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The Enlightened Joseph Priestley

A Study of His Life and Work from 1773 to 1804

Robert E. Schofield


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The Enlightened Joseph Priestley

A Study of His Life and Work from 1773 to 1804

Robert E. Schofield

“Robert E. Schofield's last volume of his biography of Priestley devotes detailed chapters both to philosophical doctrines and to the extraordinary controversies they engendered. No author has done a better job at laying out the complexities of a materialism that Priestley saw as compatible with Christianity and of a necessitarianism he thought would rescue Protestantism from the absurdity of Calvinist doctrine. . . . He has written in a masterly way about a subject that is uniquely his own.”


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Winner of the 2006 Roy G. Neville Prize for Biography Awarded by the Chemical Heritage Foundation to recognize and outstanding monograph in the areas of the chemical and molecular sciences.

In The Enlightened Joseph Priestley Robert Schofield completes his two-volume biography of one of the great figures of the English Enlightenment. The first volume, published in 1997, covered the first forty years of Joseph Priestley’s life in England. In this second volume, Schofield surveys the mature years of Priestley, including the achievements that were to make him famous—the discovery of oxygen, the defenses of Unitarianism, and the political liberalism that characterized his later life. He also recounts Priestley’s flight to Pennsylvania in 1794 and the final years of his life spent along the Susquehanna in Northumberland. Together, the two volumes will stand as the standard biography of Priestley for years to come.

Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), a contemporary and friend of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, exceeded even these polymaths in the breadth of his curiosity and learning. Yet Priestley is often portrayed in negative terms, as a restless intellect, incapable of confining himself to any single task, without force or originality, and marked by hasty and superficial thought. In The Enlightened Joseph Priestley, he emerges as a man who was more than a lucky empiricist in science, more than a naive political liberal, more than an exhaustive compiler of superficial evidence in militant support of Unitarianism. In fact, he was learned in an extraordinary variety of subjects, from grammar, education, aesthetics, metaphysics, politics, and theology to natural philosophy. Priestley was, in fact, a man of the Enlightenment.

“Robert E. Schofield's last volume of his biography of Priestley devotes detailed chapters both to philosophical doctrines and to the extraordinary controversies they engendered. No author has done a better job at laying out the complexities of a materialism that Priestley saw as compatible with Christianity and of a necessitarianism he thought would rescue Protestantism from the absurdity of Calvinist doctrine. . . . He has written in a masterly way about a subject that is uniquely his own.”
“Robert Schofield has done this remarkable man proud. Others may write shorter and perhaps more popular biographies of Joseph Priestley, but they will do so in the shadow of this magisterial work.”
“Undaunted by the great mass, intellectual range and contextual variety of Joseph Priestley’s work and life, Robert Schofield deserves our lasting gratitude for bringing to bear a scholarly lifetime’s knowledge of his subject in this concluding volume of his intellectual biography.”
“Schofield succeeds brilliantly.”

Robert E. Schofield is Professor of History Emeritus at Iowa State University, where he was also Director of the Program in History of Technology and Science. The first volume of his Priestley biography, The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley, was published by Penn State Press in 1997. He is also the editor of A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) (1966).


List of Illustrations

List of Abbreviations


Part I Calne, 1773–1780

1. Shelburne and Politics

2. Religion and Theology

3. "Common–Sense" and Associationism

4. Matter and Spirit

5. Philosophical Necessity

6. Observations on Air I and II: Oxygen

7. Observations on Air III and Natural Philosophy I

Part II Birmingham, 1780–1791

8. Science and the Lunar Society

9. Science and the Chemical Revolution

10. Religion

11. Theology

12. Education, Metaphysics, History

13. Politics and the Birmingham Riots

Part III Clapton/Hackney (1791–1794) and Northumberland, Pennsylvania (1794–1804)

14. Politics, Science, Education, Religion

15. Emigration to the United States, Politics, and Education

16. Science

17. Religion, Death

Appendix: Family



Part I

Calne, 1773–1780

Chapter 1

Shelburne and Politics

In 1806 Joseph Priestley was stigmatized as a presumptuous provincial who had prodigiously overrated himself. Even the nominal part of this criticism was singularly ill conceived. Though Priestley had, it is true, lived more than 90 percent of his life in the provinces—or, worse, in the United States—he was cosmopolitan in a way that Francis Jeffrey, author of that critique, could never comprehend. By the time of his death in 1804, Priestley was a member of every major scientific society in the world and friend or correspondent of major scientific, intellectual, and political personages in many different countries. Author of more than 150 books, pamphlets, and articles, he had engaged successfully in controversy with theological, philosophical, and political opponents and participated in the founding of British Unitarianism, pneumatic chemistry, and the philosophical schools of utilitarianism and associationism. Most of these distinctions were achieved after 1773, when, at the age of forty, Priestley was thrust from a nominal provinciality onto the national scene.

It was a role, however, for which his previous experiences had well prepared him. The opportunity to move from his post as Dissenting minister in Leeds to become companion to William Petty, Lord Shelburne, was merely recognition of a status his achievements had already earned. Yet nothing in Priestley’s background or experience could have prepared him for the social world of Lord Shelburne. Son of a lower middle-class cloth finisher, student and teacher at Dissenting academies, nonconformist minister at provincial chapels, he had spent his life in modest surroundings and moderate circumstances (at best). He had acquired cultured and sophisticated friends, Thomas Bentley, Benjamin Franklin, Theophilus Lindsey, Josiah Wedgwood, and others, but they too were of the middle class. William Petty, Earl of Shelburne and Baron Wycombe, by contrast, was one of the wealthiest members of the British aristocracy, with family estates at Bowood, Wiltshire and Wycome Abbey, Buckinghamshire, and other properties in England and Ireland.

But though Shelburne was, by title and wealth, in the English aristocracy, by background, education, and experience, he was not of it. Born in Dublin in 1737 as William Fitzmaurice, cadet grandson of the Earl of Kerry, he had spent his early years in the cultural isolation of the family estate in south Ireland. In 1751 his situation was changed dramatically when his father inherited the estates and other property of a maternal uncle, Henry Petty, Earl of Shelburne, on condition that he adopt the Petty name and arms. On his father’s death in 1761, William Fitzmaurice, now William Petty, became Earl of Shelburne in the Irish peerage and Baron Wycome in the English. Although he served with distinction as an officer in the British Army during the Seven Years’ War, he had otherwise none of the social conditioning or family associations common to his peers. Not until his marriage, in 1765, to Lady Sophia Carteret, daughter of the late Lord Granville, can he have felt comfortable in his entrée into English society, and all of his life he was stigmatized for his affected, insinuating manner.

For many years Shelburne was to feel most comfortable in his role while traveling as an English “Milord” in France. When his wife died, in 1771, he escaped to France in the company of Isaac Barré. Barré, however, was not at ease in mixed polite society and Shelburne began to seek a companion. On the advice of Richard Price, and with the laudable ambition to serve also as a patron of learning, he selected Joseph Priestley, but there was a difficulty. Neither Shelburne nor Priestley was clear as to what Priestley’s new duties were to be. In 1771 Shelburne had been looking for someone to combine the positions of companion and tutor. When, in 1772, he decided to become Priestley’s patron, he employed Thomas Jervis as tutor; Priestley was to be companion and pensioner. Priestley’s response to the offer frustrated Shelburne’s good intentions: “I really think it would not be in my power to render his Lordship any services equivalent to the recompense which, in prudence, I ought to expect . . . and I could not satisfy myself with receiving a salary, without rendering what should appear to myself an equivalent service.”

As that salary was to be £;250 per year, something more than flattering equivocation had to be offered to satisfy Priestley’s bourgeois conscience. The result was the creation of a position as companion-librarian and supervisor of the tutor. Most of Priestley’s labors directly in Shelburne’s service occurred after he had demonstrated an incapacity to act in the role for which Shelburne had chiefly employed him. During the first year of their association, the novelty of the relationship may have concealed differences in temperament. Certainly Shelburne had no cause to regret his role as patron. Even before leaving Leeds, Priestley showed some experiments to a visitor recommended to him by Shelburne—a Mr. Fromond, who was to translate the “Observations” into Italian, c. 1774. In September 1773 Priestley was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society for his 1772 papers on Pyrmont water and on airs. Shelburne’s association with Benjamin Franklin was undoubtedly warmer in consequence of his employment of Priestley, and, throughout the period from late November 1772 through 1774, the Abbé Morellet, whom Shelburne had met in Paris and greatly admired, noted his respect and that of Trudaine de Montigny for Priestley and his enthusiasm for the establishing of Priestley at Bowood.

Then, in late autumn 1774, Shelburne traveled to the continent, taking Priestley with him as a companion. Shelburne’s political career was then at a low ebb, leaving him at loose ends and frustrated by his inability to moderate ministerial coercion of the American colonies. That surely was the major factor in Shelburne’s desire to escape England again in travel, the recent death of Louis XV of France providing a convenient excuse to examine the new political situation there. Priestley and Shelburne toured the low countries, along the Rhine, visiting Dusseldorf, Cologne, Bonn, Coblentz, and Mannheim, journeying on into Alsace and Lorraine and thence into France, where, finally, they spent a month in Paris. It was Priestley’s first (and only) trip into Europe and he seems to have enjoyed most of it—as well he should have, for he saw it under the best of auspices.


This little excursion made me more sensible than I should otherwise have been of the benefit of foreign travel. . . . The very sight of new countries, new buildings, new customs, &c., and the very hearing of an unintelligible new language [Priestley read, but did not speak, French and German], gives new ideas, and tends to enlarge the mind. . . . I saw every thing to the greatest advantage, and without any anxiety or trouble, and had an opportunity of seeing and conversing with every person of eminence, wherever we came; the political characters by his lordship’s connexions, and the literary ones by my own.

<end ext>

Priestley’s journal of the trip, in the form of letters written to Shelburne’s sons, reveals the insular middle-class Englishman, comparing the state of farming, the buildings, the appearance and manners of the people, the nature of the inns, to what he was familiar with in England. He dutifully accompanied Shelburne on state visits to dignitaries and to see paintings, cathedrals, and religious services. In Paris he went to salons with Shelburne, including those of the Baron d’Holbach, Turgot, and Trudaine. Soon, however, he tired of public spectacles and assemblies, describing them as insipid and irksome. “I am quite tired of the idleness in which I spend my time here, and long exceedingly to be about my experiments or some composition.”

In fact, Priestley begged to be excused. Leaving Shelburne to attend the social activities by himself, he spent his evenings at the hotel with John Hycinth Magellan (Magelhaens) as his interpreter, entertaining people who came to see him. He even “chose to return” to England before Lord Shelburne and, once there, reported of France: “Upon the whole, I thought the country by no means a desireable one to live in, or to stay much in, and I wonder much at the taste of my countrymen, who spend so much of their time, and of their money, there.” This is scarcely the behavior, or the attitude, of a companion, and it is not to be wondered at that this changed with Shelburne’s return to England. Priestley performed his tasks and experiments at Bowood, or in London, as Shelburne moved from one to the other. Increasingly, though, the two did not seem to travel together. When next he went to Paris, Shelburne took James Townsend. The direction the relationship was taking is suggested in Richard Price’s letter to Shelburne on his leaving London for Bowood, 31 October 1778: “Should your Lordship see Dr. Priestley, deliver my rememberances to him.”

When the relationship was finally dissolved, early in 1780, Samuel Vaughan wrote to Benjamin Franklin, “the two characters were such as did not understand the one the other. The one did not comprehend enough the nature & merit of a speculative scholar, nor the other the situation and difficulties of a political actor.” The problem, however, was more subtle than that. Too many people are on record as having delighted in Priestley’s company and conversation to dismiss his sociability in terms such as “speculative scholar.” Though the majority of these friends, like Lindsey and Richard Price, were ministers, the number includes also such eminently “clubbable men” as Benjamin Franklin and John Lee. Nor was the problem simply that Shelburne was a politician. Throughout much of his life he displayed interest in religion, economics, art, literature, and music, as well as in politics. There is no reason to doubt that Priestley and Shelburne could find subjects for mutually satisfying conversation. But Shelburne did not want a conversation partner; he needed a companion with whom he could retreat from the confusing world of English politics and the English upper-class life in which he had unexpectedly found himself, and he did not find this in Priestley.

There was, however, no immediate overt break between the two. Shelburne continued to behave with uniform politeness. An anteroom off the library at Bowood was set aside as a laboratory (still called the Laboratory, or Priestley’s room) to be used in entertaining guests and especially foreigners (W. 1.1:210). When the Priestleys had their third son, on 24 May 1777, they named him Henry at Shelburne’s request. Joseph Priestley lived at Shelburne House, London, during the winter season; the rest of the year he lived with his family in a house provided by Lord Shelburne in the village of Calne, two miles from Bowood. Calne was small, irregularly built along the banks of the Calne “river,” with an old parish church, a “free school” directed by the vicar of Calne or his usher—so Priestley’s sons were educated about six miles away, at Devizes—and a green around which the wealthier houses of Georgian Calne were built.

The Priestley house was one of those on the green, but before the family could settle in substantial repairs had to be made, at a cost to Shelburne of £;67.7.5 (see fig. 1). Their move was begun in June 1773 and was not yet completed in July, when Priestley wrote that he was waiting for the arrival of his books and that the family was living in one room while the house was refitted. An early visit by Lord Shelburne is said to have caught Mary Priestley papering the walls. She responded to Priestley’s apologies with an imperturbable, “Lord Shelburne is a statesman; and he knows that people are best employed in doing their duty.”

<comp: figure 1 about here>

The Bowood property, during Priestley’s years of service there, consisted of roughly a thousand acres, a “big house,” a “little house,” and a scattering of wings and courts. Landscaping and building continued during Priestley’s years there, adding to the confusion and excitement of a shifting company of family, friends, and political visitors. Contemporary memoirs and correspondence refer to occasional visits from John Adams, David Garrick, Dr. Johnson, Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Price, Daniel Solander, Joshua Reynolds, and the Abbé Morellet, among others. Priestley had his own set of visitors: ministers such as Theophilus Lindsey, but particularly scientists, including Jan Ingenhousz, Jean DeLuc, and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Priestley often found himself engaged in social activities quite foreign to his former pattern of living.

Priestley attempted to compensate for his failure as companion by emphasizing the librarian and tutorial supervision part of his position. Shelburne had a large library at Bowood and at Shelburne House, a growing collection of important old manuscripts, and was compiling a set of papers on contemporary matters of state. Priestley bought books for the library, struggled with cataloguing books and manuscripts and indexing the private papers. As late as September 1776 he reported that he was making progress indexing the manuscripts but that there was no point in arranging or cataloguing books until the cases for them were completed.

The tutor, Thomas Jervis, felt no need of supervision, however, and was later to insist that Shelburne had expressly determined to keep “the two departments [librarian and tutor] . . . distinct so as to avoid any interference which might prove detrimental to his views.” Either Shelburne did not make this distinction clear to Priestley (and some others) or he resisted it. Even before his move from Leeds, Priestley wrote Shelburne that he was, at his leisure, “putting down some thoughts on education . . . as they have a more immediate reference to the case of your Lordship’s sons.” The Abbé Morellet, visiting Bowood in 1773, found Priestley there “serving as the teacher of Shelburne’s children.” In 1776 Priestley wrote, “it often gives me concern, that I am of so little use to your Lordship, but I flatter myself I shall be of more use to your Lordship‘s children.” Except when Jervis was on vacation and Priestley supplied his place at Bowood, Priestley seems not to have intruded on Jervis’s general domain. He must have watched longingly over the familiar occupation from nearby, however, for he completed a number of education projects he had begun at Warrington. In 1777 the Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism, dedicated to “The Right Honourable Lord Viscount Fitzmaurice,” was published, while the Miscellaneous Observations relating to Education appeared in 1778. In May 1779 Priestley wrote to Shelburne, “if your Lordship has no object to propose to my attention respecting yourself, I cannot employ my time better to Lord Fitzmaurice’s improvement than by completing my Lectures on History.”

So long as there was no direct interference, Jervis was content, and the only subject on which Priestley approached his charges was science, where Jervis would not have attempted to compete. In September 1777 Priestley wrote Newcome Cappe that he had undertaken to teach philosophy (i.e., natural philosophy or science) to Shelburne’s sons, having a “noble apparatus for that purpose.” In October he informed Shelburne that John Warltire had given “two or three lectures at Bowood on such instruments as we have not,” and hinted that more instruments ought to be acquired. “I flatter myself that I am providing for Ld. Fitzmaurice a source of employment and of happiness that will be inexhaustible and consequently invaluable.”

As Shelburne had already spent more than £;230 equipping Shelburne House and Bowood with apparatus, and as Fitzmaurice was not yet twelve, he may well have wondered what he had started in permitting science lessons for his son. Priestley, however, was undaunted. By March 1778 he was attempting to teach “spherics” to Lord Fitzmaurice and had written George Walker asking what book on conic sections he should use for teaching “to one who will never make much of a mathematician, but must have a general knowledge of all the branches of mathematics.” And, in December, he returned to the effort to get Shelburne “to establish and furnish a laboratory . . . to accustom Ld. Fitzmaurice, at an early age, to the use of philosophical instruments, and the sight of philosophical experiments and processes.”

He also repeated his request, first made in October 1777, that Shelburne permit an explicit acknowledgment in the preface to the volume of experiments in the press, that “the experiments were made with your Lordship’s encouragement, and at your Lordship’s expense, in the course of Ld. Fitzmaurice’s education.” That permission was not granted, but the volume in question, Experiments and Observations relating to various Branches of Natural Philosophy, does explain Priestley’s intentions in his insistence on teaching science to Lord Fitzmaurice: “Scientific pursuits, having an advantage over most others, especially recommends them to persons of rank and fortune. They furnish materials for agreeable and active pursuits, and are, at the same time, useful, honourable, and particularly valuable to those with no talent or call to public affairs and their study.” Although Shelburne did not permit published acknowledgment of his financing of Priestley’s experiments, or of the education in science being given to his son, he accepted some part of the argument of science’s social value. He allowed Priestley to take Lord Fitzmaurice, as his guest, to meetings of the Royal Society in February 1779. This was nearly the last time that Priestley and Shelburne were in agreement.

During their negotiations of July and August 1772, there was mention of the possibility that Priestley might collect information for Shelburne “with respect to subjects of parliamentary discussion” (W. 1.1:179–92). Though he disclaimed expertise in political matters, he did have access to views of the Dissenting interest in the country. In 1774 he became a member of the General Body of Ministers of the Three Denominations in and about the cities of London and Westminster. These connections might well interest Shelburne in a period in which Dissenters represented the most vocal part of the minority opposition to government action respecting the American colonies. Priestley’s first collection of political information was, however, in the completing of unfinished business.

Early in 1773, before taking residence in Calne, Priestley sent Shelburne “A short view of the state of opinions among Dissenters concerning the proposed test.” The bill, about to go to Parliament for the second time, to relieve the Dissenting minister or teacher from having to subscribe to Articles of the Established church, substituted a declaration of belief, as a Protestant Christian, in the Old and New Testaments as the rule for doctrine and practice. In three pages Priestley attempted to summarize Dissenting opinion respecting this declaration, or “test.” All Dissenters, wrote Priestley, believed it none of the civil magistrates’ business to interfere in matters of religion, any more than they do in medicine. If the magistrates favored one form of religion more than another and appropriated taxes to support it, those not sharing in its benefits should not be burdened with its creeds, and many disliked having to contribute support. Some thought it wrong even to declare themselves Christians, as a countenancing of the magistrates’ right of interference, but most believed an honest declaration, in order to obtain civil privileges and immunities, was like giving a highwayman one’s name. He had no right to demand it, but it was not wrong to comply. Finally, Priestley wrote, there were those who believed that the tacit exemption now enjoyed was preferable to a legal one that distressed any of their colleagues.

It is doubtful that the “short view” contained anything that Shelburne (who voted with the minority, 26–86, in the House of Lords to approve the bill) would not already have known through Richard Price, but Priestley went on to include that information in a longer treatise directed to a larger audience. A Letter of Advice to those Dissenters who conduct the Application to Parliament for Relief from certain Penal Laws, with various Observations relating to similar Subjects appeared late in 1773. It was ostensibly anonymous (by the “Author of the Free Address”), but there can have been no serious effort to maintain secrecy. The author of the Free Address to Protestant Dissenters was widely known, at least among Dissenters, to be Priestley, the Letter was dated Calne, July 1773, and an early reference to “my Essay on Government” completed the exposure.

The rest of the Letter of Advice was as curious as the pretense of anonymity. Writing after the bill failed a second time to pass the House of Lords, Priestley gratuitously commended the general committee of Dissenters who had pushed the bill and renewed the application after its first failure. For the committee had carefully distanced itself from Priestley and his fellow radicals and had drafted a bill that would have given them no legal relief. Was it political naiveté or irony, then, that prompted his suggestion that the next bill ask for more: “You have hitherto preferred your prayer as Christians; stand forth now in the character of men, and ask at once for the repeal of all the penal laws which respect matters of opinion.” Such a bill, by its generality, would avoid the emphasis on differences (and antipathies) of Christian sects; surely the committee did not wish to exclude Arians and Socinians from “the circle of your toleration.”

The greater part of the Letter of Advice is taken up by “various Observations” that have the miscellaneous character of arrière-pensées and pent-up resentments, to be discharged before commencing new duties. Some of Priestley’s suggestions would have further impeded passage of any bill for relief of Dissenters by proposing all that “would be honourable in my country to grant, and desirable . . . to receive,” including repeal of the Test Act and reform of the Established church. He would leave to the Feather’s Tavern petitioners to suggest religious reform, but some reforms were simply matters of civil society: inequality in payment of clergy, for example, imposition of tithes, and participation of bishops in the legislature.

Priestley noted that he had no more to do with the late applications to Parliament than did the bishops themselves, though they cited him in debate to kill the bills and most Dissenters disavowed him. The charge of idolatry against the Church of England was not less true because some ingenious and good men believed in the Trinity, or because there was a legal declaration in its favor. Priestley would sooner have received a parliamentary system of philosophy than one of religion, for the plain and sufficient reason that, of the two, “our law-makers probably know rather more of philosophy than of divinity.

Theophilus Lindsey begged Priestley to desist from attacking Benjamin Dawson, as such attacks would weaken the impact of the Feather’s Tavern petitioners. But Dawson, a former Dissenting minister who had conformed, a friend of Archdeacon Blackburne and one of the petitioners, had publicly challenged Priestley’s description of the Thirty-Nine Articles as something to which no intelligent and honest person could fully subscribe. He rashly demanded that Priestley demonstrate that he, Dawson, did not honestly and fully subscribe—and so, of course, Priestley did so! Analyzing Dawson’s published sermons, he showed that the interpretation of the Trinity in them was closer to the Socinian position than to the Athanasian Creed enjoined by the Articles.

Priestley then repeated and expanded upon the arguments of the “Short View,” sent earlier to Shelburne. The apostles and primitive Christians would have no scruples about declaring themselves Christians in order to avoid persecution and death. As religion is a concern affecting the temporal good of the state, a magistrate may reasonably think to interfere in it. Persuade him that interference does harm, not good. Dangerous principles are absurd and so easily refuted that they may be left to the common sense and reason of mankind. Important principles will guard themselves by their own evidence; the less important do not deserve to be guarded (83–88). Finally, Priestley denounced the so-called “orthodox dissenters” who had objected to the bill, not because it would hurt them, but because it would benefit others, and hinted at calamitous events coming to the states of Europe, when Established churches would be despoiled to pay the costs of wars they had encouraged. Perhaps on the ruin of these churches might rise something nearer to the Church of Christ than of Rome or England (98).

Priestley’s next political work was an electioneering pamphlet, An Address to Protestant Dissenters . . . on the Approaching Election of Members of Parliament, published anonymously in 1774 and the most outspoken of anything he ever wrote. Priestley and his friends were angry that the committee of Dissenting ministers in London had decided not to renew (for the third time) their attempt to get the Dissenters’ relief bill passed while the House of Commons was still friendly toward Dissent. They ascribed the decision to deceit and bribery with the Regium Donum. Priestley had observed the futile efforts of Lords Chatham and Shelburne and others to defeat the North ministry’s response to the “Boston Tea Party.” He and his friends were disturbed at the “determined rancour and infatuated confidence” of members of Parliament regarding the American colonies.

The dissolution of Parliament and the new election set for October 1774 called, Priestley wrote, for all, and perhaps the last, efforts of the friends of civil and religious liberty (3). “[T]hose who actually guide the measures, which are now carrying on in this country, are equally enemies to civil liberty and to you” (4). Tricks and artifice were used to frustrate attempts to repeal laws that harmed Dissenters. Hopes had been blasted by the same throne that extended mercy to Papists and rebels, even to murderers, so long as they were friends of despotism and enemies of the constitution. “The painful memory of these proceedings should stimulate Dissenters to wipe off their disgrace. Our American brethren, disliked chiefly because they are mostly Dissenters and whigs, will probably be compelled to defend their liberties by taking arms. This would be improper and ineffectual for Dissenters in England who can, however, exert themselves to procure the return of men to parliament who are known to be friends to civil and religious liberty” (5).

Pay no heed to present professions of friendly zeal, Priestley wrote, but look to past conduct. Avoid as pestilence every man who voted against the repeal of oppressive laws. If you want your representatives to be uncorrupt and independent, be so yourselves. It was not surprising if members of Parliament sold what they were known to have bought. To restore the independence of Parliament from the Crown, it was necessary to reduce the multitude of places by which the court corrupted the members and to achieve a more equitable means of payment for civil services. Throughout Europe, he warned, states were losing their liberties as power settled in the hands of arbitrary princes—he pointed to the cases of Denmark and Sweden—while there was reason to fear that a partition of Switzerland and of the United Provinces would follow that of Poland (7–8).

Part II of An Address was written, at the request of Franklin and of the Quaker Dr. John Fothergill, on the American situation. It did not presume to offer any new arguments but hoped that a summary in different words might make the truth better understood. Different realms of English kings had always taxed themselves; Normandy, Scotland before the union, Wales, the Counties Palantine, and Ireland to this day. When the Puritans left England to escape persecution by prelates, they certainly had no intention of remaining subject to those laws. Their voluntary choice of the English king for their head did not make them his English subjects. Americans, like Englishmen, were subject to one king, “who is himself subject to the laws, and who is no longer our legal and rightful King, than he is so” (11).

Priestley also argued that taxation without consent deprived the people of proper liberty. It was true, he conceded, that Leeds, Manchester, and other large towns sent no representatives to Parliament, but those who taxed these towns taxed themselves; they taxed America to escape taxing themselves. The Crown had protected Americans, and they ought to pay? The Crown protected Ireland and Hanover without taxing them. Americans supported their own governments; such was their zeal at the end of the last war that Britain voted them large sums as recompense for their extraordinary exertions (13). The East India Company had suffered some losses by the action of a few people; did that justify the British government in punishing the innocent by blocking ports, abolishing charters, invading with troops, and denying jurisdiction to colonial courts? “If you help forge chains for America, can you suppose an enslaved America will scruple to bring you into the same condition?” (14). Priestley urged his readers to oppose, at the next election, every candidate who had joined the attempt to establish arbitrary powers in the British Empire, “to the imminent hazard of our most valuable commerce, and of that national strength, security, and felicity which depend upon UNION and on LIBERTY” (15).

When the election was held, Priestley and Shelburne were in Europe. Though Priestley’s Address attracted considerable national attention, it failed to produce practical results. The returning Parliament strongly supported the North ministry. When Shelburne returned to London in January 1775, he labored for conciliation with the colonies. In this endeavor, it is likely that Priestley and his associations were of some service. From his winter’s residence at Shelburne House, Priestley resumed regular Sunday meetings with the Lindseys and with John Lee, who was a member of the Rockingham opposition. He saw Franklin frequently. He and Franklin were, in fact, members of the same club, meeting fortnightly at the London Coffeehouse, first in St. Paul’s Churchyard and then at 24 Ludgate Hill, which Franklin was later to call the “Club of Honest Whigs.

Some twenty members of this club have been identified, including James Burgh, John Canton, Franklin, Andrew Kippis, John Lee, Alderman Oliver, Richard Price, Priestley, and Samuel Vaughan. They held liberal political opinions, supported the American cause, and frequently entertained visitors from America. They had a wide range of correspondents and their information was often earlier and more accurate than that of the government. When Franklin left England in March 1775, having spent his last day there with Priestley, he continued writing to members of the club. Price and Priestley also wrote to other friends in America in spite of King George’s Royal Proclamation of 23 August, which demanded information concerning “all persons who shall be found carrying on Correspondence with, or in any Manner of Degree aiding or abetting the persons now in open Arms and Rebellion against our Government.”

Throughout this period Shelburne could obtain from Price or Vaughan any information he might have learned from Priestley, and he had other sources of news and gossip as well. Still, it must have been useful to have a leading member of the Dissenting interest living in his home. The Dissenters found it equally useful to have one of their number in so close an association with a major figure of the Chatham faction of the opposition. Neither the Dissenters nor the Chathamites were able to make any significant impact on political events over the next several years. One of the reasons was the unpopularity of their cause. Not until the colonists demonstrated the effectiveness of their resistance, declared their independence, and defeated Burgoyne at Saratoga did the country at large begin to feel that coercion of the Americans might, perhaps, be a mistake. The new Parliament of 1774 met for a month before hearing any reference to American affairs; Priestley and Lindsey witnessed the House of Lords treating the Duke of Grafton’s motion of conciliation with levity in March 1776.

Even after attitudes began to change, serious divisions within the opposition to North’s ministry made it impossible effectively to resist its decisions. The Rockingham Whigs, representative of the great Whig aristocratic families, were only secondarily concerned with events in America or with the desires of Dissenters. So far as they were concerned, all was well with the political system as a whole. All that was needed to end “the present discontents” was a change of leadership in which men of virtue (themselves) replaced wicked men. They favored reduction of ministerial placemen and of the influence of the king in order to weaken the North ministry. Only retrospectively, after the war with the colonies had begun, did they see their opposition to have been a support of the Americans’ cause. Edmund Burke’s Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontent (1770) had, in fact, failed to mention troubles in America.

Chatham’s group did take American troubles seriously, but it did not represent any significant family groupings and by its emphasis on “measures, not men” was unpopular with the Rockinghamites. Chatham, though once able to rally the population behind him, was ill and frequently incapacitated for effective leadership. His chief lieutenant, Lord Shelburne, was not a good manager of men and was one of the most widely distrusted figures in British politics. It is difficult to understand the depth of the dislike felt for him by so many of his contemporaries, except in the context of a transition in English politics from traditional family and country alignments to parties. Shelburne’s Irish origins, his entry into politics under the aegis of Lord Bute, and the transfer of his allegiance to Chatham all had kept him from assimilation into any of the customary familial political combinations for which, indeed, he came to have outspoken contempt. He developed a set of economic and social principles as the basis of his political conduct, for which he would ignore personal associations. That, in the intensely personal world of eighteenth-century English politics, was regarded as unprincipled.

Whether they liked him or not, all major political figures recognized the importance of gaining Shelburne’s support, if possible, in the shifting coalitions of the period between 1775 and 1782. It was in this connection that Priestley probably made his most noteworthy political contributions during his years with Shelburne. His publications had made little impact upon those not already aligned. His “philosophical” influence on Shelburne’s ideas must have been small, for Shelburne’s “stable” of advisors—Chatham, Samuel Garbett of Birmingham, Morellet, Price, Vaughan, and others—was already complete before Priestley joined him. There may have been some slight personal influence stemming from Priestley’s utilitarianism, but this was in the naturalistic Christian-ethics mode. This held that moral law was imposed by God and, as the only law compatible with human nature, was deducible from nature by experience and right reason. Jeremy Bentham, who replaced Priestley as Shelburne’s utilitarian associate, held a more directly applicable normative view.

Priestley, however, belonged to the major collective of political influence that was uncommitted to any of the groups contending for power, and its influence might be effectively applied, through Priestley, to persuade Shelburne to join in the formation of a workable coalition. This Dissenting interest was generally sympathetic toward Shelburne. Priestley had described him to Price, in July 1772, as “the very first character, for ability and integrity together, in this kingdom” (SciAuto., 50). There is no indication that he substantially changed his opinion, for all their differences, personal or political. Despite his publications, Priestley was not yet so notorious as to have become generally distrusted. As late as February 1779, when Priestley applied, through William Eden, for access to the Royal Library, it was his association with Shelburne that drew King George’s chief rebuke: “If Doctor Priestley applies to my Librarian he will have permission to see the Library as other Men of Science have had, but I cannot think the Doctor’s character as a Politician or Divine deserves my appearing at all in it. . . . I am sorry Mr. Eden has any intimacy with that Doctor as I am not over fond of those who frequent any Disciples or companions of the Jesuit in Berkeley Square.”

Priestley, therefore, could be used as an intermediary between Shelburne and other groups, and he could and did act to encourage or discourage Shelburne’s acceptance of proposals. In October 1775 he approached Sir George Savile to see if an alliance could be arranged between Rockingham and Shelburne for the coming session of Parliament. Writing without Shelburne’s knowledge, but knowing that he wanted Savile to know his thinking, Priestley declared:


He is by no means that artful ambitious politician that he has been represented, and he is far from wishing to draw you from any connection you may have with the Marquis of Rockingham and his friends. . . . He would himself most cordially act with, and even under, the Marquis . . . provided his measures were more distinct and decisive, going to the bottom of the present disorders of the State. . . . I know Lord Shelburne wishes to explain himself to you upon these subjects, and would have no objections to do it in the presence of Lord Rockingham, or any of his friends. You will find him frank, plain, and open like yourself; and I shall think myself happy if I should be the means of bringing about such an interview.

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No formal arrangement followed from that letter. Though Rockinghamites and Chathamites joined in attacking North’s policies, it was still too early effectively to oppose them. In September 1776 Priestley sent some news to Shelburne, then in Paris. The country at large was still indifferent and the ministry, at least before the check at Charleston, was sanguine. General Howe was finding his enterprise more difficult than he had anticipated. There was an irreconcilable difference between Lord Gower and Mr. Rigby. “Whether this circumstance is likely to have any effect on public measures your Lordship will be able to judge.”

By 1778 the situation had changed. France had entered the war, and North, his resignation having been refused by the king, sent Eden to see if Shelburne and Chatham would join the government. The national efforts against the traditional enemy needed to be strengthened. On 15 March Eden approached Priestley, who agreed to wait for him at Shelburne House: “The conversation Mr. Eden wishes for may probably be obtained but Dr. Priestley is intirely out of all political connection, and can form no conjecture about the issue.” The conversation took place, but Shelburne, speaking for himself and Chatham, declined to join any government without Chatham at its head and without the Duke of Grafton and Lord Rockingham included. The king rejected that arrangement, while the divided opposition could not agree enough to justify negotiation—the Rockinghamites insisting on American independence and Shelburne resisting.

On 17 March Shelburne spoke in the House of Lords on the treaty between France and the colonies in a way that renewed Eden’s hopes but worried Priestley and his friends. Priestley wrote Shelburne that several persons, friends of liberty and of their country, including Price and the Bishop of St. Asaph (Jonathan Shipley) were worried that the speech indicated an intention to aid the king to evade his problems: War with France was unnecessary and unjust, acknowledgment of American independence would detach them from their alliance. Shelburne should not abandon his determination for an inquiry into the conduct of the ministry, reformation of abuses in government, and diminution of the enormous influence of the Crown. This letter was probably unnecessary; Chatham had not changed his mind about joining the government and his death shortly thereafter left North in complete power. Priestley, however, had begun to despair of Shelburne’s agreeing to American independence. He began sending political news to other politicians. Writing in September 1779, he sent some news acquired from Boston, which he thought might be of service:


If I had any intelligence of consequence, I should always chuse to dispose of it where it might be of use, rather than employ it to any factious purpose. You are not ignorant that I think very differently from Ld. Shelburne on the present state of Politics. . . . I wish for peace and think it would be cheaply purchased by granting the independence of America. . . . Whether I be right or wrong in my idea of your political connections, I shall always think myself happy in the esteem of such as you are. In or out of administration, I shall think them valuable.

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Two of the political developments for which Priestley had hoped had already occurred. With the war against France and political and economic unrest in Ireland, the North administration conceded a Catholic Relief Act in 1778 and, desiring to unite the country as much as possible, also pushed a Protestant Dissenters Relief Bill through both houses of Parliament in 1779. Curiously, in view of Priestley’s support for Catholic relief as early as 1768 and of the Dissenters’ relief bills of 1772 and 1773, neither his extant correspondence nor his publications of 1778 or 1779 refer to the debates or to passage of either bill.

For all his political activities behind the scenes, Priestley, in fact, published very little on politics during the time he was with Shelburne, though more than he was later prepared to admit. Much of the Letter of Advice of 1773 might have been written from Leeds as well as from Calne, and some of it might be called religious writing rather than political. The Address to Protestant Dissenters of 1774 was obviously political and could only have been written after he left Leeds, making the more remarkable his quite explicit statement, some nine years later from Birmingham: “As I find it has been supposed, much to my prejudice, that in my late situation I was engaged as a party writer, I shall take this opportunity of saying, that I never wrote a political pamphlet, or a political paragraph all the time that that connection subsisted, nor was I ever requested to do so.”

Why Priestley should have thought it important at this time to distance himself from politics under the aegis of Shelburne is far from clear. Perhaps he was attempting to circumvent his too-liberal reputation among the Birmingham populace. Maybe he wished to clear Shelburne from any onus attachable to the now infamous author of the History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782). Perhaps, in retrospect, he felt the political activities of the Shelburne period unmemorable and chose simply to forget them, for his most substantial achievements of that period were in theology, metaphysics, and science, as he adjusted more fully to his role as protégé: “if, by your Lordship’s generous encouragement, I be of use in promoting useful science, and rational knowledge of other kinds, your Lordship will not think your patronage ill bestowed.” He recognized that though some of his work might make him “really useful to your Lordship’s general fame and character . . . by some of my other publications, I may involve your Lordship in some part of the odium I bring upon myself with the ignorant and narrow minded.”

Probably the possibility that Priestley’s work could directly affect Shelburne’s reputation, positively or negatively, was exaggerated. The respect paid in England to the patron of arts or literature earlier in the century had diminished substantially. Certainly Shelburne was not then criticized for his support of the radical Priestley. Nor has he been given the credit due him for having financed Priestley during the period of his greatest scientific and philosophical creativity. In any event, whatever compensation Shelburne received for his expenditures on Priestley’s behalf, it cannot have been in companionship or in enhancement of his reputation among his English contemporaries. It must have been in the personal satisfaction he derived from having generously encouraged, as Priestley suggested, his independent work in “useful science and rational knowledge of other kinds.”