Front Page Titles (by Subject) 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. - Discourses Concerning Government
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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. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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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.
If any desire the directions of the New Testament, says our author, he may find our Saviour limiting and distinguishing royal power, by giving to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.1 But that will be of no advantage to him in this contest. We do not deny to any man that which is his due; but do not so well know who is Caesar, nor what it is that can truly be said to be due to him. I grant that when those words were spoken, the power of the Romans exercised by Tiberius was then expressed by the name of Caesar, which he without any title had assumed. The Jews amongst many other nations having been subdued, submitted to it; and being noway competent judges of the rights belonging to the senate or people of Rome, were obliged to acknowledge that power which their masters were under. They had no commonwealth of their own, nor any other government amongst themselves, that was not precarious. They thought Christ was to have restored their kingdom, and by them to have reigned over the nations; but he shewed them they were to be subject to the Gentiles, and that within few years their city and temple should be destroy’d. Their commonwealth must needs expire when all that was prefigured by it was accomplished. It was not for them at such a time to presume upon their abrogated privileges, nor the promises made to them, which were then fulfilled. Nay, they had by their sins profaned themselves, and given to the Gentiles a right over them, which none could have had, if they had continued in their obedience to the law of God. This was the foundation of the Caesars’ dominion over them, but can have no influence upon us. The first of the Caesars had not been set up by them: The series of them had not been continued by their consent: They had not interrupted the succession by placing or displacing such as they pleased: They had not brought in strangers or bastards, nor preferred the remotest in blood before the nearest: They had no part in making the laws by which they were governed, nor had the Caesars sworn to them: They had no Great Charter, acknowledging their liberties to be innate or inherent in them, confirmed by immemorial custom, and strengthen’d by thirty acts of their own general assemblies, with the assent of the Romans: The Caesar who then governed came not to the power by their consent: The question, Will ye have this man to reign? had never been asked; but he being imposed upon them, they were to submit to the laws by which he governed their masters. This can be nothing to us, whose case is in every respect most unlike to theirs. We have no dictatorian power over us; and neither we nor our fathers have rendered or owed obedience to any human laws but our own, nor to any other magistracy than what we have established. We have a king who reigns by law. His power is from the law that makes him king:2 and we can know only from thence what he is to command, and what we are obliged to obey. We know the power of the Caesars was usurped, maintained and exercised with the most detestable violence, injustice and cruelty. But tho it had been established by the consent of the Romans from an opinion that it was good for them in that state of affairs, it were nothing to us: and we could be no more obliged to follow their example in that than to be governed by consuls, tribunes, and decemviri, or to constitute such a government as they set up when they expelled their kings. Their authority was as good at one time as at the other; or if a difference ought to be made, the preference is to be given to what they did when their manners were most pure, the people most free, and when virtue was most flourishing among them. But if we are not obliged to set up such a magistracy as they had, ’tis ridiculous to think that such an obedience is due to one who is not in being as they pay’d to him that was. And if I should confess that Caesar holding the senate and people of Rome under the power of the sword, imposed what tribute he pleased upon the provinces; and that the Jews, who had no part in the government, were obliged to submit to his will, our liberty of paying nothing, except what the parliament appoints, and yielding obedience to no laws but such as are made to be so by their authority, or by our own immemorial customs, could not be thereby infringed. But we may justly affirm, that the tribute imposed was not, as our author infers, all their coin,3 nor a considerable part of it, nor more than what was understood to go for the defraying of the publick charges. Christ by asking whose image and superscription was stamped upon their money, and thereupon commanding them to give to Caesar that which was Caesar’s, did not imply that all was his; but that Caesar’s money being current amongst them, it was a continual and evident testimony, that they acknowledged themselves to be under his jurisdiction, and therefore could not refuse to pay the tribute laid upon them by the same authority, as other nations did.
It may also be observed, that Christ did not so much say this to determine the questions that might arise concerning Caesar’s power; for he plainly says, that was not his work; but to put the Pharisees to silence who tempted him. According to the opinion of the Jews, that the Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel, they thought his first work would be to throw off the Roman yoke; and not believing him to be the man, they would have brought him to avow the thing, that they might destroy him. But as that was not his business, and that his time was not yet come, it was not necessary to give them any other answer, than such as might disappoint their purpose. This shews that, without detracting from the honor due to Augustine, Ambrose or Tertullian, I may justly say, that the decision of such questions as arise concerning our government must be decided by our laws, and not by their writings. They were excellent men, but living in another time, under a very different government, and applying themselves to other matters, they had no knowledge at all of those that concern us. They knew what government they were under, and thereupon judged what a broken and dispersed people ow’d to that which had given law to the best part of the world before they were in being, under which they had been educated, and which after a most cruel persecution was become propitious to them. They knew that the word of the emperor was a law to the senate and people, who were under the power of that man that could get the best army; but perhaps had never heard of such mixed governments as ours, tho about that time they began to appear in the world. And it might be as reasonably concluded, that there ought to be no rule in the succession or election of princes, because the Roman emperors were set up by the violence of the soldiers, and for the most part by the slaughter of him who was in possession of the power, as that all other princes must be absolute when they have it, and do what they please, till another more strong and more happy, may by the like means wrest the same power from them.
I am much mistaken if this be not true; but without prejudice to our cause, we may take that which they say, according to their true meaning, in the utmost extent. And to begin with Tertullian: ’Tis good to consider the subject of his discourse, and to whom he wrote. The treatise cited by our author is the Apologetick, and tends to persuade the pagans, that civil magistrates might not intermeddle with religion; and that the laws made by them touching those matters, were of no value, as relating to things of which they had no cognizance. ’Tis not, says he, length of time, nor the dignity of the legislators, but equity only that can commend laws; and when any are found to be unjust, they are deservedly condemned.4 By which words he denied that the magistratical power which the Romans acknowledged in Caesar, had anything to do in spiritual things. And little advantage can be taken by Christian princes from what he says concerning the Roman emperors; for he expressly declares, That the Caesars would have believed in Christ, if they had either not been necessary to the secular government, or that Christians might have been Caesars.5 This seems to have proceeded from an opinion received by Christians in the first ages, that the use of the civil as well as the military sword was equally accursed: That Christians were to be sons of peace, enemies to no man; and that Christ by commanding Peter to put up his sword, did forever disarm all Christians.6 He proceeds to say, We cannot fight to defend our goods, having in our Baptism renounc’d the world, and all that is in it; nor to gain honors, accounting nothing more foreign to us than publick affairs, and acknowledging no other commonwealth than that of the whole world;7 Nor to save our lives, because we account it a happiness to be killed. He dissuades the pagans from executing Christians, rather from charity to them in keeping them from the crime of slaughtering the innocent, than that they were unwilling to suffer: and gives no other reasons of their prayers for the emperors, than that they were commanded to love their enemies, and to pray for those who persecuted them, except such as he drew from a mistake, that the world was shortly to finish with the dissolution of the empire. All his works, as well those that were written before he fell into Montanism, as those published afterwards, are full of the like opinions; and if Filmer acknowledges them to be true, he must confess, that princes are not fathers, but enemies:8 and not only they, but all those who render themselves ministers of the powers they execute, in taking upon them the sword that Christ had cursed, do renounce him; and we may consider how to proceed with such as do so. If our author will not acknowledge this, then no man was ever guilty of a more vile prevarication than he, who alleges those words in favour of his cause, which have their only strength in opinions that he thinks false, and in the authority of a man whom in that very thing he condemns; and must do so, or overthrow all that he endeavours to support. But Tertullian’s opinions concerning these matters have no relation to our present question. The design of his apology, and the treatise to Scapula almost upon the same subject, was to show, that the civil magistracy which he comprehends under the name of Caesar, had nothing to do with matters of religion; and that, as no man could be a Christian who would undertake the work of a magistrate, they who were jealous the publick offices might be taken out of their hands, had nothing to fear from Christians who resolved not to meddle with them. Whereas our question is only, whether that magistratical power, which by law or usurpation was then in Caesar, must necessarily in all times, and in all places, be in one man, or may be divided and balanced according to the laws of every country, concerning which he says nothing: Or whether we, who do not renounce the use of the civil or military sword, who have a part in the government, and think it our duty to apply ourselves to publick cares, should lay them aside because the ancient Christians every hour expecting death, did not trouble themselves with them.
If Ambrose after he was a bishop, employ’d the ferocity of a soldier which he still retained, rather in advancing the power of the clergy, than the good of mankind by restraining the rage of tyrants, it can be no prejudice to our cause, of which he had no cognisance. He spoke of the violent and despotical government, to which he had been a minister before his baptism, and seems to have had no knowledge of the Gothick polity, that within a few years grew famous by the overthrow of the Roman tyranny, and delivering the world from the yoke which it could no longer bear. And if Augustine might say, That the emperor is subject to no laws, because he has a power of making laws, I may as justly say, that our kings are subject to laws, because they can make no law, and have no power but what is given by the laws. If this be not the case, I desire to know who made the laws, to which they and their predecessors have sworn; and whether they can according to their own will abrogate those ancient laws by which they are made to be what they are, and by which we enjoy what we have; or whether they can make new laws by their own power? If no man but our author have impudence enough to assert any such thing; and if all the kings we ever had, except Richard the second, did renounce it, we may conclude that Augustine’s words have no relation to our dispute; and that ’twere to no purpose to examine, whether the fathers mention any reservation of power to the laws of the land, or to the people, it being as lawful for all nations, if they think fit, to frame governments different from those that were then in being, as to build bastions, halfmoons, hornworks, ravelins or counterscarps, or to make use of muskets, cannon, mortars, carabines or pistols, which were unknown to them.
What Solomon says of the Hebrew kings, does as little concern us. We have already proved their power not to have been absolute, tho greater than that which the law allows to ours. It might upon occasion be a prudent advice to private persons living under such governments as were usual in the Eastern countries, to keep the king’s commandments, and not to say, What dost thou? because where the word of a king is, there is power, and all that he pleaseth he will do.9 But all these words are not his; and those that are, must not be taken in a general sense; for tho his son was a king, yet in his words there was no power: He could not do what he pleased, nor hinder others from doing what they pleased: He would have added weight to the yoke that lay upon the necks of the Israelites, but he could not;10 and we do not find him to have been master of much more than his own tongue, to speak as many foolish things as he pleased. In other things, whether he had to deal with his own people, or with strangers, he was weak and impotent; and the wretches who flatter’d him in his follies, could be of no help to him. The like has befallen many others: Those who are wise, virtuous, valiant, just, and lovers of their people, have and ought to have power; but such as are lewd, vicious, foolish, and haters of their people, ought to have none, and are often deprived of all. This was well known to Solomon, who says, That a wise child is better than an old and foolish king that will not be advised.11 When Nebuchadnezzar set himself in the place of God, his kingdom was taken from him, and he was driven from the society of men to herd with beasts.12 There was power for a time in the word of Nero: he murdered many excellent men; but he was call’d to account, and the world abandon’d the monster it had too long endur’d. He found none to defend him, nor any better help, when he desir’d to die, than the hand of a slave. Besides this, some kings by their institution have little power; some have been deprived of what they had, for abusing, or rendering themselves unworthy of it; and histories afford us innumerable examples of both sorts.
But tho I shall confess that there is always power in the word of a king, it would be nothing to us who dispute concerning right, and have no regard to that power which is void of it. A thief or a pirate may have power; but that avails him not, when, as often befell the Caesars, he meets with one who has more, and is always unsafe, since having no effect upon the consciences of men, every one may destroy him that can: And I leave it to kings to consider how much they stand obliged to those, who placing their rights upon the same foot, expose their persons to the same dangers.
But if kings desire that in their word there should be power, let them take care that it be always accompanied with truth and justice. Let them seek the good of their people, and the hands of all good men will be with them. Let them not exalt themselves insolently, and everyone will desire to exalt them. Let them acknowledge themselves to be the servants of the publick, and all men will be theirs. Let such as are most addicted to them, talk no more of Caesars, nor the tributes due to them. We have nothing to do with the name of Caesar. They who at this day live under it, reject the prerogatives anciently usurped by those that had it, and are govern’d by no other laws than their own. We know no law to which we owe obedience, but that of God, and ourselves. Asiatick slaves usually pay such tributes as are imposed upon them; and whilst braver nations lay under the Roman tyranny, they were forced to submit to the same burdens. But even those tributes were paid for maintaining armies, fleets and garrisons, without which the poor and abject life they led could not have been preserved. We owe none but what we freely give. None is or can be imposed upon us, unless by ourselves. We measure our grants according to our own will, or the present occasions, for our own safety. Our ancestors were born free, and, as the best provision they could make for us, they left us that liberty entire, with the best laws they could devise to defend it. ’Tis no way impair’d by the opinions of the fathers. The words of Solomon do rather confirm it. The happiness of those who enjoy the like, and the shameful misery they lie under, who have suffer’d themselves to be forced or cheated out of it, may persuade, and the justice of the cause encourage us to think nothing too dear to be hazarded in the defence of it.
[Patriarcha, ch. 23, p. 99.]
Lex facit ut sit rex. Bracton. [Bracton, On the Laws and Customs of England, fol. 107, p. 306.]
[Patriarcha, pp. 99–100; but Filmer does not say “all their coin.”]
Leges non annorum numerus, nec conditorum dignitas, sed sola aequitas commendat, atque ideo si iniquae cognoscuntur merito damnantur. Tertul. Ap. [Tertullian, Apology, ch. 4, sec. 10.]
Sed & Caesares super Christo credidissent, si aut Caesares non essent saeculo necessarii, aut Christiani potuissent esse Caesares. Ibid. [Ibid., ch. 21, sec. 24.]
Filii pacis, nullius hostes; & Christus exarmando Petrum, omnem Christianum militem in aeternum discinxit. Ibid. [Tertullian, Letter to Scapula, ch. 2, and On Idolatry, ch. 19.]
Nobis omnis gloriae & dignitatis ardore frigentibus, &c. Nec alia res est nobis magis aliena quam publica: unam nobis rempublicam mundum agnoscimus. [Tertullian, Apology, ch. 38, sec. 3.]
Qui enim magis inimici Christianorum, quam de quorum majestate convenimur in crimen. Tertul. ib. [“For who could be greater enemies of Christians than those towards whom we are accused of treason?” Tertullian, Apology, ch. 31.]
[1 Kings 12.]