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, 0 271 01662 0
Show More
Show More

‘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’.

Priestley’s enemies were equally eloquent. William Blake, whose own spirituality entitled him to dismiss this kind of enlightenment as stupid and blind, reckoned Priestley’s much-advertised knowledge ‘not worth a button’. In Philadelphia, William Cobbett, under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine, launched biting satires on the eminent exile’s garbled style and dangerous beliefs. In London, Johnson was long convinced of Priestley’s badness: ‘an evil man, sir, his work unsettles everything yet settles nothing’. Boswell helpfully explained why Johnson might find Priestley so odious: ‘I know no writer who has been suffered to publish more pernicious doctrines.’ No immortal soul, no free will, the abolition of monarchy and established Church, liberty for Dissenters, support for American and French rebels, the expectation of a swift arrival of the Kingdom of God on Earth. And, to make matters worse, Priestley reckoned all these views were firmly based on the most up-to-date sciences, such as the electricity and chemistry he did so much to promote. ‘The English hierarchy has reason to tremble even at an air pump or an electrical machine.’

Priestley’s biographers have always found it hard to provide a coherent and embracing picture of the enormous range of activities to which he devoted himself. He himself explicitly made polymathy and his frequent changes of tack a moral virtue. In the study of any specialism, he argued, ‘we must make frequent intervals and interruptions,’ lest ‘a vain desire of applause get possession of our hearts’. Nor was he sure of the best criteria for choosing biographical subjects. In the 1760s, he drew up a huge chart for schoolrooms which showed the lives of hundreds of eminent heroes and villains. Selecting persons to be included in such a biographical scheme was, he conceded, an almost impossible task. When he wrote his autobiography, soon after reaching the United States, he produced little more than a catalogue of his publications, alongside a list of his friends and benefactors, as an attempt, he claimed, to ‘promote virtue and piety’ in his readers.

Robert Schofield is well qualified to follow Priestley’s uneven path across the intellectual landscape of 18th-century society. He was trained during and after World War Two as an atomic physicist and engineer, at a moment when once again practical science seemed to offer the hope of either a bright or else a catastrophic future. He completed his doctoral thesis in the mid-Fifties on the interaction between science and the Industrial Revolution, focusing on the Lunar Society, the celebrated Midlands group of intellectuals and entrepreneurs of which Priestley was a leading light. Since then, he has conscientiously produced a series of books which fill in the background to Priestley’s career: an edition of his scientific correspondence, a major study of the natural philosophy of his period, even (in 1976) a stylish 18th-century chemistry lecture delivered in imitation of his hero. We are now offered the first half of a thorough biography, based on the sources which survived the destruction of Priestley’s home. Retirement and illness have as yet prevented Schofield completing the work.

This halt in the narrative of Priestley’s remarkable career invites comparison with Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge, which stopped just as his protagonist set sail in spring 1804 for Mediterranean exile, or with Janet Browne’s recent first volume of a large-scale life of Charles Darwin. Holmes asks what we might now think of Coleridge had he died shipwrecked off Sicily. The audit is positive: what came next, according to Holmes, only damaged his startling early achievements. Even more tantalising questions might be asked of a drowned Darwin, who grew up in an intellectual milieu dominated by Priestley’s influence, transmitted through his Darwin and Wedgwood grandfathers.

We can make the comparison between Priestley and these other voyagers more precise. In autumn 1771, the Admiralty began planning a new voyage under Cook’s leadership to the Pacific. In the search for naturalists and astronomers to accompany the expedition, Priestley, then a minister in Leeds and a well-known natural philosopher, was offered a berth. He enthusiastically accepted. Priestley had already publicly backed Cook’s voyages in print. With his wife’s blessing (this was one of the few occasions in his career when Mary Wilkinson’s views were explicitly cited), he was quite prepared to ‘forgo domestic satisfaction’ so as to help ‘promote natural knowledge’ – in any case, he looked forward to spending years in the confined company of such ‘intelligent, worthy and amiable’ men as the suave naturalist Joseph Banks. But the plan collapsed. Banks’s friends had been out of order in offering Priestley the job. Banks himself soon withdrew from the project in a huff because his exorbitant demands for space and personnel for botanising and specimen-hunting could not be met without making the ships unseaworthy. The Resolution and Adventure left for a three-year voyage into the South Seas and literary glory without Priestley on board, but something of his did travel with Cook: the chemist’s newfangled recipe for making shipboard supplies of soda water, a liquor touted by all the best medics as a sovereign cure for scurvy. Cook reported that Priestley’s water worked. When Mr J.J. Schweppe set up his mineral water firm in London in 1793, he copied Priestley’s recipe, suitably modified for reliable mass production.

So what if Priestley had gone to Tahiti and Tonga with Cook, then met his end in an incautious encounter while sampling Polynesian airs and waters? Perhaps his fate would have featured as a cautionary episode in a treatise such as that of Priestley’s replacement Johann Reinhold Forster, whose account of Cook’s second voyage was a synthesis of late 18th-century natural history, scholarship and creative imagination, and included several pages on Priestley’s virtues as chemist and physician. Perhaps Priestley’s death would have been followed by retribution, like the killing of Hawaiians on George Vancouver’s orders in 1792 after the death there of his astronomer William Gooch. In which case, Priestley might have figured in a brilliant study by the historian-anthropologist Greg Dening, whose book on Gooch’s death treats symmetrically the cultures of Hawaii and of the English academies where the astronomer was taught his science. Or perhaps, less happily, the martyred Priestley would have attracted the attention of an ambitious writer keen to emulate the success of Dava Sobell’s biography of John Harrison, and been singled out as a ‘lone genius’ whose studies of antiscorbutics and electric shocks helped solve the scientific problems of his visionary age. His amiable ally Erasmus Darwin did indeed imagine a future Australia in which a ‘future Priestley’ would arise, and described the Tory mob who destroyed Priestley’s house as so many ‘sacrilegious savages’. Priestley’s career and hopes became part and parcel of the encounter between the Enlightenment and what it saw as an alien and hostile world.

By the early 1770s, Priestley had already done more than enough to stand for the English Enlightenment’s ambitions. Excluded from Oxbridge because he was not an Anglican, and trained in one of the best Nonconformist academies, he’d had a frustrating time as schoolteacher and minister in Suffolk and Cheshire before getting a prestigious job at Warrington Academy in 1761, first as a language teacher, then as a natural philosophy instructor. By the end of the 1760s, he’d become minister to the large Mill Hill congregation in Leeds. Along the way, he published textbooks on history, oratory, rhetoric and perspective drawing, produced a very successful history of electrical science, and issued streams of pamphlets on the emancipation of Dissent and on political liberty, law reform, educational policy and theological doctrine. At one point he confessed that he’d written more books than he himself would want to read. It is not perhaps surprising that his very first publication, as Schofield nicely points out, were some schoolboy verses he wrote for Peter Annet’s 1750 work, Expeditious Penmanship, or Shorthand Improved, a system he used throughout his life in composing many of his works. One of these, an essay on government, was read in an Oxford coffee house by the young lawyer Jeremy Bentham, who claimed to find there the principle that society should be governed by maximising the happiness of the majority of its members. Allies from politics, publishing and philosophy backed Priestley’s causes. Benjamin Franklin and John Wilkes were among his admirers. Such backing helped him to a doctorate at Edinburgh University and a fellowship of the Royal Society. Supporters bought his stylish electrical machines and subscribed to his magazines. One quizzical fan, the young poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld, the daughter of one of his Warrington colleagues, composed verses about the furniture in Priestley’s study at Leeds, making fun of his crowded stock of manuscripts and charts, instruments and prints, where the universe was precisely described but scarcely colonised: ‘a map of every country known, and not a foot of land his own’.

So, had Priestley expired while mapping the South Seas, there would already have been good grounds to treat his life as a key to the successes of Georgian intellectual life, its far-sighted self-confidence and almost violent optimism. His most famous sermon, delivered on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot’s defeat and the Glorious Revolution’s triumph, notoriously imagined ‘laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition to produce an instantaneous explosion’, and thus ending vice and prejudice for ever. The whiff of gunpowder stayed with him, providing an easy target for his critics and a theme for his more utopian backers. Martyrdom, and indeed the imminence of death, others’ as well as his own, provided an apt theme throughout his career and make the reflection on Pacific extinction all the more appropriate. The Grim Reaper visited many of his closest kin in the fiercely Calvinist West Riding clothworking community where he grew up. His mother died in childbirth when Priestley was six, his stepmother a few years later, and his uncle, by whom he was brought up, in 1745. As a teenager, Priestley suffered from consumption. His family planned a curative voyage to Lisbon, but Priestley himself recalled the episode as the moment when, feeling no sense that his soul had been saved, he knew he must be damned. He acquired a pronounced stammer, and ran into trouble with the so-called ‘gifted brethren’ of his parish. Rather than face this terror, he began his long journey away from predestination to the liberal theology which became his trademark. The local chapel expelled him. The science and theology of mortality would remain one of his obsessions.

Priestley’s sciences often focused on extinction. His first trials in electricity, designed to illustrate the major history of the science which made his reputation, included the fatal discharge of a large battery through a three-year-old cat, just to see what anatomical changes such shocks might cause in living matter. Indeed, both in electricity and, even more, in the chemistry of airs, which he launched in the later 1760s, Priestley’s aim was always to demonstrate that spirit was nothing more than a rarefied form of common matter, thus entirely susceptible to manipulation and termination in the laboratory, and to enlightened management in properly designed hospitals, prisons, schoolrooms and factories. John Howard, Wedgwood and Bentham all found inspiration in Priestley’s chemical schemes for reform. New-style medical chemists found Priestley’s pneumatics an important resource for their social enterprises. Experiment and theology became ever more closely entangled in a mix of mortalism and materialism. A Welsh schoolmaster composed this mock epitaph for the Great Doctor:

Here lie at rest
in oaken chest
together packed most nicely
the bones and brains
flesh, blood and veins
and soul of Dr Priestley.

This morbid theme turns up everywhere in his corpus. In the admittedly brief and certainly serious passage on humour included in his important Warrington lectures on language, Priestley offered this example of poetic wit: ‘Beneath this stone my wife doth lie/she’s now at rest, and so am I.’ Even Christ’s passion could be analysed chemically, he reckoned. The Agony in the Garden, for example, was obviously just a Scriptural report of the perfectly common bloody sweats which Priestley’s medical friends found among their own patients. All this was irresistible to satirists, of whom there were many in the wake of conservative reaction against the American and French Revolutions. Gillray imagined Priestley consoling King George III on the scaffold: ‘A man ought to be glad of the opportunity of dying if by that means he can serve his country in bringing about a Glorious Revolution.’

Schofield’s treatment of the first four decades of Priestley’s life lacks most of the sense of danger, wit and doom which contemporaries themselves perceived in it. This is not entirely due to the fact that the drama was yet to come, with the fights against French chemistry and Tory reaction of the 1780s and beyond. We can only hope he finds the resources to complete his task. ‘Sooner would I teach the art of poisoning than that of sophistry,’ Priestley once declared, but there is nothing sophistical about Schofield’s painstaking attention to the hitherto neglected sources for Priestley’s clerical career, the response of his parishioners and colleagues, and the details of his dogmatic theology and tergiversations on matters such as predestination and the Eucharist. Just as he himself sagely noted that maturity brought with it a check on the propensity to laughter, so here there is little to amuse or delight. We are therefore given half the story of Priestley’s enlightenment: we do not quite learn why he mattered so much to his age. The evils of what Cobbett would call The Thing, the network of Establishment patronage and state religion, were surely the principal target of Priestley’s assault. In this battle, he used the methods of networking and commerce, propaganda and agitation, which characterised the Enlightenment’s fiercest strife.

What mattered most was that Priestley showed how natural philosophy’s development and an education in rationality were indispensable weapons. This made his public career as an emblem of persecuted progress, already well-developed when he was refused the chance to accompany Cook, an integral part of his own labours. That is why Johnson was not the only 18th-century auditor who heard so much about him. In American exile, Priestley was intended to become the patriarch of an entire community of English radicals gathered in upstate Pennsylvania. So even his death became a heroic piece of theatre, pointedly recorded by his son for publication as evidence of how a materialist meets his God. Making a graceful end in 1804, Priestley spent his last days analysing the factual basis of the resurrection of Lazarus and preparing yet another publication comparing the fates of two previous philosophical martyrs, Socrates and Christ. He died correcting proofs.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences