Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XIII.: Of the Prospect of the general Enlargement of Liberty, civil and religious, opened by the Revolution in France. - Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
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LETTER XIII.: Of the Prospect of the general Enlargement of Liberty, civil and religious, opened by the Revolution 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 Prospect of the general Enlargement of Liberty, civil and religious, opened by the Revolution in France.
I CANNOT conclude these Letters, without congratulating, not you, Sir, or the many admirers of your performance, who have no feeling of joy on the occasion, but the French nation, and the world; I mean the liberal, the rational, and the virtuous part of the world, on the great revolution that has taken place in France, as well as on that which some time ago took place in America. Such events as these teach the doctrine of liberty, civil and religious, with infinitely greater clearness and force, than a thousand treatises on the subject. They speak a language intelligible to all the world, and preach a doctrine congenial to every human heart.
These great events, in many respects unparalleled in all history, make a totally new, a most wonderful, and important, æra in the history of mankind. It is, to adopt your own rhetorical style, a change from darkness to light, from superstition to sound knowledge, and from a most debasing servitude to a state of the most exalted freedom. It is a liberating of all the powers of man from that variety of fetters, by which they have hitherto been held. So that, in comparison with what has been, now only can we expect to see what men really are, and what they can do.
The generality of governments have hitherto been little more than a combination of the few against the many; and to the mean passions and low cunning of these few, have the great interests of mankind been too long sacrificed. Whole nations have been deluged with blood, and every source of future prosperity has been drained, to gratify the caprices of some of the most despicable, or the most execrable, of the human species. For what else have been the generality of kings, their ministers of state, or their mistresses, to whose wills whole kingdoms have been subject? What can we say of those who have hitherto taken the lead in conducting the affairs of nations, but that they have commonly been either weak or wicked, and sometimes both? Hence the common reproach of all histories, that they exhibit little more than a view of the vices and miseries of mankind.
Hitherto, also, infinite have been the mischiefs in which all nations have been involved, on account of religion, with which, as it concerns only God and men’s own consciences, civil government, as such, has nothing to do. Statesmen, misled by ignorant or interested priests, have taken upon them to prescribe what men should believe and practice, in order to get to heaven, when they themselves have often neither believed, nor practised, any thing under that description. They have set up idols, to which all men, under the severest penalties, have been compelled to bow; and the wealth and power of populous nations, which might have been employed in great and useful undertakings, have been diverted from their proper channels, to enforce their unrighteous decrees. By this means have mankind been kept for ages in a state of bondage worse than Egyptian, the bondage of the mind.
How glorious, then, is the prospect, the reverse of all the past, which is now opening upon us, and upon the world. Government, we may now expect to see, not only in theory, and in books, but in actual practice, calculated for the general good, and taking no more upon it than the general good requires; leaving all men the enjoyment of as many of their natural rights as possible, and no more interfering with matters of religion, with men’s notions concerning God, and a future state, than with philosophy or medicine.
After the noble example of America, we may expect, in due time, to see the governing powers of all nations confining their attention to the civil concerns of them, and consulting their welfare in the present state only; in consequence of which they may all be flourishing and happy. Truth of all kinds, and especially religious truth, meeting with no obstruction, and standing in no need of heterogeneous supports, will then establish itself by its own evidence; and whatever is false and delusive, all the forms of superstition, every corruption of true religion, and all usurpation over the rights of conscience, which have been supported by power or prejudice, will be universally exploded, as they ought to be.
Together with the general prevalence of the true principles of civil government, we may expect to see the extinction of all national prejudice, and enmity, and the establishment of universal peace and good will among all nations. When the affairs of the various societies of mankind shall be conducted by those who shall truly represent them, who shall feel as they feel, and think as they think; who shall really understand, and consult their interests, they will no more engage in those mutually offensive wars, which the experience of many centuries has shown to be constantly expensive and ruinous. They will no longer covet what belongs to others, which they have found to be of no real service to them, but will content themselves with making the most of their own.
The very idea of distant possessions will be even ridiculed. The East and the West Indies, and every thing without ourselves will be disregarded, and wholly excluded from all European systems; and only those divisions of men, and of territory, will take place, which the common convenience requires, and not such as the mad and insatiable ambition of princes demands. No part of America, Africa, or Asia, will be held in subjection to any part of Europe, and all the intercourse that will be kept up among them, will be for their mutual advantage.
The causes of civil wars, the most distressing of all others, will likewise cease, as well as those of foreign ones. They are chiefly contentions for offices, on account of the power and emoluments annexed to them. But when the nature and uses of all civil offices shall be well understood, the power and emoluments annexed to them, will not be an object sufficient to produce a war. Is it at all probable, that there will ever be a civil war in America, about the presidentship of the United States? And when the chief magistracies in other countries shall be reduced to their proper standard, they will be no more worth contending for, than they are in America. If the actual business of a nation be done as well for the small emolument of that presidentship, as the similar business of other nations, there will be no apparent reason why more should be given for doing it.
If there be a superfluity of public money, it will not be employed to augment the profusion, and increase the undue influence, of individuals, but in works of great public utility, which are always wanted, and which nothing but the enormous expences of government, and of wars, chiefly occasioned by the ambition of kings and courts, have prevented from being carried into execution. The expence of the late American war only would have converted all the waste grounds of this country into gardens. What canals, bridges, and noble roads, &c. &c. would it not have made for us? If the pride of nations must be gratified, let it be in such things as these, and not in the idle pageantry of a court, calculated only to corrupt and enslave a nation.
Another cause of civil wars has been an attachment to certain persons and families, as possessed of some inherent right to kingly power. Such were the bloody wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, in this country. But when, besides the reduction of the power of crowns within their proper bounds (when it will be no greater than the public good requires) that kind of respect for princes which is founded on mere superstition (exactly similar to that which has been attached to priests in all countries) shall vanish, as all superstition certainly will before real knowledge, wise nations will not involve themselves in war for the sake of any particular persons, or families, who have never shewn an equal regard for them. They will consider their own interest more, and that of their magistrates less.
Other remaining causes of civil war are different opinions about modes of government, and differences of interests between provinces. But when mankind shall be a little more accustomed to reflection, and consider the miseries of civil war, they will have recourse to any other method of deciding their differences, in preference to that of the sword. It was taken for granted, that the moment America had thrown off the yoke of Great Britain, the different states would go to war among themselves, on some of these accounts. But the event has not verified the prediction, nor is it at all probable that it ever will. The people of that country are wiser than such prophets in this.
If time be allowed for the discussion of differences, so great a majority will form one opinion, that the minority will see the necessity of giving way. Thus will reason be the umpire in all disputes, and extinguish civil wars as well as foreign ones. The empire of reason will ever be the reign of peace.
This, Sir, will be the happy state of things, distinctly and repeatedly foretold in many prophecies, delivered more than two thousand years ago; when the common parent of mankind will cause wars to cease to the ends of the earth, when men shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning books; when nation shall no more rise up against nation, and when they shall learn war no more. Is. ii. 4. Micah iv. 3. This is a state of things which good sense, and the prevailing spirit of commerce, aided by christianity, and true philosophy, cannot fail to effect in time. But it can never take place while mankind are governed in the wretched manner in which they now are. For peace can never be established, but upon the extinction of the causes of war, which exist in all the present forms of government, and in the political maxims which will always be encouraged by them. I mention this topic in a letter to you, on the idea that you are a real believer in revelation, though your defence of all church establishments, as such, is no argument in favour of this opinion; the most zealous abettors of them, and the most determined enemies of all reformation, having been unbelievers in all religion, which they have made use of merely as an engine of state.
In this new condition of the world, there may still be kings, but they will be no longer sovereigns, or supreme lords, no human beings to whom will be ascribed such titles as those of most sacred, or most excellent majesty. There will be no more such a profanation of epithets, belonging to God only, by the application of them to mortals like ourselves. There will be magistrates, appointed and paid for the conservation of order, but they will only be considered as the first servants of the people, and accountable to them. Standing armies, those instruments of tyranny, will be unknown, though the people may be trained to the use of arms, for the purpose of repelling the invasion of Barbarians. For no other description of men will have recourse to war, or think of disturbing the repose of others; and till they become civilized, as in the natural progress of things they necessarily must, they will be sufficiently overawed by the superior power of nations that are so.
There will still be religion, and of course ministers of it; as there will be teachers of philosophy, and practitioners in medicine; but it will no longer be the concern of the state. There will be no more Lord Bishops, or Archbishops, with the titles, and powers, of temporal princes. Every man will provide religion for himself; and therefore it will be such as, after due enquiry, and examination, he shall think to be founded on truth, and best calculated to make men good citizens, good friends, and good neighbours in this world, as well as to fit them for another.
Government, being thus simple in its objects, will be unspeakably less expensive than it is at present, as well as far more effectual in answering its proper purpose. There will then be little to provide for besides the administration of justice, or the preservation of the peace, which it will be the interest of every man to attend to, in aid of government.
They are chiefly our vices and follies that lay us under contribution, in the form of the taxes we now pay; and they will, of course, become superfluous, as the world grows wiser and better. It is a most unreasonable sum that we now pay for the single article of government. We give, perhaps, the amount of one half our property, for the secure enjoyment of the rest, which, after all, for want of a good police, is very insecure.
However, the enormous debts which our present systems of government, and the follies of our governors, have intailed upon us, like all other evils in the plan of providence, promise to be eventually the cause of the greatest good, as necessary means of bringing about the happy state of things above described. And the improvement of Europe may serve as an example to the rest of the world, and be the instrument of other important changes, which I shall not dwell upon in this place.
By means of national debts, the wheels of several European governments are already so much clogged, that it is impossible they should go on much longer. We see our taxes, even without war, continually increasing. The very peace establishment of France could not be kept up any longer, and the same must soon be the situation of other nations. All the causes which have operated to the increase of these debts, continue to operate, and with increased force; so that our approach to this great crisis of our affairs, is not equable, but accelerated. The present generation has seen the debt of this nation rise from a mere trifle to an amount that already threatens ruin. And will not the next generation, if not the present, see this ruin?
If the present change of the French government, brought on, to use a phrase of yours, by fiscal difficulties, has been attended with such an interruption of their manufactures, such a stagnation of their commerce, and such a diminution of their current specie, as has greatly added to the difficulties of that country; what are we to expect, in a similar crisis, in this country, which depends so much more upon manufactures and commerce than France ever did, and which has far less resource within itself?
If you, Sir, together with your old or your new friends, can steer the ship of the state through the storm, which we all see to be approaching, you will have more wisdom and steadiness than has yet been found in any who have hitherto been at the head of our affairs. And if, in these circumstances, you can save the church, as well as the state, you will deserve no less than canonization, and St. Edmund will be the greatest name in the calendar. But great occasions call forth, and in a manner create, great and unknown ability, as we have lately seen in the history of the American revolution. A good providence also governs the world, and therefore we need not despair.
If the condition of other nations be as much bettered as that of France will probably be, by her improved system of government, this great crisis, dreadful as it appears in prospect, will be a consummation devoutly to be wished for, and though calamitous to many, perhaps to many innocent persons, will be eventually most glorious and happy.
To you, Sir, all this may appear such wild declamation, as your treatise appears to me. But speculations of this kind contribute to exhilerate my mind, as the consideration of the French revolution has contributed to disturb and distress yours; and thus is verified the common proverb, which says, One man’s meat is another man’s poison. If this be a dream, it is, however, a pleasing one, and has nothing in it malignant, or unfriendly to any. All that I look to promises no exclusive advantage to myself, or my friends; but an equal field for every generous exertion to all, and it makes the great object of all our exertions to be the public good.
I am, Dear Sir,