, or laws, shall be made for that purpose by their [representatives]; and all that follows for the King or Lords is this, that the Lords or King are not bound by that law they pass, unless they consent to it for their own persons or estates, as the Commons are. Therefore what [more] is there wanting for the good or safety of the Commons of England?

 

Rainborough:

If the negative voice be taken away [on these terms], then if the King or Lords were taking courses destructive, how should they be prevented?

 

Ireton:

It is further provided, if they will meddle in any other offices, as officers of justice or ministers of state in this kingdom, then they likewise are so far subject to the judgment of the House of Commons. If they only stand as single men, their personal interest and the like [is secured], and the right of being only judged by their peers, and their individual persons [are not bound] by any law that they do not consent to.

 

Rainborough [objected]:

If the Lords should join together by their interest in the kingdom, and should act against the Commons, then the Commons had no way to help themselves.

 

Ireton:

If it comes to a breach of the peace it will come to break some law. The Lords heretofore, [as] to the breaches of peace, have been subject to the common law; only [as] to the matter of fact, whether guilty or not guilty, they must be tried by their peers. We have stood very much for ourselves, that we should be judged by our peers, by our fellow Commoners; I would fain know this: [since] that a Lord is subject to the common law, how we can take away that right of peers to be for the matter of fact, whether guilty or not guilty of the breach of such a law, tried by their peers, when that it is a point of right for the Commons to be tried by their peers.

 

Rainborough:

[It seems then] that the laws that bind the Commons are exclusive of the Lords.

 

Ireton:

I would fain know this: whether the high sheriff in every county of the kingdom [may not apprehend a Lord who shall break the peace]. And I am sure the law hath [thereby] provided for the keeping of the peace. I know that there is no law but [that] the chief justice of the King’s Bench, nay the sheriff of a county, nay the constable of any town, may seize upon him.

 

Rainborough:

If a petty constable or sheriff shall apprehend a peer of the kingdom, [I would know] whether he can answer it?

 

Ireton:

If a Lord shall be accused, and by a jury found guilty, he will expect to be tried by his peers.

We do agree that all the Commons of England are bound [by whatever laws the House of Commons shall pass], but the King and Lords as to their persons are not bound; but if any of them be an officer or minister of state [—and the King is—] then he is to be subject [to the judgment of the House of Commons].

 

Rainborough:

How does it reach the King, and not a Lord?

 

Ireton:

Every Lord is not a minister of justice [to be accountable to the Commons for his official acts], but if there be any other difference they are tried by their peers.

 

Rainborough:

It is offered to make them capable of being chosen.

 

Ireton:

Every Baron, [not disqualified] by the other exception[s], may be chosen.

 

Rainborough:

Is it not so in Scotland?

 

Ireton:

In Scotland every Lord hath his place as burgess.

 

Rainborough:

[I ask], why the Lords should not have the same privilege [to sit as a body with the Commons].

 

Ireton:

I should think [of] that as the directest [way to make their] interest [dangerous] to the kingdom, in the world; for that, for so many persons to be a permanent interest in the House, every two years —

 

Wildman:

I conceive that whilst we thus run into such particulars there is very little probability of coming to satisfaction. The case, as there it is stated in the Agreement, is general; and it will never satisfy the godly people in the kingdom unless that all government be in the Commons, and freely. Truly, I conceive that according to what is there propounded the power of the House of Commons is much lessened—from what it is of right, not [from] what it is now by usurpation of King and Lords. Whereas it’s said that no law shall be made without the consent of the Commons, it doth suppose some other law-makers besides the Representative of the Commons. Whereas it is said that the Lords in some cases should sit as an House of Parliament to consent to laws, [this] doth give them that power which they never had before the wars; for as yourself said of the King’s oath, it says that the King shall consent to such laws as the people shall choose, but the Lords have no power. If there be a liberty to the King to give them a title of honour, they ought to be under all laws, and so they ought to concern them as well as all others; which I conceive is diminished in those particulars. Besides, the general current of the whole offer runs that nothing shall be declared against that usurpation in the King formerly, nor in the Lords formerly, and so it remains perpetually dubious. They shall say, ‘Though it does not concern me in my private [capacity], yet it does in my politic’; and no law can be made but it must be sent to the King and Lords, and that must occasion a review; and so they must have recourse [to the King for their laws], to the unrighteous for righteousness, and so long as it is not clearly declared that he hath no power to deny it, and that they need not address themselves to him, the kingdom cannot be in safety, but his own party may get up and do what he will.

 

Ireton:

This business is much heightened. Yet I do not know, by all that hath been said, that the King or Lords are more fastened [on us] than before. We hear talk of laws by ancient constitution, and by usurpation, and yet I do not find that the gentleman that speaks of them doth show [any evidence] what was the ancient constitution, nor of [that] usurpation, but only [the evidence] of the King’s oath; and [from] that is drawn, as taking it for granted, that by ancient constitution there were laws without the King’s consent. For that [question of the oath], I did before clear [it] sufficiently by comparing that with other evidence; for if we could look upon that as an evidence paramount to all [other], that needed not [to] be so much insisted upon. But if this gentleman can find no law in being in this kingdom, which hath not Lords to it, and King to it, and expressly, ‘Be it ordained by the King, Lords, and Commons’—if it always have gone so, and no interruption and no memory of any kind of proceeding to the contrary, but that all laws passed by the Commons have been sent to the Lords for their concurrence—[if] the Lords have [made amendments and] sent down [to the Commons] for their concurrence, they have had conferences, and [when they] could not agree, the Commons have let it rest and not insisted upon it: we must look upon these as evidences of what is constitution, together with that testimony of the King’s oath. [But] whereas those other things that are numerous and clear evidences doe in express terms relate to the Lords, when I do consider the consequences of that oath, I do conclude either that the word vulgus is concluded to comprehend all Lords and Commons; or else it is thus, that the two great powers of this kingdom are divided betwixt the Lords and Commons, and it is most probable to me that it was so: that the judicial power was in the Lords principally, and the House of Commons yet to have their concurrences, the legislative power principally in the Commons, and the Lords’ concurrences in practice to be desired. It is a clear and known thing that the House of Commons cannot give an oath, by the constitution of the kingdom, but they must resort to the Lords if they will have an oath given. And then, besides, all the judges of [the] Common Law in the kingdom sit as assistants to the Lords. Upon this the practice hath been in any private cause wherein unjust sentence hath been given—it is beyond all record or memory—that [by] a writ of error that [which] hath been passed in another court may be judged here. So that these two powers, of the legislative power and the judicial, have been exercised between both Lords and Commons, and neither of them to exercise the one or the other without mutual consent. I desire this gentleman, or any other that argues upon the other part [than] that we are upon—unless they will produce some kind of evidence of history upon record by law—that they will forbear arguments of that nature, calling such things usurpations from constitution or from right, and [rather] insist upon things of common safety as supposing no constitution at all.

…I wish but this, that we may have a regard to safety—safety to our persons, safety to our estates, safety to our liberty. Let’s have that as the law paramount, and then let us regard [the] positive constitution as far as it can stand with safety to these. Now therefore—thus for my part I confess it—if I should have ever given a consent in my heart to propound anything that did not consist with this, with regard to any constitution whatsoever, [I revoke it]; but for my part I cannot see that anything but safety is provided for. Mr. Wildman says that many godly men would not be satisfied with this that we have read, which amounts to this: that the Commons have power to make laws for all the Commons of England, [and] that only the person of the King and [the] persons of the Lords as persons, with their estates, are freed from them. [If this be so], I do not see [that] they are satisfied with anything without having a power over other men’s liberties.

 

Ireton:

The government of Kings, or of Lords, is as just as any in the world, is the justest government in the world. Volenti non fit injuria. Men cannot wrong themselves willingly, and if they will agree to make a King, and his heirs, [their ruler], there’s no injustice. They may either make it hereditary or elective. They may give him an absolute power or a limited power. Here hath been agreements of the people that have agreed with this. There hath been such an agreement when the people have fought for their liberty, and have established the King again.

 

Wildman:

’Twas their superstition, to have such an opinion of a great man.

 

Ireton:

Any man that makes a bargain, and does find afterwards ’tis for the worse, yet is bound to stand to it.

 

Wildman:

They were cozened, as we are like to be.

 

Ireton:

I would not have you talk of principles of just government when you hold that all governments that are set up by consent are just. [Argue instead that] such or such a way, that can consist with the liberty of the people. Then we shall go to clear reason. That’s one maxim, that all government must be for the safety of the people.

 

Tichborne:

Let us keep to that business of safety. ’Tis upon the matter [of safety that the real power of making laws is vested] solely in the people [by] what hath been proposed. In that I give King and Lords [no more than an opportunity] to do me a courtesy if they will—

 

Wildman [interrupting]:

No courtesy.

 

Tichborne:

It is only an opportunity—and [to] show themselves as willing as the Commons. Let us not fight with shadows.

 

[Wildman]:

We do not know what opportunity God will give us.

 

Ireton:

If God will destroy King or Lords he can do it without our or your wrong-doing. If you [not only] take away all power from them, which this clearly does, but [do also] take away all kind of distinction of them from other men, then you do them wrong. Their having [such] a distinction from other men cannot do us wrong. That you can do to the utmost for the[ir] safety is this: that a Lord or King may preserve his own person or estate free from the Commons. Now [I would know] whether this can be destructive to the Commons, that so few men should be distinct from a law made by the Commons, especially when we have laws made as to the preserving of the peace of the kingdom and preserving every man in his right. The King and Lords are suable, impleadable, in any court. The King may be sued, and tried by a jury, and a Lord may be sued, and tried per pares only, [as] a knight by esquires. What needs more, where there are such laws already that the King and Lords are so bound?

 

Wildman:

I conceive that the difference does not lie here, but whether the King shall so come in that the Parliament must make their addresses themselves unto him for [the confirmation of] everything they pass. Whether it be a shadow or no, I think it is a substance when nothing shall be made but by address to the King. This will be very shameful in future chronicles, that after so much blood there should be no better an issue for the Commons.

 

Ireton:

Do you think we have not laws good enough for the securing of [the] rights [of the Commons]?

 

Wildman:

I think [that] according to the letter of the law, if the King will, [he may] kill me by law. Ask any lawyers of it: by the letter of the present law he may kill me, and forty more, and no law call him to account for it.

 

Ireton:

I think no man will think it. When the King stands thus bound with so many laws about him, and all the Commons of England bound to obey what law they [by their representatives] do make, let any man guess whether the King, as he is a single person, will hazard himself to kill this, or that, or any other man.

 

Wildman:

It will be thought boldness in me [not] to agree. If God will open your hearts to provide so that the King may not do me injury, I shall be glad of it. If not, I am but a single man, I shall venture myself and [my] share in the common bottom.

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