Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

Priestley As Seen By Himself

Compiled by Derek A. Davenport
Department of Chemistry
Purdue University

“If my writings in general have been useful to my contemporaries, I hope that this account of myself will not be without its use to those who may come after me, and especially in promoting virtue and piety, which, I hope I may say, it has been my care to practice myself, as it has been my business to inculcate them upon others.”

“My father, Jonas Priestley, was the youngest son of Joseph Priestley, a maker and dresser of woolen cloth. His first wife, my mother, was the only child of Joseph Swift, a Farmer at Shafton, a village about six miles south-east of Wakefield. By this wife he had six children, four sons and two daughters. I, the oldest, was born on the thirteenth of March, old style, 1733, my father married again in 1745, and by his second wife had three daughters.”

“From the time I discovered any fondness for books, my aunt entertained hopes of my being a minister, and I readily entered into her views. But my ill health obliged me to turn my thoughts another way, and, with a view to trade, I learned the modern languages, French, Italian, and High Dutch, without a master; and in the first and last of them I translated and wrote letters, for an uncle of mine who was a merchant, and who intended to put me into a counting-house in Lisbon. A house was actually engaged to receive me there, and everything was nearly ready for my undertaking the voyage. But getting better health, my former destination for the ministry was resumed…”

“So they [his tutors] indulged us in the greatest freedoms, so that our lectures had often the air of friendly conversations on the subjects to which they related. We were permitted to ask whatever questions, and make whatever remarks we pleased; and we did it with the greatest, but without any offensive, freedom.”
-JRC, p. 53

“All the time I was at the academy [Daventry] I never lost sight of the great object of my studies, which was the duties of a Christian minister, and there it was I laid the plan I have executed since.”
-JRC, p. 54

“Like most other men of liberal education, I had conceived a great aversion to the business of school master and said I would have recourse to anything else for maintenance in preference to it.”

“Few are qualified to make new discoveries – but when the discoveries have been made…people of inferior abilities are sufficient to digest those principles into a convenient method.”
-”The History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments”

“A person who means to serve the cause of science effectually, must hazard his own reputation so far as to risk even mistakes in things of less moment. Among a multiplicity of new objects, and new relations, some will necessarily pass without sufficient attention; but if a man be not mistaken in the principal object of his pursuits, he has no occasion to distress himself about lesser things.”
-Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air

“He who does not foolishly affect to be above the failings of humanity, will not be mortified when it is proved that he is but a man.”
-Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air

“In general, during the composition of those works, the greatest part of every day was spent in my laboratory, and the evenings and mornings only in reading or writing. Besides, these different studies so relieve one another, that I believe I do more in each of them, by applying to them alternately, than I should do, if I gave my whole attention to one of them only.”
-Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air

“You have destroyed the most truly valuable and useful apparatus of philosophical instruments that perhaps any individual, in this or any other country, was ever possessed of, in my use of which I annually spent large sums with no pecuniary view whatever, but only for the advancement of Science, for the benefit of my country and mankind. You have destroyed the Library corresponding to that apparatus, which no money can repurchase except in the course of time. But what I feel far more, you have destroyed manuscripts which have been the result of the laborious study of many years, and which I shall never be able to recompose; and this has been done to one who never did, or imagined, you any harm.
In this business we are the sheep and you are the wolves. We will preserve our character and hope you will change yours. At all events we return you blessings for curses, and hope that you shall soon return to that industry and those sober manners for which the inhabitants of Birmingham were formerly distinguished.”
-J. Priestley to the Inhabitants of the town of Birmingham, July 19, 1791

“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.”

“I wish the country was in a better state to invite your return to it, but it is far otherwise, at least with respect to myself and those who have generally passed for the friends of liberty. Such is the spirit of bigotry encouraged by the Court party, that great numbers are going to America, and among others all my sons, and my intention is, that when they are settled to follow them and end my days there.”
Letter to William Withering (1793)

“I take the liberty to introduce to you Mr. Jones, who was lecturer in chemistry at the New College in Hackney, in which employement [sic] I now succeed him, and who is to be my successor at Birmingham. You will find him to be equally modest and sensible, and, as a philosopher, more inclined, I believe, to your system than to mine; but open, as we ought all to be, to convictions as new facts present themselves to us.”
-Only surviving letter to Antoine Lavoisier (1792)

“I do not pretend to leave this country, where I have lived so long, and so happily, without regret, but I consider it as necessary, and I hope that the same good providence that has attended me hitherto will attend me still.”
-Autobiography (1794)

“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.”

“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 its common processes.”
-Letter to University of Philadelphia (1794)

“But of what importance is it where I was born, or whence I came…Here I am. Here is my family. Here is my property, and everything else that can attach a man to any place. Let any person only view my house, my garden, my library, my laboratory, and the other conveniences, with which I am surrounded, and let him withal consider my age, and the little disposition that I have shewn to ramble any whither, and say whether any person among yourselves, or in the United States, could remove with more difficulty, or with more loss, than I should do.”
-Letter to England (1795)

“I examined what remain’d of the flour, and cannot say that I found any appearance of Arsenic in it. Since therefore no real mischief has been done, and it cannot be proved that any was intended, I shall not make nay further enquiry into the business…
I am as ever, your affectionate father…”
-William Priestley had been accused by the Federalist press of poisoning his father (1799)

“I thank you for your hint of politics. How different is our situation from yours! Our debt is trifling, and will to appearance soon be discharged, though almost all our taxes are done away. Our particular state has a fund, out of which all the expenses of government are defrayed; so that we hear of nothing but county taxes for the repair of roads, &c. We in this place have only been called upon to pay a poor’s rate, and in both cases on account of single insane persons, and we hardly ever see a beggar, …everybody contributing with great cheerfulness. There being no church establishment, we have no tithe…I do not think that any country in the world was ever in a state of greater improvement, in all respects, or had fairer prospects… It is a great pleasure to look round and see this: and yet we have many grumblers and discontented persons.”
-Letter to England (1802)

“I now, for the first time in my life (and I shall soon enter my 70th year), find myself in any degree of favour with the government of the country in which I have lived, and I hope I shall die in the same pleasing situation.”
-Letter to President Jefferson (1804)

“But we must hold out to the end, without being weary of well doing, indulging no remission of labour while we are capable of any. Even a dying hand has sometimes done execution.”
-Dedication to Joshua Toulmin, D.D. in “Jesus and Socrates Compared” (1803)

“That is right; I have now done.”
-Last Words (1804)