December 9

Richard Carlile (1790)

It was on this date, December 9, 1790, that rebel publisher and Freethought fighter Richard Carlile was born in Ashburton, Devon, the son of a shoemaker who abandoned the family four years later. He received some education at a Church of England school, then took to work, marrying and starting a family in London. Hard economic times prompted Carlile to attend political meetings and read Thomas Paine: he soon became an advocate of government reform.

As a publisher Carlile hit upon the clever idea of taking reformer works such as Paine's Rights of Man, splitting them up, and selling them as multi-part pamphlets. He began publishing a radical newspaper, The Republican, which featured the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. On 16 August 1819, Carlile was asked to attend a meeting with reformer Henry Hunt and witnessed the Peterloo Massacre, in which the cavalry broke up the meeting and killed eleven attendees. When Carlile criticized the government brutality, he was arrested and imprisoned for blasphemy (for publishing Paine's Age of Reason) and seditious libel (for criticizing the government).

While in prison, Carlile continued to direct The Republican, which was run by his wife until she was arrested, then run by her sister until she was arrested. Increasingly desperate, the government levied a tax on cheap newspapers, making them unaffordable for working men. In all, Carlile spent nine years and four months in jail. He emerged from prison in 1825, a firm supporter of equal rights for women: his Every Woman's Book (1826) advocated birth control and the sexual emancipation of women. Britain's Dictionary of National Biography says Carlile "did more than any other Englishman of his day for the freedom of the Press." It could be said that his energy and ingenuity literally exhausted his persecutors.

Like Thomas Paine, the writer who converted him, Carlile was a Deist, but some of his supporters, such as John Stuart Mill, might have described him as an Atheist. He died on 20 February 1843 and was memorialized by many supporters. It was Richard Carlile who said, "The fable of a god or gods visiting the earth did not originate with Christianity."*

* Quoted in Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, 1945, repr. 1972.

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John Milton (1608)

It was also on this date, December 9, 1608, that the second greatest English poet, John Milton, was born in London. Best known for his 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton had turned away from study for the ministry and toward letters. He is known widely as a "great Christian poet," but his Paradise Lost is a brilliant failure: it attempts to rationalize the childish and melodramatic Christian story of devils, who refused blind worship of God, fighting for the souls of men. Catholic writer Hippolyte Taine remarked, as many have since, "The finest thing about this Paradise is its hell."

Reading beyond Paradise Lost, however, you are left with the impression that Milton was one of the strongest advocates for freedom of speech and thought in 1600s Europe, particularly for his Aeropagitica (1644). Two centuries later, the historian Thomas Macaulay noted from Milton's writings — especially De Doctrina Christiana — that he was "emancipated from the influence of authority," and authored "heterodox views on the nature of the Deity and the eternity of matter."

It was John Milton who said, "The greatest burden in the world is superstition, not only of ceremonies in the church, but of imaginary and scarecrow sins at home,"* and also, "Romanism is less a religion than a priestly tyranny armed with the spoils of civil power which, on the pretext of religion, it hath seized against the command of Christ himself."**

* Quoted in A Complete Collection of the Historical, Political, and Miscellaneous Works of John Milton, vol. 1, p. 277.
** John Milton, Treatise on Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes, 1659.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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