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Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was an English theologian, natural philosopher, political theorist, and chemist. He was a prolific writer whose subject matter ranged across theology, philosophy, history, politics, science, and grammar. Priestley's liberal views made public life in eighteenth century England increasingly difficult, and he chose to emigrate to America in the spring of 1794. He settled, with his wife and sons and his friend Thomas Cooper, in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.

Thomas Jefferson was familiar with Priestley's work long before the latter's arrival in America. In a survey of recommended reading compiled around 1773, Jefferson included three titles from Priestley: An History of the Corruptions of Christianity, An History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ, and Essay on the First Principles of Government.1 Priestley's published work appears regularly on Jefferson's orders to book seller John Stockdale in London.2 In 1791, Jefferson specifically praised Priestley's published response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.3

After three years of living in America, Joseph Priestley met Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia in 1797. "Mr. Jefferson has been here, and I have seen a good deal of him," Priestley reported.4 Jefferson was pleased to find Priestley among those "who believe in the indefinite perfectibility of man."5 By late 1799, Priestley had produced, and Jefferson had purchased, Maxims of Political Arithmetic, applied to the Case of the United States of America. At the same time, Jefferson acquired a political pamphlet written by Priestley's friend, Thomas Cooper. "[Y]ou will know what I thought of them by my having before sent a dozen sets to Virginia to distribute among my friends," Jefferson wrote to Priestley.6

Between 1800 and 1804, Priestley and Jefferson maintained a correspondence that embraced religion, politics, and education. In their earliest letters, Jefferson particularly solicited the Englishman on the question of subjects that should be taught at a modern state university.7 The election of 1800 soon turned their thoughts to politics. Priestley rejoiced in Jefferson's "glorious" election to the presidency and the "establishment of truly republican principles" in America.8

Jefferson issued repeated invitations for Priestley to visit Virginia, writing that "we cannot offer you the learned society of Philadelphia; but you will have that of a few characters whom you esteem, & a bed & hearty welcome ...."9 Priestley, however, was never able to come to Monticello. During the final months of their correspondence, as Priestley's health deteriorated, the two men shared their similar thoughts on religion, both drawing comparisons between the doctrines of ancient philophers and the doctrines of Jesus.10

In later years, Thomas Jefferson remembered Joseph Priestley with reverence. "[N]o man living had a more affectionate respect for him," Jefferson avowed. "In religion, in politics, in physics no man has rendered more service."11

- Nancy Verell, 5/1/2017

Further Sources

  • 1. Jefferson to John Minor, August 30, 1814, including Jefferson to Bernard Moore, [ca. 1773?], in PTJ:RS, 7:627-28. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 2. See, e.g., Jefferson to Stockdale, July 24, 1786, in PTJ, 10:166. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 3. Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan, May 11, 1791, in PTJ, 20:391. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 4. Priestley to Thomas Belsham, March 14, 1797, in J.T. Rutt, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Priestley (London: R. Hunter, 1831), II:373. See also Malone, Jefferson, 3:449.
  • 5. Jefferson to Bishop James Madison, January 31, 1800, in PTJ, 31:350. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 6. Jefferson to Priestley, January 18, 1800, in PTJ, 31:319. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also MB, 2:1012, 2:1012n11. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 7. Jefferson to Priestley, January 18, 1800, in PTJ, 31:320-21. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 8. Priestley to Jefferson, April 10, 1801, in PTJ, 33:567. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 9. Jefferson to Priestley, April 9, 1803, in PTJ, 40:159. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 10. See, e.g., Priestley to Jefferson, May 7, 1803, in PTJ, 40:332-33. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 11. Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, July 9, 1807, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.

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