1791 | Birmingham

Gag Rule

“We are the sheep and you the wolves.”

My Late Townsmen and Neighbors,

You have destroyed the most truly valuable and useful apparatus of philosophical instruments that perhaps any individual, in this or any other country, was ever possessed of, in my use of which I annually spent large sums with no pecuniary view whatever, but only in the advancement of science, for the benefit of my country and mankind. You have destroyed the library corresponding to that apparatus, which no money can repurchase, except in course of time. But what I feel far more, you have destroyed manuscripts which have been the result of the laborious study of many years, and which I shall never be able to recompense; and this has been done to one who never did, or imagined, you any harm.

In this business we are the sheep and you the wolves. We will preserve our character and hope you will change yours. At all events we return you blessings for curses, and hope that you shall soon return to that industry and those sober manners for which the
inhabitants of Birmingham were formerly distinguished.

I am your sincere well-wisher,

Joseph Priestley


Joseph Priestley

From a letter. In August 1774 Priestley focused sunlight on mercuric oxide and found that the pure gas emitted caused a flame to burn intensely; he reported this discovery to French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, who called the gas oxygen. By 1791 Priestley’s membership in the Dissenters, a non-Anglican Protestant group that supported the French and American revolutions, sparked riots in Birmingham. Priestley’s effigy was burned, his house and lab destroyed. He and his family fled to America, where he died in Pennsylvania in 1804.