Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 46.djvu/369

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Priestley
Priestley
363

'Unitarian Society.' The preamble, drawn by Thomas Belsham [q. v.], was meant to exclude Arians ; nevertheless Price joined it. Meanwhile he was pursuing his experiments in science and publishing the results.

In politics he had taken little part. He had written in 1769 and 1774 two anonymous pamphlets on the relations of Great Britain with the colonies. The second of these (against war) was revised by Franklin, with whom he was on the most confidential terms. His intimacy with Burke lasted till 1783. He states that he was never a member of any political club, though it appears that he had attended the Birmingham dinner (4 Nov. 1788) in celebration of the landing of William III, from which the toast of 'church and constitution' was excluded ; and he had a hand in the framing of the Birmingham Constitutional Society (June 1791) on the model of that at Manchester. The measures of reform in the advocacy of which he co-operated were the abolition of the slave trade, and the repeal of the test and corporation acts. On the latter topic he wrote his 'Letter to Pitt' (1787) and a Fifth of November sermon (1789). The defeat of Fox's motion for repeal (2 March 1790) was largely caused by the preface (17 Feb.) of Priestley's 'Letters' addressed to Edward Burn [q. v.] Extracts were furnished to all members of the House of Commons. He had called on the clergy to avert revolution by reform, and, with more imagination than usual, described his own theological efforts as 'grains of gunpowder ' for which his opponents were 'providing the match' (Works, xix. 311). The nickname 'Gunpowder Priestley' was adopted in songs and caricatures. Popular feeling against him was increased by his 'Letters to Burke' (1 Jan. 1791), in which he vindicated the principles of the French revolution. These ran through three editions, and were followed in June by his anonymous 'Dialogue on the General Principles of Government.'

On Thursday, 14 July 1791, the 'Constitutional Society' of Birmingham held a dinner in Thomas Dadley's Hotel, Temple Row, to commemorate the fall of the Bastille. Priestley had 'little to do' with it, but he meant to be present, and on 6 July he asked William Hutton (1723-1815) [q. v.] and Berington to join the party; they both declined. The promoters invited, by public advertisement (7 July), 'any friend to freedom.' An inflammatory handbill of republican tendency was disowned by the promoters, who publicly advertised their 'firm attachment to the constitution.' On the morning of the 14th his friend Russell sent Priestley a note from town, advising him not to attend the dinner ; hence he did not go. An angry crowd hung about the door as the company (numbering eighty-one) assembled at three o'clock, but the dinner, during which some extravagant toasts were honoured, ended quietly before six. The chairman, James Keir [q. v.], was a churchman (for the toasts see Authentic Account, pp. 32 sq.) It appears there was a dinner, not public, 'of the opposite party,' at the Swan in Bull Street, which kept up till a later hour.

About eight o'clock in the evening the crowd broke the windows of Dadley's Hotel. Finding that the guests had left, the mob directed their attention to the residences of the organisers, among whom they wrongly assumed Priestley was the chief. After wrecking and burning the New Meeting and the Old Meeting, they attacked Priestley's house at Fairhill, a mile from Birmingham, and destroyed nearly all his books, papers, and apparatus. He and his family managed to escape before the incendiaries arrived. Rioting continued on Friday and Saturday ; the town was in the hands of the mob, the gaols were opened, seven residences were burned, and many others wrecked ; the meeting-house at Kingswood, seven miles from Birmingham, was also destroyed. The magistrates were powerless ; great exertions to restore order were made by Heneage Finch, fourth earl of Aylesford (a pupil of Horsley), without avail. At length dragoons arrived from Nottingham on Saturday night, and the disorder ceased.

Much mutual recrimination filled the pamphlets of the time. The Riot Act was not read at the beginning of the disorder, as it was next year (May 1792) to stop a raid on the brothels of Birmingham (Parr). Priestley's friends charged the authorities, including the clergy, with culpable dereliction of duty. This view was shared by Sir Samuel Romilly, who was in Birmingham in the latter part of July, and it was emphasised in the well-known lines in Coleridge's 'Religious Musings written on Christmas Eve,' 1794. Priestley's friends, however, hardly made allowance for their own miscalculation of the current of popular feeling to which they ran counter. George III, writing to Dundas, expressed himself as 'pleased that Priestley is the sufferer,' though disapproving the 'atrocious means' employed. For Priestley it was a rude awakening. He had passed the day in the company of Adam Walker, a lecturer on physics from London, who had dined at Fairhill. Late in the evening, while playing backgammon with his wife, he was warned of his danger, and, though incredulous, he