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Richard Price (1723-1791)

This article was written by Thomas Fowler and was published in 1896

Dr Richard PriceRichard Price, nonconformist minister and writer on morals, politics, and economics, was born on 23 February 1723 at Tynton, in the parish of Llangeinor, in the county of Glamorgan. His father, Rice Price, who was for many years minister of a congregation of protestant dissenters at Bridgend, in the same county, was a bigoted Calvinist, and seems to have been a person of morose temper, facts which may account, on the principle of reaction, for the liberal opinions and the benevolent disposition of the son. Young Price seems to have received his early education at many successive ‘academies,’ the last being one kept by the Rev. Vavasor Griffith, at Talgarth in Breconshire.

From his earliest youth he appears to have recoiled from his father's religious opinions, and to have inclined towards the views of more liberal and philosophical theologians, the works of Clarke and Butler having a special attraction for him. By the advice of a paternal uncle, who officiated as co-pastor with Dr. Watts, he removed, in his eighteenth year, to a dissenting college, the Fund Academy, in London, under John Eames, and, having there completed his education, became chaplain and companion to a Mr. Streatfield at Stoke Newington. While still occupying this position he officiated in various dissenting congregations, such as those in the Old Jewry, Edmonton, and Newington Green. By the death of Mr. Streatfield and of an uncle in 1756 his circumstances were considerably improved, and in the following year, the year in which he first published his best known work, a ‘Review of the principal Questions in Morals,’ he married a Miss Sarah Blundell, originally of Belgrave in Leicestershire. In 1758 he took up his residence at Newington Green, in order to be near his congregation. His time seems now to have been divided between the performance of his ministerial duties and his various studies, especially philosophy and mathematics. His treatise on morals had gained him a certain reputation, and he began to make the acquaintance of philosophers and literary men, including Franklin and Hume. In 1769 Lord Shelburne, attracted by reading his ‘Dissertations on Providence’ and the ‘Junction of Virtuous Men in a Future State,’ expressed a desire to meet him. The interview led to a lifelong friendship, which had much influence in raising Price's reputation and determining the character of his future pursuits.

It was not, however, so much as a theologian and moralist as a writer on financial and political questions that Price was destined to become known to his countrymen at large. In 1769 he wrote some observations addressed in a letter to Dr. Franklin on the expectation of lives, the increase of mankind, and the population of London, which were published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of that year; and again, in May 1770, he communicated to the Royal Society some observations on the proper method of calculating the values of contingent reversions. The publication of these papers is said to have exercised a most beneficial influence in drawing attention to the inadequate calculations on which many insurance and benefit societies had recently been formed. In 1767 Price received the degree of D.D. from Marischal College, Aberdeen, and not as stated by his biographer Morgan from Glasgow in 1769. In 1771 he published his ‘Appeal to the Public on the subject of the National Debt,’ of which subsequent editions appeared in 1772 and 1774. This pamphlet excited considerable controversy at the time of its publication, and is supposed to have influenced Pitt in 1786 in re-establishing the sinking fund for the extinction of the national debt, which had been created by Walpole in 1716, and abolished in 1733. That Price's main object, the extinction of the national debt, was a laudable and desirable one would now probably be universally acknowledged. The particular means, however, which he proposed for the purpose are described by Lord Overstone (who, in 1857, reprinted for private circulation Price's and other rare tracts on the national debt and the sinking fund), as ‘a sort of hocuspocus machinery,’ supposed to work ‘without loss to any one,’ and consequently purely delusive. There is no doubt, however, that Price rendered service by calling attention to the growth of the debt, no less than by attacking the practice, begun by North, of funding by increase of capital .

A subject of a much more popular kind was next to employ Dr. Price's pen. Being an ardent lover of civil and religious liberty, he had from the first been strongly opposed to the war with the American colonies, and in 1776 he published a pamphlet, ‘Observations on Civil Liberty and the Justice and Policy of the War with America.’ Several thousand copies of this work were sold within a few days. A cheap edition was soon issued; the pamphlet was extolled by one set of politicians, and abused by another. Among its critics were Dr. Markham, archbishop of York, John Wesley, and Edmund Burke, and its author rapidly became one of the best known men in England.

In recognition of his services in the cause of liberty, Dr. Price was presented with the freedom of the city of London, and it is said that the encouragement derived from this book had no inconsiderable share in determining the Americans to declare their independence. A second pamphlet on the war with America, the debts of Great Britain, and kindred topics, followed in the spring of 1777, and, whenever the government thought proper to proclaim a fast day, Dr. Price took the opportunity of declaring his sentiments on the folly and mischief of the war. His name thus became identified, for good repute and for evil repute, with the cause of American independence. He was the intimate friend of Franklin; he corresponded with Turgot; and in the winter of 1778 he was actually invited by congress to transfer himself to America, and assist in the financial administration of the insurgent states. This offer he refused, from unwillingness to quit his own country and his family connections, concluding his letter, however, with the prophetic words that he looked ‘to the United States as now the hope, and likely soon to become the refuge, of mankind.’ In 1783 he was created LL.D. by Yale College, at the same time with Washington.

One of Price's most intimate friends was Dr. Priestley, but this circumstance did not prevent them from taking the most opposite views on the great questions of morals and metaphysics. In 1778 appeared a published correspondence between these two liberal theologians on the subjects of materialism and necessity, wherein Price maintains, in opposition to Priestley, the free agency of man and the unity and immateriality of the human soul. Both Price and Priestley were in theological opinion what would now vaguely be called ‘unitarians;’ in 1791 Price became an original member of the Unitarian Society. But Price's opinions would seem to have been rather Arian than Socinian. To his ministry at Newington Green, during the last twenty years of his life, he added that of Hackney.

After the publication of his pamphlet on the American war Dr. Price became an important personage. He now preached to crowded congregations, and, when Lord Shelburne acceded to power in 1782, not only was he offered the post of private secretary to the premier, but it is said that one of the paragraphs in the king's speech was suggested by him, and inserted in his very words.

In 1786 Mrs. Price died, and as there were no children by the marriage, and his own health was failing, the remainder of Price's life appears to have been somewhat clouded by solitude and dejection. It was illuminated, however, by the eager satisfaction with which he witnessed the passing events of the French Revolution. In the famous sermon ‘On the Love of Our Country’ (preached at the Meeting-house in the Old Jewry, on 4 November 1789), which is described as the ‘red rag that drew Burke into the arena,’ Price observed: ‘I could almost say, Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation. … After sharing in the benefits of one revolution, I have been spared to be a witness to two other revolutions, both glorious.’ Burke, in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France,’ attempts to fasten on Price an allusion, in these words, to the scenes of riot and carnage, ending in the abduction of the king and queen, which had taken place at Versailles on the previous 6 October. But Price, in the preface to the fourth edition of the sermon, maintains (and the context of the sermon is consistent with the contention) that he was alluding not to the 6th of October, but to the 14th of July (the date of the destruction of the Bastile), and the subsequent days, when the king ‘shewed himself to his people as the restorer of their liberty.’

Price, indeed, by this sermon, together with a speech subsequently delivered at a public dinner at the London tavern, had rendered himself peculiarly obnoxious to Burke, and brought down on his head some of the fiercest denunciations in that writer's impassioned work on the French Revolution. Walpole speaks of his talons being drawn by Burke, who had killed the Revolution Club ‘as dead as the Cock Lane Ghost.’ Dr. Johnson naturally placed Price in the same category with Horne Tooke, John Wilkes, and Dr. Priestley, and resolutely refused to meet him; Gibbon compared him to the ‘wild visionaries’ who formed the ‘constituent assembly’ of 1789.

The darker side of the Revolution Price happily did not live to see. On 19 April 1791 he died, worn out with suffering and disease. His funeral was conducted at Bunhill Fields by Dr. Kippis, and his funeral sermon was preached by Dr. Priestley, names which, like his own, are specially honourable in the roll of English nonconformist divines.

Price's reputation at the present time rests mainly upon the position which he occupies in the history of moral philosophy. His ethical theories are mostly contained in ‘A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals,’ of which the first edition was published in 1757, and the third, expressing ‘the author's latest and maturest thoughts,’ in 1787. This work is professedly directed against the doctrines of Hutcheson, but the treatment as a whole is constructive rather than polemical. The main positions are three:

1. Actions are in themselves right or wrong.
2. Right and wrong are simple ideas incapable of analysis.
3. These ideas are perceived immediately by the intuitive power of the reason or understanding, terms which (therein differing from Kant) he employs indifferently.

When the reason or understanding has once apprehended the idea of right, it ought to impose that idea as a law upon the will, and thus it becomes, equally with the affections, a spring of action.

The English moralist with whom Price has most affinity is Cudworth. The main point of difference is that, while Cudworth regards the ideas of right and wrong as modifications of the intellect itself, existing first in germ, and afterwards developed by circumstances, Price seems rather to regard them as acquired from the contemplation of actions, though acquired necessarily, immediately, and intuitively. The interest of his position, however, in the history of moral philosophy, turns mainly on the many points of resemblance, both in fundamental ideas and in modes of expression, which exist between his writings and those of Kant, whose ethical works are posterior to those of Price by nearly thirty years. Among these points are the exaltation of reason; the depreciation of the affections; the unwillingness of both authors to regard the ‘partial and accidental structure of humanity,’ the ‘mere make and constitution of man,’ as the basis of morality — in other words, to recognise ethical distinctions as relative to human nature; the ultimate and irresolvable character of the idea of rectitude; the notion that the reason imposes this idea as a law upon the will, becoming thus an independent spring of action; the insistence upon the reality of liberty, or ‘the power of acting and determining;’ the importance attached to reason as a distinct source of ideas; and, it may be added, the discrimination (so celebrated in the philosophy of Kant) of the moral (or practical) and the speculative reason.

On the other hand, Price's ethical theories are almost the antithesis of those of Paley, whose ‘Moral and Political Philosophy’ appeared in 1785. Speaking of this work in his third edition, Price says, ‘Never have I met with a theory of morals which has appeared to me more exceptionable.’

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