The New Model Army

The New Model Army has the unique distinction of being one of the first professional armies. Unlike previous fighting bands, it was not tied to any community, but had a national spirit--as befits the near religious aspect of the growth of nationalism taking place in England. It was not an army of religion, nor an army of Christendom, or even feudal nobles personally sworn to the service of the king. It was comprised of men paid to defend the nation of England. Originally, the New Model Army wanted only to settle grievances with Parliament; however, it set into motion the foundations for modern government. After refusing parliament's orders to disband and stand down, the extremists of the Army, the Levellers (named for their views on leveling out the differences between rich and poor), realized that they were in a superior position. Seizing the advantage of this position, akin to a modern day military coup, they argued for the most extreme social and political radicalism. These radical views are revealed in a series of debates at Putney, October 28, 1647, and at Whitehall, 14 December, 1648. The debates at Putney, centered on "The Agreement of the People." This "Agreement" was a social contract for a new government, and the most radical of these debates focused on the desire to end the rule of British king (Charles I), the monarchy in general, and the House of Lords. The Army's, specifically the Levellers's, most radical views called for the establishment of a government of the people and the abolishment of the aristocracy. Its members also wanted to create a House of Commons, the members of which all freeborn Englishmen would elect every two years. The strength of unity the Army possessed was strong enough that it was willing to fight the king of the land for freedom from tyranny and for defense of liberty.

A main point of the debates was the extending the franchise to all adult males. Colonel Rainsborough made the political views of Levellers perfectly clear when he declared that: "The poorest he that lives hath as true a right to give a vote as well as the richest and greatest." General Ireton speaking for the defense argued that the vote should remain with those who have "a permanent fixed interest in this Kingdom." Parliamentary forces feared that the Levellers wanted to use the poor vote to level the differences of all estates. Men like Colonel Rainsborough believed in the importance of the modern concepts of private property, religious toleration, equality before the law, the abolition of tithes, the election of sheriffs, and the sovereignty of the people. Their views included the near-communist view of leveling out the distinction between rich and poor, peasant and nobleman.

By modern day standards these seem only common sense, but in their day, they were quite radical. This was a time of the divine right of kings. A time when the Sun King uttered before the Estates General "L'etat, c'est moi." The state, I am the State. For the common people to say that they had rights, and that they could, and would, choose their own leaders, was vastly different from the feudalism of the middle-ages.

The real radical views of the New Model Army started as an objection about not being paid, and parliament's rejection their right to petition this grievance. Their political awareness became clearer when Army's grievances were transformed into a concern for individual rights. The soldiers of the New model Army also came to realize their own part in the settling of the Kingdoms future, a role that involved delimiting the power of Parliament as well as monarch. They slowly began to understand that when the fighting men of the country make a political decision, who is left to stand against them. By today's standards this how a military police state operates, and often seizes power in an aggressive military coup. As with modern equivalents, the long term result was that the political process had been overcome by force of arms. Not only were the political views of the New Model Army extreme, but so were its religious views. After the heavy handedness of the catholic church of the past centuries, the Army's views of harmonious diversity of religious beliefs are astonishing. The debates at Whitehall, on December 14, 1648 show that the New model Army believed in a form of religious tolerance. As with the U.S. marines "Semper Fi," the members of the New Model Army believed in the spirit of their organization more than any established state church. Members in the Army put forth the self-esteem derived from valor, unity, glory, and triumph over that of religion. The New Model Army was held together by military necessity, not religious zeal. The Army's religious radicalism held that religion might very well be based on whatever rules of conduct that can be immediately apprehended, or logically arrived at, by reason. The various religious beliefs of the Army had the same spirit of faith, but the differences between them took second place to the spirit of the Army. The Levellers believed that government was formed by the people, not by the word of God.

The political and religious radicalism of the New Model Army began with wanting a simple settlement of arrears, indemnity, and consideration for war widows and maimed soldiers. When parliament declared against these grievances, it raised doubts about the basic issue of a soldier's rights as a british citizen. In anger over parliament's refusal to address their grievances, the Army marched on London to succor and their settle their grievances. Fearing this armed force, Parliament ordered the army to disband. The Army refused until their grievances were heard. With no military force of their own to stand off its own military, parliament backed down. Leadership of the army seized the moment to push forward their own agenda. These views have become the foundation for modern government; religious freedom, ownership of private property and its protection, and most importantly a government elected by the citizens, not chosen by birth or by caste. In their day their views were very radical, but today we take them for granted.