Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution

and the

Means of making it a Benefit to the World

Richard Price (1785)

Of the Means of Promoting Human Improvement and Happiness in the United States. And first, of Public Debts

It seems evident that what first requires the attention of the United States is the redemption of their debts and making compensation to that army which has carried them through the war. They have an infant credit to cherish and rear which, if this is not done, must perish, and with it their character and honour for ever. Nor is it conceivable they should meet with any great difficulty in doing this. They have a vast resource peculiar to themselves in a continent of unlocated lands possessing every advantage of soil and climate. The settlement of these lands will be rapid, the consequence of which must be a rapid increase of their value. By disposing of them to the army and to emigrants, the greatest part of the debts of the United States may probably be sunk immediately. But had they no such resource, they are very capable of bearing taxes sufficient for the purpose of a gradual redemption. Supposing their debts to amount to nine millions sterling carrying interest at 5½ per cent, taxes producing a revenue of a million per ann. would pay the interest and at the same time leave a surplus of half a million per ann. for a sinking fund which would discharge the principal in thirteen years. A surplus of a quarter of a million would do the same in 20½ years. After discharging the principal, the appropriated revenue being no longer wanted, might be abolished and the states eased of the burthen of it. But it would be imprudent to abolish it entirely, £100,000 per ann. reserved and faithfully laid out in clearing unlocated lands and other improvements, would in a short time increase to a treasure (or continental patrimony) which would defray the whole expenditure of the union, and keep the states free from debts and taxes for ever.

Such a reserve would (supposing it improved so as to produce a profit of 5 per cent.) increase to a capital of three millions in 19 years, 30 millions in 57 years and 261 millions in 100 years. But supposing it capable of being improved so as to produce a profit of 10 per cent. it would increase to five millions in 19 years, 100 millions in 49 years, and 10,000 millions in 97 years.

It is wonderful that no state has yet thought of taking this method to make itself great and rich. The smallest appropriation in a sinking fund, never diverted, operates in cancelling debts, just as money increases at compound interest and is, therefore, omnipotent. But, if diverted, it loses all its power. Britain affords a striking proof of this. Its sinking fund (once the hope of the kingdom) has, by the practice of alienating it, been rendered impotent and useless. Had it been inviolably applied to the purpose for which it was intended, there would, in the year 1775, have been a surplus in the revenue of more than five millions per ann. But instead of this, we were then encumbered with a debt of 137 millions, carrying an interest of near 42 millions, and leaving no surplus of any consequence. This debt has been since increased to 280 millions, carrying an interest (including expences of management) of nine millions and a half. A monstrous bubble, and if no very strong measures are soon taken to reduce it within the limits of safety, it must produce a dreadful convulsion. Let the United States take warning. Their debts at present are moderate. A sinking fund, guarded against misapplication, may soon extinguish them and prove a resource in all events of the greatest importance.

I must not, however, forget that there is one of their debts on which no sinking fund can have any effect and which it is impossible for them to discharge, A debt, greater, perhaps, than has been ever due from any country and which will be deeply felt by their latest posterity. But it is a debt of gratitude only of gratitude to that General, who has been raised up by Providence to make them free and independent, and whose name must shine among the first in the future annals of the benefactors of mankind.

The measures now proposed may preserve America for ever from too great an accumulation of debts and, consequently of taxes an evil which is likely to be the ruin not only of Britain, but of other European states. But there are measures of yet greater consequence which I wish ardently to recommend and inculcate.

For the sake of mankind I wish to see every measure adopted that can have a tendency to preserve peace in America and to make it an open and fair stage for discussion and the seat of perfect liberty.

Of peace. 
And the Means of Perpetuating it.

Civil government is an expedient for collecting the wisdom and force of a community or confederacy in order to preserve its peace and liberty against every hostile invasion, whether from within or from without. In the latter of these respects the United States are happily secured, but they are far from being equally happy in the former respect. Having now, in consequence of their successful resistance of the invasion of Britain, united in their remoteness from Europe, no external enemy to fear, they are in danger of fighting with one another. This is their greatest danger and providing securities against it is their hardest work. Should they fail in this, America may some time or other be turned into a scene of blood and, instead of being the hope and refuge of the world, may become a terror to it.

When a dispute arises among individuals in a state, an appeal is made to a court of law, that is, to the wisdom and justice of the state. The court decides. The losing party acquiesces or, if he does not, the power of the state forces him to submission, and thus the effects of contention are supprest and peace is maintained. In a way similar to this, peace may be maintained between any number of confederate states and I can almost imagine that it is not impossible but that by such means universal peace may be produced and all war excluded from the world. Why may we not hope to see this begun in America? The articles of confederation make considerable advances towards it. When a dispute arises between any of the states they order an appeal to Congress, an enquiry by Congress, a hearing, and a decision. But here they stop. What is most of all necessary is omitted. No provision is made for enforcing the decisions of Congress, and this renders them inefficient and futile. I am by no means qualified to point out the best method of removing this defect. Much must be given up for this purpose, nor is it easy to give up too much. Without all doubt the powers of Congress must be enlarged. In particular, a power must be given it to collect, on certain emergencies, the force of the confederacy and to employ it in carrying its decisions into execution. A state against which a decision is made will yield of course when it knows that such a force exists and that it allows no hope from resistance.

By this force I do not mean a standing army. God forbid that standing armies should ever find an establishment in America. They are every where the grand supports of arbitrary power and the chief causes of the depression of mankind. No wise people will trust their defence out of their own hands, or consent to hold their rights at the mercy of armed slaves. Free states ought to be bodies of armed citizens, well regulated and well disciplined, and always ready to turn out, when properly called upon, to execute the laws, to quell riots, and to keep the peace. Such, if I am rightly informed, are the citizens of America. Why then may not Congress be furnished with a power of calling out from the confederated states quotas of militias sufficient to force at once the compliance of any state which may shew an inclination to break the union by resisting its decisions?

I am very sensible that it will be difficult to guard such a power against abuse, and, perhaps, better means of answering this end are discoverable. In human affairs, however, the choice generally offered us is 'of two evils to take the least'. We chuse the restraint of civil government because a less evil than anarchy and, in like manner, in the present instance, the danger of the abuse of power and of its being employed sometimes to enforce wrong decisions, must be submitted to, because a less evil than the misery of intestine wars. Much, however, may be done to lessen this danger. Such regulations as those in the ninth of the Articles of Confederation will, in a great measure, prevent hasty and partial decisions. The rotation established by the fifth article will prevent that corruption of character which seldom fails to be produced by the long possession of power, and the right reserved to every state of recalling its delegates when dissatisfied with them, will keep them constantly responsible and cautious.

The observations now made must be extended to money transactions. Congress must be trusted with a power of procuring supplies for defraying the expences of the confederation, of contracting debts, and providing funds for discharging them, and this power must not be capable of being defeated by the opposition of any minority in the states.

In short, the credit of the United States, their strength, their respectableness abroad, their liberty at home, and even their existence, depend on the preservation of a firm political union; and such an union cannot be preserved without giving all possible weight and energy to the authority of that delegation which constitutes the union.

Would it not be proper to take periodical surveys of the different states, their numbers of both sexes in every stage of life, their condition, occupations, property, etc.? Would not such surveys, in conjunction with accurate registers of births, marriages and deaths at all ages, afford much important instruction by shewing what laws govern human mortality and what situations, employments, and civil institutions are most favourable to the health and happiness of mankind? Would they not keep constantly in view the progress of population in the states, and the increase or decline of their resources? But more especially, are they not the only means of procuring the necessary information for determining accurately and equitably the proportions of men and money to be contributed by each state for supporting and strengthening the confederation?

 Writings of Richard Price

 Classical Liberals