Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Joseph Priestley, 8 May 1779

From Joseph Priestley

ALS: American Philosophical Society

London 8 May 1779.

Dear Sir

The person who will deliver this letter is a priest of the Roman Catholic persuasion, and one of my antagonists in metaphysical matters, but a man of a very liberal disposition, and with whom I have spent many an agreeable hour.6 He is so obliging as to undertake to deliver to you my Treatise on Education, and my Correspondence with Dr Price.7 I shall very soon, by means of Mr Magellan, send you a copy of my new philosophical work,8 which, if you should have leisure to look into it, I flatter myself, will give you some pleasure.

I have just seen, but have had no opportunity to read, a pamphlet in favour of the doctrine of Necessity printed, I think, in 1729, and dedicated to Truth. Is this the tract you told me you wrote, and could not procure me a copy of? I cannot help being desirous of knowing this circumstance.9

All your friends are well. You need not doubt that we often talk of you, but we fear there is no prospect of peace, or consequently of our seeing you in England.

In all events, I am, Dear Sir, yours most sincerely,

J Priestley

Notation: Priestley 8. May 1779.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

6The bearer was undoubtedly Roger Joseph Boscovich (1711–87), distinguished mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher, who had been trained as a Jesuit in Rome, traveled widely as a diplomat, and settled in Paris in 1773, at which time he was appointed Director of Naval Optics of the French Navy and made a French citizen. Priestley and Boscovich had discussed their work during Priestley’s visit to Paris in 1774. In 1778, the two men debated metaphysics in an exchange of letters, sparked by the publication of Priestley’s Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit in 1777.

Boscovich had many friends among the high society of Paris, including leading statesmen and scientists known to BF. His papers, in Yugoslavian archives, are said to contain claims that the Jesuit met BF in London in 1760, and at the home of Vergennes towards the end of the Revolution. No correspondence between the two men is extant. See Robert E. Schofield, A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1966), pp. 166–71, 349–50; Lancelot Law Whyte, ed., Roger Joseph Boscovich (London, 1961), pp. 64–6, 91–4, 100–1.

7Miscellaneous Observations relating to Education … (Bath, 1778), and A Free Discussion of the Doctrines of Materialism and Philosophical Necessity, in a Correspondence between Dr. Price and Dr. Priestley … (London, 1778). BF lent the former to Count Montfort; see XXVIII, 178.

8See Priestley’s letter of March 11.

9Priestley had probably seen Anthony Collins, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity. … And an epistle dedicatory to truth … (London, 1729). Benjamin Vaughan asked BF about the same pamphlet in a letter of July 30 (APS). BF did not answer Priestley, but his letter to Vaughan, dated Nov. 9 (Library of Congress), mentioned Priestley’s query and set the record straight.

The essay that BF had written, entitled A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, was published in 1725 and dedicated to “J.R.” (James Ralph). BF claimed to have regretted its publication almost immediately, and destroyed most of the edition: I, 57–71.

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