Letters to the Inhabitants of Northumberland
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Letters to the Inhabitants of Northumberland

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A world-famous Englishman, Dr. Joseph Priestley addressed the 12 letters in this little book to “the Inhabitants of Northumberland and its Neighborhood.” Nearly 150 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the locale was an obscure village of log houses that had grown up at the confluence of the Susquehanna River’s North and West branches.

Priestley was in his early 60s when he decided to settle there in 1794. The clergyman/scientist had originally intended to devote his sunset years to writing about theological topics and conducting scientific experiments, but controversy over his political and theological beliefs followed him from Great Britain.

He soon found himself the target of frequent and caustic attacks in newspapers throughout the United States that aligned themselves with the Federalist government and policies of President John Adams. On one occasion, when relations between the U.S. and French governments had deteriorated, Priestley was even accused to being a spy for France.

When he found himself increasingly unpopular and misunderstood by the people of his new hometown, Priestley responded by writing these letters. He explained his political and religious beliefs, but also told how, why, and when he had become an honorary citizen of France; listed the reasons why he admired the U.S. Constitution; and justified his decision not to become a U.S. citizen.

Priestley also attacked his critics, especially William Cobbett who wrote under a pen name, Peter Porcupine. “It is commonly said,” Priestley wrote, “that when much dirt is thrown, some will stick; and on this principle I suppose it is that I have been distinguished so often by my principal antagonist, Mr. Cobbett.”

In 1799 the letters were reprinted in book form by Northumberland printer Andrew Kennedy. The book consisted of two parts. Letters 1 through 7 appeared in Part I, with letters 8 through 12 in Part II. The final item in Part II was Maxims of Political Arithmetic, Applied to the Case of the United States of America, an article that Priestley had printed anonymously in 1798 in the Philadelphia Aurora, a newspaper published by Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Priestley’s old friend Ben Franklin.

Spelling, typography and punctuation have been modernized throughout the text. For instance, the character f appears throughout the original, often to represent the letter s. This practice was common during the 18th century, but has fallen into disuse. It has been eliminated in these pages.

In editing this volume of the Letters, the editor found it helpful to have a variety of online dictionaries at his fingertips, among them en.oxforddictionaries.com. That’s because Priestley, his colleagues and his critics often employed words that have fallen into disuse, among them conventicle (a secret or unlawful religious meeting); oppugn (question the truth or validity of); and sectary (a member of a religious or political sect).

The Georgian-style mansion that Priestley built overlooking the Susquehanna survives as a museum that has portraits and a statue of the man. These images make it easy to envision the elderly man sitting at his desk in the library, dipping his quill pen in an ink well, then writing these letters – slowly, deliberately – in longhand.

The Friends of the Joseph Priestley House sponsored the republication of Priestley’s book. Three members of the Friends – Deb Bernhisel, Susan Brook and Tom Bresenhan – transcribed the letters using OCR text from Google and a scan of the first edition.

ABOUT THE EDITOR

John L. Moore, a veteran newspaperman, said he employed a journalist’s eye for detail and ear for quotes in order to write about long-dead people in a lively way. He said his books are based on 18th and 19th century letters, journals, memoirs and transcripts of official proceedings such as interrogations, depositions and treaties.

The author is also a professional storyteller who specializes in dramatic episodes from Pennsylvania’s colonial history. Dressed in 18th century clothing, he does storytelling in the persona of “Susquehanna Jack,” a frontier ruffian. Moore is available weekdays, weekends and evenings for audiences and organizations of all types and sizes.

Moore has participated in several archaeological excavations of Native American sites. These include the Village of Nain, Bethlehem; the City Island project in Harrisburg, conducted by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission during the 1990s; and a Bloomsburg University dig in 1999 at a Native American site near Nescopeck. He also took part in a 1963 excavation conducted by the New Jersey State Museum along the Delaware River north of Worthington State Forest.

Moore’s 45-year career in journalism included stints as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal; as a Harrisburg-based legislative correspondent for Ottaway News Service; as managing editor of The Sentinel at Lewistown; as editorial page editor and managing editor at The Daily Item in Sunbury; and as editor of the Eastern Pennsylvania Business Journal in Bethlehem.

by Joseph Priestley, Edited by John L. Moore, Foreword by John L. Moore
SUNBURY PRESS
Trade Paperback - 5 x 8 x .25
9781620067789
100 Pages
History / US History / Mid-Atlantic
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