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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

The outbreak of the French Revolution stimulated a huge “pamphlet war” on its merits and dangers. The OLL website has a “Debate” page which lists the works of the major participants in this debate: Richard Price, Edmund Burke, Joseph Priestley, James Mackintosh, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Catharine Macaulay. Macaulay’s contribution is noteworthy for being by a women (along with Wollstonecraft) and for raising one of the perennial questions of political philosophy “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (how is one to be defended against the very guardians who have been appointed to guard us?). The irony here is that this is the very question Burke posed in 1756 in an early work but which he seems to have forgotten in 1790. There is also more than a hint of public choice theory in the way she refers to the private interests of those in power.

Other quotes about Politics & Liberty:

21 August, 2006

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Catharine Macaulay supported the French Revolution because there were sound "public choice" reasons for not vesting supreme power in the hands of one’s social or economic "betters" (1790)

Read the full quote in context here.

Catharine Macaulay, the English republican historian, was one of the first to criticize Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution. She argued that there were sound "public choice" reasons for not vesting supreme power in the hands of one’s social or economic "betters":

To this very ingenious reasoning, and these refined distinctions between natural and social rights, the people may possibly object, that in delivering themselves passively over to the unrestrained rule of others on the plea of controling their inordinate inclinations and passions, they deliver themselves over to men, who, as men, and partaking of the same nature as themselves, are as liable to be governed by the same principles and errors; and to men who, by the great superiority of their station, having no common interest with themselves which might lead them to preserve a salutary check over their vices, must be inclined to abuse in the grossest manner their trust.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

To this very ingenious reasoning, and these refined distinctions between natural and social rights, the people may possibly object, that in delivering themselves passively over to the unrestrained rule of others on the plea of controling their inordinate inclinations and passions, they deliver themselves over to men, who, as men, and partaking of the same nature as themselves, are as liable to be governed by the same principles and errors; and to men who, by the great superiority of their station, having no common interest with themselves which might lead them to preserve a salutary check over their vices, must be inclined to abuse in the grossest manner their trust. To proceed with Mr. Burke’s argument—should the rich and opulent in the nation plead their right to the predominant sway in society, from its being a necessary circumstance to guard their wealth from the gripe of poverty, the men in an inferior state of fortune might argue, that should they give way to this plea in all its extent, their moderate possessions would be exposed to the burden of unequal taxes; for the rich, when possessed of the whole authority of the state, would be sure to take the first care of themselves, if they should not be tempted to secure an exoneration of all burthens, by dividing the spoils of the public; and that the abuse of such high trusts must necessarily arise, because to act by selfish considerations, is in the very constitution of our nature.

To such pleas, so plausibly urged on all sides, I know of no rational objection; nor can I think of any expedient to remove the well grounded apprehensions of the different interests which compose a commonwealth, than a fair and equal representation of the whole people;—a circumstance which appears very peculiarly necessary in a mixed form of government, where the democratic part of the constitution will ever be in danger of being overborne by the energy attending on its higher constituent parts.

[More works by Catharine Macaulay (1731 – 1791)]