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February 28, 2012

Social Networking, Book Burning, and the rooster who lost his head

Daniel Isaac Eaton had been in trouble with the law before.   (That is, before the blasphemy case.)

Cockerel and hen from woodcut

A 19th century cockerel or Chanticleer based on an image from John George Wood’s “The illustrated natural history”

Once upon a time, in a little kingdom in far away Europe, there lived a cockerel by the name of Chanticleer, King Chanticleer. This rooster was a descendent of the Chanticleer in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and a distant uncle of the King Chanticleer which featured in 1911 song by Nat D. Ayer.

Only this Chanticleer was a gamecock which sprung from the imagination of John Thelwall in 1793.

Thelwall told the story during a seemingly innocent meeting of the seemingly apolitical “Chapel Court Society.” The Chapel Court Society was holding a debate: what motivated man more, life, liberty, or romantic love?

Apparently, the speaker who preceded Thelwall was a narcissist (or at least an apologist for narcissism), so Thelwall’s fairy tale must have been a welcome relief.

The usual summary of Thelwall’s story is that King Chanticleer (or Chaunticlere) is the tyrant of the barnyard, and, like Louis XVI of France, he meets a gruesome end. Thelwall was not only making political commentary here, he was trying to win a debate. Thelwall’s philosophy was a forerunner to Pavlov’s experiments in the development of habit, and other elements of applied psychology.

“just as men, of base and abject minds, who have been long used to cringe and tremble at the names of kings and lords, for fear they should be clapped up in bastiles, or turned out of their shops, continue to cringe and tremble, when neither shops nor bastiles happen to be present to their imaginations.”

On November 16, 1793, Daniel Isaac Eaton published a transcription of Thelwall’s story of King Chanticleer in his journal, “Politics for the People“. (1) Eaton was already known as a publisher of radical literature. His absence on a petition of booksellers who pledged not to distribute “disloyal” tracts brought Eaton additional fame. (2)

John Thelwall’s wife later claimed that Daniel Isaac Eaton embellished Thelwall’s King Chanticleer story, making the printed Chanticleer story more offensive than the spoken tale originally was. (3)

Eaton’s social Network

Long before social networking, Eaton’s “Politics for the People” found a way to get the voices of other people in print, by printing the letters of its readers and work that wasn’t covered by copyright.

Unlike Youtube and Facebook, though, Eaton’s journal didn’t make a fortune for its founder.

When the law came to make their claim, Eaton couldn’t even afford to pay bail. So he languished in jail awhile as he awaited his trial. (3) (But one couldn’t exactly compare Eaton’s work to Wikileaks, as the original British radicals were in favour of a secret ballot, and the new craze among “whistle-blowing” websites in to “out” secret political dissidents by publishing their names.)

Anyway, when they brought Daniel Isaac Eaton to court for printing Thelwall’s King Chanticleer (an allegedly treasonous fairy tale), the prosecutor fumbled in a big way. As usual, the attorney general prosecuting this case, decided to read parts of the “Chaunticlere” story, to show just how bad it was. Whenever the prosecutor mentioned the name “Chaunticlere” he followed the name with “meaning our said lord the king.”

Tried for cockledoodledoo and acquitted

The prosecution’s case brought nothing but laughter, and Eaton was declared not guilty. To celebrate, a medal was made in Eaton’s honor, with Eaton’s face on the front, and a picture of a barnyard on the back.

So, why wasn’t Thelwall pursued? What about Thomas Paine, who had on occasion returned to England? Why did the law only go after publishers like Eaton?

As one prosecutor, who tried Eaton for Thomas Paine’s First Part of the Age of Reason, had said earlier (in June, 1793):

“Mr. Paine shall have my consent to sit down and write till his eyes drop out and his heart aches, provided he cannot find any body to publish it; but it is by means of persons like the defendant, giving vent to publications like the present, that injury has been done to society.”

Thomas Paine was the author who got Eaton into the most trouble.  But it was Thelwall’s story, and the accompanying victory, which Eaton was most remembered for.

As Republican John Lloyd put it, “Eaton was tried for cockledoodle doo and acquitted.”

An anonymous fan dedicated a poem to Eaton, which the bookseller later published.  Here are some excerpts.

So, Dan, once more you have escap’d
From Newgate’s noxious air;
Th’indictment, surely, was not shap’d
With all a lawyer’s care.

[…]Say true nobility is found
Alone where lofty birth is;
Assert it never can abound
Where humble truth or worth is.

Swear our Constitution’s giv’n
To be a constant source of joy;
Say ’tis the choicest gift of Heav’n,
A blessing pure, with alloy.

Assert we’re fairly represented,
And the poor from want protected;
That crimes by culture are prevented,
And laws to public good directed.

Swear our taxes are but trifles,
and the nation’s debt a joke;
that pitt the public never rifles,
Nor his promises ever broke.

[…]

Signed Old Hubert.

However, not all of Daniel Isaac Eaton’s trials would give Eaton a happy ending.  Eventually Eaton received two guilty verdicts in the year 1796.

In 1797, Daniel Isaac Eaton, like other “radicals” of his day, set off for America. While there, he’d discovered a new kind of soap and continued to educate himself on controversial literature

“Eaton’s anti-scorbutic Orange Soap.”

Eaton had apparently given up on his distribution of controversial literature in Britain, but the authorities hadn’t given up on prosecuting him. He was “declared outlawed” on the 29th of May, 1797.

When Eaton came home in 1803, he discovered that there were two outstanding trials against him, and the British authorities burnt his books. These books weren’t even meant to be sold in Britain, they were intended to be distributed in the American market.

“Books (not offensive) to the amount of two thousand eight hundred pounds” were burnt by Mr. Solicitor White under government decree at Eaton’s shop. Eaton also had to pay a fine of £286 to save his furniture, “amidst the tears of my wife and children.”

Woman throwing a book of magic into a huge bonfire as others look on. words in image say Buring the books of Magic

As this image – based on a woodcut from The Illustrated Bible History (Wilson Company: New York, 1845) – shows, the burning of books was seen in a different light in the 19th century.

So, bankrupt, Eaton tried to sell his soap, a new formula which he’d found in America. It seemed that the authorities had won, and silenced one of the government’s critics.

Eaton received a royal pardon on the 4th of February, 1805.  It seems that he still had to deal with his spies, and it’s unlikely that they were after the formula of Eaton’s soap.  (Whether they needed it or not.)

Eventually, Eaton decided to re-enter the book trade, and to again publish and advertise the works of Thomas Paine.  In 1811, the sale of “Third Part” of “the Age of Reason” was advertised in the Morning Chronicle.  And, as stated earlier, that publication brought Eaton to trial.

As an old man of about sixty, Daniel Isaac Eaton could not afford to lose.  Yet, he couldn’t afford a good lawyer either, so Eaton proceeded to defend himself as best he could.  But would it be enough?

(Eaton’s case…)

Notes

  1. Michael Scrivener “John Thelwall and Popular Jacobin Allegory, 1793-95”;  in ELH , Vol. 67, No. 4 (Winter, 2000), pp. 951-971 (The Johns Hopkins University Press)
  2. Michael T. Davis and others in Radicalism and Revolution in Britain 1775-1848.
  3. See The Life of John Thelwall, by Mrs. Cecil Thelwall
  4. This conjecture is based on what I read in the second source, as well as in the seemingly unrelated Captives and Countrymen which makes a comparison between early American newspapers and the Internet. The Pavlov comment is also conjecture, but most of this article is based on my understanding of primary sources and the other sources mentioned.
  5. Also see: Newgate in Revolution: An Anthology of Radical Prison Literature in the Age of Revolution

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