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A Letter to Lord Ellenborough

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Title: A Letter to Lord Ellenborough  
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Subject: Newgate Prison, Percy Bysshe Shelley
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A Letter to Lord Ellenborough

A Letter to Lord Ellenborough is a pamphlet written in 1812 by Percy Bysshe Shelley in defence of Daniel Isaac Eaton.[1] Printed in Barnstaple, the essay runs about 4,000 words in length.

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.[2] The latter, he argued, would "ultimately be controverted by its own falsehood."[2]

Origin of the title

Lord Ellenborough

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.[2] 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.[1]

The trial

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."[2]

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.



  • Butler, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background, 1760-1830. Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • Cameron, Kenneth Neill. "Shelley vs. Southey: New Light on an Old Quarrel." PMLA, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Jun., 1942), pp. 489–512.
  • Cameron, Kenneth Neill. "Shelley and the Reformers." ELH, Vol. 12, No. 1 (March, 1945), pp. 62–85.
  • Clark, David Lee. "The Dates and Sources of Shelley's Metaphysical, Moral, and Religious Essays." The University of Texas Studies in English, Vol. 28, (1949), pp. 160–194.
  • Grimes, Kyle. "'Queen Mab', the Law of Libel, and the Forms of Shelley's Politics." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 94, No. 1 (January, 1995), pp. 1–18.
  • Male, Roy R., Jr. "Young Shelley and the Ancient Moralists." Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 5, (Winter, 1956), pp. 81–86.
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley on Blasphemy: Being his Letter to Lord Ellenborough, occasioned by the sentence which he passed on Mr. D. I. Eaton, as publisher of the third part of Paine's "Age of Reason". London: Progressive Publishing Company, 1883.
  • Sotheran, Charles. Percy Bysshe Shelley as a Philosopher and Reformer. Boston, MA:, 2006. First published in New York by C.P. Somerby, 1876.
  • White, Newman I. "Literature and the Law of Libel: Shelley and the Radicals of 1840-1842." Studies in Philology, Vol. 22, No. 1 (January, 1925), pp. 34–47.
  • White, Newman I. "Shelley and the Active Radicals of the Early Nineteenth Century." South Atlantic Quarterly, 29, 1930, pp. 246–261.

External Links

  • London: R. Forder, 1894.
  • . London: Watts & Co., 1915.

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