Algernon Sidney on how the absolute state treats its people like cattle (1698)

Algernon Sidney

The English radical republican Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) argues that absolute rule over others means that the people are treated like so many oxen who are only fed so “that they may be strong for labour, or fit for slaughter”:

They (Princes) consider nations, as grazers do their herds and flocks, according to the profit that can be made of them: and if this be so, a people has no more security under a prince, than a herd or flock under their master. Tho he desire to be a good husband, yet they must be delivered up to the slaughter when he finds a good market, or a better way of improving his land. … they look upon us not as children, but as beasts, nor do us any good for our own sakes, or because it is their duty, but only that we may be useful to them, as oxen are put into plentiful pastures that they may be strong for labour, or fit for slaughter. This is the divine model of government that he offers to the world.

Born to an aristocratic family, Algernon Sidney became one of the leading republican theorists of the late 17th century whose works exerted a considerable influence on 18th century America. He served in the army during the 1640s and 1650s, sat in Parliament where he voted against the execution of the king, lived in exile in Holland and France for much of the Restoration (of the Stuart monarchy after 1660), and in the late 1670s and early 1680s became involved in various plots against the Crown which led to arrest and execution for high treason. His major and best known work is his Discourses concerning Government (written 1679-1683, published 1698) which Sidney wrote to refute Sir Robert Filmer’s (1588-1653) patriarchal theory of the monarchy, Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings, which had appeared in 1680. Filmer’s work also prompted John Locke to write part of the Two Treatises of Government so it is be doubly famous for having prompted into being two classics of the republican Commonwealthman tradition which was to so influence the 18th century, especially those in America who were challenging the right of the British king to rule over them. Sidney’s criticisms of the arbitrary and despotic powers of the restored Stuart monarchy so inflamed their supporters that Sidney was singled out for persecution and its was with delight that they found in his rooms an unpublished manuscript of his Discourses which they used as evidence of treason against him, the judge arguing that “scribere est agere” (to write is to act - i.e that writing in favour of an act is the same as carrying out that act). Sidney lost the case and was duly beheaded, but was spared the indignity of having his body drawn and quartered. The Discourses were published a few years after his execution (1698) and again by Thomas Hollis in 1762. Copies of Sidney’s work were widely circulated and read in the American colonies thus making it one of the key texts for understanding the thinking of the American revolutionaries.