The president of the Royal Society Joseph Banks
In his history of the Royal Society, Charles Richard Weld
For the good of the Society, Banks believed, members should bring in two kinds of persons, men of science and men of rank.5 Like the membership at large, the ruling Council of the Society contained men of both kinds, and here again, in the elections Banks made clear his likes and dislikes, exposing himself to the charge of packing the Council with pliant friends. Banks’s forceful interference in elections revealed a pattern, so certain members thought, of a bias against men of the mathematical sciences, in favor of men of rank and and men of the life sciences. Their dissatisfaction with Banks came to a head in, as Weld turned it, the “violent dissensions, foreign to matters of science,” of 1783 and 1784.6
Much was heard of the “great Revolution families” – of whom some of the proudest, as Sir Lewis Namier has pointed out, were in fact descended from Charles II’s bastards. These families—above all, perhaps, the Cavendishes—could not forget that their ancestors had, as it were, conferred the crown upon the king’s ancestors, and they did not mean to let him forget it either, for they alluded to it in season and out of season. They looked upon themselves as his creators rather than his creation: one would almost say that they had forgotten that the dukedom of Devonshire itself had been established, less than a century earlier, by the merely human agency of a king.8
Henry Cavendish entered the public world of science at just this time, in 1760, with his election to the Royal Society and the Royal Society Club. He showed no interest in a career in politics, then or ever. He would have found campaigning hard and speaking in the House of Commons probably impossible; at best, he would have found assignments in technical committees. In its place, he wisely chose a life of science. However, from his part in the dissensions of the Royal Society, we get an idea of the kind of politician he would have made.
Devonshire House, the Piccadilly mansion of the dukes of Devonshire, was the London headquarters of the so-called New Whigs of the 1780s.11 They were libertarian and passionately opposed to George III’s policy on the American colonies. Their leader Charles James Fox
The same years saw the dissensions of the Royal Society, in which the president, Joseph Banks, was accused, like George III, of desiring personal rule, bringing the regular business of the Society to a standstill. The immediate cause of the dissensions was a disagreement between Banks together with his Council on the one hand and the foreign secretary Charles Hutton
Highly personal in tone, the debates about the leadership of the Society turned on a judgment
Cavendish’s resolution omitted all mention of support for the incumbent president, Banks, which was something less than Blagden and Banks had hoped from him. Cavendish did not even want to talk to Banks about past Councils because he would find it awkward, one obvious reason being that Cavendish had been omitted from them. Cavendish believed that Banks was “a little blamable” on this subject, though he “forgave” him. With Blagden’s prompting, Cavendish recalled past presidents he had served under. Banks’s predecessor, the physician John Pringle
Through Blagden, Banks asked Cavendish to come to his house the next day, which was Christmas. Cavendish replied, through Blagden, that he could not come. Blagden explained to Banks that it was “possible” that Cavendish had set aside the day for doing experiments, but most likely he wanted to avoid an “embarrassing conversation” with Banks. Banks was to be reassured that Cavendish was not “hostile” toward him and wanted to remain on good terms. It was necessary only that Banks should allow Cavendish to differ with him in opinion at any time “without an open quarrel”; this was to repeat what Cavendish wanted of Banks in his dealings with the Council.17
In conversation with Cavendish, Blagden brought up the principal disrupter of the meetings of the Society, Banks’s enemy, Horsley. To Banks, Blagden quoted Cavendish to convey his exact meaning. These being the only faithfully recorded spoken words by the taciturn Henry Cavendish, they hold an interest of their own.
At the end of their conversation, Cavendish came around to Blagden’s position: he, like Heberden, would approve a vote of confidence in Banks, but only if the wording gave no offense. By this, Blagden declared himself highly satisfied with the results of his mediation.18
Blagden informed Banks, “Great opposition is making against you,” some members being “decidedly against you even on the subject of the Presidency.” So far as he could learn, Blagden said, they intended to put Lord Mahon
Blagden attached a postscript to a letter he sent to Banks dated Monday, 29 December, which read: “Resolved, That this Society approve of Sir Jos: Banks as their President, and mean to support him in that office.” “Such, my dear friend,” Blagden wrote to Banks, “is the resolution Mr. C[avendish] has just approved at my house.” In Blagden’s view, the vote on this resolution would sort out Banks’s friends from his foes. Cavendish, he added, still thought that the resolution he first proposed would prove necessary, since the Society would not agree that under the present statutes they are forbidden to debate except on the day of elections.22
In anticipation of the coming meeting of the Society, Horsley told his friends that Banks was going to try to expel him, in that way ensuring, Blagden
The first speech was made by Edward Poore
The opponents of Banks as well as his supporters claimed that they longed for a return of “tranquility, order, harmony, and accord” and the “instructive business of these weekly meetings, the reading of the learned of papers presented to the Society.”27 For three consecutive meetings, debates had prevented the reading of all new scientific papers. Only John Michell’s
Along with Michell’s paper, the main new paper read at the next meeting, on 15 January, was another strong paper, and though it was not mathematical like Michell’s, but experimental, it was written by a mathematical member, Henry Cavendish. Earlier that day Paul Maty
On 22 January, the Council of the Society passed a resolution on debates, which stated that any motion or question to be balloted had to be put in writing and signed by at least six fellows and delivered to a secretary. It would then be posted in the common room at the next meeting and be balloted on at the meeting after that. At the next council meeting, Maty moved that the opening words of the resolution be deleted: “That the Meetings of the Society may not be wasted by unprofitable debates contrary to the intent & meaning” of the statutes of the Society. He was voted down.30
The new statute requiring all motions to be announced in advance did not produce the desired calm. Duly announced was a motion to reinstate Hutton in his office. It and motions to restrain Banks’s interference with elections led predictably to renewed debates in late January and February.31 At a meeting in March, Maty gave a speech and then went on to read papers, as was his duty. Horsley was at that meeting but few of his supporters came, and Banks took encouragement.32 Maty, who had “distinguished himself by his violence against Sir Jos: Banks,” in Blagden’s
Following the row over the election of Maty’s replacement, new contingency plans were laid, with Cavendish again taking part and for the same reason. On Monday, 5 April, Blagden told Banks that Cavendish and his friend Alexander Dalrymple
That is the last we hear of Cavendish’s efforts to restore peace in the Royal Society. One month later the Society voted for the secretary to replace Maty. Hutton
The turmoil of the Society
Yet after the event, the dissensions seemed hardly more than a tempest in a teapot to Blagden. He was surprised that foreigners took such interest in that “foolish & trifling affair, as it really was with us.”40 He wrote to a foreign correspondent that the disaffected members of the Society had not only failed to unseat Banks but in the end had planted him in his seat more firmly than ever.41 Most important, science had not stopped: to a friend, Blagden wrote that “notwithstanding the interruption given to our business in the Royal Society by some turbulent members […] several valuable papers have been read, and some discoveries of the first magnitude announced,” adding that “of these, the most remarkable was made by Mr.Cavendish.”42 Banks received a letter from abroad at this time, beginning with the observation that the Royal Society’s dissensions had “made a good deal of noise on that Continent” and that Banks’s report that the troubles were “nearly quelled” was welcomed, observing that Cavendish’s discovery of the production of water from air was “one of the greatest steps that have been made” towards understanding the elements.43
The dissensions did not flare up again, but smoldering resentments continued to the end of Banks’s long presidency. In late 1785 Blagden informed Banks about an alternative to the Philosophical Transactions, an “opposition Transactions,” in which Maskelyne
Under Banks’s presidency the Council of the Royal Society was dominated by aristocrats and gentry,47 and we might expect Cavendish, as an aristocrat if not for other reasons, to have been on the Council
As an ordinary member without office, Cavendish had attended the meetings of the Society at which the debates took place
According to his critics, Banks showed favoritism to natural history
Blagden, in a letter of 2 April 1784 in which he referred to the politics of the Royal Society, wrote of the wider political scene: “our internal operations in politics, & the consequent general election, have set the whole kingdom in a ferment; it is a very interesting scene which the wisest & steadiest among us contemplate not without emotion.”52 Scientific politics and general politics were often compared in the course of the dissensions, one side complaining of the “ruins of liberty,” the other side of Englishmen “apt to be mad with ideas of liberty, ill understood.”53 The one side spoke of the “leveling spirit and impatience of all government which infects the present age,” the “great evil and disease of the time.” The other side spoke of the Royal Society as a “Republic,” according to which all laws decided by the Council are debated by the entire membership whenever a mover and a seconder wish it.54 The one side urged a democratic solution to the abuses of the Society, while the other warned of illegal “democratic infringements on the principles of the Constitution,” which was “very much like what was passing in another place.”55 The analogy between the Royal Society and Parliament was made explicit. When speakers against Banks were shouted down and the question was demanded, Maskelyne protested that he had been at other meetings that modeled their debates after Parliament, and the question was not put until everyone had had a chance to speak.56 The favorite analogy was between Banks as president of the Royal Society and the king or some high official. Horsley described Banks’s call upon the members to elect Blagden as their secretary as a “nomination by the president, as their sovereign, of the person he would have them chuse which is exactly similar to the proceeding of the king in the nomination of a new bishop.”57 Horsley’s colleague Maty said that he viewed the presidency of the Royal Society as a “presidency of bare order, like that of the Speaker of the House of Commons, and in Council the President ought not to lead more than any other person.”58 Banks’s opponents spoke of his despotism, of his dictatorial ways, of his wish for dominion, and of his blindness to the reality that the age of absolute monarchs was past. But the supporters of Banks did not wish for an absolute monarch any more than his detractors did, and no one was more definite on the subject than Henry Cavendish
In explaining Cavendish’s behavior to Banks, Blagden drew the appropriate parallel between Cavendish’s position in science and that of his relatives in politics
Cavendish exercised authority within the Society, but as we have seen in the episode of the dissensions, he did so unobtrusively. We take as an example a more routine disagreement. In 1793 William Charles Wells
Henry Cavendish’s political arena was the Royal Society as his family’s was Parliament, but apart from the setting his political behavior was the same as theirs. We may compare him with an older first cousin William Cavendish, fourth duke of Devonshire
Henry Cavendish worked in committees, in agreement with his understanding that power should be exercised by councils of serious men of independent judgment. No “maker or unmaker” of presidents of the Society, he was ready to assist presidents as a call of duty, always in the interest science. This is seen in his participation in the events of 1783–84, which also shows that he had a clear-sighted understanding of political behavior; he was an objective observer of men as well as of nature.
Blagden, in his capacity as secretary of the Royal Society, wrote to a correspondent in 1789 that there was no science to report, that “everybody’s attention seems turned to politics.”64 The next year he wrote that science throughout Europe was languishing and that the Royal Society had heard nothing important since William Herschel’s paper on the rotation of Saturn’s ring, “the minds of men being turned to greater interests.”65 Two years later on a visit to France, Blagden was mobbed and nearly hanged. Banks wrote to him that
Wilson’s sources on Cavendish missed a side his nature he occasionally revealed. Kirwan
If one looks at the dissensions of the Royal Society as a kind of experiment of the Enlightenment, a test of its core beliefs, the outcome is subject to interpretation. But it seems clear that through it all, Cavendish acted consistently upon certain of those beliefs. He trusted that disputes can and ought to be settled by discussion between men who are fair, moderate, informed, and willing to exercise their reason. In the eighteenth century, as in any other, a person who held that expectation of human nature was liable to disappointment from time to time
Joseph Banks to Benjamin Franklin, 9 Aug. 1782, quoted in A. Hunter Dupree (1984, 15).
Charles Richard Weld (1848, 2:151). This discussion is taken largely from Russell McCormmach (1990). We acknowledge permission by the Associated University Presses to use material from this chapter.
Weld (1848, 2:152–154). “Sir Joseph Banks,” in Henry Brougham (1845, 364).
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 30 Oct. 1785, Banks Correspondence, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, l:213.
In defense of Banks, Andrew Kippis said that in addition to men of science and men of rank and fortune, the Royal Society should have a third category, “men of general literature,” who could form “a right opinion concerning the general value of the philosophical observations and experiments which are produced at the Society’s meetings.” J.L. Heilbron (1993b, 88).
Weld (1848, 2:153, 170). Henry Lyons (1944, 198–199).
Weld (1848, 2:162). Lyons (1944, 213).
Richard Pares (1953, 58–59).
G.M. Trevelyan (1953, 3:64).
Whigs are important in Hugh Stokes (1917).
Pares (1953, 119–125, 134–135).
John Ashton Cannon (1969, x–xi).
Weld (1848, 2:154–160). 24 Jan. 1784, Minutes of Council, Royal Society 7:97–98 (University Publications of America microfilm edition).
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 22 Dec. 1783; original letter in the Fitzwilliam Museum Library; copy in BM(NH), DTC 3:171–172.
Ibid. Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, Wednesday morning [24 Dec. 1783]; original letter in the Fitzwilliam Museum Library; copy in BM(NH), DTC 3:176.
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 24 Dec. 1783; original letter in the Fitzwilliam Museum Library; copy in BM(NH), DTC 3:177–179.
Blagden to Banks, 23 and 27 Dec. 1783. Supplement to: Friend to Dr. Hutton, An Appeal to the Fellows of the Royal Society, Concerning the Measures Taken by Sir Joseph Banks, Their President, to Compel Dr. Hutton to Resign the Office of Secretary to the Society for Their Correspondence (London, 1784), 11, 15.
David Philip Miller (1981, 288–289).
Blagden to Banks, 27 Dec. 1783. Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 28 Dec. 1783, Fitzwilliam Museum Library, Perceval H202.
Postscript dated 29 Dec. 1783, Blagden to Banks, 28 Dec. 1783.
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 30 Dec. 1783, Fitzwilliam Museum Library, Perceval H203.
Notes of the meeting taken by Banks, quoted in Hector Charles Cameron (1952, 134).
[Paul Henry Maty], An Authentic Narrative of the Dissentions and Debates in the Royal Society, Containing the Speeches at Large of Dr. Horsley, Dr. Maskelyne, Mr. Maseres, Mr. Poore, Mr. Glenie, Mr. Watson, and Mr. Maty (London, 1784), 24–25. Supplement, 9.
Narrative, 26–77. Supplement, 9. Despite charges to the contrary, in the Royal Society at this time the physical sciences were active and appreciated. At the St. Andrews Day meeting for elections on 1 Dec. 1783, Banks gave a discourse on two Copley Medals, one awarded to John Goodricke for his paper on the variation of the star Algol, the other to Thomas Hutchins for his experiments on freezing mercury, which Cavendish directed. 1 Dec. 1783, JB, Royal Society 31.
Narrative, 30, 70.
Charles Blagden to Claude Louis Berthollet, 13 Jan. 1784, draft, Blagden Letterbook, Yale. 31:265, 268–271. On 27 Nov. 1783, the reading began of John Michell’s paper (1784).
Paul Maty to Joseph Banks, 15 Jan. 1784; Joseph Banks to Paul Maty, 15 Jan. 1784, BL Add Mss 33977, 257 and 257(2).
22 and 29 Jan. 1784, Minutes of Council, Royal Society 7:154, 157 (University Publications of America microfilm edition).
Weld (1848, 2:162–164). Narrative, 79–134.
Joseph Banks to Charles Blagden, 6 Mar. 1784, Blagden Letters, Royal Society, B.26.
Charles Blagden to le comte de C., 14 May 1784, draft, Blagden Letterbook, Yale. 1 Apr. 1784, Minutes of Council, Royal Society 7:160 (University Publications of America microfilm edition).
Weld (1848, 2:165). Supplement, 12.
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 5 Apr. 1784, BM(NH), DTC 3:20–21.
Henry Cavendish to Charles Blagden, Monday evening [5 Apr. 1784]; in Jungnickel and McCormmach (1999, 586).
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 6 Apr. 1784, BM(NH), DTC 3:25–26.
Weld (1848, 2:165–166).
Charles Blagden to le comte de C., 2 Apr. 1784, draft; Charles Blagden to John Michell, 13 Sep. 1785, draft; in Russell McCormmach (2012, 395–400).
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 9 Aug. 1788, BL Add Mss 33272, 50–51.
Blagden to le comte de C., 2 Apr. 1784.
Charles Blagden to Charles Grey, 3 June 1784, draft, Blagden Letterbook, Yale.
Henry Cavendish (1784a, 119–169); in Sci. Pap. 2:161–181; read 15 Jan. 1784. The Abbé Mann to Joseph Banks, 4 June 1784, published in Ellis (1843, 426–427).
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 23 and 30 Oct. 1785, Banks Correspondence, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1:213–214.
Derek Howse (1989, 161).
Miller (1981, 289). Charles Hutton (1795–1796, 2:399–400).
Miller (1981, 49).
Cavendish was elected every year, and we assume that he was on Banks’s lists.
Archibald Geikie (1917, 117). Roy A. Rauschenberg, “Solander, Daniel Carl,” DSB 12:515–517.
Rauschenberg (1975, 515–517). Playfair (1822, 1: Appendix, no. 1, “Journal,” lxxxii).
13 Dec. 1781, JB, Royal Society 30; 16 Jan. 1783, ibid. 31. “Dryander, Jonas,” DNB (1st ed. 6:64).
Blagden to le comte de C., 2 Apr. 1784. Writing to Banks three days later about the dissensions, Blagden added a postscript concerning the elections in London.
J. Glenie’s speech on 8 Jan, quoted in Narrative, 70. Blagden to Berthollet, 13 Jan. 1784.
Blagden to Banks, 28 Dec. 1783. Letter written by Michael Lort to Bishop Percy, 24 Feb. 1784, at the height of the dissensions, quoted in Weld (1848, 2:169). Lort to Bishop Percy, 24 Feb. 1784.
Anguish’s speech on 12 Feb., quoted in Narrative, 112.
Maskelyne’s speech on 8 January, quoted in Narrative, 62. The Royal Society and Parliament were occasionally joined in the same person. C.J. Phipps, Lord Mulgrave, who was active both in the debates of the House of Commons and in the debates of the Royal Society, spoke with Blagden on the subject of the dissensions as much as “his present political agitation would allow.” Mulgrave strongly urged Banks and his supporters against temporizing, since discontented men were “never made quiet by coaxing.” Blagden, who used the analogy himself, thought that Mulgrave carried the analogy of “H[ouse] of C[ommons] ideas to our Society” further than was justified. Blagden to Banks, 23 Dec. 1783.
Horsley’s speech on 1 Apr., quoted in Supplement, 12.
Maty’s speech on 12 Feb., quoted in Narrative, 99.
Blagden to Banks, 22 Dec. 1783.
Blagden to Banks, 24 Dec. 1783.
Cameron (1952, 158, 200).
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 8 Nov. 1793, BL Add Mss 33272, 127–128. William Dock, “Wells, William Charles,” DSB 14:253–254.
P.D. Brown and K.W. Schweizer (1982, 19–21).
Charles Blagden to William Farr, 24 Jan. 1789, draft, Blagden Letters, Royal Society 7:206.
Charles Blagden to William Farr, 31 July 1790, draft, ibid. 7:429.
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 5 Sep. 1792, BL Add Mss 33272, 107–108. Joseph Banks to Charles Blagden, 19 Feb. 1793, Blagden Letters, Royal Society, B.41.
Richard Kirwan to Joseph Banks, 10 Jan. 1789, BM(NH), DTC 6:122–124.
16 Mar. 1795, Charles Blagden Diary, Royal Society 3:50(back).
20 Dec, 1795, ibid. 3:82(back).
30 Nov. 1804, ibid. 4:286.
15 May 1806, ibid. 4:442.
3 April 1804, ibid. 4:217. This exchange on the unreason of people may not have had to do with politics, but it would apply.
Table of Contents
Part I: Lord Charles Cavendish
Part II: The Honorable Henry Cavendish
17 Last Years
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