ALGERNON SIDNEY.* ALTHOUGI1 there are few historical characters whose names
are so familiar to us, there is hardly one whose personality is so little known as that of Algernon Sidney. The facts of his life have indeed been frequently put before the world by painstaking biographers, and it is not probable that much, if any, matter of interest, so far as biographical details are concerned, can be added to what has been given by Collins, Meadley, Blencowe, Santvoord, and Ewald. But unfortunately not one of these writers has given us a lifelike picture of the man whose trial and unjust execution have placed him for all time among the martyrs of liberty, and whose speculative opinions, however commonplace they may seem to us, are at least a century in advance of their time, and are expressed with a calmness and moderation seldom to be found in a strong political partisan, especially at a time which was characterised by extreme bitterness of party spirit.
Though Miss Blackburne only styles her book a" Review," it is, in fact, a biography of Algernon Sidney, with a detailed account of his writings, his opinions, and his character ; but while she appears to have made a careful study of Hollis's quarto edition of his works, given in 1772, Meadley's " Memoirs " (1813), and the " Essay on Love," printed in the Somers Collection of Tracts, she does not seem so well acquainted with the more recent works which have been devoted to the subject. In 1825 Mr. Blencowe published " The Sydney Papers : Consisting of a Journal of the Earl of Leicester, and Original Letters of Algernon Sydney." This contains much new and interesting information, which was afterwards made use of by Mr. A. C. Ewald in his " Life and Times of Algernon Sydney," printed in 1872, a book belonging to a class which we utterly abhor, in which the meagre details of Sidney's life are swelled into two large volumes by whole chapters about matters with which he is scarcely concerned ; yet which we must in justice say, does in fact tell us all that is known about the man, gives us all the extracts that we require from his letters and writings, and enables us, if we have patience to wade through the irrelevant matter, to learn as much of his character and opinions as can be obtained without a thorough study of the whole of his writings. Miss Blackburne makes no reference to either of these works ; and we hardly think shehas consulted them, or she would surely have referred to the pathetic account written by the Earl of Leicester of the death of his wife, and the message sent to her son Algernon from her deathbed. Indeed, it is clear that the author of the " Review " is unacquainted with the long and interesting letter written by Algernon in reply to the unjust and ill-tempered epistle which his father wrote to him immediately after the Restoration, in which, while Algernon Sidney admits that he had, as his official duty as a servant of the Commonwealth required, justified the execution of Charles I., ho formally contradicts the story which had been told to the Earl, and has been so often repeated, that, when at Copenhagen, a certain Minister said to him :—" I think you were none of the late King's judges, nor guilty of his death," and that he replied :—" Guilty ! Do you call that guilt ? Why, it was the justest and bravest action that ever was done in England or anywhere else."
Miss Blackburne is, we think, correct in saying that "nearly all that can be said of Sidney has been already given to the world," but we are unable to agree with her that " it is not now generally accessible." Nor do we think she was wise in not considering " it necessary to burden a small work like this by giving continual references to those consulted." As a matter of fact, she has hardly given a single reference ; and even in the case of the numerous extracts from the writings of Sidney and others, the reader is frequently left without the means of ascertaining whence the extracts come, and is thus without the power of verifying them. References at the foot of the page are never burdensome to the reader (who can always skip them), though we are well aware they are often a heavy burden to the writer.
Of the writings of Sidney, his "Letters," his "Discourses on Government," and his "Essay on Virtuous Love," are all that are now of auy interest to us. The "Essay," indeed, is valuable, not for its own intrinsic merits, but for the light which it throws on the character of the writer, and we are disposed to agree with Miss Blackburne that :—
" The deliberation with which he discourses on vertuous love' has a slight air of unreality about it. In spite of his bold assertions we are inclined to imagine that he was one who never quite found his
ideal of womanhood realised for Limself, but at the same time he is one of those who are thoroughly capable of genuine Platonic friendship.' "
But the "Discourses on Government," though we cannot agree with the editor, Mr. Hollis, " that it is one of the noblest hooka that ever the mind of man produced," is a work that can never be neglected by the political philosopher, and especially deserves attention at the present time, illustrating as it does, in so remarkable a manner, the totally different objects, and the totally different ideal of a republic, aimed at by the man who is always taken as the highest type of the republican of the seven teenth century as compared with those which are sought by the democratic republicans of our own time.
The grave question whether Algernon Sidney received a bribe, or gratification, from Barillon is, of course, discussed at length ; but nothing fresh can be expected on a subject which has been so often and so thoroughly threshed out. It is a case of character against evidence. Miss Blackburne, with Earl Russell and others who disbelieve the charge, relies upon the character of Sidney as outweighing the positive statement of
Barillon. We are sorry to say that we are obliged to agree with Hallam and Macaulay. If the question were between the word of Sidney and that of Barillon, we should not hesitate to believe Sidney ; but we fail to find auy conceivable reason why Barillon should have told a falsehood about the matter.
We know that the most honourable men of the time did not hesitate to concert with the Minister of a foreign Sovereign schemes for embarrassing the English Govern ment; and that, though his nice sense of honour was such that Barillon did not venture even to offer him money, yet that among his contemporaries there were several otherwise honour able and patriotic men, to whom there seemed nothing discreditable in receiving pecuniary gratifications, not for acting against their consciences or injuring their country, but as they mistakenly thonght,..for serving her best interests, and for acting in conformity with their convictions. Five hundred guineas was by no means a paltry sum to a mau always needy, and sometimes in serious pecuniary embarrassments.
and cannot congratulate Miss Blackburne upon her style; long and complex sentences, not always easy, or even possible, to con strue, are mixed up with short sensational paragraphs, intended no doubt to be emphatic, but which are irritating to the reader. More care should also have been given to the correction of the proofs :—
" Among the faithful, faithful only lie ;" and three lines afterwards,— " His loyalty be kept, his love his zeal :" are probably errors of the press ; but,— "Treason cloth never prosper ; what's the reason ? When treason prospers, none doth call it treason !'
cannot, we fear, be attributed to the printer.
But we should be sorry to part unkindly from Miss Black burne. Her simple and modest preface shows good-taste and goodfeeling, and is calculated to disarm criticism. Her " Review "
has evidently been a labour of love, and is the product of much thought and study ; and though she has not concealed her likes* and dislikes, she is generally fair as well as accurate as to her facts; and if, after carefully reading and digesting what has already appeared on the subject of Sidney's life, she would write in a simple and sometimes less sensational manner, would not string together so many quotations in verse and prose, and would give in each case references to her authorities, she.might, we think, give us a life of Algernon Sidney which, even though far from perfect, would at least supersede the certainly un
satisfactory biographies which have hitherto appeared of one " who, in spite of some great moral and intellectual faults, has a just claim to be called a hero, a philosopher, and a patriot."