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Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America

Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America

by Alan Craig Houston, Alan C. Houston

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Alan Houston introduces a new level of rigor into contemporary debates over republicanism by providing the first complete account of the range, structure, and influence of the political writings of Algernon Sidney (1623-1683). Though not well known today, Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government influenced radicals in England and America throughout the eighteenth and


Alan Houston introduces a new level of rigor into contemporary debates over republicanism by providing the first complete account of the range, structure, and influence of the political writings of Algernon Sidney (1623-1683). Though not well known today, Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government influenced radicals in England and America throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To many, it was a "textbook of revolution." Houston begins with a masterful intellectual biography tracing the development of Sidney's ideas in the political and intellectual context of Stuart England, and he concludes with a detailed study of the impact of Sidney's writings and heroic martyrdom on revolutionary America. Documenting the interdependence of what have previously been regarded as distinctly "liberal" and "republican" theories, the author provides a new perspective on Anglo-American political thought. Many scholars have assumed that the republican language of virtue is distinct from and in tension with the liberal logic of rights and interests. By focusing on the contemporary meaning of concepts like freedom and slavery or virtue and corruption, Houston demonstrates that Sidney's republicanism and Locke's liberalism were not rivals but frequently complemented each other.

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Winner of the 1992 Best Book Award of the Foundations of Political Theory Section of the American Political Science Association

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America

By Alan Craig Houston


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07860-1



It would be gratifying to learn that Algernon Sidney "had set up Marcus Brutus for his pattern" and that the "firmness and simplicity of [his] character resembled that first of Romans." Unfortunately, Sidney's life did not always match his posthumous reputation. Though Sidney was possessed of a strong sense of integrity and the firm conviction that his causes were righteous, his commitment to republicanism was intermittent and inconsistent. The course of his life was deeply influenced by private concerns, by violent family conflicts and recurrent financial crises. When he did turn to political action, it was with baroque complexity, not classical simplicity. Sidney had an extremely flexible sense of strategy and tactics, born of his belief that the world is governed more by force and fraud than by reason and persuasion. The image of a man selflessly and single-mindedly devoted to the cause of freedom, so carefully crafted by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Whigs in England and America, is too narrow and too confining. It does not allow us to see the complex and crosscutting personal and political issues that affected Sidney's conduct, nor does it shed adequate light on his intellectual development. The most striking fact about Sidney's life is not that he was martyred for the Discourses Concerning Government, but that he wrote it at all. The first step to understanding Sidney's political writings must be the recovery of an accurate sense of his life.

Background and Early Life (1622–1646)

Algernon Sidney was born in 1622 or 1623. A second son, he claimed without exaggeration that "though I am not a peere, I am of the wood of which they are made." His father was Robert Sidney, second earl of Leicester; his mother was Dorothy Percy, sister to Algernon Percy, tenth earl of Northumberland. This was an extraordinarily high birth and placed Sidney at the apex of England's social and political hierarchies. Only the existence of an older brother stood between him and a seat in the House of Lords.

As a family, the Sidneys had for generations shared several characteristics: a fiery temperament, a commitment to military and political service and the cause of international Protestantism, and a devotion to learning. The least endearing trait of the Sidneys was their volatile temper, fueled by a keen sense of personal and family honor. Sir Philip Sidney (1554—1586), a "naturally ... warm and high Spirit," was "so jealous of his Honour and Reputation, that he could not brook the least Intrenchment on either." When once he discovered that his father's secretary had read some of his letters, he warned that if ever the offense was repeated "I will thruste my dagger into you. And truste to it, for I speak it in earnest." In an age in which gentlemen commonly carried weapons, such threats were neither intended nor taken lighdy.

The Sidneys' aggressive spirit made them well suited to the life of the aristocratic warrior. Algernon's great-grandfather Sir Henry Sidney (1529–1586) led a number of campaigns in Ireland during his tenure as lord deputy. Sir Philip Sidney, the great chivalric hero of the Elizabethan age, died of wounds received in the battle of Zutphen in 1586. His brother Sir Robert (1563–1626) lacked Philip's daring and brashness, but he too "took early to a martial life."

Complementing the Sidneys' martial spirit was their devotion to public life. Sir William Sidney (1482?–1554) founded the family's fortune by serving as both tutor and steward of the household for Prince Edward. Sir William's son Henry, one of the greatest statesmen of the Elizabethan age, was both lord deputy of Ireland and lord president of Wales. He gave voice to the family's public spirit in the process of describing the latter position: "Great it is that in some sort I govern the third part of this realm under her most excellent Majesty; high it is for by that I have precedence of great personages and by far my betters; happy it is for the goodness of the people I govern; and most happy it is for the commodity I have, by the authority of that place, to do good every day." Patriarchy blended with self-interest, and in ways more complicated than even Queen Elizabeth had imagined high office, proved to be its own reward.

The military and political exploits of the Sidneys were frequently in service to the cause of international Protestantism. Sir Philip Sidney, an ardent defender of the Huguenots, was friend to both Hubert Languet and Philip du Plessis Mornay. A witness to the massacre of the Protestants in Paris on St. Bartholomew's Eve in 1572, he died while defending the Low Countries against the armies of Catholic Spain. Though Sir Philip's relatives did not share his zeal, they too united religious and patriotic concerns under the banner of Protestantism. It was Algernon's father, the second earl of Leicester (1595–1677), who argued that "it is impossible for an English papist to be a true and faithfull subject to the Crowne and State of England" and who ascribed "all the treasons against Qfueen] Elisabeth throughout her whole reigne" to the machinations of the Jesuits.

If there was anything that drew the Sidneys away from war and politics it was their deep commitment to learning and intellectual growth. Sir Henry Sidney "highly favoured all Men of Letters and Sciences, and greatly encouraged them, oftentimes saying, 'Science was to be honoured, in whomsoever it was to be found.'" It was probably Sir Philip Sidney who founded the library at Penshurst; by the 1670s it contained more than 4,500 volumes. Algernon's father sustained this tradition throughout much of the seventeenth century. At his death he left behind some "forty quires of paper," including painstaking annotations to the first earl's commonplace books; notes on history, medicine, religion, and the constitution; and a treatise on money.

Into this family and these traditions Algernon Sidney was born. In the fall of 1632, at the age of nine or ten, Sidney and his older brother Philip accompanied their father on a three-month-long diplomatic mission to Denmark. In 1636 the two boys traveled with their father once again, this time on a mission to France that was to last more than five years. Sidney evidently impressed the English community in Paris. As the countess of Leicester wrote her husband from Penshurst, "To Allgernoone I do send a blessing whom I hear much comended by all that comes from you, and Nic: who spoke well of verie few, said he had a huge deall of witt and much sweetness of nature." This was probably the last time that anyone reported that Sidney had "much sweetness of nature." In later life he was more frequently described as thin-skinned, vain, and humorless. But it is clear from her letters that Sidney's mother felt a great deal of affection for him.

Beyond these bare facts, we know virtually nothing about Sidney's childhood and adolescence. Of his education in England and France, of the tutors he studied with, of the books he read and the ideas he was exposed to, no record has survived.

In June 1641 King Charles nominated Leicester to be lord lieutenant of Ireland. When the Irish rebellion broke out in October of that year, Leicester named his eldest son, Philip, lord Lisle, the lord deputy of Ireland; and Lisle, in turn, named Sidney one of the captains of the horse serving under him. Lisle's policy in Ireland was simple but brutal. According to a government dispatch issued 29 September 1642, "he still proceeds in burning, wasting, spoiling, and destroying all the country about him, and all the rebel's corn, hay, and turf, and depriving the rebels of all the cattle he can, so as to take from them all means of lodging, food and fire." In the context of seventeenth-century Anglo-Irish affairs, Lisle's slash-and-burn strategy was unexceptionable, and it was even said that he deserved "very well of the publicke here." His actions did, however, put him in direct conflict with the earl of Ormonde. Though still officially a soldier in the king's army, Lisle increasingly allied himself with the parliamentary sympathizers in Ireland. The tensions between Lisle and Ormonde culminated in court-martial proceedings against Lisle for fleeing the scene of battle at New Ross. Though cleared of the charge, Lisle recognized that as long as Ormonde was in command of the English forces "there is no good to be done in this place," and he made arrangements to return to England.

It is to these tensions between the parliamentary and royalist forces in Ireland that we owe the first extant letter from Sidney. Writing to his mother from Dublin on 18 June 1643 about Ormonde's plans for a truce with the Irish rebels, he observed that "this army cannot live in time of peace unless maintained by the Rebbells, that they having little or noe mony we must be contented with provisions. And it is hardly to be doubted but that they will either in the time of truce conclude a final peace, or else, as soone as they have got in their harvest, they will break the truce, to the inevitable losse of this army." Under such conditions "this will be noe fit place for me to stay in ... not being able to subsist heare but uppon credit, the most sure way to ruine the fortune of one that hath noe stock to rely upon."

Sidney had no fondness for the military life, "and yet it is the only way of living well for those that have not estates." Even it was insecure, however, and left him continually open to "the greatest of all misfortunes," becoming "burdensome to my friends." His was a complaint common to younger sons in the seventeenth century. It was also shared by many radicals. As James Harrington trenchantly argued in 1656, "I must confess I marvel how much it comes to pass that we should use our children as we do our puppies: take one, lay it in the lap, feed it with every good bit, and drown five! Nay, worse, for as much as the puppies are once drowned, whereas the children are left perpetually drowning. Really, my lords, it is a flinty custom!" 19 As a younger son in a world governed by the law of primogeniture, Sidney resented the life of lean credit and frustrated ambitions that stood before him. He yearned for the power, wealth, and independence with which his brother Philip had been blessed.

Despite Sidney's misgivings, he accepted a commission in the parliamentary army in 1644. Within two months he was "dangerously wounded" at the battle of Marston Moor. Almost simultaneously Leicester beat a hasty retreat from Oxford to Penshurst, disgraced by the king's decision to strip him of his position as lord lieutenant of Ireland. The contrast between the behavior of the father and that of the son is striking. At the same moment that Leicester was inaugurating a retirement from public life, Sidney was energetically embracing the parliamentary cause.

The earl of Clarendon ascribed Leicester's misfortunes to "the staggering and irresolution of his nature." There is a great deal of truth to this characterization. But Clarendon's own capacity for action blinded him to the bewildering choices forced on Englishmen by the outbreak of the Civil War. Like many of his countrymen, Leicester was desperately anxious to trust his king; but the increasingly immoderate and intransigent royalists at Oxford made that impossible. Instinctively loyal to the king, Leicester simply did not know what to do when it appeared that the king had betrayed him.

Unlike his father, Sidney was able partially to sever his ties to the king and make Parliament the object of his allegiance. Unfortunately, the historical record is silent concerning his reasons for making this momentous decision. We simply do not know whether he was moved by political principle or by considerations of expediency. One clue might lie in the motto he had sewn onto his troop's flag, Sanctus Amor Patriae Dat Animum. The Patriae, or nation, was an abstraction that allowed Sidney to distinguish between the king and the nation, and hence to oppose the king in the name of the public good. To be sure, this distinction required an enormous act of moral and political imagination, and few Englishmen in the early stages of the Civil War would have viewed their actions in precisely this way. It would be a mistake to read too much into Sidney's motto. But in ways the Elizabethan statesman Sir Henry Sidney might not have wanted to acknowledge, Sidney's decision to support Parliament was simply a spirited extension of the family tradition of public service that he had inaugurated more than a century before.

Sidney remained in the army after it was remodeled in early 1645. But the wounds he had received at Marston Moor continued to bother him, and on 14 May he resigned his commission with "extreme unwillingnesse ... by reason of my lameness." Provision had already been made, however, for him to become the military governor of Chichester. Not until 1646, in the wake of Parliament's decision to fill vacant seats in the House of Commons through recruiter elections, did Sidney begin to make the transition from soldier to politician.

Parliament (1646–1653)

Sidney was elected to the House of Commons on 17 July 1646. By that time Parliament had commissioned Lisle as lord lieutenant of Ireland and had voted to send Sidney along with him as the commander of a regiment of horse and as governor of Dublin. Thus, before Sidney could enter the House, it was decided that he should return to active military service.

Sidney's second tour of duty in Ireland was cut short by political developments in England. In the face of increasingly widespread dissatisfaction with the system of county committees and military rule, the Presbyterian "party" seized control of Parliament in February 1647 and immediately set about disbanding the New Model Army. As part of this program they decided to restructure the government of Ireland, and both Sidney and Lisle were recalled to London.

As the Presbyterians began to carry out their plans, opposition mounted. Outside Parliament the army became increasingly politicized, and the soldiers organized themselves through a system of "agitators." Inside Parliament the conflict came to a head on 25 May, when a series of ordinances to dismantle the army was considered. On the crucial first vote, over whether to dismantle General Fairfax's regiment, a division was called. Sidney stood as a teller against the motion, but it was passed by a vote of 136 to 115 and was followed without challenge by ordinances disbanding all other regiments in the army.

For Sidney, as for so many others, the Presbyterians' plans to disband the army threatened the survival of Parliament itself. He made his beliefs clear in an attack on the moderate Presbyterian Sir Philip Perceval on 2 June. Perceval, he argued, had not only voted to disband the army, but had also assisted the king and encouraged soldiers in Ireland to "come into England to fight the parliament." The core of the Presbyterian program was capitulation to the king.

Following this spate of activity, Sidney's parliamentary record during the chaotic months of late 1647 and early 1648 is sketchy and demonstrates no clear pattern. He evidently retained the good favor of Fairfax, for on 17 June 1648, in the wake of "the last ... of the great local insurrections of English history," he was commissioned governor of Dover Castle. For a very brief period Sidney exercised his office responsibly. He saw to his soldiers, suggested reforms in the administration of the castle, and even requested that a financial "establishment" be created for him. Sidney's interest in details was limited, however, and as the conflict between Parliament and the king came to a head, he neglected his post at the castle.

On Friday, 1 December 1648, Parliament began to debate the king's answers to the proposals for reconciliation that had been presented to him at Newcastle. Though shocked by the approach of the army, the House ignored the "martial noises" out-of-doors and continued the debate on 2 December. Faced with a motion by moderate MPs to suspend the debate until Parliament was free of the army's influence, radicals pressed for an immediate vote. With dusk approaching, the conflict centered on a motion to bring in candles to permit a resolution of the debate that evening. A division was called, and Sidney stood as a teller in support of the motion. Though the motion was defeated by a healthy margin, Sidney had demonstrated his unwillingness to compromise with the king.


Excerpted from Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America by Alan Craig Houston. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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