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  Richard Price (1723–1791), by Thomas Holloway, pubd 1793 (after Benjamin West, 1788) Richard Price (1723–1791), by Thomas Holloway, pubd 1793 (after Benjamin West, 1788)
Price, Richard (1723–1791), philosopher, demographer, and political radical, was born on 23 February 1723 at Tyn-ton, in the parish of Llangeinor, in the county of Glamorgan, the only son and eldest of three children of Rice Price (1673–1739) and his second wife, Catherine (1697–1740), daughter of David Richards of Oldcastle, Bridgend. Rice Price was a dissenting minister who officiated at different times in his career at Brynllywarch, Cildeudy, Newcastle, Bridgend, and City, Betws. He also taught for a brief period at the academy founded by Samuel Jones at Brynllywarch. Richard's sister Sarah had eight children, including , the pioneering actuary, and .

Early life and ministry

Price's education began at home under a Mr Peters, who later became a dissenting minister. At the age of eight or thereabouts he began attending a school run by Joseph Simmons, a dissenting minister at Neath, and in 1735 he went to a school run by Samuel Jones at Pen-twyn in Carmarthenshire. Price then spent a short time at an academy run by Vavasor Griffiths (d. 1741), located at Chancefield, Talgarth, Brecknockshire.

Rice Price died in 1739, and Catherine and her two daughters left Tyn-ton to live in Bridgend. In the following year Catherine died and, probably on the advice of his uncle Samuel (who was assistant to Isaac Watts at St Mary Axe in Bury Street, London), it was decided that Richard should go to London to attend the academy at Tenter Alley, Moorfields. Here Price remained for four years, being taught by John Eames and Joseph Densham. Eames, a friend and a disciple of Sir Isaac Newton, had won a reputation both as a mathematician and as a teacher, and he gave Price an excellent grounding in mathematics (which was to serve him well in his distinguished career as an adviser to the Society for Equitable Assurances) and in Newtonian physics. One important feature of Price's education is that in the course of it he was weaned away from the theological beliefs of his father and his uncle Samuel, who were both high Calvinists. The home at Tyn-ton had a reputation for a strict puritanical discipline; it was not this, however, that Price rebelled against so much as the orthodox trinitarianism of the older generation. It is likely that it was the teaching of Samuel Jones at Pen-twyn that moved Price towards the rationalism and the libertarianism that in later life he defended with such conviction.

When his stay at Moorfields came to an end in 1744, Price became family chaplain in the household of George Streatfield, a wealthy dissenter, who lived at Stoke Newington. During this period he served as an assistant to Samuel Chandler at Old Jewry Lane, though not to the satisfaction of Chandler, and he also took services at Edmonton and Enfield. Streatfield became involved in a celebrated legal case which proved a landmark in the dissenters' struggle for the full legal recognition of the right to religious freedom. The practice had grown up of appointing dissenters to offices in the City of London. Some dissenters were nevertheless unable to accept them because a precondition was that they should take the sacraments according to the rites of the Church of England, which they could not in conscience do. Those who refused were liable to heavy fines which were unceremoniously exacted.

The dissenters fought the issue through the courts, and their dilemma was not resolved until 4 February 1767 when Mansfield issued his famous judgment that ‘Nonconformity was certainly not a crime.’ Although Streatfield had been withdrawn from the case at an early stage because he was found not to be within the jurisdiction of the court, Price learned a great deal about the nature of the fight the dissenters would have to wage in order to secure freedom of worship, and the experience had a profound influence on his thought on the subject of toleration. Throughout his career he maintained strongly that everyone has not only the right to worship God according to his conscience but also the right not to be disadvantaged in the way the dissenters had been by the policy of reserving offices under the crown and in municipal authorities to members of the Church of England.

Price's uncle Samuel died in 1756 and his patron George Streatfield died in January 1757. From both he received legacies which enabled him to contemplate marriage. On 16 June 1757 Price married Sarah Blundell (1728–1786), the daughter of a speculator who had been ruined by the South Sea Bubble. In the following year Price accepted the appointment of pastor at the presbyterian chapel at Newington Green, and he and Sarah moved to a house nearby. Not long after their marriage Sarah suffered an attack of the palsy, the first of several which led to her becoming a permanent invalid. There were no children of the marriage.

After the death of Dr George Benson in April 1762 Price became minister at Poor Jewry Lane, retaining the afternoon service at Newington Green. In 1770 he relinquished the appointment at Poor Jewry Lane, and instead became morning preacher at Gravel-Pit Meeting Place at Hackney. He continued to be pastor at Newington Green until 1783, and he remained a preacher at Gravel-Pit until he retired on 20 February 1791, not long before his death the following April. From the accounts that have survived Price does not seem to have been a success as a preacher in the early years of his ministry, and it was after becoming a celebrity that his congregation steadily increased. Notwithstanding his fame in other fields, Price always maintained, as did his friend Joseph Priestley, that his work as a pastor was the most important that he undertook and had the first claim upon his attention and energies.

Publications and patrons

Despite his devotion to the pulpit, Price found time for several other occupations. In 1758 he published A Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals. In 1765 he became a fellow of the Royal Society, Benjamin Franklin being one of his sponsors. This honour was largely due to the work he did editing Thomas Bayes's manuscripts on the theory of probability. In 1767 he published his first theological work, Four Dissertations, and in the same year on 7 August he was awarded the degree of doctor of divinity at Marischal College, Aberdeen. In 1766, or thereabouts, he began his influential work with the Society for Equitable Assurances which led to the publication in 1771 of Observations on Reversionary Payments. Alongside his actuarial and demographic studies he also became interested in warning the government of the perils of maintaining a large national debt and in advocating the adoption of sinking fund procedures for its reduction.

In 1771 Price's friendship with William Petty, second earl of Shelburne, later the first marquess of Lansdowne, began. Shelburne's first wife died in January 1771 and he found consolation in Price's ‘On providence’ and ‘On the reasons for expecting that virtuous men shall meet after death in a state of happiness’, both of which had been published in Four Dissertations. Shelburne asked Mrs Montagu to arrange an interview, which eventually took place at Price's home in Newington Green. Price soon entered the Bowood Group, the informal gathering of intellectuals and professional men who met at Shelburne's estate at Bowood in Wiltshire or at his London house in Berkeley Square and advised him on a wide range of subjects. In some ways this circle was an eighteenth-century form of ‘think tank’ which kept Shelburne abreast of developments in the professions, at the bar, in the armed forces, and in the church, and which kept him well informed as to current opinion on economic and financial matters. This group included Isaac Barré, John Dunning (later Lord Ashburton), Joseph Priestley, Jonathan Shipley, bishop of St Asaph, and, at later periods, Samuel Romilly and Jeremy Bentham.

Price prepared several papers for Shelburne—on toleration and the extension of legal recognition of the freedom of worship, on the relations between Britain and America, but mainly on financial matters, particularly on the most efficacious way of raising government loans and on his favourite project, the revival of sinking fund procedures for the redemption of the national debt. Shelburne helped Price by supplying him with information from official statistics, both when he was in opposition and during the short period when he was in office, and by being his patron—the third and subsequent editions of Observations on Reversionary Payments were dedicated to him. Both at Bowood and at Berkeley Square, Price had more opportunities to meet the famous and the learned than might otherwise have fallen to his lot: it was through Shelburne, for example, that he had access to the earl of Chatham, whose support he solicited on behalf of the dissenters' campaign to secure relief from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles. Price was instrumental in securing Joseph Priestley's services as Shelburne's librarian.

Another important group which contributed to Price's intellectual development was the Club of Honest Whigs, which met at St Paul's Coffee House and, later, at the London Coffee House on Ludgate Hill. Many of the leading dissenters in London were members, as were Benjamin Franklin (whom Price had first met during Franklin's first visit to England from July 1757 to August 1762) and Jonathan Shipley.

Price's fame increased substantially with the publication of Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776), a pamphlet written in defence of the American patriots. This was followed by Additional Observations in 1777, and Two Tracts (in which he republished both pamphlets) in 1778. For his work as a political writer Price received two unusual honours. He was elected a freeman of the City of London in 1776 and in 1778 received an invitation from congress to go to America to advise them on financial matters, an invitation conveyed to him by Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee, and John Adams, which, however, he declined. In 1780 he published his study on demography, An Essay on the Population, which brought him a great deal of notoriety, largely because events proved that his thesis that the population of England and Wales had been and was still declining was false. While Price's support for the rebels made him unpopular in many quarters at home, and made his wife anxious for his safety, in America the opposite was true. His pamphlet Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution (1784) was well received in all the regions of the former colonies in which his denunciation of slavery did not make him unpopular.

In 1787 Price published Sermons on the Christian Doctrine and The Evidence for a Future Period of Improvement in the State of Mankind, which, as the title suggests, shows his optimistic enthusiasm for the doctrine of the indefinite perfectibility of mankind. This address was delivered at the Old Jewry on 25 April 1787 to mark the first anniversary of the founding of what came to be known as New College, Hackney. Price played a part in the founding of the college and it was expected that he would teach there. He did start to take classes but, as his health was declining, he found the strain too much and was glad to hand over his duties to his nephew George Cadogan Morgan.

Reform and revolution

Throughout the American War of Independence and afterwards, Price maintained an active interest in domestic political reform. He was engaged in the agitation for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and promoted the cause of parliamentary reform, notably the extension of the franchise, the abolition of corrupt practices, and the redistribution of constituencies to secure a more equitable representation. He was a founder member of the Society for Constitutional Reform (1780) and when the Society for Commemorating the Revolution in Great Britain (known as the Revolution Society) revived its activities, Price played a prominent part in its proceedings. He was invited to address the Revolution Society at the meeting held at Old Jewry on 4 November 1789. His address was published under the title A Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789). Price welcomed with great enthusiasm the opening events of the French Revolution, holding that the French were doing for themselves what the British had done in the revolution of 1688 and what the Americans had done in the War of Independence. In the evening of the same day at a dinner held by the society at the London tavern, Price moved a resolution congratulating the French national assembly and welcoming the prospect of a common participation in the blessings of civil and religious liberty by the ‘first two kingdoms in the world’ (Price, Discourse on the Love of our Country, 13). He also drafted the correspondence between the society and the national assembly.

Price's role in these proceedings and the publication of his address to the Revolution Society inflamed the wrath of Edmund Burke, who was provoked to write Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in which he assailed Price with vitriolic invective of the most uninhibited kind. The ferocity of the attack was thought by some to have contributed to Price's decline and death. This must remain doubtful as Price had been in failing health for some time. He did reply briefly yet effectively in a preface which he attached to the fourth edition of the discourse, and it was left to his friends Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Joseph Towers (who was morning preacher at the chapel at Newington Green from 1778 until 1799), and Thomas Paine to make lengthier and more studied replies. Price's political sympathies were in any case only one strand of his wide-ranging activities, which covered moral philosophy and theology, as well as probability theory, actuarial science, and demography.

Moral philosophy and theology

Price's moral philosophy was firmly grounded in a theistic framework, but although he maintained that it is God's will that we should obey the moral law and that God attaches grave penalties to disobedience, he was quite clear that the obligatoriness of the moral law is founded not in God's will but in the rectitude of the law itself. Following Ralph Cudworth he was able to reconcile this position with God's omnipotence by assuming that the moral law is part of God's nature to which his will is subordinate.

The main controversial purpose of Price's Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals (1758) was to establish the objectivity of moral judgement against the subjectivism of Francis Hutcheson and David Hume. To secure this position Price tried to show that moral judgement was a function of reason, which apprehends eternal truth, and not a function of feeling or sentiment. Other topics discussed were the universality of moral principles, the indefinability of some simple moral terms, such as ‘right’ and ‘ought’, the criteria of moral judgement, a critique of utilitarianism, the principle of subjective rectitude (namely, the principle that everyone ought to do what he thinks he ought to do, provided always that he has done his best to find out what his duty really is), and the principle of candour, that we have a duty to subject our opinions to rational criticism and actively search out the truth. In this work Price adopted a libertarian position, that every man is free in the sense that he has a real choice to do what he thinks is his duty, undetermined by any elements in his character or in the environment. Later in his career he entered into an amicable controversy with Priestley on this last topic, defending a position largely derived from Samuel Clarke against Priestley's position, which had much in common with that defended by Anthony Collins. The exchange of correspondence was published in 1778 under the title A Free Discussion of the Doctrines of Materialism and Philosophical Necessity.

There is an incoherence in Price's moral philosophy which has an important bearing on the interpretation of his political philosophy. On the one hand, as a rationalist he believed that moral principles are instances of necessary truth, parallel to the truths of mathematics, and as such are categorically binding, admitting of no exceptions; on the other hand, he was forced to allow that moral principles do sometimes conflict, and that some, at least, are defeasible. (It will be argued below that Burke was unfair in taking his political thought as operating simply at the level of abstract principles.) Price's claim that we should always do the action that we think is the most fitting does not remove the difficulty, for no generalization of what is most fitting in a particular situation can be represented as the apprehension of a general principle that is necessarily true.

Both in his practical life and in his thought Price lived under the superintending eye of providence. He believed that the existence of God and the nature of his attributes can be rationally demonstrated. The deity superintends the working of the universe, and though he has laid down the laws that govern the working of his creation, he still needs to intervene from time to time to correct any occasional deviations from the rule. Price distinguishes a particular providence from a general one, and in this way presents as divinely ordained both the general rule and the occasional intervention that is needed to correct a deviation. His theology thus accommodates Newtonian cosmology: a happy instance of a harmony between science and religion. It was the feasibility of divine intervention that made it possible for Price to defend the possibility of miracles in his dispute with David Hume.

From the omnipotence and the benevolence of the deity Price draws the conclusion that the deity does not allow anything to happen that ought not to happen. Every seeming calamity is tolerated because it is part of the divine purpose, and what appears to be evil in human life plays a role in the selection of those who are to enter into eternal life—our time on earth being just a period of probation. On the nature of redemption Price took an annihilationist position, which he might have derived from John Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). He did not think that the doctrine of predestination to eternal punishment was consistent with God's benevolence, and he was reluctant to adopt the doctrine of universal restoration, partly because he thought it unscriptural, and partly because he believed that its adoption would have antinomian tendencies. There are, however, some indications that towards the end of his life he was beginning to move towards universalism. In his early life he believed that the fate of the wicked would not be eternal punishment but oblivion. Price does not make it clear, however, how annihilationism is to be reconciled with the doctrine of the immortality of the human soul.

In his youth Price rebelled against the strictly orthodox Calvinism of his father and his uncle Samuel, and became an Arian. In Sermons on the Christian Doctrine he attempts to establish a middle way between the Calvinist orthodoxy of the elder generation and the Socinianism of his friend Joseph Priestley. He allows the pre-existence of Christ, but rejects the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, as well as the Socinian doctrine of the simple humanity of Christ. The implications of his Arianism for his moral philosophy are that neither the doctrine that man is saved by grace alone nor the doctrine that Christ saves simply through his teaching and his example is valid. For Price a man must contribute to his own salvation in trying to obey the moral law, but no man is worthy by his own efforts alone to merit eternal life. The efforts of the virtuous need to be complemented by the grace that has been made available to mankind by Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

There is a strong millennialist element in Price's theology. Like all good protestants who adopt the doctrine of sola scriptura he has to interpret the biblical prophecies, particularly those of Daniel and Revelation. The doctrine that this terrestrial life is primarily a life of probation, testing our worthiness for eternal life, is accompanied by the doctrine that God intervenes in human history to bring about a gradual improvement to make the world fit for the rule of Christ and his saints. Millennialism could thus be reconciled with belief in social progress. There are other unresolved tensions in Price's teaching, not least those that arise from his defence of a rationalist moral philosophy and his adherence at the same time to Christian teaching. If we can discover our duty simply by the exercise of our reason, then revelation is not essential. If we can achieve moral excellence by striving to do what we believe to be our duty, and if we are always free to do what we believe to be our duty, redemption does not of necessity depend upon grace; and if eternal life is the reward due to moral excellence, the interposition of Christ is essential only on the assumption that in practice we will always be found to be wanting in some respect or other.

Probability theory, assurance, and demography

When Thomas Bayes, a dissenting minister and a mathematician who gave his name to the theorem of inverse probability, died in 1761, it was found that several of his manuscripts remained unpublished. His relatives asked Price, a friend of Bayes, to examine his papers, and when he did so Price realized their importance. He edited An Essay towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances, adding an introduction of his own, and submitted it in the form of a letter to John Canton to the Royal Society, where it was read on 23 December 1763. Price submitted a further development of the topic under the title A Demonstration of the Second Rule to the Royal Society, where it was read on 6 December 1764. Price believed that this work was important not just for the contribution it made to the development of the theory of probability but also because of the contribution he thought it made to the study of induction, and the support he believed it gave to arguments for the existence of God.

Not long after his election to the Royal Society on 5 December 1765 Price was invited to assist the Society for Equitable Assurances. This society, which had been founded in 1762, sold annuities which were attractive to those who wished to provide for their declining years and for their dependants. The society needed assistance on actuarial matters—the calculation of rates to be paid for reversions, and on demographic trends, particularly those concerning the expectation of life. Price worked hard to provide what was needed on both fronts and the fruits of his work were published in Observations on Reversionary Payments in 1771. The book was an immediate success. The second edition appeared in 1772 and the third a year later. A fourth edition, expanded to two volumes, was published in 1783 and Price was working on the fifth edition before he died, this edition and two others being completed by his nephew William Morgan.

The significance of Price's work is much wider than the contribution it made to the success of the Equitable. Many assurance societies were started at this time and Price was able to show that some of the schemes which they operated were ill-founded. Because of defects in their computations or information on the expectation of life, they were likely to promise early annuitants too much, leaving insufficient funds for later claimants. Price criticized the plans of these societies, and in doing so prevented the misery that would have befallen the victims of unsound schemes. On 29 October 1771 the directors of the Friendly Society of Annuitants wrote to Price to say that on receiving his letter of 13 July criticizing their scheme they had decided to dissolve their society. Price helped the Equitable in many other ways, not least in the organization of the office. After some resistance he was able to convince the society that there was no justification for charging women higher premiums, as their expectation of life was longer than that of the men. He suggested introducing medical examinations to avert the dangers of ‘bad lives’, and he trained his nephew William Morgan, who was appointed actuary to the society in 1775. Thereafter the society thrived, and Morgan, with Price's help, produced the Northampton tables, which remained in use for more than a century.

While he was helping the Equitable, Price also became involved in projects for promoting social insurance. In 1772 Francis Maseres published A Proposal for Establishing Life-Annuities in Parishes for the Benefit of the Industrious Poor. The scheme he advocated was a simple one: parishes in town and country would be empowered to sell to persons during their working life annuities which would be paid when they reached the age of retirement. The scheme was designed to encourage people to make provision for their old age, and in doing so help to reduce the increasing burden of providing for the poor. A bill embodying the scheme was presented to parliament, and Price was invited to draw up the actuarial tables that its operation would require. The bill passed its third reading in the Commons on 5 March 1773, but it failed in the Lords, due largely to the intervention of the lord chancellor, Camden, who feared that any failures of the scheme would lay intolerable burdens on parish rates.

Another scheme in which Price became involved was to provide relief for the poor in times of sickness, disablement, and old age, promoted by John Acland, rector of Broad Clyst in Devon. This was not a voluntary scheme: all men and women, with only a few exceptions, would be required during their working lives to subscribe to a scheme that would provide assistance for them when their working lives were over or when they were incapacitated. More ambitious than Maseres's earlier scheme, it was also a pioneering attempt to address the need to provide relief for the poor in times of sickness as well as in old age. Acland published the details of his scheme in A Plan for Rendering the Poor Independent of Public Contribution (1786). A bill embodying the scheme was prepared, and once again Price was invited to draw up the actuarial table. The bill, under the title ‘A bill for the more effective relief of the poor’, was presented to parliament in 1789, but, though it passed the Commons, like its predecessor it failed in the Lords. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France Edmund Burke derided Price as ‘the calculating divine’; his contempt was misplaced, for in these schemes of private and social insurance Price had given a vivid illustration of the ways in which the skills of the actuary could be brought to bear on social problems, and had shown how well-founded schemes could prevent suffering and meet the needs of those in distress. His involvement in these schemes and other attempts to relieve distress by his fellow dissenters such as Joseph Priestley and Thomas Percival give the lie to the accusation that the dissenters lacked compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged.

One parallel development of Price's interest in financial matters was his advocacy of sinking fund operations to reduce the national debt. In the first edition of Observations on Reversionary Payments he drew attention to the dangers that would imperil the financial health of the nation if the debt were not reduced, and he expanded his arguments in a separate publication, An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the National Debt (1774). During his long friendship with the earl of Shelburne, Price wrote many papers dealing mainly with what he regarded as the best way of raising public loans and advocating ways of reducing debt. He also criticized the fashionable policy of raising loans on substantial discounts on the nominal capital. Shelburne was sympathetic to Price's schemes but was not in office long enough to put them into effect. He was able, however, to secure the interest of William Pitt (1759–1806), and Price was summoned to Downing Street to advise. When the Sinking Fund Act was passed in 1786 to much acclaim, William Morgan was incensed that his uncle had not received recognition for the part he had played in the development of the legislation. Price himself does not seem to have been as troubled as his nephew, but he was doubly unfortunate. Although he did not receive applause when the scheme was thought to be beneficial, long after his death, when the mismanagement of the fund became known, much of the blame was laid upon what was thought to be his misleading advocacy.

Another offshoot of Price's interest in demography was his thesis that the population of England and Wales had been and was still declining—in sad contrast to the American colonies, in some of which the population was doubling every twenty-five years or even less. Price turned out to be mistaken, as the census of 1801 made clear, and his reputation suffered. Coming to his defence William Morgan maintained that Price had been in error because he had taken the returns of the window tax on trust. Had these not been corrupt his methods of calculation would have led him to the truth.

Political philosophy

In the pamphlet he wrote in defence of the American patriots, Price distinguished four different types of liberty: physical, moral, religious, and civil. Physical liberty is the ability to make one's own decisions and not to be determined by forces over which one has no control; moral liberty is the ability to act in accordance with one's conscience; religious liberty is the ability to worship God according to one's own convictions and not to be disadvantaged in any way in so doing; civil liberty is the enjoyment of the right to govern oneself. Self-government means different things: it includes enjoying one's natural rights, participating in the government of one's own society, and being a member of a community that governs itself and is not subject to the will of another community. Whereas Joseph Priestley made a clear distinction between civil liberty and political liberty, allowing that the former can be enjoyed without the latter, Price was so adamant that political liberty, that is, participation in the government of one's own society, is essential to the enjoyment of civil liberty that he built it into his definition of the term.

The presentation of the different kinds of liberty as different forms of self-government is the basis of Price's strategy for defending the patriots; since every nation has the right to govern itself the American colonies had the right to be independent if they so wished. Price did not want to see the dismemberment of the British empire; on the contrary, he hoped some way could be found of converting it into a confederation of self-governing communities, but this could only be a legitimate solution if the Americans consented. Price expands the notion implicit in the doctrine of the social contract, that a person can be subjected to authority only by his own consent, to embrace the idea that no man is to be subjected to a government in the operation of which he does not in some way participate. To be free is to be subject to no other will than one's own. The main core of the argument is not that a man is more likely to be secure in the enjoyment of his natural rights if he has some part to play in government, nor that democratic government is more efficient and more equitable than other forms, but rather that self-government is required by the demands of moral personality. Morally speaking, a man is not fully a man if he does not enjoy the right and discharge the duty of governing himself.

Price was heavily criticized by Edmund Burke for drawing political prescriptions from abstract ideas and principles and for ignoring the empirical element in political judgement. The charge is unfounded, as a detailed examination of his writings will show, but it has to be conceded that some of Price's expressions can easily give rise to the belief that he thought that political judgement is simply the application of a priori principles. Just as in moral philosophy he admitted that moral principles are defeasible, so in his political writing he allowed that the application of the principle has to be modified to accommodate conflicting considerations. A case in point is to be found in his discussion of the extension of the franchise. In principle, he maintains, every man has the right to participate in the government of his society, but in practice the vote has to be restricted to those capable of independent judgement. There is a danger that some will sell the vote, and to prevent this the vote has to be restricted to those unlikely to fall into temptation. Full participation is always something to be aimed at, but it may not be wise to attempt its realization in all circumstances.

In A Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789), his last publication, Price summarized his political credo in a list of what he believed all men have a natural right to enjoy.
First, the right to liberty of conscience in religious matters; secondly, the right to resist power when abused; and thirdly, the right to chuse our own government, to cashier them for misconduct, and to frame a government for our selves. (Price, Political Writings, 89–90)
The most telling implication of Price's defence of self-government in its different forms, is the contribution it made to the assault on imperialism, on the idea that one nation is justified in imposing its will on another, and that there is glory to be found in conquest and domination. Price's enduring legacy is the clarity with which he stated his main thesis: that the true love of country lies in the defence of a system of natural rights, the enjoyment of which promotes the equal status and prosperity of all peoples.

Correspondence and death

In addition to his published works, Price's letter writing contributed to his influential position. The last entry Price wrote in his shorthand journal (6 February 1791) reads ‘I should be much happier than I am had I no letters to write. They are indeed a burden to me’ (‘Richard Price's journal’, ed. Thomas, 396). This cri de coeur reminds us that Price was heavily engaged in correspondence throughout his life. He led a relatively quiet life as a dissenting minister in the seclusion of Newington Green or Hackney. He travelled little, other than visits to his family in south Wales, occasional visits to Shelburne at Bowood, or for ‘a recruit of spirits’ at Brighthelmstone (Brighton). So it is remarkable that he established such a diverse and wide-ranging set of correspondents.

Through Shelburne, Price had access to Chatham and to William Pitt the younger, who sought his advice on sinking fund matters. His American correspondents included Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who, when he was in Paris, kept Price up to date with political developments in France. John Adams, who, when he was minister-plenipotentiary at the court of St James, attended Price's chapel at Hackney with his family, was a close friend and sometimes candid correspondent. Other American correspondents included such figures as Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), founder of Dickinson College, Pennsylvania; Charles Chauncey (1705–1787); Henry Laurens (1724–1792), minister of the First Church at Boston; Joseph Willard (1738–1779), Hollis professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard; and also Jonathan Trumbull (1710–1785), governor of Connecticut (1768–84). Price's correspondents in France included A. R. J. Turgot, A. B. L. R. Mirabeau (whom Price met when he went to London), and L. A. La Rochefoucauld d'Enville. As might be expected he had close contact with his fellow dissenting ministers: these included not only Joseph Priestley but also Theophilus Lindsey, John Disney, George Walker, and Thomas Belsham. He was also friendly with such Anglicans as William Adams, master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and John Howard, the prison reformer.

Price's sudden death was caused by a chill caught while attending the funeral of a fellow dissenter (and funerals, he had earlier written, had the effect of sending the mourners after the departed). The chill led to the complication of a bladder complaint, from which he died on 19 April 1791. Price was buried at Bunhill Fields burial-ground, London, on 26 April 1791.


In many of the fields of enquiry in which Price was influential in his lifetime his reputation died with him, and interest in his work lay dormant throughout the nineteenth century to be revived only in the twentieth century. With the exception of his work in the actuarial sciences, and the regard in which his memory was held by Unitarians, his work was not republished after his death. There are many reasons for this. Even among Unitarians, the Arianism that he defended yielded ground to the Socinianism espoused by Joseph Priestley: the doctrine of the simple humanity of Christ, though endowing him with miraculous powers, became more attractive than Arianism. In moral philosophy his objectivism and rational intuitionism was seriously challenged by Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith; his rational intuitionism gave way to the doctrines that grounded moral judgement in feelings and sentiments, and the doctrine that a moral system was composed of a plurality of principles of obligation gave way to the kind of utilitarianism advocated by Jeremy Bentham. His reputation as a demographer was marred by his notoriously mistaken thesis that the British population had been and was still declining, and his authority in financial matters suffered after his death, no doubt unjustly, because of the failure of the attempt to reduce the national debt by sinking fund procedures.

The greatest blow, however, came from the hands of Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke acquired an immense reputation throughout Europe largely due to his predictions on the course of the French Revolution, and this success lent weight and authority to many other elements in his analysis, including his denunciation of Price, the radicals, and ‘the rights of man’. The admiration for Burke in these respects concealed the dangers that lay in his downgrading of human reason. It has to be conceded that Price's rationalism was too optimistic in two respects: he exaggerated the extent to which problems could be solved and difficulties overcome by rational criticism, and he exaggerated the extent to which men were prepared to listen to and be moved by an appeal to rational principles and reasonable considerations. Furthermore, Price was not alive, as Burke certainly was, to the dangers inherent in attempting large-scale comprehensive reforms. He did not appreciate the degree to which habit, custom, prejudice, and inertia governed communities, and the extent to which, when traditional loyalties were destroyed, stability and order could be maintained only by coercion and terror. Yet, despite Burke's views, liberal-democratic societies have enshrined many of the things that Price defended: the idea that the state and social institutions are to be regarded as the servants of the whole people, that all men are entitled to participate to some extent in the government of their society, and that for political purposes the people are not constituted by a relatively small élite.

Interest in Price's moral philosophy revived in the twentieth century, particularly in the work of H. A. Prichard and W. D. Ross, and this was considerably strengthened by the publication in 1948 of D. D. Raphael's edition of A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals, which prompted several studies. The first biography of Price was by his nephew William Morgan, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Richard Price, D.D. F.R.S. (1815). Apart from Fowler's article in the Dictionary of National Biography, Price's biography remained virtually untouched until Roland Thomas published Richard Price, Philosopher and Apostle of Liberty (1924). This pioneering work was followed in 1952 by Carl B. Cone, Torchbearer of Freedom: the Influence of Richard Price on Eighteenth Century Thought, and in 1977 The Honest Mind by D. O. Thomas appeared. These works stimulated interest in Price's contributions to a wide range of subjects, including political philosophy, probability theory, insurance, demography, and finance, as well as in his moral philosophy. In 1977 the Price–Priestley Newsletter was founded, to be superseded in 1982 by the journal Enlightenment and Dissent, which remains a focus for the study of Price's thought.

D. O. Thomas


D. O. Thomas, J. Stephens, and P. A. L. Jones, A bibliography of the works of Richard Price (1993) · W. B. Peach, The ethical foundations of the American revolution (1977) · R. Price, Four dissertations, 2nd edn (1768); repr. with a new introduction by J. Stephens (1990) · J. Priestley and R. Price, A free discussion of the doctrines of materialism and philosophical necessity (1778); facs. edn with introduction by J. Stephens (1994) · The correspondence of Richard Price, ed. W. B. Peach and D. O. Thomas, 3 vols. (1983–94) · ‘Richard Price's journal for the period 25 March 1787 to 6 February 1791’, ed. D. O. Thomas, National Library of Wales Journal, 21 (1979–80), 366–413 [deciphered by B. Thomas] · W. Morgan, Memoirs of the life of the Rev. Richard Price (1815) · R. Thomas, Richard Price: philosopher and apostle of liberty (1924) · C. B. Cone, Torchbearer of freedom (1952) · H. Laboucheix, Richard Price (1970) · D. O. Thomas, The honest mind (1977) · M. Fitzpatrick, ‘Richard Price and the revolution society’, Enlightenment and Dissent, 10 (1991), 35–50 · J. Fruchtman, jr., The apocalyptic politics of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley (1983) · D. V. Glass, Numbering the people: the eighteenth-century population controversy (1973) · E. L. Hargreaves, The national debt (1930) · A. Lincoln, Some political and social ideas of English dissent (1938) · M. E. Ogborn, Equitable assurances … the Equitable Life Assurance Society, 1762–1962 (1962) · K. Pearson, The history of statistics in the 17th and 18th centuries (1978) · M. Thorncroft, Trust in freedom: the history of Newington Green Unitarian Church, 1708–1958 (1958) · GM, 1st ser., 61 (1791), 389–90, 486 · R. Price, A review of the principal questions in morals, 3rd edn (1787); repr., ed. D. D. Raphael (1948); repr. (1974) · R. Price, Political writings, ed. D. O. Thomas (1991)


American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, corresp. · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. · DWL, corresp. · NL Wales, journal · NRA, corresp. and papers |  American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, letters to Benjamin Franklin · N. Yorks. CRO, corresp. with Christopher Wyvill · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Monboddo · NL Wales, letters to Sir William Petty, first marquess of Lansdowne · NL Wales, Shelburne MSS · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Lansdowne


J. Sayers, caricature, etching, pubd 1790, NPG · A. Scratch, engraving, pubd 1791, NPG · caricature, etching, pubd 1791, NPG · T. Holloway, line engraving, pubd 1793 (after B. West, 1788), NPG [see illus.] · B. West, oils, Equitable Life Assurance Society, London; repro. in Thomas, Richard Price · by or after B. West, portrait, RS · caricature, etching, NPG

Wealth at death  

bequests of over £3000; house in Leadenhall Street: will, ‘Price's journal’, ed. Thomas