The Putney Debates
Oliver Cromwell and the army leaders came to Putney with the intention of deciding the terms of settlement after the English Civil War, and what should be done with the King. In the event, the meeting was dominated by passionate debates about the political future of England, focussed on the revolutionary idea of democracy.
A momentous discussion about the right to vote began on the second day of debating. As a group of men from different backgrounds, the debate opens loosely in two groups: progressives who wish to see the right to vote extended, and conservatives, who fear that democracy will lead to anarchy.
Of those who wished to see the right to vote extended, Thomas Rainborough was the most vociferous proponent, stating:
“I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he. I think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.”
The opposing side was led by Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, who argued that the law should be left as it is:
“In choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by, no person has a right to this, who does not have a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom.
“If we take away this law, we shall plainly take away all property and interest that any man has.”
“For now only those who have property worth forty shillings are able to vote. A man may rent for one hundred pounds a year, but he has no voice.
“It does not destroy property, to give men a voice.
“The chief end of this government is to preserve persons as well as estates. For the preservation of all the native freeborn men, they should have an equal voice in elections.”
It was Rainborough’s passionate argument that proved more persuasive. A vote at the end of the meeting found only three men against the principle of extending the right to vote to most men in England.