This classic work by William Paley was one of the most popular books in England and America in the early nineteenth century. Its significance lies in the fact that it marks an important point at which eighteenth-century “whiggism” began to be transformed into nineteenth-century “liberalism.” But the popularity of the book also reflected the fact that Paley expressed some of the leading scientific, theological, and ethical ideas of his time and place.
In this respect, Paley’s great classic provides valuable insight into the Anglo-American mind of the early nineteenth century and helps us better understand the thinking processes and evolving concepts of liberty and virtue that were displacing the old “whiggism” of the preceding century. In his political theory, Paley rejected social contract theory and substituted instead a natural history of civil society. His opposition to electoral reform, and, later, the French Revolution, became part of a larger ideological discourse that helped the British elites withstand the revolutionary currents of the 1790s.