Famously, Thomas Jefferson cited four men in his lineage of thinkers who had played central roles in inspiring the American common sense of the subject as declared on July 4, 1776, by the Second Continental Congress. “All its [the Declaration’s] authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” Scholars have latched onto the reference to Locke to the nth degree. Many also have an understanding of why Aristotle and Cicero would be important to the founding generation. But, poor Algernon Sidney almost always gets just the mention, the bypassing reference, with little or no details. It would be fair to state that probably most Americans are not even sure that Sidney’s first name was Algernon.
For a very long time in American history, pre and post American revolution, the opposite held true. Sidney’s name appeared throughout America—as the name of cities and towns, in libraries, and even in the popular first name of young men and, eventually, young women.
Just as the names and reputations of such diverse figures as Andrew Jackson, George Armstrong Custer, and Alexis De Tocqueville have enjoyed long periods of descent and ascent, periods of homage and periods of neglect, so has the name and reputation of Algernon Sidney. He had a long period of popularity in this country, only to fade quickly and, seemingly, permanently.
In the summer of 1947, the William and Mary Quarterly, arguably the finest academic journal America has produced, published a stunning article by one of the foremost mid-career scholars of the day, Caroline Robbins (1903-1999). She had departed her native England for the New World after earning her PhD from the University of London.
She spent her academic career, 1929 to 1971, at Bryn Mawr, leading the cause of a classical republican understanding of the American founding against the Lockean liberal interpretation. Allied with Douglas Adair, Trevor Colbourn, and other important historians and theorists, she promoted the cause and historical memory of the Commonwealth Men. I have had the happy opportunity to explore her arguments fully at The Imaginative Conservative previously. While at Bryn Mawr, she held the prestigious Marjorie Walker Goodhart Chair. By all accounts, she was as demanding of her students as she was of her own scholarship.
“Miss Robbins,” [Professor Arthur Duden] said, “was a demanding teacher who insisted on the exacting reading of texts. She was completely intolerant of laziness, stupid remarks and excuses. Her manner could be intimidating to the more timid students.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, February 11, 1999]
She came from a nonconformist religious background, and this seems to have inspired her own form of individualism, feminism, and inspiring and insightful scholarship. Her beloved older brother was the famous war hero (WWI) and economist, Lord Lionel Robbins (1898-1984), real founder of the London School of Economics and close friend of Friedrich Hayek. She had dedicated her most famous book, The Commonwealth Men (1959) to her brother.
Rather than promote republican thinking at the expense of liberal thinking, Caroline Robbins recognized the overlap and commonality of the various schools of thought that led to the American founding. In their Cato Letters, printed repeatedly in the American colonies throughout the eighteenth century, Trenchard and Gordon, for example, took what they needed from Locke to make their arguments. A pure John Locke—tabula rasa and all—would not have made much sense to a largely Protestant and God-fearing reading audience. But a Locke that noticed usurpations and repeated abuses by a monarch would make sense to a people that feared the same behavior from king and pope. Trenchard and Gordon, therefore, bettered Locke, by placing him in the context of James Harrington, Robert Molesworth, and others.
Her seminal 1947 article, “Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government: Textbook of Revolution,” placed the subject front and center, noting his once vital importance to any understanding of the American revolutionary period. Opening her article with a fascinating point, she argued that few things could demonstrate his importance more than the new seal of the Massachusetts revolutionary government in 1775, used to this day. An American holds a sword in his right hand, a copy of the Magna Carta in the left hand. The tagline, though, came from the famous opening to Sidney’s Discourses, a Latin line that all Americans of the 1770s knew well, translated roughly as “this hand, set against tyrants, seeks for peace under liberty with the sword.” And, not just Thomas Jefferson, but men as diverse as Josiah Quincy, John Adams, Jonathan Mayhew, and John Taylor of Caroline revered Sidney and his Discourses.
Born into a well-to-do aristocratic family, Algernon Sidney (ca. 1622-1683) began early adulthood as a supporter of Charles I but changed sides during battle in 1643, joining the Roundheads. He served as one of the judges/jurors to try Charles in 1649. After the execution of the king, Robbins argued, Sidney attempted to be a via media, fearing “equally a military dictatorship and a royalist restoration.” He soon fell out of favor with Cromwell and opposed him, spending several years in seclusion. Little improved, though, with the restoration, and he left England, in quasi-self imposed exile, from 1660-1677. With the support of William Penn and others, Sidney attempted to get a seat in Parliament numerous times between 1678 and 1680, but failed each time. The restoration government executed him on December 7, 1683.
His arguments in favor of republicanism and against monarchy (especially absolute monarchy as defined and promoted by Robert Filmer in Patriarcha (1680)), Discourses Concerning Government did not appear until 1698, a full fifteen years after his martyrdom. As Robbins effectively argues, his arguments meant some thing only to a little band of followers in England after his death. In America, however, their fame became nothing short of legendary throughout all of the eighteenth century. Though few remembered him in his mother country by 1770, he served as one of the greatest of republican saints and martyrs in the English colonies of North America.
Not surprisingly, Sidney argued that liberties were rooted in God’s will as given through His instruments of grace and nature, not in man’s intellect. Man did not make liberties, he only recognized them and secured them after graciously accepting them from the Divine.
Our Saviour taught us not to fear such as could kill the body, but him that could kill and cast into hell: And the Apostle tells us that we should obey God rather than man.2 It hath been ever hereupon observed, that they who most precisely adhere to the laws of God, are least solicitous concerning the commands of men, unless they are well grounded; and those who most delight in the glorious liberty of the sons of God, do not only subject themselves to him, but are most regular observers of the just ordinances of man, made by the consent of such as are concerned according to the will of God. [Sidney, Discourses (Liberty Fund edition), 9]
What is surprising, however, is how much Sidney relies upon the arguments of the greatest of neo-Thomist Jesuits—especially the Italian so hated in Britain, Roberto Bellermino. Indeed, his own understanding of a state of nature, of Divine grace, and of human liberty is much more closely related to Thomas and his followers than it is to Hobbes, Locke, and their respective followers. Rather humorously, Sidney anticipated objections to his positive employment of Jesuit(itical?) arguments.
I do not find any great matters in the passages taken out of Bellarmine, which our author says, comprehend the strength of all that ever he had heard, read, or seen produced for the natural liberty of the subject:5 but he not mentioning where they are to be found, I do not think myself obliged to examine all his works, to see whether they are rightly cited or not; however there is certainly nothing new in them: We see the same, as to the substance, in those who wrote many ages before him, as well as in many that have lived since his time, who neither minded him, nor what he had written. I dare not take upon me to give an account of his works, having read few of them; but as he seems to have laid the foundation of his discourses in such common notions as were assented to by all mankind, those who follow the same method have no more regard to Jesuitism and popery, tho he was a Jesuit and a cardinal, than they who agree with Faber6 and other Jesuits in the principles of geometry which no sober man did ever deny. [Sidney, Discourses (Liberty Fund edition), 19]
It is from Jefferson’s use of Sidney and Sidney’s use of Bellermine that has prompted so many Catholics to argue in favor of a Catholic “founding” in America. Such an argument stretches intellectual reality too much. But, completely denying the influence of the neo-Thomists on the Declaration would be equally misleading.
In his own extraordinary scholarship on the American founding, everyone’s favorite pirate scholar, Don Lutz, notes that as much as the first three paragraphs of the Declaration are influenced by John Locke, they might be equally influenced by Sidney. As Lutz puts it so well, Jefferson’s direct quoting and paraphrasing of Locke has misled us into thinking almost solely of his influence. The structure of the argument Jefferson presents, Lutz continues, has far more in common with Sidney’s views than it does with Locke’s.
It might be worth going back to Jefferson’s letter of 1825. These were the ideas of Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Sidney. All were important, and one really cannot be separated from another. They form, as Christian Kopff has so effectively claimed, a powerful lineage.
The point of this little post has not been to shed new light on Sidney or the Declaration, but to explore yet one more source for a very complicated time period. As our own John Willson has reminded us many, many times: there was no ONE American founding. Instead, there were several. There were no six or so founders who counted more than others. There were not statesmen and pious dupes. There were Americans. A lot of them. All sharing a common upbringing and experience, but each with his own dignity, his own thoughts, his own rights, his own duties, his own expertise, his own interests, his own services, his own failings. Yes, the founders as a whole and individually came very close to demigod status. But, in the end, they, too, were gloriously fallen human beings.
Still, very interesting and inspiring ones, to be sure.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.