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Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Number 54, May 2009

Managing Editor(s): Michael Eberle-Sinatra (founding editor [romantic]) and Dino Franco Felluga (editor [victorian])

Publisher: Université de Montréal

ISSN: 1916-1441 (digital)

DOI: 10.7202/038758ar

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The Spectropolitics of Romantic Infidelism: Cruikshank, Paine, and The Age of Reason

Ian Haywood

Roehampton University, London


The aim of this article is to take a fresh look at Romanticism’s arch ‘infidel’, Thomas Paine. My approach is to place his key work The Age of Reason (1795) in the context of what Derrida in Spectres of Marx calls ‘spectropolitics’. Derrida coins this term to describe the way in which ‘effectivity phantamolizes itself,’ and I want to use Derrida’s insight to explore the specifically visual dimension of Paine’s ‘phantomal’ image. I will show that there are three components to the spectropolitical transformation of Paine: his demonization in the 1790s as the diabolical seducer of the common reader; his ‘resuscitation’ in the post-war period by Richard Carlile and other ‘apostles’; and the ironic conjunction between this contested ‘apotheosis’ of Paine and his Deistical debunking of Christian revelation as vulgar spectacle. I focus my discussion around George Cruikshank’s print The Age of Reason (1819) in order to show that caricature was a major spectropolitical force in the Romantic period and the apposite cultural medium for negatively ‘phantamolizing’ Paine, though this tactic always ran the risk of further enhancing his ‘cult’ status in radical martyrology. The larger critical aim of the article is to open up a new area in Romantic studies: to redefine Romanticism in terms of ‘spectropolitics’ gives popular visual media such as caricature a primary rather than secondary critical function, and it allows us to rethink and revalue the ‘phantasmagoric’ transformation of Romantic politics and culture.

The time will come, when led, great PAINE, by THEE!

WISDOM, and LIGHT, and LIFE shall begin below.[1]

I. Introduction


This article is an attempt to explain the power and importance of George Cruikshank’s satirical print The Age of Reason; or the World turned Topsyturvy exemplified in Tom Paine’s Works!!, published by Thomas Tegg on 16 October 1819 (Figure 1). I want to use this print, which appeared just a few months after the Peterloo Massacre, as the starting point for a discussion of ways in which Romantic-period popular culture constructed the “infidel debate”[2] in general and its most notorious exponent - Thomas Paine - in particular.[3] But I am also concerned in this article to explore the methodological and critical consequences of using popular visual imagery as a primary rather than secondary source; in this sense I want my discussion to be placed within a larger framework of “Romantic Spectacle”, a term I have coined to describe the visualization of culture in the Romantic period.[4] I want to place a high value on Cruikshank’s print for several reasons. To begin with, the print appeared at an explosive moment in English political and cultural history. The years 1819-21 saw an upsurge of activity in popular politics, popular culture and Romantic literature: the political scene witnessed Peterloo, the Six Acts, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline affair; in popular culture, these years represented the crowning achievement of single-print graphic caricature;[5] and, as numerous critics have pointed out, “England in 1819” produced many of the major texts of second-generation Romanticism.[6] Cruikshank’s print is therefore an extraordinarily pressured and performative historical and cultural document which both reflects and directs the visual and political imagination of the time.


Figure 1

George Cruikshank, The Age of Reason; or the World turned Topsyturvy exemplified in Tom Paine’s Works!!. Published Thomas Tegg, 16 October 1819. BM Satires 13274. © Trustees of the British Museum


This point relates to my second reason for choosing to focus on this print. What it so conspicuously places before the viewer is a spectacle: a highly stylized and theatrical fantasy of apocalyptic violence. I will return later to the apparent contradiction between the anarchic content and the symmetrical composition, but the point I want to make at this stage is that Cruikshank’s print is embedded within a theatricalized culture of popular politics which had emerged in the days of “Wilkes and Liberty” and which had become an increasingly contested sphere of representation by the end of the eighteenth century. David Worrall and other critics have shown that the boundary between “theatric politics” and political theatre became increasingly blurred in the Romantic period.[7] This work alerts us to the need to add a new element to our understanding of the politicization of culture in the Romantic period: the struggle for the right to stage both literal and virtual political spectacles, to produce iconic scenes, and to represent, in a compelling visualized form, alternative social and political realities. The whole “revolution debate” of the 1790s, it could be argued, was triggered by Richard Price’s decision to make the escorting of Louis XVI from Versailles to Paris (the “king led in triumph”) the closing spectacle of his famous Old Jewry lecture.[8] We can interpret the treason trials of 1794 as a blundered attempt by the State to criminalize the radical imagination, to tarnish all radical expression with the associated guilt of “imagining the king’s death”.[9] When these trials collapsed, the Two Acts of 1795 outlawed mass political rallies, the most tangible way in which the radical movement could spectacularize its collective identity and challenge the State’s monopoly of public displays of political power. Significantly, the revival of the “monster” meeting was one of the most conspicuous features of the political landscape in the postwar years: indeed, the function of the Peterloo meeting was to elect a “legislatorial attorney” or symbolic Member of Parliament. The government regarded such conventions as illegal and on that basis it had arrested and transported leaders of the London Corresponding Society in 1793. These crackdowns were clear evidence that radicalism exerted a spectral presence in the public sphere, haunting Legitimacy with visions of its democratic future. In his analysis of the “spectres of Marx”, Derrida has usefully coined the term “spectropolitics” to describe the way in which “effectivity phantomalizes itself” (Derrida, 107, 48). The spectropolitical phantamolization or spectralization of radical culture in the Romantic period has been undervalued by critics. Kevin Gilmartin, for example, argues that “Radical discourse was haunted by its own inevitable extinction, which figured by turns as an imminent curse and a painfully deferred promise” (Gilmartin, 60). One aim of this article is to propose a spectropolitical revision of Gilmartin’s critique. I want to switch the focus away from radicalism’s marginality and exclusion and look instead at its function as the “curse” or “deferred promise” of dominant culture.


This proposition takes me to my third reason for choosing Cruikshank’s print: its demonization of Paine’s The Age of Reason (Part 1 1794, Part Two 1795). [10] As I will show below, Romantic infidelism was essentially a discourse of spectropolitical exorcism. Its modernizing aim was to dephantamolize Christianity, to debunk its superstitious “mythology” of spirit life, and to reclaim the idea of divinity for a rational, scientific universe. In the “infidel” or popular Deistical critique of Christianity, acts of divine intervention are merely vulgar spectacles. The Church, like the State, uses spectacle to simultaneously bedazzle and dupe the masses with “Chimeras”.[11] Put in a more Paineite way, priestcraft required stagecraft. Hence Paine compares miracles to new forms of popular illusionist entertainment such as the phantasmagoria. But the irony of this analogy lies in the fact that, by the time he wrote The Age of Reason, Paine had already been demonized as Public Enemy Number One. He had become a product not a producer of Romantic spectacle, and was already a phantomal or spectral force in British political life and popular print culture. If, in the radical analysis of religion, saints and martyrs had the cult appeal of fictional superheroes, exactly the same construction was placed on Paine by his enemies. The counter-revolutionary response to Paine was to demonize him as a kind of bargain-basement, Jacobinized Moses, the “apostle of Democracy” (Porcupine, 41). Paine had produced radicalism’s two “Bibles”; he had utilized the power of popular print culture to create pleasing illusions of a republican and Deistical Utopia; he was leading the masses into political, moral and (even more heinously) spiritual ruin. To his enemies, Paine was the arch conjuror of illusion, the exact “topsy-turvy” mirror image of the phantomal offence he was supposedly exposing. Yet, I would argue, it was precisely this ideological and cultural offensive which helped to elevate Paine into a cult figure. Far from exorcising his influence, the conversion of Paine into a vulgar spectacle ensured his spectral presence in the Romantic period and beyond. Paine was the first ‘miracle’ of modern print culture. To his enemies, Paine’s works violated the laws of nature; to his followers, his two “Bibles” were indeed like scriptural texts, touchstones of dissent and liberty. In the closing sections of this article, I want to place Cruikshank’s print within the wider spectropolitical battle for Paine’s image and memory in the Peterloo years. One aim of this discussion will be to show both the successes and disasters of the radical apotheosis of Paine, but the other and more ambitious objective is to consider the way in which these images operated typologically. I want to propose that Cruikshank’s print inhabits what Benjamin calls “messianic” time, a highly politicized mode of typology in which the artist “seizes” the past in a “moment of danger”. I will argue that the caricature derives its power from the way it constructs “England in 1819” as a re-staging of the revolutionary conflicts of the 1790s. In order to demonize infidelism, Cruikshank necromantically raised Paine’s spirit from the Jacobin past, though this aesthetic strategy carried its own ideological risks.


If this case study is persuasive, it will provide evidence for a much larger proposition: that it is in visual caricature that we can find, in its most spectacular form, the spirit (and spirits) of the Romantic age.

II. Cruikshank’s The Age of Reason


Given the fact that I am placing a considerable amount of epistemological weight on a relatively obscure graphic source, it is incumbent on me to provide a substantial description of Cruikshank’s arch example of anti-infidel propaganda. The print is “Dedicated to the Archbishop of Carlile---!!!”, a mock tribute to the central figure in the scene, the radical publisher Richard Carlile, and an allusion which immediately evokes the anti-Catholic atrocities of the French revolution. Carlile, whose “Temple of Reason” bookshop was “the chief mart in London for the distribution of radical and freethinking tracts,” (Wiener, 39) had just been prosecuted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice for publishing Paine’s Theological Works, Carlile’s grandiloquent title for a batch of infidel texts including The Age of Reason.[12] The function of Cruikshank’s print seems indisputably to supplement State control: his apocalyptic scenario legitimates the suppression of civil liberties by imagining the catastrophic consequences of not intervening. Hence the apposite central pun of the print is the pantomime devil’s announcement “Here’s your Works”. This mock-triumphal remark is ostensibly addressed to Carlile, but it is also surely directed at the ghost of Paine, the unseen mover of the spectacle of Terror and carnage. Carlile’s crime is to bring Paine’s “works” back into circulation and make him “work” again on a popular audience. Carlile is less a publisher than a necromancer or miracle-worker, unleashing Paine’s Jacobin anarchy on the post-war world. Though Carlile is not caricatured, his smiling face reveals that he is clearly relishing the apocalyptic carnage, and the way he is prodding the burning crucifix with a devilish trident recalls the legend of the Wandering Jew, a popular outcast figure in Romantic literature. The placard which is tied to the cross (and therefore supplants it) announces the infernal New Order of Reason: “No Christianity, No Religion, No King; No Lords, No Commons, No Laws! Nothing but Tom Paine and Universal Suffrage!!!” The crucifix is also being pulled down by a gang of three disreputable low-lifers wearing Jacobin bonnets rouges and, in one case, prison leg-irons. In their glee, these latter-day sans-culottes seem unaware that their action will also surely pull down the placard, which is perhaps a sly allusion to the stereotypical self-destructiveness of anarchy.


The other component of this central triangular configuration (surely an ironic allusion to classical Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion) is the base of the pyre, composed of the wreckage of the British Constitution. Most of these objects are the texts which Paine’s fiendish “Works” have vanquished: Magna Charta, Prayer Book, Bible and “The Law”. Another Jacobin wretch is just about to set fire to this pile of political lumbar (and by freezing this incendiary act, Cruikshank could be dramatizing the viewer’s opportunity to intervene in the real world of politics and prevent further destruction). The extremities of the base of this triangle are occupied by another familiar feature of the Romantic landscape of atrocity: murdered women. The crucifix-looking daggers which project from their hearts are emblems of perverted religion. These corpses are visually echoed by the backdrop which shows the hanging bodies of three bishops, one parson and two ministers in bag-wigs. Both gibbets are supported by that other central symbol of anti-Jacobin satire, the guillotine, but note that each guillotine is topped by two icons: the Crown and the Prince of Wales’ feathers, representing the monarchy, are themselves topped by red caps. This threefold procession of iconic objects has two functions: firstly, it emblematizes the perilous entrapment of the British constitution by Jacobin republicanism; secondly, the vertical arrangement of the symbols suggests a chronological movement from the 1790s through the loyalist hegemony of the Napoleonic wars to the revival of radical politics. If any further symbols of the spectacular triumph of godless democracy are needed, the whole scene is flanked by two apocalyptic vignettes: on the left side we see the literal collapse of the church, on the right the pillaging of the throne (this is the closest the scene comes to imagining regicide). Again, there is intentionally nothing new about this imagery, as it is my contention that Cruikshank is nostalgically evoking the anti-Jacobin propaganda of the 1790s, the moment when Paine’s “boasted work” first appeared (Priestley 1795, v ). This evocation bolsters his own role as the reincarnation of Gillray, and conveys to the viewer a sense that the current crisis really belongs in that violent, revolutionary decade.


I will return later to the print’s typological function, but I want to complete my initial survey of the print’s visual features by highlighting some of the remaining features of its theatricalized composition. Firstly, in order to literalise the carnivalesque notion of revolution as the “world turned upside down”[13], Cruikshank shows radicals doing a handstand dance, a mock-allusion to the planting of the Liberty Tree in French revolutionary festivals. Secondly, there is an intriguing cluster of spectators in the bottom left corner. This group of figures is possibly the most original and, for modern eyes, the most disturbing feature of the print. Four “true” infidels (a Jew, a Turk, a Chinese and a black) are shown to be gleefully awaiting the opportunity to take over the British way of life. This is the print’s most bigoted and opportunistic scare tactic, and the theme is reinforced aesthetically by the way our eyes are invited to connect up the three sides of a triangle of smiling figures: the non-Christians, the devil and the figure of Carlile constitute a mock-Trinity of “Reason”. The ideological work of the print therefore goes well beyond its initial aim of suppressing freethought: Cruikshank uses the alleged intolerance and disloyalty of infidelism to drive home an intolerant and exclusive definition of national identity.


The final point to make about the print’s aesthetic appeal is to note the contradiction between its form and content. Although the theme is chaos and destruction, the striking symmetrical arrangement of the print signifies cultural and ideological control. It was in the visual medium, in other words, that the alarmed British public could see - in a uniquely literal way - how radicalism could be both exposed and contained.

III. Paine’s The Age of Reason


The significance of Cruikshank’s print is that it rephantamolized Paine for the post-war period, not that it engaged seriously with Paine’s discourse. The idea that Paine offered encouragement to non-Christian religions, for example, was a complete distortion of his declared opposition to all “national institution[s] of church” of whatever creed (1: 464). Indeed, Cruikshank could have been drawing on a characteristically bravura passage in The Age of Reason in which Paine claims that Christianity has “bribed” Satan:

After giving Satan this triumph over the whole creation, one would have supposed that the Church Mythologists would have been kind enough to send him back again to the pit…But instead of this they leave him at large, without even obliging him to give his parole – the secret of which is that they could not do without him; and after being at the trouble of making him, they bribed him to stay. They promised him ALL the Jews, ALL the Turks by anticipation, nine-tenths of the world beside, and Mahomet into the bargain. After this, who can doubt the bountifulness of the Christian Mythology?

1: 470

Paine had also lambasted the “obscene” Old Testament as “the word of a demon than the Word of God” (1: 474), but this Satanization of the Bible would again function like a rhetorical boomerang. Paine’s description of the libidinous fare of Old Testament stories - “cruel and torturous executions” and “unrelenting vindictiveness” - is precisely the landscape of Cruikshank’s print. This manoeuvre was nothing new: the appropriation of oppositional rhetoric was a classic discursive strategy of the “infidel debate” and of the wider “revolution debate” of which it formed a significant part. Paine’s violent and sensational metaphors could themselves have been an answer to Edmund Burke’s anti-Jacobin characterization of the “spirit of atheistical fanaticism” as “a black and savage atrocity of mind” (Burke, 262). But the point of Cruikshank’s satire was not to inversely “deify” Paine but to deflect attention away from the actual “works”, to exorcise The Age of Reason from British culture by substituting the caricature for the original. Yet the policy of censorship backfired: Carlile, like many radicals, used his trial as a platform for publicity, and audaciously read out the whole of Paine’s text in court. Demonization may actually have bolstered Paine’s reputation and ensured that he would continue to exert spectral power, infiltrating and energising popular political culture with the “delicious poison” of infidelism and republicanism (Wakefield, 3).


The writing was already on the wall when The Age of Reason first appeared in the mid 1790s. As William Hamilton Reid declared alarmingly in The Rise and Dissolution of the Infidel Societies in this Metropolis (1800), Paine had written a “New Holy Bible” for the masses (Reid, 5).[14] Paine repeated the primary offence of The Rights of Man (1791-2) by writing for a popular readership. Few of his ideas were new, but as the Bishop of Llandaff put it, “Bolingbroke and Voltaire must yield the palm of scurrility to Thomas Paine”.[15] Hannah More’s popular tract A Country Carpenter’s Confession of Faith (1794) summarises the loyalist hostility to “Mr. Pain”. In the words of the hero Will Chip, a “plain” English carpenter:

You must excuse a plain man, if he does not chuse to try hazardous experiments; if he does not chuse to exchange the peace, the plenty, the cheerfulness, the security, and prosperity he now enjoys under the influence of a mild government, and a charitable religion, for the plunder, rapine, exile, murder, ruin and desolation, which have been produced by The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason.

More, 23-4[16]

Even some of Paine’s admirers thought he had overstepped his mark by stripping away the spectral consolations of religion and leaving the masses without a spiritual safety net. For Paine, priestcraft and kingcraft were two sides of the same coin, and his assault on established religion was a logical extension of his belief that “The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason” (1: 463). But even his former ally Thomas Erskine, who had defended Rights of Man in 1792, stated that TheAge of Reason “stirs up men without the advantages of learning, or sober thinking” – ironically, Erskine led the first prosecution of the book in 1797.[17] With The Age of Reason, Paine’s grip over the reading public, first seen with the phenomenal success of The Rights of Man, had now become truly spectral. Paine was already a phantom figure, a product of a fake biographies,[18] rumour, defamation and effigy-burning. He was also literally invisible, as he had fled England in 1792 to avoid prosecution and almost certain death. Putting The Rights of Man on trial in his absence could only enhance his mystique even further, ensuring that his texts became emanations of his (malign or messianic) spirit: Paine’s “criminality”, as Erskine pointed out in his defence of the book, was “not visible on the page”.[19] When Paine transferred his attention to the spiritual world, his quasi-occult powers seemed to have found their true habitus. As Reid noted, “we have seen the principles of Infidelity transferred from books to men; from dead to living characters” (Reid, iii-v). This uncanny trope - with spectral, necromantic, and resurrectionist connotations – was to prove more enduring and productive than Reid could have imagined. It is no coincidence that William Blake, though distrustful of Paine’s Deism, praised him as a “worker of miracles” (cited in Mee 2003, 106).


Richard Carlile’s decision to flout the law[20] and republish Paine’s “theological” works was therefore a deliberate act of apostolic succession, an ironic appropriation of the spectral machinery of religion which Paine discredited in his writings. As Edward Royle states, “If Paine had been resurrected, it was to live in Carlile’s own image”; Royle also notes that Paine was effectively Carlile’s “co-defendant” during his trials (Royle 2003, 10, 6).[21] Carlile’s success in resurrecting Paine can be gauged by a contemporaneous comment that “Radical Reformers are also grown bold enough to acknowledge [Paine] as their Apostle and their Idol” (cited in Larkin, 171). Even more alarmingly for the authorities, Carlile’s cheap publications ensured that infidelism became part of the resurgent radical movement.[22] Carlile’s revival of Paine provoked William Godwin into an Erskine-like condemnation of “the sudden promulgation of principles of infidelity to persons without education”, a dangerous tendency which Godwin also saw in the campaigns for “political improvement”.[23] But any move to suppress radical discourse simply ran the risk of creating radical martyrs. What E. P. Thompson calls “radical martyrology” was nowhere more apparent than in the infidel movement (Thompson, 661). Carlile and his followers drew sustenance from Paine’s withering comment that Christianity had imposed its will “with the aid of the fagot” (1: 587). Paine knew only too well that the rule of the “fagot” was not consigned to the fanatical past.[24] Ironically, Richard Carlile recalled that “many a faggot have I gathered in my youth to burn old Tom Paine!” (Carlile 1821, 18) The “powerful reasoning of the fagot” (Sherwin, 171) became a key trope in infidel discourse.[25] Carlile accused the Society for the Suppression of Vice of atavistic malevolence: “you possess the same dispositions as your ancestors, who kindled the flames in Smithfield” (Carlile 1819, 16).[26] Carlile’s dedicated followers were quick to follow his example and assume the martyr’s crown.[27] Susannah Wright, for example, declaimed at her trial in 1822, “We will brave the dungeons or the faggots…vain shall be all your persecutions” (Carlile 1822, 22).[28] As I argue below, these responses cast an ironic light over Cruikshank’s decision to place the “fagot” at the centre of his composition, as if he was inserting a back-handed compliment to the missionary zeal and enthusiasm which ensured that Paine’s “Works” multiplied and prospered in the teeth of persecution. By 1822 Carlile claimed to have sold 20,000 copies of The Age of Reason and he added (no doubt optimistically) that some copies were read by fifty families (cited in Royle 2003, 9). Carlile also produced his own apostolic succession: radical pressmen such as James Watson, Henry Hetherington and George Jacob Holyoake ensured the popularity of Paine for the Victorian period. Carlile even commissioned a bust of Paine (ironically from a Home Office informer) which he passed on to Watson who in turn gave it to the radical editor Joseph Cowen Junior. As Royle puts it, this act of fetishistic veneration expressed “in a symbolic way one of the most influential traditions in nineteenth-century British radicalism”. [29]


For Paine, however, the “fagot” was not merely an instrument of persecution. It was also the means of ensuring religion’s spectrality. The phrase “with the aid of the fagot” occurs in a passage in which Paine debunks the Resurrection, calling it “the story of an apparition” or “ghost” which “with the aid of the fagot” passed into fact and ensured that “Miracles followed upon miracle” (1: 584, 587). Such imagery of spectral procession is central to Paine’s debunking of the fictions of the Christianity, the “Religion of Dreams”.[30] In his role as the Doubting Thomas of Deism, Paine dismisses the revelatory foundations of the Bible as a proliferating series of uncorroborated stories, “hearsay upon hearsay” (1: 466). Christianity’s appropriation of pre-Christian mythology is a monstrous fraud:

It is curious to observe how the theory of what is called the Christian Church sprung out of the tail of heathen mythology. A direct incorporation took place in the first instance, by making the reputed founder to be celestially begotten. The trinity of gods that then followed was no other than a reduction of the former plurality, which was about twenty or thirty thousand; the statue of Mary succeeded the statue of Diana of Ephesus; the deification of heroes changed into the canonization of saints; the Mythologists had gods for everything; the Church became as crowded with the one as the Pantheon had been with the other, and Rome was the place of both. The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud.

1: 467

Paine is prepared to admire (and identify with) Christ as a “reformer and revolutionist” (1: 469), but Christ’s supposed divinity is simply a cultural myth from an era when the belief in the “intercourse of Gods” with mortals was “familiar” (1: 467). Paine is much harsher about the “blasphemously obscene” Annunciation: “It gives an account of a young woman engaged to be married, and while under this engagement she is, to speak plain language, debauched by a ghost” (1: 570).[31] The language of spectral rape (which draws on classical precedents of Zeus “visiting” mortal women) is echoed in Paine’s attack on the “adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it has taken place, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish” (1: 479). Such miscegenation of religious and civil power produces the phantoms of priestcraft: “priests and conjurors are of the same trade” (1: 593). Given the fact that Paine’s Deism was founded in the sublime wonder of Creation, it is striking that he even targets the fiat lux as a primary example of religious conjuring:

It is a puerile and pitiful idea, to suppose the Almighty to say, Let there be light. It is the imperative manner of speaking that a conjurer uses when he says to his cup and balls, Presto, begone.

1: 602, n.

This is audacious, witty and provocative, but the ideas are actually the standard fare of the deistical debunking of miraculous intervention. In Richard Carlile’s words, a “wonder-working God” is “an immoral phantom conjured up in the wild vagaries of religious superstition” (The Deist, 66). The reason why Deists were so fond of attacking miracles is captured in Joseph Addison’s oft-quoted view that the appearance of a ghost “deserves to be taken notice of, as it contains a most certain proof of the immortality of the soul, and of Divine Providence”.[32] The question of the visual “evidence” of divinity became a central feature of the infidel debate.[33] Peter Annet attacked miracles as

….Works of Power, which strike an awe on Men’s Minds…Works of Wonder; which tho’ they make a Mob gape and stare, do not give them rational Faculties, nor mend them…if men are to be governed by the slavish Fear of an arbitrary capricious Power, ‘tis best working on their Passions by fearful and wonderful Actions, or the Stories of them, which bewilder their benighted Souls in the intricate Maze, or dark wilderness of a blind Faith.

Annet, 133-4

David Hume argued that the “inclination to the marvellous” which underpins religion is a residue of our “barbarous past” which “can never thoroughly be extirpated from human nature”. This “inclination” makes the masses an easy target for imposture: “fools are industrious to propagate the delusion”. The greater the geographical or chronological distance, the more a “story” can “pass for certain”. Miracles are prime examples of the use of spectacle to dupe the masses: “the gazing populace receive greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition, and promotes wonder”.[34] Joseph Priestley’s contribution to this infidel critique was to express a Dissenting distaste for religion’s reliance on the visual imagination. He argued that the introduction of icons and images into worship was one of the first significant corruptions of the early Church. Such “idolatrous veneration” was based on a “heathen” idea that “the invisible power of the god, to whom the image was dedicated, was brought to reside in it”. The use of “paintings and sculptures representing the great exploits of saints and martyrs” to “draw the ignorant multitude to the new worship” made churches resemble “heathen temples” (Priestley 1793, 1: 361, 362, 318). The broad aim of the infidel movement was therefore to free Christianity from this “heathen” reliance on “idolatrous veneration” and to restore religion to its pre-institutional purity before it was infested with the corruptions of priestcraft and stagecraft. To “undeceive the deluded multitude” was also an enlightened political duty, as superstition was the hallmark of “false” religion (notably Catholicism) and, in Hume’s words, “an Enemy to Civil Liberty”.[35]


By the 1790s, however, freethinking had become dangerously entangled with Jacobin republicanism. Volney’s Ruins became an instant classic, reprinted in excerpted form in radical periodicals, and blazing a trail for Paine.[36] As J. M. Robertson notes, the religious establishment fought back with a ‘multitude of fresh treatises on Christian evidences’ (Robertson, 2: 795). Even Priestley felt obliged to answer Paine, though he had to resort to a weak defence that Christ’s miracles were the bedrock of religious belief and therefore ultimately “unquestionable”:

What could the most incredulous of men have required more, than that a man, commissioned by God, and evidencing his mission, by unquestionable miracles …should not only assert the doctrine, on the authority of those miracles, but, as an ultimate proof of it, should exhibit himself as an example of it …the certainty of his resurrection was also evident from the conduct and miracles of the apostles, acting in his name afterwards.

Priestley 1795, 21-2[37]

This was hardly a convincing refutation of the infidel view that Christianity relied on “pagan mystification” (Mee 1992, 176).


Paine’s debunking of religious illusion was therefore highly derivative, but he gave the critique a novel new twist by bringing it up to date and comparing revealed religion to the new “optical and mechanical deceptions” of phantasmagoria: “There is now an exhibition in Paris of ghosts or spectres, which, though it is not imposed upon the spectators as a fact, has an astonishing appearance” (1: 508).[38] By comparing miracles to modern special effects, Paine debunks religion’s spectral power by consigning it to the pre-history of modern spectacle. The phantasmagoric “turn” in Paine’s discourse reflected a wider shift in the cultural formation of Romanticism. [39] As Terry Castle has noted, the Romantic period was a moment when a “spectralizing habit” moved to the centre of British culture, replacing the superstitious belief in ghosts with a new popular technology of illusion. She adds that “the spread of popular scientific knowledge” in the late eighteenth century relied heavily, and paradoxically, on the “pseudonecromantic power” of magic lantern shows. At the same time as it replaced religious credulity with spectacular optical entertainment, the “spectralizing habit” also “gave would-be sceptics a technical language with which to debunk, retroactively, many reported spectral appearances” (Castle, 162, 146). Castle’s theories provide an illuminating framework for assessing infidelism’s spectropolitical power. As an arch “sceptic”, Paine insisted that the Age of Reason had no place for religious or political conjuring, but his enemies simply inverted this logic and made him the personification of all the “ghosts and spectres” of Jacobin Terror. In order to “debunk” Paine’s works, he was transformed from a populariser of high-brow thought into a “spectral appearance”, a charlatan performer of spectacular intellectual stunts and a diabolical conjuror of political and religious illusions. Thomas Carlyle may have had Paine in mind when he dismissed eighteenth-century rationalism as a “simulacrum”:

The old unblessed Products and Performances, as solid as they look, are Phantasms, preparing speedily to vanish. To this and the other noisy, very great-looking Simulacrum with the whole world huzzahing at its heels, he can say, composedly stepping aside: ‘Thou art not true; thou art not extant, only semblant; go thy way!’

Carlyle, 254

Carlyle’s rhetorical exorcism of Enlightenment phantoms recalls the paranoid reaction to Paine in the 1790s. Several caricatures depicting Paine in league with the devil appeared in 1792, the year in which Paine was declared an outlaw. Pain, Sin and the Devil: Tres Juncti in Uno (Figure 2) shows a monster with three heads, perhaps based on the legendary Cerberus who guarded the entrance to Hell (the title of the print is also cashing in on the popularity of visual representations of Milton’s allegory of Satan, Sin and Death (such as Gillray’s Sin, Death and the Devil, which also appeared in 1792), and this allusion gives Paine the apposite role of “Sin”). In the centre is the devil with horns; on the left is Paine, shouting “Rights of Man”; on the right is Priestley, shouting “Sedition”.[40] Above the horns are crossed daggers with the Jacobin inscription “Ca ira”. The text purports to be “intercepted correspondence from Satan to Citizen Paine”. The caricature clearly demonizes Paine, but the absence of a dramatically staged spectacle with human actors means that the print exerts only a modest spectropolitical force. A more important genealogical source for the Cruikshank’s The Age of Reason is Seditation, Levelling and Plundering; or, the Pretended Friends of the People in Council (Figure 3). This caricature may well have been a direct influence on the later print, as it was composed by Cruikshank’s father Isaac. The print displaces the monstrous Unholy Trinity of Paine, Priestley and the Devil into a more naturalistic setting. It shows a table with three figures: on the right is Paine (Levelling), on the left is Priestley (Sedition), and between them is the presiding genius, the devil (Plunder). The scene is bursting with emblems of insurrection: the devil is sitting on a pile of muskets and other weapons; Paine holds daggers and sits on a sack of gunpowder; on the walls hang prints of Jacobin executions; and behind both men are stacks of treasonable pamphlets and books.[41] The modified national anthem below the image associates Paine with the absolute destruction of British culture:

Paine! Paine! thy motley life,

Compound of fraud and strife,

Plainly declares,

Thy aim is levelling

Nobles, State, Church, and King.

As this print was published before Paine had written The Age of Reason, it is Priestley who represents the allegedly seditious delusions of rational religion (the latter is signified by the lantern of truth which he holds in his left hand). In the hysterical counter-revolutionary climate of the 1790s, it was easy for loyalists to tar Dissenters with the violent Jacobin brush. Thomas Rowlandson’s Repeal of the Test Act (1790), for example, shows Dissenters as an anarchic mob intent on destroying the established Anglican Church. (Figure 4). The efficacy of this jingoistic rabble-rousing can be gauged by the fact that in July 1791 a “Church, and King” mob destroyed Priestley’s home in Birmingham, and in December 1792 effigies of both Paine and Priestley were publicly burned in Colchester. When Paine adopted the role of tribune of freethought, he attracted the full force of this anti-Dissenting hostility. The Age of Reason doubled his notoriety, as he now personified both religious and political revolution. This exponential leap in his terrorist credentials provides a rationale for Cruikshank’s seemingly hysterical depiction of infidelism as synonymous with national insurrection.


Figure 2

Pain, Sin and the Devil: Tres Juncti in Uno. Published James Aitken, 1792. BM Satires 8152. © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 3

Isaac Cruikshank, Seditation, Levelling and Plundering; or, the Pretended Friends of the People in Council. Published S. W. Fores, 1792. BM Satires 8131A. © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 4

Thomas Rowlandson, Repeal of the Test Act Published S. W. Fores, 20 February, 1790. BM Satires 7629 © Trustees of the British Museum

IV. The Dance of Death


As noted earlier, the demonization of Paine and the suppression of his works played into the hands of radical “martyrology”, allowing Richard Carlile to adopt the role of Paine’s apostolic successor. But the temporary disappearance of Paine from the political and cultural scene did not mean the end of spectropolitics. On the contrary, I want to propose that Paine’s “resurrection” in the post-war period owed much to the fact that in his absence, the spectropolitical energies of caricature were transferred to a new public enemy: Napoleon. With advent of “Boney” onto the political and cultural scene, the “spectralizing habit” of popular culture went into overdrive.[42] In a remarkable pamphlet called Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (1819), Richard Whately argued that Napoleon was a “phantom conjured up by the British Ministers” to divert attention away from the failures of domestic politics. Moreover, Whately made a direct comparison between this “phantom” and Biblical “allegories”, and he asked his readers to consider whether Napoleon “performed all the wonderful things attributed to him” (Whately, 38, 39, 23). Whately’s incisive comments were made at the end of a long period during which scores of caricatures depicted Napoleon as a phantasmagoric enemy in league with both Death and the Devil. Indeed, Cruikshank confessed that he established his reputation by “skeletonising” Napoleon, though Rowlandson was never far behind (George Cruikshank’s Omnibus, 26). Some of the wittiest examples of this debunking of Napoleonic power are Cruikshank’s Comparative Anatomy; or Boney’s New Conscripts filling up the Skeletons of the Old Regiments (1813) (Figure 5) and his triptich Buonaparte, Ambition and Death (1814) (Figure 6). As the latter title indicates, the phantasmagoric construction of Napoleon drew heavily on the popular Miltonic theme of Satan, Sin and Death, but skeletonic satire also tapped into a wider cultural revival of the Dance of Death.[43] This revival reflected a widespread disenchantment with the ongoing misery of warfare, but it also kept alive, as Vic Gatrell has noted, a deep-rooted spectral imagination:

The power of the print was deepened by its exploitation of long iconographic traditions. Visual references to the anthropomorphized beasts and bugaboos (or scare-babies), to the dance of death, to momento mori, to a hell with flaming jaws …remained almost as common as they had been in 1600 and much earlier.

Gatrell, 214

The Dance of Death provided caricaturists with a popular visual language for both social and political satire. The most subversive aspect of the original series was the social inclusiveness of Death’s victims, and its most radical images showed Death stalking members of the ruling class (Figures 7-8). It was relatively easy, therefore, for caricaturists to replace the original generic victims with more recent political and social targets. In Isaac Cruikshank’s The Moment of Reflection (1796), for example, Death stands poised to stick his dart into Catherine the Great (Figure 9). In the phantomal, caricature version of Napoleon’s career, Death is Napoleon’s constant companion, their changing relationship an index of the ups and downs of Napoleon’s fortunes. In Rowlandson’s The Corsican and His Bloodhounds at the Window of the Tuileries Looking over Paris (16 April 1815), Death is a close advisor (Figure 10); in Rowlandson’s The Two Kings of Terror (13 November 1813) Death is a figure of Nemesis (Figure 11). But the caricature narrative of Napoleon’s career provided an even more explicit precedent for the revival of Paine. A slew of graphic satires published in the months leading up to Waterloo portrayed Napoleon’s return from exile as a diabolical ‘resuscitation’ of his power. Rowlandson’s The Flight of Napoleon from Hell-Bay (7 April 1815) is a mock-epic skit on Satan’s epic journey out of Hell in Book 2 of Paradise Lost (Figure 12). Cruikshank’s The Corsican’s Last Trip under the Guidance of His Good Angel (16 April 1815) shows a colossal Napoleon leaping from Elba to the French throne with the devil on his back (Figure 13). In Cruikshank’s Escape of Buonaparte from Elba the means of escape from “Hell-Bay” is more literally demonic, as Napoleon sits on the back of the flying devil followed by the mounted, carnivalesque figure of Death (Figure 14). The culmination of this trend was Cruikshank’s The Phenix of Elba Resuscitated by Treason (1 May 1815) (Figure 15). This print evokes several 1790s prints in which the radical movement necromantically conjures up the spirits and demons of sedition. In William Dent’s Revolution Anniversary or, Patriotic Incantations (1791) a group of radicals including Fox and Priestley dance round a steaming cauldron from which emerges “French spirits” (Figure 16). In Rowlandson’s A Charm for a Democracy, reviewed, analysed and destroyed (1799) a similar cauldron is being fuelled by a huge pile of radical tracts including several on Deism (Figure 17).[44] Cruikshank’s reworking of this necromantic spectacle in The Phenix of Elba clearly anticipates The Age of Reason as it shows a central “fagot” surrounded by impending scenes of destruction. When the defeated Napoleon was securely banished for a second time, Cruikshank produced Boney’s Meditations on the Island of St Helena: The Devil Addressing the Sun (1815), which once again casts Napoleon in the role of Milton’s Satan (Figure 18). Though the print is ostensibly triumphal, Napoleon’s colossal size and defiant stance are an edgy tribute to his cult status.


Figure 5

George Cruikshank, Comparative Anatomy; or Boney’s New Conscripts filling up the Skeletons of the Old Regiments. Published George Cruikshank, 1 November 1813. BM Satires 12087 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 6

George Cruikshank, Buonaparte, Ambition and Death. Published George Cruikshank, 1 January 1814. BM Satires 12171 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 7

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The Abbot’ from The Dance of Death (1538). Published by Melchior & Gaspar Trechsel. BM GB232f Hollstein 99 (14). © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 8

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The Rich Man’ from The Dance of Death (1538). Published by Melchior & Gaspar Trechsel. BM GB 232K Hollstein 99 (28). © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 9

Isaac Cruikshank, The Moment of Reflection; or ATale for Future Times. Published S. W. Fores, 26 December 1796. BM Satires 8844 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 10

Thomas Rowlandson, The Corsican and His Bloodhounds at the Window of the Tuileries Looking over Paris. Published Thomas Rowlandson, 16 April 1815. BM Satires 12529. © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 11

Thomas Rowlandson, The Two Kings of Terror. Published Rudolph Ackermann, 13 November 1813. BM Satires 12093 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 12

Thomas Rowlandson, The Flight of Napoleon from Hell-Bay. Published Rudolph Ackermann, 7 April 1815. BM Satires 12526 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 13

George Cruikshank, The Corsican’s Last Trip under the Guidance of His Good Angel. 16 April 1815. Published Hannah Humphrey. BM Satires 12530 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 14

George Cruikshank, Escape of Buonaparte from Elba. Published George Cruikshank, March? 1815. BM Satires 12518 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 15

George Cruikshank, The Phenix of Elba Resuscitated by Treason. Published M. Jones, 1 May 1815. BM Satires 12537 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 16

William Dent, Revolution Anniversary or, Patriotic Incantations. Published William Dent, 12 July1791. BM Satires 7890 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 17

Thomas Rowlandson, A Charm for a Democracy, reviewed, analysed and destroyed. Published Wright, 1 February 1799. BM Satires 9345 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 18

George Cruikshank, Boney’s Meditations on the Island of St Helena: The Devil Addressing the Sun. Published Hannah Humphrey, August 1815. BM Satires 12593 © Trustees of the British Museum


The period between this prodigious propaganda offensive against Napoleon and the eruption of “England in 1819” was short, and it was not difficult for caricaturists to replace the enemy at the gates with the reconstituted threat of the enemy-within. The anti-Jacobin demonization of the resurgent radical movement was therefore simultaneously nostalgic and familiar. The re-targeting of the satirical armoury of the Dance of Death can be seen most spectacularly in Cruikshank’s Death or Liberty! Or Britannia, and the Virtues of the Constitution, in danger of violation from the grt. political libertine, Radical Reform, published almost simultaneously with The Age of Reason (Figure 19).[45] Death is no longer the handmaiden of Napoleon but a fully revitalized, regrouped and rapacious internal threat: Death’s attempted rape of Britannia is a hyperbolic spectacle of national crisis. Britain’s future is in the balance, and the catastrophic consequences of the triumph of radicalism are represented by the infernal retinue sheltering under Death’s cape. It is difficult to know if Cruikshank’s inclusion of Blasphemy in this demonic train represents an accurate perception of the contribution of infidelism to the reform movement; it is also possible that Cruikshank’s atheizing of the image of radicalism was simply a tactical decision designed to galvanize maximum popular opposition. Whatever the reason, the fact that the imp Blasphemy brandishes a copy of The Age of Reason gives Paine’s text a synecdochic, talismanic function; Paine’s works are the emanations of his “resuscitated” evil spirit, which is itself a synecdoche of the Jacobin 1790s. Any viewer who doubted this typology simply had to turn to Cruikshank’s own version of The Age of Reason for a full-scale demonstration of the consequences of releasing Paine’s genius from the Jacobin bottle: in Cruishank’s grand guignol scene, the Dance of Death is reincarnated as an English carmagnole.


Figure 19

George Cruikshank, Death or Liberty! Or Britannia, and the Virtues of the Constitution, in danger of violation from the grt. political libertine, Radical Reform. Published George Humphrey, 1 December 1819. BM Satires 13279 © Trustees of the British Museum


One way to sum up the spectropolitical quality of Cruikshank’s print is to invoke Walter Benjamin’s notion of “messianic time”. Benjamin argued that the aim of the critic was to “make the continuum of history explode” with “the presence of the now” by grasping “the constellation which its own era has formed with a definite earlier one”. Once this connection is made, “empty homogeneous time” will become “shot through with chips of Messianic time”. This mode of knowledge does not depend on empirical accuracy: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’... It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Benjamin, 257). Benjamin’s elegant typological theory is an illuminating and powerful gloss on Cruikshank’s demonizing methodology, but the idea of “messianic time” enables an even deeper probing of the historical and cultural “memory” which “flashes up” in Cruikshank’s imagery. For the viewer who was acquainted with the original “moment of danger” of the 1790s, it would only take a small effort of “messianic” imagination to superimpose Paine’s presence onto the central “fagot” and to convert the scene into a spectacle of a loyalist lynch-mob. This imaginary transformation of the print into a scene of 1790s retributive justice would, in Benjamin’s terms, “make the continuum of history explode” with “the presence of the now” by grasping “the constellation which its own era has formed with a definite earlier one”. Another way to put this point is that Cruikshank’s repudiation of Carlile is an apostolic remedy for Gillray’s failure to confront the infidel Paine. The closest that Gillray came to imagining Paine’s death was Tom Paine’s Nightly Pest, published on the eve of Paine’s trial (in absentia) in December 1792 (Figure 20). The print stages a parallel, phantomal form of justice in the shape of a nightmarish vision in which three headless judges declare Paine’s guilt:

Know, villain, when such paltry slaves presume

To mix in Treason, if the Plot succeeds

They’re thrown neglected by – but if it fails

Theyre sure to die like dogs! As you shall do.

This spectral condemnation is a reflexive tribute to caricature’s spectropolitical power, and the ghostly judgement sends Paine’s Jacobin demon scurrying out of the window with his tail between his legs. But in the light of subsequent developments, the fleeing incubus is actually a testimony to loyalist wishful-thinking. A “messianic” way of reading Cruikshanks’s Age of Reason could be that it remedies a deficiency in the caricature offensive against Paine in the 1790s by subjecting infidelism to the “powerful reasoning of the fagot”, the same purging fire which has been directed against Paine’s The Rights of Man. Had there been a more rigorous campaign of anti-infidel visual propaganda, Cruikshank could be implying, perhaps Paine’s spirit would never have returned. If this is interpretation is credible (and I accept I am pushing a typological or “messianic” reading as far it will go), the ideological affiliation of Cruikshank’s print becomes more complex, as any depiction of loyalist violence (even in a palimpsest form) could risk repelling the viewer and undermining the stereotypical attribution of violence to radical politics.


Figure 20

James Gillray, Tom Paine’s Nightly Pest. Published Hannah Humphrey, December 1792. BM Satires 8137 © Trustees of the British Museum


There are two further ways to extend this ironic reading of the print’s violent imagery. The first is to note that Gillray established the libertarian credentials of caricature; even though he was in the pay of the government in the late 1790s, his anti-Jacobin imagery is often less ideologically conservative than it might seem on first viewing. As John Brewer has pointed out, Gillray seems to take great relish in showing popular violence being directed against authority figures such as Pitt and even King George, so a reading against the grain of the overt political message is more than possible (Brewer, 46). Cruikshank’s position was even more mercurial. The prints I have looked at so far are a misleading guide to Cruikshank’s ideological affiliations in 1819. Cruikshank worked both sides of the political divide with breathtaking ease, and he was actually one of the radical movement’s most illustrious supporters at this time. His anti-Jacobin prints of 1819 were produced cheek by jowl with his famous denunciation of Peterloo, Massacre at St Peters or “Britons Strike Home”!!! (Figure 21), and his highly successful collaboration with William Hone, The Political House that Jack Built (Figure 22 ).[46] In the context of Peterloo, Cruikshank’s attack on Carlile in The Age of Reason is particularly ironic, as Carlile – who was present at the massacre – issued his own influential print of the debacle and therefore became, like Cruikshank, one of the ‘creators’ of Peterloo in the popular imagination (Wiener, 42). This takes me to the second justification for considering an ironic reading of the “fagot” in The Age of Reason: in the context of 1819, the idea of political violence was dominated by the Peterloo massacre, an event in which (as Shelley was to show) Death wore the mask of State power, not Radical Reform. Placed alongside Cruikshank’s famous depictions of mounted yeomanry mowing down the defenceless people in St Peter’s fields, the only way we can make sense of The Age of Reason and Death or Liberty! is to conclude that Cruikshank sold his services to the highest bidder while retaining irony as a covert critique. Ostensibly, Cruikshank was trying to regulate and define the shape of “respectable” radicalism by excluding “fringe” elements such as infidelism and feminism, but the line between ridicule and irony was a thin one. Once we embed The Age of Reason in the hyper-active public sphere of “England in 1819”, we can see that it is caught up in a tempestuous cycle of appropriated and reappropriated phantomal imagery. As Derrida notes, the “phantasmagoria” of spectropolitics lies somewhere “between parody and a truth” (Derrida, 109). Ironically, the phenomenal success of The Political House that Jack Built prompted loyalists to attack Cruikshank and Hone as Paineite sympathisers. The cover of A Dorchester Guide, or a House that Jack Built (1820) shows the scale of justice in which the Bible outweighs both Paine’s The Age of Reason and Palmer’s Principles of Nature (Figure 23). M. Adam’s A Parody on the Political House that Jack Built; or The Real House that Jack Built (1820) adds allegorical flourishes to the same trope by surrounding the infidel texts with a monstrous hydra and replacing the Bible with the figure of Justice (Figure 24). Unwittingly, it seems, Cruikshank had furthered the notoriety of his arch-enemy’s “works”. But the other striking irony of the loyalist counter-offensive against radicalism in general and infidelism in particular was that the over-zealous radical apotheosis of Paine gave his sacred bones to his enemies on a satirical plate. In the final, brief section of this article I want to look at this final, ironic twist in the spectropolitical “resuscitation” of Paine’s image.


Figure 21

George Cruikshank, Massacre at St Peters or “Britons Strike Home”!!! Published Thomas Tegg, 16 August 1819. BM Satires 13258 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 22

William Hone and George Cruikshank, ‘The People’, from The Political House that Jack Built (William Hone, 1819)


Figure 23

Title page of The Dorchester Guide, or a House that Jack Built (Printed and Published for the Author, 1820)


Figure 24

Title page of M. Adam, A Parody on the Political House that Jack Built; or The Real House that Jack Built (1820)

V. Resurrection Men


The apotheosis of Paine took a bizarrely literal twist in late 1819 when William Cobbett returned from self-exile in America with Paine’s disinterred bones. Cobbett was a spectacular convert to Paineite wisdom: in the 1790s Cobbett had been a virulent anti-Jacobin journalist who demanded an “antidote for all Tom’s theological and political poison” (Porcupine, 58. n.). But by 1819 Cobbett, though he was neither republican nor freethinking, had become England’s leading radical journalist, and his intention was to deposit Paine’s relics beneath a colossal commemorative statue. The plan for a radical pantheon never took off, though a trace of the idea can be seen in the republican symbolism of the frontispieces to Carlile’s periodical The Deist (Figure 25). These are the most sublime allegorical tributes to Paine’s “immortal” reputation as an Enlightenment thinker, but their impact was overshadowed by Cobbett’s hagiographical adventure. Cobbett’s display of secular reliquary, a surreal complement to Carlile and Sherwin’s biographical restoration of Paine’s body,[47] made Cobbett (and therefore Paine) a sitting duck for “skeletonic” humour.[48]


Figure 25

Frontispiece to Richard Carlile, The Deist Volume 1


The theatricality of Cobbett’s republican pilgrimage was caricatured in Robert Cruikshank’s mock-triumphal The Political Champion Turned Resurrection Man! (Figure 26). The print shows Cobbett flying back to Britain on the back of a demon, holding Paine’s bonnet-rouged skull like a trophy or talisman. The scene clearly echoes caricatures of Napoleon’s escape from Elba (the exiled Napoleon can be seen on the horizon, a bemused spectator), but the motif of the flying demon could also have been an sardonic appropriation of Paine’s comment that “The resurrection and ascension, supposing them to have taken place, admitted of public and ocular demonstration, like that of the ascension of a balloon” (1: 468). Robert Cruikshank also produced a companion piece, A Radical Reformer, in which a shabbily-dressed Cobbett walks down a country lane carrying a sack of Paine’s protruding bones on his back (Figure 27). Paine’s spectral possession of Cobbett is made clear from the words written on a sheet of paper trailing from Cobbett’s pocket: “Men – since I cannot succeed in writing against man, I must follow my worthy Predecessor Paine and write against God”. A gallows in the background is perhaps a chilling reminder of the loyalist alternative to radical deification – only a few years had passed since the restored Bourbon monarchy had allegedly exhumed the bodies of Voltaire and Rousseau from the Pantheon.[49] Another lively attack on Cobbett took the form of a narrative series called Sketches of the Billy Cobb, and the Death of Tommy Paine (Figure 28). This series revived the imagery of the Dance of Death and showed Cobbett in league with Death and the Devil.


Figure 26

Robert Cruikshank, The Political Champion Turned Resurrection Man! Published E. King, December 1819. BM Satires 13283 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 27

Robert Cruikshank, A Radical Reformer. Published S. W. Fores, December 1819. BM Satires 13284 © Trustees of the British Museum


Figure 28

Title page of Sketches of the Billy Cobb, and the Death of Tommy Paine (Printed for the Author, 1820) © Trustees of the British Museum


Cobbett’s veneration of Paine allowed loyalist caricaturists to convert radical martyrology into graveyard farce. Paine’s belief in a Deistical afterlife, a “future existence” which will take “any form or manner [God] pleases, either with or without this body” (1: 512) had come back to haunt him. But there is one final irony in the story of Paine’s “resurrection and ascension”. For all their prominence in the caricatures, Paine’s bones disappeared mysteriously in the 1830s.[50] This loss was a fitting conclusion to the Romantic spectralization of Paine’s image. The mystery of Paine’s final resting place, like his in absentia prosecutions in Britain, his miraculous escape from execution in France, and his disputed deathbed renunciation in America,[51] could only add to his cult status.[52]

Biographical Notice

Ian Haywood is Professor of English at Roehampton University, London. His most recent books are Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation 1776-1832 (Palgrave 2006) and The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics and the People 1790-1860 (Cambridge University Press, 2004). He is currently working on a series of articles on Romantic-period caricature, and editing (with John Seed) a collection of essays on the Gordon Riots, to be published by Cambridge University Press.




Clio Rickman, “Ode on the Anniversary of Thomas Paine’s Birth-Day, January the 29th, 1818”, Sherwin’s Political Register (1818), 2: 184-6; in Scrivener, 206-9.


The word “infidel” is problematic as it almost certainly began its discursive life as a term of abuse directed indiscriminately at Deists, freethinkers and atheists. However, the territory I am covering in this article is admirably summed up by Iain McCalman who notes that it was in “the wake of the French revolution” that “Deism, or popular radical freethought, was rapidly labelled ‘infidelism’ by its enemies and adherents alike, and soon boasted a series of enduringly influential texts” by Voltaire, Volney and “above all” by Paine (Iain McCalman, “Deism” in McCalman 2001, 480-1, 480). According to Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment “atheism” differed from the modern notion of disbelief in God in being “a far more sweeping concept” which rejected “belief in a personal God who created the world, ordained morality, and rewards and punishments in the hereafter” and left no room for what Locke called “the admittance of spirits” into the material world (Israel 2006, 164).


The best summary of Paine’s place within the “atheism debate” in the Romantic period is Priestman, 32-9, 207-17, though Priestman does not look at Paine’s impact and influence. The “infidel” Paine is still a neglected figure in Romantic studies, despite the fact that David Berman, in his survey of the history of atheism, calls the book “unquestionably the most famous and influential deistic work of that time, and probably of the whole English Enlightenment” (Berman, 128), and Iain McCalman identifies “popular Deism” as “one of the most important agencies for the popularization and transmission of Enlightenment Ideas” (McCalman 2001, 481). McCalman’s view contrasts with Jonathan Israel who states that the “Deist controversy” had “largely spent itself” by the mid-eighteenth century and “ceased to be central to British culture” – hence he omits any mention of the Age of Reason (Israel 2006, 352). Two recent additions to Cambridge University Press’s “Studies in Romanticism” series studies make only cursory references to Age of Reason: see Canuel, 39; White, 89.


See Haywood and Halliwell.


Vic Gatrell regards the second decade of the nineteenth century as the apex of the power of caricature, “an extraordinary act of cultural appropriation that for a time seemed set to transform the very nature of the satirist’s identity and calling” (Gatrell, 495). Diana Donald concurs: “satirical prints of the age of George III must have permeated the national consciousness far more widely and deeply than has been suspected” (Donald, 21). See also George, 179-86.


Behrendt, 189; Chandler, 15-22, 41-6, 79-85.


Worrall 2006, chapter 6; Worrall 2007, chapter 2; Swindells, chapter 6.


Haywood, chapter 1.


Barrell passim.


I have used the text of The Age of Reason in Foner. All page references are taken from this edition and are cited in parentheses..


John Toland, Christianity not Mysterious (1696), cited in Connolly, 184.


The other texts were: Examination of the Prophecies and Essay on Dreams (1807), Letter to Erskine (1797), Discourse delivered to the Society of Theophilanthropists (1797, published 1801), Essay on the Origins of Free-Masonry, and Letter to Camille Jordan on Priests, Bells, and Public Worship (1797).


Robert L. Patten notes that the “world turned upside down” is a “topos” with a long history (Patten,152).


John Keane states that Age of Reason was a “best-seller” in Britain and America, selling at least 100,000 copies in the US by 1797 (Keane, 399).


Richard Watson, An Apology for the Bible (1796), in Lorimer, 299.


The tract cost two pennies.


The Speech (At Length) of the Hon. T. Erskine,17. According to David Nash, this trial ‘marked the opening of the modern history’ of blasphemy (Nash, 77).


One of the first examples of anti-Paineite propaganda produced in the wake of the publication of The Rights of Man was a scurrilous or phantom biography by “Francis Oldys” (George Chalmers). Other phantom biographies were written by William Cobbett (under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine) in 1797 (at this stage in his career Cobbett was a virulent anti-Jacobin, a fact which makes his later role in the resurrection of Paine particularly ironic) and John S. Halford in 1819.


See Barrell and Mee, 1: 115. The trial of The Rights of Man was held in the Guildhall in London, 18 December 1792. Only 5 years later Erskine switched sides and prosecuted Thomas Williams for publishing The Age of Reason (Williams received a prison sentence of 3 years commuted to one year), which makes Erskine’s comparison between The Rights of Man and the preachings of Christ to those in a “lowly state” (ibid, 1: 54) particularly ironic.


Daniel Isaac Eaton was jailed for 18 months in 1811 for publishing the so-called “Third Part” of Age of Reason. This sentence provoked Shelley into writing A Letter to Lord Ellenborough (1812).


One anti-radical pamphlet described Carlile in terms that suggested the ghost of Paine was present in the court: “amidst the crowded Court, there were many unhappy individuals, who may have imbibed the poison he was attempting to disseminate” (Constitutional Remarks Addressed to the People of Great Britain, 4).


For the fullest account of the subculture of popular infidelism in the Romantic period, see McCalman, 1993, chapters 4 and 9. One periodical of particular importance was George Cannon’s Theological Inquirer (1815), which first published Shelley’s A Refutation of Deism and excerpts from other Deistical classics, a format copied by Carlile in his periodicals the Deist (1819-20) and the Newgate Monthly Magazine (1824-6). Joss Marsh notes wittily that Carlile’s publication of Age of Reason was a “Christmas present for 1818” which “must have seemed to the government like the return of the blasphemous repressed” (Marsh, 61).


William Godwin, “Of Religion” in Leader and Haywood, 76-7. Godwin’s essay was not published.


The hysterical counter-revolutionary backlash against The Rights of Man included the public burning of Paine’s effigy. See also his comment in The Age of Reason that “had Franklin drawn lightning from the clouds at the same time, it would have been at the hazard of expiring for it in the flames” (1: 494).


In A Letter to Lord Ellenborough (1812), Shelley commented scathingly on Ellenborough’s prosecution of Daniel Isaac Eaton: “If the law de heretico comburendo has not been formally repealed, I conceive that, from the promise held out by your Lordship’s zeal, we need not despair of beholding the flames of persecution rekindled in Smithfield”. See Clark, 75. Clark’s translation of the Latin phrase is “On the burning of heretics” (75, n.9). In the first of his three trials for blasphemy in December 1817, William Hone told the court “it was the proudest day of his life to stand there…for if he were guilty of blasphemy, he would go to the stake and burn as a blasphemer” (Carlile 1818, 14).


See also William Campion’s series of articles on “Religious Persecutions” which appeared in Carlile’s The Deist, 1: 49-58, 1: 245-51 and 1: 289-95, some of which include graphic eye-witness accounts of Inquisitorial burnings.


See Wood, 130-44. Wood calls the determination of radical publishers to keep Paine in print a “suicidal crusade” (138).


This pamphlet also reprinted a lecture by the radical Unitarian W. J. Fox in which Fox attacks the persecution of infidelity in these terms: “Christians, you kindle a flame in which yourselves may perish” (cited ibid, 40).


Royle 1976, xv. In another study of this subject, Royle concludes that “freethought publishing enjoyed over a century of continuity” (Royle 2003, 13). Wiener points out that, although the Government secured convictions of Carlile and his followers, these were the last prosecutions of Paine’s infidelism (Weiner, 96).


Paine, Essay on Dreams, (Foner 2: 855).


In 1802 James Thomson Callender’s Richmond newspaper The Recorder attacked President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for allowing Paine back into country. Callender’s brickbat was Paine’s scatological denunciation of the Annunciation: “they, as well as Paine, believe that the story of the birth of Jesus Christ is an OBSCENE BLASPHEMOUS FABLE” (cited in Keane, 462).


The Spectator 110 (Friday, 6 July 1711); Addison is quoting Josephus. See The Spectator, 1: 223. Addison’s remark appears on the cover of the anthology Life after Death; or the History of Apparitions, Ghosts, Spirits or Spectres (1758). The editor argues that the aim of “atheists, deists, and free-thinkers” is to “ridicule the notion of ghosts and apparitions” (iv). Anthologies of “true” ghost stories proliferated in this period. See The Complete Wizard; Being a Collection of authentic and entertaining Narratives of the real Existence and Appearance of Ghosts, Demons and Spectres (1770); another edition of the same text was published in same year with an alternative and revealing main title Evidences of the Kingdom of Darkness.


As Jonathan Israel shows, all eighteenth-century critiques of miracles owed a debt to the pioneering philosophy of Spinoza in the late seventeenth century: see Israel 2001, Chapters 12 and 33.


David Hume, “Of Miracles” in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, volume 3 of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, 3: 184, 182, 185, 184, 195, 196.


David Hume, “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm” in Essays Moral and Political (1756), 149.


Jon Mee argues that Paine’s impact on Deism was “less influential” than Volney (Mee 1992, 137-8). I doubt that this was the case, however, outside of polite culture.


See also his attempt to refute Hume in “The Evidences of Revealed Religion”, a chapter in Priestley 1782.


Compare Paine’s praise for the Quakers as the only sect which “does not unite itself to show and noise” (Letter to Camille Jordan, Foner 2: 758). He also notes that “Every new religion, like a new play, requires a new apparatus of dress and machinery, to fit the new characters it creates” (Essay on Dreams, Foner 2: 845).


On the development of Romantic phantasmagoria, see Myrone, 123, 146-50; Warner, chapter 11; Heard, chapters 5-8.


The print in the British Museum collection (BM Satires 8152) has a handwritten “Priestley” underneath the face.


See also Isaac Cruikshank’s Who Wants Me (26 December 1792; BM Satires 8146) which shows Paine carrying a heavy load of weapons on his back – it is possible that these are designed to resemble impish wings. The print was published just days after Paine’s effigy was burned in numerous towns in the south of England.


Simon Bainbridge has identified over 1000 caricatures of Napoleon in the Romantic period, and Bainbridge’s work establishes Napoleon firmly at the centre of the Romantic literary and visual imagination (4, 11, 15, 108-33, 147-52, 164-5, 183-6, 202).


The Dance of Death was reprinted many times in the Romantic period. See, for example, Emblems of Mortality; Represented in Upwards of Fifty Cuts, Death Seizing All Ranks and Degrees of People (1789); The Dance of Death; From the Original Designs of Hans Holbein. Illustrated with Thirty-Three Plates Engraved by W. Hollar (1816); The Dance of Death of the Celebrated Hans Holbein in a Series of Fifty-Two Engravings on Wood by Mr Bewick. With Letter-Press Illustrations (1825). Caricaturists turned to the figure of Death with great glee, and this interest culminated in Thomas Rowlandson’s The English Dance of Death, a collaboration with William Combe comprising 72 scenes of social satire. The series was published by Rudolph Ackermann in serial form in 1814-16, so it coincided exactly with the intensive caricature assault on the final stages of Napoleon’s career. The phantasmagoric skeletal figure of Death was also diffused through Romantic visual culture in the form of the Pale Rider of apocalyptic iconography: on this topic, see Bindman, 208-69.


See also Gillray’s A Phantasmagoria – Scene – Conjuring up an Armed Skeleton (1803) which attacks the Treat of Amiens by showing leading politicians summoning up a skeletonic Britannia from a cauldron fuelled by documents representing British territories (BM Satires 9962).


John Wardroper claims that the print could be “a mockery of extreme anti-radical propaganda” (Wardroper, 83).


On Cruikshank’s collaboration with Hone, see Patten, chapters 10-11; Wood, chapter 5. See also O’Connell, 145-8.


Sherwin; Carlile 1821.


Even Carlile, no doubt in a spirit of friendly rivalry, joked that Paine had become Cobbett’s “second self” (Carlile 1821, 27).


According to Roger Pearson, this mystery was only solved in 1897 when their tombs were opened and the bones of both heroes were found intact (Pearson, 415).


According to David A. Wilson, “After Cobbett died, his estate was declared bankrupt and his effects were put up to auction. The auctioneer refused to sell the bones, and what happened to them is anyone’s guess” (Wilson, 83, n. 116). Rumours abound, as a quick search of the internet will reveal. Edward Royle glosses the conundrum wittily by citing Paine quoting Deuteronomy on Moses: “no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day” (Royle 2003, 9).


The dying infidel was a prime target for anti-infidel propaganda which looked for evidence of last-minute repentance in the face of both an illegal burial and divine judgement. The precedent was established in 1778 when Voltaire lay dying in Paris: according to an early biography of Voltaire, “there seems to have been a kind of combat, between the priests and the philosophers, for the soul of M. de Voltaire” (Historical and Critical Memoirs of the Life and Writings of M. de Voltaire (1786), v-vi). As Roger Pearson notes, Voltaire’s enemies circulated “lurid, minatory tales about the agony of the damned” (Pearson, 390). This shabby rumour-mongering anticipated the attempts to sully Paine’s last moments. In the wake of Carlile’s revival of Paine’s The Age of Reason, “infidel death-bed” scenes became a contested mini-genre. One anti-infidel anthology declared that Paine perished “miserably”, a fitting end for a man whose works had “wrecked the faith of thousands” and “to which the pure and simple-minded allude only with a shudder or a sigh” (Neale, 13). The most prolific infidel anthology in the nineteenth century was G. W. Foote’s Infidel Death Beds (1886).


If Martin Priestman is correct to state that Age of Reason “largely began the ‘atheizing’ of working-class radicalism” (“Atheism”, in Leader and Haywood, 68), Paine’s legacy may be even more remarkable than he could have predicted. According to an essay in the recently published Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Martin 2007), those countries with highest levels of non-imposed atheism are among the “healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, and freest societies on earth”. See Phil Zuckerman, “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns” in Martin, 57.


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Author: Ian Haywood
Title: The Spectropolitics of Romantic Infidelism: Cruikshank, Paine, and The Age of Reason
Journal: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Number 54, May 2009
URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/038758ar
DOI: 10.7202/038758ar

Copyright © the authors and , 2009

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