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Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) usually makes an appearance in histories of science as the person who isolated and described eight “airs” (gasses), including oxygen. Trivia buffs may know him as the guy who invented soda water in 1767.

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Something rather less well known about Priestley is that he was a political exile who found refuge in the United States.

In the age before the word “scientist” was coined, Priestley was quite the polymath. He published over 150 works. A grammarian, clergyman, chemist, natural philosopher, educator, and political theorist, he was born in England and died in rural Pennsylvania. The story of how he came to America is one scholar Jenny Graham tells superbly:

In the fields of science, religion, and politics, Priestley had aroused an admiration, and a corresponding antagonism, for his fearless questioning of established dogma, for his pursuit of the truth as he perceived it as a result of experimental investigation and enquiry, and for his willingness to propagate the principles to which he adhered in order to challenge orthodoxy.

In 1765, Priestley met Benjamin Franklin in London. Franklin encouraged him to write a history of electricity and set him even further on the road to scientific inquiry. At the same time, Priestley’s political writings were so radical he published them anonymously. Writing to Franklin in 1769, Priestley wrote, “With my best wishes for the success of your laudable endeavours in the cause of science, truth, justice, peace, and, which comprehends them all, and every thing valuable in human life, LIBERTY, I subscribe myself.”

He didn’t grow more conservative with age. In 1791, after he’d starting putting his name on his political tracts (and helping to fund Dissenting churches), he barely escaped mob violence in Birmingham because of his support of the French Revolution. Virtually the face of that support in England, Priestly felt the political climate getting hotter and hotter. Finally, he sought refuge in the U.S. in 1794.

Priestley was part of a substantial exodus from England in the 1790s. These exiles to America, writes Graham, were a “vital component in the emergence of the philosophy that came to be known as Jeffersonian Republicanism.” These English men and women supported the French Revolution, and before that they had been inspired by the American Revolution. They had supported it at some risk to themselves. John Adams called Priestley and his exiled cohorts “ardent Spirits in Europe.” (Later, Adams would wish those spirits bottled away.)

Priestley was foremost amongst these refugee radical and revolutionaries. In England, he was burned in effigy, chased by rioters, saw his home and library looted, and was named by the king himself as an enemy of the state.

Of course, the country he moved to was in political turmoil, too, with “increasing partisan political discord, doctrinal dispute, and simmering internal discontent.” He must have right felt at home. Indeed, he was initially feted in New York and welcomed by Philadelphia. Most people assumed he would enjoy a nice retirement in the U.S., giving sermons, puttering around with gas. He did initially refuse to get involved with American politics, but you couldn’t keep a late-eighteenth-century Lockean Francophile down.

By 1798, he was in the thick of it: breaking with the Federalists, savaged in print by his enemies, threatened with deportation by the Alien and Sedition Acts. The old polemicist, worried he would be forced out of his second home, nonetheless engaged in the social media of the day. He wrote letters and essays defending himself, the republican cause, and anti-Federalism. He became that fundamental American creature: a partisan.

The American situation came to a head in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent John Adams for the presidency. The major political alignment that resulted has been called the “Revolution of 1800” and the defeat of Alexander Hamilton’s dream of a elitist democracy. Which means that Priestley, “English clergyman and scientist,” had his hand in at least three revolutions.


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Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 85, No. 2 (1995), pp. i-xii+1-213
American Philosophical Society