An Early Advocate of Freedom of the Press

By Murphy, John Patrick Michael | Free Inquiry, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

An Early Advocate of Freedom of the Press


Murphy, John Patrick Michael, Free Inquiry


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a sad genius who tried to live a happy life. Fascinated with history, language, and philosophy, wildly happy in the company of children, he became a serious student of religion as he sought to better our condition in this world. He mastered Latin and Greek, pondered the great philosophers, and, suddenly he was reborn. He became an amalgam of Lucretius, Pliny, Hume, Locke, d'Holbach, Bacon, Voltaire, Spinoza, Franklin, Paine, and a host of other giants whose thoughts were melded into his flashing mind. Soon he was ready to take on the powers of his day. Shelley used the press to publish his vision of humanity and how "power and priest-craft" had duped us.

The Church had been getting ready for freethinkers like Shelley ever since Constantine encased the clergy with political power in the fourth century. In 1444 Caxton published the first book ever printed in England. Thirty years later, the Bishop of London convoked the prelates and priests for the express purpose of spiking the notion of freedom of the press. He exhorted the cabal, "If we do not destroy this dangerous invention, it will one day destroy us!" Soon after, the Common Law of England would prohibit freedom of speech and press if it caused "reproach" to the Church or "derided" the Bible. In Shelley's day, the radical idea of freedom of the press was associated with atheism--a threat to both church and state. If one attacked the church it was blasphemy; if one attacked the state or its policies, it was sedition. Both were illegal. The law said you can't blaspheme; the clergy said you must not be seditious. One protected the clergy; the other shielded the politicians.

Shelley attacked them both with a printing press. It would be hard to say whether he wrote more sedition than blasphemy or vice-versa. At 18 he was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing The Necessity of Atheism (reprinted on next page). He posted a copy to "every Bishop in the Kingdom" and placarded the chapel with atheistic signs. Shortly after his departure from Oxford, the Lord Chief Justice of Great Britain, Lord Ellenborough, sentenced an aged publisher to prison and gave him a bankrupting fine, for printing Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Shelley published an open letter to the eminent and ignorant jurist, pleading for the right to think, to investigate, and to publish. He explained that truth is only found when there is an opportunity for open discussion. "That which is false will ultimately be controvert by its own falsehood. That which is true needs but publicity to be acknowledged."

He informed the Lord Chief Justice that, if religion would admit free discussion, "the Mohammedan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist, will live together in one community, equally sharing the benefits which arise from its association, and united in the bonds of brotherly love." That didn't happen, but a debate would arise in England concerning the rights of human beings. The matter also caused Thomas Paine's "sedition" to be read in his native England as it had been in America a generation earlier. Soon the Crown would stop enforcing the Blasphemy Act of 1698 and even would brook the public's right to criticize the government itself.

Shelley went on, publishing pamphlets condemning the government for making trade unions illegal and starving the people with an agricultural policy benefiting only the huge estates while the working people lived and died in poverty and servility. Crown and Cross would fight back--he would lose custody of his children upon the death of his first wife to a priest who took them because Shelley had written Queen Mab, "which blasphemously derided the truth of Christian Revelation and denied the existence of God." He would be denounced and disowned by his father, a Member of Parliament. His publishers would be jailed but he would elude indictment. At age 25 he left home to spend his last four years in Italy with other expatriates of his era. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

An Early Advocate of Freedom of the Press
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.