Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 6: 'Tis not good for such Nations as will have Kings, to suffer them to be glorious, powerful, or abounding in Riches. - Discourses Concerning Government
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
SECTION 6: ’Tis not good for such Nations as will have Kings, to suffer them to be glorious, powerful, or abounding in Riches. - 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.
’Tis not good for such Nations as will have Kings, to suffer them to be glorious, powerful, or abounding in Riches.
Our author having hitherto spoken of all nations, as born under a necessity of being subject to absolute monarchy, which he pretends to have been set up by the universal and indispensible law of God and nature, now seems to leave to their discretion, whether they will have a king or not; but says, that those who will have a king, are bound to allow him royal maintenance, by providing revenues for the crown; since it is for the honour, profit and safety of the people to have their king glorious, powerful, and abounding in riches.1 If there be anything of sense in this clause, there is nothing of truth in the foundation or principle of his whole book. For as the right and being of a father is natural or inherent, and no ways depending upon the will of the child; that of a king is so also, if he be, and ought to enjoy the rights belonging to the father of the people: And ’tis not less ridiculous to say, those who will have a king, than it would be to say, he that will have a father; for everyone must have one whether he will or not. But if the king be a father, as our author from thence infers that all laws are from him, none can be imposed upon him; and whatsoever the subject enjoys is by his concessions: ’Tis absurd to speak of an obligation lying upon the people to allow him royal maintenance, by providing revenues, since he has all in himself, and they have nothing that is not from him, and depending upon his will. For this reason a worthy gentleman of the house of commons in the year 1640 desired that the business of the judges, who in the Star-Chamber had given for their opinion concerning ship money, That in cases of necessity the king might provide it by his own authority, and that he was judge of that necessity, might be first examined, that they might know whether they had anything to give, before they should speak of giving. And as ’tis certain, that if the sentence of those perjur’d wretches had stood, the subjects of England by consequence would have been found to have nothing to give; ’tis no less sure, that if our author’s principle concerning the paternal and absolute power of kings be true, it will by a more compendious way appear, that it is not left to the choice of any nation, whether they will have a king or not; for they must have him, and can have nothing to allow him, but must receive all from him.
But if those only who will have a king, are bound to have one, and to allow this royal maintenance, such as will not have a king, are by one and the same act delivered from the necessity of having one, and from providing maintenance for him; which utterly overthrows the magnificent fabrick of paternal monarchy; and the kings who were lately represented by our author, placed on the throne by God and nature, and endow’d with an absolute power over all, appear to be purely the creatures of the people, and to have nothing but what is received from them.
From hence it may be rationally inferred, that he who makes a thing to be, makes it to be only what he pleases.2 This must hold in relation to kings as well as other magistrates; and as they who made consuls, dictators, and military tribunes, gave them only such power, and for such a time as best pleased themselves, ’tis impossible they should not have the same right in relation to kings, in making them what they please, as well as not to make them unless they please; except there be a charm belonging to the name, or the letters that compose it; which cannot belong to all nations, for they are different in every one according to the several languages.
But, says our author, ’tis for the honor, profit, and safety of the people that the king should be glorious, powerful, and abounding in riches. There is therefore no obligation upon them, and they are to judge whether it be so or not. The Scripture says plainly the contrary: He shall not multiply silver and gold, wives and horses: he shall not lift up his heart above his brethren.3 He shall not therefore be glorious, powerful, or abounding in riches. Reason and experience teach us the same thing: If those nations that have been proud, luxurious and vicious, have desired by pomp and riches to foment the vices of their princes, thereby to cherish their own; such as have excelled in virtue and good discipline have abhorred it, and except the immediate exercise of their office have kept their supreme magistrates to a manner of living little different from that of private men: and it had been impossible to maintain that frugality, in which the integrity of their manners did chiefly consist, if they had set up an example directly contrary to it, in him who was to be an example to others; or to provide for their own safety, if they had overthrown that integrity of manners by which it could only be obtained and preserved. There is a necessity incumbent upon every nation that lives in the like principle, to put a stop to the entrance of those vices that arise from the superfluity of riches, by keeping their kings in that honest poverty, which is the mother and nurse of modesty, sobriety, and all manner of virtue: And no man can deny this to be well done, unless he will affirm that pride, luxury and vice is more profitable to a nation than the virtues that are upheld by frugality.
There is another reason of no less importance to those nations, who tho they think fit to have kings, yet desire to preserve their liberty, which obliges them to set limits to the glory, power and riches of their kings; and that is, that they can no otherwise be kept within the rules of the law. Men are naturally propense to corruption; and if he whose will and interest it is to corrupt them, be furnished with the means, he will never fail to do it. Power, honors, riches, and the pleasures that attend them, are the baits by which men are drawn to prefer a personal interest before the publick good; and the number of those who covet them is so great, that he who abounds in them will be able to gain so many to his service as shall be sufficient to subdue the rest. ’Tis hard to find a tyranny in the world that has not been introduced this way; for no man by his own strength could ever subdue a multitude; none could ever bring many to be subservient to his ill designs, but by the rewards they received or hoped. By this means Caesar accomplished his work, and overthrew the liberty of his country, and with it all that was then good in the world. They who were corrupted in their minds, desired to put all the power and riches into his hands, that he might distribute them to such as served him. And he who was nothing less than covetous in his own nature, desired riches, that he might gain followers; and by the plunder of Gaul he corrupted those that betray’d Rome to him. And tho I do not delight to speak of the affairs of our own time, I desire those who know the present state of France to tell me, whether it were possible for the king to keep that nation under servitude, if a vast revenue did not enable him to gain so many to his particular service as are sufficient to keep the rest in subjection: and if this be not enough, let them consider whether all the dangers that now threaten us at home, do not proceed from the madness of those who gave such a revenue, as is utterly unproportionable to the riches of the nation, unsuitable to the modest behaviour expected from our kings, and which in time will render parliaments unnecessary to them.
On the other hand, the poverty and simplicity of the Spartan kings was no less safe and profitable to the people, than truly glorious to them. Agesilaus denied that Artaxerxes was greater than he, unless he were more temperate or more valiant;4 and he made good his words so well, that without any other assistance than what his wisdom and valour did afford, he struck such a terror into that great, rich, powerful and absolute monarch, that he did not think himself safe in Babylon or Ecbatana, till the poor Spartan was, by a captain of as great valour, and greater poverty, obliged to return from Asia to the defence of his own country. This was not peculiar to the severe Laconic discipline. When the Roman kings were expelled, a few carts were prepared to transport their goods: and their lands which were consecrated to Mars, and now go under the name of Campus Martius, hardly contain ten acres of ground. Nay the kings of Israel, who led such vast armies into the field (that is, were followed by all the people who were able to bear arms) seem to have possessed little. Ahab, one of the most powerful, was so fond of Naboth’s vineyard (which being the inheritance of his fathers, according to their equal division of lands, could not be above two acres) that he grew sick when it was refused.
But if an allowance be to be made to every king, it must be either according to a universal rule or standard, or must depend upon the judgment of nations. If the first, they who have it, may do well to produce it; if the other, every nation proceeding according to the measure of their own discretion, is free from blame.
It may also be worth observation, whether the revenue given to a king be in such manner committed to his care, that he is obliged to employ it for the publick service without the power of alienation; or whether it be granted as a propriety, to be spent as he thinks fit. When some of the ancient Jews and Christians scrupled the payment of tribute to the emperors, the reasons alleged to persuade them to a compliance, seem to be grounded upon a supposition of the first: for, said they, the defence of the state lies upon them, which cannot be perform’d without armies and garrisons; these cannot be maintained without pay, nor money raised to pay them without tributes and customs. This carries a face of reason with it, especially in those countries which are perpetually or frequently subject to invasions; but this will not content our author. He speaks of employing the revenue in keeping his house, and looks upon it as a propriety to be spent as he thinks convenient; which is no less than to cast it into a pit, of which no man ever knew the bottom. That which is given one day, is squandered away the next: The people is always oppress’d with impositions, to foment the vices of the court: These daily increasing, they grow insatiable, and the miserable nations are compelled to hard labour, in order to satiate those lusts that tend to their own ruin.
It may be consider’d that the virtuous pagans, by the light of nature, discovered the truth of this.5 Poverty grew odious in Rome, when great men by desiring riches put a value upon them, and introduced that pomp and luxury which could not be borne by men of small fortunes. From thence all furies and mischiefs seem’d to break loose: The base, slavish, and so often subdued Asia, by the basest of men revenged the defeats they had received from the bravest; and by infusing into them a delight in pomp and luxury, in a short time rendered the strongest and bravest of nations the weakest and basest. I wish our own experience did not too plainly manifest, that these evils were never more prevalent than in our days, when the luxury, majestick pomp, and absolute power of a neighbouring king must be supported by an abundance of riches torn out of the bowels of his subjects, which renders them, in the best country of the world, and at a time when the crown most flourishes, the poorest and most miserable of all the nations under the sun. We too well know who are most apt to learn from them, and by what means and steps they endeavour to lead us into the like misery. But the bird is safe when the snare is discover’d; and if we are not abandoned by God to destruction, we shall never be brought to consent to the settling of that pomp, which is against the practice of all virtuous people, and has brought all the nations that have been taken with it into the ruin that is intended for us.
[Patriarcha, ch. 23, p. 97.]
Qui dat esse, dat modum esse. [He who gives being, gives the mode of being.]
[Plutarch, Life of Agesilaus, ch. 23.]
Saevior armis / Luxuria incubuit, victumque ulciscitur orbem. / Nullum crimen abest, facinusque libidinis, ex quo / Paupertas Romana perit. Juvenal. [“Luxury more savage than arms settled upon and took vengeance upon a conquered world. No accusation and crime of lust were absent, from the time when Roman poverty perished.” Juvenal, Satire 6, li. 292–295.]