Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 19: That Corruption and Venality which is natural to Courts, is seldom found in Popular Governments. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 19: That Corruption and Venality which is natural to Courts, is seldom found in Popular Governments. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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That Corruption and Venality which is natural to Courts, is seldom found in Popular Governments.
Our author’s next work is, with that modesty and truth which is natural to him, to impute corruption and venality to commonwealths. He knows that monarchies are exempted from those evils, and has discovered this truth from the integrity observed in the modern courts of England, France, and Spain, or the more ancient of Rome and Persia: But after many falsehoods in matter of fact, and misrepresentations of that which is true, he shews that the corruption, venality, and violence he blames, were neither the effects of liberty, nor consistent with it. Gnaeus Manlius, who with his Asiatic army brought in the luxury that gave birth to those mischiefs, did probably follow the looseness of his own disposition; yet the best and wisest men of that time knew from the beginning that it would ruin the city, unless a stop might be put to the course of that evil: But they who had seen kings under their feet, and could no longer content themselves with that equality which is necessary among citizens, fomented it as the chief means to advance their ambitious designs. Tho Marius was rigid in his nature, and cared neither for money nor sensual pleasures, yet he favour’d those vices in others, and is said to be the first that made use of them to his advantage. Catiline was one of the lewdest men in the world, and had no other way of compassing his designs than by rendering others as bad as himself: and Caesar set up his tyranny by spreading that corruption farther than the others had been able to do; and tho he, Caligula, and some others were slain, yet the best men found it as impossible to restore liberty to the city when it was corrupted, as the worst had done to set up a tyranny whilst the integrity of their manners did continue. Men have a strange propensity to run into all manner of excesses, when plenty of means invite, and that there is no power to deter; of which the succeeding emperors took advantage, and knowing that even their subsistence depended upon it, they thought themselves obliged by interest as well as inclination to make honours and preferments the rewards of vice: and tho it be not always true in the utmost extent that all men follow the example of the king; yet it is of very great efficacy: Tho some are so good that they will not be perverted, and others so bad that they will not be corrected; yet a great number does always follow the course that is favour’d and rewarded by those that govern. There were idolaters doubtless among the Jews in the days of David and Hezekiah; but they prosper’d better under Jeroboam and Ahab: England was not without papists in the time of Queen Elizabeth; but they thrived much better during the reign of her furious sister. False witnesses and accusers had a better trade under Tiberius, who called them custodes legum,1 than under Trajan who abhorred them; and whores, players, fiddlers, with other such vermin, abounded certainly more when encouraged by Nero than when despised by Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius. But as every one of these manifested what he was by those he favour’d or punish’d, and that a man can only be judged by his principles or practices, he that would know whether absolute monarchies or mixed governments do most foment or punish venality and corruption, ought to examine the principle and practice of both, and compare them one with the other.
As to the principle, the above-mentioned vices may be profitable to private men, but they can never be so to the government, if it be popular or mixed: No people was ever the better for that which renders them weak or base; and a duly created magistracy, governing a nation with their consent, can have no interest distinct from that of the publick, or desire to diminish the strength of the people, which is their own, and by which they subsist. On the other side, the absolute monarch who governs for himself, and chiefly seeks his own preservation, looks upon the strength and bravery of his subjects as the root of his greatest danger, and frequently desires to render them weak, base, corrupt, and unfaithful to each other, that they may neither dare to attempt the breaking of the yoke he lays upon them, nor trust one another in any generous design for the recovery of their liberty. So that the same corruption which preserves such a prince, if it were introduced by a people, would weaken, if not utterly destroy them.
Again, all things have their continuance from a principle in nature suitable to their original: all tyrannies have had their beginnings from corruption. The histories of Greece, Sicily, and Italy shew that all those who made themselves tyrants in several places, did it by the help of the worst, and the slaughter of the best: Men could not be made subservient to their lusts whilst they continued in their integrity; so as their business was to destroy those who would not be corrupted. They must therefore endeavour to maintain or increase the corruption by which they attain their greatness: If they fail in this point, they must fall as Tarquin, Pisistratus, and others have done; but if they succeed so far that the vicious part do much prevail, the government is secure, tho the prince may be in danger. And the same thing doth in a great measure accidentally conduce to the safety of his person: For they who for the most part are the authors of great revolutions, not being so much led by a particular hatred to the man, as by a desire to do good to the publick, seldom set themselves to conspire against the tyrant, unless he be altogether detestable and intolerable, if they do not hope to overthrow the tyranny.
The contrary is seen in all popular and well-mixed governments: they are ever established by wise and good men, and can never be upheld otherwise than by virtue: The worst men always conspiring against them, they must fall, if the best have not power to preserve them. Wheresoever therefore a people is so governed, the magistrates will obviate afar off the introduction of vices, which tend as much to the ruin of their persons and government, as to the preservation of the prince and his. This is evidenced by experience. ’Tis not easy to name a monarch that had so many good qualities as Julius Caesar, till they were extinguished by his ambition, which was inconsistent with them: He knew that his strength lay in the corruption of the people, and that he could not accomplish his designs without increasing it. He did not seek good men, but such as would be for him; and thought none sufficiently addicted to his interests, but such as stuck at the performance of no wickedness that he commanded: he was a soldier according to Caesar’s heart who said,
And lest such as were devoted to him should grow faint in villainy, he industriously inflamed their fury:
Having spread this poison amongst the soldiers, his next work was by corrupting the tribunes to turn the power to the destruction of the people, which had been erected for their preservation; and pouring the treasures he had gained by rapine in Gaul into the bosom of Curio, made him an instrument of mischief, who had been a most eminent supporter of the laws. Tho he was thought to have affected the glory of sparing Cato, and with trouble to have found that he despised life when it was to be accounted his gift; yet in suspecting Brutus and Cassius, he shew’d he could not believe that virtuous men who loved their country could be his friends. Such as carry on the like designs with less valour, wit, and generosity of spirit, will always be more bitterly bent to destroy all that are good, knowing that the deformity of their own vices is rendered most manifest, when they are compared with the good qualities of those who are most unlike them; and that they can never defend themselves against the scorn and hatred they incur by their vices, unless such a number can be infected with the same, and made to delight in the recompences of iniquity that foment them, as may be able to keep the rest of the people in subjection.
The same thing happens even when the usurpation is not so violent as that of Agathocles, Dionysius, or the last king of Denmark, who in one day by the strength of a mercenary soldiery overthrew all the laws of his country: and a lawfully created magistrate is forced to follow the same ways as soon as he begins to affect a power which the laws do not confer upon him. I wish I could say there were few of these; but experience shews that such a proportion of wisdom, moderation of spirit, and justice is requir’d in a supreme magistrate, to render him content with a limited power, as is seldom found. Man is of an aspiring nature, and apt to put too high a value upon himself; they who are raised above their brethren, tho but a little, desire to go farther; and if they gain the name of king, they think themselves wronged and degraded, when they are not suffer’d to do what they please.
In these things they never want masters; and the nearer they come to a power that is not easily restrained by law, the more passionately they desire to abolish all that opposes it: and when their hearts are filled with this fury, they never fail to chuse such ministers as will be subservient to their will: and this is so well known, that those only approach them who resolve to be so. Their interests as well as their inclinations incite them to diffuse their own manners as far as they can, which is no less than to bring those who are under their power to all that wickedness of which the nature of man is capable; and no greater testimony can be given of the efficacy of these means towards the utter corruption of nations, than the accursed effects we see of them in our own and the neighbouring countries.
It may be said that some princes are so full of virtue and goodness, as not to desire more power than the laws allow, and are not obliged to chuse ill men, because they desire nothing but what the best are willing to do. This may be, and sometimes is: the nation is happy that has such a king: but he is hard to find, and more than a human power is required to keep him in so good a way. The strength of his own affections will ever be against him: Wives, children, and servants will always join with those enemies that arise in his own breast to pervert him: if he has any weak side, any lust unsubdued, they will gain the victory. He has not search’d into the nature of man, who thinks that anyone can resist when he is thus on all sides assaulted: Nothing but the wonderful and immediate power of God’s spirit can preserve him; and to allege it will be nothing to the purpose, unless it can be proved that all princes are blessed with such an assistance, or that God hath promised it to them and their successors forever, by what means soever they came to the crowns they enjoy.
Nothing is farther from my intention than to speak irreverently of kings; and I presume no wise man will think I do so, if I profess, that having observed as well as I can what history and daily experience teach us concerning the virtues and religions that are or have been from the beginning of the world encouraged and supported by monarchs, the methods they have follow’d since they have gone under the name of Christians, their moral as well as their theological graces, together with what the Scriptures tell us of those who in the last days will principally support the throne of Antichrist; I cannot be confident that they are generally in an extraordinary manner preserved by the hand of God from the vices and frailties to which the rest of mankind is subject. If no man can shew that I am in this mistaken, I may conclude, that as they are more than any other men in the world exposed to temptations and snares, they are more than any in danger of being corrupted, and made instruments of corrupting others, if they are no otherwise defended than the rest of men.
This being the state of the matter on both sides, we may easily collect, that all governments are subject to corruption and decay; but with this difference, that absolute monarchy is by principle led unto, or rooted in it; whereas mixed or popular governments are only in a possibility of falling into it: As the first cannot subsist, unless the prevailing part of the people be corrupted; the other must certainly perish, unless they be preserved in a great measure free from vices: and I doubt whether any better reason can be given, why there have been and are more monarchies than popular governments in the world, than that nations are more easily drawn into corruption than defended from it; and I think that monarchy can be said to be natural in no other sense, than that our depraved nature is most inclined to that which is worst.
To avoid unnecessary disputes, I give the name of popular governments to those of Rome, Athens, Sparta, and the like, tho improperly, unless the same may also be given to many that are usually called monarchies, since there is nothing of violence in either; the power is conferr’d upon the chief magistrates of both by the free consent of a willing people, and such a part as they think fit is still retained and executed in their own assemblies; and in this sense it is that our author seems to speak against them. As to popular government in the strictest sense (that is pure democracy, where the people in themselves, and by themselves, perform all that belongs to government), I know of no such thing; and if it be in the world, have nothing to say for it. In asserting the liberty, generally, as I suppose, granted by God to all mankind, I neither deny, that so many as think fit to enter into a society, may give so much of their power as they please to one or more men, for a time or perpetually, to them and their heirs, according to such rules as they prescribe; nor approve the disorders that must arise if they keep it entirely in their own hands: And looking upon the several governments, which under different forms and names have been regularly constituted by nations, as so many undeniable testimonies, that they thought it good for themselves and their posterity so to do, I infer, that as there is no man who would not rather chuse to be governed by such as are just, industrious, valiant and wise, than by those that are wicked, slothful, cowardly and foolish; and to live in society with such as are qualified like those of the first sort, rather than with those who will be ever ready to commit all manner of villainies, or want experience, strength or courage, to join in repelling the injuries that are offer’d by others: So there are none who do not according to the measure of understanding they have, endeavour to set up those who seem to be best qualified, and to prevent the introduction of those vices, which render the faith of the magistrate suspected, or make him unable to perform his duty, in providing for the execution of justice, and the publick defence of the state against foreign or domestick enemies. For as no man who is not absolutely mad, will commit the care of a flock to a villain, that has neither skill, diligence, nor courage to defend them, or perhaps is maliciously set to destroy them, rather than to a stout, faithful, and wise shepherd; ’tis less to be imagined that any would commit the same error in relation to that society which comprehends himself with his children, friends, and all that is dear to him.
The same considerations are of equal force in relation to the body of every nation: For since the magistrate, tho the most perfect in his kind, cannot perform his duty, if the people be so base, vicious, effeminate and cowardly, as not to second his good intentions; those who expect good from him, cannot desire so to corrupt their companions that are to help him, as to render it impossible for him to accomplish it. Tho I believe there have been in all ages bad men in every nation, yet I doubt whether there was one in Rome, except a Catiline or a Caesar, who design’d to make themselves tyrants, that would not rather have wished the whole people as brave and virtuous as in the time of the Carthaginian Wars, than vile and base as in the days of Nero and Domitian. But ’tis madness to think, that the whole body would not rather wish to be as it was when virtue flourished, and nothing upon earth was able to resist their power, than weak, miserable, base, slavish, and trampled under foot by any that would invade them; and forced as a chattel to become a prey to those that were strongest. Which is sufficient to shew, that a people acting according to the liberty of their own will, never advance unworthy men, unless it be by mistake, nor willingly suffer the introduction of vices: Whereas the absolute monarch always prefers the worst of those who are addicted to him, and cannot subsist unless the prevailing part of the people be base and vicious.
If it be said, that those governments in which the democratical part governs most, do more frequently err in the choice of men or the means of preserving that purity of manners which is required for the well-being of a people, than those wherein aristocracy prevails; I confess it, and that in Rome and Athens the best and wisest men did for the most part incline to aristocracy. Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Cicero, and others, were of this sort: But if our author there seek patrons for his absolute monarchy, he will find none but Phalaris, Agathocles, Dionysius, Catiline, Cethegus, Lentulus, with the corrupted crew of mercenary rascals, who did, or endeavour’d to set them up. These are they quibus ex honesto nulla est spes;5 they abhor the dominion of the law, because it curbs their vices, and make themselves subservient to the lusts of a man who may nourish them. Similitude of interests, manners, and designs, is a link of union between them: Both are enemies to popular and mixed government; and those governments are enemies to them, and by preserving virtue and integrity, oppose both; knowing, that if they do not, they and their governments must certainly perish.
[Guardians of the laws.]
[“If you should command me to bury my sword in the chest of a brother or the throat of a parent, or in the body of my wife heavy with child, I would perform it all, even if my right hand be unwilling.” Lucan, Pharsalia, bk. 1, li. 376.]
[“(Caesar) wants all savage things to be asked of him; he wants war to be loved.” Ibid., bk. 5, li. 307.]
Senec. Thyest. [“Sanctity, piety, faith are private goods; let kings go where they please.” Seneca, Thyestes, li. 218.]
[For whom there is no hope from an honest man.]