A Letter to Lord Ellenborough
Arguments advanced in the essay
In the essay, Shelley argues for concepts which were then quite radical, including complete freedom of the press, and a tolerance for all published opinion, even when false. The latter, he argued, would "ultimately be controverted by its own falsehood."
Origin of the title
The title arises from the name of the letter's recipient, who directed the jury that convicted Eaton. Eaton had been tried and found guilty of "blasphemous libel", for being an atheist. At the trial before Edward Law, 1st Baron Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice of England, what Mark Sandy of the University of Durham has called a "prejudiced jury" convicted Eaton for printing part three of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason.
Daniel Eaton was put on trial in May 1812. During the trial, in which he was accused of being an atheist, as well as the aforementioned "blasphemous libel." In defending himself, Eaton claimed that his beliefs were not atheistic, but deistic. He attempted to argue that scripture was open to the type of critique that Paine had leveled in Age of Reason. He based this view on his belief that the god of the Old Testament was "a revengeful and primitive deity", while the Christ of the New Testament was "an exceedingly virtuous, good man, but nothing supernatural or divine."
Despite the paucity of evidence, on 15 May 1812, the Ellenborough-led jury found Eaton guilty. His sentence was severe, including eighteen months in Newgate Prison and a monthly pillorying for the entire term of his sentence.
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