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LETTER III.: Of the Nature of Government, and the Rights of Men and of Kings. - Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke 
Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Birmingham: Thomas Pearson, 1791).
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Of the Nature of Government, and the Rights of Men and of Kings.
CONSIDERING how much has been written on the subject of government since the Revolution in this country, an event which more than any thing else contributed to open the eyes of Englishmen, with respect to the true principles of it, it is not a little extraordinary that any man of reading and reflexion, as you are, should depart from them so much as you have done.
To vindicate this Revolution, Lord Somers, Bishop Hoadley, Mr. Locke, and many others, have laid it down as a maxim, that all power in any state is derived from the people, and that the great object of all government, is the public good. As a consequence from these fundamental principles, they maintain that all magistrates, being originally appointed by the people, are answerable to them for their conduct in office, and removeable at their pleasure. The right of resisting an oppressive government, that is, such as the people shall deem to be oppressive, they hold most sacred.
You, Sir, do not directly, and in so many words, deny these great principles of all government, or the general conclusion drawn from them. In fact, you admit them all, when you allow, p. 87, that “civil society is made for the advantage of man.” But you advance what is really inconsistent with these leading principles, and you would tie up our hands from making any effectual use of them. You seem to have forgotten what you must have formerly learned; but it is too late for us to go to school again, and relearn the first elements of political science. What our predecessors took great pains to prove, we now receive as axioms, and without hesitation act upon them.
To make the public good the standard of right or wrong, in whatever relates to society and government, besides being the most natural and rational of all rules, has the farther recommendation of being the easiest of application. Either what God has ordained, or what antiquity authorises, may be very difficult to ascertain; but what regulation is most conducive to the public good, though not always without its difficulties, yet in general it is much more easy to determine. But suppose a nation should never have had a free government, or could not prove that they ever had one, are they for that reason always to continue slaves? Would it be unlawful, or wrong, in the Turks to do what the French nation has now done?
You treat with ridicule the idea of the rights of men, and suppose that mankind, when once they have entered into a state of society, necessarily abandon all their proper natural rights, and thenceforth have only such as they derive from society. “As to the share of power,” you say, p. 87, “authority and direction, which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be among the direct original rights of man in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil, social man, and no other. It is a thing to be settled by convention.”
But what does this convention respect, beside the secure enjoyment of such advantages, or rights, as have been usually termed natural, as life, liberty, and property, which men had from nature, without societies, or artificial combinations of men? Men cannot, surely, be said to give up their natural rights by entering into a compact for the better securing of them? And if they make a wise compact, they will never wholly exclude themselves from all share in the administration of their government, or some control over it. For without this their stipulated rights would be very insecure.
However, should any people be so unwise as to leave the whole administration of their government, without any express right of control, in the hands of their magistrates; if those magistrates do not give the people what they deem to be an equivalent for what they gave up for the accommodation of others, they are certainly at liberty to consider the original compact as broken. They then revert to a state of nature, and may enter into a new state of society, and adopt a new form of government, in which they may make better terms for themselves.
It is one of the most curious paradoxes in this work of yours, which abounds with them, that the rights of men above-mentioned, called by you, p. 91, “the pretended rights of the French theorists, are all extremes, and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” Now by metaphysically true can only be meant strictly and properly true, and how this can be in any sense false, is to me incomprehensible. If the above-mentioned rights be the true, that is the just, and reasonable rights of men, they ought to be provided for in all states, and all forms of government; and if they be not, the people have just cause to complain, and to look out for some mode of redress.
You strongly reprobate the doctrine of kings being the choice of the people, a doctrine advanced, but not first advanced, by Dr. Price, in his Revolution Sermon. “This doctrine,” you say, p. 17, “as applied to the prince now on the British throne, is either nonsense, and therefore neither true nor false, or it affirms a most unfounded, dangerous, illegal, and unconstitutional position. According to this spiritual doctor of politics, if his majesty does not owe his crown to the choice of his people, he is no lawful king, &c.”
On the same principle you equally reprobate the doctrine of the king being the servant of the people, whereas the law, as you say, p. 41, calls him our sovereign lord the king* . But since you allow, ibid. that “kings are in one sense, undoubtedly, the servants of the people, because their power has no other rational end than that of the general advantage,” it is evident that it is only Dr. Price’s words that you quarrel with. Your ideas are, in fact, the very same with his, though you call his doctrine, p. 35, not only unconstitutional, but seditious; adding, that “it is now publicly taught, avowed, and printed,” whereas it was taught, avowed, and even printed, before either you or Dr. Price were born.
Has not the chief magistrate in every country, as well as the chief officer in every town, a certain duty to perform, with certain emoluments, and privileges, allowed him in consideration of the proper discharge of that duty? And if the town officer, though having chief authority in his district, yet, in consequence of being appointed and paid for his services by the town, is never considered in any other light than that of the servant of the town, is not the chief magistrate in any country, let him be called sovereign, king, or what you please (for that is only a name) the servant of the people? What real difference can there be in the two cases? They each discharge a certain duty, and have a certain stipulated reward for it. The office being hereditary, makes no real difference. In our laws, and those of other nations, there are precedents enow of men’s whole estates being confiscated for crimes; and this of course excludes the heir.
If, as you expressly acknowledge, the only rational end of the “power of a king is the general advantage, that is, the good of the people, must not the people be, of course, the judges, whether they derive advantage from him and his government or not, that is, whether they be well or ill served by him? Though, there is no express, there is, you must acknowledge a virtual, contract between the king and the people. This, indeed, is particularly mentioned in the Act which implies the abdication of king James, though you say, p. 38, it is too guarded and too circumstantial; and what can this contract be, but a stipulation for protection, &c. on the part of the king, and allegiance on the part of the people? If, therefore, instead of protection, they find oppression, certainly allegiance is no longer due. Hence, according to common sense, and the principles of the Revolution, the right of a subject to resist a tyrant, and dethrone him; and what is this, but in other words, shocking as they may sound to your ears, dismissing, or cashiering a bad servant, as a person who had abused his trust?
So fascinating is the situation in which our kings are placed, that it is of great importance to remind them of the true relation they bear to the people, or, as they are fond of calling them, their people. They are too apt to imagine that their rights are independent of the will of the people, and consequently that they are not accountable to them for any use they may make of their power; and their numerous dependents, and especially the clergy, are too apt to administer this pleasing intoxicating poison. This was the ruin of the Stuarts, and it is a danger that threatens every prince, and every country, from the same quarter. Your whole book, Sir, is little else than a vehicle for the same poison, inculcating, but inconsistently enough, a principle of respect for princes, independent of their being originally the choice of the people, as if they had some natural and indefeasible right to reign over us, they being born to command, and we to obey; and then, whether the origin of this power be divine, or have any other source independent of the people, it makes no difference to us.
With the superstitious respect for kings, and the spirit of chivalry, which nothing but an age of extreme barbarism recommended, and which civilization has banished, you seem to think that every thing great and dignified has left us, “Never, never more,” you say, p. 113, “shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, that kept alive even in servitude itself the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize, is gone. It is gone; that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated serocity, which enobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”
This is perhaps the most admired passage in your whole performance; but it appears to me, that in a great pomp of words, it contains but few ideas, and some of them inconsistent and absurd. So different also are men’s feelings, from the difference, no doubt, of our educations, and the different sentiments we voluntarily cherish through life, that a situation which gives you the idea of pride, gives me that of meanness. You are proud of what, in my opinion, you ought to be ashamed, the idolatry of a fellow creature, and the abasement of yourself. It discovers a disposition from which no “manly sentiment, or heroic enterprize” can be expected. I submit to a king, or to any other civil magistrate, because the good order of society requires it, but I feel no pride in that submission; and the “subordination of my heart,” I reserve for character only, not for station. As a citizen, the object of my respect is the nation, and the laws. The magistrates, by whatever name they are called, I respect only as the confidential servants of the nation, and the administrators of the laws.
These sentiments, just in themselves, and savouring of no superstition, appear to me to become men, whom nature has made equal, and whose great object, when formed into societies, it should be to promote their common happiness. I am proud of feeling myself a man among men, and I leave it you, Sir, to be “proud of your obedience, and to keep alive,” as well as you can, “in servitude itself the spirit of an exalted freedom.” I think it much easier, at least, to be preserved out of a state of servitude than in it. You take much pains to gild your chains, but they are chains still.
If, Sir, you profess this “generous loyalty, this proud submission, this dignified obedience, and this subordination of the heart,” both to rank and sex, how concentrated and exalted must be the sentiment, where rank and sex are united! What an exalted freedom would you have felt, had you had the happiness of being a subject of the Empress of Russia; your sovereign, being then a woman? Fighting under her auspices, you would no doubt, have been the most puissant of knights errant, and her redoubted champion, against the whole Turkish empire, the sovereign of which is only a man.
“It is to no purpose to say,” as you do, p. 19, “that the king of Great Britain reigns at this day by a fixed rule of succession, according to the laws of his country, and that he holds his crown in contempt of the choice of the Revolution society, which has not a single vote for a king among them, either individually or collectively;” when you acknowledge that “all the kingdoms of Europe were, at a remote period, elective,” and that “the present king holds his rank no longer than while the legal conditions of the compact of sovereignty are performed by him.” This, Sir, is granting all that we, seditious as our doctrine is, contend for. Here is, according to yourself, a certain condition on which kings reign. If, therefore, that condition be not performed, the obligation of allegiance is discharged.
Though we do not chuse any particular king, the nation originally chose to be governed by kings, with such limitations, with respect to their duty and prerogatives, as they then chose to prescribe. And whether the departure from the original and proper duty of a king be made at once, or by degrees, which has generally been the case; and though the people may have been restrained by their circumstances from checking the incroachments of their kings, the right of doing it must ever remain inherent in them. They must always have a power of resuming what themselves gave, when the condition on which it was given is not performed. They can surely recal a trust that has been abused, and reinstate themselves in their former situation, or in a better, if they can find one.
If there be, what you allow, a compact of sovereignty, who are the parties, but the people and the king; and if the compact be broken on his side, are not the rank and the privileges, which he held upon the condition of observing the term of the compact, forfeited? “The rule of succession,” you say, “is according to the laws of his country.” But what, according to yourself, is the origin of both our common and statute law?
“Both these descriptions of law,” you say, p. 28, “are of the same force, and are derived from an equal authority, emanating from the common agreement, and original compact of the state (communi sponsione reipublicæ) and as such are equally binding on king and people too, as long as the terms are observed, and they continue the the same body politic.” Laws, then, not coming down from heaven, but being made by men, may also be changed by them; and what is a constitution of government, but the greater laws of the state? Kings, therefore, as well as the people, may violate these laws, by which they are equally bound, and if other violators of law be punishable, by degradation or otherwise, why should kings be excepted? Are their violations of the law or the constitution, less injurious to the commonwealth than those of other transgressors? Let the punishment of kings be as grave and decorous, p. 23, as you please, but let justice, substantial justice, be done.
I am, Dear Sir,