Just as the prosecution’s case was brilliant if simple, so Daniel Isaac Eaton’s defense was as inept as it was informative.
First of all, Eaton was late for his trial. Keeping the judge and jury waiting was never the way to make a good first impression.
Secondly, Eaton read his entire defense, which didn’t allow him to engage the jury or read their reactions.
Eaton’s strategy was to defend the work of Thomas Paine by showing that it was not blasphemous libel. Eaton did this by relating an autobiography of his spiritual education, and relating it to his own biblical interpretation.
“What I wish here to prove” concluded Eaton “is, that our God was not the God of the Jews – ours is a merciful God, and therefore could not have been the God of the Jews.”
Despite the fact that a few academics have called Daniel Isaac Eaton a “deist” (without evidence), it appears to me that Eaton considered himself a Christian. Being a deist or an atheist (or holding other non-Christian beliefs) might have hurt one’s career and social standing in England in 1812, but it didn’t land you in jail.
Eaton’s admission to being a Christian, as well as the evidence he gave of a knowledge of the Bible and the official Church, only proved his guilt.
Young Daniel Isaac Eaton had been baptized, brought up Christian, and eventually was educated in a Catholic school run by Jesuits.
In his written statement, the sixty year old Eaton remembered how his grandfather, who apparently didn’t like Catholics, had advised the young Daniel Isaac Eaton to check everything the Jesuits taught against the Bible. Daniel Isaac Eaton apparently heeded this advice, and his studies brought him to some controversial conclusions.
If Eaton could prove that church ministers who Thomas Paine was criticizing were reading the Bible wrongly, then perhaps Paine’s work wasn’t blasphemous.
Though Daniel Isaac Eaton did not follow Thomas Paine’s philosophy, Eaton, like Paine, believed that the Old Testament contradicted the New. Paine rejected the Bible. Eaton, however, claimed to share the same religion as members of the jury.
“Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people” worshiped “Mars, the god of battles, the Lord of Hosts, the vindictive god” and other Jewish prophets “worshiped the gods of their day, or any one of them, which they chose.”
Eaton was interrupted before he could say which other gods he thought Moses worshiped.
Daniel Isaac Eaton showed a strong knowledge of the Apocrypha, the early Catholic church, the Old Testament and heretical sects.
(Eaton gained this knowledge, apparently, by being educated in the school run by Jesuits.)
The way Eaton presented all this information, just served to make his crime look worse. Eaton proved a deep knowledge of the scriptures, which prevented him from looking innocent by ignorance.
Eaton quoted texts and writers without giving pause or even explaining his sources. Eaton gave the jury no time to digest the facts he bombarded them with.
The only chance the jury got to think about what Eaton said was when the judge, Lord Ellenborough, interrupted Eaton for causing offense with his eccentric interpretations. These interruptions naturally emphasized the most offensive parts of Eaton’s testimony.
Eaton had some other biographically points that he could have pursued, but he presented these poorly.
Eaton’s excuse that the same pamphlet was published without problem in America was a serious “own goal.” Another self-destructive remark was Eaton’s description of the time he spent abroad, which further linked his work to sedition. (Perhaps in Eaton’s travels abroad, or when he was in his deep study of books, Eaton had missed how the British press had presented the threat of “democrats” from America.)
Eaton mentioned how two thousand eight hundred pounds of his property had been burned on government order (he initially used the word property instead of books.) He had been in trouble with the law before, and this nearly bankrupted him (which is probably why Eaton was forced to defend himself.)
Not all the weaknesses in Eaton’s defense were of his own making. When the defendant requested to have someone else read his prepared statement on his behalf, that request was denied. Eaton claimed to have a “very severe cold”, but the judge claimed that Eaton was perfectly “audible.”
And while the prosecution was able to extract the most offensive parts of Thomas Paine’s work without interruption, Eaton’s defense was interrupted often.
“You are evidently coming to something reprehensible,” the judge, Lord Ellenborough, interrupted at one point, “and it is necessary you should be checked.”