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Memoirs of William Paley, DD


William Paley, DD was born at Peterborough in July, and baptized, as appears from the register of the cathedral, August 30th 1743. He was descended from an old and respectable family in Craven, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where his great-grandfather John, and his grandfather Thomas Paley, successively resided on a small patrimonial estate at Langcliffe, in the parish of Giggleswick, [Whitaker’s History of Craven, p129, 133] which having since descended to his uncle George, and his cousin Thomas Paley, is still in the possession of the family.

His father, William Paley, a younger son, after a preliminary education under Mr Carr, head master of the free grammar-school at Giggleswick, [This school was founded by King Edward VI in the seventh year of his reign, at the instance of his chaplain, John Nowel, vicar of Giggleswick, and the government vested in seven trustees. Whitaker’s Craven, p 128] was admitted a sizar at Christ’s college, Cambridge, January 31st 1729-30, in the nineteenth year of his age, and proceeded bachelor of arts 1733-4. He was instituted, August 14th 1735, to the vicarage of Helpstone, in Northamptonshire, worth exactly thirty-five pounds a year. He afterwards fixed his residence at Peterborough, which is about seven miles distant from Helpstone, on being appointed a minor canon of the cathedral church. He married, July 10th 1742, Elizabeth Clapham, of Stackhouse, in the parish of Giggleswick, a woman of strong and active mind. The subject of these memoirs was their eldest child, and they had afterwards three daughters. Mr Paley was a sensible, worthy man, of a mild and benevolent disposition; and is stated to have been a very good classical scholar. In 1745, during the infancy of his son, being appointed head master of Giggleswick school, he resigned his minor-canonry, and removed to that place.

Young Paley therefore, as he grew up, was educated under his father’s eye. “The dawn of youth is indeed an aera in the history of every man’s mind and character, which is only to be omitted by the biographer, when particulars are not to be obtained;” [Cumberland’s Memoirs, 2d ed. Vol. I p42] more especially when, as in the present instance, the progress of a superior mind towards maturity deserves to be distinctly traced. At school he soon surpassed his early class-fellows, by the exercise of greater abilities united to a more studious disposition than usually belongs to boys of that age; and, by successive promotions from one class to another, at length obtained pre-eminence over all. He did not, however, at this time distinguish himself by any sort of compositions, even as school exercises, but was considered a very fair, though by no means accomplished classical scholar. He was even then more attentive to things than to words, and ardent in the pursuit of knowledge of every kind. He was curious in making enquiries about mechanism, whenever he had an opportunity of conversing with any workmen, or others capable of affording him satisfactory information . In his mind he was uncommonly active; in his body quite the reverse. He was a bad horseman, and incapable of those exertions which required adroitness in the use of his hands or feet. He consequently never engaged in the ordinary sports of schoolboys; but he was fond of angling, an amusement in which he did not then excel, though his attachment to it seems to have continued through life. He was much esteemed by his school-fellows, as possessing many good qualities, and being at all times a pleasant and lively companion. He frequently amused the young circle by the successful mimicking of a mountebank quack-doctor, in vending his powders. Having one year attended the assizes at Lancaster, he was so much taken with the proceedings in the criminal court, that on his return to school, he used to preside there as a judge, and to have the other boys brought up before him as prisoners for trial. This circumstance, trifling as it may appear to the superficial observer, is not unimportant, as it marks the period of his earliest attention to the practice of courts of justice, and to criminal law.

Soon after he had completed his fifteenth year, young Paley accompanied his father to Cambridge for the purpose of admission, and was admitted, November 16th 1758, a sizar of Christ’s college; a college otherwise highly respectable from the members who had done it honor, but sufficiently immortalized by the illustrious name of Milton alone. He performed this journey on horseback, and used often this humorously to describe the disasters which befell him on the road: - “I was never a good horseman, and when I followed by father on a poney of my own, on my first journey to Cambridge, I fell off seven times: - I was lighter then than I am now, and my falls were not likely to be serious: - My father, on hearing a thump, would turn his head half aside and say ‘take care of thy money lad.’”

Soon after his return to Craven, as the classics alone were taught at Giggleswick school, he went for mathematical instruction to Mr William Howarth, a teacher of some eminence at Dishforth, near Topcliffe, about three miles from Ripon, under whose care he laid an excellent foundation of knowledge in algebra and geometry. During his residence at this place, the attention of the whole neighbourhood was taken up by the discovery of a human skeleton at Knaresborough, which accidentally led of unfold the circumstances of a murder, committed there fourteen years before. Stimulated by curiosity, he attended the county assizes at York, and was present in the court, August 3d 1759, when Eugene Aram, a man of extraordinary learning and acuteness, was tried for the murder of Daniel Clark, and convicted on the evidence of Richard Houseman, an accomplice, and of his own wife. The evidence brought forward on this occasion, and the ingenious defence of the prisoner, [See Kippis’s Biographia Britannica, vol. I. p. 232] seem to have made a forcible impression on young Paley’s mind. When he returned home a few weeks after this, before his departure to college, he entertained and astonished all around him, by his spirited harangues and judicious remarks onthis important trial. Even then, young as he was, he paid particular attention to cases o flaw, and in speaking of them was singularly fluent and nervous in his language. He seems, indeed, to have attributed the conviction of the prisoner in a great measure to the ingenuity of his defence; for many years after, when he was conversing with a few friends about the lives of some obscure and undeserving persons having been inserted in the Biographia Britannica, and one of the party exclaimed – “Eugene Aram, for instance!” “Nay,” replied he, “a man that has been hanged has some pretension to notoriety, and especially a man who has got himself hanged by his own cleverness, which Eugene Aram certainly did.”

In October 1759, he became a resident member of Christ’s college, and on the first evening, after his departure for Cambridge, his father observed to a pupil who was then his only boarder, “My son is now gone to college, - he’ll turn out a great man – very great indeed, - I’m certain of it; for he has by far the clearest head I ever met with in my life.” When he commenced his residence in the university, he was little more than sixteen; an age which he frequently mentioned afterwards as too early to encounter the dangers of a college life. But he always had an old look, which, together with the superior strength and vigor of his understanding, impressed his companions with the idea of a much maturer age.

On the 5th of December he was appointed to one of the scholarships founded by Mr Carr, and appropriated to students from Giggleswick school. On the following day he was elected a scholar on the foundation of his college, and appointed to the exhibition founded by Sir Walter Mildmay. And in addition to these emoluments, he was elected, May 26th 1761, to the scholarly founded by Mr Buntry, one of the college tenants.

Dr Thomas, dean of Ely, was at that time master of Christ’s college; Mr Shepherd and Mr Backhouse were the tutors. Mr Shepherd, who gave lectures in algebra, geometry, and the different branches of natural philosophy, being soon convinced of Mr Paley’s superior attainments, (for he came to college a better mathematician than many are when they leave it,) excused him from attending his college lectures with students of his own year; but required his attendance at those public lectures which he afterwards gave as Plumian professor; and occasionally proposed mathematical questions for his solution. Mr Paley, during this time, regularly attended Mr Backhouse’s lectures in logic and metaphysics.

Being thus left so much to himself, he applied however most assiduously to those studies required by the university; in the pursuit of which he had frequent opportunity to show the concentration of mind which he possessed in an extraordinary degree. His room, (for he seldom locked his door either by night or day,) used to be the common rendezvous of the idle young men of his college; yet, notwithstanding all their noise and nonsense, he might be often seen in one corner, as composed and attentive to what he was reading, as if he had been alone. But as, besides the interruption which such loungers must at times have given him, he was remarkable for indulging himself in bed till a very late hour in the morning, and for being much in company after dinner, at tea, and at a coffee-house at nine o’clock in the evening, it is probable that he was more indebted to observation and reflection than to books for the general improvement of his mind.

On his first arrival from the country, the uncouthness of his dress and manners caused not a little mirth amongst his fellow-collegians; but as the superiority of his genius and his real worth were soon discovered, these singularities did not long deprive his of their esteem and admiration. Besides, he was a most excellent companion, and had the happiest knack of turning the laugh against himself, by relating some absurd and ridiculous blunder which he had committed; and his absence of mind and inattention to the common occurrences of life supplied him with many such stories. In his merry humours he could always find something to laugh at in himself, and, indeed, he was often heard to say that “A man who is not sometimes a fool, is always one:” and observation which, however strange it may appear to some, is strictly in unison with a saying of the first earl of Shaftesbury, recorded by Mr Locke. [* Lord Shaftesbury was wont to say, “that there were in every one, two men, the wise and the foolish, and that each of them must be allowed his turn. If you would have the wise, the grave, and the serious, always to rule and have the sway, the fool would grown so peevish and troublesome, that he would put the wise man out of order, and make him fit for nothing: he must have his times of being let loose his fancies, and to play his gambols, if you would have your business go on smoothly. Locke’s Works, 8vo, 10th ed. vol IX, p 272].

Mr Paley’s most intimate friend at this period, was Mr Stoddart of his own college, now the respectable master of the endowed school at Ashford in Kent, to whose obliging communications the writer is indebted for many circumstances stated in these Memoirs. “I feel myself much interested,” he observes in his correspondence on the subject, “in the event of your intended publication; I would have told you all that I can recollect, and it would give me real and sincere pleasure, were it in my power to furnish you with more ample and important materials for the history of a man whom I always highly esteemed and regarded. My acquaintance with his commenced soon after he first came to college, and indeed during the whole time that we were under-graduates, we generally spent our evenings together, except when we were engaged in other company. We often supped at a coffee-house in Trumpington-street, kept by one Dockeral, a house of character, and frequented more by fellows and masters of arts than by under-graduates. I had, therefore, the best opportunity of knowing the goodness of his heart, at a time of life when the heart is least disguised. Afterwards, though I saw him only occasionally, for the last time at Carlisle in the summer of the year 1790, he gave me many proofs of his regard; which continued, I believe, without diminution, till death deprived me of a much to be lamented friend, and the world of a most useful and valuable member of society.”

“The late Mr Unwin, of Stock,” the correspondent of the poet Cowper, “was at college with us, and was our most intimate friend. He was a most worthy man, and a very good classical scholar; for he gained one of the chancellor’s gold medals in 1764, and the first bachelor’s prize in 1766. He had a very high opinion of Paley’s superior judgment, used to consult him on every occasion, and, in fact, to unbosom every thought and design to his friendly inspection. He afterwards frequently wrote to him to remove his own doubts and scruples, as well with respect to matters of religion as to the affairs of this world. Paley’s letters to him must be interesting, and I shall be sincerely glad if this information enable you to recover any of them. [*The writer was sorry to find, upon inquiring after this interesting correspondence, that only two of Mr Paley’s letters, equally short and unimportant, had been preserved.] In his younger days, he was very averse to writing letters. I have often paid a penny a line for his correspondence, relating chiefly to college business, and once a penny a word. He used to say in his jocular manner, that “letters to friends answered no other purpose than to shew a man’s wit, or to express the sincerity his friendship. My friends,” added he, “are well convinced that I possess both.” To those who knew him well his memory will be ever dear. The world, indeed, may admire his superior genius, his clear, vigorous, and comprehensive mind; but his private friends alone can appreciate the virtues of his heart: for he most certainly was what his first patron, old bishop Law, often said of him, a good man and a good Christian.”

These extracts clearly show the high estimation in which Mr Paley was held by his associates, and particularly Mr Stoddart, whom he always emphatically spoke of, as “one of his oldest and best friends.”  To have been distinguished by the confidence of such a man as Mr Paley at this early period, is no small honor; but it is a still greater to have preserved that friendship unimpaired through life. The testimony of one so honored is, at all times, important to a biographer, and, in the present instance, is conveyed in a language evidently flowing from the heart, which it would have been an injustice to have mutilated, and which cannot fail to interest.

Mr Hall, now vicar of Grantham, another college friend of Mr Paley’s, to whose communications the present writer is also much indebted, confirms the preceding eulogy, and dwells with equal approbation on his merit and the esteem which he universally obtained. “I am very willing, “he observes, “ to contribute all I can to the memory of the best and ablest man, in my judgment, whom I ever say, heard, or read of; since I never knew him guilty of a vicious act, nor inattentive to propriety of moral conduct. An intimacy subsisted between us from a few weeks previous to his going to Cambridge, when I was at Giggleswick school, and boarded with his father. I was afterwards at Christ’s college with him; one year his junior in the university, though two years his senior in age. Of his life, whilst an undergraduate, Mr Stoddart is able to give you the best account. Mr Unwin was of my year, a very respectable man, and an intimate friend of Paley’s. indeed, no man was held in more general esteem than Paley: he as always cheerful, and the life of every company he came into. Being so much in company, it was wonderful how he could find sufficient time for reading: and yet he never failed to distinguish himself on all occasions. It is difficult to say in what studies he most excelled after he became a graduate. His knowledge was general; nothing escaped his notice; and he seemed conversant in every branch of science, and in every sort of information; so clear was his head, and so retentive his memory.”

Mr Wilson, fellow of Peterhouse, [*Afterwards Sir John Wilson, one of the judges of the Court of Common Pleas. He was senior wrangler in 1761; and even whilst an under-graduate, had successfully defended a small mathematical publication of Dr Waring’s, against an attack from Dr Powell.] was a this time one of the most eminent private tutors in the university, thought he had already become a member of the honorable society of the Inner Temple, with an intention of being called to the bar. He was distinguished for his mathematical knowledge, and used always to explain his problems, however various his modes of demonstration, without the assistance of a book. His lectures were attended by several students from different colleges, as preparatory to their disputations in the public schools, and their examination for a bachelor’s degree; [*For a short account of these academical exercises see Jebb’s Works, vol II. p. 284-299.] in which pure mathematics and the branches of natural philosophy are principally required. Mr Paley was fortunate in the assistance of this able instructor, during his third year, and the united efforts of such a tutor and such a pupil were naturally crowned with success. The mathematics indeed formed an admirable exercise for the powers of Mr Paley’s mind, and in these studies, though he afterwards neglected them, might be laid the foundation of his fame. A firm and lasting friendship, equally honorable to both parties, was the result of this transient connection, though Mr Wilson, soon after, on being called to the bar, left Cambridge and directed his sole attention to the law.

Mr Paley, being generally careless about his dress, and sometimes even remarkably inattentive to it, attracted more than common notice, when he appeared in the public schools to keep his first act, with his hair full dressed, and in a deep ruffled shirt and new silk stockings; which aided by his gestures, his action, and his whole manner, when earnestly engaged in the debate, existed no small mirth in the spectators. This was his first appearance before the university as a disputant, and he acquitted himself with such unwonted ability, that the schools were afterwards invariably crowded, whenever he was expected to dispute.

On the 10th. of October 1762, Mr Jebb, fellow of Peterhosue, [*This sincere and ardent friend of civil and religious liberty afterwards resigned his preferments in the church, from conscientious scruples, and turning his attention to medicine, graduated at St Andrews, and practised successfully in London, for some years. An interesting memoir of his life, written con amore, has been presented to the public by Dr Disney, the faithful and intelligent editor of his works.] and Mr Watson, fellow and tutor of Trinity college, [*Now Bishop of Llandaff.] were invested with the office of moderators for the first time: an office, the duties of which, together or separately, they afterwards repeatedly discharged with the highest celebrity. Soon after this appointment, Mr Watson sent Mr Paley an act. He was prepared with a mathematical question, and referring to Johnson’s Questiones Philosophicae, a book then common in the university, in which the subjects usually disputed upon in the schools, and the names of the authors who had written on each side, were contained, he fixed upon two others, as not having been proposed to his knowledge before: the one against capital punishments, the other against the eternity of Hell torments. As soon as it was rumoured amongst the heads of the university, that Mr Paley, whose abilities were well known, had proposed such a question, the master of his college was desired to interfere and put a stop to it.  Dr Thomas consequently summoned him to the lodge, and objected, in strong terms to both his questions, but insisted upon his relinquishing the last. Mr Paley immediately went to the moderator, and acquainted him with the peremptory command. Mr Watson was indignant that “the heads of colleges should interfere in a matter, which belonged solely,” as he said, “to him; for he was the judge of the propriety or impropriety of the questions sent to him.” “Are you, Sir,” continued he, “independent of your college? if you are, these shall be the questions for your act.” Mr Paley told him that “he should be very sorry to offend the college; and therefore wished to change the last question.” “Very well,” replied the moderator, “the best way then to satisfy the scruples of these gentlemen, will be for you to defend the eternity of hell torments:” which , changing his thesis to the affirmative, he actually did.

Mr Paley kept this act with uncommon credit. Mr Frere of Caius college, a young gentleman of singular fame as a disputant, particularly on metaphysical or moral subjects, confident in his own abilities, and fluent in speaking latin, was his first opponent, and the strenuous exertions of such an adversary gave full scope to the display of his extraordinary talents. Indeed he always acquitted himself with great ability in his several disputations, either as a respondent or opponent, and received the highest compliments from the different moderators whom he kept.

Nor did Mr Paley disappoint the general expectation of the university, when he took his degree of bachelor of arts, in January 1763, but was senior wrangler of the year. In the senate-house, as in the schools, Mr Frere was his most formidable competitor, and gained the second honours. Mr Paley was probably more indebted for the first, to the quickness and strength of his conceptions, and to a promptitude of delivery in which he always excelled, than to the superior extent of his mathematical acquirements.

The honorable degree which a young man takes in the university, is by no means a certain presage of future eminence: for while many who have highly distinguished themselves in the senate-house, have afterwards by the indolence frustrated all the flattering expectations which they had raised; others, on the contrary, who stood low in the distribution of academical honors, by unremitted application, or a later development of genius, have far outrun their contemporaries, in depth of learning and vigor of intellect. Yet, though such instances frequently occur, it is but common justice to say, that a majority of those graduate, who have in subsequent life distinguished themselves, will be founded recorded amongst the higher names on the tripos [*the list of those who have obtained honors on commencing bachelors of arts is so called.] of their year. But the mathematics, to which the general honors of this university are perhaps too much confined, do not afford an equal attraction to every student of superior talents, and Mr Paley, eminently skilled as he now was in that province, afterwards maintained and extended his reputation, by successful labours a very different kind.

Soon after taking his bachelor’s degree, Mr Paley was engaged, on the recommendation of Mr Shepherd, as second assistant in a great academy at Greenwich, kept by Mr Bracken, and chiefly resorted to by young men intended for the army and navy, where his department of teaching was in the latin language. His classical were indeed far inferior to his mathematical attainments, but with his strong talents, it may be readily supposed, that, when daily employed in reading and teaching the best authors, he soon supplied any former deficiency. His leisure hours were frequently occupied in rambling about the metropolis, where a variety of new and interesting objects engaged his notice, and gave full scope of observation to his active mind.

On him nothing was lost, and, as he was equally ardent in the pursuit of knowledge or of recreation, his residence at Greenwich, at this important period of his life, must have been highly advantageous to him. He certainly enjoyed a good play very much, and used frequently to attend the theatres, particularly Drury-lane, when Mr Garrick, returning from the continent, [*Mr Garrick went abroad in September 1763, and returned in April 1765, but did not perform till the following November, being absent during much of Mr Paley’s residence at Greenwich - See Murphy’s Life of Garrick.] re-appeared upon the stage. He generally went into the pit, and seated himself as near to the orchestra as he could. But his chief amusement in London seemed to arise from attending the different courts of justice, the old Bailey in particular; and there from his frequent attendance, and sagacity of observation, he acquired a clear and accurate knowledge of the criminal law. It is interesting, at all times, to trace the progress of a favorite inclination in youth, when leading to any laudable pursuit; more especially in a man like Mr Paley. The proceedings in the courts of Lancaster had made a forcible impression on his mind; and the trial of Eugene Aram, no doubt, added strength to a propensity, in which his frequent visits to the metropolis, at this time, enabled him to indulge. In the midst of all this, he was perfectly satisfied with his lot, and found himself so happy in his situation at Greenwich, that he has been often heard to say, “the rank of first assistant in the academy was then the highest object of his ambition.”

In 1765, Mr Paley became a candidate for one of the prizes given annually by the representatives of the university of Cambridge to senior bachelors, the authors of the two best dissertations in Latin prose. The subject proposed was a comparison between the stoic and Epicurean philosophy, with respect to the influence of each on the morals of a people. Mr Paley, at all times averse to useless austerity, and a lover of rational enjoyment, naturally took the Epicurean side. His dissertation, first composed in English, and afterwards translated by himself into Latin, though far from elegant in point of style, is fraught with sound perspicuous reasoning, and strong manly sense. Evincing at once extensive reading, and a maturity of reflection far beyond his years, this early performance discovers no slight presages of his future eminence, and many characteristic features of his mind. In discussing the opposite characters of these rival systems of philosophy, he strenuously vindicates Epicurus against those calumnies, with which the ignorance or misrepresentation of his opponents have unjustly charged him, and maintains that his doctrines were favorable to none but rational pleasures, and the true happiness of mankind. the disciples of Zeno, on the other hand, he contends, whilst affecting an elevation of virtue inconsistent with human nature, too often, in their practice, descended to the most flagitous of crimes.

This was perhaps a singular instance of a prize-dissertation in Latin, being sent up to the judges, with long notes in English. The reasons alleged for this, in a short preface, were the obscurity of a dead language, and the difficulty of ascertaining the exact meaning of words and phrases. This circumstance, however, though thus explained, had nearly proved fatal to its success. For when the merits of the several competitors came to be discussed by the vice-chancellor and heads of colleges, by whom the prizes are awarded; one of the judges strongly objected to the essay on this very account, observing that “he supposed the author had been assisted by his father, some country-clergyman, who having forgotten his Latin had written the notes in English.” Dr Powell, master of St John’s college, spoke warmly in its favor, insisting that “it contained more matter than was to be found in all the others: that it would be unfair to reject such a dissertation merely on suspicion; since the notes were applicable to the subject, and shewed the author to be a young man of the most promising abilities and extensive reading.” This opinion seems to have been decisive, in turning the balance in Mr Paley’s favor, to whom the first prize was accordingly adjudged.