‘I predict a riot’: Joseph Priestley and languages of enlightenment in Birmingham in 1791
Romanticism, 18, (1), . (doi:10.3366/rom.2012.0065).
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In July 1791, on the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the house, library and laboratory of Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804) near Birmingham were sacked and razed to the ground by a crowd. Whether the occasion of the attack was Priestley’s Revolutionary sympathies or (as he thought himself) his dissenting Protestantism, it targetted both his ‘apparatus of philosophical instruments’ and his unpublished manuscripts, which were destroyed. Despite his own averrals that writing should be no more than a useful tool, Priestley was a voluminous writer who published more than 200 books, pamphlets, sermons and essays in his lifetime, and the events of July 1791 in Birmingham and the controversy over them in which he participated are played out in textual form in handbills, advertisements, memoirs, legal depositions and other documents as well as in polemical exchange. These texts can be used to investigate a discursive crisis in which print controversy could turn in to violence, and a war of ideas become almost civil war. For Priestley, writing aimed at ‘conviction’. In this essay, his earlier generous reading of biblical narratives is set against its testing by those events, and his intuitions of atemporal certainty through a mode of calculation and experiment that he himself saves for the works in natural philosophy, are set against the more thoroughgoing claims of his friends Benjamin Franklin and Jeremy Bentham. The essay does not consider these as alternative ways of responding to particular, dramatic events but rather as explanatory modes that reveal some of the strengths as well as the limitations of enlightenment.
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