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

Algernon Sidney

Found in Discourses Concerning Government

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.

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.