Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 19: Kings cannot confer the right of Father upon Princes, nor Princes upon Kings. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 19: Kings cannot confer the right of Father upon Princes, nor Princes upon Kings. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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Kings cannot confer the right of Father upon Princes, nor Princes upon Kings.
Lest what has been said before by our author should not be sufficient to accomplish his design of bringing confusion upon mankind, and some may yet lie still for want of knowing at whose command he should cut his brother’s throat, if he has not power or courage to set up a title for himself, he has a new project that would certainly do his work, if it were received. Not content with the absurdities and untruths already uttered in giving the incommunicable right of fathers, not only to those who, as is manifestly testified by sacred and profane histories, did usurp a power over their fathers, or such as owed no manner of obedience to them: and justifying those usurpations, which are most odious to God and all good men, he now fancies a kingdom so gotten may escheat for want of an heir; whereas there is no need of seeking any, if usurpation can confer a right; and that he who gets the power into his hands ought to be reputed the right heir of the first progenitor; for such a one will be seldom wanting, if violence and fraud be justified by the command of God, and nations stand obliged to render obedience, till a stronger or more successful villain throws him from the throne he had invaded. But if it should come to pass that no man would step into the vacant place, he has a new way of depriving the people of their right to provide for the government of themselves. Because, says he, the dependency of ancient families is oft obscure, and worn out of knowledge; therefore the wisdom of all or most princes hath thought fit many times to adopt those for heads of families and princes of provinces, whose merits, abilities, or fortunes have ennobled them, and made them fit and capable of such royal favours: All such prime heads and fathers have power to consent to the uniting and conferring of their fatherly right and sovereignty on whom they please, &c.1
I may justly ask how any one or more families come to be esteemed more ancient than others, if all are descended from one common father, as the Scriptures testify; or to what purpose it were to enquire what families were the most ancient, if there were any such, when the youngest and most mean by usurpation gets an absolute right of dominion over the eldest, tho his own progenitors, as Nimrod did: but I may certainly conclude, that whatever the right be that belongs to those ancient families, it is inherent in them, and cannot be conferred on any other by any human power; for it proceeds from nature only. The duty I owe to my father does not arise from an usurped or delegated power, but from my birth derived from him; and ’tis as impossible for any man to usurp or receive by the grant of another the right of a father over me, as for him to become, or pretend to be made my father by another who did not beget me. But if he say true, this right of father does not arise from nature; nor the obedience that I owe to him that begot, from the benefits which I have received, but is merely an artificial thing depending upon the will of another: and that we may be sure there can be no error in this, our author attributes it to the wisdom of princes. But before this comes to be authentick, we must at the least be sure that all princes have this great and profound wisdom, which our author acknowledges to be in them, and which is certainly necessary for the doing of such great things, if they were referred to them. They seem to us to be born like other men, and to be generally no wiser than other men. We are not obliged to believe that Nebuchadnezzar was wise, till God had given him the heart of a man; or that his grandson Belshazzar, who being laid in the balance was found too light, had any such profound wisdom. Ahasuerus shewed it not in appointing all the people of God to be slain, upon a lie told to him by a rascal; and the matter was not very much mended, when being informed of the truth, he gave them leave to kill as many of their enemies as they pleased. The hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, and the overthrow thereby brought upon himself and people, does not argue so profound a judgment as our author presumes every prince must have: And ’tis not probable that Samuel would have told Saul, He had done foolishly, if kings had always been so exceeding wise: Nay, if wisdom had been annexed to the character, Solomon might have spared the pains of asking it from God, and Rehoboam must have had it. Not to multiply examples out of Scripture, ’tis believed that Xerxes had not inflicted stripes upon the sea for breaking his navy in pieces, if he had been so very wise. Caligula for the same reason might have saved the labour of making love to the moon, or have chosen a fitter subject to advance to the consulate than his horse Incitatus: Nero had not endeavoured to make a woman of a man, nor married a man as a woman.2 Many other examples might be alleged to shew that kings are not always wise: and not only the Roman satyrist, who says quicquid delirant reges, &c.3 shews that he did not believe them to be generally wiser than other men; but Solomon himself judges them to be as liable to infirmities, when he prefers a wise child before an old and foolish king.4 If therefore the strength of our author’s argument lies in the certainty of the wisdom of kings, it can be of no value, till he proves it to be more universal in them than history or experience will permit us to believe. Nay, if there be truth or wisdom in the Scripture, which frequently represents the wicked man as a fool, we cannot think that all kings are wise, unless it be proved that none of them have been wicked; and when this is performed by Filmer’s disciples, I shall confess my error.
Men give testimony of their wisdom, when they undertake that which they ought to do, and rightly perform that which they undertake; both which points do utterly fail in the subject of our discourse. We have often heard of such as have adopted those to be their sons who were not so, and some civil laws approve it. This signifies no more, than that such a man, either through affection to one who is not his son, or to his parents, or for some other reason, takes him into his family, and shews kindness to him, as to his son; but the adoption of fathers is a whimsical piece of nonsense. If this be capable of an aggravation, I think none can be greater, than not to leave it to my own discretion, who having no father, may resolve to pay the duty I owed to my father to one who may have shewed kindness to me; but for another to impose a father upon a man, or a people composed of fathers, or such as have fathers, whereby they should be deprived of that natural honour and right, which he makes the foundation of his discourse, is the utmost of all absurdities. If any prince therefore have ever undertaken to appoint fathers of his people, he cannot be accounted a man of profound wisdom, but a fool or a madman; and his acts can be of no value. But if the thing were consonant to nature, and referred to the will of princes (which I absolutely deny) the frequent extravagancies committed by them in the elevation of their favourites, shews that they intend not to make them fathers of the people, or know not what they do when they do it.
To chuse or institute a father is nonsense in the very term; but if any were to be chosen to perform the office of fathers to such as have none, and are not of age to provide for themselves (as men do tutors or guardians for orphans) none could be capable of being elected, but such as in kindness to the person they were to take under their care, did most resemble his true father, and had the virtues and abilities required rightly to provide for his good. If this fails, all right ceases; and such a corruption is introduced as we saw in our court of wards, which the nation could not bear, when the institution was perverted, and the king, who ought to have taken a tender care of the wards and their estates, delivered them as a prey to those whom he favoured.5
Our author ridiculously attributes the title and authority of father to the word prince; for it hath none in it, and signifies no more than a man, who in some kind is more eminent than the vulgar. In this sense Mucius Scaevola told Porsenna, that three hundred princes of the Roman youth had conspired against him:6 by which he could not mean that three hundred fathers of the Roman youth, but three hundred Roman young men had conspired: and they could not be fathers of the city, unless they had been fathers of their own fathers. Princeps senatus 7 was understood in the same sense; and T. Sempronius the censor chusing Q. Fabius Maximus to that honour, gave for a reason, Se lecturum Q. Fabium Maximum, quem tum principem Romanae civitatis esse, vel Annibale judice, dicturus esset;8 which could not be understood that Hannibal thought him to be the father or lord of the city (for he knew he was not) but the man, who for wisdom and valour was the most eminent in it.
The like are and ought to be the princes of every nation; and tho something of honour may justly be attributed to the descendants of such as have done great services to their country, yet they who degenerate from them cannot be esteemed princes; much less can such honours or rights be conferred upon court-creatures or favourites. Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, and others, could advance Macro, Pallas, Narcissus, Tigellinus, Vinius, Laco, and the like, to the highest degrees of riches and power; but they still continued to be villains, and so they died.
No wise or good man ever thought otherwise of those who through the folly of princes have been advanced to the highest places in several countries. The madness of attributing to them a paternal power, seems to have been peculiarly reserved to compleat the infamy of our author; for he only could acknowledge a cooptitious father, or give to another man the power of chusing him. I confess that a man in his infancy may have been exposed, like Moses, Cyrus, Oedipus, Romulus: He may have been taken in war; or by the charity of some good person saved from the teeth of wild beasts, or from the sword by which his parents fell, and may have been educated with that care which fathers usually have of their children: ’tis reasonable that such a one in the whole course of his life should pay that veneration and obedience to him, who gave him as it were a second birth, which was due to his natural father; and this, tho improperly, may be called an adoption. But to think that any man can assume it to himself, or confer it upon another, and thereby arrogate to himself the service and obedience, which, by the most tender and sacred laws of nature, we owe to those from whom we receive birth and education, is the most preposterous folly that hitherto has ever entered into the heart of man.
Our author nevertheless is not ashamed of it, and gives reasons no way unsuitable to the proposition. Men are, says he, adopted fathers of provinces for their abilities, merits, or fortunes.9 But these abilities can simply deserve nothing; for if they are ill employed, they are the worst of vices, and the most powerful instruments of mischief. Merits, in regard of another, are nothing, unless they be to him; and he alone can merit from me the respect due to a father, who hath conferred benefits upon me, in some measure proportionable to those which we usually receive from our fathers: and the world may judge, whether all the court-ministers and favorites that we have known, do upon this account deserve to be esteemed fathers of nations. But to allow this on account of their fortunes, is, if possible, more extravagant than anything that hath been yet utter’d. By this account Mazarin must have been father of the French nation: The same right was inherited by his chaste niece, and remained in her, till she and her silly husband dissipated the treasures which her uncle had torn from the bowels of that people. The partizans may generally claim the same right over the provinces they have pillaged: Old Audley, Dog Smith, Bp. Duppa, Brownlow, Child, Dashwood, Fox, &c.10 are to be esteemed fathers of the people of England. This doctrine is perfectly canonical, if Filmer and Heylyn were good divines; and legal, if they judged more rightly touching matters of law. But if it be absurd and detestable, they are to be reputed men, who, by attributing the highest honours to the vilest wretches of the world, for what they had gain’d by the most abominable means, endeavour to increase those vices, which are already come to such a height, that they can by no other way be brought to a greater. Daily experience too plainly shews, with what rage avarice usually fills the hearts of men. There are not many destructive villainies committed in the world, that do not proceed from it. In this respect ’tis called idolatry, and the root of all evil. Solomon warns us to beware of such as make haste to grow rich, and says, they shall not be innocent. But ’tis no matter what the prophets, the apostles, or the wisest of men say of riches, and the ways of gaining them; for our author tells us, that men of the greatest fortunes, without examining how they came to them, or what use they make of them, deserve to be made fathers of provinces.
But this is not his only quarrel with all that is just and good: His whole book goes directly against the letter and spirit of the Scripture. The work of all those, whom God in several ages has raised up to announce his word, was to abate the lusts and passions that arise in the hearts of men; to shew the vanity of worldly enjoyments, with the dangers that accompany riches and honours, and to raise our hearts to the love of those treasures that perish not. Honest and wise men following the light of nature, have in some measure imitated this. Such as lived private lives, as Plato, Socrates, Epictetus, and others, made it their business to abate men’s lusts, by shewing the folly of seeking vain honours, useless riches, or unsatisfying pleasures; and those who were like to them, if they were raised to supreme magistracies, have endeavoured by the severest punishments to restrain men from committing the crimes by which riches are most commonly gained: but Filmer and Heylyn lead us into a new way. If they deserve credit, whosoever would become supreme lord and father of his country, absolute, sacred and inviolable, is only to kill him that is in the head of the government: Usurpation confers an equal right with election or inheritance: We are to look upon the power, not the ways by which it is obtained: Possession only is to be regarded; and men must venerate the present power, as set up by God, tho gained by violence, treachery or poison: Children must not impose laws upon, nor examine the actions of their father. Those who are a little more modest, and would content themselves with the honour of being fathers and lords only of provinces, if they get riches by the favour of the king, or the favour of the king by riches, may receive that honour from him: The lord paramount may make them peculiar lords of each province as sacred as himself; and by that means every man shall have an immediate and a subaltern father. This would be a spur to excite even the most sleeping lusts; and a poison that would fill the gentlest spirits with the most violent furies. If men should believe this, there would hardly be found one of whom it might not be said, hac spe, minanti fulmen, occurret Jovi.11 No more is required to fill the world with fire and blood, than the reception of these precepts: No man can look upon that as a wickedness, which shall render him sacred; nor fear to attempt that which shall make him God’s vicegerent. And I doubt, whether the wickedness of filling men’s heads with such notions was ever equalled, unless by him who said, Ye shall not die, but be as gods.
But since our author is pleased to teach us these strange things, I wish he would also have told us, how many men in every nation ought to be look’d upon as adopted fathers: What proportion of riches, ability or merit, is naturally or divinely required to make them capable of this sublime character: Whether the right of this chimerical father does not destroy that of the natural; or whether both continue in force, and men thereby stand obliged, in despite of what Christ said, to serve two masters. For if the right of my artificial father arise from any act of the king, in favour of his riches, abilities or merit, I ought to know whether he is to excel in all, or any one of these points: How far, and which of them gives the preference; since ’tis impossible for me to determine whether my father, who may be wise, tho not rich, is thereby divested of his right, and it comes to be transferr’d to another, who may be rich tho not wise, nor of any personal merit at all, till that point be decided; or, so much as to guess, when I am emancipated from the duty I owe to him, by whom I was begotten and educated, unless I know whether he be fallen from his right, through want of merit, wisdom or estate: and that can never be, till it be determined that he hath forfeited his right, by being defective in all, or any of the three; and what proportion of merit, wisdom or estate is required in him, for the enjoyment of his right, or in another that would acquire it: for no man can succeed to the right of another, unless the first possessor be rightly deprived of it; and it cannot belong to them both, because common sense universally teaches, that two distinct persons cannot, at the same time, and in the same degree, have an equal right to the same individual thing.
The right of father cannot therefore be conferred upon princes by kings, but must forever follow the rule of nature. The character of a father is indelible, and incommunicable: The duty of children arising from benefits received is perpetual, because they can never not have received them; and can be due only to him from whom they are received. For these reasons, we see, that such as our author calls princes, cannot confer it upon a king; for they cannot give what they have not in themselves: They who have nothing, can give nothing: They who are only suppositious, cannot make another to be real; and the whimsey of kings making princes to be fathers, and princes conferring that right on kings, comes to nothing.
[Patriarcha, ch. 6, p. 62.]
Sueton. [Suetonius, Life of Caligula, ch. 22, 55, and Life of Nero, ch. 28–29, in Lives of the Caesars, 2 vols. (Loeb, 1913–1914). Xerxes, named in the preceding sentence, ordered the Hellespont to suffer three hundred lashes and to have a pair of fetters thrown into it; see Herodotus, bk. 7, ch. 35, in Histories, 4 vols. (Loeb, 1920–1925).]
Horat. [“Whatever kings rave at.” Horace, Epistles, bk. 1, Ep. 2, li. 14. The full line is “Whatever kings rave at, the people suffer from.” Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica (rev. ed.; Loeb, 1929).]
[Parliament’s attempt to reform these abuses in 1604 was vetoed by James I. It was the first of many occasions under the Stuart monarchs when Parliament stated its liberties in opposition to the king.]
Trecenti Romanae juventutis principes. T. Liv. [Livy, History of Rome, bk. 2, ch. 12.]
[Prince (i.e., leading man) of the senate.]
T. Liv. 1. 7. [“He would choose Q. Fabius Maximus, whom he could prove, even with Hannibal as a judge, to be at that time the prince (i.e., first citizen) of the city of Rome.” Livy, History of Rome, bk. 27, ch. 11.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 6, p. 62.]
[These men acquired large fortunes as government officials.]
Senec. Theb. [“With this hope he will (even) attack Jupiter, who threatens with his lightning bolt.” Actually in Seneca, Thyestes, li. 290.]