Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 27: Magna Charta was not the Original, but a Declaration of the English Liberties. The King's Power is not restrained, but created by that and other Laws; and the Nation that made them can only correct the defects of them. - Discourses Concerning Government
SECTION 27: Magna Charta was not the Original, but a Declaration of the English Liberties. The King’s Power is not restrained, but created by that and other Laws; and the Nation that made them can only correct the defects of them. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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- The Argument of Sidney’s Discourses
- Filmer’s Position On Political Power
- Sidney’s Response
- Sidney and Locke
- Sidney’s Legacy
- Sidney’s Life
- Editor’s Note
- Reading the Discourses
- The Text
- Modernization of the Text
- Discourses Concerning Government
- Chapter One
- Section 1: Introduction.
- Section 2: The Common Notions of Liberty Are Not From School Divines, But From Nature.
- Section 3: Implicit Faith Belongs to Fools, and Truth Is Comprehended By Examining Principles.
- Section 4: The Rights of Particular Nations Cannot Subsist, If General Principles Contrary to Them Are Received As True.
- Section 5: To Depend Upon the Will of a Man Is Slavery.
- Section 6: God Leaves to Man the Choice of Forms In Government; and Those Who Constitute One Form, May Abrogate It.
- Section 7: Abraham and the Patriarchs Were Not Kings.
- Section 8: Nimrod Was the First King, During the Life of Cush, Ham, Shem, and Noah.
- Section 9: The Power of a Father Belongs Only to a Father.
- Section 10: Such As Enter Into Society, Must In Some Degree Diminish Their Liberty.
- Section 11: No Man Comes to Command Many, Unless By Consent Or By Force.
- Section 12: The Pretended Paternal Right Is Divisible Or Indivisible: If Divisible, ’tis Extinguished; If Indivisible, Universal.
- Section 13: There Was No Shadow of a Paternal Kingdom Amongst the Hebrews, Nor Precept For It.
- Section 14: If the Paternal Right Had Included Dominion, and Was to Be Transferred to a Single Heir, It Must Perish If He Were Not Known; and Could Be Applied to No Other Person.
- [section 15] 1
- Section 16: The Ancients Chose Those to Be Kings, Who Excelled In the Virtues That Are Most Beneficial to Civil Societies.
- Section 17: God Having Given the Government of the World to No One Man, Nor Declared How It Should Be Divided, Left It to the Will of Man.
- Section 18: If a Right of Dominion Were Esteemed Hereditary According to the Law of Nature, a Multitude of Destructive and Inextricable Controversies Would Thereupon Arise.
- Section 19: Kings Cannot Confer the Right of Father Upon Princes, Nor Princes Upon Kings.
- Section 20: All Just Magistratical Power Is From the People.
- Chapter Two
- Section I: That ’tis Natural For Nations to Govern, Or to Chuse Governors; and That Virtue Only Gives a Natural Preference of One Man Above Another, Or Reason Why One Should Be Chosen Rather Than Another.
- Section 2: Every Man That Hath Children, Hath the Right of a Father, and Is Capable of Preferment In a Society Composed of Many.
- Section 3: Government Is Not Instituted For the Good of the Governor, But of the Governed; and Power Is Not an Advantage, But a Burden.
- Section 4: The Paternal Right Devolves To, and Is Inherited By All the Children.
- Section 5: Freemen Join Together and Frame Greater Or Lesser Societies, and Give Such Forms to Them As Best Please Themselves.
- Section 6: They Who Have a Right of Chusing a King, Have the Right of Making a King.
- Section 7: The Laws of Every Nation Are the Measure of Magistratical Power.
- Section 8: There Is No Natural Propensity In Man Or Beast to Monarchy.
- Section 9: The Government Instituted By God Over the Israelites Was Aristocratical.
- Section 10: Aristotle Was Not Simply For Monarchy Or Against Popular Government; But Approved Or Disapproved of Either According to Circumstances.
- Section 11: Liberty Produceth Virtue, Order and Stability: Slavery Is Accompanied With Vice, Weakness and Misery.
- Section 12: The Glory, Virtue, and Power of the Romans Began and Ended With Their Liberty.
- Section 13: There Is No Disorder Or Prejudice In Changing the Name Or Number of Magistrates, Whilst the Root and Principle of Their Power Continues Entire.
- Section 14: No Sedition Was Hurtful to Rome, Till Through Their Prosperity Some Men Gained a Power Above the Laws.
- Section 15: The Empire of Rome Perpetually Decay’d When It Fell Into the Hands of One Man.
- Section 16: The Best Governments of the World Have Been Composed of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy.
- Section 17: Good Governments Admit of Changes In the Superstructures, Whilst the Foundations Remain Unchangeable.
- Section 18: Xenophon In Blaming the Disorders of Democracies, Favours Aristocracies, Not Monarchies.
- Section 19: That Corruption and Venality Which Is Natural to Courts, Is Seldom Found In Popular Governments.
- Section 20: Man’s Natural Love to Liberty Is Temper’d By Reason, Which Originally Is His Nature.
- Section 21: Mixed and Popular Governments Preserve Peace, and Manage Wars, Better Than Absolute Monarchies.
- Section 22: Commonwealths Seek Peace Or War According to the Variety of Their Constitutions.
- Section 23: That Is the Best Government, Which Best Provides For War.
- Section 24: Popular Governments Are Less Subject to Civil Disorders Than Monarchies; Manage Them More Ably, and More Easily Recover Out of Them.
- Section 25: Courts Are More Subject to Venality and Corruption Than Popular Governments.
- Section 26: Civil Tumults and Wars Are Not the Greatest Evils That Befall Nations.
- Section 27: The Mischiefs and Cruelties Proceeding From Tyranny Are Greater Than Any That Can Come From Popular Or Mixed Governments.
- Section 28: Men Living Under Popular Or Mix’d Governments, Are More Careful of the Publick Good, Than In Absolute Monarchies.
- Section 29: There Is No Assurance That the Distempers of a State Shall Be Cured By the Wisdom of a Prince.
- Section 30: A Monarchy Cannot Be Well Regulated, Unless the Powers of the Monarch Are Limited By Law.
- Section 31: The Liberties of Nations Are From God and Nature, Not From Kings.
- Section 32: The Contracts Made Between Magistrates, and the Nations That Created Them, Were Real, Solemn, and Obligatory.
- Chapter Three
- Section 1: Kings Not Being Fathers of Their People, Nor Excelling All Others In Virtue, Can Have No Other Just Power Than What the Laws Give; Nor Any Title to the Privileges of the Lord’s Anointed.
- Section 2: The Kings of Israel and Judah Were Under a Law Not Safely to Be Transgress’d.
- Section 3: Samuel Did Not Describe to the Israelites the Glory of a Free Monarchy; But the Evils the People Should Suffer, That He Might Divert Them From Desiring a King.
- Section 4: No People Can Be Obliged to Suffer From Their Kings What They Have Not a Right to Do.
- Section 5: The Mischiefs Suffer’d From Wicked Kings Are Such As Render It Both Reasonable and Just For All Nations That Have Virtue and Power to Exert Both In Repelling Them.
- Section 6: ’tis Not Good For Such Nations As Will Have Kings, to Suffer Them to Be Glorious, Powerful, Or Abounding In Riches.
- Section 7: When the Israelites Asked For Such a King As the Nations About Them Had, They Asked For a Tyrant, Tho They Did Not Call Him So.
- 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.
- Section 9: Our Own Laws Confirm to Us the Enjoyment of Our Native Rights.
- Section 10: The Words of St. Paul Enjoining Obedience to Higher Powers, Favour All Sorts of Governments No Less Than Monarchy.
- Section 11: That Which Is Not Just, Is Not Law; and That Which Is Not Law, Ought Not to Be Obeyed.
- Section 12: The Right and Power of a Magistrate Depends Upon His Institution, Not Upon His Name.
- Section 13: Laws Were Made to Direct and Instruct Magistrates, And, If They Will Not Be Directed, to Restrain Them.
- Section 14: Laws Are Not Made By Kings, Not Because They Are Busied In Greater Matters Than Doing Justice, But Because Nations Will Be Governed By Rule, and Not Arbitrarily.
- Section 15: A General Presumption That Kings Will Govern Well, Is Not a Sufficient Security to the People.
- Section 16: The Observation of the Laws of Nature Is Absurdly Expected From Tyrants, Who Set Themselves Up Against All Laws: and He That Subjects Kings to No Other Law Than What Is Common to Tyrants, Destroys Their Being.
- Section 17: Kings Cannot Be the Interpreters of the Oaths They Take.
- Section 18: The Next In Blood to Deceased Kings Cannot Generally Be Said to Be Kings Till They Are Crowned.
- Section 19: The Greatest Enemy of a Just Magistrate Is He Who Endeavours to Invalidate the Contract Between Him and the People, Or to Corrupt Their Manners.
- Section 20: Unjust Commands Are Not to Be Obey’d; and No Man Is Obliged to Suffer For Not Obeying Such As Are Against Law.
- Section 21: It Cannot Be For the Good of the People That the Magistrate Have a Power Above the Law: and He Is Not a Magistrate Who Has Not His Power By Law.
- Section 22: The Rigour of the Law Is to Be Temper’d By Men of Known Integrity and Judgment, and Not By the Prince Who May Be Ignorant Or Vicious.
- Section 23: Aristotle Proves, That No Man Is to Be Entrusted With an Absolute Power, By Shewing That No One Knows How to Execute It, But Such a Man As Is Not to Be Found.
- Section 24: The Power of Augustus Caesar Was Not Given, But Usurped.
- Section 25: The Regal Power Was Not the First In This Nation; Nor Necessarily to Be Continued, Tho It Had Been the First.
- Section 26: Tho the King May Be Entrusted With the Power of Chusing Judges, Yet That By Which They Act Is From the Law.
- Section 27: Magna Charta Was Not the Original, But a Declaration of the English Liberties. the King’s Power Is Not Restrained, But Created By That and Other Laws; and the Nation That Made Them Can Only Correct the Defects of Them.
- Section 28: The English Nation Has Always Been Governed By Itself Or Its Representatives.
- Section 29: The King Was Never Master of the Soil.
- Section 30: Henry the First Was King of England By As Good a Title As Any of His Predecessors Or Successors.
- Section 31: Free Nations Have a Right of Meeting, When and Where They Please, Unless They Deprive Themselves of It.
- Section 32: The Powers of Kings Are So Various According to the Constitutions of Several States, That No Consequence Can Be Drawn to the Prejudice Or Advantage of Any One, Merely From the Name.
- Section 33: The Liberty of a People Is the Gift of God and Nature.
- Section 34: No Veneration Paid, Or Honor Conferr’d Upon a Just and Lawful Magistrate, Can Diminish the Liberty of a Nation.
- Section 35: The Authority Given By Our Law to the Acts Performed By a King De Facto, Detract Nothing From the People’s Right of Creating Whom They Please.
- Section 36: The General Revolt of a Nation Cannot Be Called a Rebellion.
- Section 37: The English Government Was Not Ill Constituted, the Defects More Lately Observed Proceeding From the Change of Manners, and Corruption of the Times.
- Section 38: The Power of Calling and Dissolving Parliaments Is Not Simply In the King. the Variety of Customs In Chusing Parliament Men, and the Errors a People May Commit, Neither Prove That Kings Are Or Ought to Be Absolute.
- Section 39: Those Kings Only Are Heads of the People, Who Are Good, Wise, and Seek to Advance No Interest But That of the Publick.
- Section 40: Good Laws Prescribe Easy and Safe Remedies Against the Evils Proceeding From the Vices Or Infirmities of the Magistrate; and When They Fail, They Must Be Supplied.
- Section 41: The People For Whom and By Whom the Magistrate Is Created, Can Only Judge Whether Be Rightly Perform His Office Or Not.
- Section 42: The Person That Wears the Crown Cannot Determine the Affairs Which the Law Refers to the King.
- Section 43: Proclamations Are Not Laws.
- Section 44: No People That Is Not Free Can Substitute Delegates.
- Section 45: The Legislative Power Is Always Arbitrary, and Not to Be Trusted In the Hands of Any Who Are Not Bound to Obey the Laws They Make.
- Section 46: The Coercive Power of the Law Proceeds From the Authority of Parliament.
Magna Charta was not the Original, but a Declaration of the English Liberties. The King’s Power is not restrained, but created by that and other Laws; and the Nation that made them can only correct the defects of them.
I agree with our author that Magna Charta was not made to restrain the absolute authority; for no such thing was in being or pretended (the folly of such visions seeming to have been reserved to complete the misfortunes and ignominy of our age) but it was to assert the native and original liberties of our nation by the confession of the king then being, that neither he nor his successors should any way encroach upon them: and it cannot be said that the power of kings is diminished by that or any other law; for as they are kings only by law, the law may confer power upon one in particular, or upon him and his successors, but can take nothing from them, because they have nothing except what is given to them. But as that which the law gives, is given by those who make the law, they only are capable of judging, whether he to whom they gave it, do well or ill employ that power, and consequently are only fit to correct the defects that may be found in it. Therefore tho I should confess that faults may be found in many statutes, and that the whole body of them is greatly defective, it will not follow that the compendious way of referring all to the will of the king should be taken. But what defects soever may be in our law, the disease is not so great to require extreme remedies, and we may hope for a cheaper cure. Our law may possibly have given away too much from the people, and provided only insufficient defences of our liberties against the encroachments of bad princes; but none who are not in judgment and honesty like to our author, can propose for a remedy to the evils that proceed from the error of giving too much, the resignation of all the rest to them. Whatever he says, ’tis evident that he knows this to be true, when, tho he denies that the power of kings can be restrained by acts of parliament, he endeavours to take advantage of such clauses as were either fraudulently inserted by the king’s officers, who till the days of Henry the fifth for the most part had the penning of the publick acts, or through negligence did not fully explain the intentions of the legislators; which would be to no purpose if all were put into the hands of the king by a general law from God, that no human power could diminish or enlarge; and as his last shift would obliquely put all into the power of the king by giving him a right of interpreting the law, and judging such cases as are not clearly decided; which would be equally impertinent, if he had openly and plainly a right of determining all things according to his will.
But what defects soever may be in any statutes, no great inconveniences could probably ensue, if that for annual parliaments was observed, as of right it ought to be. Nothing is more unlikely, than that a great assembly of eminent and chosen men should make a law evidently destructive to their own designs; and no mischief that might emerge upon the discovery of a mistake, could be so extreme that the cure might not be deferr’d till the meeting of the parliament, or at least forty days (in which time the king may call one) if that which the law has fixed seem to be too long. If he fail of this, he performs not his trust; and he that would reward such a breach of it with a vast and uncontrollable power, may be justly thought equal in madness to our author, who by forbidding us to examine the titles of kings, and enjoining an entire veneration of the power, by what means soever obtained, encourages the worst of men to murder the best of princes, with an assurance that if they prosper they shall enjoy all the honors and advantages that this world can afford.
Princes are not much more beholden to him for the haughty language he puts into their mouths, it having been observed that the worst are always most ready to use it; and their extravagances having been often chastised by law, sufficiently proves, that their power is not derived from a higher original than the law of their own countries.
If it were true, that the answer sometimes given by kings to bills presented for their assent, did, as our author says, amount to a denial, it could only shew that they have a negative voice upon that which is agreed by the parliament, and is far from a power of acting by themselves, being only a check upon the other parts of the government. But indeed it is no more than an elusion; and he that does by art obliquely elude, confesses he has not a right absolutely to refuse. ’Tis natural to kings, especially to the worst, to screw up their authority to the height; and nothing can more evidently prove the defect of it, than the necessity of having recourse to such pitiful evasions, when they are unwilling to do that which is required. But if I should grant that the words import a denial, and that (notwithstanding those of the coronation oath, quas vulgus elegerit ) they might deny; no more could be inferred from thence, than that they are entrusted with a power equal in that point, to that of either house, and cannot be supreme in our author’s sense, unless there were in the same state at the same time three distinct supreme and absolute powers, which is absurd.
His cases relating to the proceedings of the Star-Chamber and Council-Table, do only prove that some kings have encroached upon the rights of the nation, and been suffer’d till their excesses growing to be extreme, they turn’d to the ruin of the ministers that advised them, and sometimes of the kings themselves. But the jurisdiction of the Council having been regulated by the statute of the 17 Car. I. and the Star-Chamber more lately abolished, they are nothing to our dispute.
Such as our author usually impute to treason and rebellion the changes that upon such occasions have ensued; but all impartial men do not only justify them, but acknowledge that all the crowns of Europe are at this day enjoy’d by no other title than such acts solemnly performed by the respective nations, who either disliking the person that pretended to the crown (tho next in blood) or the government of the present possessor, have thought fit to prefer another person or family. They also say, that as no government can be so perfect but some defect may be originally in it, or afterwards introduced, none can subsist unless they be from time to time reduced to their first integrity, by such an exertion of the power of those for whose sake they were instituted, as may plainly shew them to be subject to no power under heaven, but may do whatever appears to be for their own good. And as the safety of all nations consists in rightly placing and measuring this power, such have been found always to prosper who have given it to those from whom usurpations were least to be feared, who have been least subject to be awed, cheated or corrupted; and who having the greatest interest in the nation, were most concerned to preserve its power, liberty and welfare. This is the greatest trust that can be reposed in men. This power was by the Spartans given to the ephori and the senate of twenty eight; in Venice to that which they call Concilio de Pregadi; in Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Scotland, England, and generally all the nations that have lived under the Gothick polity, it has been in their general assemblies, under the names of diets, cortes, parliaments, senates, and the like. But in what hands soever it is, the power of making, abrogating, changing, correcting and interpreting laws, has been in the same; kings have been rejected or deposed; the succession of the crown settled, regulated, or changed: and I defy any man to shew me one king amongst all the nations abovementioned, that has any right to the crown he wears, unless such acts are good.
If this power be not well placed, or rightly proportioned to that which is given to other magistrates, the state must necessarily fall into great disorders, or the most violent and dangerous means must be frequently used to preserve their liberty. Sparta and Venice have rarely been put to that trouble, because the senates were so much above the kings and dukes in power, that they could without difficulty bring them to reason. The Gothick kings in Spain never ventur’d to dispute with the nobility; and Witiza and Rodrigo exposed the kingdom as a prey to the Moors, rather by weakening it through the neglect of military discipline, joined to their own ignorance and cowardice, and by evil example bringing the youth to resemble them in lewdness and baseness, than by establishing in themselves a power above the law. But in England our ancestors who seem to have had some such thing in their eye, as balancing the powers, by a fatal mistake placed usually so much in the hands of the king, that whensoever he happened to be bad, his extravagances could not be repress’d without great danger. And as this has in several ages cost the nation a vast proportion of generous blood, so ’tis the cause of our present difficulties, and threatens us with more, but can never deprive us of the rights we inherit from our fathers.