Evil Man

Simon Schaffer

  • The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1773 by Robert Schofield
    Pennsylvania State, 328 pp, £35.95, January 1998, ISBN 0 271 01662 0

‘Why do we hear so much of Dr Priestley?’ asked Dr Johnson rather sternly in the course of a chemistry lecture he attended in Salisbury. Joseph Priestley was the pre-eminent public intellectual of late 18th-century England. In theology and politics, chemistry and prophecy, this seemingly dour and absurdly productive Yorkshire visionary inspired intense admiration and loathing in roughly equal measure. William Hazlitt, no mean polemicist himself, judged Priestley ‘the best controversialist in his day, and one of the best in the language’. Youthful intellectuals of the Revolutionary epoch such as Coleridge saw him as their ‘patriot and sage’. Priestley’s prudent flight to Pennsylvania in 1794, in the wake of the burning of his home, his laboratory, his books and his effigy, was interpreted as one more sign of the evils and hopes of troubled times presaging the imminent millennium. Jefferson thought his was ‘one of the few lives precious to mankind for the continuance of which every thinking man is solicitous’.

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