Chasing Algernon Sidney in Kent

‘That sounds like a film’, Rachel responded when I told her I was off to the archive again, ‘chasing Sidney in Kent’. That’s true. In fact, I am surprised nobody ever did make a film about Algernon Sidney – or at least I am not aware of one. He clearly is the sexiest of the English Civil War republicans I have been studying for the past few years, and this is not just down to his long wavy hair and striking profile.

Algernon Sidney, republican fireband (1623-83).

As both John Carswell and Jonathan Scott have shown in their biographical works, Sidney was a republican firebrand, a hard-done-by younger son of proud and powerful gentry origin and a conviction politician with a hatred of tyrants and a very short fuse. This short fuse left bridges burnt, while an uneasy mixture of pride and financial hardship, especially during his exile period, meant Sidney was ‘never a man to leave a feeding hand unbitten’ (Worden).

Born in London in January 1623 as the second son of Robert, earl of Leicester, and his wife Dorothy Percy and raised at Penshurst Place in Kent, Sidney never quite forgave his older brother Philip for his prime position in the family; and historians dabbling in a bit of popular psychology have been eager to suggest that his rejection of hereditary monarchy and in particular primogeniture, so eloquently immortalised in his Discourses Concerning Government, were not just a refutation of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680), but much more personal indeed. Continue reading

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James Burgh and Algernon Sidney in eighteenth-century Germany

A review of James Burgh’s Political Disquisitions in the Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen from April 1776 described the author thus: “He is a republican. Granted, he does not want to overthrow the constitution of the state, since it happens to be as it is, but in his opinion England would be much greater, possess more honour, power and happiness if it were a republic”. The book is based on “the Sidneyian doctrines of the nature of government,” which, according to the reviewer, were well known. In the contemporary context this meant that the author, Burgh, was highly critical of English ministers of government who sought only to augment the power of the Crown by subverting and bribing parliament. The Lords as well were merely servants of the Crown and completely useless to the state. In contrast, Parliament, the ideal of which was exemplified by the Long Parliament, was the servant of the people, which holds supreme power.

The review is of interest to the present project, as well as the scholarship on republicanism in general, in several respects. First, it points to the importance of journals and reviews for conveying knowledge about, and creating an interest in, republican authors and texts. Even when critical a review could not help but explain the ideas and principles of republican texts to its readers.

463px-AlgernonSidney_1622-1683_mw61517Second, the review indicates that a familiarity with Algernon Sidney’s political thought, through whatever medium, and thus with republican principles was fairly widespread among the informed, reading public in Germany. This seems not to have been a recent phenomenon. A 1711 review of a French translation of Sidney’s Discourses on government in the Leipzig-based Acta eruditorum passed over a discussion of the contents of the work as it was already well-known: “hic liber in manibus omnium versatur.”

Third, the review offers an explicit definition of what it means to be a republican, thus addressing recent debates over the meaning of the concept of republicanism. While the reviewer acknowledges a concept of a form of republican exclusivism (of a republican as one who would seek “to overthrow the constitution” of a monarchical state), he also argues that in the 18th century to be a republican is compatible with accepting a form of monarchical government, a monarchical republicanism. Further, James Burgh’s book is presented as the application of specific republican, Sidneyian, principles to an 18th-century context, where they may result in a different position. Continue reading