July 4, 2000 essays

Popular Sovereignty: A Biography of Algernon Sidney

Algernon Sidney was a 17th century English politician and philosopher who defied monarchism and was ultimately executed for his criticism of the English crown.

One of the most important checks on government power has been the principle of popular sovereignty: people should be able to choose their rulers and throw them out when they become scoundrels.

The influential English agitator and thinker Algernon Sidney championed popular sovereignty back when kings ruled the earth. For years, he stirred opposition to the English king Charles II, for which he was hunted by assassins. He spoke out against slavery in the British West Indies. There were two attempts on his life, and he suffered an ultimate tragedy—beheading. He became the most famous English martyr for liberty.

His major work, Discourses Concerning Government, appeared in 1698, 15 years after his execution, and it did much to develop the case for liberty that was to inspire Americans and sweep the world. For instance, he wrote: “no man is to be entrusted with an absolute Power in all controversies concerning the power of magistrates, we are not to examine which conduces to their profit or glory, but what is good for the public the right of magistrates do essentially depend upon the consent of those who govern. Laws therefore they are not, which public consent hath not made so. The Liberties of Nations are from God and Nature, not from Kings [human beings] have by the law of nature a right to their liberties, lands, goods.”

Sidney was revered by all who cherished liberty. He knew English natural rights philosopher John Locke. He worked with Quaker William Penn to bring libertarian ideas into Parliament. Thomas Jefferson considered Sidney to be one of the most important thinkers on liberty and called the Discourses “a rich treasure of republican principles…probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded on natural right which has ever been published in any language.” John Adams, John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, James Otis and other American writers of the Revolutionary Era hailed Sidney.

University of Dallas historian Thomas G. West called Sidney “precocious, energetic, and honorable.” He was tall and thin, and in his youth he had red hair. A portrait was painted when he was a 40-year-old exile, and as University College, London historian John Carswell noted, it “shows him in the breastplate of a soldier and a leader, and it could be engraved and circulated for propaganda purposes: the picture of a leader in the cause for the restoration of the English republic¼”

By his 50s, Sidney was in France, and Carswell described him as “Spare, graying now, he is as active as ever, shooting, writing, riding. In the voluminous correspondence of his lifetime, with its litany of complaints about circumstances and other people, there is hardly a syllable about not feeling well…”

He was an unforgettable character. “There is the solitary Sidney who spent much of his time alone and in exile,” explained Cambridge University historian Jonathan Scott. “There is the familial Sidney, who never produced a family of his own to supplant that under whose troubled shadow he remained. There is the ‘retired’ Sidney, in Augsburg, Nerac and Rome. There is Sidney the scholar, and never far behind him, the man of action…[pursuing] ‘that liberty in which God created us.’”

Algernon Sidney was born around January 15, 1623. The exact birthday isn’t known, but on that date a midwife was paid for attending his mother Dorothy, Lady Lisle who descended from the powerful Percy family. Algernon’s father was Robert Lisle, heir to the earldom of Leicester and the 4,000-acre Penshurst mansion in Kent, where Algernon was born. He was the fourth surviving child and second son.

His father enrolled him at Gray’s Inn when he was 10. He seems to have absorbed his father’s philosophical views. He reportedly believed Grotius’ Law of War and Peace to be the most important work on political philosophy.

Sidney participated in the rebellion against King Charles I who had ruled arbitrarily without a Parliament from 1629 until the need for money forced him to call it back in 1640. Six years later, Sidney was elected to what became known as the Long Parliament. He was named a commissioner for the trial of the king and called the 1649 execution “the justest and bravest action that ever was done in England, or anywhere.”

On April 20, 1653, Oliver Cromwell shut down Parliament and began his military dictatorship known as the Protectorate. Sidney went to the Hague where he seems to have served as an agent for English constitutionalists opposed to Cromwell.

Richard Cromwell assumed power following his father’s death on September 3, 1658, and Sidney was somehow appointed ambassador to Denmark and Sweden. The two countries had fought each other for a decade, and another war loomed. Sidney helped negotiate a peace settlement which, signed on May 27, 1660, has lasted more than 300 years — up to the present. It assured international access to the Baltic.

After Richard Cromwell was overthrown by the army in April 1659, many people began to think the Stuart kings looked pretty good compared to the civil war and Oliver Cromwell’s military dictatorship. Parliament invited the son of Charles I to become king Charles II. He ordered the hanging of those who had played a key role in the execution of his father, and Sidney thought it prudent to go abroad. Historian Trevelyan wrote, “The gallows and butchery were set up in Charing Cross, in sight of the place before Whitehall where the scaffold had been dressed for Charles; as the hangman cut the king-killers to pieces, their heads and hearts were shown reeking to the people, whose shouts testified that on this occasion they felt neither pity nor respect. Hugh Peters had scarcely the strength to face so terrible a scene, and came staggering on to the scaffold. But Cook the lawyer, Harrison and the other soldiers and politicians proved worthy of their cause and of that hour. And none died better than Sir Harry Vane (1662), proclaiming the principles of liberty to the last¼”

Sidney stayed in Europe, trying to elude the thugs Charles II dispatched to kidnap or kill his political enemies. He visited Copenhagen University and signed the guest book with these explosive words: “Manus haec inimica tyrannis, Ense petit placidam sub liberate quietem.” Translated, they say: “This hand, enemy to tyrants, By the word seeks calm peacefulness with liberty.” Sidney’s friends were so shocked that they offered to remove the page, but he insisted it remain. His words caused a sensation in Europe and England. His father wrote him, “no man will open his mouth for you.”

Little is known of his underground life, including the sources of funds which enabled him to live and travel without any visible means of support. Undoubtedly they were in England. “The nature of the evidence about him changes,” noted biographer Carswell, “and we can no longer look for letters. Though he must have written many, their recipients prudently did not keep them, and only five survive that can with certainty be assigned to the next fourteen years. News of him is traced in intelligence reports, official communications, diplomatic memoirs, by those concerned to watch him.”

Sidney headed south, stopping in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Augsburg and Venice. He lived in Rome until it became thick with spies and assassins. He headed for Bern, Switzerland where many English exiles had found sanctuary, but even Bern wasn’t safe. One of the exiles, John Lisle, was assassinated on his way to church. Sidney left for Augsburg, then Brussels. Apparently while Sidney was in Holland, three exiles were seized, taken to England and executed.

Among the most steadfast Dutch supporters was Quaker merchant Benjamin Furley who assisted William Penn’s struggle for religious toleration. Furley provided lodging for John Locke when he became an exile in Holland. Furley evidently helped get money for Sidney, and he copied Sidney’s manuscripts and kept them safe. Furley, according to biographer John Carswell, was “a plumpish, rather clumsy-looking man with a round, ugly, but highly intelligent face under a thatch of dark hair¼a genuinely likeable and warm-hearted man, with a talent for making friends¼For many years he lent them money, gave them house-room, handled their business affairs, and with his international contacts acted as their banker. He was the repository of their secrets, their trusted advisor, a solid resource in their shifting and uncertain world.”

At this time, Sidney’s principal manuscript was Court Maxims, which attacked Charles II and encouraged the Dutch to support the republican struggle against him. Court Maxims consists of 15 dialogues between the republican Euonomius and the royal courtier Philalethes who discuss maxims of political absolutism, such as “monarchy is the best form of government” and “monarchy ought to be absolute and hereditary.” Sidney (Euonomius) affirmed the doctrine of a “higher law” which had been championed by Cicero, and he insisted that if rulers subvert the interests of the people, they “ought no longer to be looked upon as fathers or shepherds, which are titles of love and sweetness, but thieves, wolves, tyrants, the worst of enemies.” He continued, “The essence of the law consists solely in the justice of it: if it be not just, it is no law… The law that should be for our defense is a snare…what law soever is made prejudicial to those of that society, perverting justice, destroys the end for which it ought to be established, is therefore in the highest degree unjust and utterly invalid …The most important temporal interests of all honest men are: to preserve life, liberty, and estate.”

By 1677 Charles II, feeling more confident about his power, issued a pass which enabled Sidney to return, supposedly so he could visit his frail father who was more than 80 years old. His family was mired in financial problems, and he was immediately imprisoned for debt. Somehow Sidney emerged as a major figure among English dissidents. In a bid to influence British politics in his favor, the wily Louis XIV channeled subsidies to dissidents including Sidney and provided an L800,000 a year subsidy to Charles II. Louis leaked news about the subsidy to Charles II, and it triggered outrage against him. Later when news came out about the French money Sidney had received, people turned against him, too.

Charles II claimed more and more power, provoking a debate about the most fundamental issues of government. Lawyer Robert Filmer published Patriarcha: a Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Power of the People, which he had written 42 years earlier when Charles I was losing his grip on the throne. He denied that human beings have natural rights. He insisted even a bad ruler must be obeyed because he was, in effect, the head of a family. The doctrine of political absolutism seemed to be gaining support, and in the event it became the universal creed, a monarch could not be safely opposed.

Some of the greatest minds of the era began refuting Filmer. John Locke, secretary and medical advisor to radical Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, began defending natural rights in two treatises but, being a cautious man, he kept them out of circulation until 1689, after the Stuarts had been overthrown—and even then the books were published anonymously. Locke’s long-time friend and assistant James Tyrrell was more daring: he wrote Patriarcha non Monarchia, published in 1681.

Sidney, too, worked on a massive point-by-point refutation of Filmer. He might well have seen Filmer’s manuscript years earlier, when the two men were neighbors. In any case, Sidney refined his thinking and gathered more material for an intellectual attack on monarchy. “He wrote rapidly and in a passion of self-expression, hardly pausing, one feels, to check or improve,” noted biographer Carswell. The work displayed Sidney’s vast learning. He drew extensively on English and European history, ancient Greek history, Roman history and the historical books of the Old Testament. Sidney never finished, and the original manuscript was lost. When the work appeared in print 15 years after Sidney’s death, it was given the title Discourses Concerning Government.

Sidney wrote, “the whole fabrick 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.” Sidney warned, “all governments are subject to corruption and decay¼absolute power to which [Filmer] would exalt the chief magistrate, would be burdensome, and desperately dangerous, if he had it.”

Kings, he continued, must be “under the law, and the law is not under them; their letters or commands are not to be regarded: In the administration of justice, the question is not what pleases them, but what the law declares to be right, which must have its course, whether the king be busy or at leisure, whether he will or not¼Kings not being fathers of their People, nor excelling all others in Virtue, can have no other just Power than what the Laws give; nor any title to the privileges of the Lord’s Annointed¼nothing can be more absurd than to say, that one man has an absolute power above law to govern according to his will, for the people’s good, and the preservation of their liberty: For no liberty can subsist where there is such a power¼” Sidney added: “The Legislative Power…[is] not to be trusted in the hands of any who are not bound to obey the Laws they make.”

Sidney affirmed the natural right of people to rebel against unjust rulers: “Every man has a right of resisting some way or other that which ought not to be done to him¼No People can be obliged to suffer from their King what they have not a right to do¼Unjust Commands are not to be obey’d; and no man is obliged to suffer for not obeying such as are against Law¼it would be madness to think, that any nation can be obliged to bear whatsoever their own magistrates think fit to do against them.”

Sidney joined the underground opposition to Charles II and his Catholic heir James, the Duke of York. He was involved with the “Rye House Plot” to assassinate both Charles II and the Duke of York when they passed the Rye House, Herfordshire, between Newmarket and London. Somebody leaked details about the plot. The Earl of Shaftesbury, who had conceived it, fled to Holland, and he was soon followed by John Locke. On June 26, 1683, Sidney was arrested while eating lunch at his home on London’s Monmouth Street. Personal papers were seized, and he was charged with treason for being associated with the Rye House plotters. This was the first big case for judge George Jeffreys, and he hoped it would be his ticket to the top. The prosecution used “Col. Sydney’s paper,” the manuscript for Discourses which had been found at his house, as evidence. Jeffreys denounced the work for “fixing power in the people.” Sidney was found guilty and sentenced to death.

In a brief final piece, Apology in the Day of His Death, Sidney wrote: “I had from my youth endeavored 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.”

His execution was set for December 7, 1683. “When he came to the scaffold,” one witness recalled, “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.” Sidney was 61. He was buried at Penshurst.

Charles II died, and his Catholic brother was crowned James II. People rebelled against him in 1688, and the Protestant Prince of Orange became King William III, and Sidney was soon hailed as a martyr for liberty. The Discourses was initially published in 1698, and at least eight editions appeared during the 18th century.

Sidney’s reputation declined in England, though, when details emerged about his receiving French money. The English generally wanted even less to do with him after he was embraced by rebellious Americans. But he was defended by Charles James Fox, the great orator who opposed policies of King George III. There were two German translations of the Discourses and two French translations. In France, Sidney’s greatest fans included the political philosophers Montesquieu and Condorcet.

Sidney was especially admired in America. Historian Alan Craig Houston observed, “To the colonists, the single most important fact about Sidney’s life was the manner of his death. By his unselfish devotion to liberty, Sidney set a standard against which men repeatedly measured themselves; by his martyrdom, he graphically demonstrated the evils of unchecked power. Colonial Americans also read the Discourses Concerning Government with care and precision. They cited Sidney on a wide range of issues, from the corruption of men to the rule of law, and from the representative nature of government to the right of revolution.”

“Sidney’s martyrdom,” he continued, “was the most powerful piece of evidence that could have been given to verify the truth of his writings. As the latter preached, so the former graphically demonstrated the consequence of permitting one man to enjoy the arbitrary and unlimited power. Had Sidney not been a martyr, it is unlikely the Discourses would have been as widely read in eighteenth-century America; had he not written the Discourses, on the other hand, it is unlikely his death would have received the attention it did.”

Referring to American writers of the Revolutionary Era, Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn observed that “above all, they [the American colonists] referred to the doctrines of Algernon Sidney.” In 1775, Massachusetts took its motto from Sidney’s words in the Copenhagen guest book (“This hand, enemy to tyrants, By the word seeks calm peacefulness with liberty”).

After the Revolution, Americans thought they had less of a need for Sidney’s teachings, but there was a revival during the movement to abolish slavery. William Lloyd Garrison called Sidney “the father of modern Abolitionism” and “an uncompromising enemy of slavery.” Garrison praised the Discourses as an “exhaustless treasury of free thoughts.” Wendell Phillips, the greatest antislavery orator, considered the Discourses an “immortal book.” When U.S. Senator William H. Seward fought the Compromise of 1850 which, among other things, made it easier to capture runaway slaves, he recalled Sidney’s words that “The liberty of one man cannot be limited or diminished by one or any number of men, and none can give away the right of another.” In 1866, Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner cited Sidney and Locke when he delivered a speech affirming the political rights of liberated slaves.

Nonetheless, as historian Thomas G. West reported, “Sidney fell out of fashion during the nineteenth century. The educated began to favor statesmen like Cromwell and Napoleon, who relished the exercise of unrestrained power for grand projects in the service of mankind.”

Yet another Sidney revival now seems to be stirring. Jonathan Scott produced the first new biography in a century—Algernon Sidney and the English Republic, 1623-1677 (1988), followed by Algernon Sidney and The Restoration Crisis, 1677-1683 (1991). John Carswell wrote The Porcupine, The Life of Algernon Sidney (1989). In 1990, Liberty Fund brought out the first new edition of Sidney’s Discourses in 185 years. Then Princeton University Press published Alan Craig Houston’s Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America. In 1996, Cambridge University Press issued Sidney’s unpublished Court Maxims, the lost manuscript for which turned up in Warwick Castle during the 1970s. Sidney truly died that his bold ideas could live.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.