Treasured Words

Discourses Concerning Government

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

As one might recall, the great transgression against Algernon Sydney was the lack of testimony used to convict him of treason. English law required at least two witnesses to justify the lopping of heads, and Chief Justice George Jeffreys had only one-a desperate man "of worthless character and corrupt principles," a Judas whom Sydney had once helped free from prison. In a bit of judicial maneuvering at the trial, however, the judge admitted Sydney's papers-dug out from his closet by the king's agents-to serve as the second witness.

As Sydney stood on the scaffold on that cold December morning in 1683, he speculated that those papers were "never finished, nor could be in many years, and probably would never have been." Nevertheless, his works survived his execution, William and Mary took the throne, and 15 years after the man in black swung his axe, a cadre of republicans compiled and published Sydney's Discourses Concerning Government. His treatise served as a "textbook of revolution," as some later reflected, and men such as John Adams, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin used it as an ideological guide in the years before the war. Its lessons are seen in the Declaration of Independence, with Thomas Jefferson describing it as "probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded in natural right, which has ever been published in any language."

This is the College's unrestored, original copy of a first edition from 1698. Printed in London, published from the original manuscripts, this book was 83 years old when Thomas Watkins and the other Hampden-Sydney boys spurred their horses and charged the Queen's Guard at the Battle of Guilford Court House in 1781. Surely their fellow patriots studied these very pages in the years before the great Revolution.

Hampden-Sydney alumnus Thomas Catesby Jones 1899, accomplished lawyer and art collector, donated it to the College many decades ago. Brittle and decrepit, Sydney's republican manifesto rests protected in the modern climate-controlled shelves of the Bortz Library. It is a treasured piece that will continue to inspire the heirs and guardians of American liberty.