Independence Hall Home Search Contents Indexes Help


Right of Revolution

CHAPTER 3 | Document 1

Algernon Sidney, Discourses concerning Government 1698 (posthumous)

Works 188--95, 458--62

Tumult is from the disorderly manner of those assemblies, where things can seldom be done regularly; and war is that "decertatio per vim," or trial by force, to which men come when other ways are ineffectual.

If the laws of God and men are therefore of no effect, when the magistracy is left at liberty to break them, and if the lusts of those, who are too strong for the tribunals of justice, cannot be otherwise restrained, than by sedition, tumults, and war, those seditions, tumults, and wars, are justified by the laws of God and man.

I will not take upon me to enumerate all the cases in which this may be done, but content myself with three, which have most frequently given occasion for proceedings of this kind.

The first is, when one or more men take upon them the power and name of a magistracy, to which they are not justly called.

The second, when one or more, being justly called, continue in their magistracy longer than the laws by which they are called do prescribe.

And the third, when he or they, who are rightly called, do assume a power, though within the time prescribed, that the law does not give; or turn that which the law does give, to an end different and contrary to that which is intended by it.

For the first, Filmer forbids us to examine titles. He tells us, we must submit to the power, whether acquired by usurpation or otherwise; not observing the mischievous absurdity of rewarding the most detestable villainies with the highest honours, and rendering the veneration due to the supreme magistrate, as father of the people, to one who has no other advantage above his brethren, than what he has gained by injuriously dispossessing or murdering him that was so. Hobbes, fearing the advantages that may be taken from such desperate nonsense, or not thinking it necessary to his end to carry the matter so far, has no regard at all to him who comes in without title or consent; and, denying him to be either king or tyrant, gives him no other name than "hostis et latro;" and allows all things to be lawful against him, that may be done to a public enemy or pirate: which is as much as to say, any man may destroy him how he can. Whatever he may be guilty of in other respects, he does in this follow the voice of mankind, and the dictates of common sense: for no man can make himself a magistrate for himself; and no man can have the right of a magistrate, who is not a magistrate. If he be justly accounted an enemy to all, who injures all, he above all must be the public enemy of a nation, who, by usurping a power over them, does the greatest and most public injury that a people can suffer. For which reason, by an established law among the most virtuous nations, every man might kill a tyrant; and no names are recorded in history with more honour, than of those who did it.

These are by other authors called "tyranni sine titulo." And that name is given to all those who obtain the supreme power by illegal and unjust means. The laws which they overthrow can give them no protection; and every man is a soldier against him who is a public enemy.

The same rule holds, though they are more in number; as the magi, who usurped the dominion of Persia after the death of Cambyses; the thirty tyrants at Athens over-thrown by Thrasybulus; those of Thebes slain by Pelopidas; the decemviri of Rome, and others. For though the multitude of offenders may sometimes procure impunity, yet that act which is wicked in one, must be so in ten or twenty; and whatever is lawful against one usurper is so against them all.

2. If those who were rightly created continue beyond the time limited by the law, it is the same thing. That which is expired is as if it had never been. He that was created consul for a year, or dictator for six months, was after that a private man; and, if he had continued in the exercise of his magistracy, had been subject to the same punishment as if he had usurped it at the first. This was known to Epaminondas; who finding that his enterprize against Sparta could not be accomplished within the time for which he was made Boeotarchon, rather chose to trust his countrymen with his life than to desist; and was saved merely through an admiration of his virtue, assurance of his good intentions, and the glory of the action.

The Roman decemviri, though duly elected, were proceeded against as private men usurping the magistracy, when they continued beyond their time. Other magistrates had ceased; there was none that could regularly call the senate or people to an assembly. But when their ambition was manifest, and the people exasperated by the death of Virginia, they laid aside all ceremonies. The senate and people met; and, exercising their authority in the same manner, as if they had been regularly called by the magistrate appointed to that end, they abrogated the power of the decemviri, proceeded against them as enemies and tyrants, and by that means preserved themselves from utter ruin.

3. The same course is justly used against a legal magistrate, who takes upon him, though within the time prescribed by the law, to exercise a power which the law does not give; for in that respect he is a private man, "quia," "as Grotius says, eatenùs non habet imperium," and may be restrained as well as any other, because he is not set up to do what he lists, but what the law appoints for the good of the people; and as he has no other power than what the law allows, so the same law limits and directs the exercise of that which he has. This right, naturally belonging to nations, is no way impaired by the name of supreme given to their magistrates; for it signifies no more, than that they do act sovereignly in the matters committed to their charge. Thus are the parliaments of France called "cours souveraines;" for they judge of life and death, determine controversies concerning estates, and there is no appeal from their decrees. But no man ever thought, that it was therefore lawful for them to do what they pleased; or that they might not be opposed, if they should attempt to do that which they ought not. And though the Roman dictators and consuls were supreme magistrates, they were subject to the people, and might be punished, as well as others, if they transgressed the law. Thuanus carries the word so far, that when Burlota, Giustiniano, and others who were but colonels, were sent as commanders in chief of three or four thousand men upon an enterprize, he always says, "summum imperium ei delatum." Grotius explains this point, by distinguishing those who have the "summum imperium summo modo," from those who have it "modo non summo." I know not where to find an example of this sovereign power, enjoyed without restriction, under a better title than "occupation;" which relates not to our purpose, who seek only that which is legal and just. Therefore, laying aside that point for the present, we may follow Grotius in examining the right of those who are certainly limited, "ubi partem imperii habet rex, partem senatus sive populus:" in which case he says, "regi in partem non suam involanti vis justa opponi potest;" inasmuch as they who have a part cannot but have a right of defending that part; "quia, datâ facultate, datur jus facultatem tuendi," without which it could be of no effect.

The particular limits of the rights belonging to each can only be judged by the precise letter, or general intention of the law. The dukes of Venice have certainly a part in the government, and could not be called magistrates, if they had not. They are said to be supreme: all laws and public acts bear their names. The embassador of the state, speaking to pope Paul the fifth, denied that he acknowledged any other superior besides God. But they are so well known to be under the power of the law, that divers of them have been put to death for transgressing it; and a marble gallows is seen at the foot of the stairs in St. Mark's palace, upon which some of them, and no others, have been executed. But if they may be duly opposed, when they commit undue acts, no man of judgement will deny, that if one of them by an outrageous violence should endeavour to overthrow the law, he might by violence be suppressed and chastised.

Again, some magistrates are entrusted with a power of providing ships, arms, ammunition, and victuals for war, raising and disciplining soldiers, appointing officers to command in forts and garrisons, and making leagues with foreign princes and states. But if one of these should imbezzle, sell, or give to an enemy those ships, arms, ammunition, or provisions, betray the forts, employ only or principally such men as will serve him in those wicked actions, and, contrary to the trust reposed in him, make such leagues with foreigners, as tend to the advancement of his personal interests, and to the detriment of the public, he abrogates his own magistracy; and the right he had, perishes, as the lawyers say, "frustratione finis." He cannot be protected by the law which he has overthrown, nor obtain impunity for his crimes from the authority that was conferred upon him, only that he might do good with it. He was "singulis major," on account of the excellence of his office; but "universis minor," from the nature and end of his institution. The surest way of extinguishing his prerogative was by turning it to the hurt of those who gave it. When matters are brought to this posture, the author of the mischief, or the nation, must perish. A flock cannot subsist under a shepherd that seeks its ruin, nor a people under an unfaithful magistrate. Honour and riches are justly heaped upon the heads of those who rightly perform their duty, because the difficulty as well as the excellency of the work is great. It requires courage, experience, industry, fidelity, and wisdom. "The good shepherd, says our Saviour, lays down his life for his sheep." The hireling, who flies in time of danger, is represented under an ill character; but he that sets himself to destroy his flock, is a wolf. His authority is incompatible with their subsistence. And whoever disapproves tumults, seditions, or war, by which he may be removed from it, if gentler means are ineffectual, subverts the foundation of all law, exalts the fury of one man to the destruction of a nation, and giving an irresistible power to the most abominable iniquity, exposes all that are good to be destroyed, and virtue to be utterly extinguished.

Few will allow such a pre-eminence to the dukes of Venice or Genoa, the avoyers of Switzerland, or the burgomasters of Amsterdam. Many will say these are rascals if they prove false, and ought rather to be hanged, than suffered to accomplish the villainies they design. But if this be confessed in relation to the highest magistrates that are among those nations, why should not the same be in all others, by what name soever they are called? When did God confer upon those nations the extraordinary privilege of providing better for their own safety than others? Or was the gift universal, though the benefit accrue only to those who have banished great titles from among them? If this be so, it is not their felicity, but their wisdom, that we ought to admire and imitate. But why should any think their ancestors had not the same care? Have not they, who retained in themselves a power over a magistrate of one name, the like over another? Is there a charm in words, or any name of such efficacy, that he who receives it should immediately become master of those that created him; whereas all others do remain for ever subject to them? Would the Venetian government change its nature, if they should give the name of king to their prince? Are the Polanders less free since the title of king is conferred upon their dukes? Or are the Moscovites less slaves, because their chief magistrate has no other than that of duke? If we examine things but a little, it will appear, that magistrates have enjoyed large powers, who never had the name of kings; and none were ever more restrained by laws than those of Sparta, Arragon, the Goths in Spain, Hungary, Bohemia, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, and others, who had that title. There is therefore no such thing as a right universally belonging to a name; but every one enjoys that which the laws, by which he is, confer upon him. The law that gives the power, regulates it. And they, who give no more than what they please, cannot be obliged to suffer him to whom they give it, to take more than they thought fit to give, or to go unpunished if he do. The agreements made are always confirmed by oath, and the treachery of violating them is consequently aggravated by perjury. They are excellent philosophers, and able divines, who think that this can create a right to those who had none; or that the laws can be a protection to such as overthrow them, and give opportunity of doing the mischiefs they design! If not, then he that was a magistrate, by such actions returns into the condition of a private man; and whatever is lawful against a thief, who submits to no law, is lawful against him.

Men who delight in cavils may ask, who shall be the judge of these occasions? and whether I intend to give to the people the decision of their own cause? To which I answer, that when the contest is between the magistrate and the people, the party, to which the determination is referred, must be the judge of his own case; and the question is only, whether the magistrate should depend upon the judgment of the people, or the people on that of the magistrate, and which is most to be suspected of injustice? that is, whether the people of Rome should judge Tarquin, or Tarquin judge the people? He that knew all good men abhorred him for the murder of his wife, brother, father-in-law, and the best of the senate, would certainly strike off the heads of the most eminent remaining poppies; and having incurred the general hatred of the people by the wickedness of his government, he feared revenge; and endeavouring to destroy those he feared, that is the city, he might easily have accomplished his work, if the judgment had been referred to him. If the people judge Tarquin, it is hard to imagine how they should be brought to give an unjust sentence: they loved their former kings, and hated him only for his villainies: they did not fancy, but know his cruelty. When the best were slain, no man that any way resembled them could think himself secure. Brutus did not pretend to be a fool, till, by the murder of his brother, he found how dangerous a thing it was to be thought wise. If the people, as our author says, be always lewd, foolish, mad, wicked, and desirous to put the power into the hands of such as are most like to themselves, he and his sons were such men as they fought, and he was sure to find favourable judges: if virtuous and good, no injustice was to be feared from them, and he could have no other reason to decline their judgment, than what was suggested by his own wickedness. Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and the like had probably the same considerations. But no man of common sense ever thought that the senate and people of Rome did not better deserve to judge, whether such monsters should reign over the best part of mankind to their destruction, than they to determine whether their crimes should be punished or not.

If I mention some of these known cases, every man's experience will suggest others of the like nature. And whoever condemns all seditions, tumults, and wars, raised against such princes, must say, that none are wicked, or seek the ruin of their people, which is absurd; for Caligula wished the people had but one neck, that he might cut it off at a blow. Nero set the city on fire. And we have known such as have been worse than either of them. They must either be suffered to continue in the free exercise of their rage, that is, to do all the mischief they design, or must be restrained by a legal, judicial, or extrajudicial way. They who disallow the extrajudicial, do as little like the judicial. They will not hear of bringing a supreme magistrate before a tribunal, when it may be done. "They will," says our author, "depose their kings." Why should they not be deposed, if they become enemies to their people, and set up an interest in their own persons inconsistent with public good, for the promoting of which they were erected? If they were created by the public consent, for the public good, shall they not be removed when they prove to be of public damage? If they set up themselves, may they not be thrown down? Shall it be lawful for them to usurp a power over the liberty of others, and shall it not be lawful for an injured people to resume their own? If injustice exalt itself, must it be for ever established? Shall great persons be rendered sacred by rapine, perjury, and murder? Shall the crimes, for which private men do justly suffer the most grievous punishments, exempt them from all, who commit them in the highest excess, with most power, and most to the prejudice of mankind? Shall the laws that solely aim at the prevention of crimes be made to patronize them, and become snares to the innocent, whom they ought to protect? Has every man given up into the common store his right of avenging the injuries he may receive, that the public power, which ought to protect or avenge him, should be turned to the destruction of himself, his posterity, and the society into which they enter, without any possibility of redress? Shall the ordinance of God be rendered of no effect; or the powers he has appointed to be set up, for the distribution of justice, be made subservient to the lusts of one or a few men, and by impunity encourage them to commit all manner of crimes? Is the corruption of man's nature so little known, that such as have common sense should expect justice from those, who fear no punishment if they do injustice; or that the modesty, integrity, and innocence, which is seldom found in one man, though ever so cautiously chosen, should be constantly found in all those who by any means attain to greatness, and continue for ever in their successors; or that there can be any security under their government, if they have them not? Surely if this were the condition of men living under government, forests would be more safe than cities; and it were better for every man to stand in his own defence, than to enter into societies. He that lives alone might encounter such as should assault him upon equal terms, and stand or fall according to the measure of his courage and strength; but no valour can defend him, if the malice of his enemy be upheld by a public power. There must therefore be a right of proceeding judicially or extrajudicially against all persons who transgress the laws; or else those laws, and the societies that should subsist by them, cannot stand; and the ends for which governments are constituted, together with the governments themselves, must be overthrown. Extrajudicial proceedings, by sedition, tumult, or war, must take place, when the persons concerned are of such power, that they cannot be brought under the judicial. They who deny this deny all help against an usurping tyrant, or the perfidiousness of a lawfully created magistrate, who adds the crimes of ingratitude and treachery to usurpation. These of all men are the most dangerous enemies to supreme magistrates. For as no man desires indemnity for such crimes as are never committed, he that would exempt all from punishment, supposes they will be guilty of the worst; and by concluding, that the people will depose them if they have the power, acknowledges, that they pursue an interest annexed to their persons, contrary to that of their people, which they would not bear if they could deliver themselves from it. This, shewing all those governments to be tyrannical, lays such a burden upon those who administer them, as must necessarily weigh them down to destruction.

If it be said, that the word sedition implies that which is evil, I answer, that it ought not then to be applied to those who seek nothing but that which is just; and though the ways of delivering an oppressed people from the violence of a wicked magistrate, who has armed a crew of lewd villains, and fatted them with the blood and confiscations of such as were most ready to oppose them, be extraordinary, the inward righteousness of the act does fully justify the authors. "He that has virtue and power to save a people, can never want a right of doing it." Valerius Asiaticus had no hand in the death of Caligula; but when the furious guards began tumultuously to inquire who had killed him, he appeased them with wishing he had been the man. No wise man ever asked by what authority Thrasybulus, Harmodius, Aristogiton, Pelopidas, Epaminondas, Dion, Timoleon, Lucius Brutus, Publicola, Horatius, Valerius, Marcus Brutus, Caius Cassius, and the like, delivered their countries from tyrants. Their actions carried in themselves their own justification, and their virtues will never be forgotten, while the names of Greece and Rome are remembered in the world.

If this be not enough to declare the justice inherent in, and the glory that ought to accompany these works, the examples of Moses, Aaron, Othniel, Ehud, Barak, Gideon, Samuel, Jephthah, David, Jehu, Jehoiada, the Maccabees, and other holy men raised up by God for the deliverance of his people from their oppressors, decide the question. They are perpetually renowned for having led the people by extraordinary ways (which such as our author express under the names of sedition, tumult, and war) to recover their liberties, and avenge the injuries received from foreign or domestic tyrants. The work of the apostles was not in their time to set up or pull down any civil state; but they so behaved themselves in relation to all the powers of the earth, that they gained the name of pestilent, seditious fellows, disturbers of the people; and left it as an inheritance to those, who, in succeeding ages, by following their steps, should deserve to be called their successors; whereby they were exposed to the hatred of corrupt magistrates, and brought under the necessity of perishing by them, or defending themselves against them. And he who denies them that right does at once condemn the most glorious actions of the wisest, best, and holiest men that have been in the world, together with the laws of God and man, upon which they were founded.

Nevertheless, there is a sort of sedition, tumult, and war, proceeding from malice, which is always detestable, aiming only at the satisfaction of private lust, without regard to the public good. This cannot happen in a popular government, unless it be among the rabble; or when the body of the people is so corrupted, that it cannot stand; but is most frequent in, and natural to absolute monarchies.

. . . . .

But if the patience of a conquered people may have limits, and they, who will not bear oppression from those who had spared their lives, may deserve praise and reward from their conquerors, it would be madness to think, that any nation can be obliged to bear whatever their own magistrates think fit to do against them. This may seem strange to those who talk so much of conquests made by kings, immunities, liberties, and privileges, granted to nations, oaths of allegiance taken, and wonderful benefits conferred upon them. But, having already said as much as is needful concerning conquests, and that the magistrate, who has nothing except what is given to him, can only dispense out of the public stock such franchises and privileges as he has received for the reward of services done to the country, and encouragement of virtue, I shall at present keep myself to the two last points.

Allegiance signifies no more (as the words "ad legem" declare) than such an obedience as the law requires. But as the law can require nothing from the whole people, who are masters of it, allegiance can only relate to particulars, and not to the whole nation. No oath can bind any other than whose who take it, and that only in the true sense and meaning of it: but single men only take this oath, and therefore single men are only obliged to keep it. The body of a people neither does, nor can perform any such act. Agreements and contracts have been made; as the tribe of Judah, and the rest of Israel afterward, made a covenant with David, upon which they made him king; but no wise man can think, that the nation did thereby make themselves the creature of their own creature.

The sense also of an oath ought to be considered. No man can by an oath be obliged to any thing beyond, or contrary to the true meaning of it. Private men, who swear obedience "ad legem," swear no obedience "extra" or "contra legem." Whatever they promise or swear can detract nothing from the public liberty, which the law principally intends to preserve. Though many of them may be obliged, in their several stations and capacities, to render peculiar services to a prince, the people continue as free as the internal thoughts of a man, and cannot but have a right to preserve their liberty, or avenge the violation.

If matters are well examined, perhaps not many magistrates can pretend to much upon the title of merit, especially if they or their progenitors have continued long in office. The conveniences annexed to the exercise of the sovereign power may be thought sufficient to pay such scores, as they grow due, even to the best: and as things of that nature are handled, I think it will hardly be found, that all princes can pretend to an irresistible power upon the account of beneficence to their people. When the family of the Medici came to be masters of Tuscany, that country was, without dispute, in men, money, and arms, one of the most flourishing provinces in the world, as appears by Machiavel's account, and the relation of what happened between Charles the eighth, and the magistrates of Florence, which I have mentioned already from Guicciardini. Now, whoever shall consider the strength of that country in those days, together with what it might have been in the space of a hundred and forty years, in which they have had no war, nor any other plague, than the extortion, fraud, rapine, and cruelty of their princes, and compare it with their present desolate, wretched, and contemptible condition, may, if he please, think, that much veneration is due to the princes that govern them; but will never make any man believe, that their title can be grounded upon beneficence. The like may be said of the duke of Savoy, who, pretending, upon I know not what account, that every peasant in the dutchy ought to pay him two crowns every half-year, did in 1662 subtilly find out, that in every year there were thirteen halves; so that a poor man, who had nothing but what he gained by hard labour, was through his fatherly care and beneficence forced to pay six and twenty crowns to his royal highness, to be employed in his discreet and virtuous pleasures at Turin.

The condition of the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands (and even of Spain itself) when they fell to the house of Austria, was of the same nature: and I will confess as much as can be required, if any other marks of their government do remain, than such as are manifest evidences of their pride, avarice, luxury, and cruelty.

France, in outward appearance, makes a better shew; but nothing in this world is more miserable, than that people under the fatherly care of their triumphant monarch. The best of their condition is like asses and mastiff-dogs, to work and fight, to be oppressed and killed for him; and those among them, who have any understanding, well know, that their industry, courage, and good success, is not only unprofitable, but destructive to them; and that, by increasing the power of their master, they add weight to their own chains. And if any prince, or succession of princes, have made a more modest use of their power, or more faithfully discharged the trust reposed in them, it must be imputed peculiarly to them, as a testimony of their personal virtue, and can have no effect upon others.

The rights therefore of kings are not grounded upon conquest: the liberties of nations do not arise from the grants of their princes: the oath of allegiance binds no private man to more than the law directs, and has no influence upon the whole body of every nation. Many princes are known to their subjects only by the injuries, losses, and mischiefs, brought upon them. Such as are good and just ought to be rewarded for their personal virtue, but can confer no right upon those who no way resemble them; and whoever pretends to that merit must prove it by his actions. Rebellion, being nothing but a renewed war, can never be against a government that was not established by war, and of itself is neither good nor evil, more than any other war; but is just or unjust, according to the cause or manner of it. Besides, that rebellion, which by Samuel is compared to witchcraft, is not of private men, or a people, against the prince, but of the prince against God. The Israelites are often said to have rebelled against the law, word, or command of God; but though they frequently opposed their kings, I do not find rebellion imputed to them on that account, nor any ill character put upon such actions. We are told also of some kings who had been subdued, and afterwards rebelled against Chedorlaomer, and other kings; but their cause is not blamed, and we have some reason to believe it good, because Abraham took part with those who had rebelled. However, it can be of no prejudice to the cause I defend: for though it were true, that those subdued kings could not justly rise against the person who had subdued them, or that generally no king, being once vanquished, could have a right of rebellion against his conqueror, it could have no relation to the actions of a people vindicating their own laws and liberties against a prince who violates them; for that war which never was can never be renewed. And if it be true in any case, that hands and swords are given to men, that they only may be slaves who have no courage, it must be when liberty is overthrown by those, who of all men ought with the utmost industry and vigour to have defended it.

That this should be known, is not only necessary for the safety of nations, but advantageous to such kings as are wise and good. They who know the frailty of human nature will always distrust their own; and desiring only to do what they ought, will be glad to be restrained from that which they ought not to do. Being taught by reason and experience, that nations delight in the peace and justice of a good government, they will never fear a general insurrection, whilst they take care it be rightly administered; and finding themselves by this means to be safe will never be unwilling, that their children or successors should be obliged to tread in the same steps.

If it be said, that this may sometimes cause disorders, I acknowledge it; but no human condition being perfect, such a one is to be chosen, which carries with it the most tolerable inconveniences: and it being much better, that the irregularities and excesses of a prince should be restrained or suppressed, than that whole nations should perish by them, those constitutions that make the best provision against the greatest evils are most to be commended. If governments were instituted to gratify the lusts of one man, those could not be good that set limits to them; but all reasonable men confessing that they are instituted for the good of nations, they only can deserve praise, who above all things endeavour to procure it, and appoint means proportioned to that end. The great variety of governments, which we see in the world, is nothing but the effect of this care; and all nations have been, and are more or less happy, as they or their ancestors have had vigour of spirit, integrity of manners, and wisdom to invent and establish such orders, as have better or worse provided for this common good, which was sought by all. But as no rule can be so exact as to make provision against all contestations; and all disputes about right do naturally end in force when justice is denied (ill men never willingly submitting to any decision, that is contrary to their passions and interests) the best constitutions are of no value, if there be not a power to support them. This power first exerts itself in the execution of justice by the ordinary officers. But no nation having been so happy, as not sometimes to produce such princes as Edward the second and Richard the second, and such ministers, as Gaveston, Spencer, and Tresilian, the ordinary officers of justice often want the will, and always the power, to restrain them. So that the rights and liberties of a nation must be utterly subverted and abolished, if the power of the whole may not be employed to assert them, or punish the violation of them. But as it is the fundamental right of every nation to be governed by such laws, in such manner, and by such persons, as they think most conducing to their own good, they cannot be accountable to any but themselves for what they do in that most important affair.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 3, Document 1
The University of Chicago Press

The Works of Algernon Sydney. A New Edition. London, 1772.

Easy to print version.

Home | Search | Contents | Indexes | Help

© 1987 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2000