William Godwin

William Godwin books and biography


William Godwin

William Godwin
William Godwin

William Godwin (3 March 1756 – 7 April 1836) was an English journalist, political philosopher and novelist. He is considered one of the first exponents of utilitarianism, and one of the first modern proponents of anarchist, or at least minarchist, philosophy. Godwin is most famous for two books that he published within the space of a year: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, an attack on political institutions, and Things as They Are: The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which attacks aristocratic privilege, but also is virtually the first mystery novel. Based on the success of both, Godwin featured prominently in the radical circles of London in the 1790s. In the ensuing conservative reaction to British radicalism, Godwin was attacked, in part because of his relationship to the pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and his candid biography of her after her death; their child, Mary Godwin, later Shelley, authored Frankenstein and married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Despite attacks on his reputation, Godwin wrote prolifically in several genres (novels, history, demography) right up to his death. With his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, he wrote children's primers on biblical and classical history, which he published along with such works as Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare. While Godwin is sometimes seen as the founder of philosophical anarchism, he also has had considerable influence on British literature and literary culture.


Early Life and Education

Born at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, Godwin's family on both sides were middle-class people, and it was probably only as a joke that he, a stern political reformer and philosophical radical, attempted to trace his pedigree to a time before the Norman Conquest to the great earl, Godwine. Both parents (John and Anne Godwin) were strict Calvinists. His father, a Nonconformist minister, died young, and never inspired love or much regret in his son; but in spite of wide differences of opinion, tender affection always subsisted between William Godwin and his mother, until her death at an advanced age.

William Godwin was educated for his father's profession at Hoxton Academy, where he studied under Andrew Kippis the biographer and Dr Abraham Rees of the Cyclopaedia. He was at first more Calvinistic than his teachers, becoming a Sandemanian, or follower of John Glas, whom he describes as a celebrated north-country apostle who, after Calvin had "damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, has contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin."

He then acted as a minister at Ware, Stowmarket and Beaconsfield. At Stowmarket the teachings of the French philosophers were brought before him by a friend, Joseph Fawcet, who held strong republican opinions. He came to London in 1782, still nominally a minister, to regenerate society with his pen — a real enthusiast, who shrank theoretically from no conclusions from the premises which he laid down. He adopted the principles of the Encyclopaedists, and his own aim was the complete overthrow of all existing institutions, political, social and religious. He believed, however, that calm discussion was the only thing needful to carry every change, and from the beginning to the end of his career he deprecated every approach to violence. He was a philosophic radical in the strictest sense of the term.

Early Writing

His first published work was an anonymous Life of Lord Chatham (1783). He published under his own name Sketches of History (1784), consisting of six sermons on the characters of Aaron, Hazael and Jesus, in which, though writing in the character of an orthodox Calvinist, he enunciates the proposition "God Himself has no right to be a tyrant." Introduced by Andrew Kippis, he began to write in 1785 for the New Annual Register and other periodicals, producing also three novels now forgotten. His main contributions for the "Annual Register" were the Sketches of English History he wrote annually, which were yearly summaries of domestic and foreign political affairs. He joined a club called the "Revolutionists," and associated much with Lord Stanhope, Horne Tooke and Holcroft.

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Caleb Williams

In 1793, while the French Revolution was in full swing, Godwin published his great work on political science, Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Political Justice was extremely influential in its time: after Burke and Paine, Godwin's was the most popular written response to the French Revolution. Godwin's work was seen by many as illuminating a middle way between the fiery extremes of both Burke and Paine. Prime Minister William Pitt famously said that there was no need to censor it, because at over £1 it was too costly for the average Englishman to buy. However, as was the practice at the time, numerous "corresponding societies" took up Political Justice, either sharing it or having it read to the illiterate members. Eventually, it sold over 4000 copies and brought literary fame to Godwin.

Godwin augmented the influence of the Political Justice with his publication of an equally popular novel, Things as They Are or the Adventures of Caleb Williams, which tells the story of a servant who finds out a dark secret about Falkland, his aristocratic master, and is forced to flee because of his knowledge. Caleb Williams is essentially the first thriller: Godwin wryly remarked that some readers were consuming in a night what took him over a year to write. Not the least of its merits is a portrait of the English justice system at the time and a prescient picture of domestic espionage. Yet Godwin's strenuous Calvinism still obtains, if in secular form. At the conclusion of the novel, when Caleb Williams finally confronts Falkland, the encounter fatally wounds the Lord, who immediately admits the justness of Williams' cause. Far from feeling release or happiness, Williams only sees the destruction of someone who remains for him a noble, if fallen person. Implicitly, Caleb Williams ratifies Godwin's assertion that society must be reformed in order for individual behavior to be reformed, an emphasis that allies him more with Marxism and anarchism than liberalism. His literary method, as he described it in the introduction to the novel, also was influential: Godwin began with the conclusion of Caleb being chased through England and Ireland and developed the plot backwards. Dickens and Poe both commented on Godwin's ingenuity in doing this.

Political Writing

Later, in response to a treason trial of some of his fellow English Jacobins, among them Thomas Holcroft, Godwin wrote Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, October 2, 1794 where he forcefully argued that that the prosecution's concept of "constructive treason" allowed a judge to construe any behavior as treasonous. It paved the way for a major, but mostly moral, victory for the Jacobins, as they were acquitted. However, Godwin's own reputation was eventually besmirched after 1798 by the conservative press, in part because he chose to write a candid biography of his dead wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, including accounts of her two suicide attempts and her affair with Gilbert Imlay, which resulted in the birth of Fanny Imlay. Godwin, consistent in his theory and stubborn in his practice, practically lived in secret for 30 years because of his reputation. However, in its influence, on writers like Shelley, Kropotkin, and others, Political Justice takes its place with Milton's Areopagitica, Locke's Essay on Education and Rousseau's Emile as an anarchist and libertarian text.

Interpretation of Political Justice

By the words "political justice" the author meant "the adoption of any principle of morality and truth into the practice of a community," and the work was therefore an inquiry into the principles of society, of government and of morals. For many years Godwin had been "satisfied that monarchy was a species of government unavoidably corrupt," and from desiring a government of the simplest construction, he gradually came to consider that "government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of original mind," demonstating anti-statist beliefs that would later be considered minarchist, or perhaps even anarchist.

Believing in the perfectibility of the race, that there are no innate principles, and therefore no original propensity to evil, he considered that "our virtues and our vices may be traced to the incidents which make the history of our lives, and if these incidents could be divested of every improper tendency, vice would be extirpated from the world." All control of man by man was more or less intolerable, and the day would come when each man, doing what seems right in his own eyes, would also be doing what is in fact best for the community, because all will be guided by principles of pure reason.

Such optimism combined with a strong empiricism to support Godwin's belief that the evil actions of men were solely reliant on the corrupting influence of social conditions, and that changing these conditions could remove the evil in man. This is similar to the ideas of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, concerning the shortcomings of women being down to their discouraging upbringings.

Godwin did not believe that all coercion and violence was immoral per se, as Bakunin and Tolstoy did, but rather recognised the need for government in the short term and hoped that the time would come when it would be unnecessary. Thus, he was a minarchist rather than an anarchist. Neither was he as extreme an egalitarian as most anarchists are, but he simply thought that discrimination on grounds other than ability was immoral; his moral case of saving the Archbishop of Canterbury before his mother from a burning house is seen as abhorrent by many egalitarians.

Attack By (and Upon) Malthus

As part of the British conservative reaction that was precipitated by Napoleon's campaign in the Alps in 1798 , Thomas Robert Malthus wrote his An Essay on the Principle of Population in which Godwin's views on the "perfectibility of society" plays a predominant role as a target. (Malthus had previously been a member of the same radical circles as Godwin, and pitched his attack on British radicalism as that of a disillusioned disciple.) Unlike Godwin, Malthus, using what has come to be considered rather specious statistics, predicted impending doom because of a geometrically rising world-wide population and arithmetically increasing food supply. While Godwin’s Political Justice acknowledged that an increase in the standard of living via his proposals could cause population pressures, he saw an obvious solution to avoiding such a crisis: “project a change in the structure of human action, if not of human nature, specifically the eclipsing of the desire for sex by the development of intellectual pleasures” [1]. Indeed it was this “principle of population” that provoked Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798.

Godwin did not officially respond to Malthus for over twenty years. In 1820, Godwin published Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, as a rebuttal to Malthus’s attack on Political Justice. Godwin refers to Malthus’s theory as a “house of cards” that Malthus “neither proves nor attempts to prove” [1]. Godwin’s main objection was Malthus’s sweeping ascription of the rate of population growth in America as a worldwide phenomenon. Godwin finds that such a proposition must be accepted solely as a matter of faith on the part of Malthus’s reader. On the contrary, Godwin attested to the verifiable fact that much of the Old World was at a stand in population growth. Furthermore, Godwin believed that the abundance of uncultivated land and continued technological advances made fears of overpopulation even more unjustifiable.

In an era where many children did not survive to maturity, Godwin believed that for population to double every twenty-five years as Malthus asserted would require every married couple to have at least eight children. Although Godwin himself was one of thirteen children, he did not observe the majority of couples having eight children. Godwin concludes his rebuttal with the following challenge: "In reality, if I had not taken up the pen with the express purpose of confuting all the errors of Mr Malthus’s book, and of endeavouring to introduce other principles, more cheering, more favourable to the best interests of mankind, and better prepared to resist the inroads of vice and misery, I might close my argument here, and lay down the pen with this brief remark, that, when this author shall have produced from any country, the United States of North America not excepted, a register of marriages and births, from which it shall appear that there are on an average eight births to a marriage, then, and not till then, can I have any just reason to admit his doctrine of the geometrical ratio." [1].

The Fate of Godwin's Radicalism

While his work was considered unacceptably radical at the time, it is surprising how many of his radical ideas are now commonly accepted across the West. Examples include:

  • People should only be judged on their abilities.
  • War should only be allowed to protect a country's liberties or the liberties of another country.
  • Colonialism is immoral.
  • Democracy is more efficient than other forms of government, as it allows everyone to voice their opinion, rather than centralising power in a fallible monarch. However, majority rule places individual liberty of those in the minority in jeopardy.
  • Government close to the people is best.
  • Individuals should give to others in need.
  • Rehabilitation should be provided for criminals.
  • One should have a sphere of private judgement over issues that do not threaten the security of other people, as opposed to the legislated Christianity of his time.
  • Censorship prevents the truth from being recognised and should only be used when there is an immediate security risk.

His critique of state education is something that has not been widely accepted, except by libertarians. It also runs counter to Wollstonecraft's own proposal for state-supported education in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

All his radical reforms were to be done by discussion, and matured change resulting from discussion. Hence, while Godwin thoroughly approved of the philosophic schemes of the precursors of the Revolution, he was as far removed as Burke himself from agreeing with the way in which they were carried out. So logical and uncompromising a thinker as Godwin could not go far in the discussion of abstract questions without exciting the most lively opposition in matters of detailed opinion. An affectionate son, and always ready to give some of his hard-earned income to more than one poor brother, he maintained that natural relationship had no claim on man, nor was gratitude to parents or benefactors any part of justice or virtue. In a day when the penal code was still extremely severe, he argued gravely against all punishments[2], not only that of death. Property was to belong to those who most wanted it. However, he still saw a need for some respect for other people's belongings, as this was seen as part of their "right to private judgement", which he valued highly.

Godwin's essays advocating a society without government that are considered some of the first, if not the first, anarchist treatises. As such, some consider the liberal British writer to be the "father of philosophical anarchism." He advocates an extreme form of individualism, proposing that all sorts of cooperation in labor should be eliminated; he says: "everything understood by the term co-operation is in some sense an evil." Godwin's individualism is to such a radical degree that he even opposes individuals performing together in orchestras. The only apparent exception to this opposition to cooperation is the spontaneous association that may arise when a society is threatened by violent force. One reason he opposes cooperation is he believes it to interfere with an individual's ability to be benevolent for the greater good. Godwin opposes the existence of government and expressly opposes democracy, fearing oppression of the individual by the majority (though he believes democracy to be preferable to dictatorship). Godwin supports individual ownership of property, defining it as "the empire to which every man is entitled over the produce of his own industry." However, he does advocate that individuals give to each other their surplus property on the occasion that others have a need for it, without involving trade (see gift economy). This was to be based on utilitarian principles; he says: "Every man has a right to that, the exclusive possession of which being awarded to him, a greater sum of benefit or pleasure will result than could have arisen from its being otherwise appropriated." However, benevolence was not to be enforced but a matter of free individual "private judgement." He does not advocate a community of goods or assert collective ownership as is embraced in communism, but his belief that individuals ought to share with those in need was influential on anarchist communism later. Communist-anarchist Peter Kropotkin says in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica that Godwin "entirely rewrote later on his chapter on property and mitigated his communist views in the second edition of Political Justice."

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopędia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. Based on the entry from 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica.


  1. ^ a b c Medema , Steven G., and Warren J. Samuels. 2003. The History of Economic Thought: A Reader. New York: Routledge.
  2. ^ Godwin did not call for the immediate end to punishment. He opposed the idea that it was a moral imperative to punish someone, which was the common view of his day, and rejected the religious laws interfering with one's personal life. He spoke of three justifications for punishment: deterrence, rehabilitation and security for the rest of society. He hoped that the day would come when there would be no need to punish on these grounds.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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Caleb Williams

Caleb Williams

Damon And Delia

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Book 1

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Book 2

Four Early Pamphlets

Legislative And Executive Power, Book 5

Of Property

By William Godwin

Of Property
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