Posted by: Democratic Thinker | October 7, 2009

How to Destroy a Free Society—Sidney

Background of the American Revolution

No one can understand the foundations of the American nation without understanding the English Civil War from a century earlier.

For the first, we have already proved that liberty cannot be preserved, if the manners of the people are corrupted, nor absolute monarchy introduced where they are sincere; which is sufficient to shew that those who manage free governments ought always to the utmost of their power to oppose corruption, because otherwise both they and their government must inevitably perish; and that on the other hand, the absolute monarch must endeavour to introduce it, because he cannot subsist without it.



Chap. II, Section XXV.

Courts are more subject to Venality and Corruption than Popular Governments.


THO’ court-flatterers impute many evils to popular governments they no way deserve, I could not think any so impudent as to lay corruption and venality to their charge, till I found it in our author. They might in my opinion have taken those faults upon themselves, since they certainly abound most where bawds, whores, buffoons, players, slaves and other base people who are naturally mercenary, are most prevalent. And whosoever would know whether this does more frequently befall commonwealths than monarchies, especially if they are absolute, need only to inquire whether the Cornelii, Junii, Fabii, Valerii, Quintii, Curii, Fabricii, and others who most prevailed in Rome after the expulsion of the kings, or Sejanus, Macro, Narcissus, Pallas, Icetus, Tigellinus, Vinius, Laco, Agrippina, Messalina, Lollia, Poppaea, and the like, were most subject to those base vices: Whether it were more easy to corrupt one or two of those villains and strumpets, or the senates and people of Rome, Carthage, Athens, and Sparta; and whether that sort of rabble had more power over the princes they served, than such as most resembled them had whilst the popular government continued. ‘Tis in vain to say those princes were wicked and vile, for many others are so likewise; and when the power is in the hands of one man, there can be no assurance he will not be like them. Nay, when the power is so placed, ill men will always find opportunities of compassing their desires: Bonus, cautus, optimus imperator venditur, said Diocletian; and tho he was no unwise man, yet that which principally induced him to renounce the empire, was the impossibility he found of defending himself against those that were in credit with him, who daily betray’d and sold him. They see with the eyes of other men, and cannot resist the frauds that are perpetually put upon them. Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius seem to have been the best and wisest of all the Roman emperors; but the two Faustinas had such an ascendent over them, as was most shameful to their persons, and mischievous to the empire and the best men in it. Such as these may gain too much upon the affections of one man in the best regulated government; but that could be of no great danger to the publick, when many others equal or not much inferior to him in authority, are ready to oppose whatever he should endeavour to promote by their impulse: but there is no remedy when all depends upon the will of a single person who is governed by them. There was more of acuteness and jest, than of truth in that saying of Themistocles, that his little boy had more power than any man in Greece; for he governed his mother, she him, he Athens, and Athens Greece. For he himself was found to have little power, when for private passions and concernments he departed from the interest of the publick; and the like has been found in all places that have been governed in the like manner.

Again, corruption will always reign most where those who have the power do most favour it, where the rewards of such crimes are greatest, easiest, and most valued, and where the punishment of them is least feared.

1. For the first, we have already proved that liberty cannot be preserved, if the manners of the people are corrupted, nor absolute monarchy introduced where they are sincere; which is sufficient to shew that those who manage free governments ought always to the utmost of their power to oppose corruption, because otherwise both they and their government must inevitably perish; and that on the other hand, the absolute monarch must endeavour to introduce it, because he cannot subsist without it. ‘Tis also so natural for all such monarchs to place men in power who pretend to love their persons, and will depend upon their pleasure, that possibly ‘twould be hard to find one in the world who has not made it the rule of his government: And this is not only the way to corruption, but the most dangerous of all. For tho a good man may love a good monarch, he will obey him only when he commands that which is just; and no one can engage himself blindly to do whatever he is commanded, without renouncing all virtue and religion; because he knows not whether that which shall be commanded is consistent with either, or directly contrary to the laws of God and man. But if such a monarch be evil, and his actions such as they are too often found to be, whoever bears an affection to him, and seconds his designs, declares himself an enemy to all that is good; and the advancement of such men to power does not only introduce, foment, and increase corruption, but fortifies it in such a manner, that without an entire renovation of that state it cannot be removed. Ill men may possibly creep into any government; but when the worst are plac’d nearest to the throne, and raised to honors for being so, they will with that force endeavour to draw all men to a conformity of spirit with themselves, that it can no otherwise be prevented, than by destroying them and the principle in which they live.

2. To the second; man naturally follows that which is good, or seems to him to be so. Hence it is that in well-govern’d states, where a value is put upon virtue, and no one honoured unless for such qualities as are beneficial to the publick, men are from the tenderest years brought up in a belief, that nothing in this world deserves to be sought after, but such honors as are acquired by virtuous actions: By this means virtue itself becomes popular, as in Sparta, Rome, and other places, where riches (which with the vanity that follows them, and the honors men give to them, are the root of all evil) were either totally banished, or little regarded. When no other advantage attended the greatest riches than the opportunity of living more sumptuously or deliciously, men of great spirits slighted them. When Aristippus told Cleanthes, that if he would go to court and flatter the tyrant, he need not seek his supper under a hedge; the philosopher answer’d, that he who could content himself with such a supper, need not go to court, or flatter the tyrant. Epaminondas, Aristides, Phocion, and even the Lacedaemonian kings, found no inconvenience in poverty, whilst their virtue was honour’d, and the richest princes in the world feared their valour and power. It was not difficult for Curius, Fabricius, Quintius Cincinnatus, or Aemilius Paulus, to content themselves with the narrowest fortune, when it was no obstacle to them in the pursuit of those honours which their virtues deserved. ‘Twas in vain to think of bribing a man who supped upon the coleworts of his own garden. He could not be gained by gold, who did not think it necessary. He that could rise from the plow to the triumphal chariot, and contentedly return thither again, could not be corrupted; and he that left the sense of his poverty to his executors, who found not wherewith to bury him, might leave Macedon and Greece to the pillage of his soldiers, without taking to himself any part of the booty. But when luxury was brought into fashion, and they came to be honor’d who liv’d magnificently, tho they had in themselves no qualities to distinguish them from the basest of slaves, the most virtuous men were exposed to scorn if they were poor: and that poverty which had been the mother and nurse of their virtue, grew insupportable. The poet well understood what effect this change had upon the world, who said, Nullum crimen abest facinusque libidinis, ex quo.

When riches grew to be necessary, the desire of them which is the spring of all mischief, follow’d. They who could not obtain honours by the noblest actions, were oblig’d to get wealth to purchase them from whores and villains, who exposed them to sale: and when they were once entered into this track, they soon learnt the vices of those from whom they had received their preferment, and to delight in the ways that had brought them to it. When they were come to this, nothing could stop them: All thought and remembrance of good was extinguish’d. They who had bought the commands of armies or provinces, from Icetus or Narcissus, sought only how to draw money from them, to enable them to purchase higher dignities, or gain a more assured protection from those patrons. This brought the government of the world under a most infamous traffick, and the treasures arising from it were, for the most part, dissipated by worse vices than the rapine, violence and fraud with which they had been gotten. The authors of those crimes had nothing left but their crimes, and the necessity of committing more, through the indigence into which they were plung’d by the extravagance of their expences. These things are inseparable from the life of a courtier; for as servile natures are guided rather by sense than reason, such as addict themselves to the service of courts, find no other consolation in their misery, than what they receive from sensual pleasures, or such vanities as they put a value upon; and have no other care, than to get money for their supply by begging, stealing, bribing, and other infamous practices. Their offices are more or less esteemed according to the opportunities they afford for the exercise of these virtues; and no man seeks them for any other end than for gain, nor takes any other way than that which conduces to it. The usual means of attaining them are, by observing the prince’s humour, flattering his vices, serving him in his pleasures, fomenting his passions, and by advancing his worst designs, to create an opinion in him that they love his person, and are entirely addicted to his will. When valour, industry and wisdom advanced men to offices, it was no easy matter for a man to persuade the senate he had such qualities as were requir’d, if he had them not: But when princes seek only such as love them, and will do what they command, ’tis easy to impose upon them; and because none that are good will obey them when they command that which is not so, they are always encompassed by the worst. Those who follow them only for reward, are most liberal in professing affection to them, and by that means rise to places of authority and power. The fountain being thus corrupted, nothing that is pure can come from it. These mercenary wretches having the management of affairs, justice and honours are set at a price, and the most lucrative traffick in the world is thereby established. Eutropius when he was a slave, used to pick pockets and locks; but being made a minister, he sold cities, armies and provinces: and some have undertaken to give probable reasons to believe, that Pallas, one of Claudius his manumised slaves, by these means brought together more wealth in six years, than all the Roman dictators and consuls had done from the expulsion of the kings to their passage into Asia. The rest walked in the same way, used the same arts, and many of them succeeded in the same manner. Their riches consisted not of spoils taken from enemies, but were the base product of their own corruption. They valued nothing but money, and those who could bribe them, were sure to be advanc’d to the highest offices; and whatever they did, feared no punishment. Like effects will ever proceed from the like causes. When vanity, luxury and prodigality are in fashion, the desire of riches must necessarily increase in proportion to them: And when the power is in the hands of base mercenary persons, they will always (to use the courtiers’ phrase) make as much profit of their places as they can. Not only matters of favour, but of justice too, will be exposed to sale; and no way will be open to honours or magistracies, but by paying largely for them. He that gets an office by these means, will not execute it gratis: he thinks he may sell what he has bought; and would not have entered by corrupt ways, if he had not intended to deal corruptly. Nay, if a well-meaning man should suffer himself to be so far carried away by the stream of a prevailing custom, as to purchase honours of such villains, he would be obliged to continue in the same course, that he might gain riches to procure the continuance of his benefactors’ protection, or to obtain the favour of such as happen to succeed them: And the corruption thus beginning in the head, must necessarily diffuse itself into all the members of the commonwealth. Or, if anyone (which is not to be expected) after having been guilty of one villainy, should resolve to commit no more, it could have no other effect than to bring him to ruin; and he being taken away, all things would return to their former channel.

Besides this, whosoever desires to advance himself, must use such means as are suitable to the time in which he lives, and the humour of the persons with whom he is to deal. It had been as absurd for any man void of merit to set himself up against Junius Brutus, Cincinnatus, Papirius Cursor, Camillus, Fabius Maximus, or Scipio; and by bribing the senate and people of Rome, think to be chosen captain against the Tarquins, Tuscans, Latins, Samnites, Gauls or Carthaginians, as for the most virtuous men by the most certain proofs of their wisdom, experience, integrity and valour, to expect advancement from Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, or the lewd wretches that govern’d them. They hated and feared all those that excelled in virtue, and setting themselves to destroy the best for being the best, they placed the strength of the government in the hands of the worst, which produced the effects beforementioned. This seems to have been so well known, that no man pretended to be great at court, but those who had cast off all thoughts of honour and common honesty: Revertar cum leno, meretrix, scurra, cinaedus ero, said one who saw what manners prevailed there; and wheresoever they do prevail, such as will rise, must render themselves conformable in all corruption and venality. And it may be observed, that a noble person now living amongst us, who is a great enemy to bribery, was turned out from a considerable office, as a scandal to the court; for, said the principal minister, he will make no profit of his place, and by that means casts a scandal upon those that do.

If any man say, this is not generally the fate of all courts, I confess it; and that if the prince be just, virtuous, wise, of great spirit, and not pretending to be absolute, he may chuse such men as are not mercenary, or take such a course as may render it hard for them to deserve bribes, or to preserve themselves from punishment, if they should deflect from his intention. And a prince of this age speaking familiarly with some great men about him, said, he had heard much of vast gains made by those who were near to princes, and asked if they made the like? One of them answer’d, that they were as willing as others to get something, but that no man would give them a farthing; for everyone finding a free admittance to his majesty, no man needed a solicitor: And it was no less known that he did of himself grant those things that were just, than that none of them had so much credit as to promote such as were not so. I will not say such a king is a phoenix; perhaps more than one may be found in an age; but they are certainly rare, and all that is good in their government proceeding from the excellency of their personal virtues, it must fail when that virtue fails, which was the root of it. Experience shews how little we can rely upon such a help; for where crowns are hereditary, children seldom prove like to their fathers; and such as are elective have also their defects. Many seem to be modest and innocent in private fortunes, who prove corrupt and vicious when they are raised to power. The violence, pride and malice of Saul, was never discover’d till the people had placed him in the throne. But where the government is absolute, or the prince endeavours to make it so, this integrity can never be found: He will always seek such as are content to depend upon his will, which being always unruly, good men will never comply; ill men will be paid for it, and that opens a gap to all manner of corruption. Something like to this may befall regular monarchies, or popular governments. They who are placed in the principal offices of trust may be treacherous; and when they are so, they will always by these means seek to gain partizans and dependents upon themselves. Their designs being corrupt, they must be carried on by corruption; but such as would support monarchy in its regularity, or popular governments, must oppose it, or be destroy’d by it. And nothing can better manifest how far absolute monarchies are more subject to this venality and corruption than the regular and popular governments, than that they are rooted in the principle of the one, which cannot subsist without them; and are so contrary to the others, that they must certainly perish unless they defend themselves from them.

If any man be so far of another opinion, as to believe that Brutus, Camillus, Scipio, Fabius, Hannibal, Pericles, Aristides, Agesilaus, Epaminondas or Pelopidas, were as easily corrupted as Sejanus, Tigellinus, Vinius or Laco: That the senate and people of Rome, Carthage, Athens, Sparta or Thebes, were to be bought at as easy rates as one profligate villain, a slave, an eunuch or a whore; or tho it was not in former ages, yet it is so now: he may be pleased to consider by what means men now rise to places of judicature, church-preferment, or any offices of trust, honour or profit under those monarchies which we know, that either are or would be absolute. Let him examine how all the offices of justice are now disposed in France; how Mazarin came to be advanced; what traffick he made of abbies and bishopricks, and what treasures he gained by that means: Whether the like has not continued since his death, and as a laudable example been transmitted to us since his majesty’s happy restoration: Whether bawds, whores, thieves, buffoons, parasites, and such vile wretches as are naturally mercenary, have not more power at Whitehall, Versailles, the Vatican, and the Escurial, than in Venice, Amsterdam, and Switzerland: Whether Hide, Arlington, Danby, their Graces of Cleveland and Portsmouth, Sunderland, Jenkins or Chiffinch, could probably have attained such power as they have had amongst us, if it had been disposed by the suffrages of the parliament and people: Or lastly, whether such as know only how to work upon the personal vices of a man, have more influence upon one who happens to be born in a reigning family, or upon a senate consisting of men chosen for their virtues and quality, of the whole body of a nation.

But if he who possesses or affects an absolute power be by his interest led to introduce that corruption which the people, senate, and magistrates who uphold popular governments abhor, as that which threatens them with destruction: if the example, arts, and means used by him and his dependents be of wonderful efficacy towards the introduction of it: if nothing but an admirable virtue, which can hardly be in one that enjoys or desires such a power, can divert him from that design; and if such virtue never did, nor probably ever will continue long in any one family, we cannot rationally believe there ever was a race of men invested with, or possessing such a power, or that there will ever be any who have not, and will not endeavour to introduce that corruption, which is so necessary for the defence of their persons, and most important concernments, and certainly accomplish their great design, unless they are opposed or removed.

Algernon Sidney.



Algernon Sidney—Discourses Concerning Government.