The “real American revolution” was a radical change in the views of the people. It started with James Otis Jr’s 1761 speech against the Writs of Assistance – who noted that “an act against the constitution is void.”

This represented the “beginning of the controversy” between the Colonies and Great Britain. The colonists were starting to see all power as flowing from the people – not the government. And because the people held sovereignty – or final authority – acts of a government that went beyond a constitution (written or unwritten) could never be valid.

Of course, it’s up to the people to treat unconstitutional acts as they should be treated, too.

This Revolution in Thought was reflected in the Declaration of Independence, which Thomas Jefferson said was intended not as a statement of NEW principles, but as “an expression of the American mind.” 

“all it’s authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed, in conversns in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney Etc

These are the people who influenced the “American mind,” and thus, the American Revolution more than any other. While most have heard of 2, or 3 names, few today ever heard of the last, Algernon Sidney. 

Sidney was executed for treason in the late 17th century for merely writing, but not even publishing – a book, Discourses on Government. It was published years after his death, and Jefferson later wrote that he considered it one of the most important books in history:

it is probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded in natural right, which has ever been published in any language

Like others condemned to death, Sidney was given the opportunity to save his own life. But Sidney considered confession for freedom to be “unreasonable and indecent,” making his courage, principles and heroism legendary to the Founders and Old Revolutionaries. 

Everyone from Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams – and many others – read Sidney, cited his work, and recommended it for everyone else. 

Algernon Sidney heavily influenced American revolutionary thought in 3 main ways:

  • Natural Rights
  • Government by consent
  • Right of Revolution

We can see all these permeating through the letters, speeches and essays of the time, culminating, of course, in the Declaration of Independence.

For Sidney – and many of the Old Revolutionaries – resisting arbitrary government and tyranny was not an act of rebellion, but a right and a duty. For them, violating the constitution was the government acting in rebellion against the sovereignty of the people.

As Sidney put it, “That which is not just is not Law; and that which is not Law, ought not to be obeyed.”

I covered this in much more detail in an episode of our Path to Liberty podcast recently. At the link below, you’ll find video and audio versions of the show, plus if you prefer reading, a ton of reference links so you can learn everything I’ve learned – and more.

Michael Boldin

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