Richard Price

The English Nonconformist minister and political philosopher Richard Price (1723-1791), who supported the American and French revolutions, devoted his life primarily to preaching.

Richard Price was born at Tynton, Glamorganshire, on Feb. 23, 1723. The son of a dissenting minister, he himself served as Unitarian minister to congregations in London, Stoke Newington, and Hackney for about 50 years.

Price's major work in moral philosophy is The Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (1758). The central issue with which this work is concerned is the question: why is an action right? Right, Price argues, is a real character of actions that is discerned by the understanding rather than by a moral sense. Right and wrong are simple ideas because they are not finally definable. Like Samuel Clarke, Price held that right and wrong are immutable. Price argues, in part, that both introspection and common sense indicate that rightness and wrongness are necessary truths known through the understanding by intuition.

Price's Four Dissertations (1767) included a vindication of the probability of miracles in opposition to David Hume's view of a "complete impossibility of miracles." Price and Hume, evidence from letters indicates, remained good friends in spite of their differences. Price and Joseph Priestley, also good friends, although philosophical opponents, published jointly A Free Discussion of the Doctrines of Materialism and Philosophical Necessity (1778). This work is a group of letters in which Priestley defends materialism and philosophical necessity, while Price attacks both of them.

An outstanding mathematician, Price was chosen a fellow of the Royal Society in 1765 for his essay resolving a difficult problem concerning probability. A few years later he applied his own solution to actuarial questions in Observations on Reversionary Payments (1771). In this work he laid the foundation for a modern system of life insurance and pensions.

Price's contribution to financial management was also notable. At the request of William Pitt the Younger, he formulated a program for dealing with the national debt in An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the National Debt (1772). His ability in this area was so widely acknowledged by his American friends, including Benjamin Franklin, that Price was asked by the U.S. Congress to advise the new government on finance in 1778.

Price's most widely read works were those supporting the American and French revolutions. His Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America (1776), Additional Observations (1777), and The Love of Liberty (1789), the last sermon supporting the French Revolution, were all widely read in England, the United States, and France. Price died on April 19, 1791.

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Further Reading on Richard Price

The most thorough analysis of Price's theories is Carl B. Cone, Torchbearer of Freedom: The Influence of Richard Price on Eighteenth Century Thought (1952). Also useful is Antonio S. Cua, Reason and Virtue: A Study in the Ethic of Richard Price (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Laboucheix, Henri, Richard Price as moral philosopher and political theorist, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation at the Taylor Institution, 1982.

Price, Richard, The correspondence of Richard Price, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press; Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1983-1994.

Thomas, David Oswald, Richard Price, 1723-1791, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1976.