The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Price, Richard (1723-1791)

Richard Price was a British moral and political philosopher and statistician. His most important work in the area of ethics was A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals, in which he argued that morality is inherent within actions and can be discerned through the use of reason. Price also was a dissenting minister and a founding member of the Unitarian Society in 1791. He is best known to history, however, for staunchly defending the American and French Revolutions.

The son of a Calvinist Congregational minister, Price was born on February 23, 1723, in Wales and was educated at a dissenting academy in London. In 1758, Price became a chaplain in the London district of Stoke Newington. The English Dissenters with whom Price identified objected to state interference into religious matters, especially to the status of Anglicanism as the established Church of England. Their critique of authority on this crucial matter naturally inclined them toward nonconformity in other areas.

His earliest book, The Question of Morals, published in 1758, was critical of the views set forth by his Scottish contemporary Francis Hutcheson and is often referred to as a precursor of Kant’s statements on morality. This work established Price’s reputation as an iconoclastic intellectual who was able to effectively criticize his peers without alienating them. Throughout his life, Price formed deep friendships with the leading intellectuals of his day, both in England and in America. He corresponded extensively with the British philosopher David Hume and the British Whig statesman the Earl of Shelburne, as well as with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

As a result of his friendship with the British mathematician Thomas Bayes, Bayes’s family asked Price to review the mathematician’s unpublished papers upon his death. The resulting essay, written in 1763, “An Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances,” was submitted to the Royal Society and dealt with the question of probability. Price’s presentation of Bayes’s work introduced what is now known as Bayes’s Theorem, a mathematical method of calculating the likelihood of an event recurring based on its past performance. The essay proved to be a breakthrough in probability theory.

On the basis of this work, in 1765, Price was admitted to the Royal Society. In the following year, he published his Four Dissertations—a collection of sermons—which dealt with his conclusions regarding the rational foundations of morality. The fourth dissertation, “On the Importance of Christianity and the Nature of Historical Evidence, and Miracles,” disputed Hume’s famous essay on miracles and in its place argued that they were in fact probable. Nevertheless, Price continued in the liberal religious tradition by rejecting such concepts as original sin. In 1767, the University of Aberdeen conferred an honorary doctorate of divinity upon him.

In addition to his work in these areas, Price established a reputation as an original economic thinker, especially in the area of insurance and finance. In 1769, he published a pioneering work on life expectancy in the Philosophical Transactions, a scientific journal published by the Royal Society. A later work, “Observations on Reversionary Payments” (1771), laid the foundation for today’s system of pensions and life insurance and underscored the inadequacy of the calculations then being used. At the request of William Pitt the Younger, later prime minister of Britain, Price published a pamphlet in 1772 titled “Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the National Debt,” in which he decried the surging public debt and prescribed a program for eliminating it. The program became so widely respected that, in 1778, the U.S. Congress asked Price to advise the fledging United States on finance. He also wrote “Essay on the Population of England” (1780), which influenced the economic theorist Robert Malthus.

Price’s support for American independence was first expressed in print in his “Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America.” Price favored American independence on the principle of self-determination, and he argued that no social contract could alienate that principle. Within a few days, the “Observations” sold several thousand copies, prompting the release of a cheaper second edition that circulated widely in both Britain and America. The work sparked furious debate. In 1777, Price wrote a second pamphlet, “Additional Observations,” to clarify his position in the face of severe opposition.

Considered a hero by the American revolutionaries, Price was offered American citizenship, which he declined. However, he did address Congress in 1778 and was awarded a degree by Yale in 1781. His final work on American independence was “Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution and the Means of Rendering It a Benefit to the World,” and in it extended his arguments in support of the colonists’ claims against the British crown.

Price also championed the French Revolution. Shortly after the fall of the Bastille, he delivered a sermon, “Discourse on the Love of Our Country,” that was meant to commemorate the 101st anniversary of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, through which the short reign of King James II had come to a bloodless end. In supporting the events of 1688, Price praised what he called the “two other Revolutions”—the American and French. In rebuttal, the British statesman Edmund Burke penned his famous antirevolutionary work, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

A fiery public debate followed the appearance of Price’s pamphlet and Burke’s response, which lasted years and had such wide-ranging implications that the historian Thomas W. Copeland referred to it as “the most crucial ideological debate ever carried on in English.” Burke’s arguments inspired responses not merely from Price, but also from Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man in 1792 and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790.

Price died on April 19, 1791. His intimate friend and associate Joseph Priestley preached at his funeral service. Although they disagreed on many points of theory, the two men had been leading voices for “rational dissent” for decades. With Priestley, Price had written the influential work A Free Discussion of the Doctrines of Materialism and Philosophical Necessity (1778), which took the form of a debate. Perhaps it was in his openness to civil debate that Price most contributed to British intellectual history.


Further Readings

Cone, Carl B. Torchbearer of Freedom: The Influence of Richard Price on Eighteenth Century Thought. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1952.

Laboucheix, Henri. Richard Price as Moral Philosopher and Political Theorist. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1982.

Peach, Bernard. Richard Price and the Ethical Foundations of the American Revolution: Selections from His Pamphlets, with Appendices. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1979.

Thomas, David Oswald. Richard Price, 1723–1791. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1976.

Originally published .