Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty,

the Principles of Government,

and the

Justice and Policy of the War with America

Richard Price (1776)


Sect. I 
Of the Nature of Liberty in General

In order to obtain a more distinct 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 our fellow-men. 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 the impositions of any power in appointing and directing which the collective body of the people have no concern and over which they have no controul.

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, 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 in making laws for it and disposing of its property.

This it is, I think, that marks the limit 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 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 idea 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.
 

Sect. II 
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 denned 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 independent agent 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 sovereign 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 rimes, 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 applicable 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 as 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 there should be an excess. Government is an institution for the benefit of the people governed, which they have the 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 defeat 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 perpetual, 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 theirs 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 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. 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 willing 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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NOTES

[1]. In Great Britain, consisting of near six millions of inhabitants, 5,723 persons, most of them the lowest of the people, elect one half of the House of Commons, and 364 chuse a ninth part. This may be seen distinctly made out in Political Disquisitions, vol. 1, Bk. 2, ch. 4, a work of important and useful instruction.


 Writings of Richard Price

 Classical Liberals