Priestley, Joseph

, a dissenting divine, but more justly eminent as a philosopher, was born March 18, 1733, at Field-head, near Leeds. His father, a clothier, was a dissenter of the Calviriistic persuasion. In his youth he was adopted by an aunt, who provided for his education in several schools, in which he acquired some knowledge of the learned languages, particularly Hebrew. Being intended for the ministry, he went, in 1752, to Dr. Ash worth’s dissenting academy, at Daventry, whore he spent three years, and came out from it an adherent to the Arian system. Here too he became acquainted with Hartley’s Works, to whose opinions he was afterwards very partial. He first settled as a minister at Needham-market, in Suffolk and, after three years’ residence, removed‘ to Namptwich in Cheshire. Here he also kept a school, and, to the more | common objects of instruction, added experiments in natural philosophy, to which he had already become attached. His first publication was, an “English Grammar,” printed in 1761, in which he pointed out errors in Hume’s language, which that author had the candour to rectify in his future editions of his celebrated history.

In the same year, he was invited to become a tutor in languages in the academy at Warrington; and here he first began to acquire reputation as a writer in various branches of literature. Several of his works had relation to his office in the academy, which, besides philosophy, included lectures on history and general policy. A visit to London having introduced him to the acquaintance of Dr. Franklin, Dr. Watson, Dr. Price, and Mr. Canton, he was encouraged by them to execute a plan he had already begun, of writing a “History of Electricity,” which accordingly appeared in 1767. It is rather carelessly and hastily exeecuted, but must have been of advantage to the science. Almost the whole of his historical facts are taken from the Philosophical Transactions but at the end he gives a number of original experiments of his own. The most important of all his electrical discoveries, was, that charcoal is a conductor of electricity, and so good a conductor that it vies even with the metals themselves. This publication went through several editions, was translated into foreign languages, and procured him the honour of being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, as one of his biographers says; but his election took place the year before; and about the same time the university of Edinburgh conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws.

In the same year in which his History of Electricity appeared, he left Warrington, and settled at Leeds as minister, and instantly resumed his theological studies, which produced a number of publications, in which he announced the opinions he had adopted. From an Arian he was now become a Socinian, and not content with enjoying the changes which he was at perfect liberty to make, he began to contend with great zeal against the authority of the established religion. It was, however, during his residence here, that his attention was more usefully turned to the properties f fixed air. He had commenced experiments on this subject in 1768, and the first of his publications appeared in 1772, in which he announced a method of impregnating water with fixed air. In the paper read | to the royal society in 1772, which obtained the Copley medal, he gave an account of his discoveries and at the same time announced the discovery of nitrous air, and its application as a test of the purity or fitness for respiration of airs generally. About this time, also, he shewed the use of the burning lens in pneumatic experiments; he related the discovery and properties of muriatic acid air; added much to what was known of the airs generated by putrefactive processes, and by vegetable fermentation; and he determined many facts relative to the diminution and deterioration of air, by the combustion of charcoal, and the calcination of metal. In 1774, he made a full discovery of dephlogisticated air, which he procured from the oxyds of silver and lead. This hitherto secret source of animal life and animal heat, of which Mayow had a faint glimpse, was unquestionably first exhibited by Dr. Priestley, though it was discovered about the same time by Mr. Scheele, of Sweden. In 1776, his observations on respiration were read before the royal society, in which he discovered that the common air inspired was diminished in quantity, and deteriorated, in quality, by the action of the blood on it, through the blood-vessels of the Jungs; and that the florid red colour of arterial blood was communicated by the contact of air through the containing vessels. In 1778 Dr. Priestley pursued his experiments on the properties of vegetables growing in the light to correct impure air, and the use of vegetation in this part of the (economy of nature and it seems certain that Dr. Priestley made his discoveries on the subject previously to those of Dr. Ingenhouz, then engaged in similar researches. From this period Dr. Priestley seems to have attended to his pneumatic experiments as an occupation, devoting to them a regular portion of his time. To this attention, among a prodigious variety of facts, tending to shew the various substances from which gases may be procured, the methods of producing them, their influence on each other, and their probable composition, we owe the discovery of vitriolic acid air, of ajkaline air, and of dephlogisticated nitrous air or, as it has since been denominated, the gaseous oxyd of azote, the subject of so many curious and interesting experiments by sir Humphrey Davy. To these may be added the production of various kinds of inflammable air, by numerous processes that had escaped the observation of Mr. Cavendish. To Dr. Priestley we are | indebted for that fine experiment of reviving metallic calces in inflammable air and he first ascertained the necessity for water to be present in the formation of the gases, and the endless production of gases from water itself. His experiments on this subject, viz. the generation of air from water, opened a new field for reflection, and deserve particular notice. It had been already remarked that water was necessary to the generation of every species of gas but the unceasing product of air from water had been observed by no one before.

To enumerate,” says Mr. Kirwan, “Dr. Priestley’s discoveries, would in fact be to enter into a detail of most of those that have been made within the last fifteen years. How many invisible fluids, whose existence evaded the sagacity of foregoing ages, has he made known to us The very air we breathe he has taught us to analyse, to examine, to improve a substance so little known, that even the precise effect of respiration was an enigma, until he explained it. He first made known to us the proper food of vegetables, and in what the difference between these and animal substances consisted. To him pharmacy is indebted for the method of making artificial mineral waters, as well as for a shorter method of preparing other medicines metallurgy for more powerful and cheap solvents; and chemistry for such a variety of discoveries as it would be tedious to recite discoveries which have new-modelled that science, and drawn to it, and to this country, the attention of all Europe. It is certain, that, since the year 1773, the eyes and regards of all the learned bodies in Europe have been, directed to this country by his means. In every philosophical treatise his name is to be found, and in almost every page. They all own that most of their discoveries are due either to the repetition of his discoveries, or to the hints scattered through his works.

The success of his “History of Electricity” induced him to adopt the design of treating on other sciences, in the same historical manner and at Leeds he occupied himself in preparing “The History and present state of Discoveries relating to Vision, Light, and Colours.” The expences necessary in composing such a work obliged him to issue proposals for publishing it by subscription and it appeared in 1772, in one very large volume 4to. The sale of this work by no means corresponded with the expectations formal from the number of names given in as | subscribers it has been said, not one-third part of the number paid for, or demanded the book when it was published. One of his biographers says that it failed, chiefly because it was impossible to give adequate notions of many parts of the theory of optics without a more accurate acquaintance with mathematics than common readers can be supposed to possess. Perhaps too, the writer himself was scarcely competent to explain the abstruser parts of this science.

After a residence at Leeds for six years, Dr. Priestley accepted the offer of the earl of Shelburne, afterwards marquis of Lansdowne, to reside with his lordship in the nominal capacity of librarian, but really as his literary companion. The terms were 2501. per annum, with a house for his family to live in, and an annuity for life of 150l. in the event of their being separated by his lordship’s dying, or changing his mind. He accordingly fixed his family in a house at Calne, in Wiltshire, near his lordship’s seat; and during seven years attended upon the noble earl in his winter’s residences at London, and occasionally in his excursions, one of which, in 1774, was a tour to the continent. This situation was useful, as affording Dr. Priestley advantages in improving his knowledge of the world, and in pursuing his scientific researches; and as he was perfectly free from restraint, this was the period of some of those exertions which increased his reputation as a philosopher, and some of those which brought the greatest obloquy upon him as a divine. In 1775, he published his “Examination of the doctrine of Common Sense, as held by Drs. Reid, Beattie, and Oswald,” in which he treated those gentlemen with a contemptuous arrogance, of which, we are told, he was afterwards ashamed. In his manner of treating his opponents, he always exhibited a striking contrast to the mild and placid temper of his friend Dr. Price. After this he became the illustrator of the Hartleian theory of the human mind. He had, previously to this, declared himself a believer in the doctrine of philosophical necessity and in a dissertation prefixed to his edition of Hartley, he expressed some doubts of the immateriality of the soul. The charge which these induced against him of infidelity and atheism, seems only to have provoked him to a more open avowal of the same obnoxious sentiments; and in 1777 he published “Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit,” in which he gave a history of the doctrines concerning the soul, and openly supported the | system which, upon due investigation, he had adopted. It was followed by “A Defence of Unitarianism, or the simple Humanity of Christ, in opposition to his Pre-existence and of the Doctrine of Necessity.” It seems not improbable that these works produced a coolness in the behaviour of his noble patron, which about this time he began to remark, and which terminated in a separation, after a connection of seven years, without any alledged complaint. That the marquis of Lansdowne had changed his sentiments of Dr. Priestley appears from the evidence of the latter, who informs us, that when he came to London, he proposed to call on the noble lord; but the latter declined receiving his visits. Dr. Priestley adds, that during his connection with his lordship, he never once aided him in his political views, nor ever wrote a single political paragraph. The friends of both parties seem to think that there was no bond of union between them, and his lordship’s attention became gradually so much engaged by politics, that every other object of study lost its hold. According, however, to the articles of agreement, Dr. Priestley retained his annuity for life of 150l. which was honourably paid to the last; and it has been said, that when the bond securing to him this annuity was burnt at the riots of Birmingham, his lordship in the handsomest manner presented him with another.

Dr. Priestley now removed to Birmingham, a situation which he probably preferred to almost any other, on account of the advantage it afforded of able workmen in every branch requisite in his experimental inquiries, and of some men distinguished for their chemical and mechanical knowledge, particularly Watt, Withering, Bolton, and Kier. Several friends to science, aware that the defalcation of his income would render the expences of his pursuits too burthensome for him to support, joined in raising an annual subscription for defraying them. This assistance he without hesitation accepted, considering it as more truly honourable to himself than a pension from the crown, which might have been obtained for him, if he had wished it, during the short administration of the marquis of Rockingham, and the early part of that of Mr. Pitt. Some of these subscriptions were made with a view to defray the expences of his philosophical experiments only, but the greater part of the subscribers were equally friends to his theological studies. | He had not been long settled at Birmingham, before a vacancy happened in the principal dissenting congregation, and he was unanimously chosen to supply it. Theology now again occupied a principal share of his attention, and he published his “History of the Corruptions of Christians,” and “History of early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ.” These proved to be, what might be expected, a fertile source of controversy, into which he entered with his usual keenness, and he had for his antagonists two men not easily repelled, the rev. Mr. Badcock, and Dr. Horsley, in whose articles we have already noticed their controversies with this polemic. The renewed applications of the dissenters, for relief from the penalties and disabilities of the corporation and test acts, afforded another topic of discussion, in which Dr. Priestley took an active part; and he did not now scruple to assert that all ecclesiastical establishments were hostile to the rights of private judgment, and the propagation of truth, and therefore represented them as anti-christian, and predicted their downfall, in a style of inveteracy which made him be considered as the most dangerous enemy of the established religion, in its connection vvith the state. Some of the clergy of Birmingham having warmly opposed the dissenters’ claims, Dr. Priestley published a series of “Familiar Letters to the Inhabitants of Birmingham,” which, on account of their ironical manner, as well as the matter, gave great offence. In this state of irritation, another cause of animosity was added by the different feelings concerning the French revolution. The anniversary of the capture of the Bastille, July 14th, had been kept as a festival by the friends of the cause and its celebration was prepared at Birmingham in 1791. Dr. Priestley declined joining the party but a popular tumult ensued, in which he was particularly the object of fury. His house, with his fine library, manuscripts, and apparatus, were made a prey to the flames, and this at a time when it was generally asserted that the mobs in other great cities were rather favourable to the republican cause. After a legal investigation, he received a compensation for his losses, which compensation he stated himself, at 2,000l. short of the actual, loss he sustained. In this he reckoned many manuscripts, the value of which no jury could estimate, and which indeed could have been calculated only in his own imagination. He was not, however, without friends, who purchased for him a library and apparatus equal, according to his own account, to what he had lost. | He now came to London, and took up his residence at Hackney, where in a very short time he was chosen to succeed his deceased friend, Dr. Price, as minister to a congregation there; and he had at the same time some connection with the new college lately established in that village. Resuming his usual occupations of every kind, he passed some time in comfort and tranquillity; “but,” say his apologists, “he soon found public prejudice following him in every path, and himself and his family molested by the rude assaults of malignity, which induced him finally to quit a country so hostile to his person and principles.” On the other hand, we are told, that, “had Dr. Priestley conducted himself at Hackney like a peaceable member of society, and in his appeals to the public on the subject of the riots at Birmingham, expressed himself with less acrimony of the government of the country, the prejudices of the people would very quickly have given way to compassion. But when he persisted in accusing the magistrates and clergy, and even the supreme government of his country, of what had been perpetrated by a lawless mob, and appealed from the people, and even the laws of England, to the societies of the * Friends of the Constitution’ at Paris, Lyons, Nantz, &c. to the academy of sciences at Paris, when Condorcet was secretary, and to the united Irishmen of Dublin, how was it possible that the prejudices of loyal Englishmen could subside?

Whichever of these opinions is the true one, it is certain that Dr. Priestley felt his situation uncomfortable, and accordingly, in the month of April 1794, embarked for America, and took up his residence at the town of Northumberland, in Pennsylvania. It was a considerable labour, in this remote situation, to get a well-furnished library and chemical laboratory; but he at length surmounted all obstacles, and effected his purpose. He was offered a chemical professorship in Philadelphia, which he declined, not meaning to engage in any public duty, in order that he might be enabled to devote his whole time to his accustomed pursuits, in which he soon shewed his philosophical friends that he was not idle. Here, however, he was not generally so well received as he expected; and during the administration of Mr. Adams, he was regarded by the American government with suspicion and dislike: but that of Mr. Jefferson was afterwards very friendly to him. A severe illness, which he suffered in Philadelphia, | laid the foundation of a debility of his digestive organs, which gradually brought on a state of bodily weakness, while his mind continued in full possession of all its faculties. Of his last illness and death, we shall subjoin the account as given in the Philadelphia Gazette.

“Since his illness at Philadelphia, in the year 1801, he never regained his former good state of health. His complaint was constant indigestion, and a difficulty of swallowing food of any kind. But during this period of general debility, he was busily employed in printing his Church History, and the first volume of his Notes on the Scriptures, and in making new and original experiments. During this period, likewise, he wrote his pamphlet of Jesus and Socrates compared, and reprinted his Essay on Phlogiston.

“From about the beginning of November 1803, to the middle of January 1804, his complaint grew more serious; yet, by judicious medical treatment, and strict attention to diet, he, after some time, seemed, if not gaining strength, at least not getting worse; and his friends fondly hoped that his health would continue to improve as the season, advanced. Ke, however, considered his life as very precarious. Even at this time, besides his miscellaneous reading, which was at all times very extensive, he read through all the works quoted in his “Comparison of the different Systems of Grecian philosophers with Christianity;” composed that work, and transcribed the whole of it in less than three months; so that he has left it ready for the press. During this period he composed, in one day, his Second Reply to Dr. Linn.

“In the last fortnight of January, his fits of indigestion became more alarming, his legs swelled, and his weakness increased. Within two days of his death, he became so weak, that he could walk but a little way, and that with great difficulty. For some time he found himself unable to speak; but, on recovering a little, he told his friends, that he had never felt more pleasantly during his whole lifetime, than during the time he was unable to speak. He was fully sensible that he had not long to live, yet talked with cheerfulness to all who called on him. In the course of the day he expressed his thankfulness at being permitted to die quietly in his family, without pain, and with every convenience and comfort that he could wish for. He dwelt upon the peculiarly happy situation in which it had | pleased the Divine Being to place him in life, and the great advantage he had enjoyed in the acquaintance and friendship of some of the best and wisest men of the age in which he lived, and the satisfaction he derived from having led an useful as well as happy life. He this day gave directions about printing the remainder of his Notes on Scripture (a work, in the completion of which he was much interested), and looked over the first sheet of the third volume, after it was corrected by those who were to attend to its completion, and expressed his satisfaction at the manner of its being executed.

“On Sunday, the 5th, he was much weaker, but sat up in an arm-chair for a few minutes. He desired that John, chap. xi. might be read to him: he stopped the reader at the 45th verse, dwelt for some time on the advantage he had derived from reading the Scriptures daily, and recommended this practice, saying, that it would prove a source of the purest pleasure. `We shall all (said he) meet finally; we only require different degrees of discipline suited to our different tempers, to prepare us for final happiness.‘ Mr. ——— coming into his room, he said, `You see, sir, I am still living.’ Mr. ——— observed, `that he would always live.' `Yes, I believe I shall; we shall meet again in another and a better world.‘ He said this with great animation, laying hold of Mr. ———’s hand in both his own. After evening prayers, when his grand-children were brought to his bed-side, he spoke to them separately, and exhorted them to continue to love each other, &c. ‘ I am going (added he) to sleep as well as you, for death is only a good long sound sleep in the grave, and we shall meet again.’

“On Monday morning, the 9th of February, on being asked how he did, he answered in a faint voice, that he had no pain, but appeared fainting away gradually. About eight o’clock, he desired to have three pamphlets which had been looked out by his directions the evening before. He then dictated as clearly and distinctly as he had ever done in his life, the additions and alterations which he wished to have made in each. M——— took down the substance of what he said, which was read to him. He observed, `Sir, you have put in your own language, I wishj it to be mine.‘ He then repeated over again, nearly word for word, what he had before said, and when it was transcribed, and read over to him, he said, That is right, I have now done.’ | “About half an hour after, he desired that he might be removed to a cot. About ten minutes after he was removed to it, he died (Feb. 6, 1804) but breathed his last so easily, that those who were sitting close to him did not immediately perceive it. He had put his hand to his face, which prevented them from observing it.”

There are many circumstances in this account which the reader will consider with profound attention. It is unnecessary to point them out, or to attempt a lengthened character of Dr. Priestley. It has been said with truth that of his abilities, none can hesitate to pronounce that they are of first-rate excellence. His philosophical inquiries and publications claim the greatest distinction, and have materially contributed to the advancement of science. As an experimental philosopher, he was among the first of his age. As a divine, had he proved as diligent in propagating truth as in disseminating error, in establishing the gospel in the minds of men, instead of shaking their belief in the doctrines of revelation, perhaps few characters of the last century would have ranked higher as learned men, or have been held in greater estimation. Such, however, was not the character of his theological writings, which, as Dr. Johnson said, were calculated to unsettle every thing, but to settle nothing. All this accords with the sentiments of the great majority of the nation, with respect to Dr. Priestley as a divine, although we are aware that the epithet of bigot will be applied to him who records the fact. On the other hand, in dwelling on Dr. Priestley’s character as a philosopher, his friends may take the most effectual method of reconciling all parties, and handing down his fame undiminished to the latest posterity. We have enumerated his principal works in the preceding sketch, but the whole amount to about 70 volumes, or tracts, in 8vo. An analysis of them is given in the “Life,” to which we are principally indebted for the above particulars. 1


Memoirs," partly written by himself, and partly by his Son, 1806-7, 2 vols. 8vo. —Gent, Mag. LXXIV, —Rees’s Cyclopedia, &c.