Algernon Sidney and the American Revolution

Critical Thinking

November 1, 2022
by David Otersen Also by this Author

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Algernon Sidney was a seventeenth-century British political theorist, Member of Parliament, and Whig politician who was executed for treason on December 7, 1683, during the reign of Charles II. At his trial, the most incriminating evidence presented by the prosecution was a series of anti-monarchical passages from a seized manuscript of Sidney’s reformist treatise, Discourses Concerning Government. The Discourses were ultimately published ten years after the Glorious Revolution, in 1698, and would subsequently have a profound intellectual and ideological influence on the American Revolution.

Indeed, many leading revolutionary patriots, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Stephen Hopkins, had carefully and sedulously studied Sidney’s Discourses, integrated his principles into their own writings,and admired him greatly. Franklin, in fact, was so enamored of Sidney that he glowingly described him as “the British Brutus, the warm, the steady friend to liberty, who from a defusive love of mankind left them that in-valuable legacy his immortal ‘Discourses on Government.’”[1] And Jefferson was equally effusive in his praise for Sidney’s tome, which he characterized thusly: “it is probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded in natural right which has ever been published in any language.”[2]

Moreover, the Declaration of Independence, the most prominent and definitive text of the Revolution, owes a deep theoretical debt to Sidney’s Discourses. To that end, in 1825, as an octogenarian reflecting on the Declaration, Jefferson candidly acknowledged that, as its principal author, he had introduced no innovative doctrines or groundbreaking ideas. Jefferson, in fact, explicitly rejected the notion that he ever had any such intent. The purpose of the Declaration was, he said:

notto find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of . . . but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject; [in] terms so plain and firm, as to command their assent . . . neither aimingat originality of principle or sentiment . . . all it’sauthority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed, in conversns in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney Etc.[3]

Therefore, when Jefferson asserted the Declaration’s fundamental principles of natural equality, God-given, inalienable rights, government by consent, and the right of revolution, he relied heavily upon the noetic antecedents advanced by the political philosophers who preceded him, including those of Algernon Sidney. And the principles, which Jefferson articulated in the Declaration, and which had been earnestly argued in the vast body of revolutionary literature by the Continental leadership, thoroughly permeate the pages of Sidney’s Discourses. Indeed, Bryn Mawr historian Caroline Robbins has even referred to the Discourses as a “Textbook of Revolution” for American Independence.[4]

Sidney and Natural Equality

The Declaration’s self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” is widely recognized as an indispensable value of the document and the revolution at large, although the sentiment it expresses does not, again, originate with Jefferson and the Declaration. The conviction that equality is the natural and essential condition of humanity had been contemplated and advocated well before Jefferson authored the Declaration, and it is thoroughly endogenic to Sidney’s political philosophy in the Discourses.Arguing the point, Sidney himself draws on the erudition of his predecessors, while also presenting his own enlightened notions, both of which helped guide Jefferson in writing the Declaration. From the Discourses:

By nature all men are equal.[5]
Hayward, Blackwood, Barclay, and others . . . do with one consent admit as an unquestionable truth . . . the natural liberty and equality of mankind[6]
The equality in which men are born is so perfect, that no man will suffer his natural liberty to be abridged, except others do the like[7]

Sidney referred to, in order, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine’s treatment of natural equality from Bellarmine’s treatise De Laicis; a commentary from Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (as Filmer references three prominent seventeenth-century historians and political theorists: John Hayward, Adam Blackwood, and Robert Barclay); and finally, his own interpretation and affirmation of human equality. Accordingly, even a casual consideration of Bellarmine’s attributed quote, “by nature all men are equal,” joined with Filmer’s commentary describing the natural equality of mankind as an “unquestionable truth,” suggests a synonymous and theoretical connection between Sidney’s Discourses and Jefferson’s Declaration. And Sidney’s explication of natural equality was even more emphatic.

In the Discourses, Sidney placed no fewer than eight separate references or discussions asserting, describing, and accentuating the idea that natural equality is the original and rightful condition of humanity. Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress unmistakably culled from that concept to help advance and justify the cause of American Independence.

Sidney and God-given Unalienable Rights

In addition to his pronouncement on natural equality, Jefferson’s self-evident truths include the axiom that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” principal among them being life and liberty. Here, too, the influence of Sidney is clear and compelling. Doubtless, in the Discourses, Sidney addressed the matter extensively and in terms perfectly consistent and almost interchangeable with those written by Jefferson in the Declaration. Sidney wrote:

I affirm, that the liberty we contend for is granted by God, to every man in his own person[8]
God is our Lord by right of creation, and our only Lord, because he only hath created us[9]
Liberty subsists, as arising from the nature of man . . . God only, who confers this right upon us, can deprives us of it[10]

There are, of course, certain contextual distinctions when the quotes are taken in full, and there are many additional relevant excerpts found throughout the work. In fact, the final reference is from a section of the Discourses specifically entitled “The liberty of a people is the gift of God and nature.”[11] Once more, there exist demonstrable parallels between the Discourses and the concept and philosophy of the Declaration’s articulation of life and liberty as God-given, unalienable rights.

As to “the pursuit of happiness,” Sidney deliberated upon happiness in the Discourses, although he considered it in a slightly different sense than Jefferson. More specifically, Sidney considered happiness inclusive of and inseparable from liberty, whereas Jefferson identified and enumerated the “pursuit of happiness” as a separate end in itself. From the Discourses:

A people, in relation to domestic affairs, can desire nothing but liberty, and neither hate or fear any but such as do, or would, as they suspect, deprive them of that happiness.[12]

Whether, in the final analysis, Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” as an end in itself represents a meaningful deviation from Sidney’s definition is improbable, inasmuch as in the absence of liberty, any Jeffersonian “pursuit of happiness” would be rendered chimerical. Consequently, this implies that Jefferson and Sidney held identical ideas of happiness, as both must be exclusively based on civil liberty.

Sidney and Government by Consent

Whereas Sidney presented his convictions in the context of a lengthy philosophical treatise, his treatment of theories, abstractions, and postulates was necessarily more comprehensive and detailed than Jefferson’s truncated summary in the Declaration. Accordingly, Sidney’s discussion of the evolution and institution of civil government was more nuanced and complete, and it included everything Jefferson also communicated. In particular, the argument expounding upon the establishment and purpose of government is immediately recognizable, as Sidney explained both the progression and meaning of consent as well as the purpose of government in relation to its critical function of protecting life and liberty. Sidney’s language of “lives, lands, liberties, and goods” is especially noteworthy. Sidney wrote:

By this means every number of men, agreeing together, and framing a society, become a complete body, having all power in themselves over themselves, subject to no other human law than their own.[13]
I take liberty to say, that whereas there is no form appointed by God or nature, those governments only can be called just, which are established by the consent of nations[14]
But if the safety of nations be the end for which governments are instituted, such as take upon them to govern . . . are by the laws of nature bound to procure it; and in order to do this, to preserve the lives, lands, liberties and goods, of every one of their subjects[15]
the power which the prince has, be given for the good of the people, and for the defence of every private man’s life, liberty, lands, and goods.[16]

Jefferson, of course, argued that government is instituted to secure the God-given, unalienable rights of life and liberty, and that the powers possessed by government are justly exercised only when they emanate and proceed with and by the consent of the people. Sidney advanced identical ideas, although on occasion he preferred the term “nations” (as distinct from the term “nation-state”) in place of “the people” or “the governed.”

Sidney and The Right of Revolution

The right to revolution forms the core of the Declaration, the apotheosis of which is captured by the notion that should government become pernicious or ruinous to its original and designed purposes,“it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” This same right occupies a prominent position in the Discourses. Indeed, Sidney considered the right exhaustively, returning to it repeatedly, and was adamant and uncompromising in his advocacy and support of it. From the Discourses:

And we justly conclude, that God having never given the whole world to be governed by one man; nor prescribed any rule for the division of it; nor declared where the right of dividing or subdividing that which every man has should terminate; we may safely affirm, that the whole is forever left to the will and direction of man: we may enter into, form, and continue in, greater or lesser societies, as best please ourselves.[17]
If the laws of God and men are therefore of no effect, when the magistracy is left at liberty to break them; and if the lusts of those who are too strong for the tribunals of justice, cannot be otherwise restrained than by sedition, tumults, and war, those seditions, tumults, and wars, are justified by the laws of God and man.[18]
Laws and constitutions ought to be weighed, and while all due reverence is paid to such as are good, every nation may not only retain in itself a power of changing or abolishing all such as are not so, but ought to exercise that power according to the best of their understanding, and in the place of what was either at first mistaken or afterwards corrupted, to constitute that which is most conducing to the establishment of justice and liberty.[19]
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 endeavor to remove the evil, whatever danger or difficulties they may meet with in the performance.[20]
They who create magistracies, and give to them such name, form, and power as they think fit, do only know, whether the end for which they were created, be performed or not.[21]

Sidney’s expositions on the right to revolution were strongly reflected in everything Jefferson wrote in the Declaration on the topic, and were immediately pertinent to the specific historic circumstances of the British American colonies. They also gave Jefferson and the colonists everything they needed in order to morally and intellectually shield themselves against recriminations of treason and rebellion, if not from the British Parliament and Monarchy, then at least from the existing international order.

Sidney’s Phraseology and Style

There are several noticeable instances in which Jefferson and the Congress appear to have been influenced not only by the substance of Sidney’s Discourses, but by its style as well.In some cases, it is quite subtle, as when, for example, Sidney wrote, “amend or abolish” and “change or abolish,” and Jefferson wrote, “alter or abolish.” Other cases are perhaps more pronounced, as when, for example, in the opening paragraph of the Declaration, Jefferson used the familiar phrase “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” By comparison, throughout Sidney’s Discourses, the closely corresponding phrase “the laws of God and nature” appears repeatedly. In fact, the expression appears on the very first page of the Discourses, the very last page, and in a dozen or more instances in between.[22]

There is still another stylistic similarity. In the Discourses, the unadorned phrase “the rectitude of their intentions” was used by Sidney, whereas in the Declaration’s version it appears as “the rectitude of our intentions.” In this instance, it should be noted that this phrase was not used by Jefferson in his original draft, and was included, as with many other edits, at the demand of Congress.[23] And while other members of Congress were certainly familiar with Sidney, it is, of course, entirely possible that that language was simply in common use at the time. Still, the expressions are virtually identical, suggesting the reasonable possibility of Sidney’s direct influence.

Beyond the Declaration

Thomas Jefferson once referred to John Adams as the “Colossus of Independence,” and indeed, few of the Founding Fathers were more ardent in their pursuit of American Independence than Adams. Among his more industrious efforts in advancing the cause were the Novanglus essays, written and published in the early months of 1775. In the course of writing thirteen sophisticated political articles advocating the rights of the colonies, Adams referenced Sidney on numerous occasions, and the sixth Novanglus paper quotes lengthy and protracted passages from the Discourses. In consequence, and demonstrating his revolutionary zeal, Adams quoted Sidney as follows:

He that draws his sword against the prince, say the French, ought to throw away the scabbard; for tho’ the design be never so just, yet the authors are sure to be ruined if it miscarry. Peace is seldom made, and never kept, unless the subject retain such a power in his hands, as may oblige the prince to stand to what is agreed; and in time some trick is found to deprive them of that benefit.[24]

Adams first became acquainted with Sidney at the youthful age of twenty-four, and never lost his appreciation and admiration for him. In September of 1823, at the age of eighty-eight, Adams wrote to Jefferson:

I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on Government there is a great difference in reading a Book at four and twenty, and at Eighty Eight, as often as I have read it; and fumbled it over; it now excites fresh admiration, that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world . . . as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of Liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of Moral phylosophical political Illumination in the world ought to be now published in America.[25]

Stephen Hopkins was an esteemed statesman and Founding Father who served as a delegate from Rhode Island in both the First and Second Continental Congresses. He also had a long and distinguished career as both a jurist and a politician, having served as Rhode Island’s chief justice and governor. In November of 1764, while serving as governor, he published a twenty-four-page paper opposing the Sugar Act entitled The Rights of Colonies Examined. In The Rights of the Colonies, Hopkins endeavored to demonstrate the unconstitutionality and severe injustice of Parliament’s taxing authority over the colonies by asserting that the colonies, if coerced into obedience, particularly because they were unrepresented in Parliament and therefore could not consent, would be reduced to the condition of slavery. And in making the comparison, he depended on Sidney’s definition and theory of liberty and slavery. Hopkins wrote:

On the contrary, those who are governed at the will of another, or of others, and whose property may be taken from them by taxes, or otherwise, without their own consent, and against their will, are in the miserable condition of slaves: ‘For liberty solely consists in an independancy upon the will of another; and by the name of slave, we understand a man who can neither dispose of his person or goods, but enjoys all at the will of his master;’ says Sidney on government. These things premised; whether the British American colonies on the continent, are justly intituled to like privileges and freedom as their fellow-subjects in Great-Britain are, shall be the chief point examined.[26]

Hopkins, then, a brilliant legal mind in his own right, premised his precepts and protests of the Sugar Act squarely on Sidney’s Discourses. The Rights of the Colonies was an efficacious and distinctively successful pamphlet, and it earned widespread acclaim throughout the colonies, including effusive praise from Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor, and later Governor, of Massachusetts. In point of fact, The Rights of the Colonies was so highly regarded that it remained a source of anti-authoritarianism for years and was relied upon extensively by the anti-federalists as a means to impose interpretive control of the taxing authority of the United States Congress under the Constitution.[27]

And to the distinguished list of American Patriots such as Hopkins, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson, could be added James Otis, Arthur Lee, Johnathan Mayhew, and Josiah Quincy Jr., whose admiration of Sidney was manifest, with Quincy even designating Sidney’s works to be bequeathed to his son in his will.[28]

Conclusion

When discussions of the ideological influences of the Revolution proceed past American sources and figures, they are most often directed towards John Locke and his Two Treatises of Government. Algernon Sidney is sometimes referenced, no doubt; but it is generally far less common to have the particulars and fullness of his contributions examined. This in itself is a curiosity, as while both Locke and Sidney advanced similar reformist ideals and Whiggish ambitions, Sidney’s work was more thorough and almost certainly preceded Locke’s (although not by date of publication). In the final analysis, however, Algernon Sidney is doubtless well worthy of recognition as one of the true moral, intellectual, and philosophical luminaries of the American Revolution.

 


[1]Caroline Robbins, “Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government: Textbook of Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser., 4:4 (1947), 267-296, 269.

[2]Edward Dumbauld, “Algernon Sidney on Public Right,”University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Journal 10 (1987-88), 318.

[3]Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson, Writings; Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters (New York, NY: Library of America 1984), 1501.

[4]Robbins, “Algernon Sidney’s Discourses,” 267-296, 267.

[5]Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (London, Forgotten Books, 2018), 16. Sidney made a slight error here. The quote is indeed from Bellarmine’s De Laicis, although Bellarmine quoted Pope Gregory I.

[6]Ibid., 7.

[7]Ibid., 437.

[8]Ibid., 78.

[9]Ibid., 101.

[10]Ibid., 406.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid., 228.

[13]Ibid., 76.

[14]Ibid., 155.

[15]Ibid., 320.

[16]Ibid., 351.

[17]Ibid., 44.

[18]Ibid., 174.

[19]Ibid., 366.

[20]Ibid., 436.

[21]Ibid., 438.

[22]Ibid., 3, 462, 46, 73, 75, 81, 87, 127, 128,129, etc.

[23]Peterson, Thomas Jefferson, 23.

[24]John Adams, “To the Inhabitants of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-02-02-0072-0007. The quote from Sidney appears on page 173 of the Discourses.

[25]John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, September 18, 1823, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-7842.

[26]Stephen Hopkins, The Rights of the Colonies Examined, quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N07846.0001.001/1:2?rgn=div1;view=fulltext(4). The quote from Sidney appears on page 12 of the Discourses.

[27]Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 344.

[28]Robbins, “Algernon Sidney’s Discourses,” 267-296, 270.

 

One thought on “Algernon Sidney and the American Revolution

  • I find that the execution of Algernon Sidney near the end of the reign of Charles II is difficult to understand. Charles II is usually regarded as England’s best king ever. He was responsible for writing Rhode Island’s amazingly liberal charter in 1663, and an almost-as-liberal charter for Connecticut the same year, establishing rights for those colonies far in advance of any other European colonies anywhere. In addition, Charles established the right of Habeas Corpus for all English people in 1679, and Charles stood behind the thinking behind Parliament’s 1689 English Bill of Rights written only three years after Charles’ death; the English Bill of Rights served as the model for the US Bill of Rights of 1791, in many cases (such as the Second Amendment, for example) using the exact same words. Charles would normally have stood up for Sidney, so there had to be something else going on in the background.

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