Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Joseph Priestley, 13 February 1776

From Joseph Priestley

ALS:8 American Philosophical Society

London 13 Feby. 1776.

Dear Sir

I lament this unhappy war, as on more serious accounts, so not a little that it renders my correspondence with you so precarious. I have had three letters from you, and have written as often; but the last, by Mr. Temple, I have been informed he could not take.9 What is become of it I cannot tell.

This accompanies a copy of my second volume of Observations on air and of a pamphlet, which may perhaps make you smile. Major Carleton, brother to the Governor of Quebec, has undertaken to convey the parcel to you.1

By the same hand you will receive a most excellent pamphlet by Dr. Price, which, if anything can, will, I hope, make some impression upon this infatuated nation. An edition of a thousand has been nearly sold in two days. But when Ld. G. Germaine is at the head of affairs, it cannot be expected that anything like reason or moderation should be attended to. Every thing breathes rancour and desperation, and nothing but absolute impotence will stop their proceedings. We therefore look upon a final separation from you as a certain and speedy event. If any thing can unite us, it must be the open immediate adopting of the measures proposed by Ld. Shelburne, and mentioned in Dr. Prices pamphlet.2

As, however, it is most probable that you will be driven to the necessity of governing yourselves, I hope you have wisdom to guard against the rocks that we have fatally split upon, and make some better provision for securing your natural rights against the incroachment of power, in whomsoever placed.

Amidst the alarms and distresses of war, it may perhaps give you some pleasure to be informed that I have been very successful in the prosecution of my experiments since the publication of my second volume. I have lately sent to the Royal Society some observations on blood (which I believe have given great satisfaction to my medical friends) proving that the use of it in respiration is to discharge phlogiston from the system, that it has the same power of affecting air when congealed and out of the body, that it has when fluid and in the body, and acts thro a bladder and a large quantity of serum, as well as in immediate contact with the air. In pure air it becomes of a florid red, and in phlogisticated air black; and the air to which it has been exposed is affected in the same manner as it is by respiration, the calcination of metals, or any other phlogistic process.3

I am now in a very promising course of experiments on metals, from all of which dissolved in spirit of nitre, I get first nitrous air as before, and then distilling to dryness from the same materials fixed air, and dephlogisticated air. This proves that fixed air is certainly a modification of the nitrous acid.4 I have, however, got no fixed air from gold or silver. You will smile when I tell you I do not absolutely despair of the transmutation of metals.

In one of your letters you mention your having made a valuable discovery on your passage to America, and promise to write me a particular account of it.5 If you ever did this, the letter has miscarried, for which I shall be sorry and the more so as I now almost despair of hearing from you any more till these troubles be settled.

The club of honest whigs, as you justly call them, think themselves much honoured by your having been one of them, and also by your kind remembrance of them.6 Our zeal in the good cause is not abated. You are often the subject of our conversation.

Not to burden my friend too much, I give him only one copy of my book; but I hope you will communicate it to Professor Winthrop, with my most respectful compliments. I am, as ever, truly yours

[J Priestley]

P.S. Lord Shelburne and Colonel Barr?ere pleased with your remembrance of them, and desire their best respects and good wishes in return. The best thing I can wish the friendly bearer of this letter is that he may fall into your hands, as I am sure he will meet with good treatment, and perhaps have the happiness of conversing with you, a happiness which I now regret. Your old servant, Fevre often mentions you with affection and respect. He is, in all respects, an excellent servant. I value him much both on his own account, and yours. He seems to be very happy.7 Mrs. Stephenson is much as usual. She can talk about nothing but you.

Addressed: To / Doctor Franklin

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

8The signature has been torn away except for a fragment of the “P.”

9Presumably a letter in November, when William Temple returned to Mrs. Stevenson and her daughter letters of theirs that he was supposed to take; see their explanations to BF below, Sept. 3 and 5, and for Temple BF to JW, March 26, 1776.

1The second volume of Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air. . . (3 vols., London, 1774–77) was published in 1775; the pamphlet we cannot identify. The bearer of the parcel was Thomas Carleton (1735–1817), who had returned to England in 1775 after a visit with Gen. Henry Clinton to the Russian army in the Balkans. Gov. Carleton appointed his brother quartermaster general and, although Germain gave the plum to another man, the Major was eventually confirmed. He was expected to leave for Canada in late February, 1776, but the expedition actually sailed in early April. William B. Willcox, Portrait of a General. . . (New York, 1964), pp. 32–5; Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, II, 73; Public Advertiser, April 6, 1776; A. Francis Steuart, ed., The Last Journals of Horace Walpole. . . (2 vols., London, etc., 1910), I, 528; A.L. Burt, “The Quarrel between Germain and Carleton,” Canadian Hist. Rev., XI (1930), 203–4; see also W.O. Raymond, “A Sketch of the Life and Administration of General Thomas Carleton, First Governor of New Brunswick,” New Brunswick Hist. Soc. Coll., VI (1905), 439–74.

Priestley sent his parcel by way of the St. Lawrence because postal service to the colonies had been discontinued. His hope in his postscript that the Major would “fall into your hands” may have been half-serious, for at the time a rumor of the fall of Quebec was gaining ground in London; news of the American repulse did not arrive for another ten days. Public Advertiser, Feb. 12, 22, 23, 1776. Carleton eventually found means to forward the letter from Canada; it reached Philadelphia, with or without the rest of the parcel, in September. BF to Priestley below, Jan. 27, 1777.

2Publication of Richard Price’s Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America. . . (London, 1776) was announced in the Public Advertiser of Feb. 12, and before the end of the year many editions were printed on both sides of the Atlantic: Thomas R. Adams, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea. . . (Providence, R.I., 1965), pp. 172–7. The pamphlet’s stress on the ruinous cost of war alarmed financial circles, according to Horace Walpole, as no previous writings had: Steuart, op. cit., pp. 529–30. Price commented (pp. 104–9) on a recent speech of Shelburne, which we assume was that of Nov. 10, 1775 even though it is differently reported in Cobbett, Parliamentary History, XVIII (1774–77), 920–7. The Earl, according to Price, proposed repealing the obnoxious acts, suspending hostilities, limiting the authority of Parliament in America to the regulation of trade, and obtaining imperial revenue from the colonies’ voluntary contributions.

3Priestley’s paper had been read on Jan. 25, 1776, and was published as “Observations on Respiration, and the Use of the Blood,” Phil. Trans., LXVI (1776), 226–48.

4For earlier experiments of his involving “nitrous air” (nitric oxide) and spirit of nitre or “nitrous” (nitric) acid see above, XIX, 173, 201–2.

5The promise was in BF’s letter above of May 16; the particular account was begun but never finished, we believe, and is above at the end of May.

6BF had sent his greetings to the Club in the letter above, Oct. 3, that Priestley is answering.

7The Frenchman, Lewis or Louis Fevre, had been BF’s clerk in London since 1772 and at some point, presumably when his employer returned home, joined Lord Shelburne’s household: above, XIX, 438 n.

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