Posted by: Democratic Thinker | July 4, 2010

Algernon Sidney: Liberty—A Gift of God and Nature

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.

‘Tis in vain to say, that wheresoever they came, the land did belong to somebody, and that they who came to dwell there must be subject to the laws of those who were lords of the soil, for that is not always true in fact.


The Liberty of a People is the gift of God and Nature.

Algernon Sidney —LIBERTAS.

IF any man ask how nations come to have the power of doing these things, I answer, that liberty being only an exemption from the dominion of another, the question ought not to be, how a nation can come to be free, but how a man comes to have a dominion over it; for till the right of dominion be proved and justified, liberty subsists as arising from the nature and being of a man. Tertullian speaking of the emperors says, “Ab eo imperium a quo spirit us;” and we taking man in his first condition may justly say, “ab eo libertas a quo spiritus;” for no man can owe more than he has received. The creature having nothing, and being nothing but what the creator makes him, must owe all to him, and nothing to anyone from whom he has received nothing. Man therefore must be naturally free, unless he be created by another power than we have yet heard of. The obedience due to parents arises from hence, in that they are the instruments of our generation; and we are instructed by the light of reason, that we ought to make great returns to those from whom under God we have received all. When they die we are their heirs, we enjoy the same rights, and devolve the same to our posterity. God only who confers this right upon us, can deprive us of it: and we can no way understand that he does so, unless he had so declared by express revelation, or had set some distinguishing marks of dominion and subjection upon men; and, as an ingenious person not long since said, caused some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs. This liberty therefore must continue, till it be either forfeited or willingly resigned. The forfeiture is hardly comprehensible in a multitude that is not entered into any society; for as they are all equal, and “equals can have no right over each other,” * no man can forfeit anything to one who can justly demand nothing, unless it may be by a personal injury, which is nothing to this case; because where there is no society, one man is not bound by the actions of another. All cannot join in the same act, because they are joined in none; or if they should, no man could recover, much less transmit the forfeiture; and not being transmitted, it perishes as if it had never been, and no man can claim anything from it.

* Par in parem non habet imperium.

‘Twill be no less difficult to bring resignation to be subservient to our author’s purpose; for men could not resign their liberty, unless they naturally had it in themselves. Resignation is a public declaration of their assent to be governed by the person to whom they resign; that is, they do by that act constitute him to be their governor. This necessarily puts us upon the inquiry, why they do resign, how they will be governed, and proves the governor to be their creature; and the right of disposing the government must be in them, or they who receive it can have none. This is so evident to common sense, that it were impertinent to ask who made Carthage, Athens, Rome or Venice to be free cities. Their charters were not from men, but from God and nature. When a number of Phœnicians had found a port on the coast of Africa, they might perhaps agree with the inhabitants for a parcel of ground, but they brought their liberty with them. When a company of Latins, Sabines and Tuscans met together upon the banks of the Tiber, and chose rather to build a city for themselves, than to live in such as were adjacent, they carried their liberty in their own breasts, and had hands and swords to defend it. This was their charter; and Romulus could confer no more upon them, than Dido upon the Carthaginians. When a multitude of barbarous nations infested Italy, and no protection could be expected from the corrupted and perishing empire, such as agreed to seek a place of refuge in the scatter’d islands of the Adriatic gulf, had no need of any man’s authority to ratify the institution of their government. They who were the formal part of the city, and had built the material, could not but have a right of governing it as they pleased, since if they did amiss, the hurt was only to themselves. ‘Tis probable enough that some of the Roman emperors, as lords of the soil, might have pretended to a dominion over them, if there had been any colour for it: but nothing of that kind appearing in thirteen hundred years, we are not like to hear of any such cavils. ‘Tis agreed by mankind, that subjection and protection are relative; and that he who cannot protect those that are under him, in vain pretends to a dominion over them. The only ends for which governments are constituted, and obedience render’d to them, are the obtaining of justice and protection; and they who cannot provide for both, give the people a right of taking such ways as best please themselves, in order to their own safety.

The matter is yet more clear in relation to those who never were in any society, as at the beginning, or renovation of the world after the flood; or who upon the dissolution of the societies to which they did once belong, or by some other accident have been obliged to seek new habitations. Such were those who went from Babylon upon the confusion of tongues, those who escaped from Troy when it was burnt by the Grecians; almost all the nations of Europe, with many of Asia and Africa upon the dissolution of the Roman empire. To which may be added a multitude of Northern nations, who, when they had increased to such numbers that their countries could no longer nourish them, or because they wanted skill to improve their lands, were sent out to provide for themselves; and having done so, did erect many kingdoms and states, either by themselves, or in union and coalition with the ancient inhabitants.

‘Tis in vain to say, that wheresoever they came, the land did belong to somebody, and that they who came to dwell there must be subject to the laws of those who were lords of the soil, for that is not always true in fact. Some come into desert countries that have no lord, others into such as are thinly peopled, by men who knowing not how to improve their land, do either grant part of it upon easy terms to the new comers, or grow into a union with them in the enjoyment of the whole; and histories furnish us with infinite examples of this nature.

If we will look into our own original, without troubling ourselves with the senseless stories of Samothes the son of Japheth and his magicians, or the giants begotten by spirits upon the thirty daughters of Danaus sent from Phœnicia in a boat without sail, oars or rudder, we shall find that when the Romans abandoned this island, the inhabitants were left to a full liberty of providing for themselves: and whether we deduce our original from them or the Saxons, or from both, our ancestors were perfectly free; and the Normans having inherited the same right when they came to be one nation with the former, we cannot but continue so still unless we have enslaved ourselves.

Nothing is more contrary to reason than to imagine this. When the fierce barbarity of the Saxons came to be softened by a more gentle climate, the arts and religion they learnt, taught them to reform their manners, and better enabled them to frame laws for the preservation of their liberty, but no way diminished their love to it: and tho’ the Normans might desire to get the lands of those who had joined with Harold, and of others into their hands; yet when they were settled in the country, and by marriages united to the ancient inhabitants, they became true Englishmen, and no less lovers of liberty and resolute defenders of it than the Saxons had been. There was then neither conquering Norman nor conquered Saxon, but a great and brave people composed of both, united in blood and interest in the defence of their common rights, which they so well maintained, that no prince since that time has too violently encroached upon them, who, as the reward of his folly, has not lived miserably and died shamefully.

Such actions of our ancestors do not, as I suppose, savour much of the submission which patrimonial slaves do usually render to the will of their lord. On the contrary, whatsoever they did was by a power inherent in themselves to defend that liberty in which they were born. All their kings were created upon the same condition, and for the same ends. Alfred acknowledged he found and left them perfectly free; and the confession of Offa, that they had not made him king for his own merits, but for the defence of their liberty, comprehends all that were before and after him. They well knew how great the honour was, to be made head of a great people, and rigorously exacted the performance of the ends for which such a one was elevated, severely punishing those who basely and wickedly betray’d the trust reposed in them, and violated all that is most sacred among men; which could not have been unless they were naturally free, for the liberty that has no being cannot be defended.

—Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Vol. III.

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Algernon Sidney—Discourses Concerning Government.