Richard Price was a Welsh-born liberal Presbyterian minister and moral philosopher. Price is perhaps best known for his vigorous defence of both the American and the French Revolutions. His sermon on “The Love of One’s Country” in 1791 stimulated Burke into writing his famous critique of the French Revolution.
Of the Importance of the Revolution which has established the Independence of the United States.
HAVING, from pure conviction, taken a warm part in favour of the British colonies (now the United States of America) during the late war; and been exposed, in consequence of this, to much abuse and some danger; it must be supposed that I have been waiting for the issue with anxiety—I am thankful that my anxiety is removed; and that I have been spared to be a witness to that very issue of the war which has been all along the object of my wishes. With heart-felt satisfaction, I see the revolution in favour of universal liberty which has taken place in America;—a revolution which opens a new prospect in human affairs, and begins a new æra in the history of mankind;—a revolution by which Britons themselves will be the greatest gainers, if wise enough to improve properly the check that has been given to the despotism of their ministers, and to catch the flame of virtuous liberty which has saved their American brethren.
The late war, in its commencement and progress, did great good by disseminating just sentiments of the rights of mankind, and the nature of legitimate government; by exciting a spirit of resistance to tyranny which has emancipated one European country, and is likely to emancipate others; and by occasioning the establishment in America of forms of government more equitable and more liberal than any that the world has yet known. But, in its termination, the war has done still greater good by preserving the new governments from that destruction in which they must have been involved, bad Britain conquered; by providing, in a sequestered continent possessed of many singular advantages, a place of refuge for opprest men in every region of the world; and by laying the foundation there of an empire which may be the seat of liberty, science and virtue, and from whence there is reason to hope these sacred blessings will spread, till they become universal, and the time arrives when kings and priests shall have no more power to oppress, and that ignominious slavery which has hitherto debased the world is exterminated. I therefore, think I see the hand of Providence in the late war working for the general good.
Reason, as well as tradition and revelation, lead us to expect that a more improved and happy state of human affairs will take place before the consummation of all things. The world has hitherto been gradually improving. Light and knowledge have been gaining ground, and human life at present compared with what it once was, is much the same that a youth approaching to manhood is compared with an infant.
Such are the natures of things that this progress must continue. During particular intervals it may be interrupted, but it cannot be destroy’d. Every present advance prepares the way for farther advances; and a single experiment or discovery may sometimes give rise to so many more as suddenly to raise the species higher, and to resemble the effects of opening a new sense, or of the fall of a spark on a train that springs a mine. For this reason, mankind may at last arrive at degrees of improvement which we cannot now even suspect to be possible. A dark age may follow an enlightened age; but, in this case, the light, after being smothered for a time, will break out again with a brighter lustre. The present age of increased light, considered as succeeding the ages of Greece and Rome and an intermediate period of thick darkness, furnishes a proof of the truth of this observation. There are certain kinds of improvement which, when once made, cannot be entirely lost. During the dark ages, the improvements made in the ages that preceded them remained so far as to be recovered immediately at the resurrection of letters, and to produce afterwards that more rapid progress in improvement which has distinguished modern times.
There can scarcely be a more pleasing and encouraging object of reflection than this. An accidental observation of the effects of gravity in a garden has been the means of discovering the laws that govern the solar system* , and of enabling us to look down with pity on the ignorance of the most enlightened times among the antients. What new dignity has been given to man, and what additions have been made to his powers, by the invention of optical glasses, printing, gun-powder, &c. and by the late discoveries in navigation, mathematics, natural philosophy, &c.?†
But among the events in modern times tending to the elevation of mankind, there are none probably of so much consequence as the recent one which occasions these observations. Perhaps, I do not go too far when I say that, next to the introduction of Christianity among mankind, the American revolution may prove the most important step in the progressive course of human improvement. It is an event which may produce a general diffusion of the principles of humanity, and become the means of setting free mankind from the shackles of superstition and tyranny, by leading them to see and know “that nothing is fundamental but impartial enquiry, an honest mind, and virtuous practice—that state policy ought not to be applied to the support of speculative opinions and formularies of faith.”—“That the members of a civil community are*confederates, not subjects; and their rulers, servants, not masters.—And that all legitimate government consists in the dominion of equal laws made with common consent; that is, in the dominion of men over themselves; and not in the dominion of communities over communities, or of any men over other men.”
Happy will the world be when these truths shall be every where acknowledged and practised upon. Religious bigotry, that cruel demon, will be then laid asleep. Slavish governments and slavish Hierarchies will then sink; and the old prophecies be verified, “that the last universal empire upon earth shall be the empire of reason and virtue, under which the gospel of peace (better understood) shall have free course and be glorified, many will run to and fro and knowledge be increased, the wolf dwell with the lamb and the leopard with the kid, and nation no more lift up a sword against nation.”
It is a conviction I cannot resist, that the independence of the English colonies in America is one of the steps ordained by Providence to introduce these times; and I can scarcely be deceived in this conviction, if the United States should escape some dangers which threaten them, and will take proper care to throw themselves open to future improvements, and to make the most of the advantages of their present situation. Should this happen, it will be true of them as it was of the people of the Jews, that in them all the families of the earth shall be blessed. It is scarcely possible they should think too highly of their own consequence. Perhaps, there never existed a people on whose wisdom and virtue more depended; or to whom a station of more importance in the plan of Providence has been assigned. They have begun nobly. They have fought with success for themselves and for the world; and, in the midst of invasion and carnage, established forms of government favourable in the highest degree to the rights of mankind.—But they have much more to do; more indeed than it is possible properly to represent. In this address, my design is only to take notice of a few great points which seem particularly to require their attention, in order to render them permanently happy in themselves and useful to mankind. On these points, I shall deliver my sentiments with freedom, conscious I mean well; but, at the same time, with real diffidence, conscious of my own liableness to error.
[*]This refers to an account given of Sir Isaac Newton in the Preface to Dr. Pemberton’s View of his Philosophy.
[†]Who could have thought, in the first ages of the world, that mankind would acquire the power of determining the distances and magnitudes of the sun and planets?—Who, even at the beginning of this century, would have thought, that, in a few years, mankind would acquire the power of subjecting to their wills the dreadful force of lightening, and of flying in aerostatic machines?—The last of these powers, though so long undiscovered, is only an easy application of a power always known.—Many similar discoveries may remain to be made, which will give new directions of the greatest consequence to human affairs; and it may not be too extravagant to expect that (should civil governments throw no obstacles in the way) the progress of improvement will not cease till it has excluded from the earth most of its worst evils, and restored that Paradisaical state which, according to the Mosaic History, preceded the present state.
[*]These are the words of Montesquieu.