The historical significance of Quatorze Juillet is not confined to the storming of the Bastille by the citizenry of Paris in 1789 or the Priestley Riots in Birmingham two years later. On July 14, happy birthday to Woody Guthrie; if he had lived, he would be 100 years old today.
The storming of the Bastille is still celebrated as a symbol of the relevance of the French Revolution and with socialist president Francois Hollande`s feet now firmly under the Elysee Palace table, the commemoration this year is especially poignant. Spare a thought, though, for theologian, scientists, natural philosopher and former resident of Sparkbrook, Joseph Priestley. After inventing soda water, discovering oxygen and establishing Unitarianism in England, this dissenting cleric went on to influence John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in the formulation of utilitarianism. No surprise then that there is a statue of him standing in Birmingham city centre. Sadly, he was not afforded the honour during his lifetime.
In 1791, when he and some of his enlightened chums in the Lunar Society decided to organise a dinner to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, a drunken mob burnt down his church and his house as well as the homes of other Lunar Society luminaries. It has been alleged that the “Church-and-King” mob were acting under the instructions issued by Birmingham politicians and senior Birmingham Anglican clergymen who considered the Enlightenment as being the work of the devil. Priestley was forced to flee to Hackney and after more sustained harassment and persecution, eventually left these shores and settled with his family in Pennsylvania. The then Prime Minister, William Pitt the younger and the then monarch, King George III were not sorry to see the back of him. Priestley was described by his opponents as ungodly, unpatriotic and a threat to national security. Thank goodness we have moved on from those unenlightened times. Now, when we fear opposition, we do not hire drunken mobs to burn our enemies out. Instead we hire arsonists to clear the way for property developers. Consider Great Barr Hall, on the border of Walsall and Birmingham, where the Lunar Society once met and torched not once but twice to make way for “bespoke executive residences”.
Priestly died in February 1804, 108 and half years before the birth of Woody Guthrie and 129 and a half years before a democratically elected German fascist government banned all other political parties. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a rather long but very good poem in which he said:
“…Lo! Priestley there, patriot, and saint, and sage,
Him, full of years, from his beloved native land
Statesman blood-stained and priests idolatrous
By dark lies maddening the blind multitude
Drove with vain hate…”
Happy Bastille Day. Where are Joseph Priestley and Woody Guthrie when you need them most?