Monthly Archives: July 2014

Philip Baker and Elliott Vernon, eds., The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution (review)

Baker, Philip and Elliott Vernon. The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Sorry for the delay. I finished reading the book a little while ago, but had other work to do. I also read (most of) another book, and I will probably post some thoughts on that when I get the chance.

Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. However, if you are planning on getting started with the Levellers, you should not start here. This book does not provide an overview or context for a lot of what was happening in the 1640s. That is not a criticism; that was not the point of the book. But this book is a big step toward establishing some new orthodoxies about the Leveller movement and the army’s radicalism during the Civil Wars.

A lot of the chapters in this book drew on some ideas put forward by Vernon and Baker in their article “What was the first Agreement of the People?” I believe I discussed it in an earlier post. They argue that first Agreement was not a Leveller document. It was written by soldiers and agitators, led by Wildman, who had little to no direct contact with the civilians who would become the leaders of the Leveller movement. The Agreement itself was a product of the radicalism of some of the army’s own members and a response to what these members thought was an overly generous peace proposal in the Heads of the Proposals. Not all of the contributors to the book entirely go along with this redefinition. In particular, Rachel Foxley, who recently published a book on the Levellers, is not willing to take the Levellers out of the Agreement, citing enough similar phrasings and patterns of thought with earlier pamphlets by later Levellers to show consistency, even if Vernon and Baker are correct about the genesis of the document. For my part, I think that Vernon and Baker’s reading of the origins of the first Agreement make a lot of sense. It never made sense to me that Cromwell and the other senior officers would have been willing to give a serious hearing to the Agreement those fateful days in October and November 1647 if it had not been a product of the army. We simply have to take at face value that it was written by representatives from five regiments and not part of a Leveller plot. More on this point later, but suffice it to say that many of the contributors, particularly in the earlier chapters, support this reading of the first Agreement. This will be the new orthodoxy.

Baker and Vernon also establish a new chronology for the Agreements. Traditionally, historians discussed the first Agreement (Nov. 1647), the second Agreement (the account that Lilburne published in Dec. 1648 purporting to be the version agreed upon by the committee of sixteen), the officers’ Agreement (Jan. 20, 1648), and the third Agreement (May 1649). There was also an Agreement by John Jubbes (Dec. 1648) which was generally ignored or marginalized because Jubbes was not a Leveller. Baker, Vernon, and many of the contributors to the volume rename and reorganize this timeline. After the first Agreement, there is a series of compromises worked out between Wildman and a committee to reconcile the Agreement and the Heads on Nov. 2. Throughout 1648, Levellers and army supporters continued to develop the Agreement to include many of the social and legal reforms promoted by the Levellers, and the various published versions are collectively referred to as New Engagements. The second Agreement is now Foundations of Freedom, because it can no longer be second if the first was not a Leveller document and there were New Engagements in between. Jubbes’s Agreement is reconsidered as an authentic Agreement because if the first Agreement was not a Leveller document, then the fact that Jubbes was not a Leveller should not discount his Agreement. The officers’ Agreement is still referred to as such by most of the contributors, but it was also called the January 1649 Agreement. Finally, the third Agreement is redubbed the May 1649 Agreement, because it can no longer be third. The names reflect the new understanding of the Agreements as an ongoing series of attempts by different parties to resolve England’s constitutional crisis of the 1640s. While the Levellers were heavily involved, they cannot be given pride of place when so many others contributed. The result is messier, but more accurately reflects the complexities of the history. The crux of the Agreement is not Leveller infiltration of the army but the quest to settle England.  As Baker and Vernon write at the end of their introduction (which was a superb survey of Leveller historiography, “the Agreements of the People were documents that represented a particularly early modern attempt to remodel the constitution in a time of political crisis” (20-21).

In the interests of space and time, I will try to limit myself to a few thoughts on each individual chapter.

Ch. 1: Edward Vallance, “Oaths, Covenants, Associations and the Origins of the Agreements of the People: The Road to and from Putney”

This chapter argued that the Agreements adapted the use of loyalty oaths that proliferated in the 1640s and 50s, particularly the Covenant, from their earlier medieval, communal roots into “natural rights-based individualism” in a “quintessentially ‘early modern’ transitional phase” (30). Time is given to looking at Collinson’s take on the 1584 bond of association and earlier precedents of oaths of association. The Levellers came to emphasize the contractual language and invitation to mass political involvement, making the oaths a kind of social contract. Vallance notes the importance placed upon engagements and covenants by the Levellers and the soldiers, pointing out that the debate that preceded the famous debate over the franchise was an extended debate over the keeping of those oaths. Therefore, the radicalism of the Levellers does not rest in the franchise or any particular part of their platform (though there were radical elements), but in taking “the sectional democracy of the medieval commune and transform[ing] it radically, into a national written constitution, guaranteeing fundamental, natural, human rights” (43).

One thing that Vallance notes, which I have not seen elsewhere, but I am quite behind on my Leveller historiography, is that Rainsborough’s famous “greatest hee” speech was borrowed from Lilburne’s The Charters of London (1644).

I think that many historians are reimagining the Levellers as radicals who happened to get along for a while. Historians long struggled over what to call the grouping. Is it a party? Is it a movement? This view of the Agreement and the Levellers emphasizes the view of the Levellers as part of the fracturing Independent alliance (also not a new interpretation, but increasingly in vogue). These were men who read parliamentary declarations in a particular way, and thus drew on the same material as Independents and even Presbyterians, but drew wildly different conclusions. In this case, it is a matter of how they interpreted oaths. Is there any greater symbol for variant interpretation than the Solemn League and Covenant? Both Presbyterians and Independents found ways to bash each other with it.

Ch. 2: Jason Peacey, “The People of the Agreements: The Levellers, Civil War Radicalism and Political Participation”

At heart, this chapter was about the people: who they were and what they were required to do, according to the Agreements. Peacey compares the various documents and finds that while all of them required a mechanism for popular approval, the Levellers were radical in that they imagined that the people bound themselves to maintain the Agreement in an active way. There would be frequent elections, impeachments, free press, and regular political reporting to keep MPs accountable.

I am always a fan of Peacey’s work. However, I struggled with this one a little. I think that the analysis and argument were strong and I am always amazed at his grasp of the historiography (seriously, I sometimes wonder if I have read as many books in my entire life as he cites in a single article), but got bogged down in the language from time to time. This sentence got me: “the texts of the various Agreements thus contained a range of different ideas and they performed different functions for different groups, and within individual schemes they could be understood to have had multiple uses” (66). Still, if this is what I can expect to find out of his new book (which I have not been able to read yet because no school in the University System of Georgia seems to have it), I am on board.

Ch. 3: Alan Orr, “Constitutionalism: Ancient, Modern and Early Modern in the Agreements of the People

Orr argues that the Levellers were not trying to create anything new. Rather, the focus of the Agreements and the Levellers was about the restoration of the English birthright, no matter how mythical. The goal was to return to a time before the Norman Conquest and restore the English birthright to its proper state of freedom. This included creating a unicameral parliament and abolishing the power of the Lords.

The article is well argued and clearly written. Considering how much time the Levellers and others spent considering birthright, not to mention the extended debate at Putney, it is surprising that there has not been more discussion of what exactly the birthright meant.

Ch. 4: Philip Baker, “The Levellers, Decentralization and the Agreements of the People

Baker argues that the Leveller platforms and the Agreements were shaped the Levellers experiences, good and bad, with local government, particularly London’s. The Levellers and the Agreements developed over time was “a reaction against longer-term changes in civic governance as in more recent national developments” (98). The Levellers particularly wanted to decentralize the English government. The emphasis on decentralization in the Leveller tracts is well known, but the examination of their knowledge of city governments is revealing.

The Leveller demand for decentralization was at least in part sparked by perceptions of parliamentary tyranny. It was their experiences in being part of the “unacknowledged republic” of England (there are a few points in this chapter in which the reader is reminded of John Morrill; this is one of them) and the self-governing city of London that led them to believe such decentralization desirable. Baker shows that William Walwyn and Thomas Prince both occupied positions in London, and that Prince and Wildman worked for other city governments, too. In addition, Baker shows that their experiences with groups in London (Lilburne’s fight with the Stationers’ Company and Merchant Adventurers, Prince being denied a voice in an election, Walwyn’s plan to raise a citizen army to guard the Tower) all are represented in some way in the Agreements. These experiences and fears of losing local autonomy as the English government continued to centralize encouraged the Levellers to push for decentralization.

In the late 1970s, Morrill argued that Leveller and army aims were incompatible, something that the soldiers eventually realized, because the Leveller emphasis on decentralization would have made it impossible for the army to find relief for its material grievances (“The Army Revolt of 1647”). This chapter drew on an explored this aspect further in a very interesting way. I am curious as to why I have not heard more about the Levellers in city government. Baker argues that the leadership and the rank-and-file of the army opposed this decentralization, and so relevant proposals were withdrawn from later Agreements. However, Baker also argues that the Levellers themselves lost some of their steam for decentralization as their experiences with national and local governments made them doubt the “support and the judgment of their fellow man”(108). I really liked that last point.

Ch. 5: Rachel Foxley, “Freedom of Conscience and the Agreements of the People

This was a fascinating piece. Foxley is explaining the roots of the Levellers’ views on religious toleration and how those were different from Ireton and others.’ Religious toleration was fundamental to the Levellers in ways that it was not to others. It was the same as having political liberty.

The Levellers believed that, because compulsion in religion was not a power that an individual had, it could not be given by the people to the state. This is a fairly well known Leveller position. However, Foxley illustrates that the Levellers believed that the power of religion needed to be listed as a reserve from the government to make clear that it had no authority there. This was fundamental, because the Levellers believed that true government came from the people, not from God. For Ireton, magistrates did have divine approval. This illustrates the radicalism of the Leveller emphasis on government as a human institution, a belief that cost them the support of London congregations and put them at odds with the army grandees. Therefore, for Ireton, any Agreement should say that the government could not compel in matters of religion, but he fully believed that it had the authority to restrict in matters of religion, particularly to marginalize Catholics and prelacy.

The Levellers also argued that a person’s conscience was God-given, and therefore it was up to each person to make his or her own decisions, based on the way that God spoke to him or her. Foxley points out that this was also the motivation behind outlawing the draft. “Perhaps, indeed, it would not be going too far to say that the exercise of (individual) conscience in politics became one of the shibboleths that divided grandees from more radical army men” (16).

Ch. 6: Ian Gentles, “The New Model Army and the Constitutional Crisis of the Late 1640s”

This is a good article for getting context and background for the develops in the army and its relationship with the Levellers in the later 1640s. There is not a single argument that I can discuss here; it is more of a narrative.

Ch. 7: Frances Henderson, “Drafting the Officers’ Agreement of the People, 1648-49: A Reappraisal”

I am sometimes envious of Dr. Henderson and the amount of time she has been able to spend with the Clarke Papers. It seems like she is always finding something new and interesting. In this case, she is looking over an interim copy of the officers’ Agreement from Dec. 14, 1648. The discussion is very detailed, and I am not sure how much I can get into, especially considering this post’s current word count. Henderson argues that this draft of the Agreement in the Clarke Papers is a working draft of the Agreement, and not the Agreement decided on by the committee of 16 established by Lilburne and Ireton to draft a new Agreement. Henderson argues that Lilburne was writing truthfully when he wrote that he published the committee’s Agreement on Dec. 15, the day after he walked out of the Whitehall Debates. Henderson then uses the draft to show what the General Council had been up to on Dec. 12th and 13th, dates for which we have few sources to show what was being debated. The chapter ends with a transcript of the interim draft.

One takeaway from this piece, other than the usefulness of knowing what the General Council was up to during this busy period, is that Ireton was not playing the Levellers for fools. Lilburne came to believe that the debates over the Agreement were a ploy to keep the Levellers busy while the army set about executing the king and establishing its own power. The “painstaking” amount of work exhibited here suggests that Ireton and the army had every intention of settling the country through such an Agreement.

Ch. 8: Elliot Vernon, “‘A Firme and Present Peace; Upon Grounds of Common Right and Freedome’: The Debate on the Agreements of the People and the Crisis of the Constitution, 1647-59”

This chapter examined the Agreements as attempts to solve England’s constitutional crisis and the reception of the Agreements at large. This chapter examines how the Levellers became so closely associated with the first Agreement, despite that fact that it was not a Leveller document and that there was not group called “Levellers” before Putney. The innovative take on this part of Leveller history is that, simply, it was convenient for detractors to mash the two concepts together.

Vernon argues that the term Leveller came from the growing fears of social and religious disorder. Heresiographers, like Thomas Edwards, had stoked fears of social revolution. With the appearance of the Agreement and the threat of military imposition of that Agreement, people became convinced that there was a plot to kill the king and level society. The Agreement was the proof of such a plot, and it “would never lose this association in the polemical debates of the late 1640s and early 1650s” (200).

The Agreement also made people afraid of a future where people had too much freedom and society, as a democracy, would tear itself apart. It was perhaps made worse by the “secular formalism” of the proposed government that irked many fellow radicals. This included army divines like Joshua Sprigge and Sedgwick, who called it an “Agreement with death” (I always liked that one).

I like this piece because it ties together loose ends. It explains the appellation of Leveller, its links to the Agreement which was not originally a Leveller document, and how it played on fears across a broad political and religious spectrum. It is no wonder that no Agreement ever became the English constitution, despite eventually having the support of the army.

Ch. 9: Ann Hughes, “Diggers, True Levellers and the Crisis of the English Revolution”

Hughes makes the excellent point here that the Diggers and the Levellers were not related. Hughes has had a great deal of experience with the Diggers lately as one of the editors of the works of Gerrard Winstanley, and she notes that Winstanley himself rarely made common cause with the Levellers (I think it showed up in one or two pamphlets, but was probably more of an attempt at finding common cause rather than a demonstration of it) and that they wanted fundamentally different things. The Levellers wanted to create secular government, Winstanley wanted to God to help humanity recreate the beginning of the world. Winstanley’s project was inherently divine in nature. It was just convenient for commentators to lump the two groups together because the Levellers drew more attention, whereas the Diggers were what people thought that the Levellers were trying to be. In other words, the Diggers were actually trying to level men’s estates, so why not put them together with the group had been dubbed Levellers?

Ch. 10: David L. Smith, “The Agreements of the People and the Constitutions of the Interregnum”

This chapter traces the influence of the Agreements on reform and constitutional developments in the 1650s. Smith notes that the Rump had begun some piecemeal reforms regarding elections, religion, and justice. However, it was the Instrument of Government that showed the most influence from the Agreements, primarily in the franchise and distribution of seats, mainly drawing on the officers’ Agreement. However, with the Humble Petition and Advice, there was a distinct move away from the Agreements over religious toleration, the franchise, the distribution of seats, and the creation of a second house of parliament. The piece was frequently cited throughout the rest of the volume and is worth a read.

Wrap it up

Sorry for finishing so abruptly, but I saw how long this review was getting. The volume is really worth a read. I do think that Leveller and army history is being rewritten right now, and this book is making a significant contribution.

I hope that I will be able to keep up this more regular pace for writing posts. I am not sure what I will review next. I have some other recent books to look at, like Foxley’s book, I have some books on public history that I am reading, and I need to buckle down on some of my own research. I want to keep working on the history of the London agent, perhaps looking at what I can find on Sir Thomas Clarges and Capt. Adam Baynes. I am not sure if I have the money on hand to get copies of the volumes of Baynes’s correspondence at the BL right now, though. I may also want to go back in time and look at a Jacobean or an Elizabethan agent, but I am better prepared to work on another Civil War era agent. I will figure that out soon, hopefully. Suggestions are welcome.

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Filed under Levellers, Long Parliament, New Model, William Clarke