Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 36: The general revolt of a Nation cannot be called a Rebellion. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 36: The general revolt of a Nation cannot be called a Rebellion. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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The general revolt of a Nation cannot be called a Rebellion.
As impostors seldom make lies to pass in the world, without putting false names upon things, such as our author endeavour to persuade the people they ought not to defend their liberties, by giving the name of rebellion to the most just and honourable actions that have been performed for the preservation of them; and to aggravate the matter, fear not to tell us that rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft. But those who seek after truth, will easily find, that there can be no such thing in the world as the rebellion of a nation against its own magistrates, and that rebellion is not always evil. That this may appear, it will not be amiss to consider the word, as well as the thing understood by it as it is used in an evil sense.
The word is taken from the Latin rebellare, which signifies no more than to renew a war. When a town or province had been subdued by the Romans, and brought under their dominion, if they violated their faith after the settlement of peace, and invaded their masters who had spared them, they were said to rebel. But it had been more absurd to apply that word to the people that rose against the decemviri, kings or other magistrates, than to the Parthians or any of those nations who had no dependence upon them; for all the circumstances that should make a rebellion were wanting, the word implying a superiority in them against whom it is, as well as the breach of an establish’d peace. But tho every private man singly taken be subject to the commands of the magistrate, the whole body of the people is not so; for he is by and for the people, and the people is neither by nor for him. The obedience due to him from private men is grounded upon, and measured by the general law; and that law regarding the welfare of the people, cannot set up the interest of one or a few men against the publick. The whole body therefore of a nation cannot be tied to any other obedience than is consistent with the common good, according to their own judgment: and having never been subdued or brought to terms of peace with their magistrates, they cannot be said to revolt or rebel against them to whom they owe no more than seems good to themselves, and who are nothing of or by themselves, more than other men.
Again, the thing signified by rebellion is not always evil; for tho every subdued nation must acknowledge a superiority in those who have subdued them, and rebellion do imply a breach of the peace, yet that superiority is not infinite; the peace may be broken upon just grounds, and it may be neither a crime nor infamy to do it. The Privernates had been more than once subdued by the Romans, and had as often rebelled. Their city was at last taken by Plautius the consul, after their leader Vitruvius and great numbers of their senate and people had been kill’d: Being reduced to a low condition, they sent ambassadors to Rome to desire peace; where when a senator asked them what punishment they deserved, one of them answered, The same which they deserve who think themselves worthy of liberty. The consul then demanded, what kind of peace might be expected from them, if the punishment should be remitted: The ambassador answer’d, If the terms you give be good, the peace will be observed by us faithfully and perpetually; if bad, it will soon be broken.1 And tho some were offended with the ferocity of the answer; yet the best part of the senate approved it as wortby of a man and a freeman;2 and confessing that no man or nation would continue under an uneasy condition longer than they were compell’d by force, said, They only were fit to be made Romans, who thought nothing valuable but liberty.3 Upon which they were all made citizens of Rome, and obtained whatsoever they had desired.
I know not how this matter can be carried to a greater height; for if it were possible, that a people resisting oppression, and vindicating their own liberty, could commit a crime, and incur either guilt or infamy, the Privernates did, who had been often subdued, and often pardoned; but even in the judgment of their conquerors whom they had offended, the resolution they professed of standing to no agreement imposed upon them by necessity, was accounted the highest testimony of such a virtue as rendered them worthy to be admitted into a society and equality with themselves, who were the most brave and virtuous people of the world.
But if the patience of a conquer’d people may have limits, and they who will not bear oppression from those who had spared their lives, may deserve praise and reward from their conquerors, it would be madness to think, that any nation can be obliged to bear whatsoever their own magistrates think fit to do against them. This may seem strange to those who talk so much of conquests made by kings; immunities, liberties and privileges granted to nations; oaths of allegiance taken, and wonderful benefits conferred upon them. But having already said as much as is needful concerning conquests, and that the magistrate who has nothing except what is given to him, can only dispense out of the publick stock such franchises and privileges as he has received for the reward of services done to the country, and encouragement of virtue, I shall at present keep myself to the two last points.
Allegiance signifies no more (as the words, ad legem declare) than such an obedience as the law requires. But as the law can require nothing from the whole people, who are masters of it, allegiance can only relate to particulars, and not to the whole. No oath can bind any other than those who take it, and that only in the true sense and meaning of it: but single men only take this oath, and therefore single men are only obliged to keep it: the body of a people neither does, nor can perform any such act: Agreements and contracts have been made; as the tribe of Judah, and the rest of Israel afterward, made a covenant with David, upon which they made him king; but no wise man can think, that the nation did thereby make themselves the creature of their own creature.
The sense also of an oath ought to be considered. No man can by an oath be obliged to anything beyond, or contrary to the true meaning of it: private men who swear obedience ad legem, swear no obedience extra or contra legem: whatsoever they promise or swear, can detract nothing from the publick liberty, which the law principally intends to preserve. Tho many of them may be obliged in their several stations and capacities to render peculiar services to a prince, the people continue as free as the internal thoughts of a man, and cannot but have a right to preserve their liberty, or avenge the violation.
If matters are well examined, perhaps not many magistrates can pretend to much upon the title of merit, most especially if they or their progenitors have continued long in office. The conveniences annexed to the exercise of the sovereign power, may be thought sufficient to pay such scores as they grow due, even to the best: and as things of that nature are handled, I think it will hardly be found, that all princes can pretend to an irresistible power upon the account of beneficence to their people. When the family of Medici came to be masters of Tuscany, that country was without dispute, in men, money and arms, one of the most flourishing provinces in the world, as appears by Machiavelli’s account, and the relation of what happened between Charles the eighth and the magistrates of Florence, which I have mentioned already from Guicciardini. Now whoever shall consider the strength of that country in those days, together with what it might have been in the space of a hundred and forty years, in which they have had no war, nor any other plague, than the extortion, fraud, rapine and cruelty of their princes, and compare it with their present desolate, wretched and contemptible condition, may, if he please, think that much veneration is due to the princes that govern them, but will never make any man believe that their title can be grounded upon beneficence. The like may be said of the duke of Savoy, who pretending (upon I know not what account) that every peasant in the duchy ought to pay him two crowns every half year, did in 1662 subtly find out, that in every year there were thirteen halves; so that a poor man who had nothing but what he gained by hard labour, was through his fatherly care and beneficence, forced to pay six and twenty crowns to his royal highness, to be employ’d in his discrete and virtuous pleasures at Turin.
The condition of the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands (and even of Spain itself) when they fell to the house of Austria, was of the same nature: and I will confess as much as can be required, if any other marks of their government do remain, than such as are manifest evidences of their pride, avarice, luxury and cruelty.
France in outward appearance makes a better show; but nothing in this world is more miserable, than that people under the fatherly care of their triumphant monarch. The best of their condition is like asses and mastiff-dogs, to work and fight, to be oppressed and kill’d for him; and those among them who have any understanding well know, that their industry, courage, and good success, is not only unprofitable, but destructive to them; and that by increasing the power of their master, they add weight to their own chains. And if any prince, or succession of princes, have made a more modest use of their power, or more faithfully discharged the trust reposed in them, it must be imputed peculiarly to them, as a testimony of their personal virtue, and can have no effect upon others.
The rights therefore of kings are not grounded upon conquest; the liberties of nations do not arise from the grants of their princes; the oath of allegiance binds no private man to more than the law directs, and has no influence upon the whole body of every nation: Many princes are known to their subjects only by the injuries, losses and mischiefs brought upon them; such as are good and just, ought to be rewarded for their personal virtue, but can confer no right upon those who no way resemble them; and whoever pretends to that merit, must prove it by his actions: Rebellion being nothing but a renewed war, can never be against a government that was not established by war, and of itself is neither good nor evil, more than any other war; but is just or unjust according to the cause or manner of it. Besides, that rebellion which by Samuel is compar’d to witchcraft, is not of private men, or a people against the prince, but of the prince against God:4 The Israelites are often said to have rebelled against the law, word, or command of God; but tho they frequently opposed their kings, I do not find rebellion imputed to them on that account, nor any ill character put upon such actions. We are told also of some kings who had been subdued, and afterwards rebelled against Chedorlaomer and other kings; but their cause is not blamed, and we have some reason to believe it good, because Abraham took part with those who had rebelled.5 However it can be of no prejudice to the cause I defend: for tho it were true, that those subdued kings could not justly rise against the person who had subdued them; or that generally no king being once vanquished, could have a right of rebellion against his conqueror, it could have no relation to the actions of a people vindicating their own laws and liberties against a prince who violates them; for that war which never was, can never be renewed. And if it be true in any case, that hands and swords are given to men, that they only may be slaves who have no courage, it must be when liberty is overthrown by those, who of all men ought with the utmost industry and vigour to have defended it.
That this should be known, is not only necessary for the safety of nations, but advantageous to such kings as are wise and good. They who know the frailty of human nature, will always distrust their own; and desiring only to do what they ought, will be glad to be restrain’d from that which they ought not to do. Being taught by reason and experience, that nations delight in the peace and justice of a good government, they will never fear a general insurrection, whilst they take care it be rightly administered; and finding themselves by this means to be safe, will never be unwilling, that their children or successors should be obliged to tread in the same steps.
If it be said that this may sometimes cause disorders, I acknowledge it; but no human condition being perfect, such a one is to be chosen, which carries with it the most tolerable inconveniences: And it being much better that the irregularities and excesses of a prince should be restrained or suppressed, than that whole nations should perish by them, those constitutions that make the best provision against the greatest evils, are most to be commended. If governments were instituted to gratify the lusts of one man, those could not be good that set limits to them; but all reasonable men confessing that they are instituted for the good of nations, they only can deserve praise, who above all things endeavour to procure it, and appoint means proportioned to that end. The great variety of governments which we see in the world, is nothing but the effect of this care; and all nations have been, and are more or less happy, as they or their ancestors have had vigour of spirit, integrity of manners, and wisdom to invent and establish such orders, as have better or worse provided for this common good, which was sought by all. But as no rule can be so exact, to make provision against all contestations; and all disputes about right do naturally end in force when justice is denied (ill men never willingly submitting to any decision that is contrary to their passions and interests) the best constitutions are of no value, if there be not a power to support them. This power first exerts itself in the execution of justice by the ordinary officers: But no nation having been so happy, as not sometimes to produce such princes as Edward and Richard the Seconds, and such ministers as Gaveston, Spencer, and Tresilian, the ordinary officers of justice often want the will, and always the power to restrain them. So that the rights and liberties of a nation must be utterly subverted and abolished, if the power of the whole may not be employed to assert them, or punish the violation of them. But as it is the fundamental right of every nation to be governed by such laws, in such manner, and by such persons as they think most conducing to their own good, they cannot be accountable to any but themselves for what they do in that most important affair.
Si bonam dederitis, fidam & perpetuam; si malam, haud diuturnam. Liv. [Livy, History of Rome, bk. 8, ch. 21.]
Viri & liberi vocem auditam. Ibid.
Eos demum, qui nihil praeterquam de libertate cogitant, dignos esse, qui Romani fiant. Ibid.
1 Sam. 15.23.