On Burning Ground

BookOn Burning Ground

On Burning Ground

an examination of the ideas, projects and life of David Williams

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 307


January 1st, 1993

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David Williams rebelled against his puritanical background and became one of the most significant Welsh thinkers of the eighteenth century.
His reputation has been that of an intriguing and fascinating maverick with a powerful independent streak. He is variously known for being the founder of the first deist chapel in Europe holding public worship, as a daring educationalist inspired by Rousseau, as a political theorist who championed a new concept of political liberty – perhaps his strongest claim to originality – or more commonly, as the founder of the Royal Literary Fund which was a benevolent fund for writers and worked to improve their status. Only this latter role has won Williams general praise, while his hostility to Christianity and his sympathy for French revolutionary ideas repelled many others. 
These individual causes, however, all reflect a particular view of the world and it is this and Williams’s contribution to the history of ideas that the book attempts to elucidate. 
Williams considered a form of secular public worship based on natural religion to be a fundamental means of binding a community together on the basis of universal moral principles. He also believed education prepared the young for membership in such a community. The establishment of such a community required an awareness of the role of literary and philosophical genius. 
His concept of political liberty required an organisational structure founded on powerful local units for which he found a parallel in pre-Norman England, as well as the commitment to absolute intellectual liberty. Such ideas made him an enemy of superstition and authoritarian structures. Indeed, he held political liberty to be more important than civil liberty, leading him to accept restrictions on freedom of movement and association when they threatened his concept of community. 
The book exploits new manuscript, newspaper and bibliographical material unavailable to earlier writers. Among the most significant are Williams’s letters to Brissot which trace the development of his views on France during the Revolution. 


Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Half Title2
Title Page4
Copyright Page5
I. Margaret Street: an experiment in free though28
1. The opening of the Margaret Street chapel: Easter Sunday, 177630
2. The way to Margaret Street41
Youth and education41
Dissenting ministry43
‘Legal relief' for dissenting ministers and schoolmasters50
Philosopher, part III58
Reaction to Philosopher65
Crossing a watershed67
Wednesdays at Old Slaughter’s and the Swan at Westminster Bridge70
3. Religion and morality at Margaret Street: beating a theological retreat82
Retrospective on Margaret Street82
Lectures on universal principles84
Shaftesbury’s argument and d’Holbach’s riposte86
The religion of nature at Margaret Street: two arguments90
Hume’s challenge98
The retreat from Shaftesbury’s God99
Hume’s sceptic101
4. Knowledge and virtue at Margaret Street104
Epistemology and natural morality104
‘Borrowed’ knowledge105
Sources and limits of knowledge108
Methods of moral enquiry and the philosophy of education111
Virtue and happiness113
Moral sense theory and moral research116
The virtues118
5. The way beyond Margaret Street127
Later writings127
Other traces131
II. Education, politics and literature134
6. From Lawrence to Great Russell Street: experiments in education136
Lawrence Street: a school turned upside down136
Beyond Lawrence Street147
7. Liberty: political history and the philosophy of reform155
Political historian155
Civil liberty and Philosopher160
The nature and extent of civil liberty165
Philosopher of reform170
Alfred’s genius175
8. Political liberty: from Letters on political liberty to war with France181
The emergence of a wary radical181
The science of government184
The distinction between civil and political liberty187
Theorist of conventions196
The people199
Political liberty and the history of England205
The body politic211
9. Williams, Brissot and the French Revolution215
Friendship and influence215
Lessons to a young prince225
Later recollections227
From constitutional adviser to ‘ambassador’228
10. ‘Abstract thinker on reform’237
The French Revolution and reformers237
Economic thought244
11. The press, the role of literature and the Literary Fund249
The press249
Literary Fund255
Biographical postscript270
A. The biographical and bibliographical tradition282
B. Circles293
C. The Margaret Street chapel in the eyes of contemporaries308
D. London addresses316
Manuscript sources318
David Williams’s printed works: a critical bibliography321
Primary printed sources345
Secondary printed sources354