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Mar 1, 1980

Priestly and Liberty

“Priestley died in Pennsylvania in 1804, having throughout his life professed freedom in science, religion, and politics.”

Stuart Andrews

“Joseph Priestley and American Independence.” History Today 29(April 1979):221–229.

Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), the English radical dissenting minister, scientist, and political philosopher, belongs to the pantheon of “Atlantic Revolutionaries,” who advanced science, freedom, and American Independence. He moved in a cosmopolitan circle of friends who included the American revolutionaries, (Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams), fellow English radicals (such as Richard Price and Tom Paine), and such Enlightenment philosophes and scientists as Condorcet and Lavoisier.

Priestley’s political philosophy foreshadowed the American Declaration of Independence in its Enlightenment commitment to freedom, progress, popular sovereignty, and the right of the people to alter any government which violated rights. His 1768 Essay on the First Principles of Government, which articulated these views, deeply influenced the utilitarian radical Jeremy Bentham as well as many American liberals. Priestley’s own dedication to the principles of liberty of the French Revolution made him the target of an Anti-French Birmingham mob which rioted in 1791, destroying his scientific apparatus and motivating him to emigrate to America in 1794 after a brief time spent teaching at a new Dissenters’ College in London.

Thomas Jefferson befriended Priestley in 1797, valued his liberal political principles and his rationalistic approach to religion in Socrates and Jesus Compared. Earlier Benjamin Franklin had struck up a warm friendship with his fellow scientist and philosophe Priestley in London during 1766. In fact, Priestley’s History of Electricity preserved Franklin’s account of his famous kite experiments with lightning and electricity. Franklin also encouraged his friend to publish the widely read tract on English and American liberties, Address to Protestant Dissenters of All Denominations on the Approaching Election of Members of Parliament, With Respect to the State of Public Liberty in General and of American Affairs in Particular (1774). Priestley’s pamphlet showed how the principles of liberty united the right of religious dissent in England with the right of the American colonies to a measure of political independence and freedom from taxation without representation in parliament. He prophesied that British injustices to the colonies would lead only to resistance and eventual political independence.

1774 was Priestley’s annus mirabilis. He produced not only his political Address but also the scientific discovery of oxygen, which eventually won him membership in the French Academy of Sciences. By 1773 he had left his dissenting ministry at Leeds, and from 1773–1780 he served as librarian to Lord Shelborne at Calme, a post that enabled him to equip his scientific laboratory and travel through Europe to meet philosophes and the eminent scientist Lavoisier. In England he was a member of the radical Honest Whigs Club where he conversed with such notables as Richard Price and Franklin.

Never taking American citizenship after his emigration in 1794, Priestley died in Pennsylvania in 1804, having throughout his life professed freedom in science, religion, and politics.