Algernon Sidney – Republican Martyr I
By Rodney Dodsworth – February 27, 2016
Do a wiki search of Algernon Sidney.
Sidney was a contemporary of today’s better-known John Locke. Both lived in a tumultuous and dangerous latter 17th century Stuart England. Like Locke, Sidney wrote a manuscript to deny the divine right of kings, and supported republican free government as the only form that encouraged societal happiness.
Needless to say, the king of England, Charles II disagreed. At Sidney’s trial for treason, his unpublished work, which was later released as Discourses Concerning Government, would serve as the second necessary witness to secure his conviction.
Whereas the English people lived under comparatively close observation by secular and religious authorities, Americans since 1607 had lived at times in state of nature in which subsequent self-government was essential to survival. As opposed to England, Sidney’s work found fertile ground in England’s North American Colonies. Together with Cato’s Letters, and many other newspaper columns, books, and pamphlets borrowed from England and endlessly republished in the colonies, Americans consumed whole many radical republican ideas. Their consumption was such that the historian Carol Robbins described Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government (1698) as an “American textbook of revolution.” Thomas Jefferson spoke of his Discourses as a “rich treasure of republican principles.” His death provided a point of reference against which Americans frequently measured their devotion to liberty.
To further appreciate the influence of these writers, the reader is encouraged to check out a couple works by the historian Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and The Origins of American Politics. Both are available at Amazon.
Back to Sidney.
Here are a few notes from my reading of this great, forgotten republican. If any citation from this remarkable man summarizes his dedication to freedom, it is this:
“Liberty consists only in being subject to no man’s will, and nothing denotes a slave but a dependence upon the will of another.”
Almost a hundred years before our Declaration, Sidney risked and lost his neck to the maxim that all men are created equal, that no man is born with a crown on his head. Slavery can be in the form of chains, but equally so when one man depends on another. The 21st century Left charges our Founding generation with hypocrisy, while it simultaneously seeks to enslave Americans with the chains of dependency from government handouts.
Sidney advocated active citizens covetous of liberty. He disdained passive subjects.
He provided the moral foundation for a free government. Whereas Sidney was born into a noble and long established aristocratic family covetous of its standing in society and government, his experiences and study of Biblical scripture informed him of powers above kings. First and foremost of course was God. But below God and above kings were the people. Through constitutional government/revolution, he described the political forms most likely to preserve liberty and the conditions under which a free people could revolt against its government.
Sidney asked why the opinion of a prince outweighed that of the people? Who made whom? Did the king make the people, or is the closer truth that the people made their king? Did God create Hebrews so that Saul could rule them? Or, in their own interest, for their own good did the Hebrews seek a king to fight their battles and serve justice? Did the Romans make Romulus, Numa, and the Tarquins their kings, or did the kings beget the Romans? If the Romans made their kings it is certain they did so for their own good.
“When these kings endeavored to destroy all that was good in their institution, should they have been censured and ejected or be permitted to ruin the people for whose good they were created?”
Couldn’t the same question from Sidney in the late 17th century be asked today?
One of Sidney’s fundamentals which dovetail nicely with John Locke’s Natural Law theory is that no one can give away anything they don’t own. That would be theft. It applies to God-given rights as well as physical possessions, in that:
”No one man or multitude of men can give away the Natural Right of another.”
What immediately came to my mind was the 16th Amendment. Taxation of income is one thing; it is quite another when it is used to buy votes in the name of fuzzy “fairness.” We have the Natural Right to our possessions. Yes, taxation is necessary to protect the civil society that created government, but taxation in the name of wealth transfer is theft, and theft is theft no matter how well-dressed it is in social justice drag.