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SECTION 9: The Government instituted by God over the Israelites was Aristocratical. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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The Government instituted by God over the Israelites was Aristocratical.
Notwithstanding all this, our author is resolved that monarchy must be from God: What form of government, says he, God ordained by his authority, may be gathered by that commonwealth which he instituted amongst the Hebrews; which was not aristocratical, as Calvin saith, but plainly monarchical.1 I may in as few words deny the government set up by God to have been monarchical, as he asserts it; but finding such language ordinarily to proceed from a mixture of folly, impudence and pride, I chuse rather to shew upon what I ground my opinions, than nakedly to deliver them; most especially, when by insisting upon the government instituted by God over his people, he refers us to the Scripture. And I do this the more boldly, since I follow Calvin’s exposition, and believe that he having been highly esteemed for his wit, judgment and learning, by such as were endowed with the like, and reverenced as a glorious servant of God, might, if he were now alive, comfort himself, tho he had the misfortune to fall under the censures of Filmer and his followers. ’Tis probable he gave some reasons for his opinions; but our author having maliciously concealed them, and I not having leisure at present to examine all his writings to find them, must content myself with such as my small understanding may suggest, and such as I have found in approved authors.
In the first place I may safely say, he was not alone of that opinion: Josephus, Philo, and Moses Maimonides, with all the best of the Jewish and Christian authors, had long before delivered the same. Josephus says, that Saul’s first sin by which he fell, was, that he took away the aristocracy;2 which he could not do if it had never been established. Philo imputes the institution of kingly government, as it was in Israel, neither to God nor his word, but to the fury of the sinful people. Abravanel says, it proceeded from their delight in the idolatry to which their neighbours were addicted, and which could be upheld only by a government, in practice and principle contrary to that which God had instituted.3 Maimonides frequently says the same thing, grounded upon the words of Hosea, I gave them kings in my wrath;4 and whosoever will call that a divine institution, may give the same name to plagues or famines, and induce a necessity incumbent upon all men to go and search the one where they may find it, and to leave their lands forever uncultivated that they may be sure of the other: which being too bestial to be asserted by a man, I may safely say, the Hebrew kings were not instituted by God, but given as a punishment of their sin, who despised the government that he had instituted: and the abovementioned authors agree in the same thing, calling the people’s desire to have a king, furious, mad, wicked, and proceeding from their love to the idolatry of their neighbours, which was suited to their government; both which were inconsistent with what God had established over his own people.
But waiving the opinions of men, ’tis good to see what we can learn from the Scripture, and enquire if there be any precept there expressly commanding them to make a king; or any example that they did so whilst they continued obedient to the word of God; or anything from whence we may reasonably infer they ought to have done it: all which, if I mistake not, will be found directly contrary.
The only precept that we find in the law concerning kings, is that of Deuteron. 17. already mentioned; and that is not a command to the people to make, but instructions what manner of king they should make if they desired to have one: There was therefore none at all.
Examples do as little favour our author’s assertions. Moses, Joshua, and the other judges, had not the name or power of kings: They were not of the tribe to which the scepter was promised: They did not transmit the power they had to their children, which in our adversary’s opinion is a right inseparable from kings; and their power was not continued by any kind of succession, but created occasionally, as need required, according to the virtues discovered in those who were raised by God to deliver the nation in the time of their distress; which being done, their children lay hid among the rest of the people. Thus were Ehud, Gideon, Jephthah, and others set up: Whosoever will give battle (say the princes and people of Gilead) to the children of Ammon, shall be head over the inheritance of Gilead: and finding Jephthah to be such a man as they sought, they made him their chief, and all Israel followed them.5 When Othniel had shew’d his valour in taking Kirjath-Sepher, and delivering his brethren from Cushan-Rishathaim, he was made judge: When Ehud had killed Eglon; when Shamgar and Samson had destroyed great numbers of the Philistines; and when Gideon had defeated the Midianites, they were fit to be advanced above their brethren.6 These dignities were not inherent in their persons or families, but conferred upon them; nor conferred, that they might be exalted in riches and glory, but that they might be ministers of good to the people. This may justify Plato’s opinion, that if one man be found incomparably to excel all others in the virtues that are beneficial to civil societies, he ought to be advanced above all: but I think it will be hard from thence to deduce an argument in favour of such a monarchy as is necessarily to descend to the next in blood, whether man, woman, or child, without any consideration of virtue, age, sex, or ability; and that failing, it can be of no use to our author. But whatever the dignity of a Hebrew judge was, and howsoever he was raised to that office, it certainly differ’d from that of a king. Gideon could not have refused to be a king when the people would have made him so, if he had been a king already; or that God from the beginning had appointed that they should have one:7 The elders and people could not have asked a king of Samuel, if he had been king; and he could not without impiety have been displeased with them for asking for such a one as God had appointed; neither would God have said to him, They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me that I should not reign over them, if he had ordained what they desired.8
They did not indeed reject God with their mouths: They pretended to use the liberty he had given them to make a king; but would have such a one as he had forbidden: They drew near to him with their lips, but their hearts were far from him; and he seeing their hypocrisy, severely chastised them in granting their ill conceived request; and foretold the miseries that should thereupon befall them, from which he would not deliver them, tho they should cry to him by reason of what they suffered from their king: He was their creature, and the mischiefs thereby brought upon them were the fruits of their own labour.
This is that which our author calls God’s institution of kings; but the prophet explains the matter much better, I gave them kings in my anger, and took them away in my wrath:9 in destroying them God brought desolation upon the people that had sinned in asking for them, and following their example in all kind of wickedness. This is all our author has to boast of: but God who acknowledges those works only to be his own, which proceed from his goodness and mercy to his people, disowns this; Israel hath cast off the thing that is good (even the government that he had established) the enemy shall pursue him: They have set up kings, but not by me; and princes, but I know them not.10 As if he sought to justify the severity of his judgments brought upon them by the wickedness of their kings, that they, not he, had ordained.
Having seen what government God did not ordain, it may be seasonable to examine the nature of the government which he did ordain; and we shall easily find that it consisted of three parts, besides the magistrates of the several tribes and cities. They had a chief magistrate, who was called judge or captain, as Joshua, Gideon, and others, a council of seventy chosen men, and the general assemblies of the people.11
The first was merely occasional, like to the dictators of Rome; and as the Romans in times of danger frequently chose such a man as was much esteemed for valour and wisdom, God’s peculiar people had a peculiar regard to that wisdom and valour which was accompanied with his presence, hoping for deliverance only from him.
The second is known by the name of the great Sanhedrin, which being instituted by Moses according to the command of God, continued, till they were all save one slain by Herod. And the third part, which is the assembly of the people, was so common, that none can be ignorant of it, but such as never looked into the Scripture. When the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half that of Manasseh had built an altar on the side of Jordan, The whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered together at Shiloh to go up to war against them, and sent Phineas the son of Eliezer, and with him ten princes, &c. 12 This was the highest and most important action that could concern a people, even war or peace, and that not with strangers, but their own brethren. Joshua was then alive: The elders never failed; but this was not transacted by him or them, but by the collected body of the people; for they sent Phineas. This democratical embassy was democratically received: It was not directed to one man, but to all the children of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, and the answer was sent by them all; which being pleasing to Phineas, and the ten that were with him, they made their report to the congregation, and all was quiet.
The last eminent act performed by Joshua was the calling of a like assembly to Shechem, composed of elders, heads of families, judges, officers, and all the people, to whom he proposed, and they agreeing made a covenant before the Lord.13
Joshua being dead, the proceedings of every tribe were grounded upon counsels taken at such assemblies among themselves for their own concernments, as appears by the actions of Judah, Simeon, &c. against the Canaanites;14 and when the Levite complained that his wife had been forced by those of Gibeah, the whole congregation of Israel met together at Mizpah from all parts, even from Dan to Beersheba, as one man, and there resolved upon that terrible war which they made against the tribe of Benjamin.15 The like assembly was gathered together for the election of Saul, every man was there: and tho the elders only are said to have asked a king of Samuel, they seem to have been deputed from the whole congregation; for God said, Hearken to the voice of the people.16 In the same manner the tribe of Judah, and after that the rest chose and anointed David to be their king. After the death of Solomon all Israel met together to treat with Rehoboam; and not receiving satisfaction from him, ten of the tribes abrogated his kingdom.17
If these actions were considered singly by themselves, Calvin might have given the name of a democracy to the Hebrew government, as well as to that of Athens; for without doubt they evidently manifest the supreme power to have been in the supreme manner in these general assemblies; but the government (as to its outward order) consisting of those three parts, which comprehend the three simple species, tho in truth it was a theocracy; and no times having been appointed, nor occasions specified, upon which judges should be chosen, or these assemblies called; whereas the Sanhedrin, which was the aristocratical part, was permanent, the whole might rightly be called an aristocracy, that part prevailing above the others: and tho Josephus calls it a theocracy, by reason of God’s presence with his people;18 yet in relation to man he calls it an aristocracy, and says that Saul’s first sin by which he fell from the kingdom was, that gubernationem optimatum sustulit;19 which could not be, if they were governed by a monarch before he was chosen.
Our author taking no notice of these matters, first endeavours to prove the excellency of monarchy form natural instinct; and then begging the question, says, that God did always govern his people by monarchy; whereas he ought in the first place to have observed that this instinct (if there be any such thing) is only an irrational appetite, attributed to beasts, that know not why they do anything; and is to be followed only by those men who being equally irrational, live in the same ignorance: and the second being proved to be absolutely false by the express words of the Scripture, There was then no king in Israel,20 several times repeated, and the whole series of the history, he hath no other evasion than to say, That even then the Israelites were under the kingly government of the fathers of particular families.21
It appears by the forementioned text cited also by our author, that in the assembly of the people, gathered together to take counsel concerning the war against Benjamin, were four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword: They all arose together, saying, Not a man of us shall go to his tent. So all the men of Israel were gathered together against the city. This is repeated several times in the relation. The Benjaminites proceeded in the like manner in preparing for their defence; and if all these who did so meet to consult and determine were monarchs, there were then in Israel and Benjamin four hundred and twenty six thousand, seven hundred monarchs or kings, tho the Scriptures say there was not one.22
If yet our author insist upon his notion of kingly government, I desire to know who were the subjects, if all these were kings; for the text says, that the whole congregation was gathered together as one man from Dan to Beersheba. If there can be so many kings without one subject, what becomes of the right of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that was to have been devolved upon one man as heir to them, and thereby lord of all? If every man had an equal part in that inheritance, and by virtue of it became a king, why is not the same eternally subdivided to as many men as are in the world, who are also kings? If this be their natural condition, how comes it to be altered, till they do unthrone themselves by consent to set up one or more to have a power over them all? Why should they divest themselves of their natural right to set up one above themselves, unless in consideration of their own good? If the 426,700 kings might retain the power in themselves, or give it to one, why might they not give it to any such number of men as should best please themselves, or retain it in their own hands, as they did till the days of Saul; or frame, limit, and direct it according to their own pleasure? If this be true, God is the author of democracy; and no asserter of human liberty did ever claim more than the people of God did enjoy and exercise at the time when our author says they were under the kingly government; which liberty being not granted by any peculiar concession or institution, the same must belong to all mankind.
’Tis in vain to say the 426,700 men were heads of families; for the Scripture only says, They were footmen that drew the sword, or rather all the men of Israel from Dan to Beersheba, who were able to make war. When six hundred Benjaminites did only remain of the 26,700, ’tis plain that no more were left of that tribe, their women and children having been destroyed in the cities after their defeat. The next chapter makes the matter yet more plain; for when all that were at the congregation in Mizpah were found to have sworn, they would not give their daughters to any of the tribe of Benjamin, no Israelite was free from the oath, but the men of Jabesh-Gilead, who had not been at the assembly: All the rest of Israel was therefore comprehended; and they continuing to govern in a popular way with absolute power, sent twelve thousand of their most valiant men to destroy all the males of Jabesh-Gilead, and the women that had lain by man, reserving the virgins for the Benjaminites.23 This is enough for my purpose: for the question is not concerning the power that every householder in London hath over his wife, children, and servants; but whether they are all perpetually subject to one man and family; and I intend not to set up their wives, prentices, and children against them, or to diminish their rights, but to assert them, as the gift of God and nature, no otherwise to be restrained than by laws made with their consent.
Reason failing, our author pleases himself with terms of his own invention: When the people begged a king of Samuel, they were governed by a kingly power: God out of a special love and care to the house of Israel, did chuse to be their king himself, and did govern them at that time by his viceroy Samuel and his sons.24 The behaviour of the Israelites towards Samuel has been thought proud, perverse, and obstinate; but the fine court word begging was never before applied to them; and their insolent fury was not only seen against Samuel, but against God; They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me.25 And I think Filmer is the first who ever found that beggars in begging did reject him of whom they begged: Or if they were beggars, they were such as would not be denied; for after all that Samuel had said to dissuade them from their wicked design, they said, nay, but we will have a king.26
But lest I should be thought too much inclined to contradict our author, I confess that once he hath happened to be in the right. God out of a special love to the house of Israel chose to be their king: He gave them laws, prescribed a form of government, raised up men in a wonderful manner to execute it, filled them with his spirit, was ever present when they called upon him: He gave them counsel in their doubts, and assistance in all their extremities: He made a covenant with them, and would be exalted by them.27 But what is this to an earthly monarch? Who can from hence derive a right to any one man to play the lord over his brethren, or a reason why any nation should set him up? God is our lord by right of creation, and our only lord, because he only hath created us. If any other were equal to him in wisdom, power, goodness, and beneficence to us, he might challenge the same duty from us. If growing out of ourselves, receiving being from none, depending on no providence, we were offered the protection of a wisdom subject to no error, a goodness that could never fail, and a power that nothing could resist; it were reasonable for us to enter into a covenant, submit ourselves to him, and with all the faculties of our minds to addict ourselves to his service. But what right can from hence accrue to a mortal creature like to one of us, from whom we have received nothing, and who stands in need of help as much as we? Who can from hence deduce an argument to persuade us to depend upon his wisdom, who has as little as other men? To submit to his will who is subject to the same frailties, passions, and vices with the rest of mankind? Or to expect protection and defence from him whose life depends upon as slender threads as our own; and who can have no power but that which we confer upon him? If this cannot be done, but is of all things the most contrary to common sense, no man can in himself have any right over us; we are all as free as the four hundred twenty six thousand seven hundred Hebrew kings: We can naturally owe allegiance to none; and I doubt whether all the lusts that have reigned amongst men since the beginning of the world, have brought more guilt and misery upon them than that preposterous and impudent pretence of imitating what God had instituted. When Saul set himself most violently to oppose the command of God, he pretended to fulfill it:28 When the Jews grew weary of God’s government, and resolved to reject him, that he should not reign over them, they used some of Moses his words, and asked that king of God, whom they intended to set up against him: But this king had not been set up against God, the people had not rejected God, and sinned in asking for him, if every nation by a general law ought to have one, or by a particular law one had been appointed by him over them. There was therefore no king amongst them, nor any law of God or nature, particular or general, according to which they ought to have one.
[Patriarcha, ch. 15, p. 84.]
Jos. Ant. Jud. [Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 6 vols. (Loeb, 1930–1965), bk. 6, ch. 5, sec. 4–6.]
Abar. in 1 Sam. 8. [Isaac Abravanel, Commentary on the Prior Prophets (late 1400s), on 1 Samuel 8.]
Maim. More-Nevochim. [Moses Maimonides, More-Nevochim translated as The Guide of the Perplexed.]
[Judges 1:12; 3:9–10; 36:12–26; 15:20.]
1 Sam. 8.
Numb. 11 .
1 Sam. 8.
[2 Samuel 21:7; 1 Kings 12:1–20.]
[Josephus, Against Apion, bk. 2 sec. 165, in The Life, Against Apion (Loeb, 1926).]
[“He took away the government of the nobles.” Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, bk. 6, ch. 5, sec 4–6.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 15, p. 84.]
[Judges 20:2, 8, 11.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 15, p. 85.]
1 Sam. 8.
[Patriarcha, ch. 15, p. 85.]
[1 Samuel 15:31.]