Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 21: Mixed and Popular Governments preserve Peace, and manage Wars, better than Absolute Monarchies. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 21: Mixed and Popular Governments preserve Peace, and manage Wars, better than Absolute Monarchies. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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Mixed and Popular Governments preserve Peace, and manage Wars, better than Absolute Monarchies.
Being no way concerned in the defence of democracy; and having proved that Xenophon, Thucydides, and others of the ancients, in speaking against the over great power of the common people, intended to add reputation to the aristocratical party to which they were addicted, and not to set up absolute monarchy, which never fell under discourse among them, but as an object of scorn and hatred, evil in itself, and only to be endured by base and barbarous people, I may leave our knight, like Don Quixote, fighting against the phantasms of his own brain, and saying what he pleases against such governments as never were, unless in such a place as San Marino near Sinigaglia in Italy, where a hundred clowns govern a barbarous rock that no man invades, and relates nothing to our question. If his doctrine be true, the monarchy he extols is not only to be preferred before unruly democracy, and mixed governments, but is the only one that, without a gross violation of the laws of God and nature, can be established over any nation. But having, as I hope, sufficiently proved, that God did neither institute, nor appoint any such to be instituted, nor approve those that were; that nature does not incline us to it, and that the best as well as the wisest men have always abhorr’d it; that it has been agreeable only to the most stupid and base nations; and if others have submitted to it, they have done so only as to the greatest of evils brought upon them by violence, corruption or fraud; I may now proceed to shew that the progress of it has been in all respects suitable to its beginning.
To this end ’twill not be amiss to examine our author’s words: Thus, says he, do they paint to the life this beast with many heads: Let me give the cypher of their form of government: as it is begot by sedition, so it is nourish’d by crimes: It can never stand without wars, either with an enemy abroad, or with friends at home;1 And in order to this I will not criticize upon the terms, tho the cypher of a form, and war with friends, may be justly called nonsense; but coming to his assertions, that popular or mixed governments have their birth in sedition, and are ever afterwards vexed with civil or foreign wars, I take liberty to say, that whereas there is no form appointed by God or nature, those governments only can be called just, which are established by the consent of nations. These nations may at the first set up popular or mixed governments, and without the guilt of sedition introduce them afterwards, if that which was first established prove unprofitable or hurtful to them; and those that have done so, have enjoy’d more justice in times of peace, and managed wars, when occasion requir’d, with more virtue and better success, than any absolute monarchies have done. And whereas he says, that in popular governments each man hath a care of his particular, and thinks basely of the common good; They look upon approaching mischiefs as they do upon thunder, only every man wisheth it may not touch his own person:2 I say that men can no otherwise be engaged to take care of the publick, than by having such a part in it, as absolute monarchy does not allow; for they can neither obtain the good for themselves, posterity and friends, that they desire, nor prevent the mischiefs they fear, which are the principal arguments that persuade men to expose themselves to labours or dangers. ’Tis a folly to say, that the vigilance and wisdom of the monarch supplies the defect of care in others; for we know that no men under the sun were ever more void of both, and all manner of virtue requir’d to such a work, than very many monarchs have been: And, which is yet worse, the strength and happiness of the people being frequently dangerous to them, they have not so much as the will to promote it; nay, sometimes set themselves to destroy it. Ancient monarchies afford us frequent examples of this kind; and if we consider those of France and Turkey, which seem most to flourish in our age, the people will appear to be so miserable under both, that they cannot fear any change of governor or government; and all, except a few ministers, are kept so far from the knowledge of, or power in the management of affairs, that if any of them should fancy a possibility of something that might befall them worse than what they suffer, or hope for that which might alleviate their misery, they could do nothing towards the advancement of the one, or prevention of the other. Tacitus observes, that in his time no man was able to write what passed, inscitia reipublicae ut alienae. 3 They neglected the publick affairs in which they had no part. In the same age it was said, that the people, who whilst they fought for their own interests, had been invincible, being enslaved, were grown sordid, idle, base, running after stage-plays and shows; so as the whole strength of the Roman armies consisted of strangers. When their spirits were depressed by servitude, they had neither courage to defend themselves, nor will to fight for their wicked masters; and least of all to increase their power, which was destructive to themselves: The same thing is found in all places. Tho the Turk commands many vast provinces, that naturally produce as good soldiers as any, yet his greatest strength is in children that do not know their fathers; who not being very many in number, may perish in one battle, and the empire by that means be lost, the miserable nations that groan under that tyranny having neither courage, power, nor will to defend it. This was the fate of the Mamelukes. They had for the space of almost two hundred years domineer’d in Egypt, and a great part of Asia; but the people under them being weak and disaffected, they could never recover the defeat they received from Selim near Tripoli, who pursuing his victory, in a few months utterly abolished their kingdom.
Notwithstanding the present pride of France, the numbers and warlike inclinations of that people, the bravery of the nobility, extent of dominion, convenience of situation, and the vast revenues of their king, his greatest advantages have been gained by the mistaken counsels of England, the valour of our soldiers unhappily sent to serve him, and the strangers of whom the strength of his armies consists; which is so unsteady a support, that many who are well versed in affairs of this nature, incline to think he subsists rather by little arts, and corrupting ministers in foreign courts, than by the power of his own armies; and that some reformation in the counsels of his neighbours might prove sufficient to overthrow that greatness which is grown formidable to Europe; the same misery to which he has reduced his people, rendering them as unable to defend him, upon any change of fortune, as to defend their own rights against him.
This proceeds not from any particular defect in the French government, but that which is common to all absolute monarchies. And no state can be said to stand upon a steady foundation, except those whose strength is in their own soldiery, and the body of their own people. Such as serve for wages, often betray their masters in distress, and always want the courage and industry which is found in those who fight for their own interests, and are to have a part in the victory. The business of mercenaries is so to perform their duty, as to keep their employments, and to draw profit from them; but that is not enough to support the spirits of men in extreme dangers. The shepherd who is a hireling, flies when the thief comes; and this adventitious help failing, all that a prince can reasonably expect from a disaffected and oppressed people is, that they should bear the yoke patiently in the time of his prosperity; but upon the change of his fortune, they leave him to shift for himself, or join with his enemies to avenge the injuries they had received. Thus did Alfonso and Ferdinand kings of Naples, and Lodovico Sforza duke of Milan fall, in the times of Charles the Eighth and Louis the Twelfth kings of France. The two first had been false, violent, and cruel; nothing within their kingdom could oppose their fury: but when they were invaded by a foreign power, they lost all, as Guicciardini says, without breaking one lance; and Sforza was by his own mercenary soldiers delivered into the hands of his enemies.4
I think it may be hard to find examples of such as proceeding in the same way have had better success: But if it should so fall out, that a people living under an absolute monarchy, should through custom, or fear of something worse (if that can be) not only suffer patiently, but desire to uphold the government; neither the nobility, nor commonalty can do anything towards it. They are strangers to all publick concernments: All things are govern’d by one or a few men, and others know nothing either of action or counsel. Filmer will tell us ’tis no matter; the profound wisdom of the prince provides for all. But what if this prince be a child, a fool, a superannuated dotard, or a madman? Or if he does not fall under any of these extremities, and possesses such a proportion of wit, industry, and courage as is ordinarily seen in men, how shall he supply the office that indeed requires profound wisdom, and an equal measure of experience and valour? ’Tis to no purpose to say a good council may supply his defects; for it does not appear how he should come by this council, nor who should oblige him to follow their advice: If he be left to his own will to do what he pleases, tho good advice be given to him; yet his judgment being perverted, he will always incline to the worst: If a necessity be imposed upon him of acting according to the advice of his council, he is not that absolute monarch of whom we speak, nor the government monarchical, but aristocratical. These are imperfect fig-leaf coverings of nakedness. It was in vain to give good counsel to Sardanapalus; and none could defend the Assyrian empire, when he lay wallowing amongst his whores without any other thought than of his lusts. None could preserve Rome, when Domitian’s chief business was to kill flies, and that of Honorius to take care of his hens. The monarchy of France must have perished under the base kings they call les roys faineants,5 if the scepter had not been wrested out of their unworthy hands. The world is full of examples in this kind: and when it pleases God to bestow a just, wise, and valiant king as a blessing upon a nation, ’tis only a momentary help, his virtues end with him; and there being neither any divine promise nor human reason moving us to believe that they shall always be renewed and continued in his successors, men cannot rely upon it; and to allege a possibility of such a thing is nothing to the purpose.
On the other side, in a popular or mixed government every man is concerned: Every one has a part according to his quality or merit; all changes are prejudicial to all: whatsoever any man conceives to be for the publick good, he may propose it in the magistracy, or to the magistrate: the body of the people is the publick defence, and every man is arm’d and disciplin’d: The advantages of good success are communicated to all, and everyone bears a part in the losses. This makes men generous and industrious; and fills their hearts with love to their country: This, and the desire of that praise which is the reward of virtue,6 raised the Romans above the rest of mankind; and wheresoever the same ways are taken, they will in a great measure have the same effects. By this means they had as many soldiers to fight for their country as there were freemen in it. Whilst they had to deal with the free nations of Italy, Greece, Africa, or Spain, they never conquer’d a country, till the inhabitants were exhausted: But when they came to fight against kings, the success of a battle was enough to bring a kingdom under their power. Antiochus upon a ruffle received from Acilius at Thermopylae, left all that he possessed in Greece; and being defeated by Scipio Nasica, he quitted all the kingdoms and territories of Asia on this side Taurus. Aemilius Paulus became master of Macedon by one prosperous fight against Perseus. Syphax, Gentius, Tigranes, Ptolemy, and others were more easily subdued. The mercenary armies on which they relied being broken, the cities and countries not caring for their masters, submitted to those who had more virtue and better fortune. If the Roman power had not been built upon a more sure foundation, they could not have subsisted. Notwithstanding their valour, they were often beaten; but their losses were immediately repair’d by the excellence of their discipline. When Hannibal had gained the battles of Trebia, Ticinum, Trasimene, and Cannae; defeated the Romans in many other encounters, and slain above two hundred thousand of their men, with Aemilius Paulus, C. Servilius, Sempronius Gracchus, Quintius, Marcellus, and many other excellent commanders: When about the same time the two brave Scipio’s had been cut off with their armies in Spain, and many great losses had been sustain’d in Sicily and by sea, one would have thought it impossible for the city to have resisted: But their virtue, love to their country, and good government was a strength that increased under all their calamities, and in the end overcame all. The nearer Hannibal came to the walls, the more obstinate was their resistance. Tho he had kill’d more great captains than any kingdom ever had, others daily stepp’d up in their place, who excell’d them in all manner of virtue. I know not, if at any time that conquering city could glory in a greater number of men fit for the highest enterprises, than at the end of that cruel war, which had consumed so many of them; but I think that the finishing victories by them obtained, are but ill proofs of our author’s assertion, that they thought basely of the common good, and sought only to save themselves. 7 We know of none except Caecilius Metellus, who after the battle of Cannae had so base a thought as to design the withdrawing himself from the publick ruin; but Scipio (afterwards surnamed Africanus) threatening death to those who would not swear never to abandon their country, forced him to leave it. This may in general be imputed to good government and discipline, with which all were so seasoned from their infancy, that no affection was so rooted in them, as an ardent love to their country, and a resolution to die for it, or with it; but the means by which they accomplished their great ends, so as after their defeats to have such men as carried on their noblest designs with more glory than ever, was their annual elections of magistrates, many being thereby advanc’d to the supreme commands, and every one by the honours they enjoy’d, fill’d with a desire of rendering himself worthy of them.
I should not much insist upon these things, if they had been seen only in Rome: but tho their discipline seems to have been more perfect, better observed, and to have produc’d a virtue that surpassed all others; the like has been found, tho perhaps not in the same degree, in all nations that have enjoyed their liberty, and were admitted to such a part of the government, as might give them a love to it. This was evident in all the nations of Italy. The Sabines, Volsci, Aequi, Tuscans, Samnites and others were never conquer’d, till they had no men left. The Samnites alone inhabiting a small and barren province, suffer’d more defeats before they were subdued, than all the kingdoms of Numidia, Egypt, Macedon, and Asia; and, as ’tis exprest in their embassy to Hannibal, never yielded, till they who had brought vast numbers of men into the field, and by them defeated some of the Roman armies, were reduced to such weakness, that they could not resist one legion. We hear of few Spartans who did not willingly expose their lives for the service of their country; and the women themselves were so far inflamed with the same affection, that they refused to mourn for their children and husbands who died in the defence of it. When the brave Brasidas was slain, some eminent men went to comfort his mother upon the news of his death; and telling her he was the most valiant man in the city, she answer’d, that he was indeed a valiant man, and died as he ought to do, but that through the goodness of the gods, many others were left as valiant as he.8
When Xerxes invaded Greece, there was not a citizen of Athens able to bear arms, who did not leave his wife and children to shift for themselves in the neighbouring cities, and their houses to be burnt when they embarked with Themistocles; and never thought of either till they had defeated the barbarians at Salamis by sea, and at Plataea by land. When men are thus spirited, some will ever prove excellent; and as none did ever surpass those who were bred under this discipline in all moral, military and civil virtues; those very countries where they flourished most, have not produced any eminent men since they lost that liberty which was the mother and nurse of them.
Tho I should fill a volume with examples of this kind (as I might easily do) such as our author will say, that in popular governments men look upon mischiefs as thunder, and only wish it may not touch themselves:9 But leaving them to the scorn and hatred they deserve by their impudence and folly, I conclude this point with the answer, that Trajano Boccalini puts into the mouth of Apollo, to the princes who complained that their subjects had not that love to their countries, as had been, and was daily seen in those who lived under commonwealths; which did amount to no more than to tell them, that their ill government was the cause of that defect, and that the prejudices incurr’d by rapine, violence, and fraud were to be repaired only by liberality, justice, and such a care of their subjects, that they might live happily under them.10
[Patriarcha, ch. 18, p. 90.]
Tacit. An. l. 1. [“Through ignorance of public affairs, which were alien to them.” Tacitus, Histories, bk. 1, ch. 1.]
[Francesco Guicciardini, History of Italy (published 1561/1564; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), bk. 1, p. 75.]
[“The do-nothing kings” refers to the later kings of the Merovingian dynasty, who were replaced by the Mayors of the Palace, beginning with Pepin the Short.]
Amor patriae laudisque immensa cupido. Virg. [“Love of fatherland and great desire of praise.” Virgil, Aeneid, bk. 6, li. 823.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 18, p. 90.]
Thucyd. de bel. Pelopon. [Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 4 vols. (Loeb, 1919–1923), bk. 5, ch. 15.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 18, p. 90.]
Ragion. 99. [Trajano Boccalini, I ragguagli di Parnasso, or Advertisements from Parnassus (1612–13; trans. London: Dring, Starkey, and Basset, 1669); a strongly anti-Catholic, anti-monarchical satire on 17th-century politics, art, and literature.]