How the libertarian ideas of Richard Price motivated Burke to write Reflections on the Revolution in France, and how Paine dealt with the controversy.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

On November 4th, 1789, the Unitarian minister Dr. Richard Price delivered a sermon in London that would change the intellectual and political course of Europe. Price delivered his sermon, “A Discourse on the Love of Our Country,” to the Society for the Commemoration of the Glorious Revolution in Great Britain (better known as the Revolution Society)–an organization that was formed not long after the Revolution of 1688 and met annually to celebrate that event. (November 4th was the birthday of the Hollander William of Orange, who replaced James II as King of England and reigned as William III from 1689 until his death in 1702.)

The ultimate influence of Price was due not to the content of his sermon per se but to the reaction it elicited from Edmund Burke, whose original title for Reflections on the Revolution in France was Reflections on certain Proceedings of the REVOLUTION SOCIETY of the 4 th of November, 1789. Price’s sermon provoked Burke to write Reflections, which contains a lengthy attack on Price’s ideas. After that, of course, Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man as a response to Burke. Thus did the elderly Richard Price–he died, at age sixty‐​eight, less than two years after giving his sermon–light a fuse that would ignite one of the most significant debates in the history of political thought.

Richard Price–described by one historian as a “small, earnest, quiet man”–was among the most important libertarians of his day. His support of the American cause against Britain had made him a beloved figure in the United States. Calling himself a “citizen of the world” (a label also used by Thomas Paine and other Enlightenment libertarians), Price held an honorary degree from Yale, was elected a member of philosophical societies in Philadelphia and Boston, and was invited by Congress to become an American citizen. Price was also revered by English Dissenters for his defense of unqualified religious freedom, his opposition to slavery and press gangs, his campaign for parliamentary reform, and other efforts on behalf of libertarian causes. (See my discussion of Price’s views on religious freedom here.)

During the centennial celebration in 1788 (the year before Price spoke), 300 members of the Revolution Society, who dubbed themselves “friends of civil and religious liberty,” met at the London Tavern in Bishopgate Street. A sign in front of the tavern read: “A TYRANT DEPOSED AND LIBERTY RESTORED, 1688.” Forty‐​one toasts praising freedom and calling for various political reforms were proposed during dinner, after which members unanimously approved a brief declaration of principles.

  1. That all civil and political authority is derived from the people.
  2. That the abuse of power justifies resistance.
  3. That the right of private judgment, liberty of conscience, trial by jury, the freedom of the press and the freedom of election ought ever to be held sacred and inviolable.

These principles, according to the overly optimistic view of the Revolution Society, were grounded in the English Bill of Rights, which parliament had presented to William and Mary in 1689 as a condition of their becoming joint sovereigns of England. When Richard Price spoke to the Revolution Society in 1789, he formulated the basic principles as follows:

First, the right to liberty of conscience in religious matters.
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.

In pamphlet form Price’s sermon became an immediate hit and was reprinted in America, Dublin, and Paris. Edmund Burke never liked Richard Price. Years earlier Price, in contrast to the pragmatism of Burke, had appealed to abstract rights when attacking British policies in the American colonies–the same Rights of Man that Burke abhorred. But Burke’s dislike turned to fury after he read “A Discourse on the Love of Our Country.” There was much in the pamphlet to annoy Burke, but two things in particular caused his blood to boil. The first was Price’s attempt to link his libertarian principles to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The second was Price’s concluding remarks that praised the French Revolution and maintained, in effect, that the French were implementing principles that originated in England, principles that were confirmed by the Glorious Revolution.

Although Burke had criticized the French Revolution before the publication of Price’s sermon, he had not considered the possibility that events in France might pose a threat to the English government by provoking a revolution at home. Burke changed his mind after reading the following remarks by Price:

What an eventful period this is! .…I have lived to see a diffusion of knowledge which has undermined superstition and error. I have lived to see the rights of men better understood than ever, and nations panting for liberty, which seemed to have lost the idea of it. I have lived to see thirty millions of people [in France], indignant and resolute, spurning at slavery, and demanding liberty with an irresistible voice, their king led in triumph, and an arbitrary monarch surrendering himself to his subjects. After sharing in the benefits of one Revolution [1688], I have been spared to be a witness to two other Revolutions [in America and France], both glorious. And now, methinks, I see the ardor for liberty catching and spreading, a general amendment in human affairs, the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience.

Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom and writers in its defence! The times are auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Behold kingdoms, admonished by you, starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors! Behold, the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected to France and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes and warms and illuminates Europe.

Tremble all ye oppressors of the world! Take warning all ye supporters of slavish governments and slavish hierarchies!…Restore to mankind their rights and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed together.

It should be understood that Price never called for a revolution in Britain. While noting numerous governmental injustices and abuses, he curiously insisted that the British monarch was “almost the only lawful King in the world, because the only one who owes his crown to the choice of the people.” As Burke saw the matter, Price’s claim was actually an effort to delegitimate the British government; it was a devious, dishonest argument, packed with “equivocations and slippery constructions,” that was intended to pave the way for revolution. As Burke wrote in Reflections:

This doctrine, as applied to the prince now on the British throne, either is 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. Now nothing could be more untrue than that the crown of this kingdom is so held by his majesty. Therefore if you follow their rule, the king of Great Britain, who most certainly does not owe his high office to any form of popular election, is in no respect better than the rest of the gang of usurpers, who reign, or rather rob, all over the face of this our miserable world, without any sort of right or title to the allegiance of the people. The policy of this general doctrine, so qualified, is evident enough. The propagators of this political gospel are in hopes their abstract principle (their principle that a popular choice is necessary to the legal existence of the sovereign majesty) would be overlooked whilst the king of Great Britain was not affected by it. In the mean time the ears of their congregations would be gradually habituated to it, as if it were a first principle admitted without dispute. For the present it would only operate as a theory, pickled in the preserving juices of pulpit eloquence, and laid by for future use.…By this policy, whilst our government is soothed with a reservation in its favour, to which it has no claim, the security, which it has in common with all governments, so far as opinion is security, is taken away.

Burke’s rebuttal of Richard Price involved a lengthy and unusual analysis of the Glorious Revolution and its implications for the hereditary succession of the British Crown. Since the details of Burke’s argument would bore most readers, suffice it to say that, according to Burke, to speak of a “revolution” in 1688 was a misnomer. What happened was not a revolution at all; rather, it was “an act of necessity, in the strictest sense,” that was nothing more than “a small and temporary deviation” from the procedures prescribed by the British Constitution for hereditary succession. The events that brought William and Mary to the throne in 1689 were in accordance with the British Constitution, in spirit if not in every detail; and to draw radical conclusions from a single exception, as Price and other British libertarians wished to do, was wholly unjustified–and extremely pernicious to boot.

Now, at long last, we return once again to Thomas Paine. As we shall see in my next essay, Paine’s response to Burke did not consist of defending the position taken by Richard Price, at least not entirely. Instead, Paine shared Price’s belief that any government not based on the consent of the governed is illegitimate, while embracing Burke’s reductio of that selfsame principle, according to which the consent doctrine would render every existing monarchy, including the British monarchy, illegitimate. Paine took the bull by the horns and argued that the British government was based on conquest, not on consent, and that any notion of a British “constitution” was sheer fiction. The British government, in short, had no constitution and therefore no moral authority.

Paine defended his radical conclusion by explaining the nature of a proper constitution and the method by which a legitimate government is established and maintained. Therein lies the theoretical significance of this controversy.