Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 13: There is no disorder or prejudice in changing the name or number of Magistrates, whilst the root and principle of their Power continues entire. - Discourses Concerning Government
SECTION 13: There is no disorder or prejudice in changing the name or number of Magistrates, whilst the root and principle of their Power continues entire. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
- The Argument of Sidney’s Discourses
- Filmer’s Position On Political Power
- Sidney’s Response
- Sidney and Locke
- Sidney’s Legacy
- Sidney’s Life
- Editor’s Note
- Reading the Discourses
- The Text
- Modernization of the Text
- Discourses Concerning Government
- Chapter One
- Section 1: Introduction.
- Section 2: The Common Notions of Liberty Are Not From School Divines, But From Nature.
- Section 3: Implicit Faith Belongs to Fools, and Truth Is Comprehended By Examining Principles.
- Section 4: The Rights of Particular Nations Cannot Subsist, If General Principles Contrary to Them Are Received As True.
- Section 5: To Depend Upon the Will of a Man Is Slavery.
- Section 6: God Leaves to Man the Choice of Forms In Government; and Those Who Constitute One Form, May Abrogate It.
- Section 7: Abraham and the Patriarchs Were Not Kings.
- Section 8: Nimrod Was the First King, During the Life of Cush, Ham, Shem, and Noah.
- Section 9: The Power of a Father Belongs Only to a Father.
- Section 10: Such As Enter Into Society, Must In Some Degree Diminish Their Liberty.
- Section 11: No Man Comes to Command Many, Unless By Consent Or By Force.
- Section 12: The Pretended Paternal Right Is Divisible Or Indivisible: If Divisible, ’tis Extinguished; If Indivisible, Universal.
- Section 13: There Was No Shadow of a Paternal Kingdom Amongst the Hebrews, Nor Precept For It.
- Section 14: If the Paternal Right Had Included Dominion, and Was to Be Transferred to a Single Heir, It Must Perish If He Were Not Known; and Could Be Applied to No Other Person.
- [section 15] 1
- Section 16: The Ancients Chose Those to Be Kings, Who Excelled In the Virtues That Are Most Beneficial to Civil Societies.
- Section 17: God Having Given the Government of the World to No One Man, Nor Declared How It Should Be Divided, Left It to the Will of Man.
- Section 18: If a Right of Dominion Were Esteemed Hereditary According to the Law of Nature, a Multitude of Destructive and Inextricable Controversies Would Thereupon Arise.
- Section 19: Kings Cannot Confer the Right of Father Upon Princes, Nor Princes Upon Kings.
- Section 20: All Just Magistratical Power Is From the People.
- Chapter Two
- Section I: That ’tis Natural For Nations to Govern, Or to Chuse Governors; and That Virtue Only Gives a Natural Preference of One Man Above Another, Or Reason Why One Should Be Chosen Rather Than Another.
- Section 2: Every Man That Hath Children, Hath the Right of a Father, and Is Capable of Preferment In a Society Composed of Many.
- Section 3: Government Is Not Instituted For the Good of the Governor, But of the Governed; and Power Is Not an Advantage, But a Burden.
- Section 4: The Paternal Right Devolves To, and Is Inherited By All the Children.
- Section 5: Freemen Join Together and Frame Greater Or Lesser Societies, and Give Such Forms to Them As Best Please Themselves.
- Section 6: They Who Have a Right of Chusing a King, Have the Right of Making a King.
- Section 7: The Laws of Every Nation Are the Measure of Magistratical Power.
- Section 8: There Is No Natural Propensity In Man Or Beast to Monarchy.
- Section 9: The Government Instituted By God Over the Israelites Was Aristocratical.
- Section 10: Aristotle Was Not Simply For Monarchy Or Against Popular Government; But Approved Or Disapproved of Either According to Circumstances.
- Section 11: Liberty Produceth Virtue, Order and Stability: Slavery Is Accompanied With Vice, Weakness and Misery.
- Section 12: The Glory, Virtue, and Power of the Romans Began and Ended With Their Liberty.
- Section 13: There Is No Disorder Or Prejudice In Changing the Name Or Number of Magistrates, Whilst the Root and Principle of Their Power Continues Entire.
- Section 14: No Sedition Was Hurtful to Rome, Till Through Their Prosperity Some Men Gained a Power Above the Laws.
- Section 15: The Empire of Rome Perpetually Decay’d When It Fell Into the Hands of One Man.
- Section 16: The Best Governments of the World Have Been Composed of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy.
- Section 17: Good Governments Admit of Changes In the Superstructures, Whilst the Foundations Remain Unchangeable.
- Section 18: Xenophon In Blaming the Disorders of Democracies, Favours Aristocracies, Not Monarchies.
- Section 19: That Corruption and Venality Which Is Natural to Courts, Is Seldom Found In Popular Governments.
- Section 20: Man’s Natural Love to Liberty Is Temper’d By Reason, Which Originally Is His Nature.
- Section 21: Mixed and Popular Governments Preserve Peace, and Manage Wars, Better Than Absolute Monarchies.
- Section 22: Commonwealths Seek Peace Or War According to the Variety of Their Constitutions.
- Section 23: That Is the Best Government, Which Best Provides For War.
- Section 24: Popular Governments Are Less Subject to Civil Disorders Than Monarchies; Manage Them More Ably, and More Easily Recover Out of Them.
- Section 25: Courts Are More Subject to Venality and Corruption Than Popular Governments.
- Section 26: Civil Tumults and Wars Are Not the Greatest Evils That Befall Nations.
- Section 27: The Mischiefs and Cruelties Proceeding From Tyranny Are Greater Than Any That Can Come From Popular Or Mixed Governments.
- Section 28: Men Living Under Popular Or Mix’d Governments, Are More Careful of the Publick Good, Than In Absolute Monarchies.
- Section 29: There Is No Assurance That the Distempers of a State Shall Be Cured By the Wisdom of a Prince.
- Section 30: A Monarchy Cannot Be Well Regulated, Unless the Powers of the Monarch Are Limited By Law.
- Section 31: The Liberties of Nations Are From God and Nature, Not From Kings.
- Section 32: The Contracts Made Between Magistrates, and the Nations That Created Them, Were Real, Solemn, and Obligatory.
- Chapter Three
- Section 1: Kings Not Being Fathers of Their People, Nor Excelling All Others In Virtue, Can Have No Other Just Power Than What the Laws Give; Nor Any Title to the Privileges of the Lord’s Anointed.
- Section 2: The Kings of Israel and Judah Were Under a Law Not Safely to Be Transgress’d.
- Section 3: Samuel Did Not Describe to the Israelites the Glory of a Free Monarchy; But the Evils the People Should Suffer, That He Might Divert Them From Desiring a King.
- Section 4: No People Can Be Obliged to Suffer From Their Kings What They Have Not a Right to Do.
- Section 5: The Mischiefs Suffer’d From Wicked Kings Are Such As Render It Both Reasonable and Just For All Nations That Have Virtue and Power to Exert Both In Repelling Them.
- Section 6: ’tis Not Good For Such Nations As Will Have Kings, to Suffer Them to Be Glorious, Powerful, Or Abounding In Riches.
- Section 7: When the Israelites Asked For Such a King As the Nations About Them Had, They Asked For a Tyrant, Tho They Did Not Call Him So.
- Section 8: Under the Name of Tribute No More Is Understood Than What the Law of Each Nation Gives to the Supreme Magistrate For the Defraying of Publick Charges; to Which the Customs of the Romans, Or Sufferings of the Jews Have No Relation.
- Section 9: Our Own Laws Confirm to Us the Enjoyment of Our Native Rights.
- Section 10: The Words of St. Paul Enjoining Obedience to Higher Powers, Favour All Sorts of Governments No Less Than Monarchy.
- Section 11: That Which Is Not Just, Is Not Law; and That Which Is Not Law, Ought Not to Be Obeyed.
- Section 12: The Right and Power of a Magistrate Depends Upon His Institution, Not Upon His Name.
- Section 13: Laws Were Made to Direct and Instruct Magistrates, And, If They Will Not Be Directed, to Restrain Them.
- Section 14: Laws Are Not Made By Kings, Not Because They Are Busied In Greater Matters Than Doing Justice, But Because Nations Will Be Governed By Rule, and Not Arbitrarily.
- Section 15: A General Presumption That Kings Will Govern Well, Is Not a Sufficient Security to the People.
- Section 16: The Observation of the Laws of Nature Is Absurdly Expected From Tyrants, Who Set Themselves Up Against All Laws: and He That Subjects Kings to No Other Law Than What Is Common to Tyrants, Destroys Their Being.
- Section 17: Kings Cannot Be the Interpreters of the Oaths They Take.
- Section 18: The Next In Blood to Deceased Kings Cannot Generally Be Said to Be Kings Till They Are Crowned.
- Section 19: The Greatest Enemy of a Just Magistrate Is He Who Endeavours to Invalidate the Contract Between Him and the People, Or to Corrupt Their Manners.
- Section 20: Unjust Commands Are Not to Be Obey’d; and No Man Is Obliged to Suffer For Not Obeying Such As Are Against Law.
- Section 21: It Cannot Be For the Good of the People That the Magistrate Have a Power Above the Law: and He Is Not a Magistrate Who Has Not His Power By Law.
- Section 22: The Rigour of the Law Is to Be Temper’d By Men of Known Integrity and Judgment, and Not By the Prince Who May Be Ignorant Or Vicious.
- Section 23: Aristotle Proves, That No Man Is to Be Entrusted With an Absolute Power, By Shewing That No One Knows How to Execute It, But Such a Man As Is Not to Be Found.
- Section 24: The Power of Augustus Caesar Was Not Given, But Usurped.
- Section 25: The Regal Power Was Not the First In This Nation; Nor Necessarily to Be Continued, Tho It Had Been the First.
- Section 26: Tho the King May Be Entrusted With the Power of Chusing Judges, Yet That By Which They Act Is From the Law.
- Section 27: Magna Charta Was Not the Original, But a Declaration of the English Liberties. the King’s Power Is Not Restrained, But Created By That and Other Laws; and the Nation That Made Them Can Only Correct the Defects of Them.
- Section 28: The English Nation Has Always Been Governed By Itself Or Its Representatives.
- Section 29: The King Was Never Master of the Soil.
- Section 30: Henry the First Was King of England By As Good a Title As Any of His Predecessors Or Successors.
- Section 31: Free Nations Have a Right of Meeting, When and Where They Please, Unless They Deprive Themselves of It.
- Section 32: The Powers of Kings Are So Various According to the Constitutions of Several States, That No Consequence Can Be Drawn to the Prejudice Or Advantage of Any One, Merely From the Name.
- Section 33: The Liberty of a People Is the Gift of God and Nature.
- Section 34: No Veneration Paid, Or Honor Conferr’d Upon a Just and Lawful Magistrate, Can Diminish the Liberty of a Nation.
- Section 35: The Authority Given By Our Law to the Acts Performed By a King De Facto, Detract Nothing From the People’s Right of Creating Whom They Please.
- Section 36: The General Revolt of a Nation Cannot Be Called a Rebellion.
- Section 37: The English Government Was Not Ill Constituted, the Defects More Lately Observed Proceeding From the Change of Manners, and Corruption of the Times.
- Section 38: The Power of Calling and Dissolving Parliaments Is Not Simply In the King. the Variety of Customs In Chusing Parliament Men, and the Errors a People May Commit, Neither Prove That Kings Are Or Ought to Be Absolute.
- Section 39: Those Kings Only Are Heads of the People, Who Are Good, Wise, and Seek to Advance No Interest But That of the Publick.
- Section 40: Good Laws Prescribe Easy and Safe Remedies Against the Evils Proceeding From the Vices Or Infirmities of the Magistrate; and When They Fail, They Must Be Supplied.
- Section 41: The People For Whom and By Whom the Magistrate Is Created, Can Only Judge Whether Be Rightly Perform His Office Or Not.
- Section 42: The Person That Wears the Crown Cannot Determine the Affairs Which the Law Refers to the King.
- Section 43: Proclamations Are Not Laws.
- Section 44: No People That Is Not Free Can Substitute Delegates.
- Section 45: The Legislative Power Is Always Arbitrary, and Not to Be Trusted In the Hands of Any Who Are Not Bound to Obey the Laws They Make.
- Section 46: The Coercive Power of the Law Proceeds From the Authority of Parliament.
There is no disorder or prejudice in changing the name or number of Magistrates, whilst the root and principle of their Power continues entire.
In the next place our author would persuade us that the Romans were inconstant, because of their changes from annual consuls to military tribunes, decemviri, and dictators; and gives the name of sedition to the complaints made against usury, or the contests concerning marriages or magistracy: but I affirm,
- 1. That no change of magistracy, as to the name, number, or form, doth testify irregularity, or bring any manner of prejudice, as long as it is done by those who have a right of doing it, and he or they who are created continue within the power of the law to accomplish the end of their institution; many forms being in themselves equally good, and may be used as well one as another, according to times and other circumstances.
- 2. In the second place, ’tis a rare thing for a city at the first to be rightly constituted: Men can hardly at once foresee all that may happen in many ages, and the changes that accompany them ought to be provided for. Rome in its foundation was subject to these defects, and the inconveniences arising from them were by degrees discover’d and remedi’d. They did not think of regulating usury, till they saw the mischiefs proceeding from the cruelty of usurers; or setting limits to the proportion of land that one man might enjoy, till the avarice of a few had so far succeeded, that their riches were grown formidable, and many by the poverty to which they were reduced became useless to the city. It was not time to make a law that the plebeians might marry with the patricians, till the distinction had raised the patricians to such pride, as to look upon themselves to have something of divine, and the others to be inauspicati or profane, and brought the city into danger by that division; nor to make the plebeians capable of being elected to the chief magistracies, till they had men able to perform the duties of them. But these things being observed, remedies were seasonably applied without any bloodshed or mischief, tho not without noise and wrangling.
- 3. All human constitutions are subject to corruption, and must perish, unless they are timely renewed, and reduced to their first principles: This was chiefly done by means of those tumults which our author ignorantly blames: The whole people by whom the magistracy had been at first created, executed their power in those things which comprehend sovereignty in the highest degree, and brought everyone to acknowledge it: There was nothing that they could not do, who first conferr’d the supreme honours upon the patricians, and then made the plebeians equal to them. Yet their modesty was not less than their power or courage to defend it: and therefore when by the law they might have made a plebeian consul, they did not chuse one in forty years; and when they did make use of their right in advancing men of their own order, they were so prudent, that they cannot be said to have been mistaken in their elections three times, whilst their votes were free: whereas, of all the emperors that came in by usurpation, pretence of blood from those who had usurped, or that were set up by the soldiers, or a few electors, hardly three can be named who deserved that honour, and most of them were such as seemed to be born for plagues to mankind.
- 4. He manifests his fraud or ignorance in attributing the legislative power sometimes to the senate, and sometimes to the people; for the senate never had it. The style of senatus censuit, populus jussit, was never alter’d; but the right of advising continuing in the senate, that of enacting ever continued in the people.
- 5. An occasion of commending absolute power, in order to the establishment of hereditary monarchy, is absurdly drawn from their custom of creating a dictator in time of danger; for no man was ever created, but such as seemed able to bear so great a burden, which in hereditary governments is wholly left to chance. Tho his power was great, it did arise from the law; and being confin’d to six months, ’twas almost impossible for any man to abuse it, or to corrupt so many of those who had enjoy’d the same honour, or might aspire to it, as to bring them for his pleasure to betray their country: and as no man was ever chosen who had not given great testimonies of his virtues, so no one did ever forfeit the good opinion conceived of him. Virtue was then honour’d, and thought so necessarily to comprehend a sincere love and fidelity to the commonwealth, that without it the most eminent qualities were reputed vile and odious; and the memory of former services could no way expiate the guilt of conspiring against it. This seeming severity was in truth the greatest clemency: for tho our author has the impudence to say, that during the Roman liberty the best men thrived worst, and the worst best, he cannot allege one example of any eminent Roman put to death (except Manlius Capitolinus) from the expulsion of the Tarquins to the time of the Gracchi, and the Civil Wars not long after ensuing; and of very few who were banished. By these means crimes were prevented; and the temptations to evil being removed, treachery was destroy’d in the root; and such as might be naturally ambitious, were made to see there was no other way to honour and power than by acting virtuously.
But lest this should not be sufficient to restrain aspiring men, what power soever was granted to any magistrate, the sovereignty still remained in the people, and all without exception were subject to them. This may seem strange to those who think the dictators were absolute, because they are said to have been sine provocatione; but that is to be only understood in relation to other magistrates, and not to the people, as is clearly proved in the case of Q. Fabius, whom Papirius the dictator would have put to death: Tribunos plebis appello, says Fabius Maximus his father, & provoco ad populum, eumque tibi fugienti exercitus tui, fugienti senatus judicium, judicem fero; qui certe unus plusquam tua dictatura potest polletque: videro, cessurusne sis provocationi, cui Tullus Hostilius cessit. And tho the people did rather intercede for Fabius than command his deliverance, that modesty did evidently proceed from an opinion that Papirius was in the right; and tho they desired to save Fabius, who seems to have been one of the greatest and best men that ever the city produced, they would not enervate that military discipline, to which they owed, not only their greatness, but their subsistence; most especially when their sovereign authority was acknowledged by all, and the dictator himself had submitted. This right of appeals to the people was the foundation of the Roman commonwealth, laid in the days of Romulus, submitted to by Hostilius in the case of Horatius, and never violated, till the laws and the liberty which they supported were overthrown by the power of the sword. This is confirmed by the speech of Metellus the tribune, who in the time of the second Carthaginian War, causelessly disliking the proceedings of Q. Fabius Maximus then dictator, in a publick assembly of the people said, Quod si antiquus animus plebi Romanae esset, se audacter laturum de abrogando Q. Fabii imperio; nunc modicam rogationem promulgaturum, de aequando magistri equitum & dictatoris jure: which was done, and that action, which had no precedent, shews that the people needed none, and that their power being eminently above that of all magistrates was obliged to no other rule than that of their own will. Tho I do therefore grant that a power like to the dictatorian, limited in time, circumscribed by law, and kept perpetually under the supreme authority of the people, may, by virtuous and well-disciplin’d nations, upon some occasions, be prudently granted to a virtuous man, it can have no relation to our author’s monarch, whose power is in himself, subject to no law, perpetually exercised by himself, and for his own sake, whether he have any of the abilities required for the due performance of so great a work, or be entirely destitute of them; nothing being more unreasonable than to deduce consequences from cases, which in substance and circumstances are altogether unlike: but to the contrary, these examples shewing that the Romans, even in the time of such magistrates as seemed to be most absolute, did retain and exercise the sovereign power, do most evidently prove that the government was ever the same remaining in the people, who without prejudice might give the administration to one or more men as best pleased themselves, and the success shews that they did it prudently.