Flammable Gas: Priestley as Propagandist
Joseph Priestley is best known as the discoverer of oxygen. Yet he claimed in a letter written shortly before his death in 1804 that scientific investigation was for him ‘never more than of secondary consideration’. He saw his main life’s work as the defence of ‘rational Christianity’ or Unitarianism — dubbed by Coleridge ‘One-Goddism’. But it was the third strand in Priestley’s career, his political involvement in the American and French Revolutions, and in the constitutional reform movement in England, that earned this Yorkshire weaver’s son the nickname of ‘Gunpowder Joe’. Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of Government, published in 1768, begins by asserting the fundamental axiom of the Enlightenment that knowledge is the key to progress: ‘Whatever was the beginning of this world, the end will be glorious and paradisiacal beyond what our imaginations can now conceive.’ The role of government, he argues, is to assist ‘this progress of the human species towards this glorious state’. His pamphlet is devoted to the examination of the ‘fundamental principles’ of government, and to a consideration of ‘what is most conductive to the happiness of mankind’.1
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- 1.Priestley, Essay on the First Principles of Government 2nd edn (London, 1771) 9–10.Google Scholar