The Age of Reason - Reception and Legacy - Britain


Paine's Age of Reason sparked enough anger in Britain to initiate not only a series of government prosecutions but also a pamphlet war. Around 50 unfavorable replies appeared between 1795 and 1799 alone and refutations were still being published in 1812. Many of these responded specifically to Paine's attack on the Bible in Part II (when Thomas Williams was prosecuted for printing Part II, it became clear its circulation had far exceeded that of Part I). Although critics responded to Paine's analysis of the Bible, they did not usually address his specific arguments. Instead, they advocated a literal reading of the Bible, citing the Bible's long history as evidence of its authority. They also issued ad hominem attacks against Paine, describing him "as an enemy of proper thought and of the morality of decent, enlightened people". Dissenters such as Joseph Priestley who had endorsed the arguments of the Rights of Man turned away from those presented in The Age of Reason. Even the liberal Analytical Review was skeptical of Paine's claims and distanced itself from the book. Paine's deism was simply too radical for these more moderate reformers and they feared being tarred with the brush of extremism.

Despite the outpouring of antagonistic replies to The Age of Reason, some scholars have argued that Constantin Volney's deistic The Ruins (translations of excerpts from the French original appeared in radical papers such as Thomas Spence's Pig's Meat and Daniel Isaac Eaton's Politics for the People) was actually more influential than The Age of Reason. According to David Bindman, The Ruins "achieved a popularity in England comparable to Rights of Man itself". However, one minister complained that "the mischief arising from the spreading of such a pernicious publication was infinitely greater than any that could spring from limited suffrage and septennial parliaments" (other popular reform causes).

It was not until Richard Carlile's 1818 trial for publishing The Age of Reason that Paine's text became "the anti-Bible of all lower-class nineteenth-century infidel agitators". Although the book had been selling well before the trial, once Carlile was arrested and charged, 4,000 copies were sold in just a few months. At the trial itself, which created a media frenzy, Carlile read the entirety of The Age of Reason into the court record, ensuring it an even wider publication. Between 1818 and 1822, Carlile claimed to have "sent into circulation near 20,000 copies of the Age of Reason". Just as in the 1790s, it was the language that most angered the authorities in 1818. As Joss Marsh, in her study of blasphemy in the nineteenth century, points out, "at these trials plain English was reconfigured as itself 'abusive' and 'outrageous.' The Age of Reason struggle almost tolled the hour when the words 'plain,' 'coarse,' 'common,' and 'vulgar' took on a pejorative meaning." Carlile was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to one year in prison, but spent six years instead because he refused any "legal conditions" on his release.

Paine's new rhetoric came to dominate popular nineteenth-century radical journalism, particularly that of freethinkers, Chartists and Owenites. Its legacy can be seen in Thomas Wooler's radical periodical The Black Dwarf, Richard Carlile's numerous newspapers and journals, the radical works of William Cobbett, Henry Hetherington's periodicals the Penny Papers and the Poor Man's Guardian, the works of the Chartist William Lovett, George Holyoake's newspapers and books on Owenism, and freethinker Charles Bradlaugh's New Reformer. A century after the publication of The Age of Reason, Paine's rhetoric was still being used: George Foote's "Bible Handbook (1888) . . . systematically manhandles chapters and verses to bring out 'Contradictions,' 'Absurdities,' 'Atrocities,' and 'Obscenities,' exactly in the manner of Paine's Age of Reason." The periodical The Freethinker (founded in 1881 by George Foote) argued, like Paine, that the "absurdities of faith" could be "slain with laughter". In Britain, it was this freethinking tradition that continued Paine's legacy.

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