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JOSEPH PRIESTLY -TRAITOR AT HOME, HERO ABROAD?

July 25, 2014

JOSEPH PRIESTLY –TRAITOR AT HOME, HERO ABROAD?
Following is one of my occasional writing detours about a little known individual and events of his day and represents a departure from my usual topic of dealing with the intersection of economics and government.
My followers know that I think the American Revolution is misnamed; that I consider that war to have been an English revolution which happened to have been fought on colonial soil since virtually all of the principal actors in that conflict were themselves of English or what we now know to be British origin. The contestants spoke the same language, partook of the same mores and folkways, were largely of the same religious views, were white, had the same genetic predecessors etc., all as modified by the colonial branch’s experiences in the wilderness of North America and lessons learned from such trials and tribulations. Fort Pitt was not downtown London and there were no “French and Indian Wars” anywhere near Leeds or Liverpool. Thus nature and nurture diverged with experience and geography.
The problem these first cousins had with one another revolved around political and economic structures the mother country was enforcing against its North American colonial possession. Shipping interests in their colony were subject to both regulations and taxes that made them uncompetitive with the same interests in the mother country. England was following its history of colonial exploitation among its transplanted peers with its Stamp and Molasses Acts, stationing of troops and a large dose of royal arrogance. Frontier people were likely to find such conduct intolerable, and they did, even if English.
People who came to this wilderness yearning for freedom (or as indentured servants or even as criminals from overflowing English jails) were not ready to be re-enslaved with a faraway king laying special taxes on their efforts to survive so that he could use such revenue to conduct his wars and provide comfort and luxury to his court. We all know the results: Bunker Hill, Concord, the Declaration, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Yorktown, the Constitution, etc. Some of our forefathers were well acquainted with the works of John Locke (another Englishman) and Athenian democracy, and declared a republic to be governed by democratic principles. No taxation without representation, went the battle cry (a cry we should perhaps revive today as court-approved corporate money is effectively buying our vote, thus removing the pretense that we are paying taxes WITH representation).
We all hate traitors. The name Benedict Arnold has come to mean traitor in the lexicon. Everyone detests even hearing his name. He turned on his country in time of war. That is eternally unforgivable. The fact that we didn’t have a country to turn against at the time and that he was exercising his right of free choice and association for which (among other things the “war” was being fought) are not up for consideration. He should have been hanged, like Major Andre.
Few have ever considered that not all mainland English were anti-colonials, so let’s look at one example of the intestinal fortitude it took for a mainland Englishman to be sympathetic to the American side of this “revolution” that was raging up and down the eastern seaboard of North America. Being a man of considerable renown in his own right, he was not hanged by the English, though as we shall see, he was effectively banished from his home and country for his views on both the French and American “Revolutions.” Mobs, whether racist or nationalists, are always looking for someone to hang or at least exile. So who was he?
He was Joseph Priestly, born 1733 in rural Leeds, England, and why his renown? The following quote tells us why. Per Frederic Harrison, philosopher, when describing Priestley: “His versatility, eagerness, activity, and humanity; the immense range of his curiosity, in all things physical, moral, or social; his place in science, in theology, in philosophy, and in politics; his peculiar relation to the (French) Revolution, and the pathetic story of his unmerited sufferings, may make him the hero of the eighteenth century.” Quite an endorsement!
So, traitor or hero? Benedict Arnold or George Washington? It may depend on where you sit. Ordinary people are put off and don’t want to hear a defense of traitors to their own cause, even though such “traitors” may see deficiencies in “the cause” and are exercising their democratic right of free speech and personal opinion in making their views known. I myself am no friend of Benedict Arnold or traitors generally, but from where I sit I think the German “traitors” who tried to blow Hitler up during World War II were not traitors to the larger human cause. As stated, it may hinge on where one sits; e.g., what would Arnold’s standing in history be if we had lost our “revolution” and the Crown had appointed him governor general of its American territory? History is linear; we will never know.
At age 32, Joseph Priestly met Benjamin Franklin. Priestly had only dabbled in science before, but after that meeting he started experimenting in electricity, and within only a year was elected to the prestigious Royal Society of London. He then turned to chemistry. In short order he discovered ammonia, nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and (via infusion of water with carbon dioxide) carbonated water. He is credited with the discovery of oxygen in his experiments with mice, and after inhaling some himself, said that he “felt peculiarly light and easy for some time afterwards.”
He is chiefly known in history as the discoverer of oxygen but in fact neither discovered this gas nor named it. It was discovered earlier by a Swedish chemist, Carl Scheele, who had isolated oxygen but failed to publish his findings. After Priestly’s “discovery,” oxygen was given its name by a French chemist, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. Without knowledge of Scheele’s prior discovery, I am still willing to give Priestly credit for discovery of oxygen – and I think “naming a discovery” is hardly on a par with its discovery, i.e., as with Columbus, naming the “New World” doesn’t rate with its discovery.
Priestly, who openly sympathized with the American and French revolutionists, also had religious views that were unappreciated by the mainstream. He thought that the truth preached by Jesus and his followers had been corrupted by later falsehoods. He believed, for instance, that the soul is not immortal and that the Doctrine of the Trinity is false. His political and religious views finally brought about mobs which destroyed both his home and his laboratory in 1791 (the same year our Constitution was completed with the addition of our Bill of Rights – the first Ten Amendments).
He was the subject of public vilification and abuse to such an extent that he finally fled to our new country in 1794, where he died in relative obscurity less than ten years later.
So again, Joseph Priestly – traitor or hero? Where do you sit? GERALD E

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