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   Removes to London—Declines a pension—Renews his acquaintance with Franklin—Goes to Birmingham—Becomes a member of the Lunar Society.

On leaving Calne, Priestley repaired to London. His position was somewhat precarious, as he had practically nothing but his allowance from Lord Shelburne to support him. This, although larger than the stipend he had enjoyed at Leeds, was barely sufficient for his growing family. Friends however were not wanting to come to his assistance. Indeed, during his residence at Calne, some of them observing, as they said, that many of his experiments had not been carried to their proper extent on account of the expense that would have attended them, proposed to supply him with whatever sums he should want for that purpose and named a hundred pounds per annum.

    “This large subscription I declined,” he says, “lest the discovery of it (by the use that I should, of course, make of it) should give umbrage to Lord Shelburne; but I consented to accept forty pounds per annum, which from that time he (Dr Fothergill) regularly paid me from the contribution of himself, Sir Theodore Jansen, Mr Constable and Sir George Savile.”

This sentence is characteristic of Priestley and of much of his autobiography. Probably no man with so many enemies had such troops of friends, and certainly none had so many and such generous benefactors. And the measure of their beneficence was only equalled by that of Priestley’s gratitude and sense of obligation. Indeed, he says the chief object he had in putting together his 90 memoirs was that he thought it right to leave behind him some account of his friends and benefactors, and accordingly we find that the incidents in his career are dwelt upon by him rather with the idea of illustrating his indebtedness to others than as records of his own achievements.

On his removal to London, where he contemplated resuming his profession as a teacher, Dr Fothergill and his co-subscribers considerably increased his allowance for experiments, whilst at the same time other friends were not less zealous that he should have the means to pursue his theological studies and to publish the fruits of his labours.

Indeed, all who could in any way assist seemed to vie with one another in help. Parker, the optician of Fleet Street, supplied him with every instrument that he wanted in glass, and Wedgwood, the potter, sent him innumerable retorts, tubes and other articles of clay. Without such assistance he could not have carried on his experiments, except on a very small scale and under great disadvantages.

During Lord Rockingham’s administration, and subsequently at the beginning of that of Mr Pitt, some suggestions were made to provide Priestley with a pension to assist in defraying the expense of his inquiries.[14]

He however declined all overtures of this kind, wishing, as he said, to preserve himself independent of everything connected with the court, and preferring the 91 assistance of individuals who were lovers of liberty as well as of science.

His winter’s residence in London threw him constantly into the society of his old friend Franklin; indeed, he says, as members of the same club few days passed without their seeing one another, and their friendship ripened into the closest intimacy.

There can be no doubt that this intercourse with Franklin not only led Priestley to the study of natural science, but quickened and fostered his love of civil and political liberty. Priestley in his autobiography does ample justice to Franklin’s efforts to maintain the union of the American Colonies with this country.

    “But Franklin,” says Mr Choate (Inaugural address as President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, October 23, 1903), “was more than a staunch Loyalist. He was an Imperialist in the most stalwart sense of the word, and on a very broad gauge.”

His biographer, Parton, truly says:—

    “It was one of Franklin’s most cherished opinions that the greatness of England and the happiness of America depended chiefly upon their being cordially united. The ‘country’ which Franklin loved was not England nor America, but the great and glorious Empire which these two united to form.”

In writing to Lord Kames, he said:—

    “I have long been of opinion that the foundations of the future grandeur and stability of the British Empire lie in America; and though, like other foundations, they are low and little now, they are nevertheless broad and strong enough to support the greatest political structure that human wisdom ever yet erected.”

In 1774 he wrote:—

    “It has long appeared to me that the only true British policy was that which aimed at the good of the whole British Empire, 92 not that which sought the advantage of one part in the disadvantage of the others; therefore all measures of procuring gain to the Mother Country arising from loss to her colonies, and all gain to the Colonies arising from or occasioning loss to Britain, especially where the gain was small and the loss was great ... I in my own mind condemned as improper, partial, unjust and mischievous, tending to create dissensions and weaken that union on which the strength, solidity and duration of the Empire greatly depended; and I opposed, as far as my little powers went, all proceedings, either here or in America, that in my opinion had such tendency.”

Priestley’s testimony is no less explicit. He says:—

    “The unity of the British Empire in all its parts was a favourite idea of his. He used to compare it to a beautiful china vase which, if ever broken, could never be put together again, and so great an admirer was he of the British constitution that he said he saw no inconvenience from its being extended over a great part of the globe.”

In the autobiography we further read:—

    “I can bear witness that he (Franklin) was so far from promoting, as was generally supposed, that he took every method in his power to prevent a rupture between the two countries. He urged so much the doctrine of forbearance, that for some time he was unpopular with the Americans on that account, as too much a friend to Great Britain. His advice to them was to bear everything for the present, as they were sure in time to outgrow all their grievances, as it could not be in the power of the Mother Country to oppress them long.

    “He dreaded the war, and often said that if the difference should come to an open rupture it would be a war of ten years, and he should not live to see the end of it. In reality the war lasted nearly eight years, but he did not live to see the happy termination of it. That the issue would be favourable to America he never doubted. The English, he used to say, may take all our great towns, but that will not give them possession of the country. The last day that he spent in England, having given out that he should leave London the day before, we passed together without any other company; and much of the time was employed in reading American 93 newspapers, especially accounts of the reception which the ‘Boston Port Bill’ met with in America; and as he read the addresses to the inhabitants of Boston from the places in the neighbourhood the tears trickled down his cheeks.”

What Franklin thought of Priestley may be gathered from the following extract from one of his letters to Vaughan, one of Priestley’s Warrington pupils, written in October 1788 after his return to America:—

    “Remember me affectionately to the good Dr Price and to the honest heretic, Dr Priestley. I do not call him honest by way of distinction, for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude, or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not, like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however, mistake me. It is not to my good friend’s heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary ’tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic.”

In 1780, at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, John Wilkinson, one of his truest friends, Priestley was led to take up his residence in Birmingham. There were many circumstances which made this step desirable. In Birmingham he had friends prepared to welcome him and society in every way sympathetic and congenial. Moreover, he was desirous of resuming his ministerial duties, which had been intermitted for the past six or seven years, and an opportunity of doing so, with a congregation not less liberal than he had served at Leeds, offered itself, owing to the approaching retirement of Mr Hawkes from the charge of the New Meeting. As regards his philosophical pursuits he had the convenience of good workmen of every kind and he could count upon the practical sympathy and interest of men like Watt, his partner Boulton, Keir, Withering, Wedgwood, 94 Erasmus Darwin, and the Galtons, all at that time living in Birmingham or in its vicinity. These men and their friends constituted indeed a cultured society without a parallel in any other town in the kingdom, except possibly in the Metropolis. The more eminent of them formed themselves into an association, to which frequent reference is made in the biographical literature of the period, on account of the part which it played in the social and intellectual life of the Midlands.

The Lunar Society of Birmingham appears to have been formed about the year 1766 by Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin, at that time resident in Birmingham. The members were about ten or a dozen in number and met at each other’s houses for dinner once a month on the Monday nearest to the full moon, in order to have the benefit of its light in returning home. They were in the habit of sitting down to dinner at two o’clock and their meeting lasted until eight.

Each member was allowed to bring a friend, and thus it happened that many distinguished men were recipients, at various times, of the Club’s hospitality. Among them we find Wedgwood, Sir Joseph Banks, Sir William Herschel, Smeaton, the builder of the Eddystone Lighthouse; Dr Samuel Parr, the critic; Afzelius, the teacher of Berzelius; Solander, the well-known naturalist and traveller; De Luc and other names eminent in the literary and scientific annals of the century.

As might be supposed from what we know of its founders and their friends the constitution of the society was on the broadest possible basis. “We had nothing to do,” says Priestley, “with the religious or political principles of each other; we were united by a common 95 love of science, which we thought sufficient to bring together persons of all distinctions—Christians, Jews, Mahometans and heathens, Monarchists and Republicans.”

The invitations issued by the host were usually accompanied by some intimation of the nature of the impending symposium. Thus Watt writes to Darwin, under date Jan. 3, 1781:—

    “I beg that you would impress on your memory the idea that you promised to dine with sundry men of learning at my house on Monday next, and that you will realise the idea. For your encouragement there is a new book to be cut up, and it is to be determined whether or not heat is a compound of phlogiston and empyreal air, and whether a mirror can reflect the heat of the fire. I give you a friendly warning that you may be found wanting whichever opinion you adopt in the latter question, therefore be cautious. If you are meek and humble, perhaps you may be told what light is made of, and also how to make it, and the theory proved both by synthesis and analysis.”

The discussions of the philosophic convives were not, however, confined exclusively to chemistry.

    “The period,” says Mr Carrington Bolton, “was one of great activity in the world of science; Laplace was applying his mathematical genius to the problems of astronomy; Herschel was sweeping the heavens with his gigantic telescopes; Galvani and Volta were laying the foundations of a revolution in electricity; Count Rumford in Bavaria was devoting his great energy to industrial and social economy; Hatton and Werner were geologising in their respective countries; Haüy was systematising the innumerable crystalline forms occurring in nature; the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with air-balloons and prophesying the yet unsolved problem o............
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