A Man of Action

Remembering Algernon Sydney

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

Marston Moor

If one were bold enough to venture into a dimly lit London tavern in the late 17th century, he might find a crew of old veterans huddled around a corner table, confiding in each other under a haze of smoke.

Suddenly one would raise his drink and shout, "To the cause for which Hampden died on the field, and Sydney upon the scaffold!" Clunking their mugs together, they might reminisce on the cavalry charge at Naseby or perhaps the storming of Worcester in 1651. "For ‘The Good Old Cause,' " they might say.

That toast was the rallying cry of the English Whig Party, and The Good Old Cause was the republican cause of the Parliamentarian armies during the English Civil Wars of 1642-1651.

Although the Commonwealth had long since faded and monarchy had returned to England, the ideals held by Algernon Sydney and other republicans from the 1650s were alive and well. Many of their ideas would later emerge on the other side of the Atlantic.

During the early struggles for liberty in the American colonies, Sydney was a well- known and often-studied martyr in the cause for republicanism. His Discourses Concerning Government, written probably during the British Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, once ranked alongside John Locke's Two Treatises of Government as a significant philosophical foundation instrumental in the justification for American revolution and self-governance. Although his work may have fallen from academic popularity, and despite many American revolutionaries fighting for more practical and conservative reasons, his ideals remain part of American political principles. it is perhaps his beliefs that the founders of Hampden-Sydney College wanted future generations to remember when they first settled on this eponym in 1775. Here we will examine Sydney's life and writings to honor a man whose name graces the gates of our institution.

Early Life and Soldiery

Born into one of the mostprominent families of England in 1622,1 Algernon was the second son of Robert Sydney, second Earl of Leicester. Little is known of his early life, but his name emerged in history when his father was appointed Lord Lieutenant of ireland in 1641 following the execution of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and the former lord deputy (see p. 7, The Record, January 2015).

At the time, irish rebels were attempting to dislodge English and Scottish Protestant settlers from the Emerald isle, an effort that drew the suspicion of parliamentarians. Many thought that perhaps the Stuart King Charles- rumored to hold Catholic sympathies-would use the Catholic rebels against them. The ensuing struggle for command of the military helped spark the English Civil Wars.

To suppress the Irish rebellion, the newly appointed lord lieutenant dispatched a regiment of soldiers under the command of his first son, Philip, who in turn named his brother Algernon captain of a troop of horse. in his first military engagements against the irish, he reportedly fought with "extraordinary spirit and resolution."

Upon their return to England soon after the Irish engagements, Philip and Algernon joined the parliamentary cause against the king. At the Battle of Marston Moor, which proved a devastating defeat for Charles and his Cavaliers in mid-1644, Sydney reportedly "charged with much gallantry in the head of my Lord of Manchester's regiment of horse, and came off with many wounds, true badges of his honor."

Early Political Career

By late 1644, although parliamentary armies dominated the battlefields of England, a complete victory over the Cavaliers remained elusive. Oliver Cromwell, by then lieutenant general and member of the House of Commons, helped install Sir Thomas Fairfax as the head of the military with himself as second-in-command.
Fairfax shared Cromwell's zeal for a coup de grâce on the Stuart forces. The restructured New Model Army, consisting of full-time professional soldiers rather than local militiamen, soon crushed the Cavaliers at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, leading to the end of the First English Civil War by the spring of 1646. Charles surrendered and began negotiations with Parliament for the reordering of the English government.

In what would become his fatal mistake, however, Charles made a secret agreement with his former Scottish enemies to raise another army and restart the war. But the New Model Army annihilated the Stuarts at the Battle of Preston in mid-1648, bringing an end to Charles's aspirations for absolute rule.

Sydney had been elected to the House of Commons in December 1645. Although still a minor figure in the great drama, during the new negotiations with the king after the Battle of Preston, he spoke against any compromise with Charles and voted against an attempt to disband the New Model Army, which had gained an uncomfortable amount of power in the eyes of many members of Parliament.

Algernon Sydney

Because Charles had betrayed the trust of his captors and renewed the war, a major shift in attitude toward the king helped fuel a military overthrow of Parliament. At Fairfax's direction, the army purged from the chamber moderates who supported reinstating Charles on the throne, as well as those opposed to the army's growing dominance in political affairs. Some were imprisoned and others fled. Sydney himself retreated to Penshurst, the family estate in Kent, refusing to take an oath supporting the army's usurpation of civil power.

The remaining "rump" of the Parliament, just a fraction of its former numbers, quickly set about trying the king for treason. The House of Commons-without approval of the House of Lords-established a new High Court of Justice with 135 commissioners to decide the king's fate, although only about 70 attended the trial. Sydney was named to the tribunal, but he refused to sit in judgment of the king. Not only had the army unlawfully purged Parliament, he believed, but the arbitrary establishment of a high court went against the very grain of English respect for the law.

Sydney and Cromwell

Sydney rode from Penshurst to the Painted Chamber at Westminster, where the king was to be tried, to investigate Cromwell's intentions. it was unclear whether the king would be executed or merely deposed.

Sydney's position that day was "first, the king could be tried by no court; secondly, that no man could be tried by that court." The High Court itself, he asserted, was an artificial and unlawful contrivance established in essence by the military, rather than by civil powers, and it therefore held no constitutional power over any man. Sydney supported holding Charles accountable for his actions, but only through judgment by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.2

"This being alleged in vain," he wrote, "and Cromwell using the formal words ‘i tell you, we will cut off his head with the crown upon it,' i replied: you may take your own course, i cannot stop you, but i will keep myself clean from having any hand in this business, immediately went out of the room, and never returned."

Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649, having been found guilty of "all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, desolations, damages, and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars." Sydney returned to London to assume his seat in the House of Commons and was named to the committee tasked with drawing a bill for the dissolution of the House of Lords and the abrogation of the institution of monarchy, which led to the creation of the Commonwealth of England. Power rested in the Rump Parliament and the newly formed Council of State-of which Sydney was a member-whose executive power mirrored that of the former Privy Council, the late king's body of advisors. Cromwell headed the New Model Army.

Peace had not yet come in the British isles, however. Charles II, whom the Scots had declared king following his father's execution, led a Scottish army in the third and final civil war in England. ireland, still in rebellion and allied with the royalists, fell victim to Cromwell's barbarity when he invaded the island and murdered thousands of irish prisoners and civilians at Drogheda. Cromwell achieved final victory over the royalists in the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles ii fled to France, and many of the Cavaliers sailed across the Atlantic to settle in Virginia.

The Protectorate

Sydney was present in the House of Commons when Cromwell removed the last vestiges of representative government in England. On April 20, 1653, Cromwell, accompanied by a few dozen musketeers, stood in the chamber and declared Parliament dissolved.

Sydney was sitting at the right hand of the speaker of the house. After having his henchmen pull the speaker from his chair, Cromwell directed them toward Sydney, telling them to "put him out." Sydney replied that he would not be put out, and when the usurpers placed their hands upon his shoulders, Sydney, with some dignity, rose and walked from the chamber on his own. Within months Cromwell was named "lord protector" of the realm, a transparent euphemism for a military dictator.

The personal animosity Sydney held toward what he described as the newly installed "tyrant, and a violent one," helped reinforce his political disdain for unelected, arbitrary power. Sydney's long fight to extirpate royal absolutism with sword and pen had been undermined by the very general who had bled at Marston Moor and crushed the Cavaliers at Naseby.

Oliver CromwellCromwell's hypocritical tenure from 1653 to 1658 was marked by suppression of political opposition, severe censorship of the press, and a personal "wickedness against which damnation is denounced and for which hell-fire is prepared," according to the royalist Edward Hyde, First Earl of Clarendon. And yet many historians have noted England's enjoyment of "more of liberty, civil and religious ... than she had ever known in the days of her kings."3

Cromwell may have brought order and efficiency to English government and society and raised England's international prestige, but it was his disregard for English law, his coercive ambition, and his concentration of unelected, arbitrary power that were such anathema to Sydney's republican sentiments.

Cromwell died in 1658. Sydney was abroad during the restoration of the monarchy and the House of Lords in 1660. A reactionary Parliament, consisting of members from the old Long Parliament, had recognized the need for a monarch to stabilize the government and had declared the exiled Charles ii the rightful king of England, Ireland, and Scotland.


While abroad, Sydney made no secret of his republican principles, as well as his newfound approbation of the late king's execution and his own role in the civil wars. They would become roadblocks to his return to England.

At the University of Copenhagen he proudly wrote of his "Manus haec inimica tyrannis, Ense petit placidam cum libertate quietem," or "This hand, enemy to tyrants, By the sword seeks calm peacefulness with liberty";4 contradicting his earlier statements, he called Charles's execution "the justest and bravest action that ever was done in England or anywhere else," although said in private, he claimed; and according to his father he was "heard to say many scornful and contemptuous things of the king's person and family, which ... will hardly be forgiven or forgotten."5 To gain a pardon from Charles ii and return to England, Sydney first had to renounce his republicanism, apologize for his past, and submit himself publicly to the Crown-requirements that his pride and principles would not allow. Sydney spent the next 17 years in exile on the continent.

His time was marked by financial difficulties, scholarly study, fomentation of republican revolution, and an overwhelming desire to return to his homeland. His father provided little to no pecuniary support, but he found sanctuary with a friendly prince in Rome, where he "lived as a hermit in a palace," spending a great deal of time reading and writing.6 in 1663 he spent time with fellow republican exiles in Switzerland, including Edmund Ludlow, one of the signers of Charles i's death warrant. His spirit at the time is clear from an inscription he made in a visitor's book in Geneva: "Sit sanguinis ultor justorum," or "Let there be an avenger of the blood of the just."

A few years later he approached Johan De Witt, the Dutch republican political leader and grand pensionary, whose country was then at war with England, in a failed bid to land a Dutch expeditionary force in England to start a republican uprising. He next spoke with France's Louis XiV, proffering a revolution in England should the Bourbon Sun King wish to supply the necessary funds. This also failed to materialize. With no apparent means to return to his home country, Sydney retreated to isolation and loneliness in the south of France.7

Finally resolved to return to England, Sydney requested a royal pass to sail home to repair his relationship with his father and to "see [his] friends and settle [his] private affairs." Through the auspices of Henry Savile, younger brother of the Marquess of Halifax, Sydney was allowed to return to England in mid-1677.

The Rye House Plot

Charles II's brother James, Duke of York and heir to the throne, had converted to Catholicism and married a Catholic, stoking Protestant fears of a return to Catholic, absolute monarchy-a dilemma known as the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81. Parliament's Exclusion Bill would have blocked James's ascension. Supporters of the bill soon coalesced around Charles's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, hoping the Protestant would succeed the king instead. Charles dissolved Parliament before the bill could pass. "Petitioners," or those who petitioned Charles to recall Parliament to pass the bill, were mockingly nicknamed "Whigs" by their opponents, after the Whiggamores, a band of Scottish Presbyterian rebels; the royalists in turn were called "Tories," after irish Catholic guerrillas still fighting in ireland.

There were talks among more radical Whigs of supporting an insurrection against the king and James, followed with support for Monmouth as king. Sydney met with five fellow conspirators, "the Council of Six," which included Monmouth, Lord William Howard, and John Hampden, grandson of the College's eponym, although the details of the discussion are unknown outside of Howard's testimony against Sydney at his later trial. There was an "enterprise" discussed, and perhaps some speculation on the feasibility of an uprising, some believe, although "no plan of action was agreed upon, no design was formed, no definite object was proposed to be accomplished; the conspirators separated, having done nothing, and agreed upon nothing."8

A separate conspiracy developed, known as the Rye House Plot, a definite plan to either kidnap or assassinate Charles and James as they were to pass by Rye House on their return trip to London from a horserace in Newmarket. Some have speculated that Sydney knew or even approved of the plot. A fire in Newmarket, however, which destroyed half the town, caused the races to be cancelled, sending the king and his brother back to the capital early. One of the conspirators turned king's evidence, exposing the failed plot, and rumors swirled of Sydney's connection to the conspirators, "with not one of whom he had the slightest acquaintance."9

Aware of his impending arrest, and yet steadfast in his innocence, Sydney remained in London. Nevertheless, he was arrested for treason and his papers were seized, most notably his unpublished Discourses Concerning Government.

Trial and Execution

Council of Six member Lord Howard, whom some described as "a man of worthless character and corrupt principles,"10 was the only witness to testify against Sydney. Howard-whom Sydney had once helped free from prison-was quite willing to point his finger to save his own neck from the axe. He reportedly told the king's agents, "if any expedient can be chalked out, that he may do his Majesty service and take care of his own preservation, he will be glad of it."11 His account of Sydney's hand in the Rye House Plot was tenuous. Yet given Sydney's past attempts to start revolutions in England through De Witt and Louis XiV, little imagination would be needed to conceive of his capacity to plot another uprising.

Algernon Sydney Trial

The great transgression against Sydney was not his arrest, but rather the lack of witnesses used to convict him. English law required at least two witnesses for a defendant to be convicted of treason. As Howard provided the only testimony against Sydney, Chief Justice George Jeffreys declared "scribere est agere," or "to write is to act." Sydney's own Discourses became the second witness at his trial. Sydney was convicted, petitions for his pardon went unheard, and on December 7, 1683, the executioner cut off his head.

The Principles of Sydney

To understand Discourses Concerning Government, Sydney's republican manifesto, one must first examine it as a rebuttal to Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, published in 1680 at the height of the Exclusion Crisis. (it is the same work that John Locke also attacked in his first Treatise of Government, published in 1689, long after Sydney's death.)

Filmer had written Patriarcha decades earlier, before the civil war, in response to the growing republican sentiments of his day. He rejected the notion that men were naturally free, that they were naturally equal, and that the proper form of government is that which is chosen by the people-unproven, abstract, and novel tenets "first hatched in the schools," and contrary to historical records and biblical teachings. They were merely imaginary principles, he said, that masked men's natural and historical inequalities, undermined their natural duties to their patriarchs, and subverted the natural form of monarchy the world had long accepted as proper and just.

Regarding men's natural political inequalities, wrote Filmer, since the time of Adam (the first king, ordained by God) the father had long been the natural ruler of the household, endowed with "royal authority over their children." People spread, and fathers established great families. "By the uniting of great families or petty kingdoms, we find the greater monarchies were at the first erected."1

Much like the father of the household, the king "extends his care to preserve, feed, clothe, instruct, and defend the whole commonwealth." Liberties and rights are created not from abstract philosophies, but rather they emerge from a people's customs and traditions. And it is the king who protects those rights and liberties.

Filmer wrote that it is unnatural for the people to govern or to choose governors. Even Aristotle "gives the title of the first and divinest sort of government to the institution of kings." indeed, Filmer continued, "There is not in all the Scripture mention or approbation of any other form of government." On a practical level, even the Roman republic lasted only 480 years. Monarchies, on the other hand, had stood for many more hundreds or even thousands of years. There had been 600 years of monarchy in England since the Norman invasion.

In democracies, Filmer styled, the people are rash and imprudent: "Their opinions are as variable and sudden as tempests," and "the wicked are always in greatest credit, and virtuous men kept under." People choose poor leaders, offices are bought and sold, factions fight with each other, sometimes violently, and "after the manner of cattle, [the people] follow the herd that goes before."

Chivalry, ancient custom, solemn oaths, and the "natural law of the father" guide and direct the king. Common law originated from kings, and in accordance with his prerogative to protect and provide for his subjects, it is at the king's discretion which of the laws to uphold. They are his laws, whether inherited or newly established. Judges are merely extensions of the king's will and judgment, and so it is impossible for a king to be justly tried by his own measures. The king is above the law, answerable only to God for any of his sins or transgressions.

Sydney, by contrast, rejected these arguments, and his Discourses is a near line-by- line refutation of Patriarcha. He mocked Filmer for having implied that God "caused some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs." Fatherly power is not kingly power; people have a right to choose their governors; and kings are subject to the law, by force if necessary.13

He believed that in the earliest state of nature, all men were free and equal. Fathers ruled the households, he agreed, but they were not natural kings in that sense. The earliest forms of government were created when "the first fathers of mankind left all their [adult] children independent on each other ... [then many families joined] into one civil body, that they might the better provide for the conveniency, safety, and defense of themselves and their children." it was, essentially, a form of what we know as the social contract theory, a postulate then still in its infancy.

Monarchies were not God's will, as Filmer had asserted, but rather God leaves the choice of forms of government to man. Man's natural rights and equality, derived from the state of nature rather than a particular set of customs or traditions, give him the inherent power to choose his own rulers. Just government is therefore that which is derived from the consent of the governed. On a personal level, Sydney preferred a mixed form of government, believing it to be more in tune with the liberty individuals possessed in the state of nature.

Also joining Aristotle, Sydney emphasized the need for the most virtuous men to govern. indeed, it is their natural right to rule. This may seem at odds with his earlier position on the individual right of men to choose their governors, who may or may not be the most virtuous, but Sydney had great faith in man's capacity to elect the most virtuous men into public office. His support of a merit-based governorship is one of his most defining tenets.

The other was his argument in favor of the right to revolution. Not only did men have a right to revolt against an arbitrary, tyrannical government, Sydney wrote, but men had a moral duty to revolt against it. This position in particular was one of the primary prosecutorial weapons used against him at his trial. it led directly to his execution. Nearly 100 years later, however, it was part of a philosophical foundation for another revolt against Great Britain, this time in her colonies.

His Influence

Sydney's republicanism sat well with some American revolutionaries, many of whom were seeking a moral justification for their revolt against the British crown in 1776. Although many colonists were simply fighting for their inherited rights and liberties as Englishmen, to protect their traditional English colonial governments-rather than the abstract, universal "natural rights" or "rights of man" of Sydney and Locke-it is safe to say that Sydney's writings had a profound influence on some of the men who freed and formed this country. His ideals are spread across the Declaration of independence. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote of their admiration for the Whig in later years.

It seems those sentiments were strong enough in Southside Virginia in the summer of 1775 to influence the founders of the College to settle on the name "Hampden-Sydney." Choosing the name of these Whig martyrs was quite a statement: Hampden had given his life fighting against the king. Sydney had fought in open battle against Charles, and he had plotted to start an uprising on at least two occasions; he declared absolute monarchies illegitimate and provided moral justification for revolution.

Perhaps the founders wanted future generations to remember Sydney's spirit and principles: to be not the "cattle" of Filmer, but rather to think and to act as free men; to support balanced, representative government rather than absolutism; to protect individual liberty from an overbearing executive; to participate in government; and to elect the most virtuous of our fellows. indeed, they are some of the principles of good men and good citizens. That spirit and those ideals are as noble today as they were in 1683. As Hampden-Sydney men and representatives of the College, we may do well to think on the importance of upholding these doctrines in the country that Sydney's ideas helped to form.

1. Houston, Alan C. Algernon Sydney and the Republican Heritage in England and America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991. p. 16.
2. Santvoord, G. Van. Life of Algernon Sydney. New York: Charles Scribner, 1851. p. 54.
3. Santvoord, p. 78.
4. Houston, p. 35.
5. Ewald, Alexander C. The Life and Times of the Hon.
Algernon Sydney, vol. 1. London: Tinsley Brothers,
1873. p. 305.
6. Houston, p. 39.
7. ibid, p. 45.
8. Santvoord, p. 225. 9. ibid, p. 227.
10. ibid, p. 223.
11. Houston, p. 63.
12. Filmer, Robert. Patriarcha. London. 1680.
13. Sidney, Algernon; edited by West, Thomas. Discourses
Concerning Government. indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, 1990. Foreword, p. IXI.