Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution

and the

Means of making it a Benefit to the World

Richard Price (1785)


Of the Dangers to which the American States are exposed

In the preceding observations I have aimed at pointing out the means of promoting the progress of improvement in the united states of America. I have insisted, particularly, on the importance of a just settlement of the Federal Union and the establishment of a well-guarded and perfect liberty in speculation, in government, [2] in education, and in religion. The united states are now setting out, and all depends on the care and foresight with which a plan is begun, which hereafter will require only to be strengthened and ripened. This is, therefore, the time for giving them advice, and mean advice (like the present) may suggest some useful hints. In this country when any improvements are proposed or any corrections are attempted of abuses so gross as to make our boasts of liberty ridiculous, a clamour immediately arises against innovation, and an alarm spreads lest the attempt to repair should destroy. In America no such prejudices can operate. These abuses have not yet gained sacredness by time. There the way is open to social dignity and happiness, and reason may utter her voice with confidence and success.
 

Of Debts and Internal Wars

I have observed in the introduction to this address that the American states have many dangers to shun. In what follows I shall give a brief recital of some of the chief of these dangers.

The danger from an endless increase of public debts has been already sufficiently noticed.

Particular notice has been likewise taken of the danger from internal wars. Again and again, I would urge the necessity of pursuing every measure and using every precaution which can guard against this danger. It will be shocking to see in the new world a repetition of all the evils which have hitherto laid waste the old world. War raging where peace and liberty were thought to have taken their abodes. The points of bayonets and the mouths of cannon settling disputes, instead of the collected wisdom of the confederation and perhaps one restless and ambitious state rising by bloody conquest above the rest, and becoming a sovereign state, claiming impiously (as Britain once did), 'full authority to make laws that shall bind its sister states in all cases whatever', and drawing to itself all advantages at their expence. I deprecate this calamity. I shudder when I consider how possible it is and hope those persons are mistaken who think that such are the jealousies which govern human nature, and such the imperfections of the best human arrangements, that it is not within the reach of any wisdom to discover any effectual means of preventing it without encroaching too much on the liberty and independence of the states. I have mentioned an enlargement of the powers of Congress. Others have proposed a consolidation of the powers of government in one parliament representing all the states and superseding the particular parliaments by which they are now separately governed. But it is obvious that this will be attended with greater inconveniencies and encroach more on the liberty of the states than the enlargement I have proposed of the powers of Congress. If such a parliament is not to supersede any of the other parliaments, it will be the same with Congress as at present constituted.
 
 

Of an Unequal Distribution of Property

It is a trite observation 'that dominion is founded on property'. Most free states have manifested their sense of the truth of this observation by studying to find out means of preventing too great an inequality in the distribution of property. What tumults were occasioned at Rome, in its best times, by attempts to carry into execution the Agrarian law? Among the people of Israel, by the direction of heaven, all estates which had been alienated during the course of fifty years returned to their original owners at the end of that term. One of the circumstances that has been most favourable to the American states in forming their new constitutions of government has been the equality which subsists among them.

The happiest state of man is the middle state between the savage and the refined, or between the wild and the luxurious state. Such is the state of society in Connecticut and some others of the American provinces where the inhabitants consist, if I am rightly informed, of an independent and hardy yeomanry, all nearly on a level, trained to arms, instructed in their rights, cloathed in homespun, of simple manners, strangers to luxury, drawing plenty from the ground, and that plenty, gathered easily by the hand of industry and giving rise to early marriages, a numerous progeny, length of days, and a rapid increase the rich and the poor, the haughty grandee and the creeping sycophant, equally unknown protected by laws which (being their own will) cannot oppress, and by an equal government which, wanting lucrative places, cannot create corrupt canvassings and ambitious intrigue. O distinguished people! May you continue long thus happy, and may the happiness you enjoy spread over the face of the whole earth! But I am forgetting myself. There is danger that a state of society so happy will not be of long duration, that simplicity and virtue will give way to depravity, that equality will in time be lost, the cursed lust of domineering shew itself, liberty languish, and civil government gradually degenerate into an instrument in the hands of the few to oppress and plunder the many. Such has hitherto been the progress of evil in human affairs. In order to give them a better turn, some great men (Plato, Sir Thomas More, Mr. Wallace, etc.) have proposed plans which, by establishing a community of goods and annihilating property, would make it impossible for any one member of a state to think of enslaving the rest, or to consider himself as having any interest distinct from that of his fellow-citizens. Such theories are in speculation pleasing, nor perhaps are they wholly impracticable. Some approaches to them may hereafter be made and schemes of government may take place which shall leave so little, besides personal merit, to be a means of distinction as to exclude from society most of the causes of evil. But be this as it will, it is out of doubt that there is an equality in society which is essential to liberty and which every state that would continue virtuous and happy ought as far as possible to maintain. It is not in my power to describe the best method of doing this. I will only observe that there are three enemies to equality against which America ought to guard.

First, granting hereditary honours and tides of nobility. Persons thus distinguished, though perhaps meaner than the meanest of their dependents, are apt to consider themselves as belonging to a higher order of beings, and made for power and government. Their birth and rank necessarily dispose them to be hostile to general liberty, and when they are not so, and discover a just zeal for the rights of mankind, it is always a triumph of good sense and virtue over the temptations of their situation. It is, therefore, with peculiar satisfaction that I have found in the Articles of Confederation an order that no titles of nobility shall be ever granted by the united states. Let there be honours to encourage merit, but let them die with the men who have earned them. Let them not descend to posterity to foster a spirit of domination and to produce a proud and tyrannical aristocracy. In a word, let the united states continue for ever what it is now their glory to be a confederation of states prosperous and happy, without lords, without bishops [3] and without kings.

Secondly, the right of primogeniture. The tendency of this to produce an improper inequality is very obvious. The disposition to raise a name by accumulating property in one branch of a family is a vanity no less unjust and cruel than dangerous to the interest of liberty and no wise state will encourage or tolerate it.

Thirdly, foreign trade is another of the enemies against which I wish to caution the united states. But this operates unfavourably to a state in so many more ways than by destroying that equality which is the basis of liberty that it will be proper to take more particular notice of it.
 

Of Trade, Banks, and Paper Credit

Foreign trade has, in some respects, the most useful tendency. By creating an intercourse between distant kingdoms it extends benevolence, removes local prejudices, leads every man to consider himself more as a citizen of the world than of any particular state, and, consequently, checks the excesses of that love of our country[4] which has been applauded as one of the noblest, but which, really, is one of the most destructive principles in human nature. Trade also, by enabling every country to draw from other countries conveniencies and advantages which it cannot find within itself, produces among nations a sense of mutual dependence, and promotes the general improvement. But there is no part of mankind to which these uses of trade are of less consequence than the American states. They are spread over a great continent and make a world within themselves. The country they inhabit includes soils and climates of all sorts, producing not only every necessary, but every convenience of life. And the vast rivers and widespread lakes which intersect it create such an inland communication between the different parts as is unknown in any other region of the earth. They possess then within themselves the best means of the most profitable traffic, and the amplest scope for it. Why should they look much farther? What occasion have they for being anxious about pushing foreign trade, or even about raising a great naval force? Britain, indeed, consisting as it does of unarmed inhabitants, and threatened as it is by ambitious and powerful neighbours, cannot hope to maintain its existence long after becoming open to invasion by losing its naval superiority. But this is not the case with the American states. They have no powerful neighbours to dread. The vast Atlantic must be crossed before they can be attacked. They are all a well trained militia, and the successful resistance which, in their infancy and without a naval force, they have made to the invasion of the first European power, will probably discourage and prevent all future invasions. Thus singularly happy, why should they seek connexions with Europe and expose themselves to the danger of being involved in its quarrels? What have they to do with its politics? Is there any thing very important to them which they can draw from thence except infection? Indeed, I tremble when I think of the rage for trade which is likely to prevail among them. It may do them infinite mischief. All nations are spreading snares for them and courting them to a dangerous intercourse. Their best interest requires them to guard themselves by all proper means, and, particularly, by laying heavy duties on importations. But in no case will any means succeed unless aided by manners. In this instance, particularly, there is reason to fear that an increasing passion for foreign frippery will render all the best regulations ineffectual. And should this happen, that simplicity of character, that manliness of spirit, that disdain of tinsel in which true dignity consists, will disappear. Effeminacy, servility, and venality will enter, and liberty and virtue be swallowed up in the gulph of corruption. Such may be the course of events in the American states. Better infinitely will it be for them to consist of bodies of plain and honest farmers, than of opulent and splendid merchants. Where in these states do the purest manners prevail? Where do the inhabitants live most on an equality and most at their ease? Is it not in those inland parts where agriculture gives health and plenty, and trade is scarcely known? Where, on the contrary, are the inhabitants most selfish, luxurious, loose, and vicious, and at the same time most unhappy? Is it not along the sea coasts and in the great towns where trade flourishes and merchants abound? So striking is the effect of these different situations on the vigour and happiness of human life, that in the one, population would languish did it receive no aid from emigration, while in the other, it increases to a degree scarcely ever before known.

But to proceed to some observations of a different nature. The united States have, I think, particular reason to dread the following effects of foreign trade.

By increasing importation to feed luxury and gratify prodigality, it will carry out their coin and occasion the substitution of a delusive paper currency, the consequence of which will be that ideal wealth will take place of real, and their security come to depend on the strength and duration of a bubble. I am very sensible that paper credit is one of the greatest of all conveniencies, but this makes it likewise one of the greatest of all temptations. A public bank (while it can circulate its bills) facilitates commerce and assists the exertions of a state in proportion to its credit. But when it is not carefully restricted and watched, when its emissions exceed the coin it can command and are carried near the utmost length that the confidence of the public will allow, and when, in consequence of this, its permanence comes to depend on the permanence of public credulity, in these circumstances, a bank, though it may for a time (that is, while a balance of trade too unfavourable does not occasion a run, and no events arise which produce alarm) answer all the ends of a mine from which millions may be drawn in a minute, and, by filling a kingdom with cash, render it capable of sustaining any debts, and give it a kind of omnipotence. In such circumstances, I say, notwithstanding these temporary advantages, a public bank must at last prove a great calamity and a kingdom so supported, at the very time of its greatest exertions, will be only striving more violently to increase the horror of an approaching convulsion.

The united States have already verified some of these observations and felt in some degree the consequences to which I have alluded. They have been carried through the war by an emission of paper which had no solid support and which now has lost all value. It is indeed surprising that, being secured on no fund and incapable of being exchanged for coin, it should ever have obtained a currency, or answered any important purpose.

Unhappily for Britain, it has used the means of giving more stability to its paper-credit and being enabled by it to support expences greater than any that have been yet known, and to contract a debt which now astonishes, and may hereafter produce a catastrophe that will terrify the world. A longer duration of the late war would have brought on this catastrophe immediately. The peace has put it off for the present. God grant, if still possible, that measures may be adopted which shall put it off for ever.
 

Of Oaths

Oaths are expedients to which all states have had recourse in order to obtain true information and ascertain facts by securing the veracity of witnesses. But I know not how to relish that imprecation which always makes a part of an oath. Perhaps there is no such necessity for it as is commonly imagined. An affirmation solemnly made with laws inflicting severe penalties on falshood when detected, would probably answer all the ends of oaths. I am, therefore, disposed to wish that in the united states imprecatory oaths may be abolished and the same indulgence in this respect granted to all which is now granted to the Quakers. But I am afraid they will think this too dangerous an experiment, and what is of most consequence is to avoid, first, such a multiplicity of oaths as will render them too familiar, and, secondly, a slight manner of administering them. England, in this respect, seems to be sunk to the lowest possible degree of degeneracy. Oaths among us are required on so many occasions and so carelessly administered as to have lost almost all their use and efficacy. It has been asserted that, including oaths of office, oaths at elections, custom-house oaths, etc., there are about a million of perjuries committed in this kingdom annually. This is one of the most atrocious of our national iniquities and it is a wonder if we are not to be visited for it with some of the severest of God's judgments.
 

Of the Negro Trade and Slavery

The negro trade cannot be censured in language too severe. It is a traffic which, as it has been hitherto carried on, is shocking to humanity, cruel, wicked, and diabolical. I am happy to find that the united states are entering into measures for discountenancing it and for abolishing the odious slavery which it has introduced. Till they have done this, it will not appear they deserve the liberty for which they have been contending. For it is self-evident that if there are any men whom they have a right to hold in slavery, there may be others who have had a right to hold them in slavery. I am sensible, however, that this is a work which they cannot accomplish at once. The emancipation of the negroes must, I suppose, be left in some measure to be the effect of time and of manners. But nothing can excuse the united states if it is not done with as much speed, and at the same time with as much effect, as their particular circumstances and situation will allow. I rejoice that on this occasion I can recommend to them the example of my own country. In Britain, a negro becomes a freeman the moment he sets his foot on British ground.
 

Conclusion

Such is the advice which I would humbly (but earnestly) offer to the united states of America. Such are the means by which they may become the seats of liberty, science, peace, and virtue, happy within themselves, and a refuge to the world.

Often, while employed in writing these papers, have I wished for a warning voice of more power. The present moment, however auspicious to the united states if wisely improved, is critical and, though apparently the end of all their dangers, may prove the time of their greatest danger. I have, indeed, since finishing this address, been mortified more than I can express by accounts which have led me to fear that I have carried my ideas of them too high and deceived myself with visionary expectations. And should this be true, should the return of peace and the pride of independence lead them to security and dissipation, should they lose those virtuous and simple manners by which alone republics can long subsist, should false refinement, luxury, and irreligion spread among them, excessive jealousy distract their governments, and clashing interests, subject to no strong controul, break the federal union, the consequence will be that the fairest experiment ever tried in human affairs will miscarry and that a revolution which had revived the hopes of good men and promised an opening to better times will become a discouragement to all future efforts in favour of liberty and prove only an opening to a new scene of human degeneracy and misery.
 

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NOTES

[2]. It was proposed to the convention for settling the Massachusett's constitution that one of the two houses which constitute the general court of that state should be a representation of persons, and the other a representation of property, and that the body of the people should appoint only the electors of their representatives. By such regulations corruption in the choice of representatives would be rendered less practicable, and it seems the best method of concentering in the legislature as much as possible of the virtue and ability of the state, and of making its voice always an expression of the will and best sense of the people. On this plan also the number of members constituting a legislature might be much lessened. This is a circumstance of particular consequence, to which the united states, in some future period of their increase, will find it necessary to attend. It has been often justly observed, that a legislative body very numerous is little better than a mob.

[3]. I do not mean by 'bishops' any officers among Christians merely spiritual, but lords spiritual, as distinct from lords temporal, or clergymen raised to pre-eminence and invested with civil honours and authority by a state establishment. I must add that by what is here said I do not mean to express a general preference of a republican constitution of government. There is a degree of political degeneracy which unfits for such a constitution. Britain, in particular, consists too much of the high and the low, (of scum and dregs) to admit of it. Nor will it suit America should it ever become equally corrupt.

[4]. The love of our country is then only a noble passion when it engages us to promote the internal happiness of our country and to defend its rights and liberties against domestic and foreign invasion, maintaining at the same time an equal regard to the rights and liberties of other countries. But this has not been its most common effects. On the contrary, it has in general been nothing but a spirit of rivalship between different communities, producing contention and a thirst for conquest and dominion. What is his country to a Russian, a Turk, a Spaniard, etc. but a spot where he enjoys no right, and is disposed of by owners as if he was a beast? And what is his love to his country but an attachment to degradation and slavery? What was the love of their country among the Jews but a wretched partiality for themselves and a proud contempt for other nations? Among the Romans also what was it, however great in many of its exertions, but a principle holding together a band of robbers in their attempts to crush all liberty but their own? Christianity has wisely omitted to recommend this principle. Had it done this, it would have countenanced a vice among mankind. It has done what is infinitely better. It has recommended universal benevolence.


 Writings of Richard Price

 Classical Liberals