Monday, August 17, 2009

Further Thoughts About the Closing of Joseph Priestley House

The stamp to the left, which is based upon a painting by Dennis Lyall, of Norwalk, CT, was issued by the United States Postal Service on April 13, 1983 in Northumberland, PA to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Joseph Priestley's birth.  Lyall based his painting of Priestley on an 1801 portrait of Priestley by Rembrandt Peale which is located in the Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, PA.

Priestley and his wife, Mary, had settled in Northumberland PA, after immigrating to the United States in 1794 from England.  From 1795 to 1797 they built their house there. Unfortunately, Mary died before the house was completed. Until its closing last week on August 14, the Joseph Priestley House, which is owned by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, had operated as a museum in his honor.  There was a special ceremony at the Priestley House on the day the commemorative stamp was issued.

Joseph Priestley, of course, was the first of a long list of  emigrant scientists celebre to come to the United States to partake of the freedom and liberty enjoyed by our citizens. Priestley was the noted chemist, biologist, theologian, political activist, and educator who had fled England with his family after the Birmingham Riots of 1791 where his house, laboratory and church were burned to the ground in protest of his support of the French and American Revolutions. 

Among other notable accomplishments, Priestley was known for his scientific work in discovering oxygen, nitrogen, ammonia, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), and 5 other gases. He also invented the first method of artificially creating carbonated water or "soda water".  He, additionally, was the first to note that there was a gas cycle wherein plants and animals produced oxygen and carbon dioxide, respectively, to symbiotically support the survival of the other. He wrote the definitive text on electricity which was considered the standard text on the subject for about a century.

Priestley's political writings have been credited as providing Thomas Jefferson with key concepts relative to his expressions of liberty and freedom that are found in the Declaration of Independence. He was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin and corresponded regularly and met with many of the other American Founding Fathers. He was an abolitionist, and a strong supporter of tolerance and equal rights for all. Some have referred to him as the "high priest" of our Founding Fathers.

He was a dissenting minister and wrote many scholarly texts on the history of the Christian Church.  He cofounded Unitarianism in England  also brought that Church to the United States. 

Priestley was an educator and wrote books on various subjects including grammar, history, etc. and developed pedagogical tools that are still in use today.  In fact, he wrote over 150 books which were on a wide diversity of subjects and he believed in the open and free exchange of information for all human endeavors.

While the Priestley House is recognized on the National Register of Historical Places, it is considered, by some, to be a true National Treasure.  The closing of the Priestley House last week is an immeasurable loss for our National Heritage. Please contact your congressional representatives to have them consider converting the Priestley House into a National Historic Site as part of the National Park Service so that it may be properly preserved and opened to the public once again.

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