The prosecution mounted a brilliant case against Thomas Paine’s publisher. The first witness the attorney General called was Henry Ben Raven, who, as stated earlier, had purchased a copy of Thomas Paine’s book from Daniel Isaac Eaton’s shop.
The Attorney General’s examination of Raven was simple, and merely proved that the book had been purchased there, and that it the defendant was aware of its content.
After Eaton (who was acting in his own defence) declined to cross examine the first witness, the Attorney General proceeded to show how by printing the book Eaton was “publishing a blasphemous and profane libel against the Christian religion, and the divine founder of it.”
The prosecution’s strategy, Stage 2, the emotional appeal
The prosecution then went on to show the dangers of atheism and the destruction of society.
In today’s eye’s, the Attorney General’s speech may appear to be long winded and over dramatic.
We might have trouble believing the prosecution’s case that through the publication of a book by the late Thomas Paine, people would lose their faith in God and “bad men would be let loose on society, and the evils which must result would be more numerous and more dreadful than I can now mention!”
We may forget that Thomas Paine, born in England, was not always popular with the British people. Paine was associated with deism, atheism, and with that “monster” and enemy of the British Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte.
The following cartoon of Thomas Paine explains the loyalist British attitude toward him. Through championing equality, Paine is shown to support tyranny and trample on all that is good.
After becoming divorced and bankrupt, Paine emigrated to America in 1774, just in time to join in the revolution and publish “inflammatory” material against the British crown in 1776.
(Many Brits of his time were ignorant of, or forgot the fact that, Paine’s poverty was part of his voluntary allowing his ex-wife to keep the money that he felt was rightfully hers, even though he could have legally taken it. They also forgot that the American Revolution was in response to unfair taxation and reckless soldiers, and would have happened without or without Paine’s flowery words.)
After fanning the flames of the American revolution, Paine proceeded to join the French one. He was the only British member of the French Assembly.
Though Paine voted against the execution of the French monarch, Louis XVI, he was guilty by association. Other American radicals who supported the French Revolution had staged mock executions of the Louis XVI, in which a dummy was beheaded.
The atheism of the French revolution was said to lead to the anarchy of “le terreur” and the tyranny of Bonaparte. At the time of Eaton’s trial, Bonaparte was recently said to have executed 500 innocent Portuguese on a whim, just one of the many crimes published in the British press to drum up support for the expensive Peninsular war.
Bonaparte was reported to being equally harsh against the French and their allies. People would only accept such irrational behaviour, the press implied, because they had been swept up in fanaticism.
Now at the time of Eaton’s trial, there was a war party in the US, a party which allegedly wanted to cut off vital supplies needed to fight the war against the Peninsula, a party which some said was under the influence of Bonaparte.
The majority of the British press ignored most of the real complaints of the American people (with the exception of the Orders in Council, which were downplayed as innocent and necessary), instead painting those Americans with grievances as fanatical supporters of Bonaparte.
So throughout the years, when British loyalists aimed to gear up support for a war against “atheistic” France, a progressive “traitor” like Paine seemed an easy target. Hundreds of effigies of Paine were burnt in different locations.
The Attorney General prosecuting Eaton was aware of these negative feelings and misconceptions, and only had to allude to them.
The Attorney General appealed to the members of the jury “who had families”, those “who are parents”, and those who were getting on in life. As the attorney general spoke vaguely about how religion was the moral backbone that protected a free society, how it governed man’s conduct when the fear of punishment could not, he was allowing the jury to use their imaginations and memories to see how recent history showed the evils that resulted in destroying that moral fabric.
Freedom of the press existed, but Eaton’s publication of Thomas Paine’s work was not considered to be covered by that freedom.
The attorney general later said, “I am the first man to maintain that no clog should be placed on the freedom of the press; but the publication which the Defendant has sent forth cannot be tolerated, for it goes to destroy that social system, to the support of which all publications should be directed.”
Prosecution’s Strategy part three: use the Paine’s pamphlet as evidence
After establishing that Eaton had sold Thomas Paine’s Third Part of the Age of Reason, and allowing the jury to use their own minds to think of the worst horrors that blasphemous works could cause, the Attorney General then proceeded to show how Thomas Paine thought that the Christian religion was filled with “forgeries and falsifications.”
The best way to do this was to read out the most offensive and dangerous sounding extracts from the pamphlet itself, which is just what the prosecution did. Then, after ending with the most offensive paragraph in the entire pamphlet, one that called anyone who believed in the divinity of Christ “an infidel to God”, the prosecution rest its case.