Letters to... Edmund Burke

Edmund BURKE   |   Joseph PRIESTLEY

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Item#: 123995 price:$1,800.00

Letters to... Edmund Burke
Letters to... Edmund Burke

"PRIESTLEY AND JEFFERSON SHARED… AN ENTIRE WORLD VIEW": FIRST EDITION OF JOSEPH PRIESTLEY'S LETTERS, 1791, ATTACKING EDMUND BURKE'S REFLECTIONS ON THE EVOLUTION IN FRANCE (1790), ULTIMATELY FORCING PRIESTLEY TO FLEE BRITAIN FOR AMERICA AND FIND A "CHAMPION" IN JEFFERSON

PRIESTLEY, Joseph, L.L.D. F.R.S. Letters to the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France, &c. Birmingham: Thomas Pearson, 1791. Octavo, period-style half calf gilt, marbled boards; pp (i-iii), iv-xiii, (3) (1), 2-152. $1800.

First edition of a seminal work by the defining radical voice and scientific leader of his age, countering Burke's strike at the French Revolution by using reason and the scientific method to argue the American and French Revolutions as "decisive real-world experiments," publication of this work soon force Priestley to flee to America, strengthening his profound influence on Jefferson, who had a copy of the 1791 New York edition in his library.

On publication of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), both Paine and Priestley responded in 1791: Paine with Rights of Man Part I and Priestley with Letters to… Edmund Burke. "One of the great experimental scientists in the Baconian-Newtonian empirical tradition" (Williams, Enlightenment, 143), Priestley is not only remembered as "the great scientist who discovered oxygen or, perhaps, as the theologian who founded modern Unitarianism." To many, it was also Priestley who crafted "the scientific method as a metaphorical model of unfolding truth and perfection"—using the American and French Revolutions as history's "decisive real-world 'experiments'" (Kramnick, Eighteenth-Century Science, 3). To Burke, however, Priestley was a "troublesome, outspoken Dissenter… involved in radical politics." In Reflections Burke spoke of "subversive ideas from France undermining the British government and way of life… from his viewpoint scientists like Priestley, political writers like Paine and Godwin and the French philosophes were all in the same category." With publication of Priestley's Letters, he became "Burke's principle opponent." In its pages he "antagonized Burke, first by his praise of the French Revolution, second by advocating a philosophy of the rights of man and the principle of individual liberty… and third by his bold attack on the system of the establishment of the Church of England" (Crosland, Image of Science, 282-92).

In Reflections Burke lamented "the age of chivalry is gone… that of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded." Priestley represented a force behind that loss. Historians have noted "the ancient regime and the aristocratic political world was defended by Burke and others because of its mysterious and superstitious essence… government, it was held, was also a mysterious, complicated, and arcane realm. Only those born to it could understand and manipulate it" (Kramnick, Religion and Radicalism, 505-7, 22). In Letters Priestley pointedly addresses Burke, stating: "You treat with ridicule the idea of the rights of men." As a citizen, Priestley notes, "the object of my respect is the nation, and the law" (original emphasis). Yet Burke, he declares, is "proud of his servitude" to church and crown, and while he takes "pains" to gild his chains, "they are chains still."

In England "Priestley's enthusiastic welcoming of the French Revolution, evidenced in his Letters, convinced many people that he was a revolutionary" (ANB), and in 1794 Priestley was forced to flee after a mob set fire to his Birmingham home and laboratory. Taking refuge in America, his "champion would be the founding father who similarly linked progress to the fortunes of science," Thomas Jefferson—who often "articulated the debt of his own educational, theological and political attitudes owed to Priestley's ideas… His writings on the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and the separation of church and state were used in 1786 by Madison and Jefferson in planning the statute for establishing religious freedom in Virginia. But it was more than just specifics that Priestley and Jefferson shared. It was an entire world view" (Kramnick, Eighteenth-Century Science, 2). In 1804 Priestley died in Pennsylvania. First edition with no statement of edition on title page, complete with 14 letters: 13 listed due to uncorrected "Letter V" repeated in Contents and in heading for letter: "Of the Interference of the State in Matters of Religion in general" (p.49). Issued same year as editions with title pages respectively stating "Second" and "Third" edition. ESTC T38566. Goldsmith's I:15029. See Sowerby 2544 (New York; 1791).

Text fresh and bright, handsomely bound.

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