Front Page Titles (by Subject) 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. - Discourses Concerning Government
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. - 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.
The English Government was not ill constituted, the defects more lately observed proceeding from the change of manners, and corruption of the times.
I am not ignorant that many honest and good men acknowledging these rights, and the care of our ancestors to preserve them, think they wanted wisdom rightly to proportionate the means to the end. ’Tis not enough, say they, for the general of an army to desire victory; he only can deserve praise, who has skill, industry, and courage to take the best measures of obtaining it. Neither is it enough for wise legislators to preserve liberty, and to erect such a government as may stand for a time; but to set such clear rules to those who are to put it in execution, that every man may know when they transgress; and appoint such means for restraining or punishing them, as may be used speedily, surely, and effectually, without danger to the publick. Sparta being thus constituted, we hardly find that, for more than eight hundred years, any king presumed to pass the limits prescribed by the law. If any Roman consul grew insolent, he might be reduced to order without blood, or danger to the publick; and no dictator ever usurped a power over liberty till the time of Sulla, when all things in the city were so changed, that the ancient foundations were become too narrow. In Venice the power of the duke is so circumscribed, that in 1300 years, no one except Falerio and Tiepoli, has dared to attempt anything against the laws: and they were immediately suppressed with little commotion in the city. On the other side, our law is so ambiguous, perplexed and intricate, that ’tis hard to know when ’tis broken. In all the publick contests we have had, men of good judgment and integrity have follow’d both parties. The means of transgressing and procuring partizans to make good by force the most notorious violations of liberty, have been so easy, that no prince who has endeavoured it, ever failed to get great numbers of followers, and to do infinite mischiefs before he could be removed. The nation has been brought to fight against those they had made to be what they were, upon the unequal terms of hazarding all against nothing. If they had success, they gained no more than was their own before, and which the law ought to have secured: whereas ’tis evident, that if at any one time the contrary had happened, the nation had been utterly enslaved; and no victory was ever gained without the loss of much noble and innocent blood.
To this I answer, that no right judgment can be given of human things, without a particular regard to the time in which they passed. We esteem Scipio, Hannibal, Pyrrhus, Alexander, Epaminondas and Caesar, to have been admirable commanders in war, because they had in a most eminent degree all the qualities that could make them so, and knew best how to employ the arms then in use according to the discipline of their times; and yet no man doubts, that if the most skilful of them could be raised from the grave, restored to the utmost vigour of mind and body, set at the head of the best armies he ever commanded, and placed upon the frontiers of France or Flanders, he would not know how to advance or retreat, nor by what means to take any of the places in those parts, as they are now fortified and defended; but would most certainly be beaten by any insignificant fellow with a small number of men, furnished with such arms as are now in use, and following the methods now practiced. Nay, the manner of marching, encamping, besieging, attacking, defending and fighting, is so much altered within the last threescore years, that no man observing the discipline that was then thought to be the best, could possibly defend himself against that which has been since found out, tho the terms are still the same. And if it be consider’d that political matters are subject to the same mutations (as certainly they are) it will be sufficient to excuse our ancestors, who suiting their government to the ages in which they lived, could neither foresee the changes that might happen in future generations, nor appoint remedies for the mischiefs they did not foresee.
They knew that the kings of several nations had been kept within the limits of the law, by the virtue and power of a great and brave nobility; and that no other way of supporting a mix’d monarchy had ever been known in the world, than by putting the balance into the hands of those who had the greatest interest in nations, and who by birth and estate enjoy’d greater advantages than kings could confer upon them for rewards of betraying their country. They knew that when the nobility was so great as not easily to be number’d, the little that was left to the king’s disposal, was not sufficient to corrupt many; and if some might fall under the temptation, those who continued in their integrity, would easily be able to chastise them for deserting the publick cause, and by that means deter kings from endeavouring to seduce them from their duty. Whilst things continued in this posture, kings might safely be trusted (with the advice of their council) to confer the commands of the militia in towns and provinces upon the most eminent men in them: And whilst those kings were exercised in almost perpetual wars, and placed their glory in the greatness of the actions they achieved by the power and valour of their people, it was their interest always to chuse such as seemed best to deserve that honour. It was not to be imagined that through the weakness of some, and malice of others, those dignities should by degrees be turned into empty titles, and become the rewards of the greatest crimes, and the vilest services; or that the noblest of their descendants for want of them, should be brought under the name of commoners, and deprived of all privileges except such as were common to them with their grooms. Such a stupendous change being in process of time insensibly introduced, the foundations of that government which they had established, were removed, and the superstructure overthrown. The balance by which it subsisted was broken; and ’tis as impossible to restore it, as for most of those who at this day go under the name of noblemen, to perform the duties required from the ancient nobility of England. And tho there were a charm in the name, and those who have it, should be immediately filled with a spirit like to that which animated our ancestors, and endeavour to deserve the honors they possess, by such services to the country as they ought to have perform’d before they had them, they would not be able to accomplish it. They have neither the interest nor the estates required for so great a work. Those who have estates at a rack rent, have no dependents. Their tenants, when they have paid what is agreed, owe them nothing; and knowing they shall be turn’d out of their tenements, as soon as any other will give a little more, they look upon their lords as men who receive more from them than they confer upon them. This dependence being lost, the lords have only more money to spend or lay up than others, but no command of men; and can therefore neither protect the weak, nor curb the insolent. By this means all things have been brought into the hands of the king and the commoners, and there is nothing left to cement them, and to maintain the union. The perpetual jarrings we hear every day; the division of the nation into such factions as threaten us with ruin, and all the disorders that we see or fear, are the effects of this rupture. These things are not to be imputed to our original constitutions, but to those who have subverted them: And if they who by corrupting, changing, enervating and annihilating the nobility, which was the principal support of the ancient regular monarchy, have driven those who are truly noblemen into the same interest and name with the commons, and by that means increased a party which never was, and I think never can be united to the court, they are to answer for the consequences; and if they perish, their destruction is from themselves.
The inconveniences therefore proceed not from the institution, but from the innovation. The law was plain, but it has been industriously rendered perplex: They who were to have upheld it are overthrown. That which might have been easily performed when the people was armed, and had a great, strong, virtuous and powerful nobility to lead them, is made difficult, now they are disarmed, and that nobility abolished. Our ancestors may evidently appear, not only to have intended well, but to have taken a right course to accomplish what they intended. This had effect as long as the cause continued; and the only fault that can be ascribed to that which they established is, that it has not proved to be perpetual; which is no more than may be justly said of the best human constitutions that ever have been in the world. If we will be just to our ancestors, it will become us in our time rather to pursue what we know they intended, and by new constitutions to repair the breaches made upon the old, than to accuse them of the defects that will forever attend the actions of men. Taking our affairs at the worst, we shall soon find, that if we have the same spirit they had, we may easily restore our nation to its ancient liberty, dignity and happiness; and if we do not, the fault is owing to ourselves, and not to any want of virtue and wisdom in them.