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Source: Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
Foreword by Thomas G. West
Thomas Jefferson regarded John Locke and Algernon Sidney as the two leading sources for the American understanding of the principles of political liberty and the rights of humanity. Locke’s Second Treatise is readily available, but since 1805 only one major reprint of Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government has appeared until now. This neglect is as undeserved today as it was when John Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1823:
I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on government. … As often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration [i.e., wonder] that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce—as well for the intrinsic merit of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, and political illumination in the world—ought to be now published in America.
Sidney (or Sydney, as it was sometimes spelled) was once a popular hero. Like Socrates, he was famous for his controversial doctrines on government and for a nobility of character displayed during a dramatic trial and execution that was widely regarded as judicial murder. Unlike Socrates, Sidney was emphatically a political man and a partisan of republicanism. For a century and more he was celebrated as a martyr to free government, as Socrates is still celebrated as a martyr to the philosophic way of life. Socrates died the defiant inquirer, who knew only that he did not know the most important things. Sidney, in contrast, the defiant republican, kept getting into trouble for his democratic political views and projects. Asked to sign an inscription in the visitor’s book at the University of Copenhagen, Sidney wrote, with typical spirit,
Manus haec inimica tyrannis
Einse petit placidam cum libertate quietem.
(This hand, enemy to tyrants,
By the sword seeks calm peacefulness with liberty.)
Eighteenth-century editors of Sidney’s Discourses printed this beneath the frontispiece, and it remains the official motto of the state of Massachusetts to this day.
Sidney fell out of fashion during the nineteenth century. The educated began to favor statesmen like Cromwell and Napoleon, who relished the exercise of unrestrained power for grand projects in the service of mankind. Scholars have recently shown renewed interest in Sidney as an object of research. But in spite of twentieth-century tyrannies more terrible than any Sidney experienced or read about, he still fails to satisfy the taste of most contemporary intellectuals. This new edition of Discourses Concerning Government may provide an occasion for students of political liberty to reassess Sidney’s eclipse.
The Argument of Sidney’s Discourses
Sidney wrote Discourses Concerning Government in response to a book by Sir Robert Filmer defending the divine and natural right of kings to absolute rule. Filmer’s book, Patriarcha: A Defence of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, was first published in 1680, though it had been written much earlier.
Sidney appears to have written the Discourses between 1681 and 1683. The manuscript was first published in 1698, fifteen years after Sidney’s death. The Discourses as we have it is a nearly complete draft of a chapter-by-chapter refutation of Filmer. It is therefore helpful to know something of Filmer’s argument and its context before reading Sidney.
FILMER’S POSITION ON POLITICAL POWER
Why should one obey the law? In pre-Christian times, the answer most often given was: The gods gave us our laws. The gods of the ancient polis were the gods of a particular political community. As a religion for all mankind, however, the Christian faith endorsed no particular legal code. The things of Caesar were not the things of God. As a practical matter, Roman Catholicism did support governments by giving them its sanction. But the universal claim of the Church undercut the authority of politics and, consequently, there was endless rivalry between priests and kings.
The Protestant Reformation solved that problem by overthrowing the political pretensions not only of the Pope but of all clergy. But if the Church no longer sanctified country and law, what did? England wrestled with this question for a century and a half after Henry VIII declared his religious independence from Rome in 1532. The question was theoretical, but the consequences were bloody. Men of good will sought a principled answer in authoritative books, practical experience, and through their own reasonings. In the end it was settled by force of arms.
Most of Protestant England believed unquestioning obedience to the king was not only the old but the best way. The view that the king has a divine right to rule that comes directly from God seemed to provide “the only means, which could preserve the civil, from being swallowed by the ecclesiastical powers.” In its traditional, pre-Filmer form, the divine right claim was qualified by the requirement that the king must obey the laws and customs of the kingdom.
But the logic of divine right did not stop there. If the king alone has his authority from God, why should there be any limit on what he might do? This radical conclusion was drawn by Sir Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha defends absolute monarchical power, no matter how lawless, cruel, or tyrannical it might be. Like other royalists, Filmer argued on the basis of the Bible as well as of experience and reason unassisted by faith. Unlike other royalists, Filmer liberated his king from all earthly restraint.
Filmer maintained in Patriarcha that kings rule by right of birth. They inherit this right ultimately from Adam, to whom God gave sovereign power over the world. Men are born neither free nor equal. He thought monarchy the most natural form of government because it is based on the most natural of all relations, the family, in which the father rules. Both the natural law and the Bible, Filmer says, teach us to obey our parents. A king is a father writ large, patriarch of his country. Therefore, the king is not subject to any human law, including even the English common law. He is himself the source of law.
Filmer’s radicalization of the theory of royalism might have been harmless enough had practical developments in England not made the threat of absolute monarchy quite real. The old nobility had entirely lost its former armed strength. There was evidence that King Charles II and his brother, the future James II, were trying to impose upon England a government modeled on Louis XIV’s France: state Catholicism with no Parliament. (Filmer himself, an Anglican, was strongly anti-Catholic, to be sure.) Unchecked by the nobles or by Parliament, the government threatened to become more absolute than any medieval monarchy.
A revolutionary ferment was occasioned by this threat, and in the early 1680s three Whig writers wrote books attacking Filmer: James Tyrrell’s Patriarcha non Monarcha was published in 1681; John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government appeared in 1689 and Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government in 1698.
Filmer’s Patriarcha was divided, in the 1680 edition that Sidney read, into three chapters with these titles:
- I. That the first Kings were Fathers of Families.
- II. It is unnatural for the People to Govern, or Choose Governours.
- III. Positive Laws do not infringe the Natural and Fatherly Power of Kings.
Accordingly, Sidney’s reply in the Discourses is also divided into three (untitled) chapters, which argue that:
- I. Paternal power is entirely different from political power.
- II. The people choose their governors by virtue of their natural right to liberty, and that government with a strong popular element is the best.
- III. Kings are entirely subject to the law, which in England means the Parliament.
Sidney sarcastically summed up Filmer’s argument in this way: God “caused some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs.” Sidney (and Tyrrell and Locke) argued the opposite, that “men are naturally free,” equal liberty being “the gift of God and nature.” However, “Man cannot continue in the … liberty that God hath given him. The liberty of one is thwarted by that of another; and whilst they are all equal, none will yield to any, otherwise than by a general consent. This is the ground of all just government.” Not birth but free choice determines men’s rightful rulers (I.10, III.33).
But in Sidney liberty can be an equivocal term. In one sense it means the complete absence of external restraint: “liberty solely consists in an independency upon the will of another” (I.5). “Liberty without restraint,” however, is undesirable, “being inconsistent with any government, and the good which man naturally desires for himself, children, and friends” (II.20).
Sidney alludes to a different understanding of liberty when he speaks of “one who is transported by his own passions or follies, a slave to his lusts and vices” (III.25 end). Following Aristotle, Sidney calls human beings who are incapable of self-control “slaves by nature” (I.2). In this sense liberty is acting in accord with reason, not passion.
Rational liberty, in either sense, involves some restraint. Liberty needs virtue as its support. More important, men need virtue if they are going to be masters of themselves. The purpose of government therefore goes beyond the protection of mere liberty; it must reward excellence and punish vice (I.20). “If the publick safety be provided, liberty and propriety secured, justice administered, virtue encouraged, vice suppressed, and the true interest of the nation advanced, the ends of government are accomplished,” Sidney wrote (III.21).
Of course, the purpose of government, discovered by reason, is to protect the people in their natural liberty as far as that is prudent. In the ordinary course of providing for their families and subsistence, the people ought to be left alone (III.41). Government therefore must protect the people’s rights to their “lands, goods, lives, and liberties” (III.16).
Governments are first formed when the people make an agreement with each other to give up some of their natural liberty. They contract to obey their rulers on condition that their rulers contract with them to rule for the sake of the ends for which government is constituted (II.32). Therefore all government should be limited to those ends.
The ends of government are determined by the natural law, by which Sidney meant something simple: the rules of conduct that common sense derives from reflecting on the nature of man. In Sidney’s view, natural law teaches us, among other things, that human beings are born free, that fathers are to be obeyed, that injuries are to be repelled and avenged, that those best qualified ought to rule, and that one ought not to be a slave to one’s passions. “Nothing but the plain and certain dictates of reason can be generally applicable to all men as the law of their nature; and they who, according to the best of their understanding, provide for the good of themselves and their posterity, do all equally observe it” (II.20).
Just government being instituted by the consent of the governed and for ends limited by the natural law and by the original contract, it follows that the people have a right to overthrow their government when it violates these limits. This right to revolution was the most controversial part of Sidney’s teaching. It was denounced at his trial and led directly to his conviction and execution.
Since all human beings are subject to passion and inclined to self-interest, the good of the people is best secured through the rule of law. In a passage that John Adams liked to quote, Sidney says law is “void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ’Tis mens sine affectu [mind without passion], written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection” (III.15, paraphrasing Aristotle). In Sidney’s strict use here, the term law excludes that which serves the private interest of the ruler. For “That which is not just is not law, and that which is not law ought not to be obeyed” (III. 11 section title).
Of the several forms of government, Sidney unsurprisingly likes monarchy least. But it is not immediately evident whether his principles provide clear guidance as to the best form of government. (The question also arises in regard to the American Declaration of Independence.) It might seem that the people may consent to any form of government they please. However, it becomes clear as Sidney proceeds that partly or wholly democratic governments are his preference. They are most consistent with the liberty we are born to and provide the greatest opportunity for merit to receive its due reward and for wisdom to prevail in the public business (II.20, 21, III.16).
Prudence dictates that political constitutions are to some extent relative to the particular circumstances of a people (II.17). Rome became so corrupt that “the best men found it … impossible to restore liberty to the city” (II.19). But Sidney was not a relativist. The principles of government are eternally true; only their application varies with the times.
Sidney opposed hereditary monarchy not only because it denies liberty, but because it denies equal opportunity for merit. Unlike some other writers whose political theories were based upon man’s natural liberty, Sidney accepted the principle, taught by Plato and Aristotle, that the most virtuous ought to rule. “Detur digniori [let it be given to the worthier] is the voice of nature; all her most sacred laws are perverted, if this be not observed in the disposition of the governments of mankind” (I.16). Sidney was even willing to admit, with Aristotle, the right of a godlike prince to rule without the consent of the governed. “When such a man is found, he is by nature a king.” But Sidney went on to deny, in Aristotle’s name, that any such being could be found among imperfect human beings. Thus the apparently aristocratic Aristotle turns out to be a teacher of republicanism (III.23). From this argument we may better understand why Thomas Jefferson said the Declaration of Independence was based on “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” and why the monarchical philosopher Thomas Hobbes complained that the ancient Greek and Roman authors taught Englishmen that democracy was the best form of government.
A leading difficulty in Sidney’s argument lies in his simultaneous assertion that the right to rule derives from consent (from man’s natural liberty) and that it derives from merit (from the sacred law of detur digniori). As a practical matter Sidney was confident that the people—if they are not corrupt—would recognize and elevate those most deserving of political power. For in a republic no accidents of birth can stand in the way of the people’s honoring whoever is best. Further, Sidney was sure that corruption and absolute monarchy always go together in practice. But what if the people err and place fools or villains in power? Do we abandon democracy or merit? Which is more fundamental in principle: consent or virtue?
A similar question may be asked of his twofold conception of liberty. If one must choose, which form of liberty counts most: freedom from dependence on the will of a ruler one has not consented to, or freedom from enslavement to one’s base passions? For practical purposes, experience solves the question for Sidney. A people unable to control its passions will not long retain its political freedom. But in principle the question may remain unresolved.
One characteristic feature of Sidney’s book associates him with Machiavelli. That is his celebration of warlike virtue and foreign conquest. Like Machiavelli, Sidney prefers imperialist Rome to nonexpansionist Sparta. He asserts that “That is the best government, which best provides for war.” Popular governments do this best, for their citizens are hardy and spirited, and there is a mutual rivalry for the honor that anyone may earn (II.15, II.22–23). But unlike Machiavelli, Sidney qualifies his imperialism with the requirement that a war of acquisition be a just war, carried on for a just cause and by just means.
The Discourses includes a vast amount of historical material. Some of Sidney’s readers have inferred that his republicanism rests more on the prescriptive lessons of English history than on principles discovered by reason. That is not so. Sidney did believe that “the English nation has always been governed by itself or its representatives.” But in the end such evidence cannot be decisive: “time can make nothing lawful or just, that is not so of itself. … therefore in matters of the greatest importance, wise and good men do not so much inquire what has been, as what is good and ought to be” (III.28). So “there can be no reason, why a polite people should not relinquish the errors committed by their ancestors in the time of their barbarism and ignorance” (III.25).
Scholars have wondered about the religious dimension of Sidney’s thought. The Discourses teems with Biblical references. But Sidney invokes the authority of divine revelation to vindicate conclusions reached by reason. At one point, quoting Ecclesiastes, Sidney notes that it “perfectly agrees with what we learn from Plato, and plainly shews, that true philosophy is perfectly conformable with what is taught us by those who were divinely inspired” (II.1). For Sidney, Biblical events are sometimes better explained by man’s unaided reason than by religious doctrines. In the traditional view God in his wrath punished the Hebrews for their idolatry after Solomon’s death by subjecting them to the rule of absolute monarchs. In Sidney’s view the Hebrew “tragedy” actually proceeded “from such causes as are applicable to other nations. … [C]husing rather to subject themselves to the will of a man, than to the law of God, they deservedly suffer’d the evils that naturally follow the worst counsels” (II.24).
Similarly, Sidney meets the objection that his argument, which praises armed resistance to evil, is anti-Christian. “We shall be told, that prayers and tears were the only arms of the first Christians, and that Christ commanded his disciples to pray for those that persecuted them.” Sidney responds “that those precepts were merely temporary, and directed to the persons of the apostles, who were armed only with the sword of the spirit; that the primitive Christians used prayers and tears only no longer than whilst they had no other arms” (III.7). Sidney sums up the sturdy spirit of his Christianity in a remark that later became famous: “God helps those who help themselves” (II.23). In this way Sidney defends Christianity against the Machiavellian charge that it celebrates feminine qualities at the expense of manliness and spiritedness and leads to the triumph of bad men over good by teaching nonresistance to evil.
Sidney’s (and Locke’s) overall argument gave to political obligation a new basis consistent with Christianity’s universal claim but independent of any particular religious sect. The God of all mankind could now be the God of a particular political community. For if natural liberty and natural law come from God, only one kind of community will satisfy God’s law: a consent-based republic protecting the equal liberty of all. The final stanza of “America” shows that this argument is no mere logical inference but a tenet of faith for the political community that established a representative democracy dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal:
Our fathers’ God, to thee,
Author of liberty,
To thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might,
Great God our king.
Citizens can fight for their country in good conscience, knowing that the cause of liberty is the cause of God, but free of the fanaticism so often associated with religious sectarianism. The argument was new, but as expressed by Sidney it preserved the heart of the political teaching of the ancients. Politics and life are still understood in light of man’s natural purpose: virtue and happiness.
SIDNEY AND LOCKE
John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government at the same time Sidney was working on the Discourses. Since Locke’s book is much better known today, it is worth comparing to Sidney’s.
While some scholars have assigned Locke to an emerging bourgeois or liberal tradition of natural rights, especially property rights, Sidney is said to belong to a supposed tradition of “classical republicanism” stemming from Machiavelli and ultimately the ancients. But other scholars have noted that Sidney does not fit this paradigm very well. Sidney is as much a natural rights and contract man as Locke. Both advocate government by elected representatives. Both maintain that natural liberty is governed by the natural law. Both argue for limited government and the people’s right to revolution. Both are spirited proponents of liberty. Sidney and Locke are “republicans” as well as “liberals.”
Notwithstanding these similarities, there are differences, and they are important. Sidney proves to be closer to the Greek and Roman classics than Locke is. It is characteristic that Sidney quotes frequently from the ancients while Locke hardly ever does. But the ancients were not “classical republicans” in a Machiavellian sense. Their political thought always began or ended with the individual human being, not in the sense of an isolated unit, but as a being oriented by human nature to a life in accord with reason. What follow are particular illustrations of this broad difference between Sidney and Locke.
While both men agree that government should be based on consent, Sidney also insists that superior men ought to rule, and he defends popular government for placing such men in power. In this he follows Plato and Aristotle, for whom excellence is a title to rule. Locke generally denies the right of virtue to govern.
Similarly, political liberty in Locke is merely a “fence” (Locke’s term) protecting a man’s life, liberty, and property. Sidney’s broader conception includes the classical view of liberty as freedom from domination by one’s passions. Accordingly, one purpose of government for Sidney, as it was for the ancients, is to foster virtue and suppress vice. It was not for Locke.
Characteristically, Sidney never calls the pre-civil state the “state of nature” as Locke does even when it degenerates into a state of war. Lockean man exists naturally in this state, which is one of poverty, danger, and insecurity. He becomes political by escaping nature, not by following it. Reason, for Locke, is the device by which man escapes and conquers nature, by constructing government and by engaging in capitalist industry. For Sidney, man’s nature is reason, as he constantly repeats. Sidney calls the Hobbesian state of nature—the war of all against all— “epidemical madness,” which men would fall into only if God abandoned the world (I.17). Man is born free, but Sidney does not think it natural for man to live without law. Without using Aristotle’s formula, Sidney continues to think of man as a political and rational animal by nature.
Sidney’s law of nature goes beyond the conditions of self-preservation and includes the several virtues that the rational life comprises. This conception continues the natural law tradition stemming from the ancients. However, Locke’s doctrine of natural law breaks with the tradition in its being grounded in the individual’s fundamental right to life and liberty. In Locke’s moral universe the center is no longer man’s end, but man or man’s freedom. In this he follows Hobbes.
The two men view commerce quite differently. For Locke, commerce is a principal means by which man escapes the privation that unimproved nature condemns him to. Sidney too praises wealth as an end of statesmanship, but only because of its contribution to a nation’s fighting strength (a consideration similar to Hamilton’s in Federalist 11); moneymaking he otherwise rejects as corrupting (II.22, 23).
Sidney never questions the right of the father to rule in the family. But Locke speaks of honoring, not obeying, the father and mother. Civil society for Sidney is still an association of fathers as heads of families (II.4). Locke’s more radical individualism throws into question the traditional family, which is based on the different purposes, by nature, of male and female.
In sum, Locke’s thought, although expressed with great caution, rests on premises more radically modern than Sidney’s. Locke’s republicanism ultimately stands on a view of human nature that doubts or denies the older view that man is oriented by nature to a life of decency and reason. Sidney’s republicanism still adheres to a view of life that is recognizably at home within the ancient and medieval tradition of political philosophy.
Sidney’s argument might seem to have been vindicated five years after his death by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The forced abdication of King James II broke up the last attempt to impose absolute monarchy on England. Yet Sidney would hardly have been satisfied by the Revolution settlement. He had been a long-time opponent of William III of Holland, who had been invited by Parliament to accept the English throne in 1689. And although the Revolution did restrain the royal power, it also postponed the day when a true republic could be established in England.
One of the early acts of Parliament in 1689 was formally to reverse Sidney’s conviction, which was declared wrongful and unjust. Post-1689 Whigs hurried to assimilate Sidney to their cause. But in order to make him fit the new order, they had to distort him. His democratic principles were de-emphasized. His revolutionary schemes and his willingness to intrigue with the French were denied. He became altogether more respectable and less radical. As the myths accumulated, the real man receded from sight.
But in the American colonies of the mid-1700s, where politics was not complicated by a surviving king and aristocracy, Sidney could be accepted without reservation. The men who made the Revolution of 1776 warmly admired Sidney’s principles and fighting republican spirit. His death as a martyr to liberty provided them with a model in their own risky enterprise against the force of British arms. Among those who cited Sidney prominently in their writings, besides Jefferson and Adams, were Jonathan Mayhew, the spirited patriot preacher of Massachusetts, and Arthur Lee, a leading revolutionary politician of Virginia.
Why then was Locke and not Sidney cited most often by the American revolutionaries? For one thing, the immediate dispute with Britain was over taxation (property), and here Locke’s argument was simple and clear: no taxation without representation. For another, Locke’s book is as concise and well-ordered as Sidney’s is wordy and diffuse. But whenever he does appear, Sidney is always cited as an authority who agrees with Locke. In fact Sidney and Locke did agree on the most urgent principles of the American Revolution: that all men are created equal, that just government rests on the consent of the governed, that government is instituted to secure the rights of human nature, and that there is a right to revolution against despotism.
Nevertheless, although Locke was more often quoted, the core of Sidney’s thought probably represents better than Locke’s the spirit of American republicanism. Confident of the eternal moral order of the world, Sidney never thought of man as the enemy and conqueror of nature, as Locke did in his chapter on property. Rather, nature was man’s friend, providing him with his reason and an inclination to live together with others in society. Sidney’s understanding of liberty was inseparable from the attachment to honor and decency especially visible in his taste for the classics.
Perhaps the leading defect in Sidney from the point of view of the Framers of the United States Constitution of 1787 is his tremendous confidence in the common people and their representatives. Sidney barely acknowledges the possibility of a popular assembly abusing its power—a leading theme of The Federalist (and of Locke and Montesquieu). Sidney is vulnerable to the criticism leveled by Madison against the authors of America’s early state constitutions: “They seem never to have turned their eyes from the danger, to liberty, from the overgrown and all-grasping prerogative of an hereditary magistrate. … They seem never to have recollected the danger from legislative usurpations, which, by assembling all power in the same hands, must lead to the same tyranny as is threatened by executive usurpation”(Federalist 48). Accordingly, although Sidney was often mentioned by Americans as an authority on first principles of government, he was hardly ever appealed to as an authority on its proper structure.
Locke’s greater sobriety regarding the people may have been responsible for his doctrine of the separation of powers, which differs from Sidney’s account of mixed government. The latter restates a classical teaching shared by Aristotle, Cicero, and others. In the classical scheme the division of powers is based on social classes (the poor and the wealthy, for example, or warrior aristocrats and commoners). Locke’s separation of powers, in contrast, represents a new approach to the problem of checking the abuse of power and designing competent government. Separating parts of government by function rather than by class origin made possible the American polity, in which each branch of government could be based directly or indirectly on democratic elections.
In these respects, at any rate, Locke was more judicious than Sidney and therefore closer to the spirit of the classics. In his enthusiastic anticipation of monarchy overthrown, Sidney may have been charmed, ever so slightly, by that “deceitful dream of a golden age” of a “happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue” that popular government seemed to promise. Hamilton’s stern warning against this delusion in Federalist 6 was not anti-democratic; the Americans’ hard-headed appraisal of the weaknesses of popular government made possible the success of democracy under the Constitution.
Yet modern republics have also benefited from writers like Sidney, who helped to domesticate the rights-and-consent vocabulary of modern individualism and to give it a home in the classical tradition of natural right. Thus did government based on the rights of man become safe for political practice.
Two old English aristocratic families were united in Algernon Sidney’s birth in 1623. His mother was a Percy, the family of Northumberland earls famous for its spirited devotion to honor and the military arts—and for rebelling against kings . In Richard II and Henry IV Shakespeare portrays Sidney’s ancestor Harry Percy, called Hotspur (referred to in the Discourses), who overthrew one king and warred against another.
The Sidney side of the family was more learned and scholarly, but it too had its fighting spirit. Today the Sidney name is best known through Algernon’s great-uncle, the poet and courtier Sir Philip, who died thirty-seven years before Algernon was born. Algernon Sidney admired and emulated his famous forebear for his intellectual attainments as well as for his soldiership on behalf of Protestantism, in which cause he lost his life in battle.
Sidney spent his early childhood at Penshurst, the family estate in Kent. In his teens he lived for six years in France with his father, the Earl of Leicester, who served as ambassador there. At home and abroad, Sidney was given the liberal education, grounded in the classics, that was characteristic of the age at its best.
Sidney’s father was a scholar in his own right. His extraordinary library contained thousands of volumes, including philosophical, political, historical, and religious writings, ancient and modern. In France he was a close acquaintance of Hugo Grotius, the Swedish ambassador and political philosopher whose views figured prominently in the earl’s notes, along with those of Roman and English political writers. Their names appear frequently in Sidney’s Discourses. Years later Sidney was reported to have called Grotius’s Law of War and Peace the most important of all books in political theory.
Sidney’s quarrel with Filmer in the Discourses was about whether men deserve to be rulers merely by being eldest born. Sidney argued for merit, not birth, as the title to rule, and he thought republics most likely to honor merit. Although he was himself a hereditary aristocrat, Sidney experienced the question personally in his own household. His older brother, the future Earl of Leicester, was as dull, lazy, and immoral as Algernon was precocious, energetic, and honorable. Their father acknowledged the difference by substantially disinheriting the brother and giving as much as he could to Algernon. The latter successfully defended his father’s will in a lawsuit using many of the same arguments against favoring the eldest born that he used against Filmer on the political plane.
Sidney entered the military, served in Ireland, and returned to England in 1642. The country was agitated by civil war. For eleven years King Charles I had been governing without Parliament. He had raised taxes without any Parliament’s consent. The king was finally compelled in 1640 to convene Parliament, which attempted, in response to Charles’s usurpations, to subordinate the king in crucial respects to the nation’s representatives. Sidney made his choice for Parliament—a choice to which he adhered throughout his life—and, as fighting broke out, took up arms against the king. In 1644 he fought in the battle of Marston Moor, where an eyewitness reported that “Colonel Sidney charged with much gallantry in the head of my Lord Manchester’s regiment of horses, and came off with many wounds, the true badges of his honor.” The wounds were severe.
In 1646 Sidney was elected to the famous Long Parliament. He firmly opposed compromise with the king, but he did not support the radicals’ purge of parliamentary moderates in 1648, which created the Rump Parliament. Appointed one of the commissioners for the trial of Charles I, Sidney took little part in its proceedings. He had reservations about the lawfulness as well as the prudence of the trial, which was pushed forward by Cromwell and the army. But he never disputed the accusations against Charles. He later called his execution “the justest and bravest action that ever was done in England, or anywhere.”
In Parliament Sidney was especially active in foreign affairs. By 1652, helping to direct the war against Holland, he had risen to a leading position. When Cromwell’s army broke up the Rump of the Long Parliament in 1653, a bill was about to pass that would have made elections far freer than they had been. Cromwell entered Parliament with his soldiers, expelled the members, and locked the doors. Seated at the right hand of the speaker, Sidney refused to leave until hands were placed upon him threatening him with forcible removal. Thus began Cromwell’s reign, which Sidney regarded as tyranny.
At some point during the next six years of forced retirement from politics, Sidney wrote his first surviving work, “Of Love.” We do not know what events in his life may have provoked it. Sidney admits that love “hath with more violence transported me, than a man of understanding ought to suffer himself to be by any passion.” Yet he celebrates the love of man and woman as “the fullest and most absolute happiness that our natures can be capable of, in comparison with which all other worldly pleasures are vain and empty shadows.” His argument is built on a quite un-Machiavellian trust in the ordinary appearance of things. He is sure that beauty and goodness are “convertible terms,” since “nature’s works are not like hypocrites or sepulchers, beautiful without, and rottenness and corruption within.”
The glory of divine rays do show in faces, but much more in minds: Who can then without barbarity (I think I may say impiety) deny to suffer himself to be ravished with the admiration of such an excellence of a created beauty, as is an image of the uncreated?
This contrasts strongly with the bleak description of life by Sidney’s contemporary Thomas Hobbes as “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”
In 1659 the army dissolved the Protectorate, threw out Cromwell’s son Richard, and restored the Rump Parliament. Sidney resumed his seat and his position of prominence. He led an important delegation abroad to mediate peace between the kings of Denmark and Sweden. (One of Sidney’s parliamentary colleagues who refused to join the delegation gives us a glimpse of his character: “I knew well the overruling temper and height of Colonel Sidney.”) Sidney’s diplomatic approach was to cut through the endless ceremony and prattle by the use of strong language and gunboat diplomacy to force a peace on English terms. His blunt style horrified the European diplomats, and his workable plan was scuttled by the English admiral on the spot, who sailed away with his fleet. In the end a treaty was signed on terms favorable to England, for which Sidney deserves some credit.
While Sidney was concluding the treaty in 1660, the English Commonwealth collapsed and Charles II was restored to the throne. Sidney was willing to follow the authority of Parliament and obey the king. But the king demanded more: Sidney must condemn his own actions under the republic and beg forgiveness. He could not bring himself to do it. He wrote to his father:
When I call to my remembrance all my actions relating to our civil distempers, I cannot find one that I can look upon as a breach of the rules of justice or honor; this is my strength, and, I thank God, by this I enjoy very serene thoughts. If I lose this by vile and unworthy submissions, acknowledgement of errors, asking of pardon, or the like, I shall from that moment be the miserablest man alive, and the scorn of all men.
Sensing how this momentous choice of voluntary exile would be viewed by his father and others, Sidney continued in a vein that shows his self-knowledge and his stubborn sense of honor:
I know the titles that are given me of fierce, violent, seditious, mutinous, turbulent. … I know people will say, I strain at gnats, and swallow camels; that it is a strange conscience, that lets a man run violently on, till he is deep in civil blood, and then stays at a few words and compliments. … I cannot help if I judge amiss; I did not make myself, nor can I correct the defects of my own creation. I walk in the light that God hath given me; if it be dim or uncertain, I must bear the penalty of my errors. I hope to do it with patience, and that no burden shall be very grievous to me, except sin and shame.
Sidney wandered about Europe for almost twenty years “as a vagabond through the world, forsaken of my friends, poor, and known only to be a broken limb of a shipwrecked faction.” Charles’s agents and assassins pursued Sidney for years. He survived two serious attempts on his life.
Yet exile was not entirely grim. At first he lived in Italy, where he was kindly given access to a beautiful country villa whose description, he said, “would look more like poetry than truth.” He lived there for a time “as a hermit in a palace,” flirting with the solitary and contemplative life praised by the ancient philosophers:
Here are walls and fountains in the greatest perfection. … My conversation is with birds, trees, and books: in these last months that I have had no business at all, I have applied myself to study a little more than I have done formerly; and though one who begins at my age cannot hope to make any considerable progress that way, I find so much satisfaction in it, that for the future I shall very unwillingly, though I had the opportunity, put myself into any way of living that shall deprive me of that entertainment.
During this idyllic interlude Sidney no doubt undertook some of the wide philosophical and historical reading that is manifest in his Discourses. But anger at events in England gradually led him back into political activity.
In the end I found that it was an ill-grounded peace that I enjoyed, and could have no rest in my own spirit, because I lived only to myself, and was in no ways useful to God’s people, my country, and the world. This consideration, joined with those dispensations of providence which I observed and judged favorable unto the designs of good people, brought me out of my retirement.
Plunging back into the political life, Sidney worked vigorously, through both conspiracy and writing, to restore the English republic. An inscription he wrote in the visitor’s book at the Calvinist Academy in Geneva plainly reveals his mood: SIT SANGUINIS ULTOR JUSTORUM (“Let there be an avenger of the blood of the just”).
Of all the republican exiles, Sidney was the most determined to act and the least delicate about the means to be employed. Religious scruples did not hinder him as they did some of his colleagues. First he tried to organize them to undertake an invasion of England to be led by Holland, then at war with England. Partly to promote this enterprise, Sidney wrote the book-length Court Maxims, Discussed and Refelled, recently discovered in England but still unpublished. This work, an imaginary dialogue between an English monarchist and a republican, is a vigorous attack on the regime of Charles II, with strong encouragement to resistance against the tyrant. Many of its arguments reappeared later in the Discourses.
Turned down by the Dutch republican leader De Witt, Sidney approached Louis XIV of France, who was also at war with England. Louis reports in his memoirs that he offered Sidney a small sum, with the promise of more only if Sidney could show “that he was really capable of doing what he promised.” Louis’s aim was to keep England weak by keeping it divided, not to build up an English republic. Quarrels among the exiles, inflamed by Sidney’s overbearing manner, prevented action in any event.
In the wake of this second failure, Louis granted Sidney permission to settle in the south of France, where he spent eleven years, until his return to England. Living as an aristocrat, he was known as “Le Compte de Sidney.” He seems to have fathered an illegitimate daughter there.
Sidney was finally given permission to return to England in 1677, for personal purposes. Not long after his arrival he was detained by unexpected financial troubles, spending several months in debtor’s prison. He pursued his lengthy but finally successful lawsuit to obtain the inheritance left to him by his recently deceased father.
Sidney soon found himself back in the thick of politics. In 1679 he and William Penn cooperated on a project to secure greater freedom of religion in England. Sidney discussed with Penn the constitution of Pennsylvania, although Sidney ended by arguing that Penn’s frame of government, “worse than the Turk,” was “not to be endured or lived under.” Sidney also worked closely with Whigs sympathetic to republicanism, such as Henry Neville. With their help and Penn’s, he tried to get into Parliament, standing unsuccessfully for election several times.
On the basis of considerable evidence Sidney and many other Whigs believed that Charles II, urged on by his Catholic brother, the future James II, intended to convert England into a monarchy on the model of Louis XIV’s France. Catholicism would become the state religion, and Parliament would be dispensed with. (In an early stage of this quarrel, Parliament impeached one of Charles’s ministers, the Earl of Danby, who worked to expand the king’s prerogative and to make him financially independent of Parliament. Sidney alludes to this event in the Discourses, III.42.)
In the late 1670s and early ’80s the Whigs pursued a legal strategy to check the monarchy. They mobilized the electorate all the way down to the common people. They wrote books and pamphlets exposing the crisis. They captured a majority in Parliament and attempted to exclude by law Charles’s brother James from the succession to the throne. In 1680, at the height of the exclusion crisis, Filmer’s Patriarcha was published.
Historians have sometimes been inclined to discount the republicanism of Sidney and other Whigs. The contest between Parliament and king has been portrayed as a quarrel among rival elites from which the people were largely excluded. However, the Whigs really did have strong roots among the common people. In many parliamentary electoral districts there was virtually unlimited manhood suffrage—a condition that disappeared from post-1689 Britain until the late nineteenth century. The Whigs strongly supported this increasingly democratic electoral politics, and their arguments for equality and liberty gave it a theoretical foundation.
At this time Sidney (and many other Whigs and Tories) received money from France’s ambassador, Barillon. The French were secretly providing monetary support to Charles II, but also to leading opposition politicians. Their policy was to keep England weak by playing Parliament and king off each other. Sidney’s honor in this affair has been impugned by many, including most notably Sir Winston Churchill. In Sidney’s defense it must be said that he was willing to take French money only to the extent that doing so coincided with his own ends, which were entirely honorable. The French knew well what they were supporting: Barillon called him “a man of great views and high designs, which tend to the establishment of a republic.”
In 1681 Charles II defeated the Whigs’ exclusion strategy by dismissing the last Parliament of his reign. He let it be known that he intended to rule thenceforth without it. At this time Sidney may have co-authored Just and Modest Vindication of the Proceedings of the Last Two Parliaments.
Sidney and his fellow Whigs believed the situation was desperate. Legal opposition had failed. To borrow the language of the American Declaration of Independence, here was “a long train of abuses and usurpations” evincing a design to reduce England “under absolute despotism.” The leading Whigs, Sidney among them, began to plan a revolution. There was to be an armed insurrection, supported by an uprising in Scotland. The assassination of King Charles, definitely planned, may have been approved by Sidney. Parliament would then settle the affairs of the realm. Organizing the plot took time, and before the conspirators were ready to strike, Sidney and many of the other principals were betrayed. (The political philosopher John Locke never worked closely with Sidney, but he was part of the same conspiracy. Locke saved himself by fleeing England the moment the conspiracy was discovered.) On June 26, 1683, Sidney was arrested on a charge of treason.
Sidney resolved to do nothing at his trial “which doth not agree with the character of a gentleman and a Christian.” The trial was conducted by the brutal Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys, who did not conceal his intention to convict, within the law or without. The indictment itself contained important errors and alleged many things against Sidney irrelevant to the law, which said treason was “to design, intend, or endeavor” any action that might tend toward the king’s death or “any restraint of his liberty”; the jury was not composed of Sidney’s peers (fellow freeholders); Sidney was unlawfully denied permission even to examine the indictment. The most egregious wrong was in the want of legal evidence. Two witnesses were required for conviction. The prosecution produced but one, Lord Howard, who could only testify to having heard Sidney and others discussing arrangements to contact Whigs in Scotland; he could not report definite plans to make war on the king, as the indictment alleged. Sidney was also able to discredit this testimony by exposing Howard’s treacherous character and showing that he had contradicted himself. The other “witness” produced was a few manuscript pages, seized when he was arrested, of Sidney’s Discourses, “fixing the power in the people,” as Jeffreys summarized it. The general and theoretical argument of the part of the Discourses read at his trial, privately written and never published, was of course no proof of a design tending toward the king’s death or deprivation of his liberty. Sidney was well prepared for the trial, and he forcefully pointed out these and other defects in the prosecution’s case, but to no effect. He was convicted and condemned to death.
While he was confined in the Tower, “some propositions” were made “for the saving of my life, but I did not think them reasonable or decent.” Here again we are reminded of Socrates’s honorable conduct in prison. But unlike Socrates, Sidney did request permission to go into exile. This was denied. In his last letter, privately written to a friend, Sidney faced death calmly and courageously, without any flourishes. One who attended his execution reported:
When he came on the scaffold, instead of a speech, he told them only that he had made his peace with God, that he came not thither to talk, but to die; put a paper into the sheriffs’ hand, and another into a friend’s, said one prayer as short as a grace, laid down his neck, and bid the executioner do his office.
He died on December 7, 1683.
In the paper that he gave to the sheriffs, intended for publication, Sidney set forth the injustice of the trial and strongly affirmed his political principles. The paper concluded with this prayer, expressive of his spirited and political Christianity:
The Lord forgive these practices, and avert the evils that threaten the nation from them! The Lord sanctify these my sufferings unto me, and, though I fall as a sacrifice to idols, suffer not idolatry to be established in this land! Bless thy people, and save them. Defend thy own cause, and defend those that defend it. Stir up such as are faint; direct those that are willing; confirm those that waver; give wisdom and integrity unto all. Order all things so, as may most redound to thine own glory. Grant that I may die glorifying thee for all thy mercies; and that, at the last, thou hast permitted me to be singled out as a witness of thy truth; and even by the confession of my opposers, for that OLD CAUSE in which I was from my youth engaged and for which thou hast often and wonderfully declared thyself.
We allow Sidney the final word, from his Apology in the Day of His Death:
I had from my youth endeavored to uphold the common rights of mankind, the laws of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power, and Popery, and I do now willingly lay down my life for the same.
Sidney’s Discourses was the theoretical counterpart to his practical schemes. If those schemes had succeeded, the book might have served as a manifesto for the revolution. They failed, and the book remained unfinished.
There is no doubt that Sidney was guilty of treason, just as Socrates was guilty of impiety and of corrupting the young—as those crimes were understood by the governments who executed the two heroes. Socrates was vindicated when readers of his Apology were persuaded that Athenian law was defective in light of a higher standard of justice. Likewise, Sidney’s real vindication does not come from the exposure of the trial’s many illegalities. Rather, it lies in his implicit appeal to a higher standard of justice, one that regards rebellion against tyranny not as a crime but as a benefaction. This is the argument of the Discourses.
Works by Sidney
A full listing of Sidney’s writings, both published and unpublished and including letters, is provided in the works by Alan Craig Houston and Jonathan Scott (in the second volume of Scott’s biography of Sidney) included in the Secondary Sources below.
Discourses Concerning Government. London, Printed, and are to be sold by the Booksellers, of London and Westminster, 1698.
[Published and edited by John Toland, this has been made available in a facsimile reprint (New York: Arno Press, 1979). It is the basis of the present edition.]
Discourses Concerning Government. The Second Edition carefully corrected. To which is Added, The Paper He delivered to the Sheriffs immediately before his Death. London: J. Darby, 1704.
Discourses Concerning Government. To which are added, Memoirs of his Life, and An Apology for Himself, Both Now first published, And the latter from his Original Manuscript. The Third Edition. London: A. Millar, 1751.
[Reprinted in a facsimile edition (Farnborough, England: Gregg International, 1968).]
Discourses Concerning Government. With his Letters, Trial, Apology, and Some Memoirs of his Life. London: A. Millar, 1763.
[Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy is in the Library of Congress.]
Other editions of the Discourses were published in London, 1705; Edinburgh, 1750 (in two volumes); London, 1795; Philadelphia, 1805 (published for Washington’s biographer, the Rev. M. L. Weems, in two volumes); New York, 1805 (three volumes). French translations, 1702 (repr. The Hague, 1755); and Paris, 1794. German translations, Erfurt, 1705; and Leipzig, 1793.
The Works of Algernon Sidney: A New Edition. London: W. Strahan, 1772. Edited by J. Robertson.
[Besides the Discourses, this edition contains the paper Sidney delivered to the sheriffs upon the scaffold; letters, taken from Thurloe’s State Papers, including letters to his father; letters to Henry Savile, ambassador in France; the record of his trial; his Apology in the Day of His Death. The text of the Discourses in this edition was extensively corrected, and to some extent rewritten, by the editor.]
“The Character of Sir Henry Vane.” Appendix F of Sir Henry Vane the Younger: A Study in Political and Administrative History, by Violet A. Rowe. London: Athlone Press, 1970.
Court Maxims, Discussed and Refelled. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming. Edited by Hans Blom et al.
[Sidney’s only other book-length work, never previously published, was written about 1665. It is an attack on the Restoration regime of Charles II, with encouragement to rebellion.]
“Of Love.” In A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts … of the Late Lord Somers, ed. Sir Walter Scott. 13 vols. London, 1809–16. Vol. 8, pp. 612–619. Also printed in The Essence of Algernon Sydney’s Work on Government. To which is annexed, his Essay on Love. London: J. Johnson, 1795.
A Just and Modest Vindication of the Proceedings of the Two Last Parliaments of K. Charles the Second. London, 1681. Printed in State Tracts . . . in the Reign of K. Charles II. London, 1689. Pp. 165–187.
[The published author is Sidney’s friend Sir William Jones, but there is evidence that Sidney was the principal author.]
The earliest account of Sidney’s trial is An Exact Account of the Tryal & Condemnation of Algernon Sidney, esq. London: E. Mallet, 1683. Next appeared The Arraignment, Tryal, & Condemnation of Algernon Sidney, Esq; for High-Treason. For Conspiring the Death of the KING, and Intending to Raise a Rebellion in this KINGDOM. London: Benj . Tooke, 1684. The trial record was reprinted in Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials. London: Bagshaw, 1811. Vol. 9, pp. 817–1022. See also the version published in the 1763 and 1772 editions of the Discourses, which was extensively corrected by an editor.
Ashcraft, Richard. Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
[Contains a new and persuasive history of the Whig conspiracy in the early 1680s to overthrow Charles II, for which Sidney was beheaded.]
Carswell, John. The Porcupine: The Life of Algernon Sidney. London: John Murray Publishers, 1989.
[A reliable and very readable retelling of the story of Sidney’s life, with a sympathetic view of Sidney’s character. Written for educated readers interested in history, rather than for professional historians.]
Conniff, James. “Reason and History in Early Whig Thought: The Case of Algernon Sidney.” Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (1982).
[Shows that Sidney’s use of early Anglo-Saxon history to support his case against absolute monarchy is more defensible than scholars today generally acknowledge, and that the argument from history is not the heart of Sidney’s book.]
Fink, Zera S. The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England. 2d ed. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1962.
[Briefly discusses Sidney’s political thought.]
Firth, Charles H. “Sidney.” Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1917–. Vol. 18, pp. 202–210.
Houston, Alan Craig. Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
[Contains a good account of Sidney’s life and a lengthy treatment of his political thought. The discussion of Filmer and English royalist thought is particularly helpful.]
Karsten, Peter. Patriot Heroes in England and America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
[Chronicles Sidney’s rise and decline as a popular hero.]
Meadley, George W. Memoirs of Algernon Sidney. London: Cradock and Joy, 1813.
[A well-written biography by a warm admirer of Sidney’s character and principles, but not always accurate in its repetition of Whig myths about Sidney.]
Robbins, Caroline, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.
[Discusses Sidney’s influence and reputation among leading eighteenth-century English republicans.]
———. “Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government: Textbook of Revolution.” In Absolute Liberty: A Selection from the Articles and Papers of Caroline Robbins, ed. Barbara Taft. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1982.
[Reprinted from William and Mary Quarterly 4 (1947), 267–296. Discusses Sidney’s reception in America during the Revolutionary era.]
Scott, Jonathan. Algernon Sidney and the English Republic, 1623–1677. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
[The first twentieth-century biography, it is the most thorough account, based on good historical detective-work. The parts on Sidney’s political thought are helpful but sometimes misleading—for example, the frequently repeated assertion that Sidney was a “relativist.”]
———. Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis, 1677–1683. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
[The second volume of Scott’s biography.]
Worden, Blair. “The Commonwealth Kidney of Algernon Sidney.” Journal of British Studies 24 (January 1985).
[A competent scholarly overview of Sidney’s career and a brief account of his thought.]
Additional Items, Second Printing.
Carrive, Paulette. La Pensée politique d’Algernon Sidney: 1622–1683. Paris: Mérediens-Klincksieck, 1989.
Dumbauld, Edward. “Algernon Sidney on Public Right.” University of Arkansas Law Journal 10 (1987–88), 317–338.
Nelson, Scott A. The Discourses of Algernon Sidney. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.