Algernon Sidney, An Unsung Founder
Every year, as we approach the anniversary of his beheading, I pay tribute to Algernon Sidney. Since so few people have heard of Col. Sidney, much less know of his influence on the founding fathers, I believe it is important to provide some information about him.
Algernon Sidney was an associate of John Locke and one of the luminaries of the Whig Movement (not to be confused with the Whig Party in the U.S.). While Locke fled to Holland upon being implicated in the Rye House Plot to assassinate, King Charles II, Col. Sidney stayed and was arrested. At trial, the primary evidence against Col. Sidney was the manuscript for Discourses Concerning Government. There was no direct evidence he was involved in the plot, save one witness who was given a pardon for unrelated crimes, in return for testifying against Col. Sidney. Nevertheless, Col. Sidney was convicted and sentenced to death in a trial that violated the established law and rules of evidence. After more than 5 months in the dungeon, Sidney was beheaded.
The Whig Movement’s foundational belief was that rights (or liberty) flow from God to man, and that among these rights, is the right to determine what powers the government has. (It this sounds familiar, it is probably because you have read the Declaration of Independence. It is also the basis for the U.S. Constitution.) This went against the traditional belief that power flowed from God to a king or queen, and that the king or queen then determined what rights the people had.
Col. Sidney was a favorite among the founding fathers and was very influential during the revolutionary and constitutional periods. Later, he regained favor among American abolitionists. Although Col. Sidney has now fallen out of favor, colonists referred to Sidney as “the first martyr to liberty” or “the true martyr to liberty.” Later, he was called “the forgotten founding father.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that John Locke and Algernon Sidney were the writers who most influenced the founding fathers. He gave specific credit for the ideas of the Declaration of Independence to Col. Sidney.
Algernon, The Author and Patriot
Of Sidney’s book, Discourses Concerning Government, Jefferson wrote, it is “a rich treasure of republican principles, …. 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: 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 for that branch of study.”1
In his Commonplace Book, Jefferson wrote the following quote from Sidney, “If vice and corruption prevail, liberty cannot subsist; but if virtue have the advantage, arbitrary power cannot be established.” (Think about the implications of that on our society as it now exists.) Col. Sidney is a favorite of mine both due his defense of personal liberty, including the right of citizens to be armed, and the manner in which he died. Due to his time in the dungeon, he was too weak to read either his Address from the Scaffold or his Apology to his friends, so he wrote them out and handed them to the sheriff and a friend, respectively. Col. Sidney was clear in his Christianity, stating that he knew his Savior lives and that he was confident of his eternal destination. He offered prayer for his country that it would be a Christian nation. He opined that while some had fallen away from the faith for various reasons, he thought some had “kept their garments unspotted.” Finally, Col. Sidney laid his head on the chopping block and told the executioner, “Do your office.”
Letter From Thomas Jefferson to Mason Locke Weems, 13 December 1804
“I thank you for the pamphlet you were so kind as to send me which I have read with great satisfaction. you ask my opinion on the subject of publishing the works of Algernon Sidney. the world has so long and so generally sounded the praises of his Discourses on government, that it seems superfluous, and even presumptuous, for an individual to add his feeble breath to the gale. they are in truth a rich treasure of republican principles, supported by copious & cogent arguments, and adorned with the finest flowers of science. 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: 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 for that branch of study. in publishing it, I think his life, trial & letters should be thrown into one volume & the Discourses into another. the latter is the most important, & many purses can reach one volume which could not conveniently extend to the other. should you proceed to the publication, be so good as to consider me as a subscriber: and accept my salutations & assurances of great esteem & respect.