In 17th‐century England, where the divine right of kings was being questioned, Algernon Sidney was one of the most ardent republicans who detested unchecked monarchical power. He spent his life fighting for a political order that kept those in power accountable to the people. Due to his stubborn sense of honor and a lifetime of rebellion against tyranny, Algernon became a household name during the American Revolution.
Years after its initial signing, Jefferson wrote of the Declaration of Independence that: “it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit, called for by the occasion.” The Declaration was not wholly original in its content; instead, it was an amalgamation of the foremost ideas of public right of the day, a mixing of all the greatest thinkers that Americans believed ought to be followed. In 1825, reflecting on the Declaration 49 years after its signing, in a letter to Henry Lee, Jefferson explained the major thinkers of what he calls public right that influenced his drafting of the Declaration; he lists famous philosophers with whom many are familiar, including Aristotle, Cicero, and John Locke. But, Jefferson lists someone else, who today has become quite obscure but who, in Jefferson’s day, was considered a martyr for liberty and the author of what has been dubbed, by some scholars, the textbook of the American Revolution. I am talking about Algernon Sidney, the famous English republican who dedicated his life to establishing a republican government in England, free of monarchical power. While Algernon was ultimately unsuccessful in his political aspirations, his life and writings inspired countless revolutionaries.
Algernon Sidney was born on January 15th in 1623, in the burgeoning city of London. He was the offspring of two old and established English families. His mother was from the Percy family of Northumberland, a long line of earls famous for their military bravado, a strong sense of honor, and a penchant for rebelling against kings. One of his ancestors was Harry Percy, who had earned the nickname Hotspur for his willingness to throw himself headlong into battle. Today, Harry Percy, is known through Shakespheare’s Richard II in which he helps overthrow one king and fights against another.
His father, Robert Sidney’s family consisted of scholars devoted to the great exemplars of the past admiring Romans such as Cato and Brutus. Sidney’s father had an unusually large number of famous Romans’ busts in their family home, meaning Sidney grew up with an odd familiarity for the deeds of patriotic republicans. His home was also lined with thousands of books on philosophical, historical, and literary topics.
In short, Algernon’s family legacy was a combination of a sense of military pride and scholarly prestige.
As a youth, he was precocious, energetic, and gifted. But he was the second son of his family. His older brother would inherit the lion’s share of the family’s wealth and prestige despite being by all accounts, a lazy and incompetent person. From a young age, Sidney had decided that merit should be the sole determinant of who should be in charge/power and not age or family lineage. Still, for 17th‐century England, primogeniture was an unshakable norm, meaning that despite his talents, Algernon would be sidelined in favor of his older yet infinitely less capable brother.
After being educated in a presumably rigorous manner, considering his father’s pedigree, Algernon, along with his older and younger brother, lived abroad in France while his father served there as an ambassador. Algernon greatly impressed many of the French elite, with some describing him as having a “huge deal of wit and much sweetness of nature.” Throughout his life, Algernon would keep his razor‐sharp sense of wit. Still, this alleged sweetness of nature rapidly dissipated as no one would ever again refer to Algernon as an easy or sweet person to be around again in his life after his period in France.
Returning to England as a second son, Algernon’s options for advancement were quite limited, and though he had no interest in joining the military his lack of opportunity forced him into service in his early twenties. He briefly served in Ireland and then returned to England in 1642 as England plunged into civil war.
Back in 1215, English barons staged a revolt against the king that eventually culminated in a peace agreement known as Magna Carta.
Magna Carta guaranteed certain legal norms and rights and, with two of the most important being that the king could only raise taxes through the consent of parliament and the principle of Habeas Corpus. Today considered one of the essential safeguards of a citizen’s liberty, the principle of Habeas Corpus declares that when a person is arrested, a writ or warrant must be produced to detain someone legally. In other words, a person cannot be detained willy nilly or without due cause. The citizen must be shown to have been breaking the law. Unlike most of medieval Europe, England’s kings were not nearly as absolute as their European counterparts There was a power‐sharing dynamic between the king and parliament. But King Charles had no interest in sharing any of his royal power. In 1629, he dismissed parliament for eleven years, ruling without their input and raising revenue through dubious legal chicanery. He levied heavy fines, sold monopoly rights and titles, and erected heavy customs duties, all without the requisite consent from parliament.
After eleven years of inactivity, parliament banded together and passed the Grand Remonstrance, a long list of grievances against the king and his conduct during his eleven‐year personal dominion. Charles was furious at this Remonstrance and eventually attempted to arrest five parliamentarians he believed had cooperated with the previously invading Scots. But when the king arrived to capture his targets, he was rebuffed by the rest of parliament who refused to sell out their comrades and who kept their five colleagues’ location a secret. Furious, Charles left London with plans to raise an army. The civil war between the king and parliament had begun with the parliamentarians (called ‘roundheads’ for the helmets that they wore) ranged against the royalists supporting the king.
Algernon had been part of the king’s army while in Ireland, but once he returned, he promptly joined the cause of parliament and never looked back. In 1644 Algernon was appointed one of the twenty‐six colonels tasked with reorganizing the new model army, as the parliamentarian army had become known. He quickly distinguished himself in the battle of Marston Moor, a decisive battle which caused the Royalist forces to abandon Northern England for the rest of the war. Algernon valiantly led a cavalry charge and was severely wounded multiple times earning him much praise from his comrades who admired his courage. Despite the reputation he earned on the battlefield and his willingness to serve, Algernon’s wounds were severe and took him out of the fight even though he attempted to serve for another year.
Retiring from active military life, Algernon was elected in 1646 to the famous Long Parliament, which lasted for eleven years. During this time, Algernon displayed his rugged sense of independence. At a time when factions were forming and dissolving at a rapid rate, Algernon stuck to his principles and never followed courses of action because they were popular or would help advance his career. Though naturally aligning with more radical members of parliament, he still never joined any particular group.
After Charles’s death, the commonwealth was established, a new political order without a king headed by the leader of the parliamentarian army Oliver Cromwell. Before most, Algernon realized the oppressive nature of Cromwell’s rule and began to despise the parliamentarians’ former general. By 1653 parliament held a vote to pass laws making elections more free and open. Knowing that this would threaten his power, Cromwell had his troops storm parliament and force the members to leave. Most members of parliament left promptly, knowing their lives were in danger. Algernon was resolute and sat in his seat and had to be threatened and then physically dragged out of parliament by force. As a jab to Cromwell, whom he considered a dictator, Algernon organized a production of the play Julius Caesar, in which Algernon played Brutus, the man who killed the tyrannical Caesar back in ancient Rome. The message was clear for Cromwell, who in any case, already despised Algernon.
During Cromwell’s reign, Algernon was forced into retirement, but by 1658 Cromwell had died, and parliament reconvened with Algernon regaining his old seat. Due to his experience and expertise with foreign policy, Algernon was sent with a delegation representing England to arbitrate peace between Denmark and Sweden. Algernon was extremely forceful throughout the negotiations and refused to back down when confronted by the Swedish king Charles. Many were impressed by Algernon’s confidence to be able to stand up to royalty. After all, he was one of the most stubborn Englishmen who ever lived. A treaty was signed between the three parties, and peace was secured by May 1660. While returning home, Algernon visited the university of Copenhagen. While signing the visitor’s book, he again shocked observers when he signed in Latin, “This hand, enemy to tyrants, by the sword seeks peace with liberty.” , a phrase most commonly seen today on the state seal of Massachusetts.
But while Algernon was abroad, the English republic collapsed, and the monarchy was reinstated with Charles’ son, Charles II , on the throne. With the monarchy reinstated, former republicans and radicals were arrested for their crimes against the former king. While Algernon was not exactly happy with the monarchy’s return, he was willing to acquiesce to parliament’s authority and obey the king. But Charles did not just want cooperation. He wanted submission. Algernon was offered the chance to return home peacefully as long as he condemned his own actions and begged and groveled for forgiveness, something that Algernon’s stubborn sense of pride would never let him do. He was descended from a family of people who resisted the tyranny of kings. To submit and condemn his actions would be to reject his family’s proud legacy. Algernon knew his decision to go into exile would be viewed as stubborn. In a letter to his father, he explains that he knows people will think he is silly and pompous, but he writes that “I know people will say, I strain at gnats, and swallow camels; that it is a strange conscience…I did not make myself, nor can I correct the defects of my own creation. I walk in the light that God hath given me; if it be dim or uncertain, I must bear the penalty of my errors. I hope to do it with patience, and that no burden shall be very grievous to me, except sin and shame.” So with his pride intact but his career in ruins, Algernon went into self‐imposed exile from his homeland.
Algernon began his exile by wandering between Sweden and Denmark before finally deciding to travel to Rome in 1661. He was generously given a villa to stay in a place called Frascati, south of Rome. Frascati to this day is still famous for its gorgeous villas and idyllic scenery. While here, Algernon spent his days reading from dawn until nightfall developing his ideas of what a republic ought to resemble. In his scholarly isolation, Algernon remarked that “My conversation is with birds, trees, and books.” Despite immensely enjoying his time in Italy, Algernon began to long to serve his country again. In the end, the peace he had found was built on rotten foundations; he lived solely for himself and was not of service to others. Despite being far from home, Algernon began to scheme and plot to restore the republic England had once enjoyed. In 1663 he traveled to Holland, and while visiting the University of Geneva, he left yet another controversial signing in a visitor’s book where he wrote, “Let there be revenge for the blood of the just.” His attitude did not go unnoticed as Charles began to send assassins and spies to hunt down Algernon. Due to the clandestine nature of the operations, it is hard to know how many men attempted to kill Algernon. Still, some historians argue that at one point, Algernon had ten assassins searching for him at once and that there were two serious attempts on his life.
Algernon traveled to the Dutch Republic to curry support for an English revolution, but the Dutch wished to secure their borders and suggested Algernon travel to France. By 1666 Algernon had arrived in France and had an audience with the French King Louis XIV, who gave Algernon a modicum of support, but this ultimately fizzled out, and Algernon was back where he had started. He was given special permission by the king to live in the south of France. Algernon lived a life akin to a local aristocrat as Le Compte de Sidney. We know very little about this eleven‐year period of Algernon’s life, during which he lived in secrecy.
For obscure and never reasonably explained reasons, king Charles had a dramatic change of heart in 1673 and granted Algernon a visa to return to England. Somewhat inexplicably, Algernon did not return to England, possibly due to his stubborn pride. But by 1677, Algernon returned to England for personal reasons after twenty years of exile. His father was dying, and he wanted to be of service to him before the end. To this end, Charles allowed Algernon to return to England for six months on the condition that he steered clear from politics.
When Algernon returned to England, he was nearly immediately put under arrest, but not for political intrigue or conspiracy; instead, he was put in debtors jail for a financial dispute with his brother in law. He was kept in prison for six months, during which time his father tragically passed away.
Algernon’s father was well aware that Algernon and his younger brother were much more deserving of his inheritance than his eldest Philip, and so he bequeathed them both the bulk of his estate. Philip immediately contested his father’s will in an attempt to steal his brother’s inheritance. Not backing down, Algernon assiduously pursued the full extent of his legal rights and won his case but at the cost of the ire of his relatives who began to view him in poor light with one even commenting that it is a wonder why nobody shoots him. Algernon had no intention of staying in England, but he found himself entangled in life in England once more between his imprisonment and his legal battle over his inheritance.
With the beginnings of the exclusion crisis in 1678, Algernon re‐entered political life. He ran for parliament four times. In 1678 he lost under extremely suspect circumstances. In 1679 he was forced to withdraw when his younger brother ran against him. Finally, in 1680 he was re‐elected to parliament, but his election was voided twice. The fourth time he ran for parliament, he was beaten through sham elections. Worse yet, Charles’ brother James II, the future king, encouraged Charles to abandon England’s traditional institutions favoring an all‐encompassing monarchy akin to France. Because of James’ schemes, people known as Whigs intended to exclude James from taking the throne and put checks and balances on the monarch’s power. Charles became so enraged by the opposition from the Whigs and their anti‐court sentiment in parliament that he dissolved it nearly instantly after it was formed, resolving like his father to avoid parliament at all costs. Republicans knowing their history of Charles’ father, who detested parliament, began to talk of plans to resist the potentially despotic king.
With no more options for legal opposition, scores of plots and conspiracies began to ferment with Algernon supporting efforts to oppose the king and his brother. But in 1683, a plan to assassinate the king known as the Rye House Plot backfired and failed. With the failure of the Rye House Plot, a whole web of conspiracies was unraveled, and many who opposed the monarchy fled the country. Among those who fled was the famous philosopher John Locke. Algernon, on the other hand, was quickly arrested. While Algernon was not part of the Rye House Plot, he was more certainly privy to other plans to overthrow the king.
Like most despots, Charles had no interest in a fair trial for these conspirators, with Algernon’s trial being especially dubious. Algernon was refused any legal counsel, not allowed to see a copy of his indictment, and the jury was not composed of his peers (fellow freeholders). Presiding over the trial was the Lord Chief Justice George Jefferys, who made no effort to hide his obvious intentions to convict Algernon by any means necessary. The most egregious sign of the trial being a complete farce of legality was the witnesses. English common law demanded that if a person was on trial for treason, such as Algernon, two witnesses must be produced. The only witness the king’s court could find was Lord Howard Escrick, who could only testify that Algernon had made some contact with the Scots but had no concrete plans to overthrow the king, as stated on the indictment. Lacking a reliable witness, the court decided to utilize some unpublished manuscript pages from Algernon’s chambers to show his guilt. These manuscripts were supposed to be the damning evidence of Algeron’s malicious plans. Justice Jeffrey stated that his writings contained “all the malice, and revenge, and treason, that mankind can be guilty of.” So what exactly was Algernon writing about?
In Jeffrey’s own words, Algernon’s writings were about how kings should be held accountable to the people or be deposed. This sounds like a pretty benign view for today, but at the time, it was rebellious, controversial, and some would even say anarchic. God had appointed kings to rule over their subjects like fathers over their young children with unlimited authority to do as they please. To modern ears, this sounds ridiculous. This was the norm for 17th‐century England where many believed writers, such as Robert Filmer, who thought that most people were simply born to be ruled by their superiors. Algernon did not believe God “caused some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs.” Instead, he believed political representatives were to be chosen by the people, and when they did not serve the people, they could be resisted with force if necessary. One judge described Algernon’s writings, “An argument for the people to rise up in arms against the King.” But as Algernon pointed out, it is easy to quote someone out of context and that even if he did write this, he never published it, so it was hardly much evidence of anything. But regardless of logic, the seditious sentiments in Algernon’s writings were deemed the equivalent of a required second witness, despite being an inanimate object.
His trial started at around 10 am and ended at 6 pm. The entire time Algernon was quite aware of the trial’s nature and aptly defended himself only to frustrate the court as much as he could, but eventually, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Upon hearing his condemnation, Algernon confidently said to the chief justice, “My lord, feel my pulse, and see if I am disordered; I bless God, I never was in better temper than I am now.”
While in prison awaiting his execution, people made pleas on his behalf, and Algernon requested to go into exile again. Still, these were rejected unless Algernon made a confession, which he believed would stain his honor. When Algernon walked up the scaffold, he did so without any hint of fear. He did not make a speech and instead handed a short note to the sheriff for publication, and after a quick prayer, he extended his neck and told the executioner he was ready. In his note, he lamented the injustice of the trial. He articulated his political beliefs that the people’s consent gives magistrates or political representatives their authority and that if this consent was violated, a revolution was not only permitted but was an obligation among free men.
So what can we say about Algernon Sidney? He lived a life marked by struggle and failure. Ultimately his political ambitions came to naught, and he never lived to see the commonwealth that he wished to revive. But this is only half of the story. Through his stoic attitude in the face of death and his willingness to give his life for the principles of a free society, Algernon lived on as a hero of republicanism. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in a much more open atmosphere, Algernon’s masterwork Discourses Concerning Government was finally published in 1698.
Like Locke’s Two Treatises, Algernon’s Discourses were an extensive rebuttal of the infamous Robert Filmer’s De Patriarchia, which argued in favor of unrestrained absolutism. For Algernon, there are only two ways to command many people through force or consent. Filmer grounded political authority in force while Algernon based his upon consent. No one is born into the world with a right to command anyone. There is a kind of brute natural equality of all humans. Algernon observes that in the state of nature before civil society, “The Liberty of one is thwarted by that of another; and whilst they are all equal, none will yield to any, otherwise than by a general consent.” Liberty is two things, it is “an exemption from the domination of another, and it is “written in the heart of every man.” Every person is responsible for their actions and ultimately answers to God, not to any mortal being.
Violence does not have legitimate authority, with Algernon writing “for violence or fraud can create no Right.” God left humanity free to create governments to their own liking. There is no divinely sanctioned institutional arrangement. “Every people is by God and nature left to the liberty of regulating these matters relating to themselves according to their own prudence.” God left humanity free to form their own governments, but this does not mean all governments are equally valid. Monarchy places all power with one fallible person who is easily corruptible. Worse yet, this corruption will spread from the top down and infect the rest of society, transforming individuals into passivity at best, or even worse, sycophants. The hereditary nature of monarchy did not mean the best person was chosen for the job, but some lucky soul who happens to be born at the right time.
Algernon argues that the best government will be a republic with the rule of law, frequent elections, and constitutional checks and balances. The best government is that which limits the discretionary power of magistrates while also stopping any one man or group of men placing themselves above the law, because “Whatever is done by force or fraud to set up the interests and lusts of one man in opposition to the laws of his country, is purely and absolutely monarchical.”
But what happens when magistrates, despite all restraints, use their power for their own good at the expense of the people? Algernon argues that people have a clear and obvious right to resist. Algernon believed that government was like any other aspect of human life, with more knowledge, it would improve over time. This means, at times, laws and institutions would eventually become outdated, so, therefore, according to Algernon, “No law made by man can be perfect, and there must be in every Nation a power of correcting such defects as in time may arise.” Importantly Algernon did not base the legitimacy of a government on historical claims; he wrote that “no man or number of Men was ever obliged to continue in the errors of his predecessors.” Institutions can be changed by consent or revolution. Institutional change and revolutions are a natural and essential part of human improvement. He asks if we can “build Houses, Ships and Forts better than our Ancestors… why have we not the same right in matters of Government, upon which all others do almost absolutely depend?” EXCLUDE???
Legacy in America
Radicals in England admired Algernon but his reputation was that of a national hero in 18th‐century America where revolutionaries saw Algernon not only as an enemy of despotism but an intellect akin to colossal figures like John Locke. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams were all admirers of Algernon.
As I already mentioned, Jefferson was a huge fan of Algernon writing in 1804 that Discourses “is probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded in natural right which has ever been published in any language: and it is much to be desired in such a government as ours that it should be put into the hands of our youth as soon as their minds are sufficiently matured.” John Adams read Algernon’s magnum opus numerous times, revisiting it throughout his life. In his maturity in 1823, three years before his death, Adams wrote that “as often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration.” Benjamin Franklin carried a copy of Discourses with him throughout his travels. He explained that Americans’ unwillingness to submit to British authority could be attributed to writers like Locke and Algernon giving Americans a strong sense of liberty.
But by no means was an admiration of Algernon relegated solely to these three founders, a 1978 study found that only Cato’s Letters and Locke’s Two Treatises could be found more often than Algernon’s Discourses On Government in colonial libraries. Unlike Locke, who was renowned for his purely theoretical arguments, Algernon was famous not only for his intellect but his strong sense of justice, which led to him being dubbed the British Cato because, like the famous Roman Cato the Younger, Algernon had dedicated their lives to defending the traditional liberties of their people and both bravely died for their opposition to tyranny.
Algernon’s fame quickly waned after the revolution, possibly because Discourses’ message was so wholly absorbed into the American ethos that there was no need to keep rereading Algernon as subsequent generations came to maturity. Discourses is also a hefty book that can be repetitive and slightly tedious. Despite its slightly lackluster style for modern readers, it is still an extremely original contribution to political philosophy. Discourses is also a book that stresses the importance of democracy and revolution in progressing forward the science of government through trial and error. The message it puts forward is radical, that no one must suffer the mistakes on their ancestors and that revolution is not only right but beneficial for its corrective nature.
While Algernon failed in returning England to a republican form of government, his writings were assimilated into the Whig canon. They were evoked by radicals who argued for democracy and the right to revolution. Despite his English origins, Algernon was revered as a national hero in America, time and time again. His name crops up again in the writings of American revolutionaries who saw in Algernon not only theoretical arguments of a philosopher but also a role model who epitomized an indomitable spirit dedicated to freedom. You often hear the victors write history, but this old adage isn’t always so clear cut. Algernon most certainly was not the victor, but his posterity helped ensure victory for subsequent revolutions. Algernon Sidney shows how even our failures can echo throughout time and breathe new life into causes we may never see but will most certainly shape the face of the earth.