Algernon Sidney: Forgotten Founding Father
A Short-Lived Patriot Whose Influence Remains
OCTOBER 01, 1997 by CHRIS BAKER
Chris Baker interned at Liberty magazine and lives in Moundsville, West Virginia. A longer version of this article is scheduled to appear in the upcoming collection Millennium for Liberty.
Algernon Sidney (also Sydney) was an English martyr for republican government. He was executed in 1683 for allegedly conspiring to kill King Charles II; his political writings were used as “evidence” against him. His uncompromising spirit inspired both the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776.
Born in 1622, Sidney was the second son of the Earl of Leicester and a nephew of the poet Philip Sidney. He was raised at the family’s estate in Kent. His father, Robert, was a diplomat who owned a vast library, which included classics of religion, philosophy, and history. As an adolescent, Sidney traveled with his father to Denmark, France, and Rome. In Paris, he met the Dutch-born diplomat and political theorist Hugo Grotius, who was representing Sweden at the French court.
In 1646, Sidney was elected to what came to be known as the Long Parliament—so named because it was in session for eleven years. The increasingly fanatical Puritans ordered King Charles I’s execution in 1649. Being a man of reason, Sidney did not support execution—he always sought justice, never vengeance. Cromwell dissolved Parliament in 1653, but Sidney refused to leave his seat until the Lord Protector’s troops forcibly removed him. With his life now in danger, he fled to the Netherlands.
Sidney returned to his seat in 1659 and was one of three men sent by England to negotiate peace in the war between Denmark (which also controlled Norway) and Sweden. Up to this time, the Danes controlled land on both sides of the narrow passage connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea and charged exorbitant dues to all ships that passed through. The treaty ending this war gave Sweden total control of their side of the waterway. The Baltic Sea was opened to all nations and has remained so to this day, except in times of war.
Parliament crowned Charles II, son of Charles I, king the next year. Sidney refused to apologize for his earlier actions and did not return to England after his successful diplomatic mission. The king’s assassins would make two attempts on his life. In the mid-1660s, Sidney unsuccessfully appealed to French and Dutch leaders, hoping to enlist their aid in the republican cause. He also indulged in his first love—books.
He was allowed to return to England after his father’s death in 1677 and began working with William Penn for religious freedom in both England and Pennsylvania. Not even the new colony was liberal enough for Sidney. He believed that it left too much power in the chief executive’s hands.
He met with other republicans (who were forming the Whig Party) and made an unsuccessful run for Parliament. At that time, many republicans—including Sidney—were receiving money from the French ambassador. France, the major European power at the time, hoped to keep its archrival weak and divided.
In 1680, Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha was published. Filmer (who had died in 1653) argued that absolute monarchy was a natural form of government, existing from the creation. Fathers governed families, and the right to rule passed on to the eldest son. Sidney penned his Discourses Concerning Government in response to Filmer.
Fearful of a “popish plot,” the Whigs believed that Charles, with the encouragement of his Catholic brother James, was attempting to re-establish an absolute monarchy. Charles II dismissed Parliament in 1681. Unable to check the crown by lawful means, some Whigs considered assassination. The defiant Sidney was arrested on June 26, 1683, for his alleged part in the “Rye House Plot.” The prosecution searched his home and found his writings, which he claimed were not intended for publication. Convicted in a dubious trial, Sidney was beheaded on December 7, 1683.
Sidney was not totally opposed to monarchy. “The best Governments of the World have bin [sic] composed of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy,” he believed. “The difference therefore between good governments and ill governments is not, that those of one sort have an arbitrary power which the others have not, for they all have it; but that those which are well constituted, place this power so as it may be beneficial to the people, and set such rules as are hardly to be transgressed; whilst those of the other sort fail in one or both these points.”
But he did believe uncompromisingly in the right of revolution. He saw government as a contract among the people. He wrote: “God leaves to Man the choice of Forms in Government; and those who constitute one Form, may abrogate it. . . . The general revolt of a Nation cannot be called a Rebellion. . . . Laws and constitutions ought to be weighed . . . to constitute that which is most conducing to the establishment of justice and liberty.” Sidney saw this necessity because: “Many things are unknown to the wisest, and the best men can never wholly divest themselves of passions and affections . . . nothing can or ought to be permanent but that which is perfect.”
To retain its liberty a society must be composed of people who are willing to question the authority of “superiors.” “Who will wear a shoe that hurts him, because the shoe-maker tells him ’tis well made? . . .” Sidney asked. “Such as have reason, understanding, or common sense, will, and ought to make use of it in those things that concern themselves and their posterity, and suspect the words of such as are interested in deceiving or persuading them not to see with their own eyes. . . . A general presumption that Kings will govern well, is not a sufficient security to the People . . . those who subjected themselves to the will of a man were governed by a beast.”
A more accurate title for the Discourses might be History of Liberty. Throughout the book are references to the works of Hugo Grotius, Livy, Niccolo Machiavelli, Cornelius Tacitus, Plutarch, Plato, and Aristotle. Sidney was most impressed by the Bible, Livy’s History of Rome, and Grotius’s The Law of War and Peace. The history of the Roman Republic and its decay into empire and eventual ruin especially fascinated him.
Sidney saw history largely as an eternal conflict between virtue and vice. This idea appeared throughout:
. . . the strength, virtue, glory, wealth, power, and happiness of Rome proceeding from liberty, did rise, grow, and perish with it.
Whilst liberty continued, it was the nurse of virtue; and all the losses suffered in foreign or civil wars, were easily recovered: but when liberty was lost, valour and virtue were torn up by the roots, and the Roman power proceeding from it, perished.
Sidney also noticed the pattern in their vanquished opponents: “All the nations they had to deal with, had the same fate. They never conquer’d a free people without extreme difficulty. . . . But the greatest kings were easily overcome.” This occurred because “such principles as make men honest and generous, do also make them lovers of liberty, and constant in the defence of their country. . . .” Free societies were more prosperous, could afford war, and recover from it. He added: “That is the best Government, which best provides for war.” The wars of the twentieth century, the most violent ever, would prove him correct.
Dictatorships were impractical because—as Friedrich Hayek would later observe in The Road to Serfdom—the worst find their way to the top. “The histories of Greece,” Sidney noticed, “Sicily, and Italy shew that all those who made themselves tyrants in several places, did it by the help of the worst, and the slaughter of the best.” Tyrants “hate virtue for its own sake, and virtuous men for being most unlike to themselves.” This philosophy has proved even more true in today’s welfare states, “people’s republics,” and other anti-capitalist economic systems.
This did not mean that Sidney was a pragmatist. His main concern was not whether a political system “worked.” He was convinced that republican government did function well, and he knew how and why.
Sidney was a pioneer in natural rights theory. “The common Notions of Liberty are not from School Divines, but from Nature . . .,” he declared. “’Tis hard to comprehend how one man can come to be master of many, equal to himself in right, unless it be by consent or by force. . . . No right can come by conquest, unless there were a right of making that conquest. . . .” In summary, he understood that: “To depend upon the Will of a Man is Slavery.”
Liberty was consistent with equality before the law. “That equality which is just among equals,” he wrote, “is just only among equals; but such as are base, ignorant, vicious, slothful, or cowardly, are not equal in natural or acquired virtues, to the generous, wise, valiant, and industrious. . . . There may be a hundred thousand men in an army, who are all equally free; but they only are naturally most fit to be commanders or leaders, who most excel in the virtues required for the right performance of those offices.” His idea of equality did not even resemble the corrupt concept of equality that is worshiped in the world today.
Agreeing with Aristotle that man is a rational animal, Sidney believed that a life of virtue was a life of reason. “Man’s natural love to Liberty is temper’d by Reason, which originally is his Nature,” he declared. “The truth is, man is hereunto led by reason which is his nature. Everyone sees they cannot well live asunder, nor many together, without some rule to which all must submit. This submission is a restraint of liberty, but could be of no effect as to the good intended, unless it were general; nor general, unless it were natural.” He not only knew that a free society would prosper—he knew why a free society had to prosper.
While his better-known contemporary John Locke harshly criticized self-interest, Sidney seemed to favor it. He believed that “man naturally follows that which is good, or seems to him to be so. Hence it is that in well-govern’d states, where a value is put upon virtue . . . men are from the tenderest years brought up in a belief, that nothing in this world deserves to be sought after, but such honors as are acquired by virtuous actions: By this means virtue itself becomes popular.”
Sidney’s political philosophy had one fatal flaw, which Locke also accepted. He believed that “if he enter into the society, he is obliged by the laws of it.” (Locke called it tacit consent.) Yet Sidney was the most radical man of his time. While Locke earned fame and prestige, Sidney became famous mostly for his “treason.” Had he lived out his life, he might have had as much influence as Locke, whose major works were all published after the bloodless revolution of 1688. Published in 1698, the Discourses are the product of a great mind whose greatness would not be understood until long after his death.
After the death of Charles II in 1685, James II took the crown, and a friendly (at that time) Parliament met for the first time in four years. The new king’s preferential treatment of Catholics vindicated the Whigs’ fears. When the queen gave birth to a son in 1688, even the once-conservative Parliament supported revolution. James’s troops and his daughter Anne deserted him. His older daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, claimed the throne. Parliament passed a bill of rights and absolved Sidney the next year.
Influence in the American Colonies
John and Samuel Adams, George Mason, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin all acknowledged Sidney’s influence on American political thought. A group of Virginians (Patrick Henry included) founded Hampden-Sydney College in 1776 and named it in his honor (and John Hampden’s). And in 1825, as founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson issued this statement: “Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Board that as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke, in his ‘Essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government,’ and of Sidney in his ‘Discourses on government,’ may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and the United States.”
In the nineteenth century, when so many of his theories proved true, his popularity declined sharply. The Discourses were out of print in America from 1805 to 1979. His countrymen preferred to remember his collaborations with foreign leaders. Winston Churchill called him “indomitable.” The Catholic Lord Acton wrote that it was “humiliating to trace a political lineage to Algernon Sidney, who was the paid agent of the French king.” The Anglo-Americans also lost their faith in liberty.
But Sidney’s influence remains. Massachusetts adopted its motto from a quote which had appeared on an earlier edition of the Discourses: “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem [By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty].” His most famous quote appeared in Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack: “God helps those who help themselves.” American slavery abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison borrowed another line: “That which is not just, is not Law; and that which is not Law, ought not to be obeyed.”
Samuel Adams gave Algernon Sidney the most accurate label of all—“patriot.” In a nation of liberty-loving people, he can be nothing less.
- Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas West (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Classics, 1990), pp. 166, 570.
- Ibid., pp. 20, 519, 461.
- Ibid., p. 461.
- Ibid., pp. 12, 13, 398, 401.
- Ibid., pp. 149, 161.
- Ibid., pp. 143, 432, 209.
- Ibid., pp. 186, 266.
- Ibid., pp. 8, 32, 17.
- Ibid., p. 80.
- Ibid., pp. 191, 192.
- Ibid., pp. 253.
- Ibid., p. 104.
- Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill Peterson (New York, N.Y.: Library of America, 1984), p. 479.
- Lord Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty, ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis, Inc.: Liberty Classics, 1986), p. 47.
- Sidney, pp. 210, 380.