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Sidney argues that a People’s liberty is a gift of nature and exists prior to any government (1683)

The English republican Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) distinguished between the “right of dominion” and the “right of liberty” and argued that the people’s liberty is prior to and takes precedence over the dominion of a king or prince:

… till the right of dominion be proved and justified, liberty subsists as arising from the nature and being of a man. Tertullian speaking of the emperors says, ab eo imperium a quo spiritus [Dominion comes from the same source as one’s spirit]; and we taking man in his first condition may justly say, ab eo libertas a quo spiritus [Liberty comes from the same source as one’s spirit]; for no man can owe more than he has received. The creature having nothing, and being nothing but what the creator makes him, must owe all to him, and nothing to anyone from whom he has received nothing. Man therefore must be naturally free, unless he be created by another power than we have yet heard of.

SECTION 33: The Liberty of a People is the gift of God and Nature.

If any man ask how nations come to have the power of doing these things, I answer, that liberty being only an exemption from the dominion of another, the question ought not to be, how a nation can come to be free, but how a man comes to have a dominion over it; for till the right of dominion be proved and justified, liberty subsists as arising from the nature and being of a man. Tertullian speaking of the emperors says, ab eo imperium a quo spiritus [Dominion comes from the same source as one’s spirit]; and we taking man in his first condition may justly say, ab eo libertas a quo spiritus [Liberty comes from the same source as one’s spirit]; for no man can owe more than he has received. The creature having nothing, and being nothing but what the creator makes him, must owe all to him, and nothing to anyone from whom he has received nothing. Man therefore must be naturally free, unless he be created by another power than we have yet heard of. The obedience due to parents arises from hence, in that they are the instruments of our generation; and we are instructed by the light of reason, that we ought to make great returns to those from whom under God we have received all. When they die we are their heirs, we enjoy the same rights, and devolve the same to our posterity. God only who confers this right upon us, can deprive us of it: and we can no way understand that he does so, unless he had so declared by express revelation, or had set some distinguishing marks of dominion and subjection upon men; and, as an ingenious person not long since said, caused some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs. This liberty therefore must continue, till it be either forfeited or willingly resigned. The forfeiture is hardly comprehensible in a multitude that is not entered into any society; for as they are all equal, and equals can have no right over each other, no man can forfeit anything to one who can justly demand nothing, unless it may be by a personal injury, which is nothing to this case; because where there is no society, one man is not bound by the actions of another. All cannot join in the same act, because they are joined in none; or if they should, no man could recover, much less transmit the forfeiture; and not being transmitted, it perishes as if it had never been, and no man can claim anything from it.

’Twill be no less difficult to bring resignation to be subservient to our author’s purpose; for men could not resign their liberty, unless they naturally had it in themselves. Resignation is a publick declaration of their assent to be governed by the person to whom they resign; that is, they do by that act constitute him to be their governor. This necessarily puts us upon the inquiry, why they do resign, how they will be governed, and proves the governor to be their creature; and the right of disposing the government must be in them, or they who receive it can have none. This is so evident to common sense, that it were impertinent to ask who made Carthage, Athens, Rome or Venice to be free cities. Their charters were not from men, but from God and nature…

About this Quotation:

In these passages Algernon Sidney goes to the heart of the matter of the social contract justification of the state. In his view, each individual has a “right of liberty” which comes directly from God or Nature. The “right of dominion” say (of a king over a people), if it exists at all, is a derivative of the first which comes about by means of “forfeiture” or “willing resignation”. By “forfeiture” he means the unanimous agreement of people in a state of nature to hand over or surrender their rights to a sovereign power, which he rejects as “hardly comprehensible” among people with equal rights. By “willing resignation” he means the creation of an express contract or charter between the individual and his “governor” for expressly designed and limited purposes. In the absence of such a charter he mocks those who claim a broad “right of dominion” over others (like 17th century monarchs) because God has not clearly revealed his intention for some to rule over others by “set[ting] some distinguishing marks of dominion and subjection upon men [by] caus[ing] some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs.” Thomas Jefferson was to make this same point in a letter he wrote to Roger Weightman in June 1826 shortly before he died.

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