Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER IV.: Of the Revolution in England compared with that in France. - Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
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LETTER IV.: Of the Revolution in England compared with that in France. - 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 Revolution in England compared with that in France.
IT is impossible to consider the late Revolution in France without having in our eye that which took place in England in 1688. This has had so much of the cordial approbation of all classes of people here, at least all those who are denominated whigs, that you found yourself under the necessity of approving of it. But you wish to distinguish between the principles on which the great actors in that memorable event proceeded, and those of the National Assembly in France. The promoters of the English Revolution, you would have us understand, were not guided by any view to the natural (or, as you affect to call them, the chimerical) rights of men, but were influenced by a regard to rights sanctioned by ancient possession, and consequently that their example furnishes no authority for any people to chuse their own governors, or to dismiss them for misconduct.
You appeal to Lord Somers, p. 27, for the principles of the English Revolution. Let his writings, then, explain his sentiments on the nature of government. Now the very title page of a tract generally ascribed to him, entitled, the Judgment of whole Kingdoms and Nations concerning the Rights, Power, and Prerogative of Kings, and the Rights, Privileges, and Properties of the People, asserts, that “all magistrates and governors proceed from the people.” This he proves at large in the course of the work, in which he shows, as an inference from this great principle, that the people, when oppressed, are justifiable in relieving themselves by a change of their governors, or of their government; exploding, in a variety of lights, the slavish doctrine, to use his own terms, of passive obedience and loyalty.
One of the most extraordinary of your assertions, with respect to the Revolution in England, is the following, “So far,” you say, p. 27, “is it from being true, that we acquired a right by the Revolution to elect our kings, that if we had possessed it before, the English nation did at that time most solemnly renounce and abdicate it for themselves, and for all their posterity, for ever.” But could they seriously mean to bind their posterity from ever doing again what they themselves then did? Did they not by changing the natural succession of the kings of this realm, actually exercise the right of chusing kings, declaring what description of persons should from that time succeed to the crown? And what any one parliament did, a succeeding one might, no doubt, undo.
But that no such thing as a renunciation of a right to do any thing of this kind, was really meant by the legislature of that age, is evident from the Act of the sixth of Queen Anne, pointed out to Dr. Price, by Lord Stanhope, from which it appears that your assertion is even nothing less than high treason. The words of the Act are as follows, “If any person shall, by writing or printing, maintain, and affirm, that the kings or queens of this realm, with and by the authority of Parliament, are not able to make laws and statutes of sufficient validity, to limit the crown, and the descent, inheritance, and government thereof, every such person shall be guilty of high treason.”
Far am I from wishing to bring you into any serious inconvenience by representing you as having offended against the laws of your country; but I wish it may serve as a hint, to pay more attention to the great principles of our constitution, as well as to the universal principles of government, and the rights of men, offensive as the term may be to you, for the future.
You say, p. 31. “The gentlemen of the society for revolutions” (as you contemptuously call it) “see nothing of that in 1688, but the deviation from the constitution; and they take the deviation from the principle, for the principle.” Let us then consider the simple fact, that we may discover the true principle of the proceeding, and examine the justice of your complaint. A king had abused his trust, and, in the construction of the remaining governing powers of the country, had virtually abdicated the government. According to the established rule of succession, his son should have succeeded him, but they apprehended the same evils from the son, which they had experienced from the father, and likewise from all princes of the same description with the father, that is, all who should profess the Roman Catholic religion. They therefore, made a law to exclude all such princes, and fixed the succession in the nearest Protestant line. But, in conjunction with the first of this line, they chose a person entirely foreign to it, who had no legal pretensions to the crown at all, being only the husband of Queen Mary, as Prince George of Denmark was of Queen Anne.
Here, then, was a choice made, both of a particular king pro tempore, and also of a new line of succession for future kings. Certainly, therefore, if the conduct of our ancestors in that period be any precedent for future proceedings, it authorizes the people of this country not only to make any change in the rule of succession to the crown, but to do whatever they shall think necessary for the redress of their grievances. This was unquestionably the proper reason, motive, principle, or rule, of their conduct; and to act upon it in any future time cannot with propriety be called taking “the deviation from their principle for the principle.” To do any thing else that shall be deemed necessary to remove any present evils, and to prevent the recurrence of them, would be doing no more than they would have done in our circumstances.
Considering the reverence that is always paid to whatever is ancient, it is certainly wise in any nation to preserve old institutions as long as they are tolerable, because the people will bear with them better than with new ones. This principle no doubt, influenced our ancestors at the Revolution, and at other times. They contented themselves with removing the pressing grievance, and kept as near to the ancient system as they could. At the Revolution, there was no occasion for any thing more, at least the country would not bear any thing more, than a deviation from the line of succession to the crown, leaving the Popish, and adopting the Protestant line. But if more had been wanted, they would certainly have done more.
You call the Revolution, p. 24, “an act of necessity.” But, what was it that made it necessary? On what political principle was the necessity founded? Was it not deemed necessary because the people apprehended that their liberties, and consequently their happiness, were endangered by the measures of the king; and therefore, though, as you justly say, p. 44, “a revolution is the last resource of the thinking and the good,” it was what they found themselves driven to. It was the less of two evils which they had in prospect; and what they did they thought to be necessary for the removal, and prevention, of the evil. And on the same principle that they changed the order of succession, they would have changed the whole frame of the government. Had they apprehended government by kings in general to be as great a grievance as that by Popish kings, they would have abolished kingly government altogether, and this country would now have been a republic.
When ever circumstances have been favourable to greater changes, wise nations have not failed to adopt them. When America was driven, as you will allow (for at that time you were very active in the business, and many a time have I, with singular satisfaction, heard you plead the cause of American liberty) by the oppression of this country, to break entirely from it, the Americans, sensible of more evils attending their former government, than our ancestors at the revolution, ventured to do a great deal more, and set a glorious example to France, and to the world. They formed a completely new government on the principles of equal liberty, and the rights of men, “without nobles,” as Dr. Price said, “without bishops, and without a king,” which, indeed, the Dutch, after their separation from the Spanish monarchy, did in a great measure before them. If arbitrary princes tremble at these great examples (at the very idea of which you yourself, as if you were a part of royalty, and appertaining to it, tremble) it is time that they who so long have made others tremble, should, in their turn, tremble themselves. But let the people rejoice. It will either make their princes keep within bounds, or encourage them to hope that the time of their deliverance is at hand.
That all persons have not the same dread of revolutions which has seized on you, and that the genuine principles of the Revolution are still preserved, and taught in this country, will appear from the following extracts from Mr. Paley’s Principles of Moral and political Philosophy, with which I shall close this letter.
“Government may be too secure. The greatest tyrants have been those, whose titles were the most unquestioned. Whenever, therefore, the opinion of right becomes too predominant and superstitious, it is abated by breaking the custom. Thus the Revolution broke the custom of succession, and thereby moderated both in the prince and people, those lofty notions of hereditary right, which in the one were become a continual temptation to tyranny, and disposed the other to invite servitude, by undue compliances and dangerous concessions.” p. 411, Quarto Edition.
“The true reason why mankind hold in detestation the memory of those who have sold their liberty to a tyrant, is, that together with their own, they sold commonly, or endangered, the liberty of others; which certainly they had no right to dispose of.” p. 77.
“No usage, law, or authority whatever, is so binding, that it need or ought to be continued, when it may be changed with advantage to the community. The family of the prince, the order of succession, the prerogative of the crown, the form and parts of the legislature, together with respective powers, office, duration, and mutual dependency of the several parts, are all only so many laws, mutable like other laws, whenever expediency requires, either by the ordinary act of the legislature, or if the occasion deserve it, by the interposition of the people. These points are wont to be approached with a kind of awe, they are represented to the mind as principles of the constitution, settled by our ancestors, and being settled to be no more committed to innovation or debate, as foundations never to be stirred; as the terms and conditions of the social compact, to which every citizen of the state has engaged his fidelity, by virtue of a promise, which he cannot now recal. Such reasons have no place in our system: to us, if there be any good reason for treating these with more deference and respect than other laws, it is either the advantage of the present constitution of government which reason must be of different force in different countries) or because, in all countries, it is of importance, that the form and usage of governing be acknowledged and understood, as well by the governors as the governed, and because the seldomer it is changed the more it will be respected by both sides.” p. 426.
I am, Dear Sir,