Beheaded on Tower-hill: what does the English Revolution of the 17th century have in common with Australia’s oldest city?
The answer is Sydney – and in the recent acquisition by the museum of a rare 17th century book, a copy of the first edition of Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government (1698). Algernon Sidney (1623-83) was politically active during much of the great struggle over who should rule England in the years of the English Commonwealth, serving first in Parliament’s army and then in the House of Commons. His belief in a free parliament meant he was as opposed to Oliver Cromwell after Cromwell established his military dictatorship as he had been to King Charles I’s earlier claims to absolute power. This allowed Sidney a respite after the monarchy was restored in 1660, but in 1683 he was executed for having written this book, even before it was published, because it still questioned royal power and argued that a nation had the right to overthrow a king who ruled with excessive force.
Discourses Concerning Government strongly influenced American revolutionaries of the 18th century such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Interestingly, the museum’s copy includes an equally rare copy of the ‘Olive Branch Petition’ of 1775, the last attempt by the Continental Congress to avoid war with Britain. We have also acquired a copy of Sidney’s Paper delivered to the Sheriffs upon the Scaffold on Tower-hill, circulated the day he was beheaded in 1683. Kings must admit they ‘have received their Crowns by the Content of Willing Nations’, he proclaimed. ‘God had left nations unto the liberty of setting up such governments as best pleased themselves.’
Andrew Tink’s new biography of Thomas Townshend, the first Lord Sydney and the man after whom Sydney Cove was named, argues that Townshend modelled many of his political views on those of his distant relative Algernon Sidney. A supporter of the American colonists in seeking redress for their grievances, Townshend spent much of his early parliamentary career in Opposition. Later he was a leading figure in the Whig ministry which took power in 1782, as Britain refounded its empire after losing its American colonies. His responsibilities included what remained of the empire as well as British Home Affairs. He became Baron Sydney a year later, first proposing the alternate spelling of Sidney ‘in honour of his martyred kinsman’ (Tink, p.135), but settling on the alternate spelling to avoid other claims on the title. As Home Secretary he had responsibility for the British Secret Service, and briefly employed Arthur Phillip as a spy against the French. Three years later, Tink argues, he chose Phillip to command the First Fleet, based on his knowledge of Phillip as a man of loyalty and ability. In turn, Phillip gave the name Sydney to the beachhead of the new British penal colony in New South Wales, in 1788.
This significant acquisition symbolically links the foundation of the city of Sydney to the republican and democratic movement of more than three centuries ago, and to the political settlement of 1688 which established constitutional monarchy as the framework for Britain and its colonies and which resolved many of the political debates that led to Algernon Sidney’s barbaric execution. It reminds us that political tracts, books and manifestos make up much of the material culture of political debate, and that Australian democracy was founded on ideas about the limits of government power that raged centuries before the First Fleet set sail.
Further reading: Andrew Tink, Lord Sydney: The Life and Times of Tommy Townshend. North Melbourne: Australain Scholarly Publishing, 2011.