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The English seventeenth-century radicals known as the Levellers are often credited with a ground-breaking social contract theory: believing that England’s civil wars and political conflicts had reduced the nation to a state of nature, they proposed ‘Agreements of the People’ which were essentially social contracts to reconstitute political authority in the nation. However, a closer look at their account of the natural state of mankind and the operation of natural law in society reveals that they saw government by consent as an extension of the natural order rather than an escape from it. Consequently, the line between the exercise of their natural sovereign power by the people and its exercise by a representative government becomes blurred, creating insoluble problems for the Levellers in their constitutional theory. The people’s defence of their natural rights can be seen as part of their ongoing exercise of their natural rights, even under government, rather than a struggle to escape the state of nature.
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Keywords: Agreement of the People; English civil war; Levellers; parliament; representation; social contract; state of nature

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept. of History, University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading, RG6 6AA, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: January 1, 2007

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