Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

Priestley As Viewed By His Contemporaries

Compiled by Derek A. Davenport
Department of Chemistry
Purdue University

“Of Dr. Priestley’s theological works, he remarked, that they tended to unsettle every thing, and yet settled nothing.”
-Samuel Johnson (1770)

“I am extremely concerned to hear that Dr. Priestley is so poorly provided for, while so many are rolling about here in gilt chariots, with very ample stipends. I admire his comprehensive genius, his perspicuity and vigor of composition, his indefatigable application, and his free, independent spirit, and wish it were in my power to do him any kind of service. It would give me great pleasure to see him well settled in America; though indeed I am inclined to think he can prosecute his learned labors to greater advantage in England. A man of his abilities would do honor to any of the colleges.”
-John Winthrop to Benjamin Franklin (1773)

“…I rejoice to hear of your continual Progress in those useful Discoveries; I find that you have set all the Philosophers of Europe upon Fix’d Air; and it is with great Pleasure I observe how high you stand in their Opinion; for I enjoy my Friends’ fame as my own.
The Hint you gave me jocularly, that you did not quite despair of the Philosopher’s Stone, draws from me a Request, that, when you have found it, you will take care to lose it again; for I believe in my conscience, that Mankind are wicked enough to continue slaughtering one another as long as they can find Money to pay Butchers.”
-Benjamin Franklin (1777)

“…I always rejoice to hear of your being still employ’d in experimental Researches into Nature, and of the Success you meet with. The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the Power of Man over Matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large Masses of their Gravity, and give them absolute Levity, for the sake of easy Transport. Agriculture may diminish its Labour and double its Produce; all Diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard. O that moral Science were in as fair a way of Improvement, that Men would cease to be Wolves to one another, and that human Beings would at length learn what they now improperly call Humanity!”
-Benjamin Franklin (1780)

“Chymistry was always an interesting pursuit with Dr. Johnson. Whilst he was in Wiltshire, he attended some experiments that were made by a physician at Salisbury, on the new kinds of air. In the course of the experiments frequent mention was made of Dr. Priestley. Dr. Johnson knit his brows, and in a stern manner inquired, ‘Why do we hear so much of Dr. Priestley?’ He was very properly answered, ‘Sir, because we are indebted to him for these important discoveries.’ On this Dr. Johnson appeared well content; and replied, ‘Well, well, I believe we are; and let every man have the honor he has merited.’”
-James Boswell (1783)

“Speaking of Dr. Pxxxxxxxx, (whose writing, I say, he estimated at a low rate), ‘You have proved him as deficient in probity as he is in learning. I called him an index scholar; but he was not willing to allow him a claim ever to that merit.’ He said, that ‘he borrowed from those who have been borrowers themselves, and did not know that the mistakes he had adopted had been quoted by others.’”
-Mr. Nichols as quoted by Boswell (1784)

“To dispute with the good Dr. Priestley was the surest road to preferment. He had already made two bishops and there were several heads which wanted mitres.”

“The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface.”
-Edmund Burke (1791)

“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.”
-Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin Vaughn

“…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…”
-N.Y. Newspaper Editorial (1794)

“I wish he had rather fixed his Residence in Botany Bay as I think our people are mad enough already.”
-Charles Njsbet, Principal of Dickinson College (1794)

“It is no more than justice to say of theses addresses – in the lump – that they are distinguished for a certain barreness of thought and vulgarity of stile, which, were we not in possession of the Doctor’s answers, might be thought inimitable.”
-Peter Porcupine (William Cobbett) (1794)

“There is something so pathetic, so irresistibly moving in all this that a man must have a hard heart indeed to read it, and not burst into laughter.”
-Peter Porcupine (William Cobbett) (1794)

“If he did not forsee them [objections], he must have an understanding little superior to an idiot; if he did he must have the heart of a Marat. Let him choose.”
-Peter Porcupine (William Cobbett) on Joseph Priestley’s pamphlet “Marat, St Paul & Jesus Christ” (1796)

“Lo! Priestley there, patriot, and saint, and sage,
Him, full of years, from his loved native land
Statesman blood-stained and priests idolatrous
By dark lies maddening the blind multitude
Drove with vain hate: Calm, pitying, he retired
And mused expectant on these promised years.”
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1796)

“I do not think it wise to execute the alien law against poor Priestley at present. He is as weak as water, as unstable as Reuben, or the wind. His influence is not an atom in the world.”
-President Adams to Secretary of State Pickering (1799)

“Yours is one of the few lives precious to mankind, and for the continuance of which every thinking man is solicitous.”
-Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, March 21 (1801)

“As the storm is now subsiding, and the horizon becoming serene, it is pleasant to consider the phenomenon with attention. We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new. The great experiment of our Republic is new. Its sparse habitation is new. The mighty wave of public opinion which has rolled over it is new. But the most pleasing novelty is its so quickly subsiding over such an extent of surface to its true level again. The order & good sense displayed in this recovery from delusion, and in the momentous crisis which lately arose, really bespeak a strength of character in our nation which augurs well for the duration of our Republic; & I am much better satisfied now of its stability than I was before it was tried.”
-Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, March 21, 1801

“Scarcely any thing that has happened to me, in my curious Life has made a deeper impression upon me, than that such a learned ingenious scientific and talented Madcap as Cooper, could have had influence enough to make Priestley my Enemy.”
-John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (1813)