Price, Richard

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Price, Richard (1723-1791): English Political Theorist.

The lengthy critique of Welsh clergyman Richard Price’s political views by Burke, Edmund in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is testimony to Price’s significance for late eighteenth-century intellectual life. Price was known for unorthodox ideas in philosophy, religion, and economics as well as in politics.

Like his father, Price was a Presbyterian minister, although his outlook owed more to John Locke, Samuel Clarke, and Butler, Joseph than to John Calvin. He served as pastor for several congregations in the London area and taught at New College in Hackney, a school he helped found. He gained prominence in the 1770s and 1780s as a reformer and a controversial author sympathetic to the revolutions in America and France. His circle of friends included Franklin, Benjamin, Priestley, Joseph, and an influential Whig leader, the Earl of Shelburne.

Price’s major philosophic treatise, A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (1757) was a response to Hume, David and moral sense theorists. Morality, he argued, does not derive from some arbitrary quality of human nature but from eternal, universal principles, self-evident to intuitive understanding. Morality is what is intrinsically right and is to be obeyed as one’s duty, not out of hope for reward. This standard is also part of God’s character. Price supposed God to be active, benevolent, and non-Trinitarian; Christ, God’s agent, is to be honored but not worshiped.

Interested in the mathematics of probability, Price became an advisor to insurance societies, attempting to modernize their practices with accurate actuarial tables. He warned against Britain’s national debt as inviting bankruptcy. His plan to buy back government stock though a sinking fund administered by independent commissioners helped inspire Prime Minister William Pitt’s fiscal policies.

Price agreed with Locke that government is a mechanism fashioned by men to preserve their rights. An individual’s liberty thus may be curtailed by the state only to protect the freedom of others or advance public well-being. However, religious and intellectual liberty are inviolable. Price unsuccessfully advocated such constitutional reforms as religious toleration, extension of the franchise, suppression of rotten boroughs, and more frequent Parliamentary elections. His widely-read Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776) supported the right of the Americans to secure their freedom through self-government. His Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution (1784) praised the Americans for their virtue, liberty, simplicity, and agrarian values. A sermon Price gave in 1789, picturing the French Revolution as motivated by the same ideals that led to England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, infuriated Burke.

Price cannot be considered a major thinker. Even so, his moral theory anticipated Kant, Immanuel’s Categorical Imperative and his reform proposals were revived in the nineteenth century.

Further Reading:

D. O. Thomas, The Honest Mind: The Thought and Work of Richard Price, 1977.

Robert Luehrs

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