Libertarian Heritage 029, Algernon Sidney (1623-1683): A Martyr to Liberty (2012), by Peter Richards
Algernon Sidney (1623-1683): A Martyr to Liberty
Libertarian Heritage No. 29
An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance,
Suite 35, 2 Lansdowne Row, Mayfair, London, W1J 6HL.
ISSN: 0959-566X (print)
ISSN: 2042-2733 (online)
© 2012: Libertarian Alliance, Peter Richards
Peter Richards is a Hampshire businessman and writer. Besides being a supporter of the LA, he is a member of the Rationalist Association, the Society for Individual Freedom and the Freedom Association. He has also contributed to The Freethinker, Right Now! and The Individual. In 2011, the Book Guild published Free-born John Lilburne: English Libertarian: And Other Essays on Liberty, many of the chapters of which were first published by the LA or SIF.
The views expressed in this publication are those of its author, and not necessarily those of the Libertarian Alliance, its Committee, Advisory Council or subscribers.
FOR LIFE, LIBERTY AND PROPERTY
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year provided the United Kingdom with an excuse for a celebration. Although republicanism lives on as an aspiration for many, the British monarch’s power is constrained to such an extent that it no longer poses the threat of tyranny that it once did in 17th century England, a time when ‘monarchy versus republic’ was a major political issue. This essay goes back to that era and focuses on one of the key figures responsible for the promotion of republicanism.
‘God helps those who help themselves’,1 is a saying that is familiar to most English people, but few I suspect know the name of the man who first coined this phrase: Algernon Sidney.
Algernon Sidney was a 17th century English patriot, a brilliant political writer and principled freedom fighter, whose battles for liberty and justice continued throughout his eventful life: he fought against King Charles I’s forces in the English Civil War, fighting with honour and distinction at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644; as Member of Parliament for Cardiff he opposed the King’s execution in 1649 as unlawful; he refused to leave the House when Oliver Cromwell dissolved Parliament in 1653 but was removed by force; in 1679 he worked with William Penn for religious freedom in England ; and finally he was executed for treason in 1683 for an alleged plot to kill King Charles II when his political writings were used as ‘evidence’ of his guilt. He was completely exonerated after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Although barely known today, Algernon Sidney’s masterwork, Discourses Concerning Government, is credited by scholars as being a major influence on both the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England and the Declaration of Independence in America in 1776. In fact, after his death he became one of the most influential English political writers of all time.
Inscribed beneath the frontispiece of the Discourses is this quotation of Sidney’s in Latin:
Manus haec inimica tyrannis
Ense petit placidam cum liberate quietem2
Algernon Sidney first wrote this motto in the visitor’s book of Copenhagen University. In translation, this literally means:
This hand, enemy to tyrants,
By the sword seeks calm peacefulness with liberty.
A more poetic translation reads:
This hand, the rule of tyrants to oppose
Seeks with the sword fair freedom’s soft repose.
The State of Massachusetts still retains the second line of this Latin inscription as their official motto.
Over a hundred years later, John Adams (America’s second president) recognised Sidney’s significance, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated 17th September 1823:
I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on government… As often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration [i.e. wonder] that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce – as well for the intrinsic merit of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show slow the progress of moral, philosophical and political illumination in the world – ought to be now published in America.3
Before his execution, Sidney wrote these words in Apology in the Day of His Death:
I had from my youth endeavoured to uphold the common rights of mankind, the laws of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power, and Popery, and I do now willingly lay down my life for the same.4
In this essay I will explore the life and work of this little known and yet extraordinary man, and conclude by suggesting that he was, to use Thomas G. West’s description, ‘a martyr to liberty.’5
Algernon Sidney’s mother Dorothy was from the aristocratic Percy family,6 whose most famous character was Henry Percy (or Henry Hotspur of the North, as he was more usually known) who was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. This is the Hotspur of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II, and Henry IV Part I, who, with his father, the first Earl of Northumberland, was involved in rebellions against both of these kings. In the final Act of the latter play, in which Hotspur is mortally wounded by Prince Hal, he is given the famous line:
O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
Hotspur then declares that the imminent loss of glory and honour is more difficult for him to bear than his own death:
I better brook the loss of brittle life,
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts, worse than thy sword my flesh:-
But thought’s the slave of life, and life, Time’s fool,
And Time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O’I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: - No, Percy thou art dust,
And food for --
And Prince Harry (Prince Hal), the future Henry V, and the son of Henry IV, completes the line:
For worms, brave Percy. Fare thee well, great heart!7
Clearly, there is a fighting spirit, as well as a rebellious streak running in Algernon’s family.
On his father’s side of the family were the intellectuals, the most renowned being Algernon’s great uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, a celebrated Elizabethan poet. A staunch supporter of the Protestant cause, Sir Philip met his death after an injury fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands. Edmund Spenser, the most famous poet of the Elizabethan age, best known for his masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, memorialised Sidney in the poem Astrophel, which he subtitled, A Pastorall Elegie vpon the death of the most Noble and valorous Knight, Sir Philip Sidney.
The Sidneys were able to combine their noble military tradition with that of scholarship. Algernon Sidney possessed all the right character traits to maintain these family traditions.
This is how Sidney was described by a contemporary:
A man of the most extraordinary courage, a steady man, even to obstinacy, sincere, but of a rough and boisterous temper, that could not bear contradiction, but would give foul language upon it. He seemed to be a Christian, but in a particular form of his own. He thought it was to be like a divine philosophy in the mind, but he was against all public worship, and every thing that looked like church. He was stiff to all republican principles, and such an enemy to every thing that looked like monarchy, that he set himself in a high opposition against Cromwell when he was made protector. He had indeed studied the history of government in all its branches beyond any man I ever knew.8
Algernon Sidney was born in 1623, and spent his early years living at the family estate at Penshurst Place in Kent. He was named after his mother Dorothy’s brother, Algernon Percy, the 10th Earl of Northumberland. Algernon and his elder brother Philip were taken to across the Channel to Paris when their father, Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, took up the post of ambassador in France. Algernon was in his teens at the time, and lived for the next six years in France where he was educated in the classics.
While in Paris, Robert Sidney became a friend of the Dutch political philosopher, Hugo Grotius, whose work was to become a major influence on Algernon’s thinking. Algernon regarded Grotius’s Law of War and Peace as the most important book on political theory ever written.
Algernon was privileged to have a father who owned a vast library with an extensive range of books on philosophy, history and politics, both ancient and modern.
The Civil War and the trial and execution of Charles I
Back in England, Sidney joined the military and at the age of nineteen was a captain of cavalry. His father was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Algernon arrived in Dublin in February 1642 with the army to begin his commission there. He returned from war service in Ireland in 1643 and in April the following year, he became a colonel in Manchester’s regiment of horse in the Eastern Association, choosing to fight on the side of parliamentarian forces in the First English Civil War.
This was no easy decision, as he was known to have said, “Nothing but extreame necessity shall make me thinke of bearing arms in England.”9
However, King Charles I had ruled without parliament from 1629 for what became known as the ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’ and had only recalled parliament to raise taxes in 1640. Dissent amongst the people had become widespread, the King had attempted to arrest MPs in the House of Commons, and civil war had broken out in August 1642 when the king’s standard was raised in Nottingham. Sidney would now be fighting against a monarchical tyranny and for the liberty of the people.
In 1644 he [Sidney] fought in the battle of Marston Moor, where an eyewitness reported that “Colonel Sidney charged with much gallantry in the head of my Lord Manchester’s regiment of horses, and came off with many wounds, the true badges of his honor.” The wounds were severe.10
When Sidney was appointed to a command in the New Model Army in April 1645, he resigned; his injuries made him unfit for service. Sidney assured Fairfax, ‘I have not left the army without extreame [sic] unwillingness … [and only] by reason of my lamenesse’ [sic].11
On 10th May 1645 Sidney became governor of Chichester in Sussex, which involved being commander of the Chichester garrison and working with the Sussex County Committee.
In December that same year, Sidney was elected to the Long Parliament (so called because it lasted for many years) as MP for Cardiff.
By the end of 1648, the Second Civil War was effectively over; the Royalists had suffered defeats across the country leaving only Pontefract Castle in Cavaliers’ hands and the King was in captivity at Hurst Castle. Pride’s Purge, the measure taken by Colonel Thomas Pride to bar from Parliament all who were sympathetic to a compromise with the King, gave rise to what became known as the Rump Parliament.
135 Commissioners were appointed and a Court was set for a show trial at Westminster Hall, the outcome of which Cromwell had already determined. The trial began on 20th January 1649; Judge John Bradshaw presided and the Solicitor General John Cooke led the prosecution of King Charles I, who was charged with high treason.
At the time of the King’s trial, Sidney expressed doubts about its legality and later recorded his thoughts in an account written to his father in 1660:
[in] the directing of that businesse, I did positively oppose Cromwell, Bradshawe, and others, whoe would have the triall to goe on, and drewe my reasons from theis tow points: First, the King could be tried by noe court; secondly, that noe man could be tried by that court. This being alleged in vaine, and Cromwell using formall words (I tell you, wee will cut off his head with the crowne upon it) I replied: you may take your own course, I cannot stop you, but I will keep myself clean from having any hand in this businesse, immediately went out of the room, and never returned.12
Although nominated to serve as a Commissioner at the King’s trial, Sidney refused to take an active part in the proceedings.
The High Court of Justice reached its verdict: Charles I was condemned to death. 59 of the Commissioners signed the death warrant (Oliver Cromwell was one of them, Algernon Sidney was not).
The execution of Charles I took place on 30th January 1649, on the scaffold erected in front of Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. Simon Schama describes the final scene, starting with the king’s last words:
“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown: where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world,” he said, in that deep, quiet voice. Stray hairs tucked back into his white cap, he lay down before the low block, and the executioner, Richard Brandon, cut through his neck with a single blow.13
The new Commonwealth (or Republic), having abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords, was governed by the Council of State at the head of the Rump Parliament. Sidney, as a member of this purged parliament, was appointed to a number of committees, including Irish affairs, Commonwealth accounts, and one dealing with the succession of future Parliaments. He was also responsible for the governorship of Dover Castle, important for its role as a defence against the exiled future king, Charles II.
In 1652, Sidney became a member of the Council of State, and a senior government figure, with particular responsibility as a spokesperson on Foreign and Naval Affairs. However, relations between Sidney and Cromwell had been strained during the period of the Republic and things came to a head when Cromwell dissolved Parliament by force in 1653.
Cromwell, Sydney recalled, paced:
up and down the stage or floor in the middle of the House…chid[ing] them soundly, and pointing particularly upon somme persons, as…Whitlock…[and] Sir Henry Vane to whome he gave very sharpe language…After this he sayd to Corronell Harrison ‘Call them in’…and presently brought in…five or six files of Musqueteers …It happened that day, that Algernon Sydney sate next to the Speaker on the right hand; the Generall sayd to Harrison ‘Put him out’…but he sayd he would not go out, and sate still…then Harrison and Wortley putt theyr hands upon Sydney’s shoulders, as if they would force him to go out, then he rose and went towards the doore. The Generall went to the table where the mace lay…and sayd, ‘Take away these baubles;’[and] sayd to young Sir Henry Vane…that he might have prevented this extraordinary course, but he was a Juggler, and had not so much as common honesty. All being gon out, the door of the House was locked.14
The Barebone’s Parliament, set up by Cromwell to replace the Rump was short-lived and was quickly followed by the Protectorate, a regime headed by Cromwell as Lord Protector, which Sidney regarded as a tyranny. The story goes that Sidney mocked Cromwell’s claim to legitimacy by playing Brutus in a production of Julius Caesar. Sidney was strongly opposed to Cromwell’s rule under the banner of the Protectorate and would play no part in it.
After the death of Oliver Cromwell on 3rd September 1658, his son Richard Cromwell became Lord Protector, but discontent amongst the army officers caused the downfall of ‘Tumbledown Dick’ as Richard was known, and in 1659 the Protectorate was dissolved and the Rump Parliament restored.
Sidney resumed his role in Parliament and became part of a peace delegation to negotiate between the kings of Denmark and Sweden, enabling a treaty to be signed, which made a lasting peace settlement between these two nations, to the advantage of the Commonwealth of England.
After the restoration in 1660, Sydney was for the best part of eighteen years in voluntary exile, the first three years of which were spent in Italy where he devoted his time to study and quiet contemplation at the country villa where he lived. He travelled through Europe, spending time in Switzerland, Flanders and the Netherlands in 1663.
He visited a number of European cities including Copenhagen, Venice, Geneva and Brussels. In 1664, he went to Germany and returned to the Netherlands in 1665. In 1666 Sydney moved to Paris and then to the south of France where ‘Le Compte de Sidney’ as he became known, stayed until 1677.
During his time in exile he survived two assassination attempts by royalist agents.
He also changed his mind about the execution of Charles I and defended the regicide overseas as ‘the justest and bravest acti[o]n that ever was done in England or anywhere’.15
Sidney believed that England, under Charles II, was in danger of becoming an absolutist monarchy and so he thought the best way to restore the republic would be to engage foreign help. He approached Dutch republicans with a view to encourage them to invade England for that purpose but was turned down. He also intrigued with France, even to the extent of seeking financial backing for the republican cause from Louis XIV.
Sidney returned to England in 1677 to attend to personal matters.
Back in England
Not long after Sidney’s return to England his father died, leading to a legal dispute with his elder brother Philip over their father’s will. This is Sidney own account of what happened:
My father dyed within a few weeks after my coming over; and when I prepared myself to return into Guascony, there to passe the remaining part of my life, I was hindered by the earl of Leicester my brother, who questioned all that my father had given me for my subsistence; and by a long and tedious suite in chancery, detained me in England, until I was made a prisoner.16
What is interesting here is that Algernon clearly agrees with his late father, who goes against the aristocratic tradition of primogeniture by leaving his more merit-worthy son a substantial portion of the inheritance normally due to the eldest son. This mirrors Algernon’s political views regarding the relationship between inheritance and merit.
In 1679, Sidney collaborated with his friend William Penn, a Quaker, on a project to establish the right to ‘liberty of conscience’ in matters of religion in England. Penn recorded his view that:
the government of conscience belongs to God, and cannot be delegated to another, because no other can be infallible. Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom; worship at the command of the magistrate is not the spiritual worship which God requires.17
Sidney, although not a Quaker himself, shared with Penn the aim of religious toleration.
The Rye House Plot and Sidney’s execution.
Charles II’s reign was plagued by rumours of plots against the Merry Monarch, caused mainly by fears of a Catholic succession. Despite having many illegitimate children, Charles had produced no legitimate heir. Next in line to the throne was his brother James, whose ‘secret’ conversion to Catholicism had become widely known. This gave rise to what became known as the Exclusion Crisis. David Horspool explains:
What Parliament wanted to exclude was the succession of a Catholic, something the brother of the Catholic in question would never agree to. The split over this issue led to the great divide in English party and national politics between ‘Tories’ and ‘Whigs’: the former, defenders of the rights of royal succession despite any difficulties of religion; the latter seeing a Catholic on the throne as the first step towards an absolutist monarchy, which would force popery onto the country at large.18
Whig extremists were accused of being involved in the Rye House Plot, an alleged plan to assassinate King Charles II and James, Duke of York, at Rye House, Hertfordshire, on their way back from Newmarket races. Horspool gives more details:
The man around whom this plot centred, although he disavowed personal knowledge of it, was one whom many Whigs would like to have seen succeed Charles instead of his brother: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth was Charles’s illegitimate son by Lucy Walter, a Welsh courtesan with whom Charles had had an affair when in exile.19
The plot was revealed in June 1683 by one of the conspirators, and, as before, Charles and his government took the opportunity to cast their net wide to catch anyone who might be, or might be made to seem, involved. Though several plotters fled or traded evidence for their freedom, Lord Russell and the Earl of Essex were both arrested. Essex committed suicide, apparently cutting his own throat. Russell was sentenced to death. Monmouth himself had fled, but surrendered on the promise of a pardon, though his backsliding on that infuriated his ever-forgiving father, so much that he spent nearly all the rest of the reign in exile. One man who was less fortunate was Algernon Sidney, who was certainly a committed republican (and therefore could be inculpated in the plot to remove the King, though not to replace him), but against whom only one witness could be found. The presiding judge, George Jeffreys, remembered for his vengeful part in the final act of Monmouth’s life, decided that the words of Sidney’s unpublished
Discourses Concerning Government, which argued that ‘seditions, tumults and wars, are justified by the laws of God and man’, provided the vital second witness for a treason trial, and Sidney was duly sentenced to death, taking his place as a Whig martyr in the following century.20
This then is how Sidney met his end; he was beheaded on Tower Hill on 7th December 1683 for his alleged involvement in the Rye House Plot. John Miller, who describes Sidney as an ‘unbending aristocratic republican’, summarised the real reason for his fate:
The evidence against him was weak – a republican tract had to serve as the second witness that the law required – but like his old friend Sir Henry Vane, he was executed more for what he believed than for what he had done.21
One who attended his execution reported:
When he came on the scaffold, instead of a speech, he told them only that he had made his peace with God, that he came not thither to talk, but to die; put a paper into the sheriff’s hand, and another into a friend’s, said one prayer as short as a grace, laid down his neck and bid the executioner do his office.22
In the written speech handed to the Sheriff, but not read out, Sidney famously stated:
Moreover, we live in an age that makes truth pass for treason, and as I dare not say anything against it, so the ears of those that are about me will probably be found too tender to hear it. This my trial and condemnation do sufficiently evidence.23
Jonathan Scott has the full details of Sidney‘s execution:
Once on the scaffold, Sidney ‘bowed twice to the people’, ‘pulled off his hat and coat and doublet and gave them to his servants and said, I am ready to die’. He ‘gave three guineas to the executioner…[who] seemed to grumble as if it were to[o] little, then he bid his man give him a guinea or two more, which he did’.
‘Traversing the Scaffold’ Sidney ‘kneeled on the South-Side, and Prayed to himself’, ‘Scarse 2 minuts’, or ‘while you might tell 20’. Then having ‘Ordered the Executioner to take his time, without expecting any sign, he layd down his Head’.
Sidney’s head was ‘struck off at one Blow, all but a small matter of flesh, which the Executioner sundred with his knife…the Body at the time of the stroak scarcely moving…and so [he] took up his head and showed it round the Scaffold, which was hung with mourning and the floor also covered with black and a black coffin’.24
Algernon Sidney had faced his death with dignity and courage, and the bloody deed, ordered by a king and enabled by an executioner’s axe, had confirmed his status as a martyr to liberty.
After his life ended, Sidney became famous, not only for the manner of his death but also for the influence of his writings: Court Maxims, and Discourses Concerning Government, both of which were published posthumously.
Sidney wrote Court Maxims between 1665 and 1666, but the manuscript was not published until 1996, more than three centuries after his death. Written after the Restoration, the Maxims is an unrestrained criticism of what Sidney regarded as the Stuart tyranny:
And as death is the greatest evil that can befall a person Monarchy is the worst evill that can befall a nation.25
212 pages long, the Maxims is divided into 15 chapters and written as a dialogue between ‘Eunomius ye Commonwealthsman’ and ‘Philalethes a morall Honest Courtier and Lover of State Truth.’ Many of the arguments used in the Maxims are repeated in his later work.
However, as the Maxims was not published until the 20th century, its influence has not been as significant as Sidney’s later and more famous work, Discourses Concerning Government, which was written between 1681 and 1683.
Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government was written as a response to Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriacha: A Defence of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, a book published in 1680, which argued in favour of the divine right of kings and of absolute monarchy, as existed in France under Louis XIV. At the time of Sidney’s execution, his major work, Discourses Concerning Government, remained unfinished and unpublished, and yet it had been used in evidence against him. It was eventually published posthumously in 1698.
Although the Discourses is regarded as a republican tract, Sidney did not argue against monarchy per se; he was opposed to absolute power in the hands of a monarch:
‘only absolute monarchy…that I dispute against, professing much veneration for that which is mixed, regulated by law, and directed to the public good’.26
In fact Chapter Two, Section 16, of the Discourses is headed:
The best Governments of the World have been composed of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy.
In this section he states:
...there never was a good government in the world, that did not consist of the three simple species of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.27
Later in the Discourses he notes:
The difference therefore between good and ill governments is not, that those of one sort have an arbitrary power which 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.28
Sidney, who had studied world history and English history in particular, had a high regard for some English monarchs such as Henry V and Elizabeth I; but not all kings and queens were so well regarded:
Tho [sic] we have little reason to commend all the princes that preceded Henry the fifth; yet I am inclined to date the general impairing of our government from the death of that king, and his valiant brothers. His weak son became a prey to a furious French woman, who brought the maxims of her own country into ours, and advanced the worst of villains to govern according to them. These measures were pursued by Edward the fourth, whose wants contracted by prodigality and debauchery, were to be supplied by fraud and rapine. The ambition, cruelty and perfidiousness of Richard the third; the covetousness and malicious subtlety of Henry the seventh; the violent lust, rage and pride of Henry the eighth, and the bigoted fury of Queen Mary, instigated by the craft and malice of Spain, persuaded me to believe that the English liberty did not receive birth or growth from the favour and goodness of their gracious princes.29
And if we examine our history we shall find, that every good and generous prince has sought to establish our liberties, as much as the most base and wicked to infringe them.30
In the Discourses, Sidney is not just challenging Filmer’s assertion of the divine right of all kings; he is also making a case for liberty as these extracts demonstrate:
…that exemption from the dominion of another, which we call liberty … is the gift of God and nature.31
…the principle of liberty in which God created us … includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy, as well as the greatest helps towards felicity, that is the end of our hopes in the other.32
…liberty … is not a licentiousness of doing what is pleasing to everyone against the command of God; but an exemption from all human laws, to which they have not given their assent.33
…the whole fabrick [
sic] of tyranny will be much weakened, if we prove, that nations have a right to make their own laws, constitute their own magistrates; and that such as are so constituted owe an account of their actions to those by whom, and for whom they are appointed.34
He also links property with liberty as this extract shows:
Property also is an appendage to liberty; and ‘tis as impossible for a man to have a right to lands or goods, if he has no liberty, and enjoys his life only at the pleasure of another, as it is to enjoy either when he is deprived of them.35
With regard to the law, Sidney famously wrote, “That which is not just, is not Law; and that which is not Law, ought not to be obeyed.”36
As for good government:
If the publick [sic] safety be provided, liberty and propriety secured, justice administered, virtue encouraged, vice suppressed, and the true interest of the nation advanced, the ends of government are accomplished.37
And as to the right to legal and constitutional change:
As governments were constituted for the obtaining of justice, and …the preservation of liberty, we are not to seek what government was the first, but what best provides for the obtaining of justice, and preservation of liberty…Law and constitutions ought to be weighed, and whilst all due reverence is paid to such as are good, every nation may not only retain in itself a power of changing or abolishing all such as are not so, but ought to exercise that power according to the best of their understanding, and in the place of what was either at first mistaken or afterwards corrupted, to constitute that which is most conducing to the establishment of justice and liberty.38
The most controversial aspect of the Discourses at the time of its discovery was its justification of rebellion:
Rebellion, being nothing but a renewed war…of itself is neither good nor evil, more than any other war; but is just or unjust, according to the cause or manner of it.39
One of the most damning statements of which is:
[Kings] may call parliaments, if there be occasion, at times when the law does not exact it; they are placed as sentinels, and ought vigilantly to observe the motions of the enemy … but if the sentinel fall asleep, neglect his duty, or maliciously endeavour to betray the city, those who are concerned may make use of all other means to know their danger, and to preserve themselves … if that magistrate had been drunk, mad, or gained by the enemy, no wise man can think , that formalities were to have been observed. In such cases every man is a magistrate; and he who best knows the danger, and the means of preventing it, has a right of calling the senate or people to an assembly. The people would, and certainly ought to follow him … [for] nations … would be guilty of the most extreme stupidity, if they should suffer themselves to be ruined for adhering to such ceremonies.40
The following extract from the Discourses was read out at Sidney’s trial:
We may therefore change or takeaway kings … and in all the revolutions we have had in England, the people have been headed by the parliament, or the nobility and gentry that composed it, and, when kings failed of their duties, by their own authority called it.41
This statement helped to secure Sidney’s conviction for treason.
Although his methods were often Machiavellian, Sidney’s purpose was always principled; he stood unwaveringly for liberty and against tyranny.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw Sidney transformed into a Whig martyr and an Act passed in 1689 declared that his conviction was ‘wrongful and unjust’. The fact that the new settlement, with William and Mary on the throne, would not have been entirely to Sidney’s satisfaction seems to have been conveniently overlooked.
Sidney’s greatest influence however was to be on the American continent in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson gave credit to Sidney and others, for their contribution to the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence of 1776:
All its authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney &c.42
Jefferson described Discourses Concerning Government as, “a rich treasure of republican principles” and “probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded in natural right which has ever been published in any language.”43
William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leaders of the American anti-slavery movement, described Sidney as ‘the father of modern Abolitionism’ and often quoted Sidney’s words in his speeches.
In more recent times the libertarian philosopher F.A. Hayek chose this quote to appear on the title page of his famous work, The Constitution of Liberty:
Our inquiry is not after that which is perfect, well knowing that no such thing is found among men; but we seek that human Constitution which is attended with the least, or the most pardonable inconveniences. ALGERNON SIDNEY.44
When I consider the number of people across the world still oppressed by tyrannical regimes, I think Sidney’s wise words are still relevant today.
Sidney is libertarian in the sense that, like his contemporary John Locke, he believed in life, liberty and property, and above all he was opposed not only to absolutist monarchy but also to tyranny of every kind; what’s more he was prepared to fight and eventually give his life for the cause of freedom, making him a martyr for liberty.
(1) Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (ed. Thomas G. West), Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1996, p 210.
(2) Ibid p. xvi.
(3) Ibid p. xv.
(4) Ibid p. xxxvi.
(5) Ibid p. xxvi.
(6) The Percy family were descended from William de Perci, who came to England from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066.
(7) William Shakespeare, The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Annotated, Gramercy Books, New York, 1993, pp. 559-560: Henry IV Part I, Act V, Scene IV, 77- 87.
(8) Gilbert Burnet, Burnet’s History of My Own Time, (ed. Osmund Airy) Volume II , Part I : The Reign of Charles the Second, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1900, p. 352.
(9) Jonathan Scott, Algernon Sidney and the English Republic, 1623-1677, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p. 83.
(10) Sidney, 1996, p. xxix.
(11) Ibid, p. 86.
(12) Blencowe, Sidney Papers, pp. 236-9: cited in Jonathan Scott, Algernon Sidney and the English Republic 1623-1677, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p. 92.
(13) Simon Schama, A History of Britain 2: 1603-1776, The British Wars, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001, pp. 139-140.
(14) Blencowe, Sidney Papers, pp. 140-1: cited in Jonathon Scott, Algernon Sidney and the English Republic 1623-1677, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p. 102.
(15) Scott, 1988, p. 92.
(16) Jonathan Scott, Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis, 1677-1683, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p. 86.
(17) Scott, 1991, p. 133.
(18) David Horspool, The English Rebel, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 2009, p. 281.
(19) Ibid pp. 281-282.
(20) Ibid, pp. 282-283.
(21) John Miller, Charles II, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd, London, 1991, p. 367. Sir Henry Vane the Younger, referred to in this passage, was a parliamentarian during the English Civil War, and he was executed for high treason in 1662.
(22) Sidney, 1996, p. xxxv.
(23) Colonel Sidney’s Speech, retrieved 11th June 2012, http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/367/sidney%20speech.htm.
(24) Scott, 1991, pp. 346-347.
(25) Scott, 1988, p. 187
(26) Ibid, p. 81.
(27) Sidney, 1996, p. 166.
(28) Ibid, p. 570.
(29) Ibid, p. 576.
(30) Ibid, p. 578.
(31) Ibid, p. 57.
(32) Ibid p. 8.
(33) Ibid, p. 9.
(34) Ibid, p. 12.
(35) Ibid, p. 403.
(36) Ibid, p. 380.
(37) Ibid, p. 444.
(38) Ibid, pp. 460-461.
(39) Sidney, Discourses, p. 457: cited in Scott, 1991, p. 229.
(40) Sidney, Discourses, p. 466: cited in Scott, 1991, p. 264.
(41) Sidney, Discourses, ch. 2, section 32: cited in Scott, 1991, p. 264.
(42) Letter to Henry Lee, 8th May 1825 cited in: Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings, (Ed. Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 148.
(43) Letter to John Trumbull, 18th January 1789, cited in: Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (ed. Julian P. Boyd), Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1950, pp. 467-68.
(44) F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 1960, p. iii.