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Radical chemist : the politics and natural philosophy of Thomas Beddoes



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In this thesis, I examine the radical political views and activism of Thomas Beddoes, a late eighteenth century chemist and physician. A multifaceted man, Beddoes corresponded with many of Britain’s leading industrial and intellectual lights, especially members of the Lunar Society, had a brief career as an Oxford lecturer, devised air delivery apparatus with James Watt, and wrote extensively to distribute useful medical knowledge to the public and argue for medical reform, all the while attracting the ire of the government and scientific community for his outspoken, radical, republican politics. I track Beddoes’ career as a Friend of Liberty, set within the context of the British reform movement, from 1792, when he began involving himself publicly in agitation, to 1797, when the death-knell of the British reform movement sounded and the French Revolution seemed to have utterly failed. In doing so, I seek to determine to what extent Beddoes was a radical, a revolutionary, and a fifth-column threat to the British, whether or not his ideology was in any regard the product of his science, and what the nature of his radicalism and the lineage of his ideas can tell us about the intellectual culture of his era. I conclude that Beddoes’ fiery rhetoric belies an otherwise moderate and pacific approach to political change, based in British Enlightenment ideas rather than emerging science. The republic, rather than a goal to be achieved through violent overthrow, was simply the only logical organization for a society of innately equal citizens, a fact he believed obvious to the enlightened mind. He defended the French Revolution while he could still cast it as a moderate endeavor led by rational men, but, like so many of its early British supporters, grew disillusioned as France descended into mob violence and the tyranny of Robespierre. Following the Priestley Riots of 1791, he harboured deep fears of a sans-culotte-like British mob, which threatened not only the Church and King, but the interests and liberty of those men like Joseph Priestley and James Watt who were generating valuable knowledge and industry around him. My analysis supports Roy Porter’s theory of a unique British Enlightenment, a social fermentation which emphasized Lockean personal liberty, improvement, and private property (which evolved into the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith and David Hume), and which was, critically, defensive of liberties already gained. Beddoes’ constellation of political, religious, scientific, and economic influences reflect the characteristic Englishness of the enlightenment culture around him, distinct particularly from France, and helps illustrate the links between scientific and political ideas in the late Enlightenment.



French Revolution, enlightenment, radicalism, eighteenth-century England, history of science



Master of Arts (M.A.)






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