Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Servant to the Supreme Majesty of the People

And so we have dried out, and have fared much better than the poor folk of Cockermouth. Back to business then ...

For the finale of this year's Bindman talks, Sir Geoffrey Bindman himself gave a lecture on a lesser-known character from the Romantic era. Daniel Isaac Eaton was a publisher in London, born in 1753. He inherited the family business bookselling and prospered. Eaton married and had a family and for 39 years he was a successful businessman. Then, between 1793 and 1812, he was prosecuted eight times for sedition. In his forties, Eaton proclaimed himself, 'Bookseller and Printer to the Supreme Majesty of the People'.

Eaton was inspired by the ideas that drove the French Revolution, and invigorated by the goings-on across the channel. It seems likely it was around this time that Eaton discovered the political writings of Thomas Paine and was moved to sell his books just at the time the government are suppressing his work with great vigour. In 1792, Eaton took up radical politics and joined the London Corresponding Society, a group that promoted universal suffrage and regular parliamentary elections. Eaton moved his business premises to Bishopsgate and started publishing the many pamphlets the society produced.

Suffrage and regular elections were not such contentious issues pre-1790, but the French Revolution caused alarm and the government, composed of many previous supporters of such 'radical' ideas, sought to stamp out all embers of an insurrection. Radical publishers, especially in the capital, were a major target. Whereas the government had overlooked William Godwin's tomes of radical philosophy, Eaton produced the works Tom Paine at the cost of one penny - an amount the working man could afford. The style Paine and other radicals wrote in was also new, reacting to the prose arguments of Edmund Burke by adopting the emotive and inventive style of rhetoric he employed in his 'Reflections of the Revolution in France'*.

Eaton, and those publishers like him, were wily. The government might try to suppress publications but they were unlikely to take the matter to court. Books could be banned, but trial proceedings were allowed to be reproduced in full. When up before the judge the publishers could read the entirety of the work they were standing trial for circulating and then publish the account with the 'seditious' material recorded within it.

Eaton used invention and humour to antagonise and attack. Eventually, he sought refuge in America. While he was abroad he was tried in his absence and declared outlawed. His stock of books was burnt, he was bankrupted and and his property was seized from his wife and children. On his return he served a spell in Newgate before being pardoned. The last seven years represent a quieter phase in Eaton's life, but even though he was finally silenced, his actions represent the tenacity of such figures, and the strength of the forces they opposed.

*For an overview of how Burke the Conservative strangely revolutionised politic writing, see Katey Castellano's article in Romanticism on the Net.

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