Sidney, Algernon (1623-1683)
Algernon Sidney was a statesman and philosopher. Sidney is best known for conspiring to rebel against Charles II of England and for his subsequent beheading for his participation in activities against the king. However, his primary significance lies in the political theory he offered in his book Discourses Concerning Government, published posthumously, which was of tremendous influence in the American colonies.
Sidney was born to an aristocratic family. His father, the Earl of Leicester, served as England’s ambassador to France during the 1630s, and Sidney entered politics as a young man. He was elected to Parliament in 1646, before being expelled by Oliver Cromwell in 1653. He resumed his seat in Parliament in 1659, but his second term in government also was short-lived. In 1660, the English Commonwealth collapsed, and Charles II was restored to the throne. Sidney refused to recant his earlier actions under the republic and to beg for the king’s forgiveness, and thus began a 20-year period of exile that took him throughout Europe.
Sidney was finally granted permission to return to England in the late 1670s. Soon after his return, he and other Whigs determined that Charles II wished to turn England into an absolute monarchy in which Parliament would play little role and Catholicism would replace the Church of England as the state religion. Sidney, a committed republican and Protestant who repeatedly warned against what he believed to be the dangers of monarchy and “Popery,” was appalled and began to plot against the regime. His execution made him a martyr for the republican cause, and the Discourses, written from 1680 to 1683 and published in 1698, soon became influential throughout the English-speaking world.
The Discourses, like James Tyrrell’s Patriarcha non Monarcha, published in 1681, and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689, were written largely in response to Robert Filmer’s promonarchical tract Patriarcha: A Defence of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People. In contrast to Filmer, Sidney believed that men were naturally free and thus had the right to choose their rulers, who were as much under the law as were the subjects. If those conditions were not met, Sidney argued, revolution was justified.
Sidney’s liberalism, however, was tempered by his belief that government should help people lead good, virtuous lives. “If the publick 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,” Sidney wrote. In addition, Sidney believed it important that the most virtuous men assume positions of political power.
Sidney’s concern for liberty and representative government, on the one hand, and his support for a state that promoted virtue through the rule of its most outstanding citizens, on the other hand, may seem contradictory. However, Sidney believed that well-informed citizens would elect the most deserving of their fellows to government posts, and thus there would be no such contradiction in practice. In Sidney’s view, a natural aristocracy, one that would rise by merit rather than birth, would assume rightful power in a free and just system of government.
Sidney’s writings inspired many American revolutionaries. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, called the Discourses “a rich treasure of republican principles … probably the best elementary book of principles of government, as founded in natural right which has ever been published in any language.” According to one study, Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government was the third most common political book in colonial libraries, behind only John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.
Sidney defended his republican principles all his life, writing the following passage while imprisoned and awaiting execution: “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.”
Baker, Chris. “Algernon Sidney: Forgotten Founding Father.” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty 47 no. 10 (October 1997): 625–628.
Houston, Alan Craig. Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Scott, Jonathan. Algernon Sidney and the English Republic, 1623–1677. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
———. Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis, 1677–1683. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Sidney, Algernon. Discourses Concerning Government. Thomas G. West, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1996
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