A man of great intellectual influence on our founding generation was the late 17th century martyr for freedom, Algernon Sidney (1623-1683). Born the second son in a noble family whose tradition of service to England went back to King Henry VIII, Algernon Sidney served as a military commander, ambassador, and member of parliament. He determined his highest duty to England was to save her from Stuart tyranny. To this end, he conspired with other aristocrats to foment revolution. For his efforts, he was put to death by King Charles II. Among the works found at his home was a manuscript that probably wouldn’t have been published had he not been charged with treason and executed.
Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, published in 1698, thoroughly refuted the widely-held belief in the divine right to absolute rule. While his work had little effect in England, it found fertile ground across the Atlantic. The seeds planted by Sidney helped our founders nurture the intellectual tree of liberty.
At the core of Sidney’s theory of freedom is the truth that “he is a free man who lives as best pleases himself, under Laws made by his consent.” The phrase, “as best pleases himself,” is not an open-ended ability to do everything one may wish. All men at all times are subject to Natural Law, the Law of God-given Reason. Thus, the liberty to do as we please is not a right to sin. When we are governed by right reason, there is liberty and happiness. When our passions take over and spoil our judgment, we are captives of license in which liberty and happiness are impossible. Absent reason, when men are ruled by passion and deflected from the right course of action, they are no better than beasts.
Where royalists of Sidney’s day promoted the idea that a king’s interests were identical to those of the nation and he could thus do no wrong, Sidney countered that every man at various times was a slave of his passions. As opposed to their subjects, kings are typically under the influence of courtiers who inflame the emotional shortcomings of the prince.
From this, Sidney reasoned that nothing could be more insane than to subject a nation to the will of one man. Consent of the governed, in which the passing passions of many individuals were less likely to drive public policy, was an absolute necessity to liberty.
Like James Madison a hundred years later, Sidney asked if it was possible to design a commonwealth that maximizes public reason while it minimized the influence of private passion. His conclusion was that an empire of the law of a freely consenting nation would serve as a check on passions and enhance a nation’s capacity to act rationally.
Sidney had implicit faith in the political capacities of the English people to restore and keep self-government rather than be perpetually ruled by one man and his posterity.
The institutions from which Sidney hoped to secure freedom predated his pleas by hundreds of years. Since the English nation was composed of king, lords, and commons, the consent of all three to the law was necessary to freedom.
Similarly, the institutions of semi self-governing American colonies predated our Constitution by seventy years in the case of Georgia, and up to over one hundred fifty years for Virginia. Like Sidney, our Framers used right reason to craft a government in which the component members of the nation (people and states) participated in lawmaking.
The composition of congress since the 17th Amendment contradicts reason. As component members of the umbrella republic, and under a Constitution that acts upon them, truly free government can only exist when the states are represented in our lawmaking body, a congress of the United States. Under two popularly derived congressional houses, American public policy increasingly reflects the passions, rather than the right reason, of men and women unlimited by any higher law or concern for the general welfare.
As long as congress remains popularly derived, both reason and experience demonstrate the impossibility of a return to free government. I encourage the reader to consider his duty as an American; do that which may possibly save our republic. We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder. Join Convention of States. Sign our COS Petition.
Houston, Alan Craig. Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.