Priestley’s Death and long-term Reputation

Image: Gravestone of Dr Priestley in the Cemetery of Northumberland, Pennsylvania. “To the memory of the Rev Dr Joseph Priestley who departed this life on the 6th February 1804, Anno Etatis LXXI. “Return unto thy rest O my soul for the\Lord has dealt bountifully with thee. I will lay me down in peace & sleep till I awake in the morning of the resurrection.”

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

Priestley’s personal life was affected by the death and departure of most of his family. In 1795, Henry, his youngest son, died of a fever and his wife, Mary, died of tuberculosis on 17 September in the following year.14 She had been particularly adept at managing Priestley’s household since their marriage, which had allowed Priestley “to give my whole time to my pursuits, which was an unspeakable advantage to me.”15 In 1800, another son, William, left Northumberland for Louisiana with his wife, Margaret. Amongst his immediate family, only his son Joseph remained with him until the end.16

On 3 February 1804, Priestley started to conduct a scientific experiment, but he was unable to complete it due to ill health and he went to bed in his library. On 6 February he dictated some revisions to a manuscript he was writing to one of his sons, Joseph. When he was satisfied with the changes he announced: “That is right. I have now done.” Shortly afterwards he died peacefully at the age of 71. His son, Joseph, daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, their children and his friend Thomas Cooper were present at his death. He was buried close to his home. Thomas Jefferson described Priestley as “one of the few lives precious to mankind.”17

Joseph Priestley the younger lived in the family home until 1811, when he returned to England. In 1874, chemists from across the United States came to the house in Northumberland to commemorate the centenary of the identification of oxygen. The meeting led to the creation of the American Chemical Society in 1876. Several families inhabited the dwelling until 1919, when it was acquired on behalf of Pennsylvania State College. In 1955, it was offered to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and in 1970 Joseph Priestley House was opened as a Museum. Since then a programme of activities have led to the restoration of the building and laboratory and the acquisition of period furniture and books, scientific apparatus, clocks and personal items that have a Priestley provenance. In 1994, the American Chemical Society designated Priestley’s house a National Historic Chemical Landmark.18

Joseph Priestley House provides the people of the United States with a memorial to one of the major figures of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and a means of learning about his importance as a religious figure, scientific pioneer, educational innovator and radical political theorist and campaigner.

14 Bashore, op.cit.

15 Joseph Priestley to his sister, Mrs Crouch in Leeds, England, from Northumberland, 3 October 1796. Birmingham City Archives, Volume of Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins, IIR10 73499.

16 Bashore, op.cit.

17 Bashore, op.cit. I am grateful to Kenneth Hudson for supplying me with copies of newspaper cuttings describing the circumstances of Priestley’s death

18 Ibid.; Suplee, op.cit., p 7.

Priestley in Northumberland, Pennsylvania

Image: Joseph Priestley House, Northumberland, Pennsylvania, from the south-east showing Priestley’s laboratory

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

In Northumberland, Priestley was able to settle and build a wooden-framed house with exterior clapboards. His activity, at least in part, began to resemble his life in England. He preached sermons, promoted education in the locality and acquired scientific apparatus for a laboratory and books for his library.4 One of Priestley’s companions in America was Thomas Cooper, whose family bleached cloth in Manchester. Cooper’s knowledge – he later became Professor of Geology at the University of Pennsylvania – probably enabled him to help Priestley’s scientific experimentation.Priestley was a productive scientist and writer in Pennsylvania. He identified carbon monoxide, which he called “heavy inflammable air”, as a distinctive gas and he published more than thirty scientific papers. He also wrote over a dozen religious works, including his History of the Christian Church in six volumes.6 Priestley, nevertheless, was without the close intellectual companionship which had marked his time in Britain and his isolation may have affected the quality of the scientific work he pursued.7

Priestley rejected invitations to live in the more cosmopolitan surroundings of Philadelphia and the quiet provincial town of Northumberland remained Priestley’s home until his death. Nevertheless, he visited Philadelphia many times where he founded the local Unitarian Church and met George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.8Jefferson was already known to members of the Lunar Society and had been educated by one of the Lunar men, William Small at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia.9 Priestley recognised the potential of the United States as a centre for scientific discovery. During his final visit to Philadelphia he told the local Philosophical Society that: “having been obliged to leave a country which has been long distinguished by discoveries in science, I think myself happy by my reception in another which is following its example, and which already affords a prospect of its arriving at equal eminence.”10 

Priestley’s reputation as an extreme radical affected his reception. In 1799, he wrote Letters to the Inhabitants of Northumberland which marked him out as a sympathiser with the French Revolution and led to his investigation under the Alien and Sedition Acts which had been passed during the administration of John Adams. When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1800, Priestley was back in favour and the former consulted him during the design of the curriculum for the University of Virginia.11 

The presence of slavery in the United States was something that must have confronted Priestley. His Birmingham anti-slavery sermon of 1788 had marked him as an opponent of both the slave trade and slavery itself, but it does seem as if the Priestley household had to compromise its principles and a black slave was hired by the week because it was impossible to find a full-time maid.12 Priestley’s companion, Thomas Cooper, refers to the fact that his wife was “very uncomfortable” because of the problems entailed in securing labour for their household.13

4 Bashore, op.cit. 

5 Cooper was a friend and correspondent of James Watt junior and his letters to his friend, which are held in Birmingham City Archives, provide an insight into Priestley’s life in America.

6 Bashore, op.cit.

7 P. M. Jones, “The Life and Times of Dr Joseph Priestley” in this publication. An article which discusses the impact of Priestley’s relative intellectual isolation in America upon his scientific work is Michael Conlin, “Joseph Priestley’s American defence of phlogiston reconsidered”, Ambix, 43 (1996).

8 Anon, Scientist, leaflet produced by Joseph Priestley House, Northumberland County, PA (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission); Bashore, op.cit.

9 For an account of Jefferson’s relationship with Small see Martin Richard Clagett, William Small1734-1775, Teacher, Mentor, Scientist. PhD Dissertation, Virginia Commonwealth University, April, 2003, pp 171-181. Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: The Friends who made the Future 1730 – 1810 ( London, Faber and Faber, 2002), p 82, 258, 493-4.

10 Curt Suplee, Joseph Priestley: Discover of Oxygen (Washington, American Chemical Society, 2001), p 6.

11 Bashore, op.cit.

12 Duncan Hirsch, Alison, “The Priestley House” in Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide(Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Stackpole Books), p 33. I am grateful to Tricia Mason for supplying this reference.

13 Thomas Cooper to James Watt Junior, April 4 1796. Birmingham City Archives. MIV Bundle C Folder 13 of 16, nos 121-130.

Priestley’s Arrival in America

Image: Chemical Philosophers of the Present Day, Dr Priestley. The apotheosis of Joseph Priestley. The scientist ascends into the heavens with the aid of an eagle.

Image from: Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins, Birmingham City Archives

On 8 April, 1794, at 61 years of age, he left the United Kingdom, never to return. His house at Fair Hill, just outside Birmingham, with its library and laboratory was destroyed in 1791 by a “Church and King” mob. Though Priestley moved to Hackney, London, he was shunned by many of his former contacts and reviled in cartoons and the conservative press for his anti-establishment views and ideological sympathy with the ideas of the French Revolution. In 1793 Britain was at war with Revolutionary France and Priestley was not safe in England.

Priestley was accompanied by his wife, Mary and his three sons, Joseph, William and Henry.1 His daughter Sarah remained in England with her husband William Finch. Priestley was offered a post at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, but he turned this down. Instead, he moved to Northumberland, a small settlement of about one hundred houses which was a coach journey of seven days from Philadelphia. Priestley’s sons hoped to establish a haven nearby for English nonconformists who faced discrimination and persecution at home. For a time, this looked like a possibility, but the scheme did not come to fruition.2

When Priestley left Britain he was, in effect, a refugee. In 1797 he wrote a poignant publication which revealed empathy towards those who were in a similar position to himself. In the Case for Poor Emigrants, Priestley quoted from the Old Testament: “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a stranger.” (Exodus 22, 9) and “Love ye, therefore, the stranger. For ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10, 19). In these verses, he claimed, Moses was calling on the Israelites, who had been refugees in a foreign land, to show compassion to newcomers. Priestley applied this idea to the people of the United States: “permit me, who am myself a stranger among you, to recommend to your favourable notice, and charitable assistance, the various strangers, or emigrants, from different parts of Europe, and the West Indies islands, who are now crowding the shores of America.”3 Many of these, like himself were escaping from persecution, war or revolution in their homelands.

1Memoirs of Dr Joseph Priestley, Written by himself (to the year 1795.) with a continuation to the time of his decease by his son, Joseph Priestley (London, H.R. Allenson, 1904, reprint of 1809 edition).

2 M. Andrea Bashore, “Joseph Priestley and His American Home” in The East Central Intelligencer, The Newsletter of the East-Central American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, N.S., Vol. 16, No. 2, May 2002. See also Shena Mason, “Friends Re-United: Dr Priestley and the Russells of Birmingham”, above.

3 Observations on the Increase of Infidelity (Thomas Dobson, Philadelphia, 1797). Second edition. I am grateful to Gron Tudor Jones for this reference.

Joseph Priestley and America

Image: Joseph Priestley House, Northumberland, Pennsylvania, USA.

Image from: Photograph by courtesy of the Joseph Priestley House Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Text: Malcolm Dick


Malcolm Dick explores the last ten years of Joseph Priestley’s life from 1794 to 1804 in the United States of America, where he continued to write theology, investigate science and add to his reputation as a radical. He was never completely alone, but the death or departure of members of his family and his location in Northumberland, Pennsylvania meant that he developed his ideas away from the stimulus of an urban culture and distant from the friends who had sustained him in Birmingham.