Algernon Sidney’s Advice for Article V Opponents
By Rodney Dodsworth – October 21, 2019
Our Founders’ textbook to revolution was Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government. Alongside John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, these famous works were refutations of another influential 17th century book, Patriarcha by Sir Robert Filmer. In Patriarcha, Filmer invoked the Bible to defend the English monarchs’ divine right to rule. Among his arguments, he painted dire consequences to the established order if the people ever attempted to limit kingly prerogatives.
In the background to these works was the 1649 execution of King Charles I. Monarchists could point to the subsequent short-lived English commonwealth, a volatile republic with a written constitution and ask, “Do you really want a repetition? See what happens when you violate God’s laws?”
Sidney countered that no one in God’s creation was born with a crown on his head nor a saddle on his back. All men were created equal, “and if the princes received this truth some of them might be restrained from doing evil.” Since all men were created equal, the law applied equally to the people, Kings and their magistrates.
Like Article V Opponents today, those who prefer the status quo instead of an Article V COS to restore the blessings of liberty, Filmer acknowledged the occasional awful king made life difficult for the people, but it was nonetheless better to bear the burden than risk societal upheaval once again.
As Sidney put it, “Those who desire to advance the power of the Magistrate above the Law, would persuade us that the difficulties and dangers of inquiring into his actions, or opposing his will when employed in violence and injustice, are so great that the remedy is always worse than the disease, and that it is better to suffer all the evils that may proceed from his infirmities and vices, than to hazard the consequences of displeasing him.”
1.) That in well-constituted governments, the remedies against ill magistrates are easy and safe.
2.) That it is equally good for the magistrates and the people to constitute the government such that the remedies may be easy and safe.
3.) That no matter how dangerous and difficult the remedies may be through the defects of the first constitution, they must be tried.
As for the first, standing institutions in Sparta, Rome and Venice typically banished, and occasionally executed those kings, generals, and magistrates who exceeded their lawful limits. All of which was done without harm to the nation.
To the second, wrote Sidney, “Regulation of magisterial power is not grievous to the magistrate. To the unambitious magistrate, he cannot be troubled to find he cannot do that which he would not do if he could. This inability is also advantageous to the unwise or evil magistrate who cannot govern themselves; the law will regulate their irregular will and prevent the destruction of themselves, their families and people.”
Wise governments account for the frailty of human nature and the corrupt tendencies in the hearts of men. They reserve to themselves easy means to keep their magistrates within the limits of the law and oblige them to do their duty. Severe penalties for abuse of power are actually merciful; they deter the evil and are of no consequence to the virtuous.
To limit man’s propensity to aggrandize power, our Framers famously divided power between the states and umbrella government, and further divided power among three branches. In the event the structure of their government failed to check usurpers, they provided two remedies. Impeachment/removal procedures, and ultimately an Article V COS stood ready to save the nation from tyranny.
Thirdly, Sidney admitted man’s natural tendency to fear and avoid that which is unknown and untried, and the disposition to suffer evil rather than take corrective measures. The task was all the more difficult if the prince flagrantly violated the constitution. Regardless, they must be tried:
I may justly say, that when nations fall under such princes as are either utterly incapable of making a right use of their power, or do maliciously abuse that authority with which they are entrusted, those nations stand obliged by the duty they owe to themselves and their posterity, to use the best of their endeavors to remove the evil, whatever danger or difficulties they many meet with in the performance.
He goes on to relate, when the situation is awful and worsening, boldness is the best counsel. Don’t engage in half-measures. America’s Deep State tyranny is immune to electoral cure. President Trump alone cannot institute lasting reforms, even with an equally bold Attorney General and a few of the remaining honest lawyers in the DOJ and FBI. Oh, they might fire a few more Deep-Staters, and maybe get a conviction or two, but the system that nurtured the high criminals will remain in January 2025 unless We the People take charge.
Despite overwhelming corruption of the Framers’ Constitution, their system remains (outside of Scotus decisions) resistant to autocratic changes. President Trump never said, “I am going to drain the swamp.” He proclaimed, “WE are going to drain the swamp.” Those who prefer Deep State tyranny over a Constitutionally mandated Article V COS simply fool themselves.
Reference: Sidney, A. (2012). Discourses Concerning Government. Memphis: General Books LLC. Chapter III, Section XL.