PRIESTLEY (JOSEPH) Autograph letter signed ("J Priestley"), to "Dear Sir" [William Eden], passing on intelligence from America, Calne, 31 August 1779
Lot 159
Autograph letter signed ("J Priestley"), to "Dear Sir" [William Eden], passing on intelligence from America, Calne, 31 August 1779
Sold for £ 2,500 (US$ 3,334) inc. premium

Lot Details
Autograph letter signed ("J Priestley"), to "Dear Sir" [William Eden], passing on intelligence from America: "I think it right to acquaint you, that I have lately seen a genuine letter from a very respectable person in Boston, in which the state of America is represented in a very different light from what many of us have imagined it to stand in. By a late valuation of their property (at least in Massachusets, [sic]) it appears that, notwithstanding the depreciation of their currency, they are much richer, and better able to continue the war, than they were at the beginning, or have been in any period since: that, were it not the interest of too many to prolong the war, they would have cleared the country of our troops before this time. To rouse them to this, nothing is wanting but something on the part of our army that shall generally alarm the country, for the depredations they now and then make by surprizes make no great noise there, notwithstanding the figure these things make in our gazettes. The Congress has the confidence of the people as much as ever, and there is no division among them on the subject of independency, or fidelity to their allies"; as to his own work and political activity, he tells Eden that "No man can have less to do with politics than myself. I have not written a line since the beginning of hostilities, and at present I am as intent as ever on my philosophical pursuits, and hope to continue them [until] the French break into my laboratory, which I hope they will not do this summer; for I have many processes of considerable consequence depending. My anxiety about the state of things would avail nothing, and I must share the fate of my neighbours whatever it is"; the first part of the letter pleads on behalf of Dr Frampton for moneys due to him [see Memoirs of Dr Priestley, 1809, p. 69], 4 pages, guard with some paper-overlay and glue-staining on last page, a few fox-marks, but otherwise in good and attractive condition, 4to, Calne, 31 August 1779


  • 'CONGRESS HAS THE CONFIDENCE OF THE PEOPLE' – JOSEPH PRIESTLEY PREDICTS AMERICAN VICTORY, AND VOWS TO CONTINUE HIS SCIENTIFIC RESEARCHES UNTIL ʻTHE FRENCH BREAK INTO MY LABORATORY'. Priestley was at this time working for the man who would, when he became Prime Minister three years later, acknowledge the independence of the United States of America, serving as Lord Shelburne's librarian and archivist and tutor to his children, with a laboratory installed at his country seat of Bowood. William Eden, the man to whom he is writing, was the current Prime Minister Lord North's man of business and go-between and shared his patron's views on the stern measures needed to bring the colonists back into line; so Priestley's news of their economic resilience cannot have been welcome.

    Some years earlier, it had been Eden who offered Priestley a post on the second voyage of Captain Cook (news of whose death was to reach England that January). In 1788, when France joined the war on the side of the colonists, Lord North had sent Eden to Shelburne with an invitation to join the administration in such an hour of national crisis, an offer Shelburne spurned; and to this end Eden had in the first instance approached Priestley. And in the following February of 1779 Eden had approached George III with the request that Priestley be allowed use of the Royal Library; the King granted Priestley the request, as a man of science, but nevertheless deprecated his association with Shelburne: 'I am sorry Mr Eden has any intimacy with that Doctor as I am not over fond of those who frequent any Disciples or companions of the Jesuit in Berkeley Square' (Robert E. Schofield, The Enlightened Joseph Priestley, 2004, p. 21).

    Priestley's years with Shelburne were among his most productive in terms of his scientific work: 'The papers, and the volumes of experiments and observations – Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1774, 1775, 1777) and Experiments and Observations Relating to Various Branches of Natural Philosophy (1779) – were eagerly awaited for their new discoveries and new techniques. In them, he announced his discovery of ammonia gas, nitrous oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and, most important, of oxygen. The latter, for which he is most famous, was first mentioned in Transactions letters (1775) and was described in detail in the book of that year. He also wrote a vigorous defence [against] a charge of scientific plagiarism and expanded his pneumatic studies beyond chemistry into investigations of heat expansion, indices of refraction, and sound transmission of gases and continued his study of photosynthesis' (Robert E. Schofield, ODNB).
Auction information

This auction is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future auctions, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this auction, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Wine, Coins & Medals and Motor Cars and Motorcycles:

Buyer's Premium Rates
25% on the first £175,000 of the Hammer Price
20% from £175,001 to £3,000,000 the Hammer Price
12.5% from £3,000,001 of the Hammer Price

VAT at the current rate of 20% will be added to the Buyer's Premium and charges excluding Artists Resale Right.

Payment Notices

For payment information please refer to the sale catalogue.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licences please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.

  1. Books (UK)
    Specialist - Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs
    Work +44 20 7393 3828
    FaxFax: +44 20 7393 3879
Similar Items