What would John Hampden and Algernon Sydney Do?

Hampden-Sydney College bears the names of two men who were willing to give their lives in defense of their countrymen.  John Hampden became a central figure in the English revolution when he opposed Charles I efforts to levy a tax without Parliament’s consent. He died after being shot during a battle on Chalgrove field during the English Civil War. Algernon Sydney published a book on Political Theory, attacking monarchist governments.  Under Charles II, an English court decided that Sydney’s work was an act of treason. Sydney said on the scaffold “we live in an age that makes truth pass for treason.”
These men were willing to give their lives in defense of their countrymen, not against a foreign enemy but against their own governments.   Today, with a complacency brought on by a basically good government, we fail to understand the need to stand vigilant against government encroachments upon our freedom.  Today, our President is not creating new taxes without Congress’ consent, nor are men being put to death for expressing their views on the ideal type of government; there is no doubt we live in a much different age then Hampden and Sydney lived in. However, perhaps because of the relatively benign nature of our government, we live in an age where the current trend is to exchange more liberty in return for a government that grows every day. Even though Hampden and Sydney lived in such a different time period, their words and actions are certainly relevant today; I cannot help but think about what advice these men might have for us.
Hampden and Sydney did not live under a “Bill of Rights” nor did they have an education from Hampden-Sydney College, yet they still managed to be activists even if it cost them their lives. Undoubtedly, we live in a country that offers more protections on our freedoms than these men did, but we are not nearly as active patriots as Hampden and Sydney were. They took seriously their charge to understand the proper relationship between a government and its people. I think these men would ask us why we are not doing more.
Certainly, Hampden and Sydney would wonder want more students expressing their opinions in letters to the editor of the “The Tiger,” exploring the philosophy and economics behind liberty on the Center for Study of Political Economy’s blog, and seeking to learn how to be tomorrow’s government leaders via the Wilson Center.     If our H-SC mission is to be good men and good citizens, thenit is time we began to take our responsibility as citizens seriously. Writing and commentating are actions that we should be engaging in.
I think the most important lesson we can take away from studying these two patriots is that government is its citizen’s responsibility, and an unlimited government is a bad government because of the nature of power.  Active citizens play an irreplaceable role in the functioning of a good government.  It is not idealism to recognize that role and embrace it proudly. 
Hampden and Sydney were far from idealists. In fact, on the title page of his book “Constitution of Liberty” the famous Economist F.A. Hayek quotes Algernon Sydney,  “Our inquiry is not after that which is perfect, well knowing that no such thing is found among men; but we seek that human constitution which is attended with the least or the most pardonable inconveniences.” 
Hampden and Sydney would encourage us to hold our government accountable and to take our responsibilities as citizens seriously. I commend the author of last week’s letter to the editor, along with all those students who have written blog posts for the CSPE blog Explanatory Power. I challenge all those who have not participated in these dialogues to consider what advice John Hampden and Algernon Sydney would offer them.

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