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Algernon Sidney on de facto vs. de jure political power (1698)

The radical English republican Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) distinguishes between states that have illegitimate de facto power and those that have legitimate de jure power:

No man can have a power over a nation otherwise than de jure, or de facto. He who pretends to have a power de jure, must prove that it is originally inherent in him or his predecessor from whom he inherits; or that it was justly acquired by him. The vanity of any pretence to an original right appears sufficiently, I hope, from the proofs already given, that the first fathers of mankind had it not; or if they had, no man could now inherit the same, there being no man able to make good the genealogy that should give him a right to the succession.

No man can have a power over a nation otherwise than de jure, or de facto. He who pretends to have a power de jure, must prove that it is originally inherent in him or his predecessor from whom he inherits; or that it was justly acquired by him. The vanity of any pretence to an original right appears sufficiently, I hope, from the proofs already given, that the first fathers of mankind had it not; or if they had, no man could now inherit the same, there being no man able to make good the genealogy that should give him a right to the succession. Besides, the facility we have of proving the beginnings of all the families that reign among us, makes it as absurd for any of them to pretend a perpetual right to dominion, as for any citizen of London, whose parents and birth we know, to say he is the very man Noah who lived in the time of the flood, and is now four or five thousand years old.

If the power were conferred on him or his predecessors, ’tis what we ask; for the collation can be of no value, unless it be made by those who had a right to do it; and the original right by descent failing, no one can have any over a free people but themselves, or those to whom they have given it.

If acquisition be pretended, ’tis the same thing; for there can be no right to that which is acquired, unless the right of invading be proved; and that being done, nothing can be acquired except what belonged to the person that was invaded, and that only by him who had the right of invading. No man ever did or could conquer a nation by his own strength; no man therefore could ever acquire a personal right over any; and if it was conferr’d upon him by those who made the conquest with him, they were the people that did it. He can no more be said to have the right originally in and from himself, than a magistrate of Rome or Athens immediately after his creation; and having no other at the beginning, he can have none to eternity; for the nature of it must refer to the original, and cannot be changed by time.

Whatsoever therefore proceeds not from the consent of the people, must be de facto only, that is, void of all right; and ’tis impossible there should not be a right of destroying that which is grounded upon none; and by the same rule that one man enjoys what he gained by violence, another may take it from him. …

About this Quotation:

The radical English republican Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) was executed by the English crown for writing the subversive political tract Discourses Concerning Government which was posthumously published in 1698. His work went on to have an enormous impact in the North American colonies. One of his key ideas was his notion of “the consent of the governed” which of course would be used in the Declaration of Independence to justify revolt against the British Crown. In his Discourses Sidney argued that a government was legitimate (de jure) only when it had been consented to by those living under its power. By this standard every government that existed lacked legitimacy and only held power “in fact” (de facto), in other words because it had the power to do so and thus was “void of all right.” The difficulty of course was in showing how a government consented to by one generation could claim legitimacy from the generations that came after. One solution to this problem proposed b y Jefferson was to have a new revolution every generation of so to reconfirm this act of consent. David Hume, on the other hand, was quite satisfied with the legitimacy of states which only held power de facto.

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