Thomas Jefferson regarded John Locke and Algernon Sidney as the two leading sources for the American understanding of the principles of political liberty and the rights of humanity. Locke’s Second Treatise is readily available, but since 1805 only one major reprint of Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government has appeared until now. This neglect is as undeserved today as it was when John Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1823:
I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on government. … As often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration [i.e., wonder] that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce—as well for the intrinsic merit of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, and political illumination in the world—ought to be now published in America.
Sidney (or Sydney, as it was sometimes spelled) was once a popular hero. Like Socrates, he was famous for his controversial doctrines on government and for a nobility of character displayed during a dramatic trial and execution that was widely regarded as judicial murder. Unlike Socrates, Sidney was emphatically a political man and a partisan of republicanism. For a century and more he was celebrated as a martyr to free government, as Socrates is still celebrated as a martyr to the philosophic way of life. Socrates died the defiant inquirer, who knew only that he did not know the most important things. Sidney, in contrast, the defiant republican, kept getting into trouble for his democratic political views and projects. Asked to sign an inscription in the visitor’s book at the University of Copenhagen, Sidney wrote, with typical spirit,
Manus haec inimica tyrannis
Einse petit placidam cum libertate quietem.
(This hand, enemy to tyrants,
By the sword seeks calm peacefulness with liberty.)
Eighteenth-century editors of Sidney’s Discourses printed this beneath the frontispiece, and it remains the official motto of the state of Massachusetts to this day.
Sidney fell out of fashion during the nineteenth century. The educated began to favor statesmen like Cromwell and Napoleon, who relished the exercise of unrestrained power for grand projects in the service of mankind. Scholars have recently shown renewed interest in Sidney as an object of research. But in spite of twentieth-century tyrannies more terrible than any Sidney experienced or read about, he still fails to satisfy the taste of most contemporary intellectuals. This new edition of Discourses Concerning Government may provide an occasion for students of political liberty to reassess Sidney’s eclipse.