Origin Story

Origin Story | Democracy And The Putney Debates

The early seeds of the political theory of democracy (people’s rule) was sowed in the ancient Greek civilization. It was widely propagated by philosophers Plato and Socrates who also pointed out the ill effects of democracy. However, the reincarnation of democracy took place in the middle ages of Europe’s Britain. The event that led to the regeneration of the most widely accepted political theories in the world currently is the Putney debates of 1647.


The English Civil War


The first civil war in England broke out at the time when the kingdom was at its most vulnerable state. It had not been more than 40 years since the death of Queen Elizabeth. Her cousin, King James VI who succeeded her was removed twice for resorting to extra parliamentary income. James was succeeded by his son King Charles I under whom the kingdom achieved relative peace and prosperity. However, the peace didn’t last well when the king married a Roman Catholic French princess called Henrietta Maria. This sparked off a protest by the parliament who refused to grant him all the rights to continue his rule. Charles dissolved the parliament and tried to form a new one.


The new parliament drafted the petition of rights which granted protection for the citizens from the state. In a remarkable event, the petition of rights excluded the king from collecting taxes of import and export which he relied on without parliamentary authorization. This didn’t go well with Charles who was vulnerable already. The vulnerability also forced him to abandon the parliament for a decade which in Britain’s history is called ‘Personal Rule of Charles I’ or the ‘Eleven years tyranny.’ All these factors and more led to a civil war between the parliamentarians who wanted a constitution and the royalists who preferred the king’s rule. This later led to a series of discussions called the ‘Putney Debates’.


The Build-up to the Putney Debates


The parliamentarians who were against the rule of King Charles formed an army called the New Model Army to fight against the king. After capturing the city of London in August 1647, the New Model Army set up its headquarters at Putney in Surrey. On October 28 1647, the Putney debates began at the church of St. Mary the Virgin.


It is interesting to note that the emergence of the modern day democracy came after a war between two ideologies – one group challenging the ruler and the one protecting the rule. Incidentally, the biggest ideologies in the current political discourse – the left and the right wing – also came from a similar scenario but during the French revolution.


The Putney Debates


The debates took place between the various section of the English society which was concerned with sovereignty, right to vote, and religious tolerance. The radicals hustled for a constitution that would guarantee a vote for every man. The parliamentarians also demanded the reorganization of the parliamentary constituency and stressed that the ultimate power should be vested in the House of Commons than a single king or many lords.

In the Putney debates, a set of native rights were granted for all Englishmen. That included,
• Freedom of conscience
• Freedom of impressment into armed forces
• Equality before the law


The Flawed Agreement


Initially, when the agreement was being drafted, it was decided that the right to vote will be granted to all the men of the country. This was pointed as ‘anarchy’ by the parliament which in turn batted for the rights to be granted only to those who own a piece of land. Another sect, the agitators, called out the agreement and demanded their rights for lending the service in the war. However, the need to grant rights to everyone irrespective of gender was never put forward by any section or is rather undocumented.


One army colonel, Thomas Rainsborough, placed his arguments before the parliament in an attempt to form a just society. He said,


“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it 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 hath not had a voice to put Himself under.”


373 years later, Thomas Rainsborough’s argument still rings a bell in the democratic countries that are finding difficulty in sustaining a lawfully just and morally equal society.

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