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Richard Price on how the “domestic enemies” of liberty have been more powerful and more successful than foreign enemies (1789)

The Welsh Presbyterian minister Richard Price (1723-1791) in his Discourse celebrating the Revolution of 1688 in Britain warns about the dangers to liberty posed by ambitious “executive officers of government”:

Another expression of our love to our country is defending it against enemies. These enemies are of two sorts, internal and external; or domestic and foreign. The former are the most dangerous, and they have generally been the most successful. I have just observed, that there is a submission due to the executive officers of government, which is our duty; but you must not forget what I have also observed, that it must not be a blind and slavish submission. Men in power (unless better disposed than is common) are always endeavouring to extend their power. They hate the doctrine, that it is a trust derived from the people, and not a right vested in themselves. For this reason, the tendency of every government is to despotism; and in this the best constituted governments must end, if the people are not vigilant, ready to take alarms, and determined to resist abuses as soon as they begin. This vigilance, therefore, it is our duty to maintain. Whenever it is withdrawn, and a people cease to reason about their rights and to be awake to encroachments, they are in danger of being enslaved, and their servants will soon become their masters.

Another expression of our love to our country is defending it against enemies. These enemies are of two sorts, internal and external; or domestic and foreign. The former are the most dangerous, and they have generally been the most successful. I have just observed, that there is a submission due to the executive officers of government, which is our duty; but you must not forget what I have also observed, that it must not be a blind and slavish submission. Men in power (unless better disposed than is common) are always endeavouring to extend their power. They hate the doctrine, that it is a trust derived from the people, and not a right vested in themselves. For this reason, the tendency of every government is to despotism; and in this the best constituted governments must end, if the people are not vigilant, ready to take alarms, and determined to resist abuses as soon as they begin. This vigilance, therefore, it is our duty to maintain. Whenever it is withdrawn, and a people cease to reason about their rights and to be awake to encroachments, they are in danger of being enslaved, and their servants will soon become their masters.

I need not say how much it is our duty to defend our country against foreign enemies. When a country is attacked in any of its rights by another country, or when any attempts are made by ambitious foreign powers to injure it, a war in its defence becomes necessary: and, in such circumstances, to die for our country is meritorious and noble. These defensive wars are, in my opinion, the only just wars. Offensive wars are always unlawful; and to seek the aggrandizement of our country by them, that is, by attacking other countries, in order to extend dominion, or to gratify avarice, is wicked and detestable. Such, however, have been most of the wars which have taken place in the world; but the time is, I hope, coming, when a conviction will prevail, of the folly as well as the iniquity of wars; and when the nations of the earth, happy under just governments, and no longer in danger from the passions of Kings, will find out better ways of settling their disputes; and beat (as Isaiah prophecies) their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.

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In another few months the sentiments expressed by Richard Price in his 1789 Discourse on Patriotism would probably have resulted in his arrest and possible imprisonment for sedition. As a friend of the revolutions in America and then in France he would have been “a person of interest” to the authorities because of his claim that “executive officers of government” (i.e. one’s own government) were more of a threat to liberty than foreign enemies. Price stressed the 2nd and 3rd provisions of the manifesto of the Society for Commemorating the Revolution (of 1688) in Britain and this would become a provocative thing to do in the 1790s: “Secondly; The right to resist power when abused. And, Thirdly; The right to chuse our own governors; to cashier them for misconduct; and to frame a government for ourselves.” As the war against the French Republic continued the executive officers of government began to think of their positions in government as “a right vested in themselves” and not as “a trust derived from the people.” The latter sentiment of course being the essence of both the American and French Revolutions (at least until the military despot Napoleon came to power). As far as the British state was concerned, they, and only they, had any right to “cashiering”.

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