Revisit the Textbook of the American Revolution

By: Gary Galles

December 7 has “lived in infamy” since Pearl Harbor. But that date was already infamous before America was a country. In 1683, Algernon Sydney, who opposed Charles II for overstepping his powers, was executed for treason on that date, after a trial blatantly violating his rights (so blatantly that Parliament overturned his conviction in 1689). The key evidence was an unpublished manuscript arguing that the king was not above the law, which became Discourses Concerning Government 15 years later. In early America, Jefferson described the book as “a rich treasure of republican principles,” that was “probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded in natural right which has ever been published in any language.”

Sydney died for asserting a right of revolution to defend citizens against a king exceeding his legal authority. That radical claim later helped inspire the American Revolution. In fact, Caroline Robbins called Discourses the “textbook of the American Revolution.” According to Thomas West, “His death as a martyr to liberty inspired [colonists] with a model in their own risky enterprise against the force of English arms.” On December 7, Sydney’s revolutionary words for liberty against government abuse merits remembering as much as a foreign attack on American soil.

  • Our rights and liberties are innate, inherent…from God and nature, not from Kings…He who enjoys [liberty] cannot be deprived of it, unless by his own consent, or by force…in relation to my house, land, or estate; I may do what I please with them, if I bring no damage upon others.
  • [The] only ends for which governments are constituted and obedience rendered to them, are the obtaining of justice and protection.
  • Our natural liberty…is of so great importance that from thence only can we know whether we are freemen or slaves.
  • That exemption from the dominion of another, which we call liberty…is the gift of God and nature.
  • The liberty of one man cannot be limited or diminished by one or any number of men, and none can give away the right of another…ambition… cannot give a right to any over the liberties of a whole nation. Those who are so set up…are rather to be accounted robbers and pirates than magistrates.
  • General consent … is the ground of all just governments.
  • Government[s]…degenerate into a most unjust and despicable tyranny, so soon as the supreme lord begins to prefer his own interest…before the good of his subjects…such an extreme deviation from the end of their institution annuls it; and the wound thereby given to the natural and original rights of those nations cannot be cured, unless they resume the liberties of which they have been deprived.
  • The principle of liberty in which God created us…includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy.
  • Prerogative is instituted only for the preservation of liberty…
  • governments…in which every man’s liberty is least restrained…would be the most just, rational and natural.
  • Liberty…is not a licentiousness of doing what is pleasing to everyone against the command of God; but an exemption from all human laws, to which they have not given their assent.
  • The supreme law…[is] the preservation of their liberties, goods, lands and lives…all laws must be subservient and subordinate to it…if there be no other law…than the will of [government], there is no such thing as liberty. Property is…an appendage to liberty; and ‘tis…impossible for a man to have a right to lands or goods, if he has no liberty…overthrown by those who…ought with the utmost industry and vigor to have defended it.
  • Is it possible that any one man can make himself lord of a people…to whom God had given the liberty of governing themselves, by any other means than violence or fraud…the most outrageous injury that can be done.
  • We are free men…no man has a power over us, which is not given…the ends for which they are given…can be no other than to defend us from all manner of arbitrary power.
  • Magistrates were set up for the good of nations, not nations for the honor and glory of magistrates.
  • That which is not just, is not Law; and that which is not Law, ought not to be obeyed.
  • Shall it be lawful for [rulers] to usurp a power over the liberty of others, and shall it not be lawful for an injured people to resume their own?…The people…cannot but have a right to preserve their liberty…Those who defend, or endeavor to recover their violated liberties…act vigorously in a cause that God does evidently patronize.

Algernon Sydney defended “the natural, universal liberty of mankind.” He helped inspire the American Revolution, because “a people from all ages in love with liberty and desirous to maintain their own privileges could never be brought to resign them.” Friedrich Hayek quoted him that “Our inquiry is not after that which is perfect, well knowing that no such thing is found among men; but we seek that human Constitution which is attended with the least, or the most pardonable inconveniences,” on the title page of The Constitution of Liberty. However, it is unclear to what extent Americans retain such beliefs, judging by the extent our rights have been resigned to government overstepping. We should let Sydney remind us that “we shall find that every good and generous prince has sought to establish our liberties,” but “the most base and wicked to infringe them,” and revisit his understanding, if we are to reclaim our heritage of liberty.

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