Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution

and the

Means of making it a Benefit to the World

Richard Price (1785)

Of Liberty

The next point I would insist on, as an object of supreme importance, is the establishment of such a system of perfect liberty, religious as well as civil, in America as shall render it a country where truth and reason shall have fair play and the human powers find full scope for exerting themselves and for shewing how far they can carry human improvement.

The faculties of man have hitherto, in all countries, been more or less cramped by the interference of civil authority in matters of speculation, by tyrannical laws against heresy and schism, and by slavish hierarchies and religious establishments. It is above all things desirable that no such fetters on reason should be admitted into America. I observe, with inexpressible satisfaction, that at present they have no existence there. In this respect the governments of the United States are liberal to a degree that is unparalleled. They have the distinguished honour of being the first states under heaven in which forms of government have been established favourable to universal liberty. They have been thus distinguished in their infancy. What then will they be in a more advanced state, when time and experience, and the concurring assistance of the wise and virtuous in every part of the earth shall have introduced into the new governments, corrections and amendments which will render them still more friendly to liberty, and more the means of promoting human happiness and dignity? May we not see the dawning of brighter days on earth and a new creation rising. But I must check myself. I am in danger of being carried too far by the ardor of my hopes.

The liberty I mean includes in it liberty of conduct in all civil matters, liberty of discussion in all speculative matters, and liberty of conscience in all religious matters. And it is then perfect, when under no restraint except when used to injure any one in his person, property, or good name, that is, except when used to destroy itself.

In liberty of discussion, I include the liberty of examining all public measures and the conduct of all public men, and of writing and publishing on all speculative and doctrinal points.

Of Liberty of Discussion

It is a common opinion that there are some doctrines so sacred, and others of so bad a tendency, that no public discussion of them ought to be allowed. Were this a right opinion all the persecution that has ever been practised would be justified. For, if it is a part of the duty of civil magistrates to prevent the discussion of such doctrines, they must, in doing this, act on their own judgments of the nature and tendency of doctrines, and, consequently, they must have a right to prevent the discussion of all doctrines which they think to be too sacred for discussion, or too dangerous in their tendency, and this right they must exercise in the only way in which civil power is capable of exercising it, 'by inflicting penalties on all who oppose sacred doctrines, or who maintain pernicious opinions'. In Mahometan countries, therefore, civil magistrates have a right to silence and punish all who oppose the divine mission of Mahomet, a doctrine there reckoned of the most sacred nature. The like is true of the doctrines of substantiation, worship of the Virgin Mary, etc. in Popish countries, and of the doctrines of the Trinity, satisfaction, etc. in Protestant countries. In England itself this principle has been acted upon and produced the laws which subject to severe penalties all who write or speak against the supreme divinity of Christ, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Church Articles of Faith. All such laws are right if the opinion I have mentioned is right. But in reality, civil power has nothing to do with any such matters, and civil governors go miserably out of their proper province whenever they take upon them the care of truth or the support of any doctrinal points. They are not judges of truth and if they pretend to decide about it, they will decide wrong. This all the countries under heaven think of the application of civil power to doctrinal points in every country but their own. It is, indeed, superstition, idolatry, and nonsense, that civil power at present supports almost everywhere under the idea of supporting sacred truth and opposing dangerous error. Would not, therefore, its perfect neutrality be the greatest blessing? Would not the interest of truth gain unspeakably were all the rulers of states to aim at nothing but keeping the peace, or did they consider themselves as bound to take care, not of the future, but the present interest of men, not of their souls and their faith but of their persons and property, not of any ecclesiastical, but secular matters only? All the experience of past time proves that the consequence of allowing civil power to judge of the nature and tendency of doctrines must be making it a hindrance to the progress of truth and an enemy to the improvement of the world. Anaxagoras was condemned in Greece for teaching that the sun and stars were not Deities, but masses of corruptible matter. Accusations of a like kind contributed to the death of Socrates. The threats of bigots and the fear of persecution prevented Copernicus from publishing, during his whole life time, his discovery of the true system of the world. Galileo was obliged to renounce the doctrine of the motion of the earth, and suffered a year's imprisonment for having asserted it. And so lately as the year 1742, the best commentary on the first production of human genius (Newton's Principia) was not allowed to be printed at Rome because it asserted this doctrine, and the learned commentators were obliged to prefix to their work a declaration that on this point they submitted to the decisions of the supreme Pontiffs. Such have been and such (while men continue blind and ignorant) will always be the consequence of the interposition of civil governments in matters of speculation.

When men associate for the purpose of civil government, they do it, not to defend truth or to support formularies of faith and speculative opinions, but to defend their civil rights and to protect one another on the free exercise of their mental and corporeal powers. The interference, therefore, of civil authority in such cases is directly contrary to the end of its institution. The way in which it can best promote the interest and dignity of mankind (as far as they can be promoted by the discovery of truth) is by encouraging them to search for truth wherever they can find it, and by protecting them in doing this against the attacks of malevolence and bigotry. Should any attempt be made by contending sects to injure one another, its power will come in properly to crush the attempt and to maintain for all sects equal liberty by punishing every encroachment upon it. The conduct of a civil magistrate, on such an occasion, should be that of Gallio the wise Roman proconsul who, on receiving an accusation of the apostle Paul, would not listen to it, but drove from his presence the accusers who had laid violent hands upon him, after giving them the following admonition, If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, reason would require that I should bear with you. But if it be a question of words and names and the law, look you to it. For I will be no judge of such matters. How much happier would the world have been had all magistrates acted in this manner? Let America learn this important lesson and profit by the experience of past times. A dissent from established opinions and doctrines has indeed often miserably disturbed society and produced mischief and bloodshed. But it should be remembered that this has been owing to the establishment of the points dissented from, and the use of civil power to enforce the reception of them. Had civil government done its duty, left all free, and employed itself in procuring instead of restraining fair discussion, all mischief would have been avoided and mankind would have been raised higher than they are in knowledge and improvement.

When Christianity, that first and best of all the means of human improvement, was first preached it was charged with turning the world upside down. The leaders of Jewish and Pagan establishments were alarmed and by opposing the propagation of it, converted a religion of peace and love into an occasion of violence and slaughter and thus verified our Lord's prophecy that he was come not to send peace, but a sword on earth. All this was the effect of the misapplication of the powers of government. Instead of creating, they should have been employed in preventing such mischief and been active only in causing the Christian cause to receive a fair hearing and guarding the propagators of it against insult. The like observation may be made concerning the first reformers. What we all see would have been right in pagan and popish governments with respect to Christianity and the Reformation, would it not be now right in Christian or Protestant governments, were any attempts made to propagate a new religion or any doctrines advanced opposite to those now held sacred? Such attempts, if unsupported by reason and evidence, would soon come to nothing. An imposture cannot stand the test of fair and open examination. On the contrary, the cause of truth will certainly be served by it. Mahometanism would have sunk as soon as it rose, had no other force than that of evidence been employed to propagate it; and it is an unspeakable recommendation of Christianity that it made its way till it became the religion of the world in one of its most enlightened periods, by evidence only, in opposition to the strongest exertions of civil power. There cannot be a more striking proof that nothing but fair discussion is necessary to suppress error and to propagate truth. I am grieved, indeed, whenever I find any Christians shewing a disposition to call in the aid of civil power to defend their religion. Nothing can be more disgraceful to it. If it wants such aid it cannot be of God. Its corruption and debasement took place from the moment that civil power took it under its patronage, and this corruption and debasement increased till at last it was converted into a system of absurdity and superstition more gross and more barbarous than Paganism itself. The religion of Christ disclaims all connexion with the civil establishments of the world. It has suffered infinitely by their friendship. Instead of silencing its opponents, let them be encouraged to produce their strongest arguments against it. The experience of Britain has lately shewn that this will only cause it to be better understood and more firmly believed.

I would extend these observations to all points of faith, however sacred they may be deemed. Nothing reasonable can suffer by discussion. All doctrines really sacred must be clear and incapable of being opposed with success. If civil authority interposes it will be to support some misconception or abuse of them.

That immoral tendency of doctrines which has been urged as a reason against allowing the public discussion of them must be either avowed and direct, or only a consequence with which they are charged. If it is avowed and direct, such doctrines certainly will not spread. The principles rooted in human nature will resist them and the advocates of them will be soon disgraced. If, on the contrary, it is only a consequence with which a doctrine is charged, it should be considered how apt all parties are to charge the doctrines they oppose with bad tendencies. It is well known, that Calvinists and Arminians, Trinitarians and Socinians, Fatalists and Free-willers, are continually exclaiming against one another's opinions as dangerous and licentious. Even Christianity itself could not, at its first introduction, escape mis accusation. The professors of it were considered as atheists, because they opposed pagan idolatry, and their religion was on this account reckoned a destructive and pernicious enthusiasm. If, therefore, the rulers of a state are to prohibit the propagation of all doctrines in which they apprehend immoral tendencies, an opening will be made, as I have before observed, for every species of persecution. There will be no doctrine, however true or important, the avowal of which will not in some country or other be subjected to civil penalties. Undoubtedly, there are doctrines which have such tendencies. But the tendencies of speculative opinions have often very little effect on practice. The Author of nature has planted in the human mind principles and feelings which will operate in opposition to any theories that may seem to contradict them. Every sect, whatever may be its tenets, has some salvo for the necessity of virtue. The philosophers who hold that matter and motion have no existence except in our own ideas are capable of believing this only in their closets. The same is true of the philosophers who hold that nothing exists but matter and motion, and at the same time teach that man has no self-determining power; that an unalterable fate governs all things; and that no one is any thing that he can avoid being, or does any tiling that he can avoid doing. These philosophers when they come out into the world act as other men do. Common sense never fails to get the better of their theories, and I know that many of them are some of the best as well as the ablest men in me world and the warmest friends to me true interests of society. Though their doctrine may seem to furnish an apology for vice, their practice is an exhibition of virtue and a government which would silence them would greatly injure itself. Only overt acts of injustice, violence or defamation, come properly under the cognizance of civil power. Were a person now to go about London teaching that 'property is founded in grace', I should, were I a magistrate, let him alone while he did nothing but teach, without being under any other apprehension than that he would soon find a lodging in Bedlam. But were he to attempt to carry his doctrine into its consequences by actually stealing, under the pretence of his right as a saint to the property of his neighbours, I should think it my duty to lay hold of him as a felon, without regarding the opinion from which he acted.

I am persuaded that few or no inconveniencies would arise from such a liberty. If the magistrates will do their duty as soon as violence begins or any oven acts which break the peace are committed, no great harm will arise from their keeping themselves neutral till then. Let, however, the contrary be supposed. Let it be granted that civil authority will in this case often be too late in its exertions, the just inference will be, not that the liberty I plead for ought not to be allowed, but that there will be two evils between which an option must be made, and the least of which must be preferred. One is the evil just mentioned. The other includes in it every evil which can arise from making the rulers of states judges of the tendency of doctrines, subjecting freedom of enquiry to the controul of their ignorance and perpetuating darkness, intolerance and slavery. I need not say which of these evils is least.

 Writings of Richard Price

 Classical Liberals