Sunday, October 28, 2007

Putney Debates

Today was the 360th anniversary of the Putney Debates, and since I have named this blog after one of the Levellers, I ought to mark the occasion. The Debates were:

a series of discussions between members of the New Model Army and the Levellers, concerning the makeup of a new constitution for England. The debates were held at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Putney, in the county of Surrey (now in South West London), starting on October 28, 1647 and lasting until November 11.
We're still having some of the debates they had then. Here's a famous exchange:
Thomas Rainsborough, for the Levellers:
“ For really I think that the poorest he that is in England have 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 Ireton, for the Grandees:
“ no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom... that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom. ”
I've been seeing increasingly common suggestions that the vote should be limited to tax payers, born out of frustration with people voting themselves other people's money. I disagree. We live at a very similar time to the Levellers, in my opinion. Instead of an over-mighty monarch, we have an over-mighty Parliament. It is very important to assert the principle that government has no legitimacy at all except through votes and that if a person does not have the vote, they do not consent to the authority of the government, and nor should they.

Although the Levellers have been claimed by the political left, a more convincing argument can be made for their libertarian qualities. And as power slipped from them, and England reverted to a preening monarchy, Levellers and other Puritans crossed the Atlantic. Their legacy does not lie in England at all. Their gift to our time is the USA. Their constitutional ideas can be seen clearly in the American constitution.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The American Constitution was also the work of the Virginian gentry. Quite good work, I reckon, made possible by the absence of the preposterous Jefferson in Paris, shagging one of his slaves.