Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

Priestley and Politics

Compiled by Derek A. Davenport
Department of Chemistry
Purdue University

“The good and happiness of the members, that is of the majority of the members, of any state, is the great standard by which everything relating to that state must finally be determined.”
“Essay on the First Principles of Government” (1768)

“A spider in his natural size is only a spider ugly and loathsome, and his flimsy net is only fit for catching flies. But good God! Suppose a spider as large as an ox…What would they do if they had power commensurate to their malice. God forbid I ever should have a despotic master – but if I must, my choice is made, I will have Louis XVI rather than Monsieur Brissot or Chabot; rather George III or IV than Dr. Priestley…persons who would not load a tyrannous power by the poisoned talents of a vulgar low bred insolence.”
-Edmund Burke on Joseph Priestley (1792)

“I the less wonder at this power of imagination and prejudice, and this stupefaction of your rational faculties in matters of religion, as it is apparent that you have been under a similar suspension of your reason, and equally under the power of imagination, in your views of the principles of civil government. Such, Sir, is ‘your proud submission, and the subordination of your very heart’, to princes, and nobles; such devotion to rank and sex, in conjunction with your religious enthusiasm, that one might suspect that your book was composed after some solemn vigil, such as watching your arms at the shrine of the blessed virgin; after which you issued forth the champion, in form, of religion, of monarchy, and of the immaculate virtue of all handsome queens.”
-Joseph Priestley on Edmund Burke

“It is with very sensible regret that I find Mr. Burke and myself on the two opposite sides of any important question, and especially that I must now no longer class him among the friends of what I deem to be the cause of liberty, civil or religious, after having, in a pleasing occasional intercourse of many years, considered him in this respectable light. In the course of his public life, he has been greatly befriended by the Dissenters, many of whom were enthusiastically attached to him; and we always imagined that he was one on whom we could depend, especially as he spoke in our favour in the business of subscription, and he made a common cause with us in zealously patronizing the liberty of America.”
-Joseph Priestley, Letter to the Right Honorable Edmund Burke

“I am proud of feeling myself a man among men, and I leave it to you, Sir, to be ‘proud of your obedience, and to keep alive’ as well as you can ‘in servitude itself the spirit of exalted freedom’. I think it much easier, at least, to be preserved out of a state of servitude than in it. You take much pains to gild your chains, but they are chains still.”

“The greatest instrument in the hand of the divine providence of this progress of the species towards perfection, is society, and consequently government.”
An Essay on the First Principles of Government (1771)