Algernon Sidney was tried and executed in 1683 for plotting against the English monarchy, but exonerated in 1688 after the Glorious Revolution of that year. Before his arrest, he wrote these Discourses, in response to a book titled Patriarcha, by Sir Robert Filmer, which argued for the divine right of kings. Sidney was widely read in the English colonies of America, and Thomas Jefferson regarded his writings and those of John Locke as the leading sources for the philosophic foundations of liberty and human rights. However, while Locke's Second Treatise on Government is still widely republished and read today, Sidney's Discourses has become obscure. This is probably due in part to the fact that it was written in haste, and poorly organized, and that, having been written in response to another work, it is sometimes difficult to understand without having read that other work first, and Filmer's Patriarcha has also fallen into obscurity, perhaps because its thesis has been rejected by subsequent generations.
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1823, John Adams wrote:
I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on government .... As often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration [i.e. wonder] that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce as well for the intrinsic merit of the work, 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, philosophical, and political illumination in the world ought to be now published in America.
During a visit to the University of Copenhagen, Sidney wrote in the visitor's book
Manus haec inimica tyrannis
Einse petit placidam cum liberate quietem.
(This hand, enemy to tyrants,
By the sword seeks calm peacefulness with liberty.)
This was printed beneath the frontispiece of early editions of the Discourses, and that tradition is continued here. To this day, it remains the official motto of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
In the 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.
The many illegalities in the trial of Sidney remind us today, in this time of similarly illegal trials, that the struggle for liberty continues. Sidney is one of the heroes in that struggle. In these his words he fights on.
Contents | Next Section | Constitution Society Home Page