But these halcyon days were ended by a bitter storm. The French Revolution broke out. An electric shock ran through the nations; whatever there was of corrupt and retrograde, and, at the same time, a great deal of what there was of best and noblest, in European society, shuddered at the outburst of long-pent-up social fires. Men's feelings were excited in a way that we in this generation can hardly comprehend. Party wrath and virulence were expressed in a manner unparalleled, and it is to be hoped impossible, in our times; and Priestley and his friends were held up to public scorn, even in Parliament, as fomenters of sedition. A "Church-and-King" cry was raised against the Liberal Dissenters; and in Birmingham it was intensified and specially directed toward Priestley by a local controversy, in which he had engaged with his usual vigor. In 1791 the celebration of the second anniversary of the taking of the Bastile by a public dinner, with which Priestley had nothing whatever to do, gave the signal to the loyal and pious mob, who, unchecked, and indeed to some extent encouraged, by those who were responsible for order, had the town at their mercy for three days. The chapels and houses of the leading Dissenters were wrecked, and Priestley and his family had to fly for their lives, leaving library, apparatus, papers, and all their possessions, a prey to the flames.
Priestley never returned to Birmingham. He bore the outrages and losses inflicted upon him with extreme patience and sweetness, and betook himself to London. But even his scientific colleagues gave him a cold shoulder; and, though he was elected minister of a congregation at Hackney, he felt his position to be insecure, and finally determined on emigrating to the United States. He landed in America in 1794; lived quietly with his sons at Northumberland, in Pennsylvania, where his posterity still flourish; and, clear-headed and busy to the last, died February 6, 1804.Such were the conditions under which Joseph Priestley did the work which lay before him, and then, as the Norse Sagas say, went out of the story. The work itself was of the most varied kind. No human interest was without its attraction for Priestley, and few men have ever had so many irons in the fire at once; but, though he may have burned his fingers a little, very few who have tried that operation have burned their fingers so little. He made admirable discoveries in science; his philosophical treatises are still well worth reading; his political works are full of insight and replete with the spirit of freedom; and, while all these sparks flew off from his anvil, the controversial hammer rained a hail of blows on orthodox priest and
- Even Mrs. Priestley, who might be forgiven for regarding the destroyers of her household gods with some asperity, contents herself, in writing to Mrs. Barbauld, with the sarcasm that the Birmingham people "will scarcely find so many respectable characters a second time to make a bonfire of."