Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/August 1874/Sketch of the Life of Dr. Priestley
|SKETCH OF THE LIFE OF DR. PRIESTLEY.|
IT is unnecessary to call attention to the eloquent and impressive lecture by Dr. Draper which opens the present number of The Popular Science Monthly. It will be read with avidity and pleasure by all classes as a beautiful tribute to a noble man, and as treating one of the most brilliant of scientific discoveries with the true poetic inspiration which well befits so grand a theme. Dr. Draper's statement is as fresh and felicitous as if his lecture had just been prepared to commemorate the centennial of the Discovery of Oxygen, and but few will suspect on perusing it that it was delivered a quarter of a century ago, before the medical students of the New York University; of course with no reference whatever to the present occasion. It was privately printed by the class for their own use, and has never before been given to the public. Its perusal cannot fail to sharpen the interest of readers to know more of the personality of the remarkable man who made the greatest of all chemical discoveries, and to whose eventful career there attaches so romantic an interest. The materials of the following sketch are compiled from the summary of Priestley's work given by Dr. Thomas Thomson, in his history of chemistry in 1829, and from the "Autobiography and Life of Priestley," published by his son in 1807.
Joseph Priestley was born in 1733, near Leeds, in Yorkshire, England. His father was a poor mechanic, a cloth-dresser, and his mother the daughter of a farmer. He was the eldest child, and, having lost his mother when six years of age, he went to live with his aunt, a woman in good circumstances, without children, and who adopted him. She was a dissenter, and her house was the resort of all the dissenting ministers in the country; and it is important to observe that, although a very religious woman, she was so thoroughly liberal as to welcome even the most unorthodox clergymen to her hospitality, and to encourage the widest latitude of opinion—a circumstance which probably determined the career of her nephew. Joseph was sent to a public school in the neighborhood, and at sixteen had made considerable progress in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He had thoughts of studying for a clergyman, but, his health failing, he turned his attention to trade, with the idea of settling in Lisbon as a merchant. This induced him to study the modern languages, and he learned French, Italian, and German, without a master. Recovering his health, he abandoned the business scheme, and resumed his former plan of becoming a minister. Having made some progress in mechanical philosophy and metaphysics, and dipped into Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic, and learned a system of short-hand, in 1752 he was sent to the academy at Daventry. Here he spent three years, engaged keenly in studies connected with divinity, and wrote some of his earliest theological tracts. Freedom of discussion was admitted to its full extent in this academy, and the discussions among the students were conducted with perfect good-humor on both sides. Young Priestley, as he tells us himself, usually supported the heterodox opinion; but he never at any time, as he assures us, advanced arguments which he did not believe to be good, or supported an opinion which he did not consider as true.
When he left the academy, he settled at Needham, in Suffolk, as an assistant in a small, obscure dissenting meeting-house, at a salary of $150 a year. From the outset he was an original and independent thinker, and as a preacher he gave free and conscientious expression to the views he was led to adopt. It could hardly be otherwise than, that such a course would be distasteful to many people whose religion consisted in the acceptance of a system of dogmatic theology. Hence his hearers fell off at Needham, from their dislike of his theological opinions. He attempted a school, but the scheme failed because of his unpopularity. Several pulpit vacancies occurred in his vicinity, but he was treated with contempt and thought unworthy to fill any of them. Even the dissenting clergy in the neighborhood considered it a degradation to associate with him, and durst not ask him to preach, not from any dislike to his opinions, for several of them thought as freely as he did, but because the genteeler part of their audiences always absented themselves when he appeared in the pulpit. A good many years afterward, when his reputation was high, he preached in the same place, and multitudes flocked to hear the very same sermons which they had formerly listened to with contempt! Leaving Needham, he went to Nantwich, where he preached for three years; and, by teaching twelve hours a day much of the time, was able to purchase a few books and some philosophical instruments, as a small air-pump, an electrical machine, etc. These he taught his eldest scholars to keep in order and manage; and by entertaining their parents and friends with experiments, in which the scholars were generally the operators, and sometimes the lecturers too, he considerably extended the reputation of his school. At this time he wrote a grammar, which is said to have been an excellent work; but the favorable reception of Dr. Louth's grammar, published about the same time, prevented its general circulation. He practised flute-playing, and, although not a proficient, he found it serviceable as a recreation, and recommended music to all studious persons for this purpose.
From Nantwich he went to Warrington in 1761, where he spent six years in teaching. He here entered zealously upon the prosecution of his systematic studies and his researches. He wrote a variety of works, prominent among which was his history of electricity. In relation to the origin of this work he remarks: "On going to London I met Dr. Franklin, and was led to attend to the subject of experimental philosophy more than I had done before; and having composed all the lectures I had occasion to deliver, and finding myself at liberty for any undertaking, I mentioned to Dr. Franklin an idea that had occurred to me of writing the history of discoveries in electricity, which was his favorite study. This I told him might be a useful work, and that I would willingly undertake it, provided I could be furnished with the books necessary for the purpose. This he readily undertook, and, my other friends assisting him, I set about the work without having the least idea of doing any thing more than writing a distinct and methodical account of all that had been done by others. Having, however, a pretty good machine, I was led, in the course of my writing the history, to endeavor to ascertain several facts which were disputed; and this led me, by degrees, into a large field of original experiments, in which I spared no expense that I could possibly furnish. These experiments employed a great proportion of my leisure time; and yet, before the complete expiration of the year in which I gave the plan of my work to Dr. Franklin, I sent him a copy of it in print." It was this work which first brought him into notice as an experimental philosopher and procured for him the title of Doctor of Laws from the University of Edinburgh, and led to his being made a member of the Royal Society, from which he received its greatest honor, the Copley Medal. He married, while at Warrington, in 1763, the daughter of Mr. Isaac Wilkinson, an iron-master. Although not settled as a clergyman at Warrington, he kept up the habit of preaching, and was here ordained. Dr. Priestley stammered so badly that he sometimes thought he must give up preaching, but he at length measurably conquered the defect by the daily habit of slow reading in a loud voice. He recognized that this defect of delivery saved him from the temptation of trying to be an orator.
In 1767, Dr. Priestley went to Leeds and took charge of a chapel, and here he engaged keenly in the study of theology, and produced a great number of controversial works. He commenced his investigations on airs, and published a history of the discoveries in relation to vision, light, and colors, as the first part of a general history of experimental philosophy, which was not continued, because it failed to pay expenses. Here, likewise, he commenced the publication of a periodical, the Repository, devoted to theological subjects. Among numerous other things, he wrote an "Essay on Government," an enlarged "English Grammar," a "Familiar Introduction to the Study of Electricity," a "Treatise on Perspective and Chart of History," and, at the request of Drs. Franklin and Fothergill, an "Address to Dissenters on the Subject of the Difference with America."
It was in 1769, while at Leeds, that Dr. Priestley came into conflict with Blackstone, the celebrated author of the commentaries on the laws of England. Having, in that work, approved the statutes of Edward VI. and Queen Elizabeth, denouncing the penalties of confiscation and imprisonment against all who speak in derogation of the Book of Common Prayer, and justified the continuance of these penalties, Dr. Priestley replied to him, pointing out the injustice of such statutes, and the illiberality of those who undertake to defend them. He also convicted Dr. Blackstone of inaccuracy in the statement of historical facts. To this the learned lawyer made a reply, disavowing the sentiment that "the spirit, the principles, and the practices of the sectaries, are not calculated to make men good subjects;" and generously promised to cancel the offensive paragraphs in the future editions of his work. Dr. Priestley addressed him a handsome letter, and the controversy was brought to an amicable conclusion.
It was while at Leeds, in the year 1771, that Dr. Priestley was invited by Sir Joseph Banks, who had charge of the scientific arrangements, to accompany Captain Cook's second expedition to the South Seas, in the capacity of astronomer, and accepted the invitation. He was, however, rejected by the Board of Longitude, on account of his religious opinions, which called from him the following pointed letter to Sir Joseph Banks:
|"Leeds, December 10, 1771.|
|I am, etc.,J. Priestley."|
After six years' stay at Leeds, Dr. Priestley left, and entered into a relation with Lord Shelburne, afterward Marquis of Lansdowne, the arrangement being brought about by Dr. Price. Priestley was to be librarian and companion to his lordship, with a salary of $1,250 a year, and a house, and a life-pension of $750 a year in case of separation. His family was situated near Lord Shelburne's country-seat, where he spent his summers, but a great part of the winter was passed in his lordship's house in London. Priestley traveled with Shelburne on the Continent, and spent some time in Paris, where he says he found "all the philosophical persons, to whom I was introduced at Paris, unbelievers in Christianity, and even professed atheists. As I chose on all occasions to appear as a Christian, I was told by some of them that I was the only person they had ever met with, of whose understanding they had any opinion, who professed to believe in Christianity. But, on interrogating them on the subject, I soon found that they had given no proper attention to it, and did not really know what Christianity was. This was also the case with a great part of the company that I saw at Lord Shelburne's." While in this situation, Dr. Priestley had much leisure for scientific research, and was active in prosecuting his experiments. Lord Shelburne allowed him $200 a year extra to assist in this object. This arrangement continued seven years, when his lordship seems to have got tired of it, and a separation resulted, although it was entirely amicable. Some years afterward his lordship proposed to renew the relation, but Priestley declined.
Dr. Priestley then took up his residence in Birmingham, where he assumed charge of a congregation, and continued for several years engaged in his theological and scientific investigations. His apparatus, by the liberality of his friends, had become excellent, and his income was now so good that he could prosecute his researches with freedom. He here continued his Theological Repository, and published a variety of tracts on his peculiar opinions in religion and upon the history of the primitive Church.
Dr. Priestley had commenced the investigation of gases while living at Leeds, and had there prepared the first volume of his researches upon air. These researches were continued during his residence with Lord Shelburne, and the last three volumes of his experiments on air were printed after he was settled in Birmingham; and while here he also contributed various papers to the Transactions of the Royal Society. No man ever entered upon any undertaking with less apparent means of success than Dr. Priestley did on the investigation of airs. He was unacquainted with chemistry, excepting that he had some years before attended an elementary course delivered by Mr. Turner, of Liverpool. He had no apparatus, and knew nothing of chemical experimenting, and was without means to carry on investigations. These adverse conditions may, however, have been serviceable as he entered upon a new field of chemistry, where apparatus had to be invented, and the arrangement devised by him for the manipulation of gases is unsurpassed in simplicity, and has been in use ever since. The first of his discoveries was nitrous gas, the properties of which he ascertained with much sagacity, and applied it to the analysis of air. It contributed very much to all subsequent investigations in pneumatic chemistry, and may be said to have led to our present knowledge of the constitution of the atmosphere. It was while living with Lord Shelburne that he made his grand discovery of oxygen gas, and established the properties of that remarkable body. He showed its power of supporting combustion better, and animal life longer, than the same volume of common air. Lavoisier laid claim to the discovery, but Dr. Priestley informs us that he prepared this gas in M. Lavoisier's house in Paris, and showed him the method of procuring it in the year 1774, which is a considerable time before the date assigned by Lavoisier for his pretended discovery. Scheele, however, the Swedish chemist, actually obtained this gas without any previous knowledge of what Priestley had done, but the book containing this discovery was not published till three years after Priestley's process became known to the public.
Dr. Priestley first made known sulphurous acid, fluosilicic acid, and muriatic acid, and pointed out easy methods of procuring them; he describes with exactness the most remarkable properties of each. He likewise pointed out the existence of carburetted hydrogen gas, though he made but few experiments to determine its nature. He also discovered protoxide of nitrogen, and, after he came to this country, carbonic-oxide gas. Though not strictly the discoverer of hydrogen, yet his experiments on it were highly interesting, and contributed to the progress of the science. Nitrogen had been previously discovered, but we are indebted to him for a knowledge of most of its properties. To him also we owe the knowledge of the fact that an acid is formed when the electric sparks are made to pass for some time through a given bulk of common air; a fact which led afterward to Mr. Cavendish's great discovery of the composition of nitric acid. His experiments on the influence of plants and animals upon the air were interesting and important.
It has been said of Dr. Priestley that he was fond of controversy, yet he never sought it, and, if he participated in it, it was generally because it was thrust upon him, and he became the defendant rather than the assailant. His discussions, so far as they depended upon himself, were commonly carried on without anger, and he was never malicious or even sarcastic, unless provoked. Had he been of a quarrelsome disposition, it would have been evinced in the numerous and changing relations with the people among whom he lived, but he never quitted a situation but with the sincere regrets of those among whom he had dwelt, and with parting testimonies of their affectionate approbation of his conduct. He was, however, a man of strong convictions upon subjects of the highest interest, and of great intellectual force, and, what is still more important, he represented an unpopular class and held opinions that were generally regarded in England with detestation. These facts go far to explain the controversies in which he was engaged, without attributing to him a love of disputation.
It was while in Birmingham that he was drawn into conflict with the established clergy of the place, which became embittered, and, ending in violence and persecution, darkened the close of his life. The utmost that can be said in condemnation of Priestley at this time is, that he expressed his opinions with a degree of freedom which, though it would have been of little consequence at any former period, was ill-suited to the temper of the times. We have seen that Dr. Priestley had published an essay on the first principles of civil government. In this he laid down as the foundation of his reasoning that "it must be understood, whether it be expressed or not, that all people live in society for their mutual advantage; so that the good and happiness of the members, that is the majority of the members of any state, is the great standard by which every thing relating to that state must be finally determined; and, though it may be supposed that a body of people maybe bound by a voluntary resignation of all their rights to a single person, it can never be supposed that the resignation is obligatory on their posterity, because it is manifestly contrary to the good of the whole that it should be so." From this first principle he deduces all his political maxims. Kings, senators, and nobles, are merely the servants of the public; and, when they abuse their power, in the people lies the right of deposing and consequently of punishing them. He examines the expediency of hereditary sovereignty, of hereditary rank and privileges, of the duration of Parliament, and of the right of voting, with an evident tendency to democratic principles. Though he approved of a republic in the abstract, yet, considering the prejudices and habits of the people of Great Britain, he laid it down as a principle that their present form of government was best suited to them. He was an enemy to all violent reforms, and thought that the change ought to be brought about gradually and peaceably.
These principles excited no alarm and drew but little attention at the time of their publication in 1788, but the perturbation occasioned throughout Europe by the French Revolution was very conspicuous in England, and it was during the state of public irritability upon that subject that Dr. Priestley's teachings were made a source of public alarm. Opposed to a state church, liberal in religion, and advocating freedom of thought and liberty of discussion, he was represented as the enemy of the government and the foe of religion. The French recognized his eminent position as a champion of liberal thought, and he was honored by being made a citizen of France, and a member of the Assembly. This made him in a high degree obnoxious at home, and was laid hold of by his antagonists to convince the people that he was an enemy to his country, that he had abjured his rights as an Englishman, and had adopted the principles of the hereditary enemies of Great Britain. The clergy of the English Church, who began about this time to be alarmed for their establishment, of which Dr. Priestley was the open enemy, were particularly active; the press teemed with their denunciations of him, and the minds of their hearers were inflamed against him. This vicious state of feeling at length broke bounds and issued in violence. On the day of the anniversary of the French Revolution, in 1791, there was a riot in Birmingham, in which Dr. Priestley's meeting-house and dwelling-house were burned, his library and apparatus destroyed, and many manuscripts, the fruits of years of industry, were consumed in the conflagration. The houses of several of his friends shared the same fate, and his son was only saved from death by the care of a friend who concealed him for several days. Dr. Priestley was obliged to make his escape to London, and a seat was taken for him in the mail-coach under a borrowed name. Such was the ferment against him that it was believed he would not have been safe anywhere else, and his friends would not allow him for several weeks to walk through the streets. He was invited to Hackney to succeed the celebrated Unitarian clergyman Dr. Price. He accepted, but such was the dread of his unpopularity that nobody would let him have a house, from an apprehension that it would be burned by the populace. He was obliged to get a friend to take the lease for him, and it was with the utmost difficulty that he could prevail with the landlord to transfer the lease to him, as he alleged that he was not only afraid that it would be demolished, but that his own residence, twenty miles off, would go next. When he got settled, his friends living near were advised to remove their valuable effects. Servants could not be induced to stay with him, and his neighbors were in fear of damage by his presence. The members of the Royal Society, of which he was a fellow, declined admitting him to their company, and he was obliged to withdraw his name from the Society. His eldest son was in business in Manchester with a partner who, although a man of liberality himself, was so panic-struck by the state of the public mind that he dissolved the business connection. Dr. Priestley was burned in effigy with Paine, and threatened and denounced in private letters. At a dinner of the prebendaries of a cathedral church, the conversation turning on the riots in Birmingham, and on a clergyman having said that if Dr. Priestley were mounted on a pile of his publications he would set fire to them and burn him alive, they all declared that they would be ready to do the same. Dr. Priestley had been a friend of Edmund Burke, who wrote a furious book against the French. This was replied to by Priestley so ably that the orator was greatly exasperated and inveighed against his friend's character repeatedly in the House of Commons. Dr. Priestley denied his charges, and called on him for proof again and again, but he made no reply, whereupon the doctor published that Burke "had neither ability to maintain his charge nor virtue to retract it." Dr. Priestley was informed, by a person who was boarding at the same house with Burke at Margate when the riots broke out at Birmingham, "that he could not contain his joy, but, running from place to place, he expressed it in the most unequivocal manner."
The prolonged persecution to which Priestley was subjected after the riots, and the extent and virulence of the feeling against him, show that the affair was something more than the mere outbreak of the Birmingham mob, and the course taken by government sufficiently attests that the riotous populace were but the tools of their superiors. While the country in general evidently exulted in his sufferings, the representatives of the nation refused to inquire into the cause of them. The courts delayed to give him the damages to which he was entitled, and their award fell $10,000 short of his real loss. As an illustration of the spirit which ruled the dispensation of justice, it may be mentioned that the manuscript of a work on the Constitution of England, as large as "Blackstone's Commentaries," was destroyed, and Priestley's own lawyer advised him not to make a claim for it, because it would be ruled as a seditious work and aggravate his case. Accordingly, this manuscript, in the schedule of losses, was simply put down as so much paper.
To the charge that he was a promoter of sedition, Dr. Priestley replied by appealing to his entire intellectual career, into which politics had hardly entered at all, from his complete engrossment with other subjects. In relation to this he says: "As to the great odium that I have incurred, the charge of sedition, or my being an enemy to the constitution or peace of my country, is a mere pretense for it, though it has been so much urged that it is now generally believed, and all attempts to undeceive the public with respect to it avail nothing at all. The whole course of my studies from early life shows how little politics of any kind have been my object. Indeed, to have written so much as I have in theology, and to have done so much in experimental philosophy, and at the same time to have had my mind occupied, as it is supposed to have been, with factious politics, I must have had faculties more than human. Let any person only cast his eye over the long list of my publications, and he will see that they relate almost wholly to theology, philosophy, or general literature."
In regard to the religious aspect of the case, he observes: "It might have been thought that, having written so much in defense of revelation, and of Christianity in general, more, perhaps, than all the clergy of the Church of England now living, this defense of a common cause would have been received as some atonement for my demerits in writing against civil establishments of Christianity, and particular doctrines. But, had I been an open enemy of all religion, the animosity against me could not have been greater than it is. Neither Mr. Hume nor Mr. Gibbon was a thousandth part so obnoxious to the clergy as I am; so little respect have my enemies for Christianity itself, compared with what they have for their emoluments from it."
It was the obvious tendency, as it was the undoubted design, of the systematic persecution to which Dr. Priestley was subjected, to drive him from the country. His sons, disgusted with their father's treatment, had renounced England and gone over to France; and it was expected that Dr. Priestley would follow them. He was not at first disposed to comply with the general expectation, and stated that he should not be driven away; but upon the breaking out of the war between France and England his sons emigrated to America, and this circumstance, joined to the state of isolation in which he lived, induced Dr. Priestley after much deliberation to decide upon following them. Intolerance and bigotry were thus triumphant; and the greatest scientific discoverer of his century, whose labors will reflect imperishable glory upon England, instead of receiving the honors that were due him, was hunted out of that country and driven into exile like a common felon.
Dr. Priestley sailed from London in April, 1794, and arrived in New York in June. He was received there by various societies with distinguished consideration, and a hundred subscribers, at ten dollars each, were immediately secured for a course of lectures on Experimental Philosophy. He did not, however, give them, but shortly proceeded to Philadelphia, where he received a complimentary address from the American Philosophical Society, and was unanimously chosen as Professor of Chemistry in the university. But this he did not accept, and soon proceeded to Northumberland, a town on the Susquehanna, 132 miles northwest from Philadelphia, where his sons had settled, and which he made his permanent residence. There was at first no postal connection with the place, but a mail was soon established, running to Philadelphia twice a week. His house in Northumberland was situated in a garden commanding one of the finest prospects on the Susquehanna. A library and laboratory were built for him, which were finished in 1797, and he was able to arrange his books and renew his experiments with every possible facility.
While Dr. Priestley was received in this country by many with the honor that was due to so eminent a man and the sympathy to which his persecutions at home naturally gave rise, it was not to be expected that he would quite escape from the interference of the series of letters to the inhabitants of Northumberland, in which he expressed his sentiments fully on all political questions, and which had the effect of removing unfavorable impressions which had been made on the minds of the people.and narrow-minded. There was, at that time, a powerful party in this country in sympathy with the English policy, and they very naturally participated in the English feeling toward Priestley. He did not choose to be naturalized, but, while advising his sons to become so, he said that, as he had been born and had lived to advanced years an Englishman, he would die one, let what might be the consequence. He did not interest himself much in American politics, but continued his congenial pursuits and studies. About the year 1799, during the Adams Administration, the friends of freedom were greatly alarmed at the promulgation of principles less liberal in many respects than were those of the British Government. Dr. Priestley, who never concealed his sentiments, was opposed to the administration and freely criticised it in private conversation. At the same time, violent attacks were made upon it by a Northumberland newspaper. But, although Dr. Priestley was not their author, and had nothing to do with them, they were charged to him, and such were the bigotry and party zeal of the period that he was represented as an enemy to the Government, and it was intimated to him from Mr. Adams himself that he had better abstain from saying any thing on politics lest he should get into difficulty. The "Alien and Sedition Law" passed under that administration was then in operation, and Dr. Priestley might have been sent out of the country at a moment's warning, without being charged with any offense and without even the right of remonstrance; and it was hinted to him that he was one of the persons contemplated when the law was passed. The epithet alien, which was used as a term of party reproach at that time, was freely applied to him. In consequence of all this, Dr. Priestley wrote a
It is important to state, in illustration of Dr. Priestley's principles and character, that he believed most thoroughly in the efficacy of private enterprise for carrying on all works of popular beneficence. A powerful opponent of state-enforced religion, he was led to go much further and to condemn government patronage in numerous other cases. And this was very far from being a matter of sour grapes, or a repudiation of advantages, because he could not himself participate in them. On the contrary, he had the most brilliant and tempting opportunities. His residence and intimacy with Lord Shelburne brought within his reach the largest prospects of political and ecclesiastical preferment, both of which he resolutely declined. Under two different administrations, overtures were made to him to accept a pension from Government; but he stands conspicuously alone in his age in resisting the temptation and preserving his independence. He, however, accepted assistance from private generosity, and was always grateful for donations from this source. As an illustration of how he continued to be appreciated in England after leaving it, it should be stated that Mrs. Elizabeth Rayner allowed him a pension of $250 a year, and in her will left him $10,000. Mr. Dodson left him $2,000; Mr. Salte, $500; and the Duke of Grafton remitted him annually $200. About the time he died, a few other friends made up $1,000 a year, which was quickly increased to $2,500, which was to have been continued during his life. These contributions were made in consideration of the heavy expense of his experimental researches, and the printing of his Church history and other theological works. These examples of generous appreciation were peculiarly grateful to Dr. Priestley, after the treatment he had received at home.
In 1801 Dr. Priestley had a severe illness in Philadelphia, and, after that, never fully recovered his strength. He was subject to attacks of inflammation of the stomach and paralysis of the throat, which prevented swallowing. In January, 1804, his complaint grew so serious that life began to be doubtful, and he used to tell the physician that, if he could but patch him up for six months longer, he should be perfectly satisfied, as by that time he could complete the printing of his works. This, however, was not granted, for he died on the 6th of February, seventy years ago, after working to almost the last hour. His old congregation, at Birmingham, erected a monument to his memory in their place of worship after his decease, and a fine marble statue has been recently put up in his honor in the University of Oxford. The accompanying engraving is from a portrait by the celebrated painter Gilbert Stuart.
It remains to add, that Dr. Priestley was eminently fortunate in his domestic relations. His wife possessed rare qualifications, as a helpmeet to her husband, and had a large share in the success of his career; for, although, as far as we can learn, she did not participate in his special studies, yet it appears that, but for her, he never could have carried through his numerous and formidable undertakings. His testimony to this is explicit. He says: "My wife was a woman of excellent understanding, much improved by reading, of great fortitude and strength of mind, of a temper in the highest degree affectionate and generous, feeling strongly for others and little for herself. Also, greatly excelling in every thing relating to household affairs, she entirely relieved me of all concern of that kind, which allowed me to give all my time to the prosecution of my studies, and the other duties of my station." His son states that his father used to say that he was merely a lodger, and had all his time to devote to his own pursuits.
All honor, then, to the wife to whose womanly devotion the world is indebted for whatever is great and good in the achievements of the husband! We have lately heard much of a great man who attributes all his profoundest thoughts to the genius of his wife, he being really only a scribe and editor; but we here see how a great man may owe his intellectual eminence to his wife, even though she be not so gifted as to be able to furnish all his best ideas. Of the two methods, this is certainly the most encouraging for woman, as it assigns the highest office to her acknowledged capacities, and precludes all question of rivalry. The united pair work in separate spheres and different ways to the same end; and the wife's affections become as indispensable to the result as the husband's intellect. Had Mrs. Priestley been animated by modern views, and essayed to carve out her own separate fortune in the field of science or theology, it is eminently probable that she would have failed to do any great thing herself, and quite certain that she would have effectually defeated her husband. This must have been the result, if what Dr. Priestley says is true, that her efficient domestic aid and her sympathetic support in his trials and sufferings were among the indispensable conditions of his own success. And thus, in the seclusion of her own family, absorbed in social cares, forgetting herself in instinctive solicitude for others, and probably with no ambition beyond, this true woman and model wife was really joint-partner with her illustrious husband in the good he accomplished, if not in the fame he won. And who shall say that hers was not, after all, the nobler and happier share of the work?
- He always spent one month in every year in London, which was of great use to him. He generally made additions to his library and his chemical apparatus. A new turn was given to his ideas, and new and useful acquaintances were made.