A Response to Filmer

Algernon Sidney – Discourses Concerning Government Excerpts (1680-1683)

Like many writers of the time, Sidney participated in the intense debates surrounding the proper extent of monarchial power. This work was perhaps his most well known, and, like John Locke, was meant to combat Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha.





Thomas Jefferson was asked shortly before his death where he learned the principles that he laid out in the Declaration of Independence. He replied “All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. …”The first two of these were of course ancient Greek or Roman philosophers. Locke and Sidney both lived in the late seventeenth century and wrote against the absolute power of monarchs. Both were responding to the ideas of Sir Robert Filmer but also to the practices of Stuart kings, and their support for absolute monarch and slavery. 

Below are selections from two documents about Sidney: one recounts Sidney’s trial, where evidence from his Discourses was used as evidence to convict him of treason. The other is an excerpt from his Discourses themselves (the passages used to convinct him are missing and were never restored to his manuscript). “An exact account of the tryal of Algernoon Sidney” was a pamphlet published shortly after Sidney’s trial and execution.  Born the son of Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, and Dorothy Percy, the daughter of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, Sidney was raised under the influence of two powerful families. During the Civil War he served in the Parliamentary forces as colonel in the Earl of Manchester’s regiment of horse, though he later refused a position in the New Model Army on account of his health. Sidney served as a MP for Cardiff, where he opposed the execution of the king saying that: “Cromwell using these formall words (I tell you, wee will cut off his head with the crowne upon it) I … immediately went out of the room, and never returned,” though he later called regicide the “justest and bravest act … that ever was done in England, or anywhere.” Sidney greatly disliked Cromwell; in 1683, the last year of his life, he declared: “you need not wonder I call him a tyrant, I did so every day in his life, and acted against him too.”

By the time he was executed in 1683 at the age of sixty, Sidney had weathered the English Civil War, the execution of the King, and the Restoration of his son, Charles II, to the throne. After the Restoration and distressed at the growth of what he viewed to be an absolute monarchy, Sydney began to write Discourses Concerning Government. Discourses was a response to Robert Filmer’s defense of divine right monarchy, Patriarcha. In Discourses, Sidney emphasized the need for subjects to rise up against oppression, advocated for principles of liberty, virtue, and reason, and championed the viewpoint that subjects had a right to form their own government. In addition to his writings, Sidney, was accused of engaging in treasonous talks with Lord Howard, the younger John Hampden, the earl of Essex, the Duke of Monmouth, and Lord Russell, and was implicated in a plot to overthrow the Stuart Monarchy by encouraging an uprising in both England and Scotland. The plot was known later under the broad term “the Rye House Plot,” however historians disagree as to what extent the plot was real. Nevertheless, on June 25, 1683, Sidney was arrested. It was only upon Sidney’s arrest, when his house was raided, that the manuscript of Discourses was discovered and confiscated. Lacking the second witness that was necessary under English law to convict, the trial was postponed for several months. In October of 1683, the presiding judge, the staunch royalist Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys famously ruled that Discourses– Sidney’s own words– could be used as the second witness, saying ‘Scribere est agere’: “to write is to act.” Despite the fact that Sidney had not published the work during his lifetime, it provided the key witness that led to his downfall. After his death, Sidney, whose ideas were known by the Whig community, was regarded as a hero and a martyr.  Below is the pamphlet that was circulated after Sidney’s death which gives an account of the trial and concludes by calling Sidney “a perfect monarch hater.” The use of Sidney’s own words against him illustrates the near absolute nature of royal power in this time period. 

Further Reading
  • ODNB’s Biography of Sidney:


  • Scott, Jonathan. Algernon Sidney and the English Republic, 1623-1677. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Scott, Jonathan. Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis, 1677-1683. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Pocock, J. G. A. “England’s Cato: The Virtues and Fortunes of Algernon Sidney.” The Historical Journal 37, no. 4 (1994): 915-35.
  • Houston, Alan Craig. Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991
  • Conniff, James. “Reason and History in Early Whig Thought: The Case of Algernon Sidney.” Journal of the History of Ideas 43, no. 3 (1982): 397. doi:10.2307/2709430.
  • Nelson, Scott A. The Discourses of Algernon Sidney. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.
  • Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1825, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1500-1501.
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Discourses Concerning Government Excerpts

Algernon Sidney

[probably written c. 1680-1683]




HAVING lately seen a Book intitul’d Patriarcha, written by Sir Robert Filmer, concerning the Universal and undistinguish’d Right of all Kings, I thought a time of leisure might be well employ’d in examining his Doctrin, and the Questions arising from it; which seem so far to concern all Mankind, that, besides the Influence upon our future Life, they may be said to comprehend all that in this World deserves to be car’d for. If he say true, there is but one Government in the World that can have any thing of Justice in it: and those who have hitherto bin esteem’d the best and wisest of Men, for having constituted Commonwealths or Kingdoms; and taken much pains so to proportion the Powers of several Magistracys, that they might all concur in procuring the Publick Good; or so to divide the Powers between the Magistrats and People, that a well-regulated Harmony might be preserv’d in the whole, were the most unjust and foolish of all Men. They were not builders, but overthrowers of Governments: their business was to set up Aristocratical, Democratical or mix’d Governments, in opposition to that Monarchy which by the immutable Laws of God and Nature is impos’d upon Mankind; or presumptuously to put Shackles upon the Monarch, who by the same Laws is to be absolute and uncontrol’d: They were rebellious and disobedient Sons, who rose up against their Father; and not only refus’d to hearken to his Voice, but made him bend to their Will. In their Opinion, such only deserv’d to be call’d Good Men, who endeavour’d to be good to Mankind; or to that Country to which they were more particularly related: and in as much as that Good consists in a Felicity of Estate, and Perfection of Person, they highly valued such as had endeavour’d to make Men better, wiser and happier. This they understood to be the end for which Men enter’d into Societys: And tho Cicero says, that Commonwealths were instituted for the obtaining of Justice, he contradicts them not, but comprehends all in that word; because ’tis just that whosoever receives a Power, should employ it wholly for the accomplishment of the Ends for which it was given. This Work could be perform’d only by such as excell’d in Virtue; but lest they should deflect from it, no Government was thought to be well constituted, *unless the Laws prevail’d above the Commands of Men; and they were accounted as the worst of Beasts, who did not prefer such a Condition before a Subjection to the fluctuating and irregular Will of a Man.


If we believe Sir Robert, all this is mistaken. Nothing of this kind was ever left to the Choice of Men. They are not to inquire what conduces to their own good: God and Nature have put us into a way from which we are not to swerve: We are not to live to him, nor to our selves, but to the Master that he hath set over us. One Government is establish’d over all, and no Limits can be set to the Power of the Person that manages it. This is the Prerogative, or, as another Author of the same Stamp calls it, the Royal Charter granted to Kings by God. They all have an equal right to it; Women and Children are Patriarchs; and the next in Blood, without any regard to Age, Sex, or other Qualitys of the Mind or Body, are Fathers of as many Nations as fall under their Power. We are not to examin, whether he or she be young or old, virtuous or vicious, sober minded or stark mad; the Right and Power is the same in all. Whether Virtue be exalted or supprest; whether he that bears the Sword be a Praise to those that do well, and a Terror to those that do evil; or a Praise to those that do evil, and a Terror to such as do well, it concerns us not; for the King must not lose his Right, nor have his Power diminish’d on any account. I have bin sometimes apt to wonder, how things of this nature could enter into the head of any Man: Or, if no Wickedness or Folly be so great, but some may fall into it, I could not well conceive why they should publish it to the World. But these thoughts ceas’d, when I consider’d that a People from all Ages in love with Liberty, and desirous to maintain their own Privileges, could never be brought to resign ’em, unless they were made to believe that in Conscience they ought to do it; which could not be, unless they were also persuaded to believe, that there was a Law set to all Mankind which none might transgress, and which put the Examination of all those Matters out of their power. This is our Author’s Work. By this it will appear whose Throne he seeks to advance, and whose Servant he is, whilst he pretends to serve the King. And that it may be evident he has made use of Means sutable to the Ends propos’d for the Service of his great Master, I hope to shew that he has not us’d one Argument that is not false, nor cited one Author whom he has not perverted and abus’d. Whilst my work is so to lay open these Snares that the most simple may not be taken in them, I shall not examin how Sir Robert came to think himself a Man fit to undertake so great a Work, as to destroy the Principles, which from the beginning seem to have bin common to all Mankind; but only weighing the Positions and Arguments that he alledges, will, if there be either truth or strength in them, confess the Discovery comes from him that gave us least reason to expect it; and that in •p•e of the Antients, there is not in the World a Piece of Wood out of which a Mercury may not be made.


SECT. V. To depend upon the Will of a Man is Slavery.

THis, as he thinks, is farther sweeten’d, by asserting, that he dos not inquire what the Rights of a People are, but from whence; not considering, that whilst he denies they can proceed from the Laws of natural Liberty, or any other Root than the Grace and Bounty of the Prince, he declares they can have none at all. For as Liberty solely consists in an independency upon the Will of another, and by the name of Slave we understand a Man, who can neither dispose of his Person nor Goods, but enjoys all at the will of his Master; there is no such thing in nature as a Slave, if those Men or Nations are not Slaves, who have no other title to what they enjoy, than the grace of the Prince, which he may revoke whensoever he pleases. But there is more than ordinary Extravagance in his Assertion, That the greatest Liberty in the World is for a People to live under a Monarch, when his whole Book is to prove, That this Monarch has his Right from God and Nature, is endow’d with an unlimited Power of doing what he pleases, and can be restrain’d by no Law. If it be Liberty to live under such a Government, I desire to know what is Slavery. It has bin hitherto believ’d in the World, that the Assyrians, Medes, Arabs, Egyptians, Turks, and others like them, liv’d in Slavery, because their Princes were Masters of their Lives and Goods: Whereas the Grecians, Italians, Gauls, Germans, Spaniards, and Carthaginians, as long as they had any Strength, Vertue or Courage amongst ’em, were esteem’d free Nations, because they abhor’d such a Subjection. They were, and would be govern’d only by Laws of their own making: Potentiora erant Legum quam hominum Imperia. Even their Princes had the*Authority or Credit of Persuading, rather than the Power of Commanding. But all this was mistaken: These Men were Slaves, and the Asiaticks were Freemen. By the same rule the Venetians, Switzers, Grisons, and Hollanders, are not free Nations: but Liberty in its perfection is enjoy’d in France, and Turky. The Intention of our Ancestors was, without doubt, to establish this amongst us by Magna Charta, and other preceding or subsequent Laws; but they ought to have added one clause, That the Contents of ’em should be in sorce only so long as it pleas’d the King. King Alfred, upon whose Laws Magna Charta was grounded, when he said the English Nation was as free as the internal thoughts of a Man, did only mean, that it should be so as long as it pleas’d their Master. This it seems was the end of our Law, and we who are born under it, and are descended from such as have so valiantly defended their Rights against the Encroachments of Kings, have follow’d after vain shadows, and without the expence of Sweat, Treasure, or Blood, might have secur’d our beloved Liberty, by casting all into the King’s hands.


We owe the discovery of these Secrets to our Author, who after having gravely declar’d ’em, thinks no offence ought to be taken at the freedom he assumes of examining things relating to the Liberty of Mankind, because he has the Right which is common to all. But he ought to have consider’d, that in asserting that Right to himself, he allows it to all Mankind. And as the temporal good of all Men consists in the preservation of it, he declares himself to be their mortal Enemy, who endeavours to destroy it. If he were alive, this would deserve to be answer’d with Stones rather than Words. He that oppugns the publick Liberty, overthrows his own, and is guilty of the most brutish of all Follys, whilst he arrogates to himself that which he denies to all Men.

 . . . 



SECT. XV. A general presumption that Kings will govern well, is not a sufficient security to the People.


BƲT, says our Author, yet will they rule their Subjects by the Law; and a King governing in a settled Kingdom, leaves to be a King, and degenerates into a Tyrant, so soon as he ceases to rule according unto his Laws: Yet where he sees them rigorous or doubtful, he may mitigate or interpret. This is therefore an effect of their goodness; they are above Laws, but will rule by Law, we have Filmer‘s word for it. But I know not how Nations can be assur’d their Princes will always be so good: Goodness is always accompany’d with Wisdom, and I do not find those admirable qualitys to be generally inherent or entail’d upon supreme Magistrats. They do not seem to be all alike, and we have not hitherto found them all to live in the same Spirit and Principle. I can see no resemblance between Moses and Caligula, Joshua and Claudius, Gideon and Nero, Samson and Vitellius, Samuel and Otho, David and Domitian; nor indeed between the best of these and their own Children. If the Sons of Moses and Joshua had bin like to them in wisdom, valor and integrity, ’tis probable they had bin [been] chosen to succeed them; if they were not, the like is less to be presum’d of others. No man has yet observ’d the Moderation of Gideon to have bin in Abimelech; the Piety of Eli in Hophni and Phineas; the Purity and Integrity of Samuel in Joel and Abiah, nor the Wisdom of Solomon in Rehoboam. And if there was so vast a difference between them and their Children, who doubtless were instructed by those excellent men in the ways of Wisdom and Justice, as well by Precept as Example, were it not madness to be confident, that they who have neither precept nor good example to guide them, but on the contrary are educated in an utter ignorance or abhorrence of all vertue, will always be just and good; or to put the whole power into the hands of every man, woman, or child that shall be born in governing Familys, upon a supposition, that a thing will happen which never did; or that the weakest and worst will perform all that can be hop’d, and was seldom accomplish’d by the wisest and best, exposing whole Nations to be destroy’d without remedy, if they do it not? And if this be madness in all extremity, ’tis to be presum’d that Nations never intended any such thing, unless our Author prove that all Nations have bin mad from the beginning, and must always continue to be so. To cure this, he says, They degenerate into Tyrants; and if he meant as he speaks, it would be enough. For a King cannot degenerate into a Tyrant by departing from that Law which is only the product of his own will. But if he do degenerate, it must be by departing from that which dos not depend upon his will, and is a rule prescrib’d by a power that is above him. This indeed is the Doctrin of Bracton, who having said that the Power of the King is the Power of the Law, because the Law makes him King, adds, *That if he do injustice, he ceases to be King, degenerates into a Tyrant, and becomes the Vicegerent of the Devil. But I hope this must be understood with temperament, and a due consideration of human frailty, so as to mean only those injurys that are extreme; for otherwise he would terribly shake all the Crowns of the World.


SECT. XXXVI. The general revolt of a Nation cannot be call’d a Rebellion.


. . . 


The Rights therefore of Kings are not grounded upon Conquest; the Libertys of Nations do not arise from the Grants of their Princes; the Oath of Allegiance binds no private man to more than the Law directs, and has no influence upon the whole Body of every Nation: Many Princes are known to their Subjects only by the injurys, losses and mischiefs brought upon them; such as are good and just, ought to be rewarded for their personal Vertue, but can confer no right upon those who no way resemble them; and whoever pretends to that merit, must prove it by his Actions: Rebellion being nothing but a renew’d War, can never be against a Government that was not establish’d by War, and of it self is neither good nor evil, more than any other War; but is just or unjust according to the cause or manner of it. Besides, that Rebellion which by Samuel is compar’d to Witchcraft, is not of private men, or a People against *the Prince, but of the Prince against God: The Israelites are often said to have rebel’d against the Law, Word, or Command of God; but tho they frequently oppos’d their Kings, I do not find Rebellion imputed to them on that account, nor any ill character put upon such actions. We are told also of some Kings who had bin subdu’d, and afterwards rebel’d against Chedorlaomer and other Kings; but their cause is not blam’d, and we have some reason to believe it good, because Abraham took part with those who had rebel’d. However it can be of no prejudice to the cause I defend: for tho it were true, that those subdu’d Kings could not justly rise against the person who had subdu’d them; or that generally no King being once vanquish’d, could have a right of Rebellion against his Conqueror, it could have no relation to the actions of a People vindicating their own Laws and Libertys against a Prince who violates them; for that War which never was, can never be renew’d. And if it be true in any case, that hands and swords are given to men, that they only may be slaves who have no courage, it must be when Liberty is overthrown by those, who of all men ought with the utmost industry and vigor to have defended it.




Document 2 

An Exact ACCOUNT of the TRYAL OF Algernoon Sidney  Esq Who was Tryed at the Kings-Bench-Bar AT WESTMINSTER, This present Wednesday: being the twenty first of November  for Conspiring the Death of the King, and his Royal Highness, of which he was Convicted.

The Court being sat, My Lord Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Withers, Mr. Justice Holloway, Mr. Justice Walcot, sitting on the bench, and the usual Oyes, being made, the Jury was called, Mr. Sidney would have challenged some, because they were no Freeholders but my Lord Chief Justice, told him that was no Exception, and that, that Case had been several times over-ruled, and particularly in my Lord Russels Case; so that he was forced to acquiess, and after having excepted against several without shewing cause, at last the Jury was Empannelled, and the indictment being read, and most Elegantly, and Legally opened by the Kings learned Council at Law, the witnesses was called for the King.

The first that was called was Mr. West, who began to discourse, and prove the Plot in General: but Mr. Sidney taking Exceptions at this way of proceeding my Lord Chief Justice, told him, it had been the ordinary way of the Court, and particularly in the Tryal of the 5 Jesuits: so the Evidence proceeded, and afterwards did particularize, but though himself, did hold no Correspondence with the Prisoner at the Bar, yet he was often told by Captain Walcot, that he was a main Engine, in the contriving of all, and providing of Arms.

The next appeared for the King, was Collonel Rumsey who gave much what the same Evidence in General: and particularly that Mr. Sidney was a great Contriver.

Then was called Mr. Keeling the first Discoverer; he spoke first to the Plot in General, and said in particular, towards the latter end of his Evidence, that he heard from others, that Mr. Sidney was all a long in the Plot.

The fourth and last Evidence for the King was the Lord Howard of Escriek, he swore in particular, that Mr. Sidney, had often sitten in Council with other five, where they debated the means to kill the King: New Model the Government, and that he was by when a Traytorous Letter was writ to invite their Bretheren of Scotland, and to shake of Monarchie, and particularly my Lord Howard evidenced, that Mr. Sidney undertook to send the Letter, and that Aron Smith was employed by Mr. Sidney, in this business. This was the substance of what my Lord Howard deposed as to the Prisoner at the Bar.

Then the Kings Council produced a most virulent and treacherous Libel, that was seized on in Mr. Sidney’s House, when he was apprehended. Mr. Adderbury; the Messenger appeared in Court, & attested in that it was taken there, and Sr. Philip Lloyd, attested it was the same that was before the King and Council. Then was called one Mr. Cook Goldsmith, and another Citizen his Partner, they said they had often dealt with Mr. Sidney and had seen several Letters written with his own hand, and they were fully satisfied that the abovementioned Pamphlet was written by the same hand that they were used to receive, were Written. The substance of the Pamphlet was that the Sovereign power was in the People, and that the King was but only the peoples Trustee, and that if he would (it was true they said) he might depose himself, and if he would not they might by force depose him, and chastise him for misgoverment; and that if they proceeded to depose the King, they did not break their Oath’s because the King had no Authority to impose such an oath, and that the Parliament were the Judges when the King did amiss, and ought to be dethroned, and that his present Majesty had fallen under these circumstances, and that was the reason they had to justifie themselves in their proceedings, and so to draw in the Mobile; it was a very large Pamphlet and & took a great deal of time: there were several of the most seditious clauses of this wicked Pamphlet inserted in the Indictment.

The Kings Council, having done with their Evidence, and clearly proved the Pamphlet upon Mr. Sidney, he was permitted with all the Freedom imaginable to make his defence, which was very long, and not the least interrupted: the Count giving him all the fair Play immaginable.

First he began with matters of Law, and pleaded, that there ought to be two Witnesses to every particular fact, but he was answered by the Court, that that Case had been often over-ruled; and that at the Tryal of the late Viscount Stafford, where it was agreed on by all the Judges, that it was not necessary, so that they both proved the Treason, so that if one Witness proved a Fact, or an overt-Act of Treason in one County, and another overt Act in another County, they were two good Witnesses in Law, because they both proved treason. His next Argument was that he conceived himself only Guilty of Misprision of Treason, because it could not be proved, that he writ the reasonable Letter that was to be sent into Scotland, by Aron Smith, but he was told by the Court, that his point of Law, likewise failed him in that Case for if one be by, where Treason is consulted, though they never say nothing, if they do not discover, it’s not imprision of Treason, but High-Treason, as all the Judges had resolved in the tryal of the late Lord Russel: then he endeavoured to prove, that my Lord Howard owing him some Money, and that he claiming it, My Lord spoke, that he would be revenged on him: then he insisted upon something of foreign Laws, and flourished with some sentences of Scripture, which because they were not penitent to the present proceeding were looked on as frevilous. Then he proceeded to several other topicks, to shew the improbabilitie of such a designe, he speaking very Floridly, & often smileing as if he did not question but to have a good dilivery. First he endeavoured to shew the improbabilitie of his being in such a design, from the greatness of his Age, he being a good deal above threescore, and besides very infirme: which might induce any body to believe as he sayed, that the Fire of Ambition must be extinguished, and that it was fitter for him to think of a Retiring place, and give up the latter end of his days to ease and quiet, he having been all his life time in a perpetual hurry: His other topick was not of improbabilitie, but endeavoured to insinuate an unpossibillitie of his being concerned, because he sayed he was no popular man and consequently unfit to be concerned in such an Affaire, where it was fit the people concerned should be Darlings of the Mobile, that so they might manage them at their pleasure, These were only looked upon by the Court as flourishes, which were not very material, and so giving him a short and pithy Answer desired him to proceed to more solid arguments, and to call in his evidence, which were many but were able to say litle in the Prisoners behalf.

The first was my Lord Anglesey, he attested that my Lord Howard, had protested after the breaking out of the Plot at my Lord Bedfords, that he knew nothing of it, this was likewise attested by my Lord Baget, and by one Mr. Philip Howard, with many Circumstances, to long to put down in so little a Paper. He likewise produced in Court, his two Maid-Servants, who attested much what the same, that the other against my Lord Howard, as before most of them had done, at my Lord Russels Tryal, and received much what the same Answer from the Court, &c. that my Lord was not obliged to tell every body he met, how deeply either, he or any body else, was concerned in the Plot. M. Sidney, having made the best defence he could, sat him down, and Mr. Soliciter General summ’d up the Evidence, most learnedly and distinctly. First, shewing the convincing proofs on the Kings side, then from Point, to Point, answering every Objection, urged by the Prisoner, afterwards my Lord Chief Justice summ’d up all, most learnedly and methodically, giving the most Loyal Directions to the Jury.

After all was done by the Court: the Jury withdrew and having consulted upon the business about half a quarter of an hour, Mr. Sidney, remaining at the Bar, smileing and talking; a Verdict was called, and Oyez, being made after the usual manner, and the Jury being called over, Mr. Angers the foreman, spoke for the Rest and brought him in Guilty. Thus Judgment at last overtook one who was Signallie remarkable for his Violence against the last King of blessed memory: And for his strange Aversion to Monarchie, he being a perfect Monarch-hater.

LONDON Printed for E Mallet, 1683.

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