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The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s:
Print Culture and the Public Sphere

by Paul Keen

Chapter One: The Republic of Letters

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  1. This would not have been as great a problem as it was except for what Alan Richardson has provocatively explored as the "democratizationJean d'Alembert's of reading – the development of new reading audiences eager for political information but lacking, according to their critics, the necessary education. [73] In A British FreeholderJean d'Alembert'ss Address to His Countrymen, on Thomas PaineJean d'Alembert'ss Rights of Man (1791), George Mason argued that Jean d'Alembert'sthe greatest difficulty to me is to find any passages in PaineJean d'Alembert'ss Book deserving animadversion. Some degree of literary taste is almost universal in Britain: – I mean with those who can read; and who would write to those who cannot?Jean d'Alembert's (13). For Mason, this universality of literary taste ought to neutralize the vulgarity of PaineJean d'Alembert'ss book. But there is an instructive confusion in his terms of reference, since Paine was, after all, writing precisely to those individuals who were traditionally excluded from accounts of the reading community, but who were eager for political literature all the same.

  2. For some critics, this confusion was precisely the point. In the advertisement to part 4 of The Pursuits of Literature (1797), T. J. Mathias repeated the conviction he had already expressed in part 3, that Jean d'Alembert'sLITERATURE, well or ill conducted, IS THE GREAT ENGINE by which, I am fully persuaded, ALL CIVILIZED STATES must ultimately be supported or overthrownJean d'Alembert's. This was increasingly the case, he argued, because the changing patterns of readership had blurred existing calculations about the positive and negative potential of literature as a sphere for the exchange of ideas:

    I am now more and more deeply impressed with this truth, if we consider the nature, variety and extent of the word, Literature. We are no longer in an age of ignorance, and information is not partially distributed according to the ranks, and orders, and functions, and dignities of social life. All learning has an index, and every science its abridgement. I am scarcely able to name any man whom I consider as wholly ignorant. We no longer look exclusively for learned authors in the usual place, in the retreats of academic erudition and in the seats of religion. Our peasantry now read the Rights of Man on mountains and moors and by the way side; and shepherds make the analogy between their occupation and that of their governors. Happy indeed, had they been taught no other comparison. Our unsexed female writers now instruct or confuse us and themselves in the labyrinth of politics, or turn us wild with Gallic frenzy. (IV, i–ii)

    Mathias was as clear as Mason was hesitant about the entanglement of the issues of political authority, literary taste, and potential readerships, but his conclusions about literature as Jean d'Alembert'sthe great engineJean d'Alembert's capable of deciding the fate of nations were just as pessimistic. The image of Jean d'Alembert'sunsexed female writersJean d'Alembert's, a popular one amongst critics of the reform movement, as we shall see in chapter 4, suggested for many the worrying extent to which these changes in the role of literature constituted a crime against nature itself. Nor, Mathias argued, did traditional arguments about the distinctions between safe and dangerous forms of literature – such as price, length, accessibility – continue to hold:

    It is not enough to say, a book is bulky or voluminous, and therefore can have no effect upon the mass of the people, because that opinion is not true. Such a book can not only be abridged and dispersed abroad, but a man like Thomas Paine, with a rude, wicked and daring manner of think ing, and with vulgar but impressive language, may blend the substance of the opinions with his own, and in a short popular tract make them familiar and intelligible to every apprehension. (III, 1–2)

    What radical reformers celebrated as the democratization of reading, conservative critics denounced as a seditiously intended disruption of the legitimate boundaries of traditional readerships, which effectively negated literatureJean d'Alembert'ss constructive potential as a spur to critical debate.

  3. THESE PROSECUTING TIMES

  4. By addressing readers who were not traditionally assumed to constitute the target audience of important political writings, and by announcing on the title page of Rights of Man, part 2, his own sense of the interpenetration of principles and practice, Paine offered a new and radically different interpretation of the role of literature as a force for social change. Nor was Paine an isolated figure in these developments. The London Corresponding Society, which took an active role in promoting PaineJean d'Alembert'ss writing, also dedicated themselves to circulating their own works as widely as possible in order Jean d'Alembert'sto diffuse political knowledgeJean d'Alembert's amongst those elements of the populace which did not traditionally figure in constructions of the public. [74] The LCSJean d'Alembert'ss resolutions, which had already been Jean d'Alembert'spublished in the newspapersJean d'Alembert's by the Society for Constitutional Information, Jean d'Alembert'swere afterwards published by the London Corresponding Society itself, in the form of hand-bills, and thousands of them were distributed in London, and throughout the countryJean d'Alembert's. [75] Defamed by John ReevesJean d'Alembert'ss Association for the Protection of Property Against Republicans and Levellers, the LCS published an Address to the Nation Jean d'Alembert'svindicating their character from the base lies propagated against them . . . The copies were printed in the form of large broadsides, and posted up in various parts of LondonJean d'Alembert's. [76]

  5. As the arrest and conviction of the bill sticker who posted the Address might suggest, this widened definition of literature as an engine of change was contested, not only amongst a growing number of pamphlet writers, but with equal attention, in a series of highly publicized trials. Publication, because it ensured the circulation of ideas amongst an informed reading public, was a cornerstone of the ideal of literature as a public sphere, but it also exposed the author to the full rigour of the law. As the prosecution argued in Joseph GerraldJean d'Alembert'ss sedition trial:

    in themselves the speeches are not criminal. The resolutions, if locked up in the breast, the speeches, if uttered to the winds of the desart, the writings, if concealed in our repositories from human observation, are neither criminal nor obnoxious to punishment ...[T]he man who writes, without attempting to disseminate, or to publish, a seditious composition, may remain in the country as an innocent citizen; and, however disaffected in secret to government, will still enjoy the protection of its laws. [77]

    Ideas, in order to shape public opinion, needed to be diffused throughout society, but the growing numbers of people who could read – and who, more dangerously, appeared eager to read – but who could not be trusted as readers, meant that it was precisely the dissemination of ideas which ensured the authorJean d'Alembert'ss potential criminality.

  6. Some authors and booksellers offered their own legal battles as protests against the intrusion of the state. Daniel Isaac Eaton made a virtual career out of it throughout the 1790s, frequently publishing the judicial proceedings as independent texts. He was indicted on 3 June 1793 for selling Rights of Man, part 2, and again on 10 July 1793 for selling PaineJean d'Alembert'ss Letter Addressed to the Addressers. He was acquitted both times, and subsequently published an ironical pamphlet, The Pernicious Effects of the Art of Printing upon Society, Exposed. In 1794 he was tried for including a story about a gamecock Jean d'Alembert'snaming our lord the kingJean d'Alembert's in his journal Politics for the People, or a Salmagundy for Swine, [78] and then again in the same year for publishing PigottJean d'Alembert'ss Jean d'Alembert'sFemale Jockey ClubJean d'Alembert's, and was acquitted both times. In 1796 he was in court again for publishing PigottJean d'Alembert'ss Political Dictionary and then for Duties of Citizenship. He revived his efforts when public unrest began to grow again in the 1810s, republishing an edition of parts one and two of Age of Reason in 1811. When in 1812 he was tried and found guilty for publishing part 3, he was sentenced to eighteen months in jail and to stand in the pillory where he was cheered by the crowd. [79]

  7. Trials such as these became the subject of enormous public interest. During Thomas HardyJean d'Alembert'ss treason trial in 1794, which Lord Chief Justice Eyre described as an Jean d'Alembert'sextraordinary case, which can hardly be judged of by the common rules on which we proceed in cases of this natureJean d'Alembert's, [80] the audience spilled out onto the street:

    The streets were seemingly filled with the whole of the inhabitants of London, and the passages were so thronged that it was impossible for the Judges to get to their carriages. Mr Erskine went out and addressed the multitude, desiring them to confide in the justice of the country; reminding them that the only security of Englishmen was under the inestimable laws of England, and that any attempt to overawe or bias them, would not only be an affront to public justice, but would endanger the lives of the accused. He then besought them to retire, and in a few minutes there was scarcely a person to be seen near the Court. No spectacle could be more interesting and affecting. [81]

    In his Memoir (1832), Hardy recalled the public reaction to the news in even more dramatic terms which united virtually all British citizens in a single joyous recognition of his – and by extension, their own – escape from the progress of tyranny:

    Immediately on the words Jean d'Alembert'sNOT GUILTYJean d'Alembert's being pronounced by the foreman of the worthy jury, the Sessions House, where the Court sat, was almost rent with loud and reiterated shouts of applause. The vast multitude that were anxiously waiting without, caught the joyful sound, and like an electric shock, or the rapidity of lightning, the glad tidings spread throughout the whole town, and were conveyed much quicker than the regular post could travel, to the most distant parts of the isle, where all ranks of people were anxiously awaiting the result of the trial. (53)

    HardyJean d'Alembert'ss description of people waiting Jean d'Alembert'sanxiouslyJean d'Alembert's for the news in Jean d'Alembert'sthe most distant parts of the isleJean d'Alembert's reimagines the bourgeois dream of universality in the more extensive terms embraced by the radical reformers: a nation waiting to participate in a unified expression of joy over the failure of an attack on the promoters of liberty. The respect of the general populace for the sovereignty of the judiciary amplified ErskineJean d'Alembert'ss argument in the courtroom that the actions of Hardy in particular, and the political societies in general, reflected a widened rather than a damaged respect for the difference between ideas and actions. Their behaviour was consistent with the plan Jean d'Alembert'sadopted by the Prisoners, of surrounding Parliament (unwilling to reform its own corruptions), NOT by armed men, or by importunate multitudes, but by the still and universal voice of a whole people CLAIMING THEIR KNOWN AND UNALIENABLE RIGHTSJean d'Alembert's. [82] The fluidity with which the trialJean d'Alembert'ss audience spilled out beyond the space of the courtroom into the street reflected the way that the trials, as authoritative judgements on the nature of literature, were themselves recuperated as literary texts which invited readers to play the role of juries, deciding, within the sphere of the literary republic, on the merits of what had transpired within the public space of the courtroom. The bottom line of public debate, these trials seemed to indicate, was the law. But publications of the trials, and the debates which inevitably surrounded them, suggested that the law itself, as fully as it ought to be respected, was none the less subject to the long-term influence of what Mary Favret has described as Jean d'Alembert'sa higher law, an ideology of the public willJean d'Alembert's. [83]

  8. Ironically, trials of seditious literature made it possible to publish excerpts or whole copies of those works legally as part of the proceedings of these trials. In his Autobiography (1824), another member of the LCS, Francis Place, recalled the complexities generated by these interdiscursive shifts in the case of Thomas WilliamsJean d'Alembert'ss trial for publishing an edition of Age of Reason:

    On the verdict being given Lord Kenyon said. Jean d'Alembert'sI have observed several persons from curiosity taking notes of what passed here. This publication is so shocking that I hope nobody will publish this: I mean that a general detail of it will not make any part of that publication. Nobody who has any regard to decency, nobody who has any regard to their own interest will endeavour to disseminate this publication by publishing what has passed to dayJean d'Alembert's. Lord Erskine however corrected his speech for the Morning Chronicle and it was of course published the next day. (171)

    ErskineJean d'Alembert'ss prosecution of Williams was greeted with dismay by those who saw him as an advocate for freedom of the press. Whatever ErskineJean d'Alembert'ss sense of the limits of this freedom, however, his respect for the necessary importance of the press, correctly used, was reflected in his decision to publish a corrected version of his speech in the Morning Cronicle. Thomas Spence employed a more radical version of the same approach when he read out the whole of his pamphlet, The Restorer of Society to its Natural State, during his trial in 1801. It may have helped to lose Spence the trial (he was sentenced to a year in jail and fined twenty pounds), but it enabled him to reproduce the pamphlet legally as part of his subsequent publication, The Important Trial of Thomas Spence, which became a standard text in radical collections. [84]

  9. The circulation of radical political tracts helped force the question of the relationship between the laws against seditious writings, the supposed autonomy of literature, and the growing readership that lay outside of the traditional boundaries of the reading public. Acting in his more usual and better remembered capacity of advocate for the defence in the trial of Paine for Rights of Man, part 2, Thomas Erskine had argued that Jean d'Alembert'sthe cause resolves itself into a question of the deepest importance to us all, THE NATURE AND EXTENT OF THE LIBERTY OF THE ENGLISH PRESSJean d'Alembert's. It was, in other words, a case which went to the heart of the struggle to define literature in terms of the related questions of political authority and the reading community. Paine, living in France by the time of his trial, made the same point in a letter to the Attorney-General: because of his personal absence from the country, the real object of prosecution must have been Jean d'Alembert'sthe rights of the people of England to investigate systems and principles of governmentJean d'Alembert's. [85]

  10. Erskine argued that the case was straightforward. It was wholly unaffected by the question of the extent to which other people may have gone to disseminate copies of Rights of Man. All of this, whatever its consequences, had nothing to do with the task of determining whether Paine was guilty of seditious libel. What mattered, Erskine argued, in terms which perfectly reflected the reformist ideal of the republic of letters, was whether Paine really believed that what he was urging was in the best interests of the country:

    The proposition which I mean to maintain as the basis of the liberty of the press, and without which it is an empty sound, is this; – that every man, not intending to mislead, but seeking to enlighten others with what his own reason and conscience, however erroneously, have dictated to him as truth, may address himself to the universal reason of a whole nation, either upon the subject of governments in general, or upon that of our own particular country . . . All this every subject of this country has a right to do, if he contemplates only what he thinks would be for its advantage, and but seeks to change the public mind by the conviction which flows from reasonings dictated by conscience. [86]

    Whereas Erskine rejected the idea that the nature of the bookJean d'Alembert'ss readership, whether it was determined by the authorJean d'Alembert'ss style of writing or by the efforts of others to spread the work, could in any way affect the question of the workJean d'Alembert'ss legal status, the counsel for the prosecution argued that the question of audience provided clear evidence of PaineJean d'Alembert'ss seditious intentions. The fact that Paine had not been arrested for part 1 of Rights of Man, he explained, was proof that he actually agreed with Erskine about the freedom which ought to be accorded to disinterested authors. What made part 2 different was not so much any variation in the bookJean d'Alembert'ss message as the separate issue of the ways in which the book had been circulated:

    This particular publication was preceded by one upon the same subjects, and handling, in some measure, the same topics . . . Reprehensible as that book was, extremely so, in my opinion, yet it was ushered into the world under circumstances that led me to conceive that it would be confined to the judicious reader, and when confined to the judicious reader, it appeared to me that such a man would refute as he went along.
          But, Gentlemen, when I found that another publication was ushered into the world still more reprehensible than the former; that in all shapes, in all sizes, with an industry incredible, it was either totally or partially thrust into the hands of all persons in this country, of subjects of every description; when I found that even childrenJean d'Alembert'ss sweetmeats were wrapped up with parts of this, and delivered into their hands, in the hope that they would read it; when all industry was used, such as I describe to you, in order to obtrude and force this upon that part of the public whose minds cannot be supposed to be conversant with subjects of this sort, and who cannot therefore correct as they go along, I thought it behoved me upon the earliest occasion, which was the first day of the term succeeding this publication, to put a charge upon record against its author. [87]

    Ultimately, what was on trial was the question of whether ideas ought to be judged on their own merit, or whether they could be tried in terms of the probable or possible future actions of those who were influenced by them. Nor was a book to be judged by any negative effects which it unwittingly triggered, but by its circulation amongst a readership, who were themselves implicitly being judged according to their potential to embark on such a calamitous course of action. For the jury, the image of a page from Rights of Man used as a wrapper for childJean d'Alembert'ss sweetmeats – the ultimate symbol of radicalsJean d'Alembert's attempts to corrupt the minds of the innocent – was vivid proof of PaineJean d'Alembert'ss seditious intentions. The foreman rose to interrupt the prosecution before its reply to ErskineJean d'Alembert'ss defence, explaining that the jury was already unanimous in its decision that the prisoner was guilty.

  11. In July 1798, Charles Fox wrote that he considered the sentencing of Joseph Johnson to nine months in jail for selling an anti-war pamphlet written by the elderly Dissenting minister, Gilbert Wakefield, who himself received a two-year sentence, to be Jean d'Alembert'sa death blow to the liberty of the pressJean d'Alembert's. [88] This vision of literature received an even more eloquent eulogy in a silence that is embedded in the third edition of GodwinJean d'Alembert'ss Political Justice, which appeared in late 1797 without the section entitled Jean d'Alembert'sLiteratureJean d'Alembert's. Even for a radical middle-class reformer like Godwin, it had become too risky to advocate such a position publicly. The ideal of literature as a public sphere had been edited out of GodwinJean d'Alembert'ss text just as, on a wider discursive level, it was being edited out of history. The arrests of a seemingly endless series of authors, publishers, and booksellers, all of them evidence of what Thomas Spence referred to as Jean d'Alembert'sthese prosecuting timesJean d'Alembert's, [89] and the flood of legislation designed to curtail the easy circulation of cheap literature,brought home for many intellectuals the reality that literary publications were the one place where Jean d'Alembert'sthis right to discuss with perfect freedom the opinions and reasoning of every otherJean d'Alembert's manifestly did not exist (GM 67 (1797): 54–5). Public opinion would continue to grow as a force within the political public sphere after 1800, but this was paralleled by the diminution of the scope and authority of the republic of letters. ConservativesJean d'Alembert's success in mobilizing public opinion in the 1790s reinforced the strength of the political public sphere at the expense of literature as it had been defined in the previous two or three decades.

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