Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 16: The best Governments of the World have been composed of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 16: The best Governments of the World have been composed of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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The best Governments of the World have been composed of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy.
Our author’s cavils concerning I know not what vulgar opinions that democracies were introduc’d to curb tyranny, deserve no answer; for our question is, whether one form of government be prescribed to us by God and nature, or we are left according to our own understanding, to constitute such as seem best to ourselves. As for democracy he may say what pleases him of it; and I believe it can suit only with the convenience of a small town, accompanied with such circumstances as are seldom found. But this no way obliges men to run into the other extreme, in as much as the variety of forms between mere democracy and absolute monarchy is almost infinite: And if I should undertake to say, there never was a good government in the world, that did not consist of the three simple species of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, I think I might make it good. This at the least is certain, that the government of the Hebrews instituted by God, had a judge, the great Sanhedrin, and general assemblies of the people: Sparta had two kings, a senate of twenty eight chosen men, and the like assemblies: All the Dorian cities had a chief magistrate, a senate, and occasional assemblies: The Ionian, Athens, and others, had an archon, the areopagi; and all judgments concerning matters of the greatest importance, as well as the election of magistrates, were referr’d to the people. Rome in the beginning had a king and a senate, whilst the election of kings, and judgments upon appeals remained in the people; afterwards consuls representing kings, and vested with equal power, a more numerous senate, and more frequent meetings of the people. Venice has at this day a duke, the senate of the pregadi, and the great assembly of the nobility, which is the whole city, the rest of the inhabitants being only incolae, not cives;1 and those of the other cities or countries are their subjects, and do not participate of the government. Genoa is governed in like manner: Lucca not unlike to them. Germany is at this day governed by an emperor, the princes or great lords in their several precincts, the cities by their own magistrates, and by general diets, in which the whole power of the nation resides, and where the emperor, princes, nobility, and cities have their places in person, or by their deputies. All the northern nations, which upon the dissolution of the Roman empire possessed the best provinces that had composed it, were under that form which is usually called the Gothick polity: They had king, lords, commons, diets, assemblies of estates, cortes, and parliaments, in which the sovereign powers of those nations did reside, and by which they were exercised. The like was practised in Hungary, Bohemia, Sweden, Denmark, Poland; and if things are changed in some of these places within few years, they must give better proofs of having gained by the change than are yet seen in the world, before I think myself obliged to change my opinion.
Some nations not liking the name of king, have given such a power as kings enjoy’d in other places to one or more magistrates, either limited to a certain time, or left to be perpetual, as best pleased themselves: Others approving the name, made the dignity purely elective. Some have in their elections principally regarded one family as long as it lasted: Others consider’d nothing but the fitness of the person, and reserved to themselves a liberty of taking where they pleased. Some have permitted the crown to be hereditary as to its ordinary course; but restrained the power, and instituted officers to inspect the proceedings of kings, and to take care that the laws were not violated: Of this sort were the ephori of Sparta, the maires du palais,2 and afterwards the constable of France; the justicia in Aragon; Rijckshofmeister in Denmark; the high steward in England; and in all places such assemblies as are before-mentioned under several names, who had the power of the whole nation. Some have continued long, and it may be always in the same form; others have changed it: Some being incensed against their kings, as the Romans exasperated by the villainies of Tarquin, and the Tuscans by the cruelties of Mezentius, abolished the name of king: Others, as Athens, Sicyon, Argos, Corinth, Thebes, and the Latins, did not stay for such extremities; but set up other governments when they thought it best for themselves, and by this conduct prevented the evils that usually fall upon nations, when their kings degenerate into tyrants, and a nation is brought to enter into a war by which all may be lost, and nothing can be gained which was not their own before. The Romans took not this salutary course; the mischief was grown up before they perceived, or set themselves against it; and when the effects of pride, avarice, cruelty and lust were grown to such a height, that they could no longer be endured, they could not free themselves without a war: and whereas upon other occasions their victories had brought them increase of strength, territory, and glory; the only reward of their virtue in this was, to be delivered from a plague they had unadvisedly suffered to grow up among them. I confess this was most of all to be esteemed; for if they had been overthrown, their condition under Tarquin would have been more intolerable than if they had fallen under the power of Pyrrhus or Hannibal; and all their following prosperity was the fruit of their recover’d liberty: But it had been much better to have reformed the state after the death of one of their good kings, than to be brought to fight for their lives against that abominable tyrant. Our author in pursuance of his aversion to all that is good, disapproves this; and wanting reasons to justify his dislike, according to the custom of impostors and cheats, hath recourse to the ugly terms of a back-door, sedition and faction:3 as if it were not as just for a people to lay aside their kings when they receive nothing but evil, and can rationally hope for no benefit by them, as for others to set them up in expectation of good from them. But if the truth be examin’d, nothing will be found more orderly than the changes of government, or of the persons and races of those that govern’d, which have been made by many nations. When Pharamond’s grandson seemed not to deserve the crown he had worn, the French gave it to Meroveus, who more resembled him in virtue: In process of time when this race also degenerated, they were rejected, and Pepin advanced to the throne; and the most remote in blood of his descendants having often been preferred before the nearest, and bastards before the legitimate issue, they were at last all laid aside; and the crown remains to this day in the family of Hugh Capet, on whom it was bestow’d upon the rejection of Charles of Lorraine. In like manner the Castilians took Don Sancho surnamed the Brave, second son to Alfonso the Wise, before Alfonso el Desheredado, son of the elder brother Ferdinand. The states of Aragon preferred Martin, brother to John the first, before Mary his daughter married to the Count de Foix, tho females were not excluded from the succession; and the house of Austria now enjoys that crown from Joan daughter to Ferdinand. In that and many other kingdoms, bastards have been advanced before their legitimate brothers. Henry Count of Trastamara, bastard to Alfonso the II king of Castile, received the crown as a reward of the good service he had done to his country against his brother Peter the Cruel, without any regard had to the house of La Cerda descended from Alfonso el Desheredado, which to this day never enjoy’d any greater honour than that of duke de Medina Celi. Not long after the Portuguese conceiving a dislike of their King Ferdinand, and his daughter married to John king of Castile, rejected her and her uncle by the father’s side, and gave the crown to John a knight of Calatrava, and bastard to an uncle of Ferdinand their king. About the beginning of this age the Swedes deposed their King Sigismund for being a papist, and made Charles his uncle king. Divers examples of the like nature in England have been already mentioned. All these transportations of crowns were acts performed by assemblies of the three estates in the several kingdoms, and these crowns are to this day enjoy’d under titles derived from such as were thus brought in by the deposition or rejection of those, who according to descent of blood had better titles than the present possessors. The acts therefore were lawful and good, or they can have no title at all; and they who made them, had a just power so to do.
If our author can draw any advantage from the resemblance of regality that he finds in the Roman consuls and Athenian archons, I shall without envy leave him the enjoyment of it; but I am much mistaken if that do not prove my assertion, that those governments were composed of the three simple species: for if the monarchical part was in them, it cannot be denied that the aristocratical was in the senate or areopagi, and the democratical in the people. But he ought to have remembered that if there was something of monarchical in those governments when they are said to have been popular, there was something of aristocratical and democratical in those that were called regal; which justifies my proposition on both sides, and shews that the denomination was taken from the part that prevail’d; and if this were not so, the governments of France, Spain, and Germany might be called democracies, and those of Rome and Athens monarchies, because the people have a part in the one, and an image of monarchy was preserved in the other.
If our author will not allow the cases to be altogether equal, I think he will find no other difference, than that the consuls and archons were regularly made by the votes of the consenting people, and orderly resign’d their power, when the time was expir’d for which it was given; whereas Tarquin, Dionysius, Agathocles, Nabis, Phalaris, Caesar, and almost all his successors, whom he takes for compleat monarchs, came in by violence, fraud, and corruption, by the help of the worst men, by the slaughter of the best, and most commonly (when the method was once establish’d) by that of his predecessor, who, if our author say true, was the father of his country and his also. This was the root and foundation of the only government that deserves praise: this is that which stamped the divine character upon Agathocles, Dionysius and Caesar, and that had bestow’d the same upon Manlius, Marius, or Catiline, if they had gain’d the monarchies they affected. But I suppose that such as God has bless’d with better judgment, and a due regard to justice and truth, will say, that all those who have attained to such greatness as destroys all manner of good in the places where they have set up themselves by the most detestable villainies, came in by a back door; and that such magistrates as were orderly chosen by a willing people, were the true shepherds who came in by the gate of the sheepfold, and might justly be called the ministers of God, so long as they performed their duty in providing for the good of the nations committed to their charge.
[Incolae are inhabitants; cives are citizens.]
[Mayors of the palace.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 17 (“Democracies Not Invented to Bridle Tyrants, but Came In by Stealth”), p. 88.]