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. IV 
Of the Honour of the Nation as affected by the War with America

One of the pleas for continuing the contest with America is, 'that our honour is engaged, and that we cannot now recede without the most humiliating concessions'.

With respect to this it is proper to observe that a distinction should be made between the nation and its rulers. It is melancholy that there should be ever any reason for making such a distinction. A government is, or ought to be, nothing but an institution for collecting and carrying into execution the will of the people. But so far is this from being in general the fact that the measures of government and the sense of the people are sometimes in direct opposition to one another; nor does it often happen that any certain conclusion can be drawn from the one to the other. I will not pretend to determine whether, in the present instance, the dishonour attending a retreat would belong to the nation at large or only to the persons in power who guide its affairs. Be this as it will, no good argument can be drawn from it against receding. The disgrace which may be implied in making concessions is nothing to that of being the aggressors in an unrighteous quarrel, and dignity, in such circumstances, consists in retracting freely and speedily. For (to adopt, on this occasion, words which I have heard applied to this very purpose, in a great assembly, by a peer to whom this kingdom has often looked as its deliverer, and whose ill state of health at this awful moment of public danger every friend to Britain must deplore) to adopt, I say, the words of this great man, 'Rectitude is dignity, oppression only is meanness, and justice, honour.'

I will add that prudence, no less than true honour, requires us to retract. For the time may come when, if it is not done voluntarily, we may be obliged to do it and find ourselves under a necessity of granting that to our distresses which we now deny to equity and humanity and the prayers of America. The possibility of this appears plainly from the preceding pages; and should it happen, it will bring upon us disgrace indeed, disgrace greater than the worst rancour can wish to see accumulated on a kingdom already too much dishonoured. Let the reader think here what we are doing. A nation, once the protector of liberty in distant countries and the scourge of tyranny, exchanged into an enemy to liberty, engaged in endeavouring to reduce to servitude its own brethren. A great and enlightened nation, not content with a controuling power over millions of people which gave it every reasonable advantage, insisting upon such a supremacy over them as would leave them nothing they could call their own, and carrying desolation and death among them for disputing it. What can be more ignominious? How have we felt for the brave Corsicans in their struggle with the Genoese, and afterwards with the French government? Did Genoa or France want more than an absolute command over their property and legislations or the power of binding them in all cases whatsoever? The Genoese, finding it difficult to keep them in subjection, ceded them to the French. All such cessions of one people by another are disgraceful to human nature. But if our claims are just, may not we also, if we please, cede the Colonies to France? There is, in truth, no other difference between these two cases than that the Corsicans were not descended from the people who governed them but that the Americans are.

There are some who seem to be sensible that the authority of one country over another cannot be distinguished from the servitude of one country to another, and that unless different communities, as well as different parts of the same community, are united by an equal representation, all such authority is inconsistent with the principles of civil liberty. But they except the case of the Colonies and Great Britain because the Colonies are communities which have branched forth from, and which therefore, as they think, belong to Britain. Had the colonies been communities of foreigners, over whom we wanted to acquire dominion or even to extend a dominion before acquired, they are ready to admit that their resistance would have been just. In my opinion this is the same with saying that the Colonies ought to be worse off than the rest of mankind because they are our own brethren.

Again, the United Provinces of Holland were once subject to the Spanish monarchy; but, provoked by a violation of their charters, by levies of money without their consent, by the introduction of Spanish troops among them, by innovations in their antient modes of government, and the rejection of their petitions they were driven to that resistance which we and all the world have ever since admired, and which has given birth to one of the greatest and happiest republics that ever existed. Let any one read also the history of the war which the Athenians, from a thirst of empire, made on the Syracusans in Sicily, a people derived from the same origin with them, and let him, if he can, avoid rejoicing in the defeat of the Athenians.

Let him, likewise, read the account of the social war among the Romans. The allied states of Italy had fought the battles of Rome, and contributed by their valour and treasure to its conquests and grandeur. They claimed, therefore, the rights of Roman citizens, and a share with them in legislation. The Romans, disdaining to make those their fellow-citizens whom they had always looked upon as their subjects, would not comply and a war followed, the most horrible in the annals of mankind, which ended in the ruin of the Roman Republic. The feelings of every Briton in this case must force him to approve the conduct of the Allies and to condemn the proud and ungrateful Romans.

But not only is the present contest with America thus disgraceful to us, because inconsistent with our own feelings in similar cases, but also because condemned by our own practice in former times. The Colonies are persuaded that they are fighting for liberty. We see them sacrificing to this persuasion every private advantage. If mistaken, and though guilty of irregularities, they should be pardoned by a people whose ancestors have given them so many examples of similar conduct, England should venerate the attachment to liberty amidst all its excesses, and, instead of indignation or scorn, it would be most becoming them, in the present instance, to declare their applause and to say to the Colonies, 'We excuse your mistakes. We admire your spirit. It is the spirit that has more than once saved ourselves. We aspire to no dominion over you. We understand the rights of men too well to think of taking from you the inestimable privilege of governing yourselves, and, instead of employing our power for any such purpose, we offer it to you as a friendly and guardian power to be a mediator in your quarrels, a protection against your enemies, and an aid to you in establishing a plan of liberty that shall make you great and happy. In return, we ask nothing but your gratitude and your commerce.'

This would be a language worthy of a brave and enlightened nation. But alas! it often happens in the political world as it does in religion, that the people who cry out most vehemently for liberty to themselves are the most unwilling to grant it to others.

But farther, this war is disgraceful on account of the persuasion which led to it and under which it has been undertaken. The general cry was last winter that the people of New-England were a body of cowards who would at once be reduced to submission by a hostile look from our troops. In this light were they held up to public derision in both Houses of Parliament, and it was this persuasion that, probably, induced a Nobleman of the first weight in the state to recommend at the passing of the Boston Port Bill, coercive measures, hinting, at the same time, that the appearance of hostilities would be sufficient, and that all would soon be over, sine clade. Indeed no one can doubt but that had it been believed some time ago that the people of America were brave, more care would have been taken not to provoke them.

Again, the manner in which this war has been hitherto conducted renders it still more disgraceful. English valour being thought insufficient to subdue the Colonies, the laws and religion of France were established in Canada on purpose to obtain the power of bringing upon them from thence an army of French Papists. The wild Indians and their own slaves have been instigated to attack them, and attempts have been made to gain the assistance of a large body of Russians. With like views, German troops have been hired and the defence of our forts and garrisons trusted in their hands.

These are measures which need no comment. The last of them, in particular, having been carried into execution without the consent of parliament, threatens us with imminent danger and shews that we are in the way to lose even the forms of the constitution. If, indeed, our ministers can at any time, without leave, not only send away the national troops, but introduce foreign troops in their room, we lie entirely at mercy and we have everything to dread.

Sect. V 
Of the Probability of Succeeding in the War with America

Let us next consider how far there is a probability of succeeding in the present war.

Our own people, being unwilling to enlist, and the attempts to procure armies of Russians, Indians, and Canadians having miscarried, the utmost force we can employ, including foreigners, does not exceed, if I am rightly informed, 40,000 effective men. This is the force that is to conquer half a million at least, of determined men fighting on their own ground, within sight of their houses and families, and for that sacred blessing of liberty, without which man is a beast and government a curse. All history proves that in such a situation, a handful is a match for millions.

In the Netherlands a few states, thus circumstanced, withstood, for a long course of years the whole force of the Spanish monarchy when at its zenith; and at last humbled its pride and emancipated themselves from its tyranny. The citizens of Syracuse also, thus circumstanced, withstood the whole power of the Athenians and almost ruined them. The same happened in the contest between the house of Austria, and the cantons of Switzerland. There is in this case an infinite difference between attacking and being attacked, between fighting to destroy and fighting to preserve or acquire liberty. Were we, therefore, capable of employing a land force against America equal to its own there would be little probability of success. But to think of conquering that whole continent with 30,000 or 40,000 men to be transported across the Atlantic and fed from hence and incapable of being recruited after any defeat. This is indeed a folly so great that language does not afford a name for it.

With respect to our naval force, could it sail at land as it does at sea, much might be done with it, but as that is impossible, little or nothing can be done with it which will not hurt ourselves more than the colonists. Such of their maritime towns as they cannot guard against our fleets and have not been already destroyed, they are determined either to give up to our resentment or destroy themselves. The consequence of which will be that these towns will be rebuilt in safer situations, and that we shall lose some of the principal pledges by which we have hitherto held them in subjection. As to their trade, having all the necessaries and chief conveniencies of life within themselves they have no dependence upon it, and the loss of it will do them unspeakable good, by preserving them from the evils of luxury and the temptations of wealth and keeping them in that state of virtuous simplicity which is the greatest happiness. I know that I am now speaking the sense of some of the wisest men in America. It has long been their wish that Britain would shut up all their ports. They will rejoice, particularly, in the last restraining act. It might have happened that the people would have grown weary of their agreements not to export or import. But this act will oblige them to keep these agreements and confirm their unanimity and zeal. It will also furnish them with a reason for confiscating the estates of all the friends of our government among them and for employing their sailors, who would have been otherwise idle, in making reprisals on British property. Their ships, before useless, and consisting of many hundreds, will be turned into ships of war and that attention, which they have hitherto confined to trade, will be employed in fitting out a naval force for their own defence and thus the way will be prepared for their becoming, much sooner than they would otherwise have been, a great maritime power. This act of parliament, therefore, crowns the folly of all our late measures. None who know me can believe me to be disposed to superstition. Perhaps, however, I am not in the present instance free from this weakness. I fancy I see in these measures something that cannot be accounted for merely by human ignorance. I am inclined to think that the hand of Providence is in them working to bring about some great ends. But this leads me to one consideration more which I cannot help offering to the public and which appears to me in the highest degree important.

In this hour of tremendous danger it would become us to turn our thoughts to Heaven. This is what our brethren in the Colonies are doing. From one end of North-America to the other they are fasting and praying. But what are we doing? We are ridiculing them as fanatics, and scoffing at religion, We are running wild after pleasure and forgetting every thing serious and decent at masquerades. We are trafficking for boroughs, perjuring ourselves at elections, and selling ourselves for places. Which side then is Providence likely to favour?

In America we see a number of rising states in the vigour of youth, inspired by the noblest of all passions, the passion for being free, and animated by piety. Here we see an old state, great indeed, but inflated and irreligious, enervated by luxury, encumbered with debts, and hanging by a thread. Can any one look without pain to the issue? May we not expect calamities that shall recover to reflection (perhaps to devotion) our libertines and atheists?

Is our cause such as gives us reason to ask God to bless it? Can we in the face of Heaven declare, 'that we are not the aggressors in this war; and that we mean by it, not to acquire or even preserve dominion for its own sake, not conquest, or empire, or the gratification of resentment, but solely to deliver ourselves from oppression, to gain reparation for injury; and to defend ourselves against men who would plunder or kill us?' Remember, reader, whoever thou an, that there are no other just causes of war and that blood spilled with any other views must some time or other be accounted for. But not to expose myself by saying more in this way, I will now beg leave to recapitulate some of the arguments I have used and to deliver the feelings of my heart in a brief but earnest address to my countrymen.

I am hearing it continually urged, 'Are they not our subjects?' The plain answer is that they are not your subjects. The people of America are no more the subjects of the people of Britain than the people of Yorkshire are the subjects of the people of Middlesex. They are your fellow-subjects.

'But we are taxed, and why should they not be taxed?' You are taxed by yourselves. They insist on the same privilege. They are taxed to support their own governments and they help also to pay your taxes by purchasing your manufactures and giving you a monopoly of their trade. Must they maintain two governments? Must they submit to be triple taxed? Has your moderation in taxing yourselves been such as encourages them to trust you with the power of taxing them?

'But they will not obey the Parliament and the laws.' Say rather, they will not obey your parliament and your laws. Their reason is, they have no voice in your parliament. They have no share in making your laws.[4] 'Neither have most of us.' Then you so far want liberty and your language is, 'We are not free, 'Why should they be free?' But many of you have a voice in parliament. None of them have. All your freehold land is represented. But not a foot of their land is represented. At worst, therefore, you are only enslaved partially. Were they to submit they would be enslaved totally. They are governed by parliaments chosen by themselves and by legislatures similar to yours. Why will you disturb them in the enjoyment of a blessing so invaluable? Is it reasonable to insist that your discretion alone shall be their law, that they shall have no constitutions of government, except such as you shall be pleased to give them, and no property except such as your parliament shall be pleased to leave them? What is your parliament? Is there not a growing intercourse between it and the court? Does it awe ministers of state as it once did? Instead of contending for a controuling power over the government of America, should you not think more of watching and reforming your own? Suppose the worst. Suppose, in opposition to all their own declarations that the colonists are now aiming at independence. 'If they can subsist without you', is it to be wondered at? Did there ever exist a community, or even an individual, that would not do the same? 'If they cannot subsist without you', let them alone. They will soon come back. 'If you cannot subsist without them', reclaim them by kindness; engage them by moderation and equity. It is madness to resolve to butcher them. This will make them detest and avoid you for ever. Freemen are not to be governed by force, or dragooned into compliance. If capable of bearing to be so ill treated, it is a disgrace to be connected with them.

'If they can subsist without you and also you without them', the attempt to subjugate them by confiscating their effects, burning their towns, and ravaging their territories, is a wanton exertion of cruel ambition which, however common it has been among mankind, deserves to be called by harder names than I chuse to apply to it. Suppose such an attempt was to be succeeded. Would it not be a fatal preparation for subduing yourselves? Would not the disposal of American places and the distribution of an American revenue render that influence of the crown irresistible which has already stabbed your liberties?

Turn your eyes to India. There more has been done than is now attempted in America. There Englishmen, actuated by the love of plunder and the spirit of conquest, have depopulated whole kingdoms and ruined millions of innocent people by the most infamous oppression and rapacity. The justice of the nation has slept over these enormities. Will the justice of heaven sleep? Are we not now execrated on both sides of the globe?

With respect to the Colonists, it would be folly to pretend they are faultless. They were running fast into our vices. But this quarrel gives them a salutary check and it may be permitted on purpose to favour them, and in them the rest of mankind; by making way for establishing, in an extensive country possessed of every advantage, a plan of government and a growing power that will astonish the world and under which every subject of human enquiry shall be open to free discussion, and the friends of liberty in every quarter of the globe find a safe retreat from civil and spiritual tyranny. I hope, therefore, our brethren in America will forgive their oppressors. It is certain they know not what they are doing.



[4]. 'I have no other notion of slavery, but being bound by a law to which I do not consent.' See the case of Ireland's being bound by acts of Parliament in England, stated by William Molyneux,.... In arguing against the authority of Communities, and all people not incorporated, over one another; I have confined my views to taxation and internal legislation. Mr. Molyneux carried his views much farther, and denied the right of England to make any laws, even to regulate the trade of Ireland.

 Writings of Richard Price

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