Additional Observations on the

Nature and Value of Civil Liberty, and the

War with America

Richard Price (1777)

Sect. I 
Of the Nature of Civil Liberty, and the Essentials of a Free Government

With respect to Liberty in general there are two questions to be considered:

First, what it is? and secondly, how far it is of value? There is no difficulty in answering the first of these questions. To be free, is 'to be able to act or forbear acting, as we think best' or 'to be masters of our own resolutions and conduct'. It may be pretended that it is not desirable to be thus free, but, without doubt, this it is to be free, and this is what all mean when they say of themselves or others that they are free.

I have observed that all the different kinds of liberty run up into the general idea of self-government. The liberty of men as agents is that power of self-determination which all agents, as such, possess. Their liberty as moral agents is their power of self-government in their moral conduct. Their liberty as religious agents is their power of self-government in religion. And their liberty as members of communities associated for the purposes of civil government is their power of self-government in all their civil concerns. It is liberty in the last of these views of it that is the subject of my present enquiry, and it may, in other words, be defined to be 'the power of a state to govern itself by its own will'. In order, therefore, to determine whether a state is free, no more is necessary than to determine whether there is any will, different from its own, to which it is subject.

When we speak of a state, we mean the whole state and not any part of it, and the will of the state, therefore, is the will of the whole. There are two ways in which this will may be expressed. First, by the suffrages of all the members given in person. Or secondly, by the suffrages of a body of representatives, in appointing whom all the members have voices. A state governed by its own will in the first of these ways enjoys the most complete and perfect liberty, but such a government being impracticable, except in very small states, it is necessary that civil communities in general should satisfy themselves with that degree of liberty which can be obtained in the last of these ways, and liberty so obtained may be sufficiently ample and at the same time is capable of being extended to the largest states.

But here, before I proceed, I must desire, that an observation may be attended to which appears to me of considerable consequence. A distinction should be made between the liberty of a state, and its not suffering oppression, or between a free government and a government under which freedom is enjoyed. Under the most despotic government liberty may happen to be enjoyed. But being derived from a will over which the state has no controul, and not from its own will, or from an accidental mildness in the administration, and not from a constitution of government, it is nothing but an indulgence of a precarious nature and of little importance. Individuals in private life, while held under the power of masters, cannot be denominated free however equitably and kindly they may be treated. This is strictly true of communities as well as of individuals. Civil liberty (it should be remembered) must be enjoyed as a right derived from the Author of nature only or it cannot be the blessing which merits this name. If there is any human power which is considered as giving it, on which it depends, and which can invade or recall it at pleasure, it changes its nature and becomes a species of slavery.

But to return, the force superseding self-government in a state, or the power destroying its liberty, is of two kinds. It may be either a power without itself, or a power within itself. The former constitutes what may be properly called external, and the latter internal slavery. Were there any distant state which had acquired a sovereignty over this country and exercised the power of making its laws and disposing its property, we should be in the first kind of slavery; and, if not totally depraved by a habit of subjection to such a power, we should think ourselves in a miserable condition; and an advocate for such a power would be considered as insulting us, who should attempt to reconcile us to it by telling us, that we were one community with that distant state, though destitute of a single voice in its legislature, and, on this ground, should maintain that all resistance to it was no less criminal than any resistance within a state to the authority of that state. In short, every state not incorporated with another by an equal representation, and yet subject to its dominion, is enslaved in this sense. Such was the slavery of the provinces subject to antient Rome, and such is the slavery of every community, as far as any other community is master of it, or as far as, in respect of taxation and internal legislation, it is not independent of every other community. Nor does it make any difference to such a community that it enjoys within itself a free constitution of government, if that constitution is itself liable to be altered, suspended or over-ruled at the discretion of the state which possesses the sovereignty over it.

But the slavery most prevalent in the world has been internal slavery. In order better to explain this, it is proper to observe that all civil government being either the government of a whole by itself, or of a whole by a power extraneous to it, or of a whole by a part; the first alone is liberty, and the two last are tyranny, producing the two sorts of slavery which I have mentioned. Internal slavery, therefore, takes place wherever a whole community is governed by a part, and this, perhaps, is the most concise and comprehensive account that can be given of it. The part that governs may be either a single man, as in absolute monarchies; or, a body of grandees, as in aristocracies. In both these cases the powers of government are commonly held for life without delegation, and descend from father to son; and the people governed are in the same situation with cattle upon an estate, which descends by inheritance from one owner to another. But farther, a community may be governed by a body of delegates and yet be enslaved. Though government by representation alone is free, unless when carried on by the personal suffrages of all the members of a state, yet all such government is by no means free. In order to render it so, the following requisites are necessary.

First, the representation must be complete. No state, a part of which only is represented in the Legislature that governs it, is self-governed. Had Scotland no representatives in the Parliament of Britain, it would not be free, nor would it be proper to call Britain free, though England, its other part, were adequately represented. The like is true, in general, of every country subject to a legislature in which some of its parts, or some classes of men in it, are represented and others not.

Secondly, the representatives of a free state must be freely chosen. If this is not the case, they are not at all representatives; and government by them degenerates into government by a junto of men in the community who happen to have power or wealth enough to command or purchase their offices.

Thirdly, after being freely chosen they must be themselves free. If there is any higher will which directs their resolutions, and on which they are dependent, they become the instruments of that will; and it is that will alone that in reality governs the state.

Fourthly, they must be chosen for short terms and, in all their acts, be accountable to their constituents. Without this a people will have no controul over their representatives and, in chusing them, they will give up entirely their liberty and only enjoy the poor privilege of naming, at certain intervals, a set of men whom they are to serve, and who are to dispose, at their discretion, of their property and lives.

The causes of internal slavery now mentioned prevail, some of them more and others less, in different communities. With respect, in particular, to a government by representation, it is evident that it deviates more or less from liberty in proportion as the representation is more or less imperfect. And, if imperfect in every one of the instances I have recited, that is, if inadequate and partial, subject to no controul from the people, corruptly chosen for long terms, and, after being chosen, venal and dependent in these circumstances a representation becomes an imposition and a nusance and government by it is as inconsistent with true liberty as the most arbitrary and despotic government.

I have been so much misunderstood on this subject that it is necessary I should particularly observe here that my intention in this account has been merely to shew what is requisite to constitute a state or a government free, and not at all to define the best form of government. These are two very different points. The first is attended with few difficulties. A free state is a state self-governed in the manner I have described. But it may be free and yet not enjoy the best constitution of government. Liberty, though the most essential requisite in government, is not the only one. Wisdom, union, dispatch, secrecy, and vigour are likewise requisite, and that is the best form of government which best unites all these qualities or which, to an equal and perfect liberty adds the greatest wisdom in deliberating and resolving, and the greatest union, force and expedition in executing.

In short, my whole meaning is that the will of the community alone ought to govern, but that there are different methods of obtaining and executing this will, of which those are the best which collect into it most of the knowledge and experience of the community, and at the same time carry it into execution with most dispatch and vigour.

It has been the employment of the wisest men in all ages to contrive plans for this purpose, and the happiness of society depends so much on civil government, that it is not possible the human understanding should be better employed.

I have said in the Observations on civil liberty, that 'in a free state every man is his own legislator'. I have been happy in since finding the same assertion in Montesquieu, and also in Mr. Justice Blackstone's Commentaries.[1] It expresses the fundamental principle of our constitution; and the meaning of it is plainly that every independent agent in a free state ought to have a share in the government of it, either by himself personally, or by a body of representatives in chusing whom he has a free vote, and therefore all the concern and weight which are possible and consistent with the equal rights of every other member of the state. But though the meaning of this assertion is so obvious, and the truth of it undeniable, it has been much exclaimed against, and occasioned no small part of the opposition which has been made to the principles advanced in the Observations on civil liberty. One even of the most candid as well as the ablest of my opponents (whose difference of opinion from me I sincerely lament) has intimated that it implies that, in a free state thieves and pick-pockets have a right to make laws for themselves.[2] The public will not, I hope, wonder that I chuse to take little notice of such objections.

It has been said that the liberty for which I have pleaded, is 'a right or power in every one to act as he likes without any restraint'. However unfairly this representation has been given of my account of liberty, I am ready to adopt it, provided it is understood with a few limitations. Moral liberty, in particular, cannot be better defined than by calling it 'a power in every one to do as he likes'. My opponents in general seem to be greatly puzzled with this, and I am afraid it will signify little to attempt explaining it to them by saying that every man's will, if perfectly free from restraint, would carry him invariably to rectitude and virtue and that no one who acts wickedly acts as he likes, but is conscious of a tyranny within him overpowering his judgment and carrying him into a conduct for which he condemns and hates himself. The things that he would he does not, and the things that he would not, those he does. He is, therefore, a slave in the properest sense.

Religious liberty, likewise, is a power of acting as we like in religion, or of professing and practising that mode of religious worship which we think most acceptable to the Deity. But here the limitation to which I have referred must be attended to. All have the same unalienable right to this liberty, and, consequently, no one has a right to such a use of it as shall take it from others. Within this limit, or as far as he does not encroach on the equal liberty of others, everyone has a right to do as he pleases in religion. That the right to religious liberty goes as far as this every one must allow who is not a friend to persecution; and that it cannot go farther is self-evident; for if it did, there would be a contradiction in the nature of things, and it would be true that every one had a right to enjoy what every one had a right to destroy. If, therefore, the religious faith of any person leads him to hurt another because he professes a different faith, or if it carries him, in any instances, to intolerance, liberty itself requires he should be restrained and that, in such instances, he should lose his liberty.

All this is equally applicable to the liberty of man in his civil capacity; and it is a maxim true universally, 'that as far as any one does not molest others, others ought not to molest him'. All have a right to the free and undisturbed possession of their good names, properties and lives, and it is the right all have to this that gives the right to establish civil government, which is or ought to be nothing but an institution (by laws and provisions made with common consent) for guarding this right against invasion, for giving to every one, in temporals and spirituals, the power of commanding his own conduct, or of acting as he pleases and going where he will, provided he does not run foul of others. Just government, therefore, does not infringe liberty, but establishes it. It does not take away the rights of mankind but protect and confirm them. I will add that it does not even create any new subordinations of particular men to one another, but only gives security in those several stations, whether of authority and preeminence, or of subordination and dependence, which nature has established and which must have arisen among mankind whether civil government had been instituted or not. But this goes beyond my purpose in this place and more will be said of it presently.

To sum up the whole, our ideas of civil liberty will be rendered more distinct by considering it under the three following views: the liberty of the citizen, the liberty of the government, and the liberty of the community. A citizen is free when the power of commanding his own conduct and the quiet possession of his life, person, property and good name are secured to him by being his own legislator in the sense explained in page 80. A government is free when constituted in such a manner as to give this security. And the freedom of the community or nation is the same among nations that the freedom of a citizen is among his fellow-citizens. It is not, therefore, as observed on page 77, the mere possession of liberty that denominates a citizen or a community free, but that security for the possession of it which arises from such a free government as I have described, and which takes place, when there exists no power that can take it away.

It is in the same sense that the mere performance of virtuous actions is not what denominates an agent virtuous, but the temper and habits from whence they spring, or that inward constitution, and right balance of the affections, which secure the practice of virtue, produce stability of conduct, and constitute a character.

I cannot imagine how it can be disputed whether this is a just account of the nature of liberty. It has been already given more briefly in the Observations on civil liberty and it is with reluctance I have repeated so much of what has been there said. But the wrong apprehensions which have been entertained of my sentiments have rendered this necessary. And, for the same reason, I am obliged to go on to the subject of the next section.



1. De I'esprit des lois. Bk. XI, ch. vi; Blackstone, Commentaries on the laws of England, I, 158.

2. Remarks... on a pamphlet published by Dr. Price...

 Writings of Richard Price

 Classical Liberals