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A Treasure Trove of Evidence in a Single Box

Processing archivist, page in the reading room. Prior to relocating to Philadelphia from the Boston area, was the curator of...More

Inside the vault of the American Philosophical Society, almost hidden in the back corner sits a single box with the papers of Richard Price, 1767-1790. Don’t be fooled by the size of the collection though, because it holds a treasure trove of correspondence between Dr. Price in England and men who were instrumental in forming a new government in North America. The collection spans the years leading to the American and French Revolutions and the early years of the American republic, exposing the thoughts of leaders from both sides of the Atlantic. It includes an accounting of the struggles between states when a new government without bishops, nobles, or kings was forming to replace what had been the law of the Eastern seaboard for 150 years. The collection also contains letters from Thomas Jefferson, writing in Paris in 1789, about the turmoil immediately prior to the French Revolution. Each letter contains details about this era that are often left out of history books, probably because there is so much to tell.

Who was Richard Price? He was born in Wales and served as a dissenting minister in a congregation at Newington Green, outside of London. Dissenters were so called, because they refused to accept the doctrine of the Church of England and lobbied to repeal the Test Act of 1661 that restricted public offices and education in England to members of the Church of England. He was a founding member of the Unitarian Church, a brilliant mathematician and in fact, Actuarial Science is based on his work.  As a result of his mathematical theorems, Benjamin Franklin sponsored Price’s invitation to the Royal Society in 1765, and in 1785 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.

He was a true friend of the Americans and in 1776, published a pamphlet, Observations on the Nature and Value of Civil Liberty and the War with America.” For that, he was considered a dangerous radical at home, with enemies in high places. In one letter he wrote, “Our rulers trust in their power to corrupt, divide and intimidate” However, he also said, “I have friends in both Houses of Parliament who are some of the first friends of America, and I wish to give them the best intelligence.” May 1775

Samples from the collection:

“….money …is unconstitutionally taken out of our pockets and wickedly made use of to annihilate our privileges by charter and rights as Englishmen.”  Charles Chauncey October 5, 1772

“…consequences of the coercive measures must in a year or two be so felt in this kingdom as to rout the present despotic ministry, and to bring in new men who will establish the rights and liberties of the colonies.” Richard Price February 25, 1775

“The military gentry …despise the Americans as cowards….In this they may find themselves mistaken, to their cost.” John Winthrop April 10, 1775

Concerning commerce and society: “…..cut off one half, if not more, of the useless fopperies we import from Europe.” Jonathan Jackson August 8, 1785

Below is a political cartoon depicting Richard Price by James Gillray: ”Smelling out a rat; -or- the atheistical-revolutionist disturbed in his midnight "calculations". (American Philosophical Society Collection: PNE 71 G41w v.1)The cartoon represents Gillray’s thoughts of the two men, but others may object to the depiction of both Price and Burke.

political cartoon
”Dr. Price, seated in an armchair at a small writing-desk, turns in horror towards a vision emerging from clouds : Burke is represented by an enormous spectacled nose which rests on the back of Price's chair and by two gigantic hands, one holding a crown, the other a cross, both of which are surrounded by star-shaped haloes. The spectacles support (between the crown and the cross): 'Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in certain Societies in London, by the Rt honble Edmund Burke.' Price's pen drops from his hand; the paper before him is headed 'On the Benifits of Anarchy Regicide Atheism'. The table is lit by a lamp with a naked flame and reflector. Against his chair leans an open book: 'Treatise on the ill effects of Order & Government in Society, and on the absurdity of serving God, & honoring the King'. Beside it lies a pamphlet: 'Sermon preached Novr 4 1789. by Dr R. Price, before the Revolution Society'. On the wall above Price's head is a picture: 'Death of Charles Ist or, the Glory of Great Britain'; a headsman raises his axe to smite the King whose head is on the block; men with pikes are indicated in the background. After the title is etched : 'Vide. A troubled - conscience.' 3 December 1790” Caption text from the British Museum catalog, originally from M.Dorothy George, 'Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum', VI, 1938.