Joseph Priestley, American Genius

A NEW BOOK by Steven Johnson about Joseph Priestley has been getting a lot of attention. Here’s the Amazon link: The Invention of Air.

In all the excerpts which follow, the bold was added by us. At the Amazon listing, the blurb from Publishers Weekly says:

This is an intelligent retelling of a rather well-known story, that of Joseph Priestley, the Yorkshire dissenting theologian and chemist, and then went on to emigrate to America and advised the creators of the new republic — Thomas Jefferson, most notably — on how best to run their country. … Priestley was a scientist, true, and his meditations on the exhalations of gases from mint leaves and the curiosities of phlogiston and fixed air, his discoveries of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, ammonia gas — and oxygen, most importantly — and his relationship with his French rival Lavoisier have been the stuff of schoolroom chemistry lessons for more than two centuries.

But it is his politically liberal and spiritually dissenting views that underpin the story that Johnson chooses to tell — views that led in 1794 to Priestley, whose house in Birmingham had been sacked by rioters, emigrating to America, thereby becoming the first great scientist-exile, seeking safe harbour in America after being persecuted for his religious and political beliefs at home. …

Johnson unearths an interesting and illuminating statistic: in the 165 letters that passed between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the name Benjamin Franklin is mentioned five times, George Washington three times, Alexander Hamilton twice — and Joseph Priestley, a foreign immigrant, is cited no fewer than 52 times. The influence of the man — he was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, a tolerant stoic and a rationalist utterly opposed to religious fundamentalism — was quite astonishing, and Steven Johnson makes a brave and generally successful attempt to summarize and parse the degree to which this influence infected the founding principles of the American nation.

That should be more than enough to get you interested, but we won’t stop there.

The Dallas Morning News has this: ‘The Invention of Air’ by Steven Johnson: how scientist Joseph Priestley helped give birth to America. Excerpt:

Johnson does, however, give long-overdue time and space to some of the more controversial aspects of his work, including his treatise against the “corruptions” of Christianity – Priestley helped found the Unitarian church – that led to a mob torching his house in Birmingham and his fleeing England to an isolated Pennsylvania laboratory.

Thus becoming an American, as in our title. This is from Reason Magazine: Inventing Air — and the American Temperament. Excerpt:

However, as Johnson notes, Priestley was trapped within a rapidly failing scientific paradigm, phlogiston theory, which limited his ability to fully understand and accept what he was witnessing in his own experiments. … Ironically, Lavoisier would ultimately use Priestley’s own experiments as the basis for refuting phlogiston theory and creating what we now know as chemistry. Like a laboratory Moses, Priestly pointed the way for others to a destination at which he could not quite arrive.


By the time he died in America in 1804, Priestly had managed to isolate and name 10 gases, become known as “the father of modern chemistry,” and, perhaps most wonderfully, invented soda water. He had emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1794, after inspiring an English mob to burn down his laboratory due to his radical Unitarian views, which blended respect for Jesus’ moral teachings and an insistence on his lack of divinity. (That may be Priestley’s most amazing achievement: Stoking people to violence through Unitarianism!) He was a major influence on his friend Benjamin Franklin and other leading scientists of the day, and his political and pedagogical work left a huge impression on Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson.

And finally this, from the New York Times: The Man Who Discovered Oxygen (Maybe) and Gave the World Soda Water . The reviewer makes it clear that he doesn’t like Johnson’s writing, but he loves the subject. Excerpt:

Arriving in London from the provinces in 1765, he quickly joined a group of freethinking intellectuals known as the Honest Whigs, which included James Boswell and Benjamin Franklin. (Priestley’s history of electricity established the popular image of Franklin flying a kite during an electrical storm.) When he relocated to Birmingham some years later he joined another remarkable circle, the Lunar Society, with members like James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather; they called themselves the Lunaticks.

Priestley knew everyone! Here’s more:

In America as in England, Priestley seems to have become acquainted with everyone who was anyone. He had tea on several occasions with George Washington. John Adams urged him to settle in Boston. He was especially close to Jefferson. Mr. Johnson calls him “a kind of Zelig of early American history.”

One more excerpt:

Happily, for all the controversy Priestley stirred up wherever he went, his story ends well. He lived long enough to see his friend Jefferson become president, and — unusually for so strong-willed, opinionated and divisive a public figure — he died contentedly. “Tell Mr. Jefferson,” he wrote to a companion in 1804, a few days before he passed away, but with his usual optimism and hopefulness, “that I think myself happy to have lived so long under his excellent administration; and that I have a prospect of dying in it. It is, I am confident, the best on the face of the earth, and yet I hope to rise to some thing more excellent.”

So there you are. Priestley is a man with whom you might want to be more acquainted.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

5 responses to “Joseph Priestley, American Genius

  1. Before some passing Cretard seizes on the reference to Priestly, Wedgewood, Erasmus Darwin (Chuck’s granddaddy) et. al. as soi dissant “lunaticks”, let me pedantically point out that they selected this jocular epithet for themselves from their habit of aligning their monthly meetings to correspond with the full moon, the better to make their way home at night from their local tavern!

  2. Great Claw says: “… they selected this jocular epithet for themselves from their habit of aligning their monthly meetings to correspond with the full moon …”

    Nice spin, but give it up! It’s proof that they were into Satanic rituals.

  3. I nominate Priestly for posthumous membership in the Curmudgeon’s Pantheon of Enlightenment Luminaries, for his heroic role contributing to “Conserving the Enlightenment values of reason, liberty, the scientific method, and free enterprise.”

    Anyone who was referenced as repeatedly by Jefferson as Priestly was can’t be all bad …

  4. Longie says: “I nominate Priestly …”

    Done. He’s in.

  5. Thanks, SC, this sounds like a fascinating read!

    Now where did I put those B/N coupons . . .