Item of the Day: Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776)

Full Title: Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America. To which is added An Appendix, Containing a State of the National Debt, an Estimate of the Money drawn from the Public by the Taxes, and an Account of the national Income and Expenditure since the last War. By Richard Price. Second Edition. London: Printed for T. Cadell, in the Strand, M.DCC.LXXVI.

 

OBSERVATIONS, &C.

OUR Colonies in North America appear to be now determined to do and suffer every thing, under the persuasion, that GREAT BRITAIN is attempting to rob them of that Liberty to which every member of society, and all civil communities, have a natural and unalienable right. The question, therefore, whether this is a reasonable persuasion, is highly interesting, and deserves the most careful attention of every Englishman who values Liberty, and wishes to avoid staining himself with the guilt of invading it. But it is impossible to judge properly of this question without correct ideas of Liberty in general, and of the nature, limits, and principles of Civil Liberty in particular. –The following observations on this subject appear to me important, as well as just; and I cannot make myself easy without offering them to the public at the present period, big with events of the last consequence to this kingdom. I do this, with reluctance and pain, urged by strong feelings, but at the same time checked by the consciousness that I am likely to deliver sentiments not favourable to the present measures of that government, under which I live, and to which I am a constant and zealous well-wisher. Such, however, are my present sentiments and views, that this is a consideration of inferior moments with me and, as I hope never to go beyond the bounds of decent discussion and expostulation, I flatter myself, that I shall be able to avoid giving any person just cause of offence.

The observations with which I shall begin, are of a more general and abstracted nature; but being, in my opinion, of partiuclar consequence; and necessary to introduce what I have principally in view, I hope they will be patiently read and considered.

SECT. I.

Of the Natureof Liberty in General.

IN order to obtain a more distinct and accurate view of the nature of Liberty as such, it will be useful to consider it under the four folloing general divisions.

First, Physical Liberty. —Secondly, Moral Liberty. —Thirdly, Religious Liberty. —-And Fourthly, Civil Liberty. These heads comprehend under them all the different kinds of Liberty. And I have placed Civil Liberty last, because I mean to apply to it all I shall say of the other kinds of Liberty.

By PHYSICAL LIBERTY I mean that principle of Spontaneity, or Self-determination, which constitutes us Agents; or which gives us a command over our actions, rendering them properly ours, and not effects of the operation of any foreign cause. —MORAL LIBERTY is the power of following, in all circumstances, our sense of right and wrong; or of acting in conformity to our reflecting and moral principles, without being controuled by any contrary principles. —RELIGIOUS LIBERTY signifies the power of exercising, without molestation, that mode of religion which we think best; or of making the decisions of our own consciences, respecting religious truth, the rule of our conduct, and not any of the decisions of others. —In like manner; CIVIL LIBERTY is the power of a Civil Society or State to govern itself by its own discretion; or by laws of its own making, without being subject to any foreign discretion, or to the impositions of any extraneous will or power.

It should be observed, that, according to these definitions of the different kinds of liberty, there is one general idea, that runs through them all; I mean, the idea of Self-direction, or Self-government. –Did our volitions originate not with ourselves, but with some cause over which we have no power; or were we under a necessity of always following some will different from our own, we should want PHYSICAL LIBERTY.

In like manner; he whose perceptions of moral obligation are controuled by his passions has lost his Moral Liberty; and the most commong language applied to him is, that he wants Self-goverment.

He likewise who, in religion, cannot govern himself by his convictions of religious duty, but is obliged to receive formularies of faith, and to practice modes of worship imposed upon him by others wants Religious Liberty. –And the Community also that is governed, not by itself, but by some will independent of it, and over which it has not controul, wants Civil Liberty.

In all these cases there is a force which stands opposed to the agent’s own will; and which, as far as it operates, produces Servitude. –In the first case, this force is incompatible with the very idea of voluntary motion; and the subject of it is a mere passive instrument which never acts, but is always acted upon –In the second case; this force is the influence of passion getting the better of reason, or the brute overpowering and conquering the will of the man. –In the third case; it is Human Authority in religion requiring conformity to particular modes of faith and worship, and superseding private judgment. –And in the last cae, it is any will distinct from that of the Majority of a Community, which claims a power of making laws for it, and disposing of its property.

This it is, I think, that marks the limit, or that lays the line between Liberty and Slavery. As far as, in any instance, the operation of any cause comes in to restrain the power of Self-government, so far Slavery is introduced: Nor do I think that a preciser idea than this of Liberty and Slavery can be formed.

I cannot help wishing I could here fix my reader’s attention, and engage him to consider carefully the dignity of that blessing to which we give the name of LIBERTY, according to the representation now made of it. There is not a word in the whole compass of language which expresses so much of what is important and excellent. It is, in every view of it, a blessing truly sacred and invaluable. –Without Physical Liberty, man would be a machine acted upon by mechanical springs, having no principle of motion in himself, or command over events; and, therefore, incapable of all merit and demerit. –Without Moral Liberty he is a wicked and detestable being, subject to the tyranny of base lusts, and the sport of every vile appetitie. –And without Religious and Civil Liberty he is a poor and abject animal without rights, without property, and without a conscience, bending his neck to the yoke, and crouching to the will of every silly creature who has the insolence to pretend to authority over him. –Nothing, therfore, can be of so much consequence to us as Liberty. It is the foundation of all honour, and the chief privilege and glory of our natures.

In fixing our ideas on the subject of Liberty it is of particular use to take such an enlarged view of it as I have now given. But the immediate object of the present enquiry being Civil Liberty, I will confine to it all the subsequent observations. . . .

 

 

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Filed under 1700's, Colonial America, Great Britain, Liberty, Political Pamphlets, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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