Algernon Sidney

British politician and political theorist (1623-1683)

Algernon Sidney (also Sydney) (January 16237 December 1683) was an English politician, political theorist, and opponent of King Charles II of England.

That which is not just, is not Law; and that which is not Law, ought not to be obeyed.


If his Majesty is resolved to have my head, he may make a whistle of my arse if he pleases.
  • I thought fit to leave this testimony to the world, that, as I had from my youth endeavored to uphold the Common rights of mankind, the lawes of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power and Popery, I doe now willingly lay down my life for the same; and having a sure witness within me, that God doth absolve me, and uphold me, in the utmost extremityes, am very littell sollicitous, though man doth condemne me.
    • The Apology of Algernon Sydney, in the Day of his Death (1683), as quoted in Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis, 1677-1683 (2002) by Jonathan Scott, p. 337.
  • If his Majesty is resolved to have my head, he may make a whistle of my arse if he pleases.
    • On being told that part of his sentence had been remitted — that he would merely be executed, but his estate would remain intact, quoted in Joe Miller's Jests (1739), p. 6.

Scaffold speech (1683)

Speech delivered on the scaffold (7 December 1683)
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.
  • We live in an age that makes truth pass for treason, and as I dare not say anything against it, so the ears of those that are about me will probably be found too tender to hear it. This my trial and condemnation do sufficiently evidence.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • I was long since told that I must die — or the plot die. And lest the means of destroying the best Protestants in England should fail, the Bench must be filled with such as had been blemished at the Bar. None but such as these would have advised with the King's Council of the means to bring a man to death: suffered a jury to be empanelled by the King's Solicitor and the Under-Sheriff: admit of jurymen who are no freeholders: receive such evidence as is above mentioned … they assume unto themselves not only a power to make constructions, but such constructions as neither agree with law, reason nor common sense.
    By them and their means, I am brought unto this place. The Lord forgive their practices and avert the evils that threaten the nation from them.
  • The Lord sanctify these my sufferings unto me, and though I fall as a sacrifice unto the — Idols, suffer not idolatry to be established in this land. Bless thy people and save them. Defend thy own cause and those that defend it. Stir up such as are faint. Direct those that are willing. Confirm those that waver. Give wisdom and integrity unto all. Order all things so as they may most redound unto thine own glory. Grant that I may die glorifying thee for all thy mercies and that (as the last) thou hast permitted me to be singled out as witness of thy truth, and even by the confession of my oppressors, for that Old Cause in which I was from my youth engaged and for which thou hast often and wonderfully declared thyself.

Discourses Concerning Government (1689)

Discourses Concerning Government (1698) Full text online]
God helps those who help themselves.
  • Liars ought to have good memories.
    • Ch. 2, Sect. 15; comparable to: "He who has not a good memory should never take upon him the trade of lying", Michel de Montaigne, Book i. chap. ix. "Of Liars".
  • Men lived like fishes; the great ones devoured the small.
    • Ch. 2, Sect. 18; comparable to:
      3 Fish: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
      1 Fish. Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.
  • God helps those who help themselves.
    • Ch. 2, Sect. 23; comparable to: "Help thyself, and God will help thee", George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum; "Heaven ne’er helps the men who will not act", Sophocles, Fragment 288 (Plumptre’s Translation); "Help thyself, Heaven will help thee", Jean de La Fontaine, Book vi. fable 18.
  • It is not necessary to light a candle to the sun.
    • Ch. 2, Sect. 18; comparable to: "Like his that lights a candle to the sun", John Fletcher, Letter to Sir Walter Aston; "And hold their farthing candle to the sun", Edward Young, Satire vii. line 56.
  • If these rules have not been well observed in the first constitution, or from the changes of times, corruption of manners, insensible encroachments, or violent usurpations of princes, have been rendered ineffectual, and the people exposed to all the calamities that may be brought upon them by the weakness, vices, and malice of the prince, or those who govern him, I confess the remedies are more difficult and dangerous; but even in those cases they must be tried. Nothing can be feared that is worse than what is suffered, or must in a short time fall upon those who are in this condition. They who are already fallen into all that is odious, shameful, and miserable, cannot justly fear. When things are brought to such a pass, the boldest counsels are the most safe; and if they must perish who lie still, and they can but perish who are most active, the choice is easily made. Let the danger be never so great, there is a possibility of safety, whilst men have life, hands, arms, and courage to use them; but that people must certainly perish, who tamely suffer themselves to be oppressed, either by the injustice, cruelty, and malice of an ill magistrate, or by those who prevail upon the vices and infirmities of weak princes. It is in vain to say, that this may give occasion to men of raising tumults, or civil war; for tho' these are evils, yet they are not the greatest of evils. Civil war, in Macchiavel's account, is a disease; but tyranny is the death of a state. Gentle ways are first to be used, and it is best if the work can be done by them; but it must not be left undone, if they fail. It is good to use supplications, advices, and remonstrances; but those who have no regard to justice, and will not hearken to counsel, must be constrained. It is folly to deal otherwise with a man who will not be guided by reason, and a magistrate who despises the law; or rather, to think him a man, who rejects the essential principle of a man; or to account him a magistrate, who overthrows the law by which he is a magistrate. This is the last result; but those nations must come to it, which cannot otherwise be preserved.
    • Ch. 3, Sect. 3.

Quotes about Sidney

This hand, the rule of tyrants to oppose
Seeks with the sword fair freedom's soft repose.
Alphabetised by author
  • 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 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.
    • John Adams, as quoted in Foreword of Discourses Concerning Government (1996) edited by Thomas G. West, p. x.
  • At the moment my most intimate liaison is with Mr. Algernon Sidney; he is the man in England who seems to me to have the greatest understanding of affairs; he has great relations with the rest of the Republican party; And nobody in my opinion is more capable of rendering service than him.
    • French Ambassador to England Paul Barillon, in a letter (6 October 1677), as quoted in,"Sidney, Algernon (1623–1683)" by Jonathan Scott in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
  • A man of the most extraordinary courage, a steady man, even to obstinacy, sincere, but of a rough and boisterous temper, that could not bear contradiction, but would give foul language upon it. He seemed to be a Christian, but in a particular form of his own. He thought it was to be like a divine philosophy in the mind, but he was against all public worship, and every thing that looked like church. He was stiff to all republican principles, and such an enemy to every thing that looked like monarchy, that he set himself in a high opposition against Cromwell when he was made protector. He had indeed studied the history of government in all its branches beyond any man I ever knew.
    • Gilbert Burnet, Burnet's History of My Own Time, Volume II (1734) Part I : The Reign of Charles the Second (1900 edition, edited by Osmund Airy, p. 352.
  • Sidney, though not included in the number of the regicides, was one of the main pillars of the republican cause, and was personally obnoxious to Charles the second, for some occasional offensive remarks that he had recently made — especially for two Latin lines that he had written in the album of the royal library at Copenhagen:

Manus haec inimica tyrannis
Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem.

This hand, the rule of tyrants to oppose
Seeks with the sword fair freedom's soft repose.

The second of which lines —
Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem
was adopted by the founders of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as the motto to the arms of the State; a motto lasting as the Commonwealth herself, and ever admonishing her sons that the enjoyment of quiet freedom is the only lawful motive for drawing the sword to shed blood in resistance of tyranny, and signally marking at the same time their approbation of this sublime sentiment and their profound veneration for the character of Algernon Sidney.
  • Henry H. Edes, in "The Political Theory of the Mayflower Compact", published in ‪Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 12‬ (1909); the lines of Sidney mentioned are also translated as "she seeks with the sword a quiet peace under liberty." and have been paraphrased as "by the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty".
  • The Discourses re-established Sidney's posthumous prestige. He would always be associated in the public mind with extreme republicanism, but he had undoubtedly suffered as a martyr in the cause of liberty, define 'liberty' how you will, and he had been a practising politician of great experience and a scion of the nobility. This lent his words an authority denied to middle-class intellectuals and journalists like Toland and Locke, and for the rest of this period his Discourses were certainly much more influential than Locke's Two Treaties. They were much less abstract and drew upon a wide range of historical analysis, and they were couched in a much superior literary style.
  • [T]he British Cassius, fearless bled;
    Of high determined spirit, roughly brave,
    By ancient learning to the enlighten'd love
    Of ancient freedom warmed.
  • An author, who can never be too much valued or read; who does honour to the English nobility, and to the English name; who has written better upon government than any Englishman, and as well as any foreigner; and who was a martyr for that liberty which he has so amiably described, and so nobly defended. He fell a sacrifice to the vile and corrupt court of our pious Charles II. He had asserted the rights of mankind, and shewed the odiousness of tyranny; he had exposed the absurdity and vileness of the sacred and fashionable doctrines of those days, passive obedience, and hereditary right; doctrines, which give the lie to common sense, and which would destroy all common happiness and security amongst men! Doctrines, which were never practised by those that preached them! and doctrines, which are big with nonsense, contradiction, impossibility, misery, wickedness, and desolation! These were his crimes, and these his glory.
    The book is every way excellent: He had read and digested all history; and this performance of his takes in the whole business of government: It makes us some amends for the loss of Cicero's book De Republica. Colonel Sidney had all the clear and comprehensive knowledge, and all the dignity of expression, of that great master of eloquence and politicks; his love of liberty was as warm, his honesty as great, and his courage greater.
  • The following are the sentiments of Mr. Sidney: I know it is objected that he is a republican; and it is dishonestly suggested that I am a republican, because I commend him as an excellent writer, and have taken a passage or two out of him. In answer to this, I shall only take notice, that the passages which I take from him are not republican passages, unless virtue and truth be republicans: That Mr. Sidney's book, for the main of it, is eternally true, and agreeable to our own constitution, which is the best republick in the world, with a prince at the head of it: That our government is a thousand degrees nearer a-kin to a commonwealth (any sort of commonwealth now subsisting, or that ever did subsist in the world) than it is to absolute monarchy: That for myself, I hope in God never to see any other form of government in England than that which is now in England; and that if this be the style and spirit of a republican, I glory in it, as much as I despise those who take base methods to decry my writings, which are addressed to the common sense and experience of mankind. I hope that it is not yet made heresy in politicks, to assert that two and two make four.
  • One characteristic feature of Sidney's book associates him with Machiavelli. That is his celebration of warlike virtue and foreign conquest. Like Machiavelli, Sidney prefers imperialist Rome to nonexpansionist Sparta. He asserts that “That is the best government, which best provides for war.” Popular governments do this best, for their citizens are hardy and spirited, and there is a mutual rivalry for the honor that anyone may earn (II.15, II.22–23). But unlike Machiavelli, Sidney qualifies his imperialism with the requirement that a war of acquisition be a just war, carried on for a just cause and by just means.
    • Thomas G. West, 'Introduction', Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (1996), p. xxii
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