Pinpointing the start of incivility in American public discourse and the resultant dysfunction of our political system is risky business. Journalists, pundits, politicians, social media decry our descent into a political hell as if it were a recent phenomenon born of the election of Donald Trump and his tumultuous first eleven months in office. But our national history suggests otherwise–rough and tumble politics have been with us since the founding of the nation and we Unitarian Universalists can offer Joseph Priestley as an appropriate example.
Joseph Priestley, whom the UUA honored by giving his name to the mid-Atlantic district of UU congregations that includes UUCC, was an English Unitarian clergyman, scientist, discoverer of oxygen, political theorist, friend of Benjamin Franklin who helped him settle in Pennsylvania after riotous attacks upon his home and person because of his religious beliefs—a Dissenter and Unitarian–and warm embrace of the American and particularly French Revolutions.
The French Revolution had split our country, too. Jefferson’s and Madison’s Republican party favored the French Revolution as a natural extension of our own revolution while Hamilton and the Federalists, controlling Congress and the Presidency, abhorring the Revolution’s terrible excesses, favored the British and our commercial links to our former mother country. Poor President John Adams was stuck in the middle, wanting peace with France, but attacked from both sides by newspapers that served as the public battleground.
There was Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Philadelphia Aurora, whose pages were filled with pro-French, anti-Federalist articles by Jefferson, Madison and émigré radicals such as Priestley. Bache’s vitriolic editorials attacked “old, bald, blind, querulous, toothless, crippled John Adams… mad in his dotage… a president by three votes” elected “by tricks, by frauds, by finesse.” The Federalists were not to be outdone. British Sergeant-Major William Cobbett who had attacked the army hierarchy in a pamphlet, The Soldier’s Friend was forced to flee England, immigrated to Delaware and continued his pamphleteering for Hamilton’s Federalists with his Porcupine’s Gazette. In addition to denouncing Adams as a traitor to his party (for seeking peace with France), Cobbett reported that he was a “mere old woman and unfit for a president” and called Bache a “liar and an infamous scoundrel.”[Ferling, 364; Weisberger, 208]
After the Federalists passed the Alien Act, which Adams never really enforced but rather was intended to muzzle pro-French Republican radical immigrants like Priestley with the threat of deportation, Cobbett took particular aim at him after Priestley, from his farmhouse in Pennsylvania, sent a letter to a friend that was widely published in England urging immigration to America. He wrote of the great “advantages we enjoy in this country…Here we have no poor; we never see a beggar, nor is there a family in want. We have no church establishment, and hardly any taxes… There are very few crimes committed, and we travel without the least apprehension of danger, the press is perfectly free, and I hope we shall always keep out of war. I do not think there ever was any country in a state of such rapid improvement as this at present.” [Smith, 749]
Cobbett, incensed by Priestley’s “abominable falsehood(s)” specifically that “we have no poor,” continued his venomous attack. “Of the mischiefs American independence has produced in the world, that of seducing thousands upon thousands of ignorant Europeans from their homes, to die with hunger and sickness in the woods and swamps of the United States, is not the least. I could fill a volume with the names of the miserable wretches who have been thus ruined in the space of a very few months. I could relate facts that would astonish any European.” [Cobbett, as quoted in Smith, 749]
Cobbett continued his invective against Priestley, immigration and American democracy as “Peter Porcupine,” returning to England in 1800 after a libel judgment against him. Eventually elected to Parliament at age 69, he died in 1835 of influenza. Priestley continued his scientific work, corresponded with Thomas Jefferson about religion to whom he dedicated his General History of the Christian Church and died peacefully at age 70 in 1804. [Malone, 201]
If Priestley’s letter is an eighteenth century version of Emma Lazarus’ poem, then Cobbett’s responding attack might find acceptance as a twenty-first century tweet in some quarters.
Cobbett, William. Observations on the Emigration of Dr. Joseph Priestley, Philadelphia: Thomas Bradford, 1795. https://archive.org/details/2546035R.nlm.nih.gov, (November 1, 2017).
Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992.
Malone, Dumas. Jefferson The President: First Term 1801-1805, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.
Smith, Page. The Shaping of America: A People’s History of the Young Republic, Volume Three, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980.
Weisberger, Bernard A. America Afire: Jefferson, Adams and the Revolutionary Election of 1800, New York: HarperCollins, 2000.