In an 1817 review of Shelley's The Revolt of Islam, Leigh Hunt observed that “although the art of printing is not new, yet the Press in any great and true sense of the word is a modern engine in the comparison, and the changeful times of society have never yet been accompanied with so mighty a one. Books did what was done before; they have now a million times the range and power.”
This unprecedented “range and power” is echoed in Hazlitt's claim in his Life of Napoleon that “the French Revolution might be described as the remote but inevitable result of the invention of the art of printing.” On first sight, these early nineteenth-century assertions about printing's modernity must appear anachronistic. After all, neither printing nor its widespread dissemination were new in the nineteenth century – as Hunt himself notes. On closer inspection, however, Hunt's and Hazlitt's claims have less to do with technological innovation than the effects of the emergence of the mass reading public. Their point, in other words, is that while print technology was by no means new, it took the appearance of new classes of readers to realize print's full potential.
For Hunt and Hazlitt, the new scope of the press's influence was a salutary sign of democratization. As Hazlitt contends, when “the world (that dread jury) are impannelled, and called to look on and be umpires in the scene, so that nothing is done by connivance or in a corner, then reason mounts the judgment-seat in lieu of passion or interest, and opinion becomes law, instead of arbitrary will.”