Observations on Civil Liberty, Government, and the War with America (Excerpt)


Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government,

and the Justice and Policy of the War with America, Excerpt

 By Richard Price


[Price, Richard. Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America. To which is added, an Appendix and Postscript, containing, a State of the National Debt, an Estimate of the Money drawn from the Public by the Taxes, and an Account of the National Income and Expenditure since the last War. The 9th edition. London: Edward and Charles Dilly and Thomas Cadell. 1776. The Online Library of Liberty. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1781. Used with permission of the Online Library of Liberty.] 


On the Nature of Liberty in General

Of Civil Liberty and the Principles of Government

Of the Authority of One Country over Another 

Of the Justice of the War with America 



OUR Colonies in North America appear to be now determined to risk and suffer every thing, under the persuasion, that Great Britain is attempting to rob them of that Liberty to which every member of society, and all civil communities, have a natural and unalienable right. The question, therefore, whether this is a reasonable persuasion, is highly interesting, and deserves the most careful attention of every Englishman who values Liberty, and wishes to avoid staining himself with the guilt of invading it. But it is impossible to judge properly of this question without correct ideas of Liberty in general; and of the nature, limits, and principles of Civil Liberty in particular.—The following observations on this subject appear to me important, as well as just; and I cannot make myself easy without offering them to the Public at the present period, big with events of the last consequence to this kingdom. I do this, with reluctance and pain, urged by strong feelings, but at the same time checked by the consciousness that I am likely to deliver sentiments not favourable to the present measures of that government, under which I live, and to which I am a constant and zealous well-wisher. Such, however, are my present sentiments and views, that this is a consideration of inferior moment with me; and, as I hope never to go beyond the bounds of decent discussion and expostulation, I flatter myself, that I shall be able to avoid giving any person just cause of offence.

The observations with which I shall begin, are of a more general and abstracted nature; but being, in my opinion, of particular consequence; and necessary to introduce what I have principally in view, I hope they will be patiently read and considered.



Of the Nature of Liberty in General.

IN order to obtain a more distinct and accurate view of the nature of Liberty as such, it will be useful to consider it under the four following general divisions.

First, Physical Liberty.—Secondly, Moral Liberty.—Thirdly, Religious Liberty.—And Fourthly, Civil Liberty.—These heads comprehend under them all the different kinds of Liberty. And I have placed Civil Liberty last, because I mean to apply to it all I shall say of the other kinds of Liberty.

By Physical Liberty I mean that principle of Spontaneity, or Self-determination, which constitutes us Agents; or which gives us a command over our actions, rendering them properly ours, and not effects of the operation of any foreign cause.—Moral Liberty is the power of following, in all circumstances, our sense of right and wrong; or of acting in conformity to our reflecting and moral principles, without being controuled by any contrary principles.—Religious Liberty signifies the power of exercising, without molestation, that mode of religion which we think best; or of making the decisions of our own consciences, respecting religious truth, the rule of our conduct, and not any of the decisions of others.—In like manner; Civil Liberty is the power of a Civil Society or State to govern itself by its own discretion; or by laws of its own making, without being subject to any foreign discretion, or to the impositions of any extraneous will or power.

It should be observed, that, according to these definitions of the different kinds of liberty, there is one general idea, that runs through them all; I mean, the idea of Self-direction, or Self-government.—Did our volitions originate not with ourselves, but with some cause over which we have no power; or were we under a necessity of always following some will different from our own, we should want Physical Liberty.

In like manner; he whose perceptions of moral obligation are controuled by his passions has lost his Moral Liberty; and the most common language applied to him is, that he wants Self-government.

He likewise who, in religion, cannot govern himself by his convictions of religious duty, but is obliged to receive formularies of faith, and to practise modes of worship imposed upon him by others, wants Religious Liberty.—And the Community also that is governed, not by itself, but by some will independent of it, and over which it has no controul, wants Civil Liberty.

In all these cases there is a force which stands opposed to the agent’s own will; and which, as far as it operates, produces Servitude.—In the first case, this force is incompatible with the very idea of voluntary motion; and the subject of it is a mere passive instrument which never acts, but is always acted upon.—In the second case; this force is the influence of passion getting the better of reason; or the brute overpowering and conquering the will of the man.—In the third case; it is Human Authority in religion requiring conformity to particular modes of faith and worship, and superseding private judgment.—And in the last case, it is any will distinct from that of the Majority of a Community, which claims a power of making laws for it, and disposing of its property.

This it is, I think, that marks the limit, or that lays the line between Liberty and Slavery. As far as, in any instance, the operation of any cause comes in to restrain the power of Self-government, so far Slavery is introduced: Nor do I think that a preciser idea than this of Liberty and Slavery can be formed.

I cannot help wishing I could here fix my reader’s attention, and engage him to consider carefully the dignity of that blessing to which we give the name of Liberty, according to the representation now made of it. There is not a word in the whole compass of language which expresses so much of what is important and excellent. It is, in every view of it, a blessing truly sacred and invaluable.—Without Physical Liberty, man would be a machine acted upon by mechanical springs, having no principle of motion in himself, or command over events; and, therefore, incapable of all merit and demerit.—Without Moral Liberty he is a wicked and detestable being, subject to the tyranny of base lusts, and the sport of every vile appetite.—And without Religious and Civil Liberty he is a poor and abject animal, without rights, without property, and without a conscience, bending his neck to the yoke, and crouching to the will of every silly creature who has the insolence to pretend to authority over him.—Nothing, therefore, can be of so much consequence to us as Liberty. It is the foundation of all honour, and the chief privilege and glory of our natures.

In fixing our ideas on the subject of Liberty, it is of particular use to take such an enlarged view of it as I have now given. But the immediate object of the present enquiry being Civil Liberty, I will confine to it all the subsequent observations.

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Of Civil Liberty and the Principles of Government.

FROM what has been said it is obvious, that all civil government, as far as it can be denominated free, is the creature of the people. It originates with them. It is conducted under their direction; and has in view nothing but their happiness. All its different forms are no more than so many different modes in which they chuse to direct their affairs, and to secure the quiet enjoyment of their rights.—In every free state every man is his own Legislator.—All taxes are free-gifts for public services.—All laws are particular provisions or regulations established by common consent for gaining protection and safety.—And all Magistrates are Trustees or Deputies for carrying these regulations into execution.

Liberty, therefore, is too imperfectly defined when it is said to be “a Government by Laws, and not by Men.” If the laws are made by one man, or a junto of men in a state, and not by common consent, a government by them does not differ from Slavery. In this case it would be a contradiction in terms to say that the state governs itself.

From hence it is obvious that Civil Liberty, in its most perfect degree, can be enjoyed only in small states, where every member is capable of giving his suffrage in person, and of being chosen into public offices. When a state becomes so numerous, or when the different parts of it are removed to such distances from one another, as to render this impracticable, a diminution of Liberty necessarily arises. There are, however, in these circumstances, methods by which such near approaches may be made to perfect Liberty as shall answer all the purposes of government, and at the same time secure every right of human nature.

Tho’ all the members of a state should not be capable of giving their suffrages on public measures, individually and personally, they may do this by the appointment of Substitutes or Representatives. They may entrust the powers of legislation, subject to such restrictions as they shall think necessary, with any number of Delegates; and whatever can be done by such delegates within the limits of their trust, may be considered as done by the united voice and counsel of the Community.—In this method a free government may be established in the largest state; and it is conceivable that by regulations of this kind, any number of states might be subjected to a scheme of government, that would exclude the desolations of war, and produce universal peace and order.

Let us think here of what may be practicable in this way with respect to Europe in particular.—While it continues divided, as it is at present, into a great number of independent kingdoms whose interests are continually clashing, it is impossible but that disputes will often arise which must end in war and carnage. It would be no remedy to this evil to make one of these states supreme over the rest; and to give it an absolute plenitude of power to superintend and controul them. This would be to subject all the states to the arbitrary discretion of one, and to establish an ignominious slavery not possible to be long endured. It would, therefore, be a remedy worse than the disease; nor is it possible it should be approved by any mind that has not lost every idea of Civil Liberty. On the contrary.—Let every state, with respect to all its internal concerns, be continued independent of all the rest; and let a general confederacy be formed by the appointment of a Senate consisting of Representatives from all the different states. Let this Senate possess the power of managing all the common concerns of the united states, and of judging and deciding between them, as a common Arbiter or Umpire, in all disputes; having, at the same time, under its direction, the common force of the states to support its decisions.—In these circumstances, each separate state would be secure against the interference of foreign power in its private concerns, and, therefore, would possess Liberty; and at the same time it would be secure against all oppression and insult from every neighbouring state.—Thus might the scattered force and abilities of a whole continent be gathered into one point; all litigations settled as they rose; universal peace preserved; and nation prevented from any more lifting up a sword against nation.

I have observed, that tho’, in a great state, all the individuals that compose it cannot be admitted to an immediate participation in the powers of legislation and government, yet they may participate in these powers by a delegation of them to a body of representatives.—In this case it is evident that the state will be still free or self-governed; and that it will be more or less so in proportion as it is more or less fairly and adequately represented. If the persons to whom the trust of government is committed hold their places for short terms; if they are chosen by the unbiassed voices of a majority of the state, and subject to their instructions: Liberty will be enjoyed in its highest degree. But if they are chosen for long terms by a part only of the state; and if during that term they are subject to no controul from their constituents; the very idea of Liberty will be lost, and the power of chusing representatives becomes nothing but a power, lodged in a few, to chuse at certain periods, a body of Masters for themselves and for the rest of the Community. And if a state is so sunk that the majority of its representatives are elected by a handful of the meanest[1] persons in it, whose votes are always paid for; and if also, there is a higher will on which even these mock representatives themselves depend, and that directs their voices: In these circumstances, it will be an abuse of language to say that the state possesses Liberty. Private men, indeed, might be allowed the exercise of Liberty; as they might also under the most despotic government; but it would be an indulgence or connivance derived from the spirit of the times, or from an accidental mildness in the administration. And, rather than be governed in such a manner, it would perhaps be better to be governed by the will of one man without any representation: For a representation so degenerated could answer no other end than to mislead and deceive, by disguising slavery, and keeping up a form of Liberty when the reality was lost.

Within the limits now mentioned, Liberty may be enjoyed in every possible degree; from that which is complete and perfect, to that which is merely nominal; according as the people have more or less of a share in government, and of a controuling power over the persons by whom it is administered.

In general, to be free is to be guided by one’s own will; and to be guided by the will of another is the characteristic of Servitude. This is particularly applieable to Political Liberty. That state, I have observed, is free, which is guided by its own will; or, (which comes to the same) by the will of an assembly of representatives appointed by itself and accountable to itself. And every state that is not so governed; or in which a body of men representing the people make not an essential part of the Legislature, is in slavery.—In order to form the most perfect constitution of government, there may be the best reasons for joining to such a body of representatives, an Hereditary Council, consisting of men of the first rank in the state, with a Supreme executive Magistrate at the head of all. This will form useful checks in a legislature; and contribute to give it vigour, union, and dispatch, without infringing liberty: for, as long as that part of a government which represents the people is a fair representation; and also has a negative on all public measures, together with the sole power of imposing taxes and originating supplies; the essentials of Liberty will be preserved.—We make it our boast in this country, that this is our own constitution. I will not say with how much reason.

Of such Liberty as I have now described, it is impossible that there should be an excess. Government is an institution for the benefit of the people governed, which they have power to model as they please; and to say, that they can have too much of this power, is to say, that there ought to be a power in the state superior to that which gives it being, and from which all jurisdiction in it is derived.—Licentiousness, which has been commonly mentioned, as an extreme of liberty, is indeed its opposite. It is government by the will of rapacious individuals, in opposition to the will of the community, made known and declared in the laws. A free state, at the same time that it is free itself, makes all its members free by excluding licentiousness, and guarding their persons and property and good name against insult. It is the end of all just government, at the same time that it secures the liberty of the public against foreign injury, to secure the liberty of the individual against private injury. I do not, therefore, think it strictly just to say, that it belongs to the nature of government to entrench on private liberty. It ought never to do this, except as far as the exercise of private liberty encroaches on the liberties of others. That is; it is licentiousness it restrains, and liberty itself only when used to destroy liberty.

It appears from hence, that licentiousness and despotism are more nearly allied than is commonly imagined. They are both alike inconsistent with liberty, and the true end of government; nor is there any other difference between them, than that the one is the licentiousness of great men, and the other the licentiousness of little men; or that, by the one, the persons and property of a people are subject to outrage and invasion from a King, or a lawless body of Grandees; and that, by the other, they are subject to the like outrage from a lawless mob—In avoiding one of these evils, mankind have often run into the other. But all well-constituted governments guard equally against both. Indeed of the two, the last is, on several accounts, the least to be dreaded, and has done the least mischief. It may be truly said, that if licentiousness has destroyed its thousands, despotism has destroyed its millions. The former, having little power, and no system to support it, necessarily finds its own remedy; and a people soon get out of the tumult and anarchy attending it. But a despotism, wearing the form of government, and being armed with its force, is an evil not to be conquered without dreadful struggles. It goes on from age to age, debasing the human faculties, levelling all distinctions, and preying on the rights and blessings of society.—It deserves to be added, that in a state disturbed by licentiousness, there is an animation which is favourable to the human mind, and which puts it upon exerting its powers. But in a state habituated to a despotism; all is still and torpid. A dark and savage tyranny stifles every effort of genius; and the mind loses all its spirit and dignity.

Before I proceed to what I have farther in view, I will observe, that the account now given of the principles of public Liberty, and the nature of an equal and free government, shews what judgment we should form of that omnipotence, which, it has been said, must belong to every government as such. Great stress has been laid on this, but most unreasonably.—Government, as has been before observed, is, in the very nature of it, a Trust; and all its powers a delegation for gaining particular ends. This trust may be misapplied and abused. It may be employed to deseat the very ends for which it was instituted; and to subvert the very rights which it ought to protect.—A Parliament, for instance, consisting of a body of representatives, chosen for a limited period, to make laws, and to grant money for public services, would forfeit its authority by making itself porpetual, or even prolonging its own duration; by nominating its own members; by accepting bribes; or subjecting itself to any kind of foreign influence. This would convert a Parliament into a conclave or junto of self-created tools; and a state that has lost its regard to its own rights, so far as to submit to such a breach of trust in its rulers, is enslaved.—Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd than the doctrine which some have taught, with respect to the omnipotence of parliaments. They possess no power beyond the limits of the trust for the execution of which they were formed. If they contradict this trust, they betray their constituents, and dissolve themselves. All delegated power must be subordinate and limited.—If omnipotence can, with any sense, be ascribed to a legislature, it must be lodged where all legislative authority originates; that is, in the People. For their sakes government is instituted; and their’s is the only real omnipotence.

I am sensible, that all I have been saying would be very absurd, were the opinions just which some have maintained concerning the origin of government. According to these opinions, government is not the creature of the people, or the result of a convention between them and their rulers: But there are certain men who possess in themselves, independently of the will of the people, a right of governing them, which they derive from the Deity. This doctrine has been abundantly refuted by many[2] excellent writers. It is a doctrine which avowedly subverts Civil Liberty; and which represents mankind as a body of vassals, formed to descend like cattle from one set of owners to another, who have an absolute dominion over them. It is a wonder, that those who view their species in a light so humiliating, should ever be able to think of themselves without regret and shame. The intention of these observations is not to oppose such sentiments; but, taking for granted the reasonableness of Civil Liberty, to shew wherein it consists, and what distinguishes it from its contrary.—And, in considering this subject, as it has been now treated, it is unavoidable to reflect on the excellency of a free government, and its tendency to exalt the nature of man.—Every member of a free state, having his property secure, and knowing himself his own governor, possesses a consciousness of dignity in himself, and feels incitements to emulation and improvement, to which the miserable slaves of arbitrary power must be utter strangers. In such a state all the springs of action have room to operate, and the mind is stimulated to the noblest exertions.[3] —But to be obliged, from our birth, to look up to a creature no better than ourselves as the master of our fortunes; and to receive his will as our law—What can be more humiliating? What elevated ideas can enter a mind in such a situation?—Agreeably to this remark; the subjects of free states have, in all ages, been most distinguished for genius and knowledge. Liberty is the soil where the arts and sciences have flourished; and the more free a state has been, the more have the powers of the human mind been drawn forth into action, and the greater number of brave men has it produced. With what lustre do the antient free states of Greece shine in the annals of the world? How different is that country now, under the Great Turk? The difference between a country inhabited by men, and by brutes, is not greater.

These are reflexions which should be constantly present to every mind in this country.—As Moral Liberty is the prime blessing of man in his private capacity, so is Civil Liberty in his public capacity. There is nothing that requires more to be watched than power. There is nothing that ought to be opposed with a more determined resolution than its encroachments. Sleep in a state, as Montesquieu says, is always followed by slavery.

The people of this kingdom were once warmed by such sentiments as these. Many a sycophant of power have they sacrificed. Often have they fought and bled in the cause of Liberty. But that time seems to be going. The fair inheritance of Liberty left us by our ancestors many of us are not unwilling to resign. An abandoned venality, the inseparable companion of dissipation and extravagance, has poisoned the springs of public virtue among us: And should any events ever arise that should render the same opposition necessary that took place in the times of King Charles the First, and James the Second, I am afraid all that is valuable to us would be lost. The terror of the standing army, the danger of the public funds, and the all-corrupting influence of the treasury, would deaden all zeal, and produce general acquiescence and servility.

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Of the Authority of one Country over another.

FROM the nature and principles of Civil Liberty, as they have been now explained, it is an immediate and necessary inference, that no one community can have any power over the property or legislation of another community, that is not incorporated with it by a just and adequate representation.—Then only, it has been shewn, is a state free, when it is governed by its own will. But a country that is subject to the legislature of another country, in which it has no voice, and over which it has no controul, cannot be said to be governed by its own will. Such a country, therefore, is in a state of slavery. And it deserves to be particularly considered, that such a slavery is worse, on several accounts, than any slavery of private men to one another, or of kingdoms to despots within themselves.—Between one state and another, there is none of that fellow-feeling that takes place between persons in private life. Being detached bodies that never see one another, and residing perhaps in different quarters of the globe, the state that governs cannot be a witness to the sufferings occasioned by its oppressions; or a competent judge of the circumstances and abilities of the people who are governed. They must also have in a great degree separate interests; and the more the one is loaded, the more the other may be eased. The infamy likewise of oppression, being in such circumstances shared among a multitude, is not likely to be much felt or regarded.—On all these accounts there is, in the case of one country subjugated to another, little or nothing to check rapacity; and the most flagrant injustice and cruelty may be practised without remorse or pity.—I will add, that it is particularly difficult to shake off a tyranny of this kind. A single despot, if a people are unanimous and resolute, may be soon subdued. But a despotic state is not easily subdued; and a people subject to it cannot emancipate themselves without entering into a dreadful, and, perhaps, very unequal contest.

I cannot help observing farther, that the slavery of a people to internal despots may be qualified and limited; but I don’t see what can limit the authority of one state over another. The exercise of power in this case can have no other measure than discretion; and, therefore, must be indefinite and absolute.

Once more. It should be considered that the government of one country by another, can only be supported by a military force; and, without such a support, must be destitute of all weight and efficiency.

This will be best explained by putting the following case.—There is, let us suppose, in a province subject to the sovereignty of a distant state, a subordinate legislature consisting of an Assembly chosen by the people; a Council chosen by that Assembly; and a Governor appointed by the Sovereign State, and paid by the Province. There are likewise, judges and other officers, appointed and paid in the same manner, for administering justice agreeably to the laws, by the verdicts of juries fairly and indiscriminately chosen.—This forms a constitution seemingly free, by giving the people a share in their own government, and some check on their rulers. But, while there is a higher legislative power, to the controul of which such a constitution is subject, it does not itself possess Liberty, and therefore, cannot be of any use as a security to Liberty; nor is it possible that it should be of long duration. Laws offensive to the Province will be enacted by the Sovereign State. The legislature of the Province will remonstrate against them. The magistrates will not execute them. Juries will not convict upon them; and consequently, like the Pope’s Bulls which once governed Europe, they will become nothing but forms and empty sounds, to which no regard will be shewn.—In order to remedy this evil, and to give efficiency to its government, the supreme state will naturally be led to withdraw the Governor, the Council, and the Judges[4] from the controul of the Province, by making them entirely dependent on itself for their pay and continuance in office, as well as for their appointment. It will also alter the mode of chusing Juries on purpose to bring them more under its influence: And in some cases, under the pretence of the impossibility of gaining an impartial trial where government is resisted, it will perhaps ordain, that offenders shall be removed from the Province to be tried within its own territories: And it may even go so far in this kind of policy, as to endeavour to prevent the effects of discontents, by forbidding all meetings and associations of the people, except at such times, and for such particular purposes, as shall be permitted them.

Thus will such a Province be exactly in the same state that Britain would be in, were our first executive magistrate, our House of Lords, and our Judges, nothing but the instruments of a foreign democratical power; were our Juries nominated by that power; or were we liable to be transported to a distant country to be tried for offences committed here; and restrained from calling any meetings, consulting about any grievances, or associating for any purposes, except when leave should be given us by a Lord Lieutenant or Viceroy.

It is certain that this is a state of oppression which no country could endure, and to which it would be vain to expect, that any people should submit an hour without an armed force to compel them.

The late transactions in Massachusett’s Bay are a perfect exemplification of what I have now said. The government of Great Britain in that Province has gone on exactly in the train I have described; till at last it became necessary to station troops there, not amenable to the civil power; and all terminated in a government by the Sword. And such, if a people are not sunk below the character of men, will be the issue of all government in similar circumstances.

It may be asked—“Are there not causes by which one state may acquire a rightful authority over another, though not consolidated by an adequate Representation?”—I answer, that there are no such causes.—All the causes to which such an effect can be ascribed are Conquest, Compact, or Obligations conferred.

Much has been said of the right of conquest; and history contains little more than accounts of kingdoms reduced by it under the dominion of other kingdoms, and of the havock it has made among mankind. But the authority derived from hence, being founded on violence, is never rightful. The Roman Republic was nothing but a faction against the general liberties of the world; and had no more right to give law to the Provinces subject to it, than thieves have to the property they seize, or to the houses into which they break.—Even in the case of a just war undertaken by one people to defend itself against the oppressions of another people, conquest gives only a right to an indemnification for the injury which occasioned the war, and a reasonable security against future injury.

Neither can any state require such an authority over other states in virtue of any compacts or cessions. This is a case in which compacts are not binding. Civil Liberty is, in this respect, on the same footing with Religious Liberty. As no people can lawfully surrender their Religious Liberty, by giving up their right of judging for themselves in religion, or by allowing any human beings to prescribe to them what faith they shall embrace, or what mode of worship they shall practise; so neither can any civil societies lawfully surrender their Civil Liberty, by giving up to any extraneous jurisdiction their power of legislating for themselves and disposing their property. Such a cession, being inconsistent with the unalienable rights of human nature, would either not bind at all; or bind only the individuals who made it. This is a blessing which no one generation of men can give up for another; and which, when lost, a people have always a right to resume.—Had our ancestors in this country been so mad as to have subjected themselves to any foreign Community, we could not have been under any obligation to continue in such a state. And all the nations now in the world who, in consequence of the tameness and folly of their predecessors, are subject to arbitrary power, have a right to emancipate themselves as soon as they can.

If neither conquest nor compact can give such an authority, much less can any favours received, or any services performed by one state for another.—Let the favour received be what it will, Liberty is too dear a price for it. A state that has been obliged is not, therefore, bound to be enslaved. It ought, if possible, to make an adequate return for the services done to it; but to suppose that it ought to give up the power of governing itself, and the disposal of its property, would be to suppose, that, in order to shew its gratitude, it ought to part with the power of ever afterwards exercising gratitude.—How much has been done by this kingdom for Hanover? But no one will say that on this account, we have a right to make the laws of Hanover; or even to draw a single penny from it without its own consent.

After what has been said it will, I am afraid, be trifling to apply the preceding arguments to the case of different communities, which are considered as different parts of the same Empire. But there are reasons which render it necessary for me to be explicit in making this application.

What I mean here is just to point out the difference of situation between communities forming an Empire; and particular bodies or classes of men forming different parts of a Kingdom. Different communities forming an Empire have no connexions, which produce a necessary reciprocation of interests between them. They inhabit different districts, and are governed by different legislatures.—On the contrary. The different classes of men within a kingdom are all placed on the same ground. Their concerns and interests are the same; and what is done to one part must affect all.—These are situations totally different; and a constitution of government that may be consistent with Liberty in one of them, may be entirely inconsistent with it in the other. It is, however, certain that, even in the last of these situations, no one part ought to govern the rest. In order to a fair and equal government, there ought to be a fair and equal representation of all that are governed; and as far as this is wanting in any government, it deviates from the principles of Liberty, and becomes unjust and oppressive.—But in the circumstances of different communities, all this holds with unspeakably more force. The government of a part in this case becomes complete tyranny; and subjection to it becomes complete slavery.

But ought there not, it is asked, to exist somewhere in an Empire a supreme legislative authority over the whole; or a power to controul and bind all the different states of which it consists?—This enquiry has been already answered. The truth is, that such a supreme controuling power ought to exist no-where except in such a Senate or body of delegates as that described in page 7; and that the authority or supremacy of even this senate ought to be limited to the common concerns of the Empire.—I think I have proved that the fundamental principles of Liberty necessarily require this.

In a word. An Empire is a collection of states or communities united by some common bond or tye. If these states have each of them free constitutions of government, and, with respect to taxation and internal legislation, are independent of the other states, but united by compacts, or alliances, or subjection to a Great Council, representing the whole, or to one monarch entrusted with the supreme executive power: In these circumstances, the Empire will be an Empire of Freemen.—If, on the contrary, like the different provinces subject to the Grand Seignior, none of the states possess any independent legislative authority; but are all subject to an absolute monarch, whose will is their law, then is the Empire an Empire of Slaves.—If one of the states is free, but governs by its will all the other states; then is the Empire, like that of the Romans in the times of the republic, an Empire consisting of one state free, and the rest in slavery: Nor does it make any more difference in this case, that the governing state is itself free, than it does in the case of a kingdom subject to a despot, that this despot is himself free. I have before observed, that this only makes the slavery worse. There is, in the one case, a chance, that in the quick succession of despots, a good one will sometimes arise. But bodies of men continue the same; and have generally proved the most unrelenting of all tyrants.

A great writer before[5] quoted, observes of the Roman Empire, that while Liberty was at the center, tyranny prevailed in the distant provinces; that such as were free under it were extremely so, while those who were slaves groaned under the extremity of slavery; and that the same events that destroyed the liberty of the former, gave liberty to the latter.

The Liberty of the Romans, therefore, was only an additional calamity to the provinces governed by them; and though it might have been said of the citizens of Rome, that they were the “freest members of any civil society in the known world;” yet of the subjects of Rome, it must have been said, that they were the completest slaves in the known world.—How remarkable is it, that this very people, once the freest of mankind, but at the same time the most proud and tyrannical, should become at last the most contemptible and abject slaves that ever existed?

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IN the foregoing disquisitions, I have, from one leading principle, deduced a number of consequences, that seems to me incapable of being disputed. I have meant that they should be applied to the great question between this kingdom and the Colonies which has occasioned the present war with them.

It is impossible but my readers must have been all along making this application; and if they still think that the claims of this kingdom are reconcilable to the principles of true liberty and legitimate government, I am afraid, that nothing I shall farther say will have any effect on their judgments. I wish, however, they would have the patience and candour to go with me, and grant me a hearing some time longer.

Though clearly decided in my own judgment on this subject, I am inclined to make great allowances for the different judgments of others. We have been so used to speak of the Colonies as our Colonies, and to think of them as in a state of subordination to us, and as holding their existence in America only for our use, that it is no wonder the prejudices of many are alarmed, when they find a different doctrine maintained. The meanest person among us is disposed to look upon himself as having a body of subjects in America; and to be offended at the denial of his right to make laws for them, though perhaps he does not know what colour they are of, or what language they talk—Such are the natural prejudices of this country.—But the time is coming, I hope, when the unreasonableness of them will be seen; and more just sentiments prevail.

Before I proceed, I beg it may be attended to, that I have chosen to try this question by the general principles of Civil Liberty; and not by the practice of former times; or by the Charters granted the colonies.—The arguments for them, drawn from these last topics, appear to me greatly to outweigh the arguments against them. But I wish to have this question brought to a higher test, and surer issue. The question with all liberal enquirers ought to be, not what jurisdiction over them Precedents, Statutes, and Charters give, but what reason and equity, and the rights of humanity give.—This is, in truth, a question which no kingdom has ever before had occasion to agitate. The case of a free country branching itself out in the manner Britain has done, and sending to a distant world colonies which have there, from small beginnings, and under free legislatures of their own, increased, and formed a body of powerful states, likely soon to become superior to the parent state—This is a case which is new in the history of mankind; and it is extremely improper to judge of it by the rules of any narrow and partial policy; or to consider it on any other ground than the general one of reason and justice.—Those who will be candid enough to judge on this ground, and who can divest themselves of national prejudices, will not, I fancy, remain long unsatisfied.—But alas! Matters are gone too far. The dispute probably must be settled another way; and the sword alone, I am afraid, is now to determine what the rights of Britain and America are.—Shocking situation!—Detested be the measures which have brought us into it: And, if we are endeavouring to enforce injustice, cursed will be the war.—A retreat, however, is not yet impracticable. The duty we owe our gracious sovereign obliges us to rely on his disposition to stay the sword, and to promote the happiness of all the different parts of the Empire at the head of which he is placed. With some hopes, therefore, that it may not be too late to reason on this subject, I will, in the following Sections, enquire what the war with America is in the following respects.

  • 1. In respect of Justice.
  • 2. The Principles of the Constitution.
  • 3. In respect of Policy and Humanity.
  • 4. The Honour of the Kingdom.

And lastly, The Probability of succeeding in it.



Of the Justice of the War with America.

THE enquiry, whether the war with the Colonies is a just war, will be best determined by stating the power over them, which it is the end of the war to maintain: And this cannot be better done, than in the words of an act of parliament, made on purpose to define it. That act, it is well known, declares, “That this kingdom has power, and of right ought to have power to make laws and statutes to bind the Colonies, and people of America, in all cases whatever.”—Dreadful power indeed! I defy any one to express slavery in stronger language. It is the same with declaring “that we have a right to do with them what we please.”—I will not waste my time by applying to such a claim any of the preceding arguments. If my reader does not feel more in this case, than words can express, all reasoning must be vain.

But, probably, most persons will be for using milder language; and for saying no more than, that the united legislatures of England and Scotland have of right power to tax the Colonies, and a supremacy of legislation over America.—But this comes to the same. If it means any thing, it means, that the property, and the legislations of the Colonies, are subject to the absolute discretion of Great Britain, and ought of right to be so. The nature of the thing admits of no limitation. The Colonies can never be admitted to be judges, how far the authority over them in these cases shall extend. This would be to destroy it entirely.—If any part of their property is subject to our discretion, the whole must be so. If we have a right to interfere at all in their internal legislations, we have a right to interfere as far as we think proper.—It is self-evident, that this leaves them nothing they can call their own.—And what is it that can give to any people such a supremacy over another people?—I have already examined the principal answers which have been given to this enquiry. But it will not be amiss in this place to go over some of them again.

It has been urged, that such a right must be lodged somewhere, “in order to preserve the Unity of the British Empire.”

Pleas of this sort have, in all ages, been used to justify tyranny.—They have in Religion given rise to numberless oppressive claims, and slavish Hierarchies. And in the Romish Communion particularly, it is well known, that the Pope claims the title and powers of the supreme head on earth of the Christian church, in order to preserve its Unity.—With respect to the British Empire, nothing can be more preposterous than to endeavour to maintain its unity, by setting up such a claim. This is a method of establishing unity, which, like the similar method in religion, can produce nothing but discord and mischief.—The truth is, that a common relation to one supreme executive head; an exchange of kind offices; tyes of interest and affection, and compacts, are sufficient to give the British Empire all the unity that is necessary. But if not—If, in order to preserve its Unity, one half of it must be enslaved to the other half, let it, in the name of God, want Unity.

Much has been said of “the Superiority of the British State.” But what gives us our superiority?—Is it our Wealth?—This never confers real dignity. On the contrary: Its effect is always to debase, intoxicate, and corrupt.—Is it the number of our people? The colonies will soon be equal to us in number.—Is it our Knowledge and Virtue? They are probably equally knowing, and more virtuous. There are names among them that will not stoop to any names among the philosophers and politicians of this island.

“But we are the Parent State.”—These are the magic words which have fascinated and misled us.—The English came from Germany. Does that give the German states a right to tax us?—Children, having no property, and being incapable of guiding themselves, the Author of nature has committed the care of them to their parents, and subjected them to their absolute authority. But there is a period when, having acquired property, and a capacity of judging for themselves, they become independent agents; and when, for this reason, the authority of their parents ceases, and becomes nothing but the respect and influence due to benefactors. Supposing, therefore, that the order of nature in establishing the relation between parents and children, ought to have been the rule of our conduct to the Colonies, we should have been gradually relaxing our authority as they grew up. But, like mad parents, we have done the contrary; and, at the very time when our authority should have been most relaxed, we have carried it to the greatest extent, and exercised it with the greatest rigour. No wonder then, that they have turned upon us; and obliged us to remember, that they are not Children.

“But we have,” it is said, “protected them, and run deeply in debt on their “account.”—The full answer to this has been already given, (page 13.) Will any one say, that all we have done for them has not been more on our own account,[6] than on theirs?—But suppose the contrary. Have they done nothing for us? Have they made no compensation for the protection they have received? Have they not helped us to pay our taxes, to support our poor, and to bear the burthen of our debts, by taking from us, at our own price, all the commodities with which we can supply them?—Have they not, for our advantage, submitted to many restraints in acquiring property? Must they likewise resign to us the disposal of that property?—Has not their exclusive trade with us been for many years one of the chief sources of our national wealth and power?—In all our wars have they not sought by our side, and contributed much to our success? In the last war, particularly, it is well known, that they ran themselves deeply in debt; and that the parliament thought it necessary to grant them considerable sums annually as compensations for going beyond their abilities in assisting us. And in this course would they have continued for many future years; perhaps, for ever.—In short; were an accurate account stated, it is by no means certain which side would appear to be most indebted. When asked as freemen, they have hitherto seldom discovered any reluctance in giving. But, in obedience to a demand, and with the bayonet at their breasts, they will give us nothing but blood.

It is farther said, “that the land on which they settled was ours.”—But how same it to be ours? If sailing along a coast can give a right to a country, then might the people of Japan become, as soon as they please, the proprietors of Britain. Nothing can be more chimerical than property founded on such a reason. If the land on which the Colonies first settled had any proprietors, they were the natives. The greatest part of it they bought of the natives. They have since cleared and cultivated it; and, without any help from us, converted a wilderness into fruitful and pleasant fields. It is, therefore, now on a double account their property; and no power on earth can have any right to disturb them in the possession of it, or to take from them, without their consent, any part of its produce.

But let it be granted that the land was ours. Did they not settle upon it under the faith of charters, which promised them the enjoyment of all the rights of Englishmen; and allowed them to tax themselves, and to be governed by legislatures of their own, similar to ours? These charters were given them by an authority, which at the time was thought competent; and they have been rendered sacred by an acquiescence on our part for more than a century. Can it then be wondered at, that the Colonies should revolt, when they found their charters violated; and an attempt made to force innovations upon them by famine and the sword?—But I lay no stress on charters. They derive their rights from a higher source. It is inconsistent with common sense to imagine, that any people would ever think of settling in a distant country, on any such condition, as that the people from whom they withdrew, should for ever be masters of their property, and have power to subject them to any modes of government they pleased. And had there been express stipulations to this purpose in all the charters of the colonies, they would, in my opinion, be no more bound by them, than if it had been stipulated with them, that they should go naked, or expose themselves to the incursions of wolves and tigers.

The defective state of the representation of this kingdom has been farther pleaded to prove our right to tax America. We submit to a parliament that does not represent us, and therefore they ought.—How strange an argument is this? It is saying we want liberty; and therefore, they ought to want it.—Suppose it true, that they are indeed contending for a better constitution of government, and more liberty than we enjoy: Ought this to make us angry?—Who is there that does not see the danger to which this country is exposed?—Is it generous, because we are in a sink, to endeavour to draw them into it? Ought we not rather to wish earnestly, that there may at least be one free country left upon earth, to which we may fly, when venality, luxury, and vice have completed the ruin of Liberty here?

It is, however, by no means true, that America has no more right to be exempted from taxation by the British parliament, than Britain itself.—Here, all freeholders, and burgesses in boroughs, are represented. There, not one Freeholder, or any other person, is represented.—Here, the aids granted by the represented part of the kingdom must be proportionably paid by themselves; and the laws they make for others, they at the same time make for themselves. There, the aids they would grant would not be paid, but received, by themselves; and the laws they made would be made for others only.—In short. The relation of one country to another country, whose representatives have the power of taxing it (and of appropriating the money raised by the taxes) is much the same with the relation of a country to a single despot, or a body of despots, within itself, invested with the like power. In both cases, the people taxed and those who tax have separate interests; nor can there be any thing to check oppression, besides either the abilities of the people taxed, or the humanity of the taxers.—But indeed I can never hope to convince that person of any thing, who does not see an essential difference[7] between the two cases now mentioned; or between the circumstances of individuals, and classes of men, making parts of a community imperfectly represented in the legislature that governs it; and the circumstances of a whole community, in a distant world, not at all represented.

But enough has been said by others on this point; nor is it possible for me to throw any new light upon it. To finish, therefore, what I meant to offer under this head, I must beg that the following considerations may be particularly attended to.

The question now between us and the Colonies is, Whether, in respect of taxation and internal legislation, they are bound to be subject to the jurisdiction of this kingdom: Or, in other words, Whether the British parliament has or has not of right a power to dispose of their property, and to model as it pleases their governments?—To this supremacy over them, we say, we are entitled; and in order to maintain it, we have begun the present war.—Let me here enquire,

1st. Whether, if we have now this supremacy, we shall not be equally entitled to it in any future time?—They are now but little short of half our number. To this number they have grown, from a small body of original settlers, by a very rapid increase. The probability is, that they will go on to increase; and that, in 50 or 60 years, they will be double our number;[8] and form a mighty Empire, consisting of a variety of states, all equal or superior to ourselves in all the arts and accomplishments, which give dignity and happiness to human life. In that period, will they be still bound to acknowledge that supremacy over them which we now claim? Can there be any person who will assert this; or whose mind does not revolt at the idea of a vast continent, holding all that is valuable to it, at the discretion of a handful of people on the other side the Atlantic?—But if, at that period, this would be unreasonable; what makes it otherwise now?—Draw the line, if you can.—But there is a still greater difficulty.

Britain is now, I will suppose, the seat of Liberty and Virtue; and its legislature consists of a body of able and independent men, who govern with wisdom and justice. The time may come when all will be reversed: When its excellent constitution of Government will be subverted: When, pressed by debts and taxes, it will be greedy to draw to itself an increase of revenue from every distant Province, in order to ease its own burdens: When the influence of the crown, strengthened by luxury and an universal profligacy of manners, will have tainted every heart, broken down every fence of Liberty, and rendered us a nation of tame and contented vassals: When a General Election will be nothing but a General Auction of Boroughs: And when the Parliament, the Grand Council of the nation, and once the faithful guardian of the state, and a terror to evil ministers, will be degenerated into a body of Sycophants, dependent and venal, always ready to confirm any measures; and little more than a public court for registering royal edicts.—Such, it is possible, may, some time or other, be the state of Great Britain.—What will, at that period, be the duty of the Colonies? Will they be still bound to unconditional submission? Must they always continue an appendage to our government; and follow it implicitly through every change that can happen to it?—Wretched condition, indeed, of millions of freemen as good as ourselves!—Will you say that we now govern equitably; and that there is no danger of any such revolution?—Would to God this were true!—But will you not always say the same? Who shall judge whether we govern equitably or not? Can you give the Colonies any security that such a period will never come? Once more.

If we have indeed that power which we claim over the legislations, and internal rights of the Colonies, may we not, whenever we please, subject them to the arbitrary power of the crown?—I do not mean, that this would be a disadvantageous change: For I have before observed, that if a people are to be subject to an external power over which they have no command, it is better that power should be lodged in the hands of one man than of a multitude. But many persons think otherwise; and such ought to consider that, if this would be a calamity, the condition of the Colonies must be deplorable.—“A government by King, Lords, and Commons, (it has been said) is the perfection of government;” and so it is, when the Commons are a just representation of the people; and when also, it is not extended to any distant people, or communities, not represented. But if this is the best, a government by a king only must be the worst; and every claim implying a right to establish such a government among any people must be unjust and cruel.—It is self-evident, that by claiming a right to alter the constitutions of the Colonies, according to our discretion, we claim this power: And it is a power that we have thought fit to exercise in one of our Colonies; and that we have attempted to exercise in another.—Canada, according to the late extension of its limits, is a country almost as large as half Europe; and it may possibly come in time to be filled with British subjects. The Quebec act makes the king of Great Britain a despot over all that country.—In the Province of Massachusett’s Bay the same thing has been attempted and begun.

The act for better regulating their government, passed at the same time with the Quebec act, gives the king the right of appointing, and removing at his pleasure, the members of one part of the legislature; alters the mode of chusing juries, on purpose to bring it more under the influence of the king; and takes away from the province the power of calling any meetings of the people without the king’s consent.[9] —The judges, likewise, have been made dependent on the king, for their nomination and pay, and continuance in office.—If all this is no more than we have a right to do; may we not go on to abolish the house of representatives, to destroy all trials by juries, and to give up the province absolutely and totally to the will of the king?—May we not even establish popery in the province, as has been lately done in Canada, leaving the support of protestantism to the king’s discretion?—Can there be any Englishman who, were it his own case, would not sooner lose his heart’s blood than yield to claims so pregnant with evils, and destructive to every thing that can distinguish a Freeman from a Slave?

I will take this opportunity to add, that what I have now said, suggests a consideration that demonstrates, on how different a footing the Colonies are with respect to our government, from particular bodies of men within the kingdom, who happen not to be represented. Here, it is impossible that the represented part should subject the unrepresented part to arbitrary power, without including themselves. But in the Colonies it is not impossible. We know that it has been done.

[Remainder omitted]

[1] In Great Britain, consisting of near six millions of inhabitants, 5723 persons, most of them the lowest of the people, elect one half of the House of Commens; and 364 votes chuse a ninth part. This may be seen distinctly made out in the Political Disquisitions, Vol. I, Book 2, Chapter 4, a work full of important and useful instruction.

[2] See among others Mr. Locke on Government, and Dr. Priestley’s Essay on the first Principles of Government.

[3] See Dr. Priestley on Government, page 68, 69, &c.

[4] The independency of the Judges we esteem in this country one of our greatest privileges.—Before the revolution they generally, I believe, held their places during pleasure. King William gave them their places during good behaviour. At the accession of the present Royal Family their places were given them during good behaviour, in consequence of the Act of Settlement, 12 and 13 W. III. C. 2. But an opinion having been entertained by some, that though their commissions were made under the Act of Settlement to continue, during good behaviour, yet that they determined on the demise of the Crown; it was enacted by a statute made in the first year of his present Majesty, Chap. 23. “That the commissions of Judges for the time being shall be, continue, and remain in full force, during their good behaviour, notwithstanding the demise of his Majesty, or of any of his Heirs and Successors;” with a proviso, “that it may be lawful for his Majesty, his Heirs and Successors, to remove any Judge upon the address of both Houses of Parliament.” And by the same Statute their salaries are secured to them during the continuance of their commissions: His Majesty, according to the preamble of the Statute, having been pleased to declare from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament, “That he looked upon the independency and uprightness of Judges as essential to the impartial administration of Justice, at one of the best securities to the Rights and Liberties of his loving subjects, and as most conducive to the honour of his Crown.” A worthy friend and able Lawyer has supplied me with this note. It affords, when contrasted with that dependence of the Judges which has been thought reasonable in America, a sad specimen of the different manner in which a kingdom may think proper to govern itself, and the provinces subject to it.

[5] Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, Vol. 1, Book 2, Chapter 19.

[6] This is particularly true of the bounties granted on some American commodities (as pitch, tar, indigo, &c.) when imported into Britain; for it is well known, that the end of granting them was, to get those commodities cheaper from the Colonies, and in return for our manufactures, which we used to get from Russia and other foreign countries. And this is expressed in the preambles of the laws which grant these bounties. See the Appeal to the Justice, &c. page 21, third edition. It is, therefore, strange that Doctor Tucker and others, should have insisted so much upon these bounties as favours and indulgences to the Colonies.—But it is still more strange, that the time representation should have been made of the compensations granted them for doing more during the last war in assisting us than could have been reasonably expected; and also of the sums we have spent in maintaining troops among them without their consent; and in opposition to their wishes.—See a pamphlet, intitled “The rights of Great Britain asserted against the claims of America.”

[7] It gives me pleasure to find, that the author of the Remarks on the Principal Acts of the 13th Parliament of Great Britain, &c. acknowledges this difference.—It has, however, been at the same time mortifying to me to find so able a writer adopting such principles of government, as are contained in this work. According to him, a people have no property or rights, except such as their Civil Governers are pleased not to take from them. Taxes, therefore, he asserts, are in no tense the gift, much less the free gifts of the people. See p. 58. and 191.

[8] See Observations on Reversionary Payments, page 207, &c.

[9] See page 12.

Original Author Sort: 
Price, Richard