Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty,

the Principles of Government,

and the

Justice and Policy of the War with America

Richard Price (1776)


Part II

In the foregoing disquisitions, I have, from one leading principle, deduced a number of consequences that seem 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 reconcileable 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.
 

Sect. I 
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 anyone 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 legislature over America. But this comes to the same. If it means anything, 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 other 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 tide 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, types 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 entrusted 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, Will any one say that all we have done for them has not been more on our own account 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 wealth and power? In all our wars have they not fought 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 came 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 near 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 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,

First, 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 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 of 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 Massachuset's Bay the same thing had 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. 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 Englishmen 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.
 
 

Sect. II 
Whether the War with America is Justified by the Principles of the Constitution

I have proposed, in the next place, to examine the war with the Colonies by the principles of the constitution. I know that it is common to say that we are now maintaining the constitution in America. If this means that we are endeavouring to establish our own constitution of government there, it is by no means true, nor, were it true, would it be right. They have chartered governments of their own, with which they are pleased and which, if any power on earth may change without their consent, that power may likewise, if it thinks proper, deliver them over to the Grand Seignior. Suppose the colonies of France had, by compacts, enjoyed for many years free governments open to all the world, under which they had grown and flourished; what should we think of that kingdom, were it to attempt to destroy their governments and to force upon them its own mode of government? Should we not applaud any zeal they discovered in repelling such an injury? But the truth is, in the present instance, that we are not maintaining but violating our own constitution in America. The essence of our constitution consists in its independency. There is in this case no difference between subjection and annihilation. Did, therefore, the Colonies possess governments perfectly the same with ours, the attempt to subject them to ours would be an attempt to ruin them. A free government loses its nature from the moment it becomes liable to be commanded or altered by any superior power.

But I intended here principally to make the following observation. The fundamental principle of our government is, 'the right of a people to give and grant their own money'. It is of no consequence, in this case, whether we enjoy this right in a proper manner or not. Most certainly we do not. It is, however, the principle on which our government, as a free government, is founded. The spirit of the constitution gives it us and, however imperfectly enjoyed, we glory in it as our first and greatest blessing. It was an attempt to encroach upon this right, in a trifling instance, that produced the civil war in the reign of Charles the First. Ought not our brethren in America to enjoy this right as well as ourselves? Do the principles of the constitution give it us, but deny it to them? Or can we, with any decency, pretend that when we give to the king their money, we give them our own? What difference does it make that in the time of Charles the First the attempt to take away this right was made by one man; but that, in the case of America it is made by a body of men?

In a word, this is a war undertaken not only against the principles of our own constitution, but on purpose to destroy other similar constitutions in America, and to substitute in their room a military force. It is, therefore, a gross and flagrant violation of the constitution.


 Writings of Richard Price

 Classical Liberals