An Early Advocate of Freedom of the Press

Article excerpt

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. …