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Algernon Sidney, The Very Copy of a Paper Delivered to the Sheriffs - Joyce Lee Malcom, The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, vol. 2 
The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, 2 vols, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 2.
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Algernon Sidney, The Very Copy of a Paper Delivered to the Sheriffs
Algernon Sidney, 1622-1683
The Very COPY of a
Delivered to the
Upon the Scaffold on Tower-hill, on Friday Decemb. 7. 1683.
By Algernoon Sidney, Esq;
Before his Execution there.
This final testament of the renowned republican philosopher and politician Sir Algernon Sidney provides a vivid reminder of the persistence of that “good old cause” for which Vane had suffered more than twenty years before.
Sidney had an active military and political career, beginning in 1642, when he joined his father, the lord deputy of Ireland, in suppressing the Irish rebellion. Back in England he had enlisted as an officer in the Earl of Manchester’s army, determined, he later wrote, to uphold the common rights of mankind, the laws of the land, and the true Protestant religion. When wounds he received at Marston Moor made soldiering impossible, he sat in the Long Parliament for Cardiff. Sidney played no part in the trial of Charles I and later opposed the engagement oath. Nevertheless, in 1652 he served on the Council of State. He was present when Cromwell entered the chamber and forcibly evicted the Rump. He later opposed the Protectorate. In 1659 when the Long Parliament was restored Sidney was among those who returned to the Commons where he was again elected to the Council of State. He was one of four commissioners appointed to mediate between the kings of Sweden and Denmark and was therefore out of England when Charles II was recalled and the Restoration took place.
Unlike Vane, Sidney was not among those individuals specifically exempted from pardon. Nevertheless he chose to remain abroad, unwilling to live under suspicion or to plead repentance. After some seventeen years of self-imposed exile he returned to England to settle his private affairs. Once home he got immersed in the exclusion debate and decided to remain. Sidney made four unsuccessful attempts towin election to Parliament. His involvement in Whig intrigues with the French damaged his reputation. Although he apparently never plotted armed resistance, he was arrested in 1683 after the so-called Rye House Plot on three charges of treason: for consultations to levy war against the king; for sending a man to Scotland to conspire with the Scots; and for the sentiments expressed in Discourses Concerning Government, his unpublished manuscript written to refute Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings Asserted. Indeed, Sidney’s manuscript would be used by the judge as the crucial second witness against him.
Sidney defended himself vigorously despite the usual liabilities suffered by those charged with treason and the additional burden of facing the notorious Judge Jeffreys on the bench. His witnesses discredited the only direct witness against him, Lord Howard of Escrick. Nevertheless he was found guilty, sentenced on 26 November 1683, and beheaded on 7 December. Instead of a scaffold speech he handed the sheriffs the essay reprinted here and passed another copy to a friend.
When the two-page “Last Paper” was published, it caused a sensation and quickly went into three editions. It was reprinted with government approval on the premise that it would demonstrate that Sidney was a traitor. Contrary to tradition these last words were not repentant but defiant. He denounced the injustice of his trial and embraced the theories of his Discourses Concerning Government and of the “good old cause.” Indeed Sidney ended with thanks to God for permitting him to die for that cause in which he was engaged from his youth.
Men, Brethren, and Fathers; Friends, Countrymen, and Strangers;
IT May be expected that I should now say some Great matters unto you, but the Rigour of the Season, and the Infirmities of my Age, encreased by a close Imprisonment of above Five months, doth not permit me.
Moreover, we live in an Age that maketh Truth pass for Treason: I dare not say anything contrary unto it, and the Ears of those that are about me will probably be found too tender to hear it. My Trial and Condemnation doth sufficiently evidence this.
West, Rumsey, and Keyling,1 who were brought to prove the Plot, said no more of me, than that they knew me not; and some others equally unknown unto me, had used my Name, and that of some others, to give a little Reputation unto their Designs. The Lord Howard2 is too famous by his Life, and the many Perjuries not to be denied, or rather sworn by himself, to deserve mention; and being a single Witness would be of no value, though he had been of unblemished Credit, or had not seen and confessed that the Crimes committed by him would be pardoned only for committing more; and even the Pardon promised could not be obtained till the Drudgery of Swearing was over.
This being laid aside, the whole matter is reduced to the Papers said to be found in my Closet by the King’s Officers, without any other Proof of their being written by me, than what is taken from suppositions upon the similitude of an Hand that is easily counterfeited, and which hath been lately declared in the Lady Car’s Case3 to be no Lawful Evidence in Criminal Causes.
But if I had been seen to write them, the matter would not be much altered. They plainly appear to relate unto a large Treatise written long since in answer to Filmer’s Book,4 which by all Intelligent Men is thought to be grounded upon wicked Principles, equally pernicious unto Magistrates and People.
If he might publish unto the World his Opinion, That all Men are born under a necessity derived from the Laws of God and Nature, to submit unto an Absolute Kingly Government, which could be restrained by no Law, or Oath; and that he that hath the Power, whether he came unto it by Creation, Election, Inheritance, Usurpation, or any other way had the Right, and none must Oppose his Will but the Persons and Estates of his Subjects must be indespensably subject unto it; I know not why I might not have published my Opinion to the contrary, without the breach of any Law I have yet known.
I might as freely as he, publickly have declared my Thoughts, and the Reasons upon which they were grounded, and I persuaded to believe, That God had left Nations unto the Liberty of setting up such Governments as best pleased themselves.
That Magistrates were set up for the good of Nations, not Nations for the honour or glory of Magistrates.
That the Right and Power of Magistrates in every Country, was that which the Laws of that Country made it to be.
That those Laws were to be observed, and the Oaths taken by them, having the force of a Contract between Magistrate and People, could not be Violated without danger of dissolving the whole Fabrick.
That Usurpation could give no Right, and the most dangerous of all Enemies unto Kings were they, who raising their Power to an Exorbitant Height, allowed unto Usurpers all the Rights belonging unto it.
That such Usurpations being seldom Compassed without the Slaughter of the Reigning Person, or Family, the worst of all Villanies was thereby rewarded with the most Glorious Privileges.
That if such Doctrines were received, they would stir up men to the Destruction of Princes with more Violence than all the Passions that have hitherto raged in the Hearts of the most Unruly.
That none could be Safe, if such a Reward were proposed unto any that could destroy them.
That few would be so gentle as to spare even the Best, if by their destruction a Wild Usurper could become God’s Anointed; and by the most execrable Wickedness invest himself with that Divine Character.
This is the Scope of the whole Treatise; the Writer gives such Reasons as at present did occur unto him, to prove it. This seems to agree with the Doctrines of the most Reverenced Authors of all Times, Nations and Religions. The best and wisest of Kings have ever acknowleged it. The present King of France5 hath declared that Kings have that happy want of Power, that they can do nothing contrary unto the Laws of their Country, and grounds his Quarrel with the King of Spain, Anno. 1667. upon that Principle. King James in his Speech to the Parliament Anno. 1603.6 doth in the highest degree assert it. The Scripture seems to declare it. If nevertheless the Writer was mistaken, he might have been refuted by Law, Reason and Scripture; and no Man for such matters was ever otherwise punished, than by being made to see his Errour; and it hath not (as I think) been ever known that they had been referred to the Judgment of a Jury, composed of Men utterly unable to comprehend them.
But there was little of this in my Case; the extravagance of my Prosecutors goes higher: the above-mentioned Treatise was never finished, nor could be in many years, and most probably would never have been. So much as is of it was Written long since,7 never reviewed nor shewn unto any Man; and the fiftieth part of it was produced, and not the tenth of that offered to be read. That which was never known unto those who are said to have Conspired with me, was said to be intended to stir up the People in Prosecution of the Designs of those Conspirators.
When nothing of particular Application unto Time, Place, or Person could be found in it, (as hath ever been done by those who endeavoured to raise Insurrections) all was supplied by Innuendoes.
Whatsoever is said of the Expulsion of Tarquin; the Insurrection against Nero; The Slaughter of Caligula, or Domitian; The Translation of the Crown of France from Meroveus his Race unto Pepin; and from his Descendants unto Hugh Capet, and the like, applied by Innuendo unto the King.
They have not considered, that if such Acts of State be not good, there is not a King in the World that has any Title to the Crown he bears; nor can have any, unless he could deduce his Pedigree from the Eldest Son of Noah, and shew that the Succession had still continued in the Eldest of the Eldest Line, and been so deduced to him.8
Everyone may see what advantage this would be to all the Kings of the World; and whether that failing, it were not better for them to acknowledge they had received their Crowns by the Consent of Willing Nations; or to have no better Title unto them than Usurpation and Violence, which by the same ways may be taken from them.
But I was long since told that I must Die, or the Plot must Die.
Least the means of destroying the best Protestants in England should fail, the Bench must be filled with such as had been Blemishes to the Bar.
None but such as these would have Advised with the King’s Council, of the means of bringing a Man to death; Suffered a Jury to be packed by the King’s Solicitors, and the Under-Sheriff; Admit of Jury-men who are not Freeholders; Receive such Evidence as is above mentioned; Refuse a Copy of an Indictment, or to Suffer the Statute of 46 Ed. 3.9 to be read, that doth expresly Enact, It should in no Case be denied unto any Man upon any occasion whatsoever; Overrule the most important Points of Law without hearing. And whereas the Stat. 25 Ed. 3.10 upon which they said I should be Tried, doth Reserve unto the Parliament all Constructions to be made in Points of Treason, They could assume unto themselves not only a Power to make Constructions, but such Constructions as neither agree with Law, Reason, or Common Sence.
By these means I am brought to this Place. The Lord forgive these Practices, and avert the Evils that threaten the Nation from them. The Lord Sanctify these my Sufferings unto me; and though I fall as a Sacrifice unto Idols, suffer not Idolatry to be Established in this Land. Bless thy People, and Save them. Defend thy own Cause, and Defend those that Defend it. Stir up such as are Faint; Direct those that are Willing; Confirm those that Waver; Give Wisdom and Integrity unto All. Order all things so as may most redound unto thine own Glory. Grant that I may Die glorifying Thee for all Thy Mercies; and that at the last Thou hast permitted me to be Singled out as a Witness of thy Truth; and even by the Confession of my Opposers, for that OLD CAUSE in which I was from my Youth engaged, and for which Thou has Often and Wonderfully declared thy Self.
We do appoint Robert Horn, John Baker, and John Redmayne, to Print this Paper, and that none other do Presume to Print the same.
Printed for R. H. J. B. and J. R. and are to be sold by Walter David in Amen Corner, MDCLXXXIII.
The King’s Inalienable Prerogative
[1. ]It was on the basis of information from these three men that charges were brought against Whigs for plotting to murder Charles II and launch a general insurrection. Sidney, among others, was arrested, charged, and convicted. Josiah Keeling, an oil merchant, first to inform the Privy Council of the Rye House Plot, was followed by Colonel John Rumsey and Robert West, who reported their knowledge of two plots, the Rye House Plot and a more general insurrection. Keeling was rewarded and given a post but was dismissed for Jacobitism after the Glorious Revolution and died in prison. Both his story and West’s wild and inconsistent account have earned them comparison with Titus Oates.
[2. ]William Lord Howard was indeed famous as an informer. He played that role during the Popish Plot and made himself useful to the Restoration government as an informer against his former associates among the sectaries. At the trial of Lord Stafford he gave evidence against his own kinsman in addition to evidence against Sidney, Russell, and John Hampden’s grandson, John.
[3. ]This reference is probably to the petition of Lady Mary Carr on behalf of herself and her husband, Robert Carr, the younger, to settle the estate of Sir Robert Carr. This petition before the House of Lords in 1664 caused considerable debate before it was eventually amended and approved by the Parliament.
[4. ]This large treatise was Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, which was apparently written between 1681 and 1683 but not published until fifteen years after Sidney’s death. Sir Robert Filmer’s book, Patriarcha: A Defence of the Natural Power of Kings Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, which provoked Sidney to write his Discourses, was first published in 1680, after Filmer’s death, but had been circulated in manuscript form prior to publication.
[5. ]Louis XIV was then king of France.
[6. ]For James I’s speech to his first Parliament, 22 March 1603/4, see CJ I, 142-46.
[7. ]Thomas West, editor of Discourses Concerning Government (Indianapolis, 1990), xviii, reckons it was written between 1681 and 1683, more recently than Sidney claims here.
[8. ]This patriarchal theory that kings derive their right to govern in a line of descent from Noah is the theory upon which Filmer bases his notion of divine right in Patriarcha.
[9. ]There were no acts passed in 46 Edward III. Sidney probably means to cit 45 Edw. III, cap. 1, A Confirmation of the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest in all Points.
[10. ]25 Edw. III, stat. 5, cap. 2 (1350), A Declaration which Offences shall be adjudged Treason.