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In 1794 Joseph Priestley fled England and the church-and-king sentiment that had set ablaze his Birmingham house and laboratory in 1791. His flight to America was noted by the United Irishmen with a public letter. This most radical group in the entire camp of English sympathizers with the French Revolution not only lamented English repression but also offered a marvelous hymn to the tripartite linkage of America, useful science, and radical change.
The Emigration of Dr. Priestley will form a striking historical fact, by which alone future ages will learn to estimate truly the temper of the present times. … But be cheerful, dear Sir, you are going to a happier world, the world of Washington and Franklin. In idea we accompany you.… We also look to the new age when man shall become more precious than fine gold, and when his ambition shall be to subdue the elements, not to subjugate his fellow creatures, to make fire, water, earth, and air obey his bidding, but to leave the pure ethereal mind, as the sole thing in nature free and invincible…. The attention of a whole scientific people [here] is bent to multiplying the means and instruments of destruction … but you are going to a country where science is turned to better use.
The relationship between science and progressive politics was by no means one-way. Just as science would ameliorate the human condition, so a progressive politics would encourage scientific advances.
Much that is characteristic of contemporary anarchist thought can be found in the writings of the founder of that tradition, William Godwin. He is ambivalent on the value of technology and modernity, nostalgic at one moment and progressive another. He extols individual autonomy while preaching community solidarity. Above all he shares with modern anarchism an elitist disdain for ordinary men and women, which in the case of Godwin leads to an unresolved tension between theoretical radicalism and practical conservatism. His anarchist doctrine repudiates all forms of coercion, law, and government. It eschews cooperation of all kind as deleterious to individual development. At the same time it posits an ideal order characterized by a high degree of informal coercion practiced by zealous neighborly inspection. But Godwin was a less than eager friend of reform and agitation during the years of Pitt's repression of radical movements in England. This was clear even in the pages of Political Justice, but all the more obvious in his feud in 1795–96 with John Thelwall and the London Corresponding Society, the leading radical activists. This paper outlines Godwin's anarchism and points out the implications of his dispute with Thelwall. In addition it shows the extent to which Godwin has given anarchism certain of its enduring qualities.