George Goodwin: Joseph Priestley, a towering figure in a special relationship with America’s founding father

The Joseph Priestley statue in Birstall.
The Joseph Priestley statue in Birstall.
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WELL positioned in the Market Place of the West Yorkshire village of Birstall is a statue to Joseph Priestley. This 1912 memorial was funded by public subscription and the slightly larger-than-life bronze figure is a fine piece of sculpture by Frances Darlington, the Headingley-born and Harrogate-based sculptor who was trained at the Slade School of Art.

The lettering on the statue’s square base of grey granite notes that Priestley was born at Fieldhead, Birstall, in 1733, and describes him as the ‘discoverer of oxygen’. It is a fine monument to Birstall’s most famous son and it is true that he was the first to isolate oxygen, along with six other gases. This discovery was of fundamental consequence, yet to limit Priestley’s importance to that one achievement would be to similarly summarise Benjamin Franklin as merely the inventor of the lightning conductor.

It is an apt comparison, because the two men were major figures of the British Enlightenment. They were great scientists, both winning the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, the 18th century equivalent of the Nobel Prize. They also became very close friends and this year marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of Priestley’s The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments.

It was while undertaking his research for the book that Priestley was introduced to Franklin, the greatest living authority on electricity. Franklin lived in London from 1757 right up to March 1775, with the exception of just a short 18-month break back in his home town of Philadelphia. He was ostensibly here as a political representative of the Assembly of Pennsylvania, but was also celebrated as a natural philosopher at a time when the politically dominant British aristocracy were in the grip of a scientific craze. Franklin was not only the most famous American in Britain, with David Hume calling him “America’s first great man of letters”, but was esteemed across Europe, with Immanuel Kant describing him as “the Prometheus of Modern Times”.

Between 1767 and 1773 Priestley was the dissenting church minister at Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds, and another statue of him still overlooks the chapel from City Square. During this time, the friendship between Priestley and Franklin was strengthened by their regular exchange of letters ranging across science, philosophy and politics. In 1771, Franklin went on holiday in the North of England with a group of fellow spirits that included the double Copley Medal winner John Canton and the Dutch-born discoverer of photosynthesis, Jan Ingenhousz, and he naturally spent time with Priestley.

Franklin saw even more of Priestley from 1773, when the latter wintered in London. The two men enjoyed a very special relationship of shared enquiry, and it was with that time in mind that Priestley later wrote: “it is probable that no person now living was better acquainted with Dr Franklin”.

Franklin had Priestley for a companion just a day before he was forced to sail to America to escape arrest by the repressive ministers in Lord North’s British government.

Priestley well knew that Franklin was not the ‘agent provocateur’ of that government’s imagination, but had tried to settle the dispute between Britain and its colonies.

Far from seeking separation, Franklin had long advocated a British empire across North America. As Priestley wrote of Franklin: “So great an admirer was he at that time of the British Constitution, that he said he saw no inconvenience from its being extended over a great part of the globe.”

It was not the Americans’ rejection of the British constitution, but their very belief that the British were forcibly seeking an unconstitutional extension of London’s executive power that led to the colonies’ eventual rebellion.

Priestley and Franklin continued to correspond, if circumspectly, during the conflict and once again more openly at its conclusion. Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, died in Pennsylvania in 1790.

The third of the well-known statues of Priestley is in Birmingham, where he and his wife moved in 1780 when he became a Unitarian church minister. The years there would end unhappily as Priestley’s support for the initial, reforming, stages of the French Revolution, combined with his longstanding campaign for the removal of the century-old disenfranchisement of religious dissenters, made him a marked man at a time of political uncertainty and social unrest.

During three days of rioting in July 1791, a mob, with the acquiescence of the local authorities, destroyed the Unitarians’ Old Meeting House and Priestley’s own home, laboratory, library and papers. Priestley fled, and within three years he had moved to Pennsylvania.

However, during a period of international crisis, President John Adams introduced the Aliens and Sedition Acts and Priestley feared deportation. It was not until after the inauguration of his friend Thomas Jefferson in 1801 that Priestley was able to write to the new President “that it is now only that I can say I see nothing to fear from the hand of power”. It was in America that Priestley ultimately found tolerance and toleration, and it was there, in 1804, that he died.

The 18th century was a period when scientific enquiry and experimentation was able to flourish. Yet, in times of political change and uncertainty, philosophical speculation in the area of politics and religion could be met with fear-fed violent intolerance.

Considering our own uncertain and often intolerant times, and recalling the shocking event of last June that led to so many floral tributes being placed at the foot of Priestley’s statue in Birstall, we should – on both sides of the Atlantic – take inspiration from this courageous and dignified man. Priestley fought for an open, respectful and well-considered freedom of expression. His is an example to follow in this age of instant communication and immediate comment.

George Goodwin is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: 
The British Life of America’s Founding Father (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99).