December 7 has “lived in infamy” since Pearl Harbor. But that date was infamous before America was a country. On that date in 1683, Algernon Sydney, who opposed Charles II for overstepping his powers, was executed for treason after a trial so blatantly violating his rights that Parliament overturned his conviction in 1689. The key evidence was an unpublished manuscript arguing that kings were not above the law, which, 15 years later, became Discourses Concerning Government.
Sydney died for asserting citizens’ right of revolution against a king who exceeded his legal authority. That radical claim helped inspire the American Revolution, because, according to Thomas West, “His death as a martyr to liberty inspired [colonists] with a model in their own risky enterprise against the force of English arms.” On December 7, Sydney’s revolutionary words for liberty from government abuse merits reconsideration.
Our rights and liberties are innate, inherent....from God and nature, not from Kings…He who enjoys [liberty] cannot be deprived of it, unless by his own consent, or by force...In relation to my house, land, or estate; I may do what I please with them, if I bring no damage upon others.
Our natural liberty…is of so great importance that from thence only can we know whether we are freemen of slaves.
The liberty of one man cannot be limited or diminished by…any number of men, and none can give away the right of another…ambition...cannot give a right to any over the liberties of a whole nation. Those who are so set up…are rather to be accounted robbers and pirates than magistrates.
Government[s]...degenerate into a most unjust and despicable tyranny, so soon as the supreme lord begins to prefer his own interest…before the good of his subjects...such an extreme deviation from the end of their institution annuls it; and the wound thereby given to the natural and original rights of those nations cannot be cured, unless they resume the liberties of which they have been deprived.
Prerogative is instituted only for the preservation of liberty...governments...in which every man’s liberty is least restrained...would be the most just, rational and natural...
The supreme law…[is] the preservation of liberties, goods, lands and lives…all laws must be subservient and subordinate to it…if there be no other law…than the will of [government], there is no such thing as liberty. Property is also an appendage to liberty; and ‘tis...impossible for a man to have a right to lands or goods, if he has no liberty...overthrown by those who…ought with the utmost industry and vigor to have defended it.
Magistracy is not instituted…but for the preservation of the whole people, and the defense of the liberty, life and estate of every private man.
Is it possible that any one man can make himself lord of a people...to whom God had given the liberty of governing themselves, by any other means than violence or fraud...the most outrageous injury that can be done…We are free-men...no man has a power over us, which is not given...the ends for which they are given…can be no other than to defend us from all manner of arbitrary power.
Shall it be lawful for [rulers] to usurp a power over the liberty of others, and shall it not be lawful for an injured people to resume their own?...The people…cannot but have a right to preserve their liberty…Those who defend, or endeavor to recover their violated liberties…act vigorously in a cause that God does evidently patronize.
Algernon Sydney defended “the natural, universal liberty of mankind.” He helped inspire the American Revolution, because “a people from all ages in love with liberty and desirous to maintain their own privileges could never be brought to resign them.” However, it is unclear that Americans retain such beliefs, judging from government’s massive overstepping on our rights. We should revisit his understanding and commitment if we are to reclaim our heritage of liberty.