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Scientist Joseph Priestly is best known for discovering oxygen but his contributions were much larger. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Inventor of Air

Known for discovering oxygen, scientist Joseph Priestly also influenced the beliefs of our founding fathers.

You write that Priestly’s views were important to the founding fathers. How so?

In some ways their vision of progress and their belief in the possibility for change, for improvement of human society, had come out of the progress that they had seen and that Priestly had celebrated so much in his writings on scientific and technological advancements over the preceding century and a half. So the idea was that if we can understand so much about the world and about electricity and about air and all these different new fields, why can’t we apply that same kind of rational, empirical method to the organization of human society? One of the messages of this book is that this kind of thinking wasn’t just a dalliance that the founding fathers had on the side but rather that their worldviews were thoroughly infused with the march of science and that partially their political views came out of that tradition.

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