Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty,

the Principles of Government,

and the

Justice and Policy of the War with America

Richard Price (1776)


Having said so much of the war with America, and particularly of the danger with which it threatens us, it may be expected that I should propose some method of escaping from this danger, and of restoring this once happy Empire to a state of peace and security. Various plans of pacification have been proposed and some of them by persons so distinguished by their rank and merit as to be above my applause. But till there is more of a disposition to attend to such plans they cannot, I am afraid, be of any great service. And there is too much reason to apprehend that nothing but calamity will bring us to repentance and wisdom. In order, however, to complete my design in these observations, I will take the liberty to lay before the public the following sketch of one of the plans just referred to, as it was opened before the holidays to the house of Lords by the Earl of Shelburne, who while he held the seals of the Southern Department, with the business of the colonies annexed, possessed their confidence, without ever compromising the authority of this country, a confidence which discovered itself by peace among themselves, and duty and submission to the mother-country. I hope I shall not take an unwarranted liberty if, on this occasion, I use his Lordship's own words as nearly as I have been able to collect them.
Meet the Colonies on their own ground, in the last petition from Congress to the king. The surest as well as the most dignified mode of proceeding for this country Suspend all hostilities. Repeal the acts which immediately distress America, namely, the last restraining act, the charter act, the act for the more impartial administration of justice, and the Quebec act. All the other acts (the custom house act, the post office act, etc.) leave to a temperate revisal. There will be found much matter which both countries may wish repealed. Some which can never be given up, the principle being that regulation of trade for the common good of the Empire, which forms our palladium. Other matter which is fair subject of mutual accommodation. Prescribe me most explicit acknowledgement of your right of regulating commerce in its most extensive sense if the petition and other public acts of the Colonies have not already by their declaration and acknowledgements left it upon a sufficiently secure foundation. Besides the power of regulating the general commerce of the Empire, something further might be expected, provided a due and tender regard were had to the means and abilities of the several provinces, as well as to those fundamental, unalienable rights of Englishmen, which no father can surrender on the part of his son, no representative on the part of his elector, no generation on the part of the succeeding one: the right of judging not only of the mode of raising, but the quantum, and the appropriation of such aids as they shall grant. To be more explicit, the debt of England, without entering into invidious distinctions how it came to be contracted, might be acknowledged, the debt of every individual part of the whole Empire, Asia, as well as America, included. Provided, that full security were held forth to them that such free aids, together with the Sinking Fund (Great Britain contributing her superior share), should not be left as the privy purse of the minister, but be unalienably appropriated to the original intention of that fund, the discharge of the debt, and that by an honest application of the whole fund, the taxes might in time be lessened, and the price of our manufactures consequently reduced, so that every contributory part might feel the returning benefit always supposing the laws of trade duly observed and enforced. The time was, I am confident, and perhaps is, when these points might be obtained upon me easy, the constitutional, and, therefore, the indispensible terms of an exemption from parliamentary taxation, and an admission of the sacredness of their charters instead of sacrificing their good humour, their affection, their effectual aids, and the act of Navigation itself (which you are now in the direct road to do) for a commercial quit-rent, or a barren metaphysical chimaera. How long these ends may continue attainable, no man can tell. But if no words are to be relied on except such as make against the Colonies, if nothing is acceptable, except what is attainable by force, it only remains to apply, what has been so often remarked of unhappy periods, Quos deus vult, etc.
These are sentiments and proposals of the last importance and I am very happy in being able to give them to the public from so respectable an authority as that of the distinguished peer I have mentioned, to whom, I know, this kingdom, as well as America, is much indebted for his zeal to promote those grand public points on which the preservation of liberty among us depends, and for the firm opposition, which, jointly with many others (noblemen and commoners of the first character and abilities) he has made to the present measures.

Had such a plan as that now proposed been adopted a few months ago, I have little doubt that a pacification would have taken place on terms highly advantageous to this kingdom. In particular, it is probable that the Colonies would have consented to grant an annual supply, which, increased by a saving of the money now spent in maintaining troops among them and by contributions which might have been gained from other parts of the Empire, would have formed a fund considerable enough, if unalienably applied, to redeem the public debt; in consequence of which, agreeably to Lord Shelburne's ideas, some of our worst taxes might be taken off, and the Colonies would receive our manufactures cheaper, our paper-currency might be restrained, our whole force would be free to meet at any time foreign danger, the influence of the Crown would be reduced, our Parliament would become less dependent, and the kingdom might, perhaps, be restored to a situation of permanent safety and prosperity.

To conclude. An important revolution in the affairs of this kingdom seems to be approaching. If ruin is not to be our lot, all that has been lately done must be undone and new measures adopted. At that period, an opportunity (never perhaps to be recovered, if lost) will offer itself for serving essentially this country, as well as America, by putting the national debt into a fixed course of payment, by subjecting to new regulations the administration of the finances, and by establishing measures for exterminating corruption and restoring the constitution. For my own part, if this is not to be the consequence of any future changes in the ministry, and the system of corruption, lately so much improved, is to go on, I think it totally indifferent to the kingdom who are in, or who are out of power.

The following fact is of so much importance that I cannot satisfy myself without laying it before the public. In a Committee of the American Congress, in June 1775, a declaration was drawn up containing an offer to Great Britain, 'that the Colonies would not only continue to grant extraordinary aids in time of war, but also, if allowed a free commerce, pay into the Sinking-Fund such a sum annually for one hundred years, as should be more than sufficient in that time, if faithfully applied, to extinguish all the present debts of Britain. Or, provided this was not accepted, that, to remove the groundless jealousy of Britain that the Colonies aimed at Independence and an abolition of the Navigation Act, which, in truth, they had never intended, and also, to avoid all future disputes about the right of making that and other acts for regulating their commerce for the general benefit, they would enter into a covenant with Britain that she should fully possess and exercise that right for one hundred years to come'.

At the end of the preceding tract I have had the honour of laying before the public the Earl of Shelburne's plan of pacification with the Colonies. In that plan it is particularly proposed that the Colonies should grant an annual supply to be carried to the Sinking Fund and unalienably appropriated to the discharge of the public debt. It must give this excellent peer great pleasure to learn, from this resolution, that even this part of his plan, as well as all the other parts, would, most probably, have been accepted by the Colonies. For though the resolution only offers the alternative of either a free trade with extraordinary aids and an annual supply, or an exclusive trade confirmed and extended, yet there can be little reason to doubt but that to avoid the calamities of the present contest, both would have been consented to, particularly, if, on our part, such a revisal of the laws of trade had been offered as was proposed in Lord Shelburne's plan.

The preceding resolution was, I have said, drawn up in a Committee of the Congress. But it was not entered in their minutes, a severe act of Parliament happening to arrive at that time, which determined them not to give the sum proposed in it.

 Writings of Richard Price

 Classical Liberals