‘The Putney Debates’: Let the good of the people be the supreme law
The "Buff coat," an unnamed, common soldier is quoted in the debates. Here, in this 2010 image, the Battle of Stratton is re-enacted. | Mike Pratt / Flickr (CC)

The people who wanted a society ‘on the level’—that is to say, socially equal—already straddled the Atlantic when the English Civil War broke out in 1642. These dissenter-revolutionaries could be found in abundance in the newly built towns of Massachusetts, places such as Scituate, some 30-odd miles south of Boston, where the Williams-Barker House now serves the locals as a pub. That house, as the pub menu proudly recites, was built by a certain John Williams, a relation of the reluctant leader of the new dominant class, Oliver Cromwell (né Williams), in 1634. Other members of this strange new class of people, like the brothers Thomas and William Rainsborough (also spelled “Rainsborowe” and “Rainborough”), were not only battle heroes for the rights of Parliament against the king, they were becoming leading radicals of social revolution, known as “Levellers.”

Thomas Rainsborough and his brother William were two of the fieriest Levellers in the English Civil War period. As fortune would have it, William emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s, where he served in the militia. He later returned to England and served as an officer in Cromwell’s New Model Army and participated with his brother in the Putney Debates. An illustration of these brothers’ radical ideas was carved on Thomas’s battle cornet, which depicted the severed head of Charles I, and the motto Salus populi suprema lex, “Let the good of the people be the supreme law.”

When it came to building Cromwell’s New Model Army, the first such armed force to protect the interests of the rising burgher class, the Rainsboroughs populated their regiments with returning New Englanders—rock-ribbed Puritans steeled by the hardscrabble life in the New World. And while their military exploits are a litany of legendary Parliamentary victories at Crowland, Bristol and the West Country of England, it is their intervention at the Putney Debates in October and November 1647 that lives on as both the framework for democratic debate and the critique of the nascent social system: capitalism. The ideas presented by men like the Rainsboroughs not only ushered in a new political economy, they presaged the need to go beyond it.

It was clear from the beginning of the Civil Wars of England that some among these revolutionary brewers, farmers, and tanners—on both sides of the pond—had even more radical ideas than championing Parliament’s authority over the monarchy. People such as “Freeborn” John Lilburne, the Rainsborough brothers, and John Wildman, wanted to extend democracy to all people, not just to landowners. These early radical philosopher-soldiers wanted a level society that would reflect humanity’s natural state of equity—thus their epithet, the Levellers. An expression of the Leveller spirit remains to this day in the form of the New England Town Meeting, still in use by nearly 300 of the 351 towns in Massachusetts.

The question remains, however, how exactly did all these democratic ideals evolve out of English feudalism? We can begin to catch a glimpse of this serpentine social and economic development as far back as the Tudor period when townspeople and the guilds grew in wealth and power thanks to an increase in trade and technology. But how often can we witness the decisive turning point in this sort of social history? Could it be that the death of one social system and the rise of another is on tap for anyone to pour themselves a pint of historical clarity at any time?

Happily, in the case of the changeover from feudalism to capitalism in England, the answer would be a hearty “yes.” This revolutionary moment in European and world history is meticulously documented in The Putney Debates, a series of magnificently frank discussions held at St. Mary’s Church in Putney, London, in 1647, between the Levellers, Oliver Cromwell, and other members of the New Model Army.

Hidden in the back cupboard of a library at Oxford for much of the past four centuries, the debate transcripts were taken in shorthand by William Clarke, assistant to John Rushworth, Cromwell’s secretary. The transcript was not published until the shorthand was deciphered and edited by Sir Charles Firth in his Clarke Papers, published by the Camden Society in four volumes, between 1891 and 1901.

The second appearance of the Debates emerged in 1938, whose editor, A.S.P. Woodhouse, went back to the original manuscript and produced a new text, published by J.M. Dent, as well as organizing a comprehensive introduction, and added selections from contemporary illustrative documents. The current version has been carefully studied, corrected and reprinted in several editions, from 1950 through 1986, the latter being the text used for the section on the debates themselves, in this latest Verso edition.

What has emerged from all this painstaking transcription, editing, and a meaty introduction by human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson is nothing short of breathtaking for those of us who are interested to see how social systems change—and what average, “buff-coated” working-class people thought of that change. We can see through the debates that working-class people were well aware of the seismic shift in power that took place when Parliament asserted its authority as transcendent and absolute, up to the point of ordering the separation of Charles Stuart’s non-compliant head from the rest of his regal appendages.

The new bourgeoisie, which was well represented at the debates, was fearful and cautious of change. The whole psychological atmosphere in that Putney parish church on those long autumn days in1647 was filled with an uneasiness reflected in Cromwell’s opening remarks, “We have been by providence put upon strange things, such as the ancientest here do scarce remember.”

Not so strange, to us at least, were the arguments against an increase in democracy. The arguments against universal, male suffrage were nearly the same as today’s right-wing red-baiting or conservative scoffing at the right to universal, comprehensive health care. Cries that anarchy, social disintegration, and the questioning of the basis of property itself, became the focal point of the debates. Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton, commissary-general of the New Model Army, tended to side with the more conservative upper class. The agitators, as the elected representatives of the Army were then known, tended toward the Levellers. These men represented a wide array of new and independent religious groups, and some, like Gerrard Winstanley’s True Levellers (aka “Diggers”), could be classified as being visionary and pioneering religious communists.

Even today, some of their ideas would strike some as very radical, indeed. Winstanley wrote: “Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” (from The New Law of Righteousness, 1649).

That is a question that socialists and reformers such as the Rev. William Barber II are asking in 2019, let alone 17th-century England. It is worth recalling that the Levellers, and the Diggers in particular, were precursors of the remarkable working-class Chartist movement of late 1830s Britain, that greatly inspired the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

On October 29, the second day of the debate, the matter of equality was championed by Thomas Rainsborough, who spoke passionately on behalf of all people when he said, “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.”

Rainsborough and the other Levellers pleaded before their peers at Putney for the Army and Parliament to stop negotiating with the king and draw-up a new constitution. Cromwell and Ireton were opposed to the Levellers’ demands, but Rainsborough’s ideas would come to fruition thanks to the king’s pigheadedness, which essentially forced Parliament to adopt a more radical stand.

The ideas espoused by the Levellers at the Putney Debates are clearly as advanced, if not more so, than the Enlightenment-era pomposities of the American War for Independence, which conveniently forgot to mention that “All (white) men are created equal (so long as they can pay for a good lawyer).” Here we can see that there was no fundamental change of social system in the American colonies after independence, while the Britain of pre-Civil War days would never return. Yes, there was the Restoration of the monarchy, but the primacy of Parliament remained fully ensconced as the ultimate arbiter of power in the realm, and the power of market capital would grow in importance and influence as the productive forces of Britain and the colonies expanded. The most important product of the Civil War and the Debates is that the social order was new and would not have been won without revolution.

For us today, this edition of The Putney Debates is an important mirror that allows us to see back in time, but it is also a way to more clearly see the present, and the near future, as we perch on the eve of great social change. We would do well to remember that one of the first people to speak at Putney that autumn was a common soldier, referred to simply as “Buff-coat.” Buff-coat appealed to all the allied forces of the New Model to unify through honest and lively debate, and for the “right understanding of one of another.”

Today, unlike in 1647, the social system is not the tyranny of “divine right” or a landed aristocracy. This time, we face the haunting Leveller arguments that were never answered at Putney. The question of social equality for all, not just the democracy of a certain class, has yet to be fully addressed. The publication of this edition can be an important resource in the education of a new generation of debaters and revolutionaries, who are engaged in the great social movements of our time.

The Putney Debates
by The Levellers
Edited by Philip Baker, introduction by Geoffrey Robertson
Part of the Revolutions series
Verso, 176 pages, $16.95 (paper)
ISBN-13 978-1-78873-141-6


Donald Donato
Donald Donato

Donald Donato is a writer appearing in People’s World, Britain's Morning Star and the social science journal International Critical Thought (Routledge). For nearly 30 years, he has written about social and economic development as a planner, field researcher, development project manager, an adviser for research, publications, and communications, and a freelance journalist. Donato is a member of the National Writers Union-UAW Local 1981.