The beginnings of English democratic thought
THE FRANCHISE BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR
THE DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE
PHILOSOPHICAL AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
SERVANTS AND ALMSTAKERS
The Civil War changed English politics utterly. It brought the end of claims by the English crown to Divine Right and absolute monarchy. It promoted the political interests of the aristocracy and gentry as a class. It forced those on the Parliamentary side to effectively exercise power on their own responsibility. It created a political class which saw politics as something they could control rather than merely be part of as a adjunct to the crown. It began the constitutional process which resulted in cabinet government. It laid the foundations for the formation of political parties. In short, it sowed seeds of modern representative government.
But something else occurred which was to be even more momentous in the long run. It was during the 1640s that the belief that men should only be ruled by those they had themselves elected first became a serious political idea, not merely in England but anywhere. Amazing as it may seem now, the idea that every man (but not woman) should have an active voice in choosing those who would represent and govern them was a novel concept in the middle of the 17th century. A form of male-only democracy existed in the ancient world, but it was never inclusive because the citizens were always greatly outnumbered by the unfree and other non-citizens.
Why was the idea of every man being an elector so revolutionary? The enfranchisement of a wide electorate is perhaps the most fundamental political change a society can undergo. It forces the elite to take note of the masses in a way that no other system does. Even the humblest man must be considered as a man in his own right, a person with a vote and needs and wishes. Those needs and wishes may be heeded and met to varying degrees, but what the majority needs and wants cannot be ignored completely when each man has a vote.
The democratic spirit was surprisingly widespread in the 1640s. By this I do not mean that men were commonly calling for full manhood suffrage, much less the emancipation of women. Rather there was a sense that the social order had been rearranged by the war, that men were on some new ground of equality and had a right to a public voice. In particular, there was a feeling that those who had fought for Parliament had won the right to enfranchisement. There was also a more widespread feeling which penetrated all social classes that the existing franchises (which varied greatly) were frequently too narrow and that the towns, particularly those most recently grown to a decent size, were grossly under-represented.
The group which gave representation to democratic feelings most successfully was the Levellers. They were a disparate and ever shifting crew, drawing their support primarily from the ranks of the Parliamentary armed forces (especially after the New Model Army was formed), small tradesmen, journeymen and apprentices. However, they also included those from higher social classes, their most famous leader, John Lilburne, being the child of minor gentry.
To call them a political party in the modern sense would be misleading. Yet they were the closest thing to it both then and arguably for several centuries. Their tactics and organisation were modern – the use of pamphletering and newspapers, the ability to get large number of supporters onto the streets (especially in London) at the drop of a hat, the creation of local associations. They also developed an increasingly sophisticated political programme in a series of documents known as The Agreements of the People. These Agreements dealt extensively with political representation and structure. The levellers were also very successful in creating an enemy and sense of grievance. They did this by portraying 1640s England as having declined from a golden age of freedom under the heel of the Normans and their French successors.
Led for the most part by a man of preternatural obstinacy, courage and unreasonableness, John Lilburne (“freeborn Jack”), the Levellers frightened the Parliamentary leaders sufficiently to force various negotiations and discussions. These culminated in the Putney Debates in 1647 when Parliamentary and Army leaders including, Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, met with a variety of people on what might broadly be called the democratic side. Unfortunately Lilburne was not able to attend. Nonetheless,the Leveller position was strongly represented. Most importantly, much of the debate was taken down in shorthand. It is a most intriguing document. The sheer range of political ideas it displays is impressive. It shows clearly that in the 1640s there was a very high degree of sophistication amongst the politically interested class. The ideas run from the monarchical to the unreservedly democratic. This document together with the Leveller pamphlets provide ample evidence of Leveller thinking.
How far did the Levellers reach in their search for political inclusion? Did they go the whole hog and seek a full manhood franchise or were they much more cautious? That is the question which I shall now examine with the aid of Prof C.B. Macpherson.
Macpherson contends in his ‘Theory of Possessive Individualism’ that the Levellers were never advocates of universal manhood suffrage, but, rather, sought a restricted franchise which excluded servants (to be equated with wage-earners) and almstakers (or beggars).
He is extremely emphatic in his conclusions. As we shall see, there are substantial reasons for doubting his certainty, both on the question of universal manhood suffrage and on the extent to which a more restricted suffrage was accepted by the Levellers.
To answer the question I shall begin by describing the attitude taken towards the franchise before the Levellers.
I will then cover, in much the same order as Macpherson, the documentary evidence he puts before us.
Having done this, I shall examine the philosophy he attributes to the Levellers in order to explain their motivations and to bring forth any further evidence and observations.
Lastly, I will deal with the definition of servants and almstakers, plus the nature of Macpherson’s statistics.
THE FRANCHISE BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR
Discontent with electoral qualifications, provisions and practices was not an infant of the Civil War and its aftermath, although it was greatly increased by those events, Rather it was the end of a trail which began in Elizabeth’s reign and reached its highest pitch, prior to the 1640s, during the years 1621 to 1623.
The discontent was provoked primarily by the situation in the boroughs rather than the counties, Since 1430, the county electorate had been restricted to the forty shilling freeholder, which qualification had become almost sacrosanct by the end of the sixteenth century - only one proposal outside the ‘Great Rebellion’ (1621) was made to raise or lower it. Tudor inflation had greatly lowered the barrier it represented (40 shillings in 1600 was worth perhaps 15 shillings at 1430 values) and it is reasonable to suppose this considerably increased the rural electorate. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the qualification was not always enforced1 and some county electorates may have had a very broad manhood franchise indeed prior to 1640.
Borough franchises were anything but uniform. In some the whole ‘commonalty’ (all householders) or even all ‘potwallers’ (men with their own hearths) voted. In others the vote was restricted to all taxpayers (‘scot and lot’), freemen of the town, or those in possession of burgage property. In extreme cases the vote might be restricted to the ruling corporation. Such discrepancies of representation were aggravated by a distribution of borough seats which took insufficient account of the demographic changes of the past two centuries, during which time England’s population increased very substantially, perhaps by as much as a third. All this meant that there was fertile soil for agitation for more equal borough representation, both in terms of the breadth of the franchise and in the number of seats.
Tudor monarchs, not unnaturally, did not favour larger electorates2. The existence of ‘rotten boroughs’ was a source of patronage and, if the monarch could control the oligarchies who returned the MP, a means of reducing opposition to the Crown. As there was a significant number of such boroughs, this was no small advantage to the monarch.
The attitude of Parliament to the franchise was mixed. The Lords had a similar interest to the Crown in distrusting broad franchises. The peers often effectively controlled seats in the Commons. They also had a natural inclination to deny the ‘commonality’ any voice in the affairs of the kingdom. Conversely, it was obviously in the Commons’ interest to increase electorates, where such increases reduced the Monarch’s’ and the Lord’s opportunities for patronage.
There is particular evidence that the Puritans favoured larger electorates, at least in so far as it suited their own purposes. At Warwick in 1586 Job Throckmorton was elected after he threatened to invoke the right of the ‘commonality to vote. In 1587 John Field remarked to colleague ‘seeing we cannot compass these things by suit or dispute, it is the multitude and people that must bring the discipline to pass which we desire.’3 As Puritans displaced many court nominees and the creatures of aristocrats, this is significant in view of the attitude of the Commons towards electoral qualifications between 1621 and 1628.
By 1621, the Commons had gained the right to decide disputed elections and to revive lapsed borough seats and even make new creations, The tendency until 1628 was to ecide in favour of wider franchise and to allow all the ‘commonality’ to vote. At Bletchingly (1624) and Lewes (1628) ‘all the inhabitants ,’ were to be electors’, and at Cirencester (1624) all ‘resients:’. n the case of Pontefract in 1624 a general principle was formulated:
‘There being no certain custom nor prescription, who should be the electors and who not, we must have recourse to common right which, to this purpose was held to be, that more than the freeholders only ought to have voices in the election, namely all men, inhabitants, householders resient within the borough.’4
Further, in the case of Boston (1628) it was asserted that the election of burgesses belonged by common right to the commoners and only prescription or ‘a constant usage beyond all memory’ could rob them of this.5
It is true that when the Commons revived or created borough seats, they concentrated, as the Tudors had done, on small towns to promote their own advantage. But, even so, they granted ‘scot and lot’ franchises in every case (except Weobley) which meant that even small towns such as Great Marlow or Hilbourne Port had electorate of around 200.
Bills were introduced to regulate elections and standardise, the franchise in 1621, 1623, 1625, 1628 and 1640, The 1621 Bill is of particular interest because it proposed that the 40/- freeholder qualification be increased to œ4 and to admit œ10 copyholders by inheritance. The borough proposals add no more than the various decisions on individual cases (in fact even less), for electors were to be freemen except where they numbered less than twenty-four, in which case all inhabitants not in receipt of alms were to be included,
In 1640 the franchise was raised again by Sir Simonds D’Ewes. It was he who first uttered the idea later made famous by Thomas Rainsborough ‘that the poorest man in England ought to have a voice, that it was the birthright of the subjects of England and all had voices in the election of Knights etc. previously.’6
In 1641 a bill had reached second reading but was then lost. D’Ewes favoured its contents except that he ‘desired that whereas it was provided in the bill that none that took alms should have voices in elections, which I well allowed, we would likewise provide that no more monopolizing elections might be in cities and boroughs, that all men resients might have voices.’7
It is also noteworthy, both for its own sake and the part it played in Leveller literature, that many believed that the Statute of 1430 had disenfranchised people. William May, in 1621, said ‘Anciently, all thecommonality had voice, but because such a multitude made the election tumultuous, it was after reduced to freeholders’. William Prynne put it even more plainly, ‘Before this Petition and Act every inhabitant and commoner in each county had voice in the election of Knights, whether he were a freeholder or not, or had a freehold only of one penny, six pence or twelve pence by the year as they now claim of late in most cities and boroughs where popular elections are admitted’8. It is a sobering thought that if the Statute of 1430 did disenfranchise large numbers of county electors, the county franchise may have been wider in medieval England than it was to be again before the end of the nineteenth century and conceivably wider than the Franchise before the 1918 Representation of the People Act.
What of the position of servants, wage-earners and almstakers in all this? Resident household servants were generally considered beyond the pale, although ‘servants’ were said to have voted in the Worcestershire county election of 1604. Wage-earners certainly did so, for those in the ‘potwaller’ and ‘scot and lot’ constituencies were granted the right to vote. Almstakers were excluded in the 1621 and 1640 bills, yet at Great Marlow in 1604 77 of the 245 voters were said to be almstakers, nine of them inmates of the almshouse. In 1640 the right of the Bember inmates to vote was said to have been sustained and in 1662 the St. Albans almsmen were said to have ‘had voices time out of mind’.
It is clear from all this, that the Levellers did not enter untilled ground when they broached the question of the franchise. There are also, for our purposes, three points of particular interest. First, the Commons, or at least an influential part of it, was not unduly disturbed by the prospect of an enlarged electorate. Second, people whom Macpherson claims the Levellers would have excluded – servants and almstakers - were ncluded in the franchise long before the Civil War. Third, that there existed even gentlemen (such as Sir Simonds D’Ewes) who had an active and unambiguous democratic spirit. The latter point is particularly pertinent because the chief Leveller, John Lilburne, was also of gentle-birth, a fact he never ceased to emphasise. Democratic ideas were not thus foreign bodies suddenly introduced by the Levellers.
I. K. Thomas. The Levellers and the Franchise answer p.62
2. J.H, Plunb. The Growth of the electorate 1600-1715
5 K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.62
6. Ibid p.63
7. Ibid p.64
8 Ibid p.64
THE DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE
The roots of Macpherson’s conclusions lie in the Putney Debates. Prior to Putney, the franchise received relatively little attention in Leveller writings, Those statements which do exist do not explicitly exclude servants and almstakers, and have the appearance of demands for universal manhood suffrage. Post Putney statements on the other hand consistently advocate, for whatever reason, the exclusion of servants and almstakers. The evidence of the Putney debates provides Macpherson with his main means of resolving, at least to his mind, this apparent inconsistency.
The question of the franchise occupied most of the second day’s debate at Putney. The first article of the (First) Agreement demanded ‘That the People of England,.,. ought to be more indifferently proportioned according to the number of inhabitants.’ This provoked Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton to say:
‘The exception that lies in it is this. It is said, they are to be distributed according to the number of 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 representors, the persons that are for the general representative…’2
Thus Ireton, whatever his motives, charges the Levellers atthe earliest possible opportunity, with seeking universal suffrage. Petty is the first Leveller to answer: ‘We judge that all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in elections’,3
Macpherson thinks it significant that Petty does not state in plain words whether he is for or against universal suffrage. Yet why should he have felt obliged to do so? Ireton has asked a plain question and Petty’s reply, no matter what construction is put upon the phrase ‘all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright’, is an adequate and reasonable answer. Surely more significant is the fact that those with Leveller sympathies did not recoil from the suggestion with horror. However, there is a note of ambiguity in Petty’s answer and it is possible, as A.L.Morton suggests4, that Rainsborough’s famous speech which follows immediately (the poorest he that is in England etc.)5 was intended to clarify the situation.
But by far the most significant passage for Macpherson occurs when the debate has turned to considering the particulars rather than the general issue of the franchise, Cromwell in what appears to be a state of some impatience suddenly says:
‘If we should go about to alter these things, I do not think we are bound to fight for every particular proposition. Servants while servants, are not included. Then you agree that he that receive alms is to be excluded?’
The first to reply is Lt. Col. Thomas Reade, who, although more progressive in spirit than Cromwell, was no Leveller:
’I suppose it’s concluded by all, that the choosing of representatives is a privilege: now I see no reason why any man that is a native ought to be excluded that privilege, unless from voluntary servitude.’ ‘
Then follow the critical words of Petty:
’I conceive the reason why we would exclude apprentices or servants, or those who take alms, because they depend upon the will of other men and should be afraid to displease (them). For servants and apprentices, they are included in their master, and so for those that receive alms from door to door’6
This passage is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, Cromwell assumes general agreement that servants were to be excluded, although, up to this point in the debate, there appears little, if any, justification for doing so. This may indeed support Macpherson’s contention that all parties, including, the Levellers were strong for exclusion. But there are alternative explanations. Cromwell’s impatience may have got the better of him and he could have made such a statement in order to browbeat any opposition. It is after all a common debating trick, and we have ample evidence from Putney and elsewhere that Cromwell was prone to behaving in a domineering and high-handed manner.
Second, what of Petty’s reply? In the first place it may merely be as J.C. Davis7 suggests, a statement of what Petty considered the grounds on which Cromwell would advocate exclusion, rather than an endorsement of them. Alternatively, if we accept that Petty was in agreement with Cromwell, which might be suggested by the alacrity of his reply, other considerations rise. Macpherson considers Petty to have been the main Leveller spokesman at Putney and by implication, fully representative of Leveller opinion.
This is a dangerous road to travel. Petty, apart from his appearance at Putney and on a number of Leveller-Independent committees, was a somewhat obscure figure in the Leveller camp, Perhaps significantly, he was involved in the drafting of the compromise Second Agreement and in later years became a member of Harrington’s aristocratic-republican Rota Club.8 None of this of course does more than suggest that Petty may have been less than representative of Leveller thought, particularly that of Overton and Lilburne.
Petty may have been an opportunist willing to support a movement whose aims and ideals he did not necessarily consider sacrosanct but merely convenient. Or he may have turned his coat when the movement failed. Whatever the truth of the matter, we may join with A.L. Morton in wishing that if Lilburne had been at Putney and in thinking that the position might well be clearer if he had been able to do so.
Then there is the position of Rainsborough at Putney, where he unambiguously embraced adult manhood suffrage. It is true that Rainsborough had, as far as is known, no direct connection with the Levellers prior to Putney, but his sympathies were clearly with the Levellers and he enjoyed a considerable reputation in the Party after Putney, His contribution to the franchise debate was by far the most forceful on the Leveller side (in the sense that Rainsborough agreed with the Leveller arguments rather than those of Cromwell et al) and greatly outweighed that of Petty. If Rainsborough’s ideas were so acceptable to Levellers after Putney, why not before and during Putney?
Macpherson uses Petty’s reply to Cromwell as a springboard to launch his theory. He admits that further sustaining evidence to support his proposition is necessary. The says quite correctly, that Levellers did believe that the right to elect could be forfeited by (freeborn) men. Up until Putney, delinquency was commonly cited as being sufficient reason, However, it must be remembered that the Levellers were in favour of reconciliation with the royalists (delinquents). The fact that they proposed to exclude them for a relatively short period of time from the franchise, (provided their behaviour was satisfactory)is scarcely surprising, for the situation was exceptional. It is reasonable to see such exclusion as simply an extraordinary measure to settle the country after a civil war. One would be very rash to assume that this attitude was indicative of Leveller opinion in general on the loss of birthright.
Macpherson continues by quoting the franchise clause (section ll) of the Petition of January 1648:
‘Whereas it hath been the ancient liberty of this nation, that all the freeborn people have freely elected their representers in Parliament, and their sheriffs and Justices of the Peace, etc. and they were abridged of that their native liberty by a statute of the 8.H.6,7. That, therefore, the birthright of all English men be forthwith restored to all which are not, or shall not be legally disenfranchised for some criminal cause, or are under 21 years of age, or servants or beggars .’9
Of this Macpherson says there could scarcely be a clearer indication that the Levellers assumed that those who became servants or beggars thereby forfeited their birthright to a voice in elections (p.124). We may well agree that at this time the Levellers were willing to do so, but as the whole point of Macpherson’s task is to establish a consistency in Leveller thinking, we are really no further down the path of enlightenment. If the Levellers from Putney onward did compromise at various points, it does not prove that they wished for anything other than a full manhood suffrage. More probably, such compromises are simply reluctant adjustments to the political realities of the time.
The seems to be on firmer ground when he turns to a letter sent from several Agitators of the Army to their respective Regiments (llth November, 1647) concerning the franchise debate at Putney. This tells us that ‘it was concluded by vote in the affirmative: viz, that all soldiers and others, if they be not servants or beggars, ought to have voices in electing those which shall represent them in Parliament, although they have not forty shillings per annum in freehold land And there were but three voices against this your native freedon’lO.
It does at first glance seem strange that the exclusion of servants and beggars should be linked with the phrase ‘this your native freedom’. However, it must be remembered that the Agitators’ prime concern was for the soldiers they represented. If it is accepted that the leading Independents were willing to include all soldiers, regardless of their status, in the franchise, it then becomes possible that the phrase ‘this your native freedom’ applied to the soldiers rather than the whole population.
‘The Grand Designe’ of John Harris (the agitators’ pointer) which appeared in December, 1647, and the Third Agreement of May, 1649, present similar problems. In the former, Harris explained that the intent of the First Article (which provoked the franchise debate at Putney) was that the electors should be:
’all men that are not servants or beggars, it being pure equity, that as all persons are bound to yield obedience to the decrees of the Representative or Parliament, so they should have a voice in the electing their Representatives or Members of Parliament’ 11,
While the franchise clause of the latter stated that the electors would be:
‘(according to natural right) all men of the age of one and twenty years and upwards (not being servants or receiving alms, or having served the late King in arms or voluntary contributions) l2.
The equating of ‘all persons’, and ‘all men that are not servants or beggars’ in the former and ‘the according to naturall right’ in the latter seem to lend weight to Macpherson’s argument. Yet in both the authors were using well tried phrases and need not have considered the full implications of them. Also, in the latter case, as A.L. Morton says, the statement of general principle occurred before any of the exceptions were detailed.
Having come this far, Macpherson feels he is in a position to interpret, as he puts it, the apparent claims of the Levellers for an ‘unqualified manhood franchise’ and their opponent’s attribution of this to them at Putney, and the lack of any explicit exclusion of servants prior to Putney. Thus, when the Levellers used phrases such as ‘every inhabitant’, ‘every person in England’ or ‘the poorest man in England’, Macpherson believes that we must assume that they really meant ‘all freeborn men who have not lost their birthright’, a loss of birthright toinclude servants and beggars. This is a great deal to read into the evidence.
Ireton and Cromwell, on the other hand, were so concerned to defend the existing franchise qualifications, Macpherson says, that for the purpose of debate they were indifferent to whether the Levellers sought an unqualified franchise or merely a broader but still restricted one. When Ireton referred to ‘all persons’, ‘any man that hath a breath and being’ , ‘all inhabitants’, or Cromwell ‘men that have no interest but the interest of breathing’13, this thinks Macpherson was hyperbole by Cromwell and Ireton to sharpen the issue, Yet if it were hyperbole, why was it not resisted more vigorously and unambiguously by Petty et al?
Macpherson fastens on to the fact that, as he puts it, “even after Cromwell had explicitly recognized that the Levellers’ proposal excludedservants and almstakers, he still spoke of it as tending to anarchy because it would give a vote to ‘all those who are in the Kingdom’”14. Now, as we have seen, it is by no means certain that Cromwell’s statement was accepted by the Levellers (p above). The fact that he continued to impute to the Levellers this position may reasonably be taken as an indication that the Levellers had not accepted it, that it was an agreed position and Cromwell words thus exaggeration. The same reasoning may be applied to the fact that the Levellers did not bother to refute these ‘apparent’ imputations of manhood suffrage. Indeed, it would seem more significant that they did not do so.
The reason why they refrained from answering such claims directly, says Macpherson, was because it would not have helped their case to have done so, being more concerned to refute the charge that their proposals would destroy property. This is conceivable yet unlikely, unless we accept that the Levellers were only concerned with a limited franchise along Macpherson’s lines. Moreover, one cannot divide the questions of the franchise and the feared destruction of property, for one stems from the other.
Neither do I find the fact that only Colonel Rich mentioned the Levellers’ ‘supposed ‘ intention to include servants necessarily indicative of a general consensus of opinion. It is surely significant that he mentioned it at all in the light of Macpherson’s position. Nor do I think he was contradicted by Rainsborough as Macpherson believes. Rich said:
’If the master and servant shall be equal electors, then clearly those that have no interest in the Kingdom will make it their interest to choose those that have no interest. It may happen, that the majority may by law, not in confusion, destroy property; there may be a law enacted, that there shall be an equality of goods and estate’
He then proceeds to point out the danger that the poor night, as in Rome, set up a dictator15. Rainsborough replies:
‘I think it is a fine gilded pill. But there is much danger, and it may seen to some that there is some kind of remedy [possible]. I think we are better as we are [if it can be really proved] that the poor should choose many [and] still the people be in the some case, be over voted still, But of this and much else, I am unsatisfied… and the[first] thing that I am unsatisfied in is how it comes about that there is such propriety in some freeborn Englishmen and not [in] others.’16
Now this is, to say the least, a messy passage, but its meaning, if we accept Woodhouse’s additions, is surely plain enough. Rainsborough is rejecting Rich’s suggestion and when he speaks of ‘being better as we are’ he is merely saying that if he was certain this would be the result of an unqualified franchise, he would reject it, but that, in fact, he does not believe this would be the result. He sees it in other words as a red herring. Indeed, if we were to accept that he did not take this position, we are forced to conclude that Rainsborough was in favour of no change at all, which would be a howling nonsense in view of his explicitly democratic ideas.
There is another passage from Putney which suggests that servants were not automatically excluded by all present. Captain Rolfe appeals for greater moderation, saying, ‘I shall desire that a medium or some thoughts of composure, [may be had] in relation to servants or to foreigners, or such others shall be agreed upon.’ Captain Clarke , who possessed Leveller sympathies, replied first, stating that he too ‘shall desire [that] before the question be stated it may be moderated as for foreigners’17. It is noteworthy that Clarke, although agreeing that foreigners should be excluded, does not mention servants and that Rolfe believes too much heat is being generated by the subject, scarcely an indication that all concerned agreed that servants were beyond the pale.
The pre-Putney documents receive similar treatment from Macpherson. The case of ‘the Army truely stated’(15th October, 1647), which ha originally accepted as a demand for full manhood suffrage18, asked that:
‘all the freeborn at the age of twenty-one years and upwards, be the electors, excepting those that have or shall deprive themselves of that their freedom either for some years or wholly by delinquency.19
This the sees as excluding servants and almstakers. This seems a most peculiar conclusion. Why on earth should servants or almstakers be described as delinquent? Delinquency in the seventeenth century meant much what it does today, namely antisocial acts(particularly criminal ones). Being a servant or almstaker could not denote delinquency, for the former was in useful employment and the latter more often than not had to prove that they were of good character before being in receipt of alms (This particularly applied to those in almshouse). Moreover, the common objection to granting the vote to servants and almstakers was one of dependency. Yet it is not mentioned here.
It is just possible that the temporary exclusion referred to apprentices. This Macpherson rejects as most of such would be under 21, but K. Thomas is favourable to the idea on the grounds that the legal age for the end of apprenticeship was 24. Again, the question arises: why should apprentices be described generally as delinquents?
For my own part, I think it probable that the exclusion of delinquents referred solely to royalists, or just possibly to civilian delinquents, that is, common-criminals. The term delinquent has a special and technical meaning in the context of the civil war, namely a royalist who was considered to be both recalcitrant and to have been a serious and persistent supporter of the King (the practical application of this definition was inconsistent, but that was the theory).
It is true that permanent exclusion seems to run contrary to the Leveller desire for reconciliation with royalists, but it is not necessarily certain that the authors of ‘The Case’ shared such sentiments. They may for instance have believed that certain royalists were so responsible for the troubles of the war, that no leniency could be extended. Such an argument could also be advanced in the case of common criminals.
Of the other documents, Lilburne’s ’England’s Birth-right Justified’ (October 1645), ‘London’s Liberty In Chains Discovered’ (October 1646), ‘The Charters of London’; or, ‘The Second Part of London’s Chains discovered’ (December, 1646), and ‘Rash Oaths Unwarrantable’ (May, 1647)20, all fall foul of Macpherson because they contain such terms as ‘freeborn’, and ‘freemen ‘, in connection with the franchise. This is another case when we must beware of reading too much into regular Leveller phraseology, which would be more suitably viewed as rhetoric, an affirmation in this case that all men were born possessed of the same birthright, and should enjoy the same, There are many instances where such phrases were used in connection with other matters, such a religion or civil liberties, which Macpherson claims the Levellers believed were inalienable, and he presumably would not wish to argue that the use of ‘freeborn’ in these contexts did not mean all men, (and indeed women).
’London’s Liberty in Chains’ is of particular interest to ship Macpherson because it bases its claim for a broader franchise on the fact that the statute of 1430 (8′H’6’7) had disenfranchised many who had previously had the vote. This, says Macpherson, cannot be a claim for manhood suffrage for it is merely a claim to remove the forty shilling qualification which does not necessarily mean servants and almstakers would be included. This is correct, but neither does it mean that it was only a plea for tenant farmers and non-corporate traders and craftsmen, if we bear in mind the evidence of the previous chapter, particularly Poynnes’ words (see above ).
The other two documents that Macpherson examines are ‘The Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, and Other Freeborn People of England’ (July, 1646), and ‘Jonah’s Cry out of the Whale’s Belly’ (July 1647). The former requests that every year in November elections should take place and that ‘all men that have a right to be there, not to fail upon a great penalty, but no summons to be expected’21. This Macpherson this significant for it states that voting would be by ‘all men that have a right’, not simply all men. Yet, in view of the circumstances of 1646 when the position of royalists had to be considered, should we expect that no exclusions would be thought reasonable then? The answer is surely no.
The latter document is concerned with the right of soldiers to vote. It states that ‘according to the principles of safety, flowing from Nature, Reason and Justice… every individual private soldier, whether Horse or Foot, aut freely to have their vote, to chuse the transactors of their affairs.’ This does not necessarily imply that the soldiers desired the same for civilians. However, we know that documents which either originated from or involved the Army, expressed concern for the population as a whole.
The documentary evidence is, to put it politely, less than conclusive. In the absence of even one unassailable statement, Macpherson is forced to rely on building up his argument by interpretation. The disadvantage of this is that in so many instances an equally plausible interpretation can be made to prove the contrary. This is not, however, to suggest that Macpherson has been proven completely mistaken, for we must not fall into the trap, which he himself falls into, of insisting on consistency to the extent where every statement must be interpreted in a certain fashion.
1 D. H ‘Wolfe, Leveller .Manifestoes .226
2 A,S.P Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty , p.52
3 Ibid, p.55
4. A,L. Morton, Leveller Democracy p.205.
5 A,S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty p.53
6. Ibid, pp. 82-3
7. J. Davis, The Levellers and Democracy ,
8. K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.67,
9 D.H. Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes P,269.
10. ASP Woodhouse, p.452.
11. C .B, Macpherson, p125
12. D.H. Wolfe, p.403
13. A.S.P. Woodhouse, pp, 57, 70, 63, 77.
14. C.B. Macpherson, p.126.
15. A,S.P. Woodhouse, pp.63, 64.
16. Ibid, p,64.
17.A.S.P. Woodhouse, p,30.
18.K.Thomas, p. 212
19. D.H. Wolfe, p.212.
20. England Birthright Justified’ is printed in Haller ’Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution’, ‘London in Chains’, ‘The Second Part of London Chains discovered’ and ’Rash Oaths Unwarrantable’, are not readily available. See Macpherson pp. 131-135.
21. ‘The Remonstrance’ is printed in H.H. Wolfe , p.129, but ‘Jonah’s Cry’ is not readily available. See Macpherson, p.135,
PHILOSOPHICAL AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
The philosophy which Macpherson attributes to the Levellers to explain why they proposed to exclude servant and almstakers derived from the view of a man’s capacities (i.e. his own labour) as a commodity which could be sold, This Macpherson believes was the dominant ideology in 17th Century England. Thus, although the Levellers believed that all Englishmen were born with the same birthright, certain parts of this birthright could be forfeited. Religious, civil and even possibly economic rights could not be alienated justly, and as such should be protected constitutionally. The right to elect, however, could be forfeited by entering into a condition of dependence, either by taking wages or alms. In such cases, a just dependence resulted and the subservient individual’s voice was deemed to be included in that of his master or benefactor, as far as a voice in elections was concerned, jut as that of a wife was deemed to be included in that of her husband.
That this could be considered just is further explained by what Macpherson deems to be the general contemporary opinion of what the functions of government should be. The primary function of 17th Century government, Macpherson informs us, was ‘to make and enforce the rules within which men could make the most of their own energies and cpacities’ and the secondary function, derived from the first, was ‘the protection of property in goods and estate’ (p.144). Servants and almstakers had lost the ‘property in their own had labour’ and, therefore, had presumably no land or capital, and as such could have no interest in either function of government,
At first glance this line of argument is both plausible and attractive. We are dealing with an openly acquisitive society which judged a man in large part on the basis of his material estate, and which was still pronouncedly hierarchical. Add in Man’s natural tribal inclinations, and it would not have been unreasonable for the Levellers in such a situation to be concerned with advancing those with whom they had most sympathy, the small men, while neglecting the needs of other groups. Also, the exposition is alluring because it purports to provide us with a means of assessing all Leveller aims and of removing inconsistencies using a system which is logical and neat. Yet, like all intellectual schemes which purport to show Man as a consistent political animal, the cracks soon begin to appear when compared to the reality.
First let us examine parts of Overton’s ‘An Arrow against all Tyrants’ (19th October, 1646) and his ‘Appeale’ (July, 1547):
‘No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man’s….for by naturall birth all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedom, and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, everyone with a naturall, innate freedom and propriety….even so are we to live, every one equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and privilege…. [no more of which may be alienated] than is conducive to a better being, more safety and freedome….[for] every man by nature being a King, Priest and Prophet in his own naturall circuit and compasse, whereof no second may partake, but by deputation, commission and free consent from him, whose naturall right and freedome it is.’1
In the ‘Appeale’ 0verton adds to this splendid statement of individual liberty, the duty of all men to protect themselves ‘from all things hurtful, destructive and obnoctious thereto to the utmost of [their] power’. It is difficult to accept that any man who could express such sentiments would willingly have allowed that large numbers of men be excluded from the franchise simply because of their position in life.
However, what concerns Macpherson is ‘the proprietorial quality of the Leveller individualism’. The essence of Man to the Levellers was freedom which meant the proprietorship of one’s own person and capacities (P.142).
From this Macpherson deduces that certain rights were considered inalienable while the right to elect was not. Thus, ‘property in one’s own mental and spiritual person required freedom of speech, publication and religion’ (P.142). These rights, apart from their justification by natural law, were demanded for all because in Lilburne’s words ‘what is done to any one, may be done to every one’3. Similarly, economic rights must be demanded for everyone or monopolists would return, arbitrary taxation and regulation, introduced, even though only those had retained the disposal of their own labour could benefit from them directly,
It is a pity that Macpherson does not extend this line of reasoning to the right to elect. For surely in this case as well, provision against arbitrary disenfranchisement would be necessary and what better method, on Lilburne’s reasoning, than to extend it to all. To this, of course, Macpherson will reply that the functions of government did not concern ‘those who had lost their birthright’, Yet, neither apparently did economic rights and there would be as much reason to claim the right to elect for all on expedient grounds as there was in the case of economic rights. Further, if we examine the extent to which the Third Agreement especially shackled Parliament, what possible harm, by way of anarchy, levelling of estates etc. could come of it,
The likely answer as to why the Levellers did exclude servants and almstakers after Putney is expediency, either for the reason Petty gave, that dependant men would be afraid to displease their masters, or because they were made aware of political realities. Macpherson doubts whether the Levellers would have excluded nearly two-thirds of the adult male population on the grounds of expediency, because he believes that they were such committed idealists they could not have brought themselves to such a business.
This is a rather surprising conclusion for, as J.C. Davis4 points out, the Levellers did compromise on the tithes, an issue of principle if ever there was one for them. The March Petition of 1647 and the July Appeale demanded abolition of tithes without provision for compensation. It was not mentioned in the first Agreement5, and deliberately left out from the January Petition of 1643 so as not to ‘disengage any considerable party, and so continue our distractions’. It returned in the Humble Petition (September , 1648) and the Second Agreement, but now with provisions for satisfying all impropriations.
Also, we must remember that the Levellers compromised on the franchise, even by Macpherson’s account, in the Second Agreement. Of course, Macpherson would be quick to point out the difference between the ratepayer franchise (adopted in the Agreement) of 375,300, and the non-servant franchise he says the Levellers wanted (416,700), was so small to be scarcely worth mentioning, In that case, why should the matter have raised so much consternation at Putney. Macpherson says the dispute at Putney arose because Ireton and Cromwell wanted nothing more than the freeholder franchise. Yet Cromwell at Putney admitted he was willing to allow that ‘perhaps there are a very considerable part of copyholders, by inheritance, that ought to have a voice’6.
There is further evidence that the Levellers compromised. When all seemed lost after Burford, ‘The Remonstrance of Many Thousands of the Free-people of England’ offered amongst other things votes to ‘all that come unto us’. The tone of the ‘Remonstrance’ is savage, reflecting the bitter anger felt by the author at the betrayal of the people’s iberties. That it offered votes to ‘all that come unto us’ may merely be, in part at least, a reflection of this bitterness and also of the fact that it was a call to armed rebellion, Yet it is surely significant that such a statement should be made so soon after the ‘Third Agreement’ which although a partial compromise designed to appeal to moderate opinion, is none the less often viewed as the final position of the Levellers. It is also interesting to note that it demanded ‘that every free-commoner shall be put into a way and enabled with means for his natural subsistence’7, surely in this context meaning all commoners and thus giving added strength to the belief that the use of the word ‘free’ was merely a rhetorical device.
A further pamphlet which was Leveller in tone was ‘A Charge of High Treason exhibited against Oliver Cromwell’ (1653), which summoned all the people of England to the polls ‘as well masters, sons of servants’ which, if nothing else, reflects a radicalism that, whatever the truth of Macpherson’s case, reminds us that we have every cause to assume that the seeds of manhood suffrage were always there.
1. C.B. Macpherson, pp. 140-1
2. Ibid, p.141.
3. Haller and Davies, The Leveller Tracts, p.455.
4 J.C. Davis , The Levellers and Democracy .
5 The Agreement was concerned with short-term
measures which may well explain the exclusion.
6. A.S.P. Woodhouse, P.7.
7. Levellers and the Puritan Revolution, p.575
SERVANTS AND ALMSTAKERS
Macpherson has calculated (using Gregory King’s estimate of 1688) that universal manhood suffrage in 1648 would have enfranchised 1,170,400 men. The exclusion of servants and almstakers (by Prof Macpherson’s definition, and accepting that all soldiers regardless of status were to be enfranchised) would have reduced this figure to 416,700. Thus, the Levellers on this reckoning were committed to excluding nearly two-thirds of the adult male population from the franchise. That I would suggest is a palpable nonsense.
Various criticisms may be made concerning the manner in which Macpherson has treated King’s figures. These ‘statistics’ were at best informed guesses, and King himself considerably varied his estimates of the size of social classes.1 In addition, Macpherson takes no account of a probably significant rise in wage-earners between 1648 and 1688, It may even be, as A.L. Morton suggests,2 that King’s figures are misleading for 1693, because they do not differentiate adequately between the many graduations of employment to be found between a simple wage-earner and independent producer or artisan.
However, such criticisms do not go to the heart of the matter. The crux of the problem lies in the meaning given to the terms servant and almstaker (or beggar)by the Levellers within the context of the franchise. To read Macpherson is to gain the impression that servant in common contemporary usage was given the usual meaning which he ascribes to it, i.e. wage-earner.
Yet it would appear that contemporaries used the term variously to accommodate the semantic confusion arising from an attempt to apply a social vocabulary inherited from a feudal and patriarchal past to the needs of a society in which the relationship of master and servant was steadily yielding to that of employer and wage-earner.3
In fact, as K. Thomas points out, none of the three contemporary economic writers to whom Macpherson refers, Andrew Yarranton, John Carey and Thomas Firrin (p.282), equated ‘servants’ with day-labourers, the latter actually distinguishing between single persons who earned money by pinning with ‘servants’, that is, apprentices or domestics .
The Statute of Artificers also distinguished between ‘servants ‘ who contracted for a year or similar period and ‘artificers and labourers being hired for wages by the day or week’. Richard Mayo, the author of ‘Present for Servants’ (1693), considered the normal usage concerned those who ‘….have voluntarily submitted themselves, by contract, for a certain time to the disposal of others, according to the word of God, and the laws of the realm’ 4.
Now let us refer back to the statement of Petty during the Putney debates. (p. ). His reason for exclusion was ‘because they depend upon the will of other men and should be afraid to displease then’. In the light of this, there was obviously a considerable difference between a man contracted to serve a year or so, who could only break his contract by mutual agreement with his employer or by order of a J.P on application by master or servant alone, and a wage-earner who was employed more or less casually, who, in theory at least, could change employer frequently and also could be dismissed at will. (It might appear that the contracted servant was in a vastly more secure position, but it must be remembered that unilateral application would be infinitely more likely to be granted to an employer than a servant).
There is further evidence that the Levellers were, at worst, concerned with excluding only those who were really bound to one man. The franchise clause of the Second Agreement states that electors ‘shall be Natives, or Denizen of England, not persons receiving Alms .,. not servants to, and receiving wages from any particular person’5 . It is even possible that this ‘wage from any particular person’ represents a compromise on the part of the Levellers. Only in the Second Agreement do we find wage-earners specifically excluded from the franchise. As this document was the result of bargaining between the Levellers and their opponents, the exclusion of those who received ‘wages from a particular person’ may not have been proposed by the Levellers. It may rather represent a reduction of a more extreme position by their opponents, i.e. that all wage-earners were to be excluded. In itself the distinction made between ‘servants’ and ‘wage-earners’ is evidence that the two were thought of as separate groups.
At best, it would seen that Macpherson’s definition is too broad, and that the Levellers were thinking in terns of personal servants, employees living in the master’s house and apprentices. If this was so, then the disenfranchisement of the groups would have been, for the most part, temporary. Apprentices would become journeymen and eventually masters (or at least the Levellers wished to create a situation where this could happen). Of the two other groups, there is evidence that many were below voting age, and their period of employment relatively short. At Ealing in 1599, 60 per cent of the population aged 15 – 19) were servants. At Claworth in 1676, there were 67 servants of whom only one remained by 1638, and at Cogenhoe again only one out of total of 31 in 1618 was still employed in 1628.6 The most likely explanation for this apparent mobility of labour is that when a man married he set up his own household.
If we then consider evidence suggesting that to be head of household was the mark of a man capable of voting, the significance of this is obvious. Thomas Cartwright wrote ‘All men understand that where the election is most freest and most general, yet only they have to do which are head of families’, and, John Eliot in his ‘Christian Commonwealth’ (1659) ‘servants, or sons living with their parents are in the condition of servants…. may not explicitly , politically, personally, choose public rulers…. But, if they marry or live in the state of allowed public freedmen, then are they capable of the choice of their public rulers’7. If we can accept such views as representative, then the disenfranchisement of servants in our restricted sense becomes, for at least a great part of then, a temporary affair.
The Leveller position on almstakers is, rather easier to resolve. Until the Second Agreement, only beggars were mentioned. The Putney resolution, ‘The Grande Designe’ (John Harris) and the ‘Petition of January’ 1648, used the terms ‘beggars’ rather than ‘almstakers’. This in itself might not be significant, for it is conceivable that ‘beggar’ was a term which included persons who begged casually, probably in an itinerant fashion, and men who were forced to seek parish relief temporarily or permanently. However, there are indications that this was not so. William Petty alone of the Levellers at Putney spoke of ‘those that receive alms’. That he used this phrase may be accounted for by the fact that Cromwell had just posed a question in a fashion which prompted such an answer. In any event, Petty qualified his statement by explaining that he meant ‘those that receive alms from door to door’, surely not a reference to those who received official parish relief.
Cromwell himself, according to John Say’s parliamentary diary, informed the Commons on 23rd November 1647, that the agitators ‘would exclude children and servants, Yet such as received alms they insisted on as persons competent for electors’. It could be argued that Cromwell was slandering them in the hope of discrediting the Levellers, yet in that case why not go further and say they would include servants as well?
We know also of the concern the Levellers showed for those impoverished by the war. It would seem most unlikely that they would willingly have excluded such persons simply because they were forced to take alms. Nor do they appear to have regarded almstakers in general as irresponsible. One of the demands of the January Petition of 1643 was that ‘the poor be enabled to choose their trustees’.
The inclusion of ‘almstakers’ alone, even if we are mistaken about ‘servants’, would have increased the electorate considerably. According to Macpherson, in 1643 there were 309,700 ‘almstakers’ and only 9,000 ‘beggars,’9 If we are correct in our interpretation of the term ‘servant’ then a position approaching universal manhood suffrage is in view. (Statistics for ‘servants’ as we understand the term present problems, but Peter Laslett 10 has estimated that 10-15 per cent would fall into this category, many of whom would be only temporarily disenfranchised or under age,)
There is one further point to consider, namely the Levellers’ own conception of their society and what they wished it to be. Although supporters of property, their main concern was to protect the rights of the small man. For this protection they looked, as was the habit of mind then, much to the past for answers and justifications and had constantly in their minds some ideal of a Golden Age, If the master-servant relationship was giving way to that of employer-wage-earner, this was not obvious to them. The type of society which they desired was that of the small independent man, and they believed that the safeguards they sought against monopoly and other unwarranted interference with the individual would produce such a society, and thus the electorate, even if exclusions were made in their own time, would increase over the years. Whether this was impracticable or not, is neither here nor there in assessing their intentions,
1. K. Thomas, p. 71.
2 A.L, ‘Morton , p.213.
3. K. Thomas , p.72.
4 Ibid, 3 ,71.
5. D.H. Wolfe, p.403
6 A.L. Morton, p,214.
7 P. 72-73.
8. D.H. Wolfe, p,82 ,
9. Beware of making the same mistake as Thomas does
by taking 1613 figures for 1543.
l0. P. Laslett, The World We Have Lost.
There would appear to be three possible explanations of the Levellers’ attitude to the franchise. Firstly, that Macpherson is correct, namely that the Levellers were always in favour of a restricted franchise, excluding servants and beggars. Secondly, that they were from the first in favour of a full manhood franchise, but were forced to compromise when faced with political realities. Thirdly, that the Levellers were not originally overly concerned with the franchise, or at least their ideas were not clear-cut, but came, through the trials of 1647-9, to a desire for full manhood suffrage but were then thwarted by political realities.
I suspect that the last comes closest to the truth. It is difficult to imagine most of those who followed the Levellers being content with anything less than full enfranchisement for themselves or for others like them. That being so the broad membership of the Leveller cause leads to the logical conclusion that a very wide franchise indeed must have been desired if not attained.
Macpherson claims too much for his evidence. Firstly, the consistency which he attributes to the Levellers may, I think, be safely discounted. That some men of Levelling colour did think as Macpherson believes is most probably true, indeed almost certainly so, for it would be a strange party or group which did not contain differences of opinion on such a contentious issue.
Secondly, his broad definition of servants is dubious to say the least, particularly when we bear in mind the apparent readiness of the Commons before 1640 to grant wider franchises than he claims for the Levellers, and the fact that on his definition many who voted previously would have been excluded.
The position of the almstakers is, I think, even more clear cut, remembering that Petty spoke of ‘those that receive alms from door to door’, the use of ’beggars’ until the Second Agreement , and the entry in John Bay’s diary (a piece of evidence, incidentally , not available to Macpherson ).
Thirdly, the philosophy which he attributes to the Levellers has logical flaws when examined closely, and the system he constructs makes one wonder, with Peter Laslett, whether Macpherson has not developed his theory before examining his evidence and consequently falls, albeit unconsciously, into the mistake of attempting to sustain his theory by arguing a priori that all must thus be so.
After the Restoration, democratic ideas did not gain serious political currency in England for more than a century. However, they found ready supporters abroad, most dramatically in the person of Thomas Paine, who although English made his name in the American Revolution. The received academic opinion on the Revolution is that it was the offspring of John Locke. In fact, it had at least as much in common with the ideas of the Levellers. The Constitution is a balance between Locke and Paine, granting a large degree of popular involvement in politics , whilst tempering it with restrictions such as electoral colleges.
Why did the idea of democracy based on the active consent of all men arise in England rather than elsewhere? There were good reasons why it did. In the early modern period, England was an oddity amongst European states. Representative assemblies were commonplace in the mediaeval world. By 1600 all but a few had fallen to the growing power of rulers and either ceased to exist or had been emasculated to the point of insignificance. In England alone Parliament had increased its power and status in the 16th century. Not only that, but elections were held to appoint MPs. The membership of most European assemblies was, like the House of Lords, dependent on social position.
There was also a long tradition of liberty in England. In the minds of the Levellers these went back to long before Magna Carta. They also, as mentioned in the introduction, saw this tradition as having been stifled by the Normans and their continental successors. These were and are powerful engines for action.
England was also odd in other ways. Serfdom had withered away early. Enclosure had driven men off the land and into the towns. The dissolution of the monasteries had both removed the incubus of Rome and redistributed land and property, much of which ended up in the hands of “new men”. The population had risen dramatically since 1500 and high inflation (by pre-modern standards) had caused considerable social dislocation. At the same time, the wealth of the country had grown and the foundations laid for the commercial revolution which was to lay the foundation for the industrial revolution. Stuart society was a world on the physical, economic and intellectual move and waiting to move faster if the right engine appeared. The Civil War was the right transporter.
1. Market Society and Political Theory
C. B. Macpherson The theory of possessive individualism
D.H. Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan
A,S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty.
W. Hall, Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan evolution, Vol. III.
C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism
K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise (Chapter in the Interregnum The Quest for Settlement, Ed. G.E. Aylmer).
A.L. Morton, Leveller Democracy (In he world of the Rantors).
J.C. Davis, The Levellers ad Democracy : P. & P.X1 1968.
R. Howell and D. Brewster Reconsidering the Levellers, P. & P, 1970.
J.H. Plumb, The Growth of the electorate 1600-1715, P. & P. 1969
V.F. Snow, Parliamentary Reapportionment Proposals in The Puritan Revolution, E.H.R. 1959.
G.F. Aylmer, Gentlemen Levellers, P, & P. 1970.
P. Laslett, The World We Have Lost.
P. Laslett, Market Society and Political Theory, H.J. VII (1964).
J. Frank – The Levellers.
N.H, Brailsford – The Levellers and the English Revolution.
M.A. Gibb – John Lilburne The Leveller.