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Captain John Clarke asserts the right of all men to vote in the formation of a new constitution by right of the property they have in themselves (1647)

Captain John Clarke was one of the officers of the New Model Army who met in general council at Putney in October 1647 to debate the constitutional settlement. Cromwell argued that the franchise should be strictly limited to men of property. He was challenged by Rainborough, Sexby, and Clarke who were representatives of the radical Leveller movement within the army. Clarke argued for a much broader franchise in elections based upon his notion of natural law and individual property rights

… the grand question of all is, whether or no it be the property of every individual person in the kingdom to have a vote in election[s]; and the ground [on which it is claimed] is the Law of Nature, which, for my part, I think to be that law which is the ground of all constitutions. Yet really properties are the foundation of constitutions, [and not constitutions of property]. For if so be there were no constitutions, yet the Law of Nature does give a principle [for every man] to have a property of what he has, or may have, which is not another man’s. This [natural right to] property is the ground of meum and tuum. Now there may be inconveniencies on both hands, but not so great freedom [on either as is supposed—not] the greater freedom, as I conceive, that all may have whatsoever [they have a mind to]. And if it come to pass that there be a difference, and that the one [claimant] doth oppose the other, then nothing can decide it but the sword, which is the wrath of God.

Cromwell:

I confess I was most dissatisfied with that I heard Mr. Sexby speak, of any man here, because it did savour so much of will. But I desire that all of us may decline that, and if we meet here really to agree to that which is for the safety of the kingdom, let us not spend so much time in such debates as these are, but let us apply ourselves to such things as are conclusive, and that shall be this. Everybody here would be willing that the Representative might be mended, that is, [that] it might be [made] better than it is. Perhaps it may be offered in that [other] paper too lamely. If the thing [there] insisted upon be too limited, why perhaps there are a very considerable part of copyholders by inheritance that ought to have a voice; and there may be somewhat [in that paper] too [that] reflects upon the generality of the people [in denying them a voice]. I know our debates are endless if we think to bring it to an issue this way. If we may but resolve upon a committee, [things may be done]. If I cannot be satisfied to go so far as these gentlemen that bring this paper, I say it again [and] I profess it, I shall freely and willingly withdraw myself, and I hope to do it in such a manner that the Army shall see that I shall by my withdrawing satisfy the interest of the Army, the public interest of the kingdom, and those ends these men aim at. And I think if you do bring this to a result it were well.

Rainborough:

If these men must be advanced, and other men set under foot, I am not satisfied. If their rules must be observed, and other men, that are [not] in authority, [be silenced, I] do not know how this can stand together [with the idea of a free debate]. I wonder how that should be thought wilfulness in one man that is reason in another; for I confess I have not heard anything that doth satisfy me, and though I have not so much wisdom, or [so many] notions in my head, I have so many [apprehensions] that I could tell an hundred [such] of the ruin of the people. I am not at all against a committee’s meeting; and as you say—and I think every Christian ought to do the same—for my part I shall be ready, if I see the way that I am going, and the thing that I would insist on, will destroy the kingdom, I shall withdraw [from] it as soon as any. And therefore, till I see that, I shall use all the means [I can], and I think it is no fault in any man [to refuse] to sell that which is his birthright.

Sexby:

I desire to speak a few words. I am sorry that my zeal to what I apprehend is good should be so ill resented. I am not sorry to see that which I apprehend is truth [disputed], but I am sorry the Lord hath darkened some so much as not to see it, and that is in short [this]. Do you [not] think it were a sad and miserable condition, that we have fought all this time for nothing? All here, both great and small, do think that we fought for something. I confess, many of us fought for those ends which, we since saw, were not those which caused us to go through difficulties and straits [and] to venture all in the ship with you. It had been good in you to have advertised us of it, and I believe you would have [had] fewer under your command to have commanded. But if this be the business, that an estate doth make men capable—it is no matter which way they get it, they are capable—to choose those that shall represent them, I think there are many that have not estates that in honesty have as much right in the freedom [of] their choicee as any that have great estates. Truly, sir, [as for] your putting off this question and coming to some other, I dare say, and I dare appeal to all of them, that they cannot settle upon any other until this be done. It was the ground that we took up arms [on], and it is the ground which we shall maintain. Concerning my making rents and divisions in this way. As a particular, if I were but so, I could lie down and be trodden there; [but] truly I am sent by a regiment, [and] if I should not speak, guilt shall lie upon me, and I [should] think I were a covenant-breaker. I do not know how we have [been] answered in our arguments, and [as for our engagements], I conceive we shall not accomplish them to the kingdom when we deny them to ourselves. I shall be loath to make a rent and division, but, for my own part, unless I see this put to a question, I despair of an issue.

Clarke:

The first thing that I should desire was, and is, this: that there might be a temperature and moderation of spirit within us; that we should speak with moderation, not with such reflection as was boulted one from another, but so speak and so hear as that which [is said] may be the droppings of love from one to another’s hearts. Another word I have to say is [that] the grand question of all is, whether or no it be the property of every individual person in the kingdom to have a vote in election[s]; and the ground [on which it is claimed] is the Law of Nature, which, for my part, I think to be that law which is the ground of all constitutions. Yet really properties are the foundation of constitutions, [and not constitutions of property]. For if so be there were no constitutions, yet the Law of Nature does give a principle [for every man] to have a property of what he has, or may have, which is not another man’s. This [natural right to] property is the ground of meum and tuum. Now there may be inconveniencies on both hands, but not so great freedom [on either as is supposed—not] the greater freedom, as I conceive, that all may have whatsoever [they have a mind to]. And if it come to pass that there be a difference, and that the one [claimant] doth oppose the other, then nothing can decide it but the sword, which is the wrath of God.

About this Quotation:

The Putney Debates of October 1647 are one of those few revolutionary moments when the direction a nation might go in is being determined. Here is the vigorous discussion with the New Model Army over what kind of constitution they want the New Britain to have. Cromwell and others want to severely restrict the vote to the “better part” of property owners. He is courageously challenged by Captain John Clarke who states that constitutions are based on the natural right of property which all men have, and all men at least have a property in themselves and this entitles them to vote in any election.

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