Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Algernon Sidney Day

Thomas Jefferson once claimed that the ideas of the American Revolution followed from "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Sidney. etc.". By Sidney, he meant Algernon Sidney, a 17th century English Whig who opposed the divine right of Kings in any form. Sidney was brought to trial for treason (false charges, most likely) and sentenced to death by that royalist par-tay animal Charles II. Historians and writers often depict Charles II as the noble, sophisticated monarch of the Restoration, opposed to the crass ruffians and rogues of Cromwell and the Interregnum; Hollywood did the same with the Restoration flick a few years ago. Unfortunately, that is not an accurate reading of the Stuart regime.

Reading the history of the Stuarts closely, one can't help note the tyrannical and capricious aspects of Charles II. David Hume, not one for liberal sentimentality, supported the Stuart succession, yet criticized the despotic elements of the reign of Charles II. Charles II may have had a swinging court (then many European kings did), but he had no problem shutting down Parliament when it appeared they might oppose him. He and his royalist henchmen killed anyone suspected of helping the dead usurper Cromwell (Sidney eventually criticized Cromwell). Charles II persecuted scientists and experimentalists as well; the young Newton and Locke (a medical doctor as well as philosopher) vehemently opposed Charles II.

This is an excerpt from a speech--a classic of secularism, and quite free of outright religious moralizing-- which legend holds Sidney delivered a few minutes before his execution :
Thus his testimony being laid aside, the whole matter is reduced to the papers said to be found in my closet by the King's officers, without any other proof of their being written by me than what was taken from suspicion of similitude upon a hand that is easily counterfeited, and which had been lately declared in the Lady Carr's case to be no lawful evidence in criminal causes. But if I had been seen to write them, the matter would not be much altered. They plainly appear to relate to a larger treatise written long since in answer to Filmer's book, which by all intelligent men is thought to be grounded upon wicked principles equally pernicious to magistrates and people. If he might publish to the world his opinion, viz. that all men are born under a necessity derived from the Laws of God and Nature to submit to an absolute kingly government which could be restrained by no law or oath. And that he who hath the power, whether he come to it by creation, election, inheritance, usurpation or any other way hath the right. And that none must oppose his will, but the persons and estates of his subjects must be indispensably subject unto it. If he might publish such a book, I know not why I might not have published my opinion to the contrary without the breach of any law; and as freely as he have publicly declared my thoughts and the reasons upon which they were grounded.

And I am persuaded to believe that God had left nations to the liberty of setting up such governments as best pleased themselves, and that magistrates were set up for the good of nations, not nations for the honor and glory of magistrates. That the right and power of magistrates in every country was that which the laws of that country made it to be. That these laws are to be observed and the oaths taken by rulers to be kept. And that having the force of contracts between magistrates and people, they cannot be violated without danger of dissolving the whole fabric. That usurpations can give no right. That the most dangerous of all enemies unto kings are they who raising their power to an exorbitant height allow unto usurpers all rights belonging to them. For usurpations being seldom compassed without the slaughter of reigning persons and their families, the worst of villanies should thereby be rewarded with the most glorious privileges. That if such doctrines were received they would stir up men to the destruction of princes with more violence than all the passions that have hitherto raged in the hearts of the most unruly. That no magistrate could be safe, if such rewards were proposed unto any that could destroy them. That few men would be so gentle as to spare even the best, if by their destruction vile usurpers could become God's anointed, and by the most execrable wickedness invest themselves with that divine character.

"magistrates were set up for the good of nations, not nations for the honor and glory of magistrates". Das stimmt.


One Brow said...

Now those are some inspiring words.

J said...

Yes, I think so as well. Heroic even, and authentic--it happened: not merely some thespian doing Mark Antony.

(I'll save my syphillis and the stuarts for a later time).

Custom Search

Blog Archive