Last weekend in the New York Times, Barry Gewen reviewed Steven Johnson’s book The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. It follows the career of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the British-American scientist and political reformer. Here’s a sample of the review:
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.Here’s a webpage from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission about Priestley’s home. And here’s a digital version of his Essay on the First Principles of Government, a very far-seeing and thus entirely uninfluential book.
During his Birmingham period Priestley devoted most of his energies to religion and politics. His unorthodox beliefs, along with his enthusiastic support for the French Revolution, turned him into a very public target for nationalist zealots. Conservatives like Samuel Johnson called him “an evil man,” and despite his many accomplishments he was refused an audience with King George III.
Priestley, Steven Johnson says, had made himself “the most hated man in all of Britain.” In 1791 a mob burned down his house and, more tragically, his laboratory. Soon he and his family were off to that new, more open-minded country, the United States.
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 [Thomas] Jefferson. Mr. Johnson calls him “a kind of Zelig of early American history.” Yet, as in England, his religious and political views got him into trouble. During the repressive time of the Alien and Sedition Acts, it was only the personal intervention of President Adams that kept him out of prison.