An Agreement of the People
The Agreement of the People was the principal constitutional manifesto associated with the Levellers. It was intended to be a written constitution that would define the form and powers of government and would also set limits on those powers by reserving a set of inalienable rights to the people. It would take the form of a contract between the electorate and the representative, to be renewed at each election. The Agreement developed over several versions between October 1647 and May 1649.
Original Draft, 1647
An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right was first drafted in October 1647 when Agitators of the New Model Army and civilian Levellers collaborated to propose an outline for a new constitution in the aftermath of the First Civil War. It was probably drafted by John Wildman though its authorship is not known for certain. Stating that sovereign power should reside in the people of England rather than with the discredited King or Parliament, the original Agreement consisted of four clauses:
- The peoples' representatives (i.e. Members of Parliament) should be elected in proportion to the population of their constituencies
- The existing Parliament should be dissolved on 30 September 1648
- Future Parliaments should be elected biennially and sit every other year from April to September
- The biennial Parliament (consisting of a single elected House) should be the supreme authority in the land, with powers to make or repeal laws, appoint officials and conduct domestic and foreign policy
Certain constraints were placed on Parliament: it was not to interfere with freedom of religion; it was not to press men to serve in the armed forces; it could not prosecute anyone for their part in the recent war; it was not to exempt anyone from the ordinary course of the law; all laws passed by Parliament should be for the common good.
The proposals were debated at the Putney Debates of October and November 1647 where the Grandees Cromwell and Ireton tried to curb Leveller extremism, particularly over a proposal to extend the franchise to all adult males. Parliament denounced the Agreement as destructive to the government of the nation and ordered Fairfax to investigate its authorship. Attempts to gain wider Army support for the Agreement at the Corkbush Field rendezvous were forcibly suppressed by the Grandees.
The Whitehall Debates, 1648-9
During 1648, civilian and military supporters of the Agreement continued to debate and refine its proposals. The Armies Petition, or a new Engagement was drafted by a group of Agitators at St Albans in April 1648 and was published in tandem with a related civilian broadside, A New Engagement, or Manifesto. These documents expanded upon the original Agreement to include more specific proposals for legal and economic reform.
After the King's defeat in the Second Civil War, John Lilburne promoted an extended version of the Agreement which was discussed by a committee of Levellers, London Independents, MPs and army Grandees at Whitehall in December 1648. These discussions took place in the aftermath of Pride's Purge when the King's trial was imminent.
Lilburne wanted to secure Parliament's acceptance of the Agreement before the King was brought to trial so that the trial would have a basis in a legitimate and legal constitution. However, Lilburne and his colleague Richard Overton walked out of the discussions when Army officers led by Henry Ireton insisted upon making further modifications to the Agreement before it was presented to Parliament.
The discussions continued in Lilburne's absence. While Ireton appeared to make concessions to the Levellers over the franchise, it is probable that he was playing for time to distract the Army Levellers while preparations for the King's trial went ahead. The revised Agreement was finally presented to the House of Commons as a proposal for a new constitution on 20 January 1649, the very day that the public sessions of the High Court of Justice began. As Ireton had calculated, MPs postponed discussion of the Agreement until after the trial, and it was never taken up again by Parliament.
Final version, May 1649
The Grandees' modification of the Agreement of January 1649 was the Army's last official involvement in its evolution. However, Lilburne and the civilian Levellers regarded Ireton's intervention as a betrayal and continued to refine their proposals. A fully developed version of the Agreement — An Agreement of the Free People of England, tendered as a Peace-Offering to this distressed Nation — was published in May 1649, signed jointly by John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and Thomas Prince. Its proposals included:
- The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists)
- Annual elections to Parliament with MPs serving one term only
- No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP (to prevent conflict of interest)
- Equality of all persons before the law
- Trials should be heard before 12 jurymen, freely chosen by their community
- The law should proceed in English and cases should not extend longer than six months
- No-one could be punished for refusing to testify against themselves in criminal cases
- The death penalty to be applied only in cases of murder
- Abolition of imprisonment for debt
- Tithes should be abolished and parishioners have the right to choose their ministers
- Taxation in proportion to real or personal property
- Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes
The final version was published after the Leveller leaders had been imprisoned by order of the Council of State and a few weeks before the suppression of the Army Levellers at Burford, after which the Leveller movement was effectively finished.
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vols. iii & iv (London 1889-94)
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)
Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne, Oxford DNB, 2004
Eliot Vernon & Philip Baker, The History & Histriography of the Agreements of the People (Palgrave 2012)
Agreement of the People as originally drafted in 1647
Agreement of the People as presented to Parliament in January 1649
Agreement of the People extended version from the imprisonment of the Leveller leaders, May 1649
Towards an Agreement of the People for the 21st Century agreementofthepeople.org