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    Becomes literary companion to Lord Shelburne—Goes abroad—His visit to Paris—His scientific work at Calne and in London—Continues his theological and metaphysical studies—His growing unpopularity—Leaves Lord Shelburne.

Priestley continued at Leeds for about six years. Although very happy there he was tempted to leave Mill Hill Chapel to enter the service of Lord Shelburne. How he was regarded by his flock may be gleaned from the addresses which were presented to him on the eve of his departure; these, together with his own farewell letter, are still preserved among the Chapel books of Mill Hill. But a stipend of one hundred guineas a year, and a house which was not adequate to contain a family now increased by the birth of two sons, and with no possibility of making any provision for them in the event of his death, induced him to accept Lord Shelburne’s proposals.

Lord Shelburne, afterwards first Marquis of Lansdowne, one of the most enlightened of the many politicians who sought to direct the destinies of this kingdom during the stormy times of the last thirty years of the eighteenth century, had been Secretary of State in Pitt’s administration of 1766, but had been dismissed from office in 1768 on account of his conciliatory policy towards America, and at this particular time was living in retirement at Bowood. Under these circumstances his lordship, a man of culture and fond of literature, sought the companionship of some kindred spirit. Through the good offices of Dr Price, a mutual 83 friend, he was led to make Priestley so generous an offer—viz., two and a half times his Leeds salary, a pleasant house at Calne in the summer and a house in town during the winter, and a retiring allowance for life should their connection be dissolved—that our philosopher was constrained to accept a position which, despite its perils and possible constraints, was so alluring. The engagement seems to have given satisfaction also to Priestley’s friends, if we may judge from the following extract from one of Wedgwood’s letters to his partner at Etruria, Thomas Bentley of Liverpool, one of the founders of the Warrington Academy:—

    “I am glad to hear of Dr Priestley’s noble appointment, taking it for granted that he is to go on writing and publishing with the same freedom he now does, otherwise I had much rather he still remained in Yorkshire.” Meteyard, II. 451.

In their political sentiments, and in their views on the great questions which at that time divided parties, the two men had much in common. Lord Shelburne was certainly not unaware of Priestley’s political proclivities, and the pamphlet he had written at Franklin’s instigation on the American question probably expressed his Lordship’s own sentiments. At the same time Priestley was under no obligation to serve Lord Shelburne politically, and there is no evidence that any such service was either expected or rendered. His office was nominally that of librarian, but he had little to do in that capacity beyond arranging and cataloguing the books and numerous manuscripts at Bowood and Lansdowne House and making an index of Lord Shelburne’s private papers. Indeed, Lord Shelburne treated him rather as a companion and friend than as a servant, taking him, in the second year of his engagement, 84 on a journey through Flanders, Holland and Germany as far as Strasburg, and spending a month in Paris. The time he spent on the Continent made him sensible of the benefit of foreign travel, even without the advantage of much conversation with foreigners. Indeed, he says the very sight of new countries, buildings and customs of an unfamiliar type, even the very hearing of a fresh language, however unintelligible, stimulates and widens the mind and gives it new ideas. He saw everything to the best advantage and without any anxiety or trouble, and he had an opportunity of meeting and conversing with every person of eminence wherever he went, the political characters by Lord Shelburne’s connections and the literary and scientific ones by his own. One of these was Magellan, or Magalh?ns, a Portuguese Jesuit descended from the great navigator of that name. He resided in England, where he died in, or shortly before, 1790. He had early information on scientific matters from abroad, and was frequently employed in procuring English instruments for foreigners. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and an active correspondent of Lavoisier’s, to whom he sent all scientific memoirs published in England, Priestley’s among the number. Magellan was the subject of a notable trial at law—one of the last indeed of its kind in England. He was indicted at the suit of a common informer under the statute against saying Mass, but the suit, which was heard before Lord Mansfield, was dismissed on some point of legal informality.

It was, no doubt, mainly through Magellan that Priestley was brought into the society of that brilliant galaxy of men of science which at that period was the 85 glory of France. In some respects he was out of sympathy with this environment, and, as he confesses, soon tired of Paris. Priestley never obtruded his religious convictions on any company he might be in; at the same time he never forgot that he was a Christian and a minister of religion. What is now called Agnosticism was at least as prevalent during the latter half of the eighteenth century as at any period of the history of Europe. Priestley tells us that a great part of the company he saw at Lord Shelburne’s did not really know what Christianity was, and Lord Shelburne numbered among his friends and political associates almost all who were intellectually eminent at that time in this country. He was not unprepared, therefore, to find that all the philosophers to whom he was introduced at Paris were unbelievers in Christianity and even professed Atheists. He was told, indeed, by some of them that he was the only person they had ever met with, of whose understanding they had any opinion, who professed to believe Christianity. It was this experience which caused Priestley to write his Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. He says that as he had conversed so much with unbelievers at home and abroad he thought he should be able to combat their prejudices with advantage. Indeed, he was wont to say that the greatest satisfaction he received from the success of his philosophical pursuits arose from the genuine weight it gave to his attempts to defend the principles of Christianity and to free it from those corruptions which prevent its reception with philosophical and thinking persons.

Of the many advantages he enjoyed through his connection with Lord Shelburne, Priestley was always 86 fully sensible. It came to him at the most opportune period of his career, and in the full tide of his intellectual vigour. The years he spent in this association were, so far at least as science is concerned, the most fruitful of his life. Lord Shelburne was a generous patron, and particularly encouraged Priestley in his chemical inquiries, affording him ample opportunity for their prosecution and defraying much of the expense they occasioned. He had pleasure in witnessing his experiments, and frequently requested him to exhibit them to his guests, particularly to foreigners, by whom a knowledge of Priestley’s work was thus spread abroad.

Priestley’s energies were, however, not wholly engrossed by his scientific labours. Theology and metaphysics still claimed much of his time, and to this period belongs the concluding portion of his Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion and his Harmony of the Gospels, and his Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit. He also at this time wrote some Miscellaneous Observations relating to Education, and published his Warrington Lectures on Oratory and Criticism, which he dedicated to his patron’s eldest son, Lord Fitzmaurice.

Certain of these publications occasioned considerable uproar at the time of their appearance: the outcry indeed was such, he says, as could hardly have been imagined. He was attacked in almost every newspaper, and in the greater number of the periodicals, as an unbeliever in revelation and no better than an Atheist. In the preface to his Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion he had been led to question the principles of Reid, Beattie and Oswald with respect to their doctrine of common sense, which they had made to supersede all 87 rational inquiry into the subject of religion, and he subsequently developed the attack in a separate publication. He expressed his belief in the doctrine of philosophical necessity and his admiration of Hartley’s theory of the human mind. He had uttered some doubt of the immateriality of the sentient principle in man, and after giving, as he says, the closest attention to the subject, he was firmly persuaded that man is wholly material, and that our only prospect of immortality is from the Christian doctrine of a resurrection.

Priestley clearly recognised that many of these publications were not calculated to improve his relations with Lord Shelburne. Indeed, he says several attempts were made by Lord Shelburne’s friends, though none by himself, to dissuade him from persisting in them.

He goes on to say that:—

    “In order to proceed with the greatest caution in a business of such moment I desired some of my learned friends, and especially Dr Price, to peruse the work before it was published, and the remarks that he made upon it led to a free and friendly discussion of the several subjects of it, which are afterwards published jointly, and it remains a proof of the possibility of discussing subjects mutually considered as of the greatest importance with the most perfect good-temper and without the least diminution of friendship.”

Lord Shelburne’s political enemies were not slow to take advantage of the outcry raised against Priestley by the orthodox and to strike at the patron through the philosopher.

It is obvious, from Priestley’s letters to his friends at about this period, that he was sensible that his relations with Pitt’s Secretary of State had become somewhat strained, and when he received an intimation through Dr Price that Lord Shelburne wished to give him an 88 establishment in Ireland, where he had large property, he interpreted this as signifying that the Minister desired that their connection should be severed. They parted amicably, Lord Shelburne continuing to pay him the promised annuity of £150 until the end of his days, paying it, too, contrary to the insinuation of his enemies, with perfect punctuality. That there was no unfriendly feeling on the part of Lord Shelburne at a separation which seemed to be dictated solely by considerations of political exigency would appear from the circumstance that a few years later he sent a common friend to Priestley, who was then settled in Birmingham, to invite him to resume his old position, accompanying his request with expressions which left no doubt of the value he set upon the companionship. Sensible as Priestley was of Lord Shelburne’s feelings towards him, he was in no mind to return to a situation which experience had shown might be incompatible with independence.


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