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Price, Richard (1723-1791)

This information about Richard Price comes from Ellis Sandoz's introduction to his sermon "On the Love of one's Country" in vol. II of Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805:

Richard Price (1723–1791). Born at Tynton in Glamorganshire, Wales, Price gained fame as a supporter of the American and French revolutions. A friend of Benjamin Franklin, he was a liberal Presbyterian minister and a moral philosopher whose critique of the Scottish philosophy of Francis Hutcheson in Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals (1758) came to be regarded as a significant anticipation of Kant’s ethics in certain respects and of nineteenth-century intuitionism in others. With Joseph Priestly, Price also published A Free Discussion of the Doctrines of Materialism and Philosophical Necessity (1778), written in the form of a debate. As a result of his publication of a reply to David Hume’s essay on miracles, Price had a D.D. degree conferred upon him by the University of Aberdeen.

As an expert on finance and insurance, Price was selected to become a member of the Royal Society in 1765 for work on the theory of probability as applied to actuarial questions. His recommendation of a sinking fund to cope with problems of national debt influenced both French and British policy.

Price’s vehement support for American independence came primarily through publication of two pamphlets that circulated widely at home and in America: Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America (1776) and Additional Observations . . . (1777). Offered American citizenship, he declined, but he did address Congress when invited in 1778, was inducted into the American Philosophical Society, and was awarded (along with George Washington) an LL.D. by Yale in 1781. Price’s The Importance of the American Revolution appeared in 1784.

The celebrated sermon that follows was preached in London on November 4, 1789, the 101st anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. It presents Price’s apocalyptic view of the dawning of the millennium through the spread of liberty and happiness over the world, especially as evinced in French developments at the time. This point, according to A. J. Grieve, was for Edmund Burke the “grit around which he built up his pearl”—namely, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The gentility of Price’s encomium for the French revolutionaries contrasts drastically with Burke’s savage ridicule:

Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights? This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the galleys, and their heroic deliverer [Don Quixote], the metaphysic knight of the sorrowful countenance.

In rebuttal to Price’s central proposition that the people of England have three fundamental rights that the French aspire to (“To choose our own governors; to cashier them for misconduct; and to frame a government for ourselves”), Burke scathingly retorted: “We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors.” Burke was answered not only by the aged, ailing Price, but also by Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man (1792). Paine, a writer of comparable intellect but of far less gentility—being every bit Burke’s equal in the fine old art of invective—vindicated Price’s three fundamental rights. Indeed, Price’s sermon was the starting point for what Thomas W. Copeland designated “the most crucial ideological debate ever carried on in English.”

Last modified April 13, 2016