BY EDGAR F. SMITH UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
PHILADELPHIA P. BLAKISTON'S SON & CO. 1012 WALNUT STREET
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY P. BLAKISTON'S SON & CO.
THE MAPLE PRESS YORK PA
The writer, in studying the lives of early American chemists, encountered the name of Joseph Priestley so frequently, that he concluded to institute a search with the view of learning as much as possible of the life and activities, during his exile in this country, of the man whom chemists everywhere deeply revere. Recourse, therefore, was had to contemporary newspapers, documents and books, and the resulting material woven into the sketch given in the appended pages. If nothing more, it may be, perhaps, a connecting chapter for any future history of chemistry in America. Its preparation has been a genuine pleasure, which, it is hoped by him whose hand guided the pen, will be shared by his fellow chemists, and all who are interested in the growth and development of science in this country.
PRIESTLEY IN AMERICA
There lies before the writer a tube of glass, eleven and one half inches in length and a quarter of an inch in diameter. Its walls are thin. At one end there is evidence that an effort was made to bend this tube in the flame. Ordinarily it would be tossed aside; but this particular tube was given the writer years ago by a great-grandson of Joseph Priestley. Attached to the tube is a bit of paper upon which appear the words "piece of tubing used by Priestley." That legend has made the tube precious in the heart and to the eye of the writer. Everything relating to this wonderful figure in science, history, religion, politics and philosophy is very dear to him. On all sides of him are relics and reminders of Priestley. Not all, but many of his publications are near at hand. After perusal of these at various times, and while reading the many life sketches of Priestley, there has come the desire to know more about his activities during the decade (1794-1804) he lived in America. Isn't it fair to declare that the great majority of chemical students think of Priestley as working only in England, his native land, and never give thought to his efforts during the last ten years of his life? It has been said that he probably inspired and incited the young chemists of this country to renewed endeavor in their science upon his advent here. There is no question that he influenced James Woodhouse and his particular confreres most profoundly, as he did a younger generation, represented by Robert Hare. Priestley again set in rapid motion chemical research in the young Republic. He must therefore have done something himself. What was it? Is it worth while to learn the character of this work? Modern tendencies are antagonistic to the past. Many persons care nothing for history. It is a closed book. They do not wish it to be opened, and yet the present is built upon the early work. In reviewing the development of chemistry in this country everything, from the first happening here, should be laid upon the table for study and reflection. Thus believing, it will not be out of place to seek some light upon the occupation of the discoverer of oxygen after he came to live among us—with our fathers.
Noble-hearted, sympathetic Thomas E. Thorpe wrote:
If, too, as you draw up to the fire 'betwixt the gloaming and the mirk' of these dull, cold November days, and note the little blue flame playing round the red-hot coals, think kindly of Priestley, for he first told us of the nature of that flame when in the exile to which our forefathers drove him.
Right there, "the nature of the flame," is one thing Priestley did explain in America. He discovered carbon monoxide—not in England, but in "exile." It may not be an epoch-making observation. There are not many such and those who make them are not legion in number. It was an interesting fact, with a very definite value, which has persisted through many succeeding decades and is so matter-of-fact that rarely does one arise to ask who first discovered this simple oxide of carbon.
Priestley was a man of strong human sympathies. He loved to mingle with men and exchange thoughts. Furthermore, Priestley was a minister—a preacher. He was ordained while at Warrington, and gloried in the fact that he was a Dissenting Minister. It was not his devotion to science which sent him "into exile." His advanced thought along political and religious lines, his unequivocal utterances on such subjects,—proved to be the rock upon which he shipwrecked. It has been said—
By some strange irony of fate this man, who was by nature one of the most peaceable and peace-loving of men, singularly calm and dispassionate, not prone to disputation or given to wrangling, acquired the reputation of being perhaps the most cantankerous man of his time....
There is a wide-spread impression that Priestley was a chemist. This is the answer which invariably comes from the lips of students upon being interrogated concerning him. The truth is that Priestley's attention was only turned to chemistry when in the thirties by Matthew Turner, who lectured on this subject in the Warrington Academy in which Priestley labored as a teacher. So he was rather advanced in life before the science he enriched was revealed to him in the experimental way. Let it again be declared, he was a teacher. His thoughts were mostly those of a teacher. Education occupied him. He wrote upon it. The old Warrington Academy was a "hot-bed of liberal dissent," and there were few subjects upon which he did not publicly declare himself as a dissenter.
He learned to know our own delightful Franklin in one of his visits to London. Franklin was then sixty years of age, while Priestley was little more than half his age. A warm friendship immediately sprang up. It reacted powerfully upon Priestley's work as "a political thinker and as a natural philosopher." In short, Franklin "made Priestley into a man of science." This intimacy between these remarkable men should not escape American students. Recall that positively fascinating letter (1788) from Franklin to Benjamin Vaughan, in which occur these words:
Remember me affectionately ... to the honest heretic Dr. Priestley. I do not call him honest by way of distinction, for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of Fortitude, or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies.... Do not however mistake me. It is not to my good friend's heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary 'tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic.
Much of Priestley's thought was given to religious matters. In Leeds he acknowledged himself a humanitarian, or
a believer in the doctrine that Jesus Christ was in nature solely and truly a man, however highly exalted by God.
His home in Leeds adjoined a "public brew house." He there amused himself with experiments on carbon dioxide (fixed air). Step by step he became strongly attracted to experimentation. His means, however, forbade the purchase of apparatus and he was obliged to devise the same and also to think out his own methods of attack. Naturally, his apparatus was simple. He loved to repeat experiments, thus insuring their accuracy.
In 1772 he published his first paper on Pneumatic Chemistry. It told of the impregnation of water with carbon dioxide. It attracted attention and was translated into French. This soda-water paper won for Priestley the Copley medal (1773). While thus signally honored he continued publishing views on theology and metaphysics. These made a considerable uproar.
Then came the memorable year of 1774—the birth-year of oxygen. How many chemists, with but two years in the science, have been so fortunate as to discover an element, better still probably the most important of all the elements! It was certainly a rare good fortune! It couldn't help but make him the observed among observers. This may have occasioned the hue and cry against his polemical essays on government and church to become more frequent and in some instances almost furious.
It was now that he repaired to London. Here he had daily intercourse with Franklin, whose encouragement prompted him to go bravely forward in his adopted course.
It was in 1780 that he took up his residence in Birmingham. This was done at the instance of his brother-in-law. The atmosphere was most congenial and friendly. Then, he was most desirous of resuming his ministerial duties; further, he would have near at hand good workmen to aid him in the preparation of apparatus for his philosophical pursuits. Best of all his friends were there, including those devoted to science. Faujar St. Fond, a French geologist has recorded a visit to Priestley—
Dr. Priestley received me with the greatest kindness.... The building in which Dr. Priestley made his chemical and philosophical experiments was detached from his house to avoid the danger of fire. It consisted of several apartments on the ground floor. Upon entering it we were struck with a simple and ingenious apparatus for making experiments on inflammable gas extracted from iron and water reduced to vapour.
If, only, all the time of Dr. Priestley in Birmingham had been devoted to science, but alas, his "beloved theology" claimed much of it. He would enter into controversy—he would dissent, and the awful hour was advancing by leaps and bounds. The storm was approaching.
It burst forth with fury in 1791. The houses of worship, in which he was wont to officiate, were the first to meet destruction, then followed his own house in which were assembled his literary treasures and the apparatus he had constructed and gathered with pains, sacrifice and extreme effort. Its demolition filled his very soul with deepest sorrow. Close at hand, the writer has a neat little chemical balance. It was brought to this country by Priestley, and tradition has it, that it was among the pieces of the celebrated collection of chemical utensils rescued from the hands of the infuriated mob which sought even the life of Priestley, who fortunately had been spirited or hidden away by loyal, devoted friends and admirers. In time he ventured forth into the open and journeyed to London, and when quiet was completely restored, he returned to one of his early fields of activity, but wisdom and the calm judgment of friends decided this as unwise. Through it all Priestley was quiet and philosophical, which is evident from the following story:
A friend called on him soon after the riots and condoled with him for his loss in general, then mentioned the destruction of his books as an object of particular regret. Priestley answered, "I should have read my books to little purpose if they had not taught me to bear the loss of them with composure and resignation."
But the iron had entered his soul. He could not believe that in his own England any man would be treated as he had been treated. His country was dear to him. He prized it beyond expression, but he could not hope for the peace his heart craved. His family circle was broken, two of his sons having come to America, so in the end, deeply concerned for his life-companion's comfort, the decision to emigrate was reached, and their faces were turned to the West.
In reviewing the history of chemistry the remark is frequently heard that one blotch on the fair escutcheon of French science was placed there when the remorseless guillotine ushered Lavoisier into eternity. Was not the British escutcheon of science dimmed when Priestley passed into exile? Priestley—who had wrought so splendidly! And yet we should not be too severe, for an illustrious name—Count Rumford—which should have been ours—was lost to us by influences not wholly unlike those which gained us Priestley. Benjamin Thompson, early in life abandoned a home and a country which his fellow citizens had made intolerable.
Read Priestley's volumes on Air and on Natural Philosophy. They are classics. All conversant with their contents agree that the experimental work was marvelous. Priestley's discovery of oxygen was epoch-making, but does not represent all that he did. Twice he just escaped the discovery of nitrogen. One wonders how this occurred. He had it in hand. The other numerous observations made by him antedate his American life and need not be mentioned here. They alone would have given him a permanent and honorable rank in the history of chemistry. Students of the science should reserve judgment of Priestley until they have familiarized themselves with all his contributions, still accessible in early periodicals. When that has been done, the loss to English science, by Priestley's departure to another clime will be apparent.
His dearest friends would have held him with them. Not every man's hand was against him—on the contrary, numerous were those, even among the opponents of his political and theological utterances, who hoped that he would not desert them. They regretted that he had—
turned his attention too much from the luminous field of philosophic disquisition to the sterile regions of polemic divinity, and the still more thorny paths of polemic politics....
from which the hope was cherished that he would recede and devote all his might to philosophical pursuits.
A very considerable number ... of enlightened inhabitants, convinced of his integrity as a man, sincerity as a preacher, and superlative merit as a philosopher, were his strenuous advocates and admirers.
But the die had been cast, and to America he sailed on April 8, 1794, in the good ship Sansom, Capt. Smith, with a hundred others—his fellow passengers. Whilst on the seas his great protagonist Lavoisier met his death on the scaffold.
Such was the treatment bestowed upon the best of their citizens by two nations which considered themselves as without exception the most civilized and enlightened in the world!
It is quite natural to query how the grand old scientist busied himself on this voyage of eight weeks and a day. The answer is found in his own words:
I read the whole of the Greek Testament, and the Hebrew bible as far as the first Book of Samuel: also Ovid's Metamorphoses, Buchanan's poems, Erasmus' Dialogues, also Peter Pindar's poems, &c.... and to amuse myself I tried the heat of the water at different depths, and made other observations, which suggest various experiments, which I shall prosecute whenever I get my apparatus at liberty.
The Doctor was quite sea-sick, and at times sad, but uplifted when his eyes beheld the proofs of friendship among those he was leaving behind. Thus he must have smiled benignantly on beholding the
elegant Silver Inkstand, with the following inscription, presented ... by three young Gentlemen of the University of Cambridge:
"To Joseph Priestley, LL.D. &c. on his departure into Exile, from a few members of the University of Cambridge, who regret that expression of their Esteem should be occasioned by the ingratitude of their Country."
And, surely, he must have taken renewed courage on perusing the valedictory message received from the Society of United Irishmen of Dublin:
SUFFER a Society which has been caluminated as devoid of all sense of religion, law or morality, to sympathize with one whom calumny of a similar kind is about to drive from his native land, a land which he has adorned and enlightened in almost every branch of liberal literature, and of useful philosophy. The emigration of Dr. Priestley will form a striking historical fact, by which alone, future ages will learn to estimate truly the temper of the present time. Your departure will not only give evidence of the injury which philosophy and literature have received in your person, but will prove the accumulation of petty disquietudes, which has robbed your life of its zest and enjoyment, for, at your age no one would willingly embark on such a voyage, and sure we are, it was your wish and prayer to be buried in your native country, which contains the dust of your old friends Saville, Price, Jebb, and Fothergill. But be cheerful, dear Sir, you are going to a happier world—the world of Washington and Franklin.
In idea, we accompany you. We stand near you while you are setting sail. We watch your eyes that linger on the white cliffs and we hear the patriarchal blessing which your soul pours out on the land of your nativity, the aspiration that ascends to God for its peace, its freedom and its prosperity. Again, do we participate in your feelings on first beholding Nature in her noblest scenes and grandest features, on finding man busied in rendering himself worthy of Nature, but more than all, on contemplating with philosophic prescience the coming period when those vast inland seas shall be shadowed with sails, when the St. Lawrence and Mississippi, shall stretch forth their arms to embrace the continent in a great circle of interior navigation: when the Pacific Ocean shall pour into the Atlantic; when man will become more precious than fine gold, and when his ambition will be to subdue the elements, not to subjugate his fellow-creatures, to make fire, water, earth and air obey his bidding, but to leave the poor ethereal mind as the sole thing in Nature free and incoercible.
Happy indeed would it be were men in power to recollect this quality of the human mind. Suffer us to give them an example from a science of which you are a mighty master, that attempts to fix the element of mind only increase its activity, and that to calculate what may be from what has been is a very dangerous deceit.—Were all the saltpetre in India monopolized, this would only make chemical researches more ardent and successful. The chalky earths would be searched for it, and nitre beds would be made in every cellar and every stable. Did not that prove sufficient the genius of chemistry would find in a new salt a substitute for nitre or a power superior to it. It requires greater genius than Mr. Pitt seems to possess, to know the wonderful resources of the mind, when patriotism animates philosophy, and all the arts and sciences are put under a state of requisition, when the attention of a whole scientific people is bent to multiplying the means and instruments of destruction and when philosophy rises in a mass to drive on the wedge of war. A black powder has changed the military art, and in a great degree the manners of mankind. Why may not the same science which produced it, produce another powder which, inflamed under a certain compression, might impell the air, so as to shake down the strongest towers and scatter destruction.
But you are going to a country where science is turned to better uses. Your change of place will give room for the matchless activity of your genius; and you will take a sublime pleasure in bestowing on Britain the benefit of your future discoveries. As matter changes its form but not a particle is ever lost, so the principles of virtuous minds are equally imperishable; and your change of situation may even render truth more operative, knowledge more productive, and in the event, liberty itself more universal. Wafted by the winds or tossed by the waves, the seed that is here thrown out as dead, there shoots up and flourishes. It is probable that emigration to America from the first settlement downward, has not only served the cause of general liberty, but will eventually and circuitously serve it even in Britain. What mighty events have arisen from that germ which might once have been supposed to be lost forever in the woods of America, but thrown upon the bosom of Nature, the breath of God revived it, and the world hath gathered its fruits. Even Ireland has contributed her share to the liberties of America; and while purblind statesmen were happy to get rid of the stubborn Presbyterians of the North, they little thought that they were serving a good cause in another quarter.—Yes! the Volunteers of Ireland still live—they live across the Atlantic. Let this idea animate us in our sufferings, and may the pure principles and genuine lustre of the British Constitution reflected from their Coast, penetrate into ourselves and our dungeons.
Farewell—great and good man! Great by your mental powers, by your multiplied literary labours, but still greater by those household virtues which form the only solid security for public conduct by those mild and gentle qualities, which far from being averse to, are most frequently attended with severe and inflexible patriotism, rising like an oak above a modest mansion.—Farewell—but before you go, we beseech a portion of your parting prayer to the author of Good for Archibald Hamilton Rowan, the pupil of Jebb, our Brother, now suffering imprisonment, and for all those who have suffered, and are about to suffer in the same cause—the cause of impartial and adequate representation—the cause of the Constitution. Pray to the best of Beings for Muir, Palmer, Skirving, Margarott and Gerald, who are now, or will shortly be crossing, like you, the bleak Ocean, to a barbarous land!—Pray that they may be animated with the same spirit, which in the days of their fathers, triumphed at the stake, and shone in the midst of flames. Melancholy indeed, it is that the mildest and most humane of all Religions should have been so perverted as to hang or burn men in order to keep them of one faith.
It is equally melancholy, that the most deservedly extolled of Civil Constitutions, should recur to similar modes of coercion, and that hanging and burning are not now employed, principally, because measures apparently milder are considered as more effectual. Farewell! Soon may you embrace your sons on the American shore, and Washington take you by the hand, and the shade of Franklin look down with calm delight on the first statesman of the age extending his protection to its first philosopher.
And how interestedly did America anticipate the arrival of the world renowned philosopher is in a measure foreshadowed by the following excerpt from the American Daily Advertiser for Thursday, June 5, 1794:
Dr. Priestley, with about one hundred other passengers, are on board the Sansom, which may be hourly expected.
In an editorial of the same paper, printed about the same date, there appeared the following tribute:
It must afford the most sincere gratification to every well wisher to the rights of man, that the United States of America, the land of freedom and independence, has become the asylum of the greatest characters of the present age, who have been persecuted in Europe, merely because they have defended the rights of the enslaved nations.
The name of Joseph Priestley will be long remembered among all enlightened people; and there is no doubt that England will one day regret her ungrateful treatment to this venerable and illustrious man. His persecutions in England have presented to him the American Republic as a safe and honourable retreat in his declining years; and his arrival in this City calls upon us to testify our respect and esteem for a man whose whole life has been devoted to the sacred duty of diffusing knowledge and happiness among nations.
The citizens of united America know well the honourable distinction that is due to virtue and talents; and while they cherish in their hearts the memory of Dr. Franklin, as a philosopher, they will be proud to rank among the list of their illustrious fellow citizens, the name of Dr. Priestley.
Quietly but with great inward rejoicing were the travel-worn voyagers—the Doctor and his wife—received on the evening of June 4, 1794, at the old Battery in New York, by their son Joseph and his wife, who had long awaited them, and now conducted them to a nearby lodging house, which had been the head-quarters of Generals Howe and Clinton.
On the following morning the Priestleys were visited by Governor Clinton, Dr. Prevost, Bishop of New York and most of the principal merchants, and deputations of corporate bodies and Societies, bringing addresses of welcome. Thus, among the very first to present their sympathetic welcome was the Democratic Society of the City of New York, which in the address of its President, Mr. James Nicholson, made June 7, 1794, said:
WE are appointed by the Democratic Society of the City of New York, a Committee to congratulate you on your arrival in this country: And we feel the most lively pleasure in bidding you a hearty welcome to these shores of Liberty and Equality.
While the arm of Tyranny is extended in most of the nations of the world, to crush the spirit of liberty, and bind in chains the bodies and minds of men, we acknowledge, with ardent gratitude to the Great Parent of the Universe, our singular felicity in living in a land, where Reason has successfully triumphed over the artificial distinctions of European policy and bigotry, and where the law equally protects the virtuous citizen of every description and persuasion.
On this occasion we cannot but observe, that we once esteemed ourselves happy in the relation that subsisted between us and the Government of Great Britain—But the multiplied oppressions which characterized that Government, excite in us the most painful sensations, and exhibit a spectacle as disgusting in itself, as dishonourable to the British name.
The governments of the old world present to us one huge mass of intrigue, corruption and despotism—most of them are now basely combined, to prevent the establishment of liberty in France, and to affect the total destruction of the rights of man. Under these afflicting circumstances we rejoice that America opens her arms to receive, with fraternal affection, the friend of liberty and human happiness, and that here he may enjoy the best blessings of civilized society.
We sincerely sympathize with you in all that you have suffered, and we consider the persecution with which you have been pursued by a venal Court and an imperious and uncharitable priesthood, as an illustrious proof of your personal merit, and a lasting reproach to that Government from the grasp of whose tyranny you are so happily removed.
Accept, Sir, of the sincere and best wishes of the Society whom we represent, for the continuance of your health, and the increase of your individual and domestic happiness.
To which Priestley graciously replied:
VIEWING with the deepest concern, as you do, the prospect that is now exhibited in Europe, those troubles which are the natural offspring of their forms of government originating, indeed, in the spirit of liberty, but gradually degenerating in tyrannies, equally degrading to the rulers and the ruled, I rejoice in finding an asylum from persecution in a country in which these abuses have come to a natural termination, and have produced another system of liberty founded on such wise principles, as, I trust, will guard it against all future abuses; those artificial distinctions in society, from which they sprung, being completely eradicated, that protection from violence which laws and government promise in all countries, but which I have not found in my own, I doubt not I shall find with you, though, I cannot promise to be a better subject of this government, than my whole conduct will evince that I have been to that of great Britain.
Justly, however, as I think I may complain of the treatment I have met with in England I sincerely wish her prosperity, and, from the good will I bear both that country and this I ardently wish that all former animosities may be forgotten and that a perpetual friendship may subsist between them.
And on Monday, June, 11, 1794, having taken the first opportunity to visit Priestley, the Tammany Society presented this address:
A numerous body of freemen who associate to cultivate among them the love of liberty and the enjoyment of the happy Republican government under which they live and who for several years have been known in this city, by the name of the Tammany Society have deputed us a Committee to express to you their pleasure and congratulations on your safe arrival in this country.
Their venerable ancestors escaped, as you have done, from persecutions of intolerance, bigotry and despotism, and they would deem themselves, an unworthy progeny were they not highly interested in your safety and happiness.
It is not alone because your various useful publications evince a life devoted to literature and the industrious pursuit of knowledge; not only because your numerous discoveries in Nature are so efficient to the progression of human happiness: but they have long known you to be the friend of mankind and in defiance of calumny and malice, an asserter of the rights of conscience and the champion of civil and religious liberty.
They have learned with regret and indignation the abandoned proceedings of those spoilers who destroyed your house and goods, ruined your philosophical apparatus and library, committed to the flames your manuscripts, pryed into the secrets of your private papers, and in their barbarian fury put your life itself in danger. They heard you also with exalted benevolence return unto them "blessings for curses:" and while you thus exemplified the undaunted integrity of the patriot, the mild and forbearing virtues of the Christian, they hailed you victor in this magnanimous triumph over your enemies.
You have fled from the rude arm of violence, from the flames of bigotry, from the rod of lawless power: and you shall find refuge in the bosom of freedom, of peace, and of Americans.
You have left your native land, a country doubtless ever dear to you—a country for whose improvement in virtue and knowledge you have long disinterestedly laboured, for which its rewards are ingratitude, injustice and banishment. A country although now presenting a prospect frightful to the eyes of humanity, yet once the nurse of science, of arts, of heroes, and of freeman—a country which although at present apparently self devoted to destruction, we fondly hope may yet tread back the steps of infamy and ruin, and once more rise conspicuous among the free nations of the earth. In this advanced period of your life, when nature demands the sweets of tranquility, you have been constrained to encounter the tempestous deep, to risk disappointed prospects in a foreign land, to give up the satisfaction of domestic quiet, to tear yourself from the friends of your youth, from a numerous acquaintance who revere and love you, and will long deplore your loss.
We enter, Sir, with emotion and sympathy into the numerous sacrifices you must have made, to an undertaking which so eminently exhibits our country as an asylum for the persecuted and oppressed, and into those regretful sensibilities your heart experienced when the shores of your native land were lessening to your view.
Alive to the impressions of this occasion we give you a warm and hearty welcome into these United States. We trust a country worthy of you; where Providence has unfolded a scene as new as it is august, as felicitating as it is unexampled. The enjoyment of liberty with but one disgraceful exception, pervades every class of citizens. A catholic and sincere spirit of toleration regulates society which rises into zeal when the sacred rights of humanity are invaded. And there exists a sentiment of free and candid inquiry which disdains shackles of tradition, promising a rich harvest of improvement and the glorious triumphs of truth. We hope, Sir, that the Great Being whose laws and works you have made the study of your life, will smile upon and bless you—restore you to every domestic and philosophical enjoyment, prosper you in every undertaking, beneficial to mankind, render you, as you have been to your own, the ornament of this country, and crown you at last with immortal felicity and honour.
And to this the venerable scientist was pleased to say:
I think myself greatly honoured, flying as I do, from ill treatment in my native country, on account of my attachment to the cause of civil and religious liberty, to be received with the congratulations of "a Society of Freemen associated to cultivate the love of liberty, and the enjoyment of a happy Republican government." Happy would our venerable ancestors, as you justly call them, have been, to have found America such a retreat for them as it is to me, when they were driven hither; but happy has it proved to me, and happy will it be for the world, that in the wise and benevolent order of Providence, abuses of power are ever destructive of itself, and favourable to liberty. Their strenuous exertions and yours now give me that asylum which at my time of life is peculiarly grateful to me, who only wish to continue unmolested those pursuits of various literature to which, without having ever entered into any political connexions my life has been devoted.
I join you in viewing with regret the unfavourable prospect of Great Britain formerly, as you say, the nurse of science, and of freemen, and wish with you, that the unhappy delusion that country is now under may soon vanish, and that whatever be the form of its government it may vie with this country in everything that is favourable to the best interests of mankind, and join with you in removing that only disgraceful circumstance, which you justly acknowledge to be an exception to the enjoyment of equal liberty, among yourselves. That the Great Being whose providence extends alike to all the human race, and to whose disposal I cheerfully commit myself, may establish whatever is good, and remove whatever is imperfect from your government and from every government in the known world, is the earnest prayer of,
Your respectful humble servant.
As Priestley had ever gloried in the fact that he was a teacher, what more appropriate in this period of congratulatory welcome, could have come to him than the following message of New York's teaching body:
The associated Teachers in the city of New York beg leave to offer you a sincere and hearty welcome to this land of tranquility and freedom.
Impressed with the idea of the real importance of so valuable an acquisition to the growing interests of science and literature, in this country, we are particularly happy that the honour of your first reception, has fallen to this state, and to the city of New York.
As labourers in those fields which you have occupied with the most distinguished eminence, at the arduous and important task of cultivating the human mind, we contemplate with peculiar satisfaction the auspicious influence which your personal residence in this country, will add to that of your highly valuable scientific and literary productions, by which we have already been materially benefited.
We beg leave to anticipate the happiness of sharing in some degree, that patronage of science and literature, which it has ever been your delight to afford. This will give facility to our expressions; direct and encourage us in our arduous employments; assist us to form the man, and thereby give efficacy to the diffusion of useful knowledge.
Our most ardent wishes attend you, good Sir, that you may find in this land a virtuous simplicity, a happy recess from the intriguing politics and vitiating refinements of the European world. That your patriotic virtues may add to the vigour of our happy Constitution and that the blessings of this country may be abundantly remunerated into your person and your family.
And we rejoice in believing, that the Parent of Nature, by those secret communications of happiness with which he never fails to reward the virtuous mind, will here convey to you that consolation, support, and joy, which are independent of local circumstances, and "Which the world can neither give nor take away."
Touched, indeed was Priestley by this simple, outspoken greeting from those who appreciated his genuine interest in the cause of education. Hence his reply was in a kindred spirit:
A welcome to this country from my fellow labourers in the instruction of youth, is, I assure you, peculiarly grateful to me. Classes of men, as well as individuals, are apt to form too high ideas of their own importance; but certainly one of the most important is, that which contributes so much as ours do to the cummunication of useful knowledge, as forming the characters of men, thereby fitting them for their several stations in society. In some form or other this has been my employment and delight; and my principal object in flying for an asylum to this country, "a land," as I hope you justly term it, "of virtuous simplicity, and a recess from the intriguing politics, and vicious refinements of the European world," is that I may, without molestation, pursue my favourite studies. And if I had an opportunity of making choice of an employment for what remains of active exertion in life, it would be one in which I should as I hope I have hitherto done, contribute with you, to advance the cause of science, of virtue, and of religion.
Further, The Medical Society of the State of New York through Dr. John Charlton, its President, said:
PERMIT us, Sir, to wait upon you with an offering of our sincere congratulations, on your safe arrival, with your lady and family in this happy country, and to express our real joy, in receiving among us, a gentleman, whose labours have contributed so much to the diffusion and establishment of civil and religious liberty, and whose deep researches into the true principles of natural philosophy, have derived so much improvement and real benefit, not only to the sciences of chemistry and medicine, but to various other arts, all of which are necessary to the ornament and utility of human life.
May you, Sir, possess and enjoy, here, uninterrupted contentment and happiness, and may your valuable life be continued a farther blessing to mankind.
And in his answer Dr. Priestley remarked:
I THINK myself greatly honoured in being congratulated on my arrival in this country by a Society of persons whose studies bear some relation to my own. To continue, without fear of molestation, on account of the most open profession of any sentiments, civil or religious, those pursuits which you are sensible have for their object the advantage of all mankind, (being, as you justly observe, "necessary to the ornament and utility of human life") is my principal motive for leaving a country in which that tranquility and sense of security which scientificial pursuits require, cannot be had; and I am happy to find here, persons who are engaged in the same pursuits, and who have the just sense that you discover of their truly enviable situation.
As a climax to greetings extended in the City of New York, The Republican Natives of Great Britain and Ireland resident in that city said,
WE, the Republican natives of Great Britain and Ireland, resident in the city of New York, embrace, with the highest satisfaction, the opportunity which your arrival in this city presents, of bearing our testimony to your character and virtue and of expressing our joy that you come among us in circumstances of such good health and spirits.
We have beheld with the keenest sensibility, the unparallelled persecutions which attended you in your native country, and have sympathized with you under all their variety and extent. In the firm hope, that you are now completely removed from the effects of every species of intolerance, we most sincerely congratulate you.
After a fruitless opposition to a corrupt and tyrannical government, many of us have, like you, sought freedom and protection in the United States of America; but to this we have all been principally induced, from the full persuasion, that a republican representative government, was not merely best adapted to promote human happiness, but that it is the only rational system worthy the wisdom of man to project, or to which his reason should assent.
Participating in the many blessings which the government of this country is calculated to insure, we are happy in giving it this proof of our respectful attachment:—We are only grieved, that a system of such beauty and excellence, should be at all tarnished by the existence of slavery in any form; but as friends to the Equal Rights of Man, we must be permitted to say, that we wish these Rights extended to every human being, be his complexion what it may. We, however, look forward with pleasing anticipation to a yet more perfect state of society; and, from that love of liberty which forms so distinguishing a trait in American character, are taught to hope that this last—this worse disgrace to a free government, will finally and forever be done away.
While we look back on our native country with emotions of pity and indignation at the outrages which humanity has sustained in the persons of the virtuous Muir, and his patriotic associates; and deeply lament the fatal apathy into which our countrymen have fallen; we desire to be thankful to the Great Author of our being that we are in America, and that it has pleased Him, in his Wise Providence, to make the United States an asylum not only from the immediate tyranny of the British Government, but also from those impending calamities, which its increasing despotism and multiplied iniquities, must infallibly bring down on a deluded and oppressed people.
Accept, Sir, of our affectionate and best wishes for a long continuance of your health and happiness.
The answer of the aged philosopher to this address was:
I think myself peculiarly happy in finding in this country so many persons of sentiments similar to my own, some of whom have probably left Great Britain or Ireland on the same account, and to be so cheerfully welcomed by them on my arrival. You have already had experience of the difference between the governments of the two countries, and I doubt not, have seen sufficient reason to give the decided preference that you do to that of this. There all liberty of speech and of the press as far as politics are concerned, is at an end, and a spirit of intolerance in matters of religion is almost as high as in the time of the Stuarts. Here, having no countenance from government, whatever may remain of this spirit, from the ignorance and consequent bigotry, of former times, it may be expected soon to die away; and on all subjects whatever, every man enjoys invaluable liberty of speaking and writing whatever he pleases.
The wisdom and happiness of Republican governments and the evils resulting from hereditary monarchical ones, cannot appear in a stronger light to you than they do to me. We need only look to the present state of Europe and of America, to be fully satisfied in this respect. The former will easily reform themselves, and among other improvements, I am persuaded, will be the removal of that vestige of servitude to which you allude, as it so ill accords with the spirit of equal liberty, from which the rest of the system has flowed; whereas no material reformation of the many abuses to which the latter are subject, it is to be feared, can be made without violence and confusion.
I congratulate you, gentlemen, as you do me, on our arrival in a country in which men who wish well to their fellow citizens, and use their best endeavours to render them the most important services, men who are an honour to human nature and to any country, are in no danger of being treated like the worst felons, as is now the case in Great Britain.
Happy should I think myself in joining with you in welcoming to this country every friend of liberty, who is exposed to danger from the tyranny of the British Government, and who, while they continue under it, must expect to share in those calamities, which its present infatuation must, sooner or later, bring upon it. But let us all join in supplications to the Great Parent of the Universe, that for the sake of the many excellent characters in our native country its government may be reformed, and the judgments impending over it prevented.
The hearty reception accorded Dr. Priestley met in due course with a cruel attack upon him by William Cobbett, known under the pen-name of Peter Porcupine, an Englishman, who after arrival in this country enjoyed a rather prosperous life by formulating scurrilous literature—attacks upon men of prominence, stars shining brightly in the human firmament.
An old paper, the Argus, for the year 1796, said of this Peter Porcupine:
When this political caterpillar was crawling about at St. John's, Nova Scotia, in support of his Britannic Majesty's glorious cause, against the United States, and holding the rank of serjeant major in the 54th regiment, then quartered in that land, "flowing with milk and honey," and GRINDSTONES, and commanded by Colonel Bruce; it was customary for some of the officers to hire out the soldiers to the country people, instead of keeping them to military duty, and to pocket the money themselves. Peter found he could make a speck out of this, and therefore kept a watchful eye over the sins of his superiors. When the regiment was recalled and had returned to England—Peter, brimful of amor patriae, was about to prefer a complaint against the officers, when they came down with a round sum of the ready rino, and a promise of his discharge, in case of secrecy.—This so staggered our incorruptible and independent hero and quill driver, that he agreed to the terms, received that very honorable discharge, mentioned with so much emphasis, in the history of his important life—got cash enough to come to America, by circuitous route and to set himself up with the necessary implements of scandal and abuse.
This flea, this spider, this corporal, has dared to point his impotent spleen at the memory of that illustrious patriot, statesman and philosopher, Benjamin Franklin.
Let the buzzing insect reflect on this truth—that
"Succeeding times great Franklin's works shall quote, When 'tis forgot—this Peter ever wrote."
And the Advertiser declared:
Peter Porcupine is one of those writers who attempt to deal in wit—and to bear down every Republican principle by satire—but he miserably fails in both, for his wit is as stale as his satire, and his satire as insipid as his wit. He attempts to ridicule Dr. Franklin, but can any man of sense conceive any poignancy in styling this great philosopher, "poor Richard," or "the old lightning rod." Franklin, whose researches in philosophy have placed him preeminent among the first characters in this country, or in Europe: is it possible then that such a contemptible wretch as Peter Porcupine, (who never gave any specimen of his philosophy, but in bearing with Christian patience a severe whipping at the public post) can injure the exalted reputation of this great philosopher? The folly of the Editor of the Centinal, is the more conspicuous, in inserting his billingsgate abuse in a Boston paper, when this town, particularly the TRADESMAN of it are reaping such advantages from Franklin's liberality. The Editor of the Centinal ought to blush for his arrogance in vilifying this TRADESMEN'S FRIEND, by retailing the scurrility of so wretched a puppy as Peter Porcupine.
As to Dr. Priestley, the Editor was obliged to apologise in this particular—but colours it over as the effusions of genius—poor apology, indeed to stain his columns with scurrility and abuse, and after finding the impression too notoriously infamous, attempts to qualify it, sycophantic parenthesis.
The names of Franklin and Priestley will be enrolled in the catalogue of worthies, while the wretched Peter Porcupine, and his more wretched supporters, will sink into oblivion, unless the register of Newgate should be published, and their memories be raked from the loathsome rubbish as spectres of universal destestation.
And the London Monthly Review (August 10, 1796) commented as follows on Porcupine's animadversions upon Priestley:
Frequently as we have differed in opinion from Dr. Priestley, we should think it an act of injustice to his merit, not to say that the numerous and important services which he has rendered to science, and the unequivocal proofs which he has given of at least honest intention towards religion and Christianity ought to have protected him from such gross insults as are poured upon him in this pamphlet. Of the author's literary talent, we shall say but little: the phrases, "setting down to count the cost"—"the rights of the man the greatest bore in nature"—the appellation of rigmarole ramble, given to a correct sentence of Dr. Priestley—which the author attempts to criticise—may serve as specimens of his language.
The pitiful attempt at wit, in his vulgar fable of the pitcher haranguing the pans and jordans, will give him little credit as a writer, with readers of an elegant taste.—No censure, however, can be too severe for a writer who suffers the rancour of party spirit to carry him so far beyond the bounds of justice, truth and decency, as to speak of Dr. Priestley as an admirer of the massacres of France, and who would have wished to have seen the town of Birmingham like that of Lyons, razed, and all its industrious and loyal inhabitants butchered as a man whose conduct proves that he has either an understanding little superior to that of an idiot, or the heart of Marat: in short, as a man who fled into banishment covered with the universal destestation of his countrymen. The spirit, which could dictate such outrageous abuse, must disgrace any individual and any party.
Even before Porcupine began his abuse of Priestley, there appeared efforts intended no doubt to arouse opposition to him and dislike for him. One such, apparently very innocent in its purpose, appeared shortly after Priestley's settlement in Northumberland. It may be seen in the Advertiser, and reads thus:
The divinity of Jesus Christ proved in a publication to be sold by Francis Bayley in Market Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets, at the sign of the Yorick's Head—being a reply to Dr. Joseph Priestley's appeal to the serious and candid professors of Christianity.
The New York addresses clearly indicated the generous sympathy of hosts of Americans for Priestley. They were not perfunctory, but genuinely genuine. This brought joy to the distinguished emigrant, and a sense of fellowship, accompanied by a feeling of security.
More than a century has passed since these occurrences, and the reader of today is scarcely stirred by their declarations and appeals. Changes have come, in the past century, on both sides of the great ocean. Almost everywhere reigns the freedom so devoutly desired by the fathers of the long ago. It is so universal that it does not come as a first thought. Other changes, once constantly on men's minds have gradually been made.
How wonderful has been the development of New York since Priestley's brief sojourn in it. How marvelously science has grown in the great interim. What would Priestley say could he now pass up and down the famous avenues of our greatest City?
His decision to live in America, his labors for science in this land, have had a share in the astounding unfolding of the dynamical possibilities of America's greatest municipality.
The Priestleys were delighted with New York. They were frequent dinner guests of Governor Clinton, whom they liked very much and saw often, and they met with pleasure Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill, the Professor of Chemistry in Columbia.
Amidst the endless fetes, attendant upon their arrival, there existed a desire to go forward. The entire family were eager to arrive at their real resting place—the home prepared by the sons who had preceded them to this Western world. Accordingly, on June 18, 1794, they left New York, after a fortnight's visit, and the Advertiser of Philadelphia, June 21, 1794, contained these lines:
Last Thursday evening arrived in town from New York the justly celebrated philosopher Dr. Joseph Priestley.
Thus was heralded his presence in the City of his esteemed, honored friend, Franklin, who, alas! was then in the spirit land, and not able to greet him as he would have done had he still been a living force in the City of Brotherly Love. However, a very prompt welcome came from the American Philosophical Society, founded (1727) by the immortal savant, Franklin.
The President of this venerable Society, the oldest scientific Society in the Western hemisphere, was the renowned astronomer, David Rittenhouse, who said for himself and his associates:
THE American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia for promoting useful knowledge, offer you their sincere congratulations on your safe arrival in this country. Associated for the purposes of extending and disseminating those improvements in the sciences and the arts, which most conduce to substantial happiness of Man, the Society felicitate themselves and their country, that your talents and virtues, have been transferred to this Republic. Considering you as an illustrious member of this institution: Your colleagues anticipate your aid, in zealously promoting the objects which unite them; as a virtuous man, possessing eminent and useful acquirements, they contemplate with pleasure the accession of such worth to the American Commonwealth, and looking forward to your future character of a citizen of this, your adopted country, they rejoice in greeting, as such, an enlightened Republican.
In this free and happy country, those unalienable rights, which the Author of Nature committed to man as a sacred deposit, have been secured: Here, we have been enabled, under the favour of Divine Providence, to establish a government of Laws, and not of Men; a government, which secures to its citizens equal Rights, and equal Liberty, and which offers an asylum to the good, to the persecuted, and to the oppressed of other climes.
May you long enjoy every blessing which an elevated and highly cultivated mind, a pure conscience, and a free country are capable of bestowing.
And, in return, Priestley remarked.
IT is with peculiar satisfaction that I receive the congratulations of my brethren of the Philosophical Society in this City, on my arrival in this country. It is, in great part, for the sake of pursuing our common studies without molestation, though for the present you will allow, with far less advantage, that I left my native country, and have come to America; and a Society of Philosophers, who will have no objection to a person on account of his political or religious sentiments, will be as grateful, as it will be new to me. My past conduct, I hope, will show, that you may depend upon my zeal in promoting the valuable objects of your institution; but you must not flatter yourself, or me, with supposing, that, at my time of life, and with the inconvenience attending a new and uncertain settlement, I can be of much service to it.
I am confident, however, from what I have already seen of the spirit of the people of this country, that it will soon appear that Republican governments, in which every obstruction is removed to the exertion of all kinds of talent, will be far more favourable to science, and the arts, than any monarchical government has ever been. The patronage to be met with there is ever capricious, and as often employed to bear down merit as to promote it, having for its real object, not science or anything useful to mankind, but the mere reputation of the patron, who is seldom any judge of science. Whereas a Public which neither flatters nor is to be flattered will not fail in due time to distinguish true merit and to give every encouragement that it is proper to be given in the case. Besides by opening as you generously do an asylum to the persecuted and "oppressed of all climes," you will in addition to your own native stock, soon receive a large accession of every kind of merit, philosophical not excepted, whereby you will do yourselves great honour and secure the most permanent advantage to the community.
Doubtless in the society of so many worthy Philadelphians, the Priestleys were happy, for they had corresponded with not a few of them.
The longing for Northumberland became very great and one smiles on reading that the good Doctor thought "Philadelphia by no means so agreeable as New York ... Philadelphia would be very irksome to me.... It is only a place for business and to get money in." But in this City he later spent much of his time.
It was about the middle of July, 1794, that the journey to Northumberland began, and on September 14, 1794, Priestley wrote of Northumberland "nothing can be more delightful, or more healthy than this place."
Safely lodged among those dear to him one finds much pleasure in observing the great philosopher's activities. The preparation of a home for himself and his wife and the unmarried members of the family was uppermost in his mind. But much time was given to correspondence with loyal friends in England. Chief among these were the Reverends Lindsey and Belsham. The letters to these gentlemen disclose the plans and musings of the exile. For instance, in a communication to the former, dated September 14, 1794, he wrote:
The professor of chemistry in the College of Philadelphia is supposed to be on his death-bed ... in the case of a vacancy, Dr. Rush thinks I shall be invited to succeed him. In this case I must reside four months in one year in Philadelphia, and one principal inducement with me to accept of it will be the opportunity I shall have of forming an Unitarian Congregation....
And a month later he observed to the same friend:
Philadelphia is unpleasant, unhealthy, and intolerably expensive.... Every day I do something towards the continuation of my Church History.... I have never read so much Hebrew as I have since I left England....
He visited freely in the vicinity of Northumberland, spending much time in the open. Davy, a traveler, made this note:
Dr. Priestley visited us at Sunbury, looks well and cheerful, has left off his perriwig, and combs his short grey locks, in the true style of the simplicity of the country.... Dined very pleasantly with him. He has bought a lot of eleven acres (exclusively of that which he is building on), which commands a delightful view of all the rivers, and both towns, i.e. Sunbury and Northumberland and the country. It cost him 100L currency.
It was also to Mr. Lindsey that he communicated, on November 12, 1794, a fact of no little interest, even today, to teachers of Chemistry in America. It was:
I have just received an invitation to the professorship of chemistry at Philadelphia ... when I considered that I must pass four months of every year from home, my heart failed me; and I declined it. If my books and apparatus had been in Philadelphia, I might have acted differently, but part of them are now arrived here, and the remainder I expect in a few days, and the expense and risk of conveyance of such things from Philadelphia hither is so great, that I cannot think of taking them back ... and in a year or two, I doubt not, we shall have a college established here.
It was about this time that his youngest son, Harry, in whom he particularly delighted, began clearing 300 acres of cheap land, and in this work the philosopher was greatly interested; indeed, on occasions he actually participated in the labor of removing the timber. Despite this manual labor there were still hours of every day given to the Church History, and to his correspondence which grew in volume, as he was advising inquiring English friends, who thought of emigrating, and very generally to them he recommended the perusal of Dr. Thomas Cooper's
"Advice to those who would remove to America—"
Through this correspondence, now and then, there appeared little animadversions on the quaint old town on the Delaware, such as
I never saw a town I liked less than Philadelphia.
Could this dislike have been due to the fact that—
Probably in no other place on the Continent was the love of bright colours and extravagance in dress carried to such an extreme. Large numbers of the Quakers yielded to it, and even the very strict ones carried gold-headed canes, gold snuff-boxes, and wore great silver buttons on their drab coats and handsome buckles on their shoes.
Nowhere were the women so resplendant in silks, satins, velvets, and brocades, and they piled up their hair mountains high.
The descriptions of the banquets and feasts ... are appalling.
John Adams, when he first came down to Philadelphia, fresh from Boston, stood aghast at this life into which he was suddenly thrown and thought it must be sin. But he rose to the occasion, and, after describing in his diary some of the "mighty feasts" and "sinful feasts" ... says he drank Madeira "at a great rate and found no inconvenience."
It would only be surmise to state what were the Doctor's reasons for his frequent declaration of dislike for Philadelphia.
The winter of 1794-1795 proved much colder "than ever I knew it in England," but he cheerfully requested Samuel Parker to send him a hygrometer, shades or bell-glasses, jars for electrical batteries, and
a set of glass tubes with large bulbs at the end, such as I used in the experiments I last published on the generation of Air from water.
Most refreshing is this demand upon a friend. It indicates the keen desire in Priestley to proceed with experimental studies, though surroundings and provisions for such undertakings were quite unsatisfactory. The spirit was there and very determined was its possessor that his science pursuits should not be laid totally aside. His attitude and course in this particular were admirable and exemplary. Too often the lack of an abundance of equipment and the absence of many of the supposed essentials, have been deterrents which have caused men to abandon completely their scientific investigations. However, such was not the case with the distinguished exile, and for this he deserved all praise.
From time to time, in old papers and books of travel, brief notes concerning Priestley appear. These exhibit in a beautiful manner the human side of the man. They cause one to wish that the privilege of knowing this worthy student of chemical science might have been enjoyed by him. For example, a Mr. Bakewell chanced upon him in the spring of 1795 and recorded:
I found him (Priestley) a man rather below the middle size, straight and plain, wearing his own hair; and in his countenance, though you might discern the philosopher, yet it beamed with so much simplicity and freedom as made him very easy of access.
It is also stated in Davy's "Journal of Voyage, etc."—
The doctor enjoys a game at whist; and although he never hazards a farthing, is highly diverted with playing good cards, but never ruffled by bad ones.
In May, 1795, Priestley expressed himself as follows:
As to the experiments, I find I cannot do much till I get my own house built. At present I have all my books and instruments in one room, in the house of my son.
This is the first time in all his correspondence that reference is made to experimental work. It was in 1795. As a matter of course every American chemist is interested to know when he began experimentation in this country.
In the absence of proper laboratory space and the requisite apparatus, it is not surprising that he thought much and wrote extensively on religious topics, and further he would throw himself into political problems, for he addressed Mr. Adams on restriction "in the naturalization of foreigners." He remarked that—
Party strife is pretty high in this country, but the Constitution is such that it cannot do any harm.
To friends, probably reminding him of being "unactive, which affects me much," he answered:
As to the chemical lectureship (in Philadelphia) I am convinced I could not have acquitted myself in it to proper advantage. I had no difficulty in giving a general course of chemistry at Hackney (England), lecturing only once a week; but to give a lecture every day for four months, and to enter so particularly into the subject as a course of lectures in a medical University (Pennsylvania) requires, I was not prepared for; and my engagements there would not, at my time of life, have permitted me to make the necessary preparations for it; if I could have done it at all. For, though I have made discoveries in some branches of chemistry, I never gave much attention to the common routine of it, and know but little of the common processes.
Is not this a refreshing confession from the celebrated discoverer of oxygen? The casual reader would not credit such a statement from one who August 1, 1774, introduced to the civilized world so important an element as oxygen. Because he did not know the "common processes" of chemistry and had not concerned himself with the "common routine" of it, led to his blazing the way among chemical compounds in his own fashion. Many times since the days of Priestley real researchers after truth have proceeded without compass and uncovered most astonishing and remarkable results. They had the genuine research spirit and were driven forward by it. Priestley knew little of the labyrinth of analysis and cared less; indeed, he possessed little beyond an insatiable desire to unfold Nature's secrets.
Admiration for Priestley increases on hearing him descant on the people about him—on the natives—
Here every house-keeper has a garden, out of which he raises almost all he wants for his family. They all have cows, and many have horses, the keeping of which costs them little or nothing in the summer, for they ramble with bells on their necks in the woods, and come home at night. Almost all the fresh meat they have is salted in the autumn, and a fish called shads in the spring. This salt shad they eat at breakfast, with their tea and coffee, and also at night. We, however, have not yet laid aside our English customs, and having made great exertion to get fresh meat, it will soon come into general use.
Proudly must he have said—
My youngest son, Harry, works as hard as any farmer in the country and is as attentive to his farm, though he is only eighteen.... Two or three hours I always work in the fields along with my son....
And, then as a supplement, for it was resting heavily on his mind, he added—
What I chiefly attend to now is my Church History ... but I make some experiments every day (July 12, 1795), and shall soon draw up a paper for the Philosophical Society at Philadelphia.
Early in December of 1795 he entrusted a paper, intended for the American Philosophical Society to the keeping of Dr. Young, a gentleman from Northumberland en route for Europe. Acquainting his friend Lindsey of this fact, he took occasion to add—
I have much more to do in my laboratory, but I am under the necessity of shutting up for the winter, as the frost will make it impossible to keep my water fit for use, without such provision as I cannot make, till I get my own laboratory prepared on purpose, when I hope to be able to work alike, winter and summer.
Dr. Young carried two papers to Philadelphia. The first article treated of "Experiments and Observations relating to the Analysis of Atmospherical Air," and the second "Further Experiments relating to the Generation of Air from Water." They filled 20 quarto pages of Volume 4 of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. On reading them the thought lingers that these are the first contributions of the eminent philosopher from his American home. Hence, without reference to their value, they are precious. They represent the results of inquiries performed under unusual surroundings. It is very probable that Priestley's English correspondents desired him to concentrate his efforts upon experimental science. They were indeed pleased to be informed of his Church History, and his vital interest in religion, but they cherished the hope that science would in largest measure displace these literary endeavors. Priestley himself never admitted this, but must have penetrated their designs, and, recognizing the point of their urging, worked at much disadvantage to get the results presented in these two pioneer studies. Present day students would grow impatient in their perusal, because of the persistent emphasis placed on phlogiston, dephlogisticated air, phlogisticated air, and so forth. In the very first paper, the opening lines show this:
It is an essential part of the antiphlogistic theory, that in all the cases of what I have called phlogistication of air, there is simply an absorption of the dephlogisticated air, or, as the advocates of that theory term it, the oxygen contained in it, leaving the phlogisticated part, which they call azote, as it originally existed in the atmosphere. Also, according to this system, azote is a simple substance, at least not hitherto analyzed into any other.
No matter how deeply one venerates Priestley, or how great honor is ascribed to him, the question continues why the simpler French view was not adopted by this honest student. Further, as an ardent admirer one asks why should Priestley pen the next sentence:
They, therefore, suppose that there is a determinate proportion between the quantities of oxygen, and azote in every portion of atmospherical air, and that all that has hitherto been done has been to separate them from one another. This proportion they state to be 27 parts of oxygen and 73 parts of azote, in 100 of atmospherical air.
Priestley knew that there was a "determinate proportion." He was not, however, influenced by quantitative data.
Sir Oliver Lodge said—
Priestley's experiments were admirable, but his perception of their theoretical relations was entirely inadequate and, as we now think, quite erroneous.... In theory he had no instinct for guessing right ... he may almost be said to have had a predilection for the wrong end.
At present the French thought is so evident that it seems incomprehensible that Priestley failed to grasp it, for he continues—
In every case of the diminution of atmospherical air in which this is the result, there appears to me to be something emitted from the substance, which the antiphlogistians suppose to act by simple absorption, and therefore that it is more probable that there is some substance, and the same that has been called philogiston, or the principle of inflammability ... emitted, and that this phlogiston uniting with part of the dephlogisticated air forms with it part of the phlogisticated air, which is found after the process.
Subsequently (1798), he advised the Society that he had executed other experiments which corroborated those outlined in his first two papers, adding—
Had the publication of your Transactions been more frequent, I should with much pleasure have submitted to the Society a full account of these and other experiments which appear to me to prove, that metals are compound substances, and that water has not yet been decomposed by any process that we are acquainted with. Still, however, I would not be very positive, as the contrary is maintained by almost all the chemists of the age....
And thus he proceeds, ever doing interesting things, but blind to the patent results because he had phlogiston constantly before him. He looked everywhere for it, followed it blindly, and consequently overlooked the facts regarded as most significant by his opponents, which in the end led them to correct conclusions.
The experimental results in the second paper also admit of an interpretation quite the opposite of that deduced by Priestley. He confidently maintained that air was invariably generated from water, because he discovered it and liberated it from water which he was certain did not contain it in solution. He was conscientious in his inferences. Deeply did his friends deplore his inability to see more than a single interpretation of his results!
The papers were read before the American Philosophical Society on the 19th of February, 1796. Their author as they appear in print, is the Rev. Dr. J. Priestley. It is doubtful whether he affixed this signature. More probable is it that the Secretary of the Society was responsible, and, because he thought of Priestley in the role of a Reverend gentleman rather than as a scientific investigator.
Here, perhaps, it may be mentioned that the first, the very first communication from Priestley's pen to the venerable Philosophical Society, was read in 1784. It was presented by a friend—a Mr. W. Vaughan, whose family in England were always the staunchest of Priestley's supporters. And it is not too much to assume that it was the same influence which one year later (1785) brought about Priestley's election to membership in the Society, for he was one of "28 new members" chosen in January of that year.
There are evidences of marked friendliness to Priestley all about the Hall of the Society, for example his profile in Plaster of Paris, "particularly valuable for the resemblance" to the Doctor, which was presented in 1791; a second "profile in black leather" given by Robert Patterson, a President of the Society, and an oil portrait of him from Mrs. Dr. Caspar Wistar.
His appearance in person, when for the first time he sat among his colleagues of the Society, was on the evening of February 19, 1796—the night upon which the two papers, commented upon in the last few paragraphs were presented, although he probably did not read them himself, this being done by a friend or by the secretary. Sixteen members were present. Among these were some whose names have become familiar elsewhere, such as Barton, Woodhouse and others. Today, the presence in the same old Hall of a renowned scientist, from beyond the seas, would literally attract crowds. Then it was not the fashion. But probably he had come unannounced and unheralded. Further, he was speaking at other hours on other topics in the city.
It is not recorded that he spoke before the philosophers. Perhaps he quietly absorbed their remarks and studied them, although he no doubt was agreeably aroused when Mr. Peale presented
to the Society a young son of four months and four days old, being the first child born in the Philosophical Hall, and requested that the Society would give him a name. On which the Society unanimously agreed that, after the name of the chief founder and late President of the Society, he should be called Franklin.
In anticipation of any later allusion to Priestley's sojourn in Philadelphia be it observed that he attended meetings of the American Philosophical Society three times in 1796, twice in 1797, three times in 1801 and once in 1803, and that on February 3rd, 1797, he was chosen to deliver the annual oration before the Society, but the Committee reported that
they waited on Dr. Priestley last Monday afternoon, who received the information with great politeness, but declined accepting of the appointment.
This lengthy digression must now be interrupted. It has gone almost too far, yet it was necessary in order that an account of the early experimental contributions of the exile might be introduced chronologically. As already remarked, Americans are most deeply interested in everything Priestley did during his life in this country and particularly in his scientific activities.
On resuming the story of the routine at Northumberland in the closing months of the year 1795, there comes the cry from an agonized heart,—
We have lost poor Harry!
This was the message to a Philadelphia resident—a friend from old England. The loss, for such it emphatically was, affected the Doctor and Mrs. Priestley very deeply. This particular son was a pride to them and though only eighteen years old had conducted his farm as if he had been bred a farmer.
He was uncommonly beloved by all that worked under him.
His home was just outside of the borough of Northumberland. It was the gift of his father. His interment in "a plot of ground" belonging to the Society of Friends is thus described by Mr Bakewell:
I attended the funeral to the lonely spot, and there I saw the good old father perform the service over the grave of his son. It was an affecting sight, but he went through it with fortitude, and after praying, addressed the attendants in a few words, assuring them that though death had separated them here, they should meet again in another and a better life.
The correspondence to friends in England was replete with accounts of lectures which were in process of preparation. They were discourses on the Evidences of Revelation and their author was most desirous of getting to Philadelphia that he might there deliver them. At that time this City was full of atheism and agnosticism. Then, too, the hope of establishing a Unitarian Church was ever in Priestley's thoughts. How delightful it is to read, February 12th, 1796—
I am now on my way to Philadelphia.
When he left it in 1794 he was rather critical of it, but now after three days he arrived there. It was
a very good journey, accompanied by my daughter-in-law, in my son's Yarmouth waggon, which by means of a seat constructed of straw, was very easy.
Yes, back again to the City which was the only city in this country ever visited by him. Although at times he considered going to New York, and even to Boston, Philadelphia was to become his Mecca. In it he was to meet the most congenial scientific spirits, and to the younger of these he was destined to impart a new inspiration for science, and for chemical science in particular. At the close of the three days' journey he wrote—
I am a guest with Mr. Russell.... We found him engaged to drink tea with President Washington, where we accompanied him and spent two hours as in any private family. He (Washington) invited me to come at any time, without ceremony. Everything is the reverse of what it is with you.
This was his first meeting with Washington. The spirit of the occasion impressed him. The democratic behavior of the great Federalist must have astonished him, if he ever entertained, as Lord Brougham would have us believe, a hostile opinion and thought him ungrateful because he would not consent to make America dependent upon France.
Priestley's eagerness to preach was intense, and happy must he have been on the day following his arrival, when his heart's wish was gratified. He preached in the church of Mr. Winchester—
to a very numerous, respectable, and very attentive audience.
Many were members of Congress, and according to one witness—
The Congregation that attended were so numerous that the house could not contain them, so that as many were obliged to stand as sit, and even the doorways were crowded with people. Mr. Vice-President Adams was among the regular attendants.
All this greatly encouraged the Doctor. His expectations for the establishment of a Unitarian congregation were most encouraging. He declared himself ready to officiate every winter without salary if he could lodge somewhere with a friend. The regular and punctual attendance of Mr. Adams pleased him so much that he resolved on printing his sermons, for they were in great demand, and to dedicate the same to the Vice-President. He was also gratified to note that the "violent prejudice" to him was gradually being overcome. Today we smile on recalling the reception accorded the good Doctor in his early days in Philadelphia. We smile and yet our hearts fail to understand just why he should have been so ostracised. To confirm this it may be noted that on one occasion Priestley preached in a Presbyterian Chapel, very probably in Northumberland, when one of the ministers was so displeased—
that he declared if they permitted him any more, he would never enter the puplit again.
And in 1794 on coming the first time to Philadelphia he wrote
There is much jealousy and dread of me.
How shameful and yet it was most real. Bakewell narrates that
"I went several times to the Baptist meeting in Second Street, under the care of Dr. Rogers. This man burst out, and bade the people beware, for 'a Priestley had entered the land;' and then, crouching down in a worshiping attitude, exclaimed, 'Oh, Lamb of God! how would they pluck thee from thy throne!'"
The public prints flayed Rogers, and even the staid old Philosophical Society indicated to him that such conduct ill became a member of that august body. Accordingly humiliated he repented his error and in time became strongly attached to Priestley, concerning whom he told this story to a Mr. Taylor whose language is here given:
The Doctor (Priestley) would occasionally call on Dr. Rogers, and without any formal invitation, pass an evening at his house. One afternoon he was there when Dr. Rogers was not at home, having been assured by Mrs. Rogers that her husband would soon be there. Meanwhile, Mr. ——, a Baptist minister, called on Dr. Rogers, and being a person of rough manners, Mrs. Rogers was a good deal concerned lest he should say something disrespectful to Dr. Priestley in case she introduced the Doctor to him. At last, however, she ventured to announce Dr. Priestley's name, who put out his hand; but instead of taking it the other immediately drew himself back, saying, as if astonished to meet with Dr. Priestley in the home of one of his brethren, and afraid of being contaminated by having any social intercourse with him, 'Dr. Priestley! I can't be cordial.'
It is easy to imagine that by this speech Mrs. Rogers was greatly embarrassed. Dr. Priestley, observing this, instantly relieved her by saying, and with all that benevolent expression of countenance and pleasantness of manner for which he was remarkable, 'Well, well, Madam, you and I can be cordial; and Dr. Rogers will soon be with us, Mr. —— and he can converse together, so that we shall all be very comfortable.' Thus encouraged, Mrs. Rogers asked Dr. Priestley some questions relative to the Scripture prophecies, to which he made suitable replies; and before Dr. Rogers arrived, Mr. —— was listening with much attention, sometimes making a remark or putting in a question. The evening was passed in the greatest harmony, with no inclination on the part of Mr. —— to terminate the conversation. At last Dr. Priestley, pulling out his watch, informed Mr. —— that as it was ten o'clock it was time that two old men like them were at their quarters. The other at first was not willing to believe that Dr. Priestley's watch was accurate; but finding that it was correct, he took his leave with apparent regret, observing that he had never spent a shorter and more pleasant evening. He then went away, Dr. Priestley accompanying him, until it became necesary to separate. Next morning he called on his friend, Dr. Rogers, when he made the following frank and manly declaration: 'You and I well know that Dr. Priestley is quite wrong in regard to his theology, but notwithstanding this, he is a great and good man, and I behaved to him at our first coming together like a fool and a brute.'
Many additional evidences might be introduced showing that the Doctor was slowly winning his way among the people. It must also be remembered that not all of his associates were of the clerical group but that he had hosts of scientists as sincere and warm supporters. In Woodhouse's laboratory he was ever welcome and there must have met many congenial spirits who never discussed politics or religion. This was after the manner of the Lunar Society in Birmingham in which representatives of almost every creed came together to think of scientific matters. Hence, it is quite probable that Priestley's visit to Philadelphia was on the whole full of pleasure.
He was also in habits of close intimacy with Dr. Ewing, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and with the Vice-Provost, Dr. John Andrews, as well as with Dr. Benjamin Rush who had long been his friend and with whom he corresponded at frequent intervals after his arrival in America. To him Priestley had confided his hope of getting a college in Northumberland and inquired,—
Would the State give any encouragement to it?
To Rush he also wrote excusing
my weakness (for such you will consider it) when, after giving you reason to expect that I would accept the professorship of Chemistry, if it was offered to me, I now inform you that I must decline it.
Now and then he also advised him of such experiments as he was able to do; for example—
I made trial of the air of Northumberland by the test of nitrous air, but found it not sensibly different from that of England.
In the leisure he enjoyed his figure was often seen in Congress. He relished the debates which at the time were on the Treaty with England. He declared he heard as good speaking there as in the House of Commons. He observed—
A Mr. Amos speaks as well as Mr. Burke; but in general the speakers are more argumentative, and less rhetorical. And whereas there are with you not more than ten or a dozen tolerable speakers, here every member is capable of speaking.
While none of the letters to Priestley's friends mention a family event of some importance the American Advertiser, February 13, 1796, announced that
Mr. William Priestley, second son of the celebrated Dr. Joseph Priestley, was married to the agreeable Miss Peggy Foulke, a young lady possessed with every quality to render the marriage state happy.
This occurred very probably just before the Doctor set forth from Northumberland to make his first Philadelphia visit. It is singular that little is said of the son William by the Doctor. Could it be that, in some way, he may have offended his parent? In his Memorial Rush, writing in the month of March, 1796, noted: