- Richard Price and The Ethical Foundations of the American Revolution, and: The Correspondence of Richard Price. Vol. I, July 1748-March 1776 (review)
- Journal of the History of Philosophy
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 22, Number 4, October 1984
- pp. 486-487
- View Citation
- Additional Information
486 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY ~:4 OCT 1984 Bernard Peach, ed., Richard Price and The Ethical Foundations of the American Revolution . Durham: Duke University Press, 1979. Pp. 35o. D. O. Thomas and Bernard Peach, eds. The Correspondenceof Richard Price. Vol. L July x748-March I776. Durham: Duke University Press, 1983. Pp. xxviii + 294. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell tells us that the great man left the room the instant Price entered to show his disapproval of the latter's support for the American Revolution . Price, a conscientious and thoroughly rational divine, found himself the object of violent personal abuse and considerable animosity because he spoke out uncompromisingly , as his conscience dictated, on the burning political issue of the day. However, to understand Price's pronouncements on the "justice and policy" of the war with America, we need to understand the earnest, intellectual, moralist that he was. Both the present volumes are considerable aids in our doing just that. Price had a long career as a dissenting minister, much of it at Newington Green, but his correspondence also testifies to the life of a characteristically eighteenth century "man of parts." He did early work on probability theory which established his reputation as a formidable mathematician. He was a specialist in assurance matters , acting as adviser to the Society for Equitable Assurances. He advocated prison reform, corresponding with Howard on penal matters; became an habitu6 of Lady Montagu's salon in Mayfair; had strong views on education [which should teach people how to think rather than what to think]; followed Priestley's conduct of scientific experiments with interest, and above all engaged in public discussion of moral and theological questions. His contacts with numerous literati and statesman both in England and other countries are shown on almost every page of his correspondence. Chatham, Shelburne, Benjamin Franklin, Priestley, Turgot, Ferguson, Canton, Joseph Johnson are just some of the names that arise in his extensive contact. Price's ethical stance was first enunciated in his Review of the Principal Questions in Morals. He makes the basis of his rational intuitionism clear by asserting that rightness and wrongness are immutable truths which will be rationally discerned by the moral agent. Rightness in this view is a simple, undefinable idea, original to understanding in the same way as ideas of identity, impenetrability, causation, etc., are. Though it is an ultimate principle known only directly through reason, we can identify characteristics of rightness which include duty to God, duty to self, beneficence , veracity, and justice. The clash of the conflicting obligations arising from these duties has to be resolved by the application of moral arithmetic analogous to the "prudential algebra" of Price's friend, Benjamin Franklin. It is an exercise whereby right action is perceived by rational intuition. In politics the moral concepts that have to be applied to judge the justice of policy are rightness and liberty. Price says in his General Introduction to the Observations that we need to examine the nature of liberty itself before considering a specific case like that of the American one. Liberty is the ability to choose; something given to free people and in a modern society, to their representatives. Redress of grievances and full representation are inherent, political rights. Those politicians in Britain who were trying to deny these rights to the colonists were acting immorally and dishono- BOOK REVIEWS 487 rably. They were no longer treating the Americans as free born Englishmen but in some way, as inferiors. These arguments are admirably set out in Professor Peach's introduction to Price's Observations. He even advances an eleven point argument showing how Price moves from a definition of civil liberty to a conclusion that Britain should suspend hostilities and discuss the colonists grievances in a reasonable way. He establishes beyond any doubt the ethical basis of Price's critique of English policy. The book is also carefully scholarly: the various editions of the Observationsare taken into account and interesting letters and responses [from Turgot, Burke, Adam Ferguson, and John Wesley] attest to the whirlwind that followed Price's pronouncements on America. The same degree of scholarly care has been applied to the volume of correspondence...