Caleb Williams is set in a time of great political change in England. Revolution in America had deprived England of the wealth of her colony on that continent, and the revolution in France threatened all of Europe with war, economic uncertainty, and political chaos. To raise money for its national debt, the British government demanded new taxes from every class. Opposed to the Tories, the Whig Party at this time tended to champion the role of Parliament in achieving a measure of control over taxation and policy making. Thus the "old" wealth of the aristocracy and the "new" wealth derived from middle-class industrial investment found a common cause in safeguarding what were considered to be older English "liberties."
William Godwin, who began his political activism in support of the reform-minded Whigs, would move further toward the radical fringe of politics by promoting political anarchism. His characterization of the landed gentry in Caleb Williams, the tyranny of Tyrrel, and the liberality and benevolence of Tyrrel's opposite, Falkland, posit how political systems can lead to the suppression and corruption of the individual. Caleb Williams can thus be seen as a dramatization of Godwin's earlier theoretical book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).
Current readers of Caleb Williams can find fascinating parallels between the world of Godwin and the global war on terrorism. Faced with unprecedented violence in revolutionary France and insecurities about homeland defense and assaults on the very fabric of English political life, the government cracked down on dissent and so-called "Jacobin" or Francophile and radical segments of the population, which resulted in the suspension of habeas corpus (1794) and the creation of various legal stratagems by which charges of treason could be brought against writers and intellectuals considered subversive to English society.
Predictably, Godwin supported many of those figures who were unfairly charged, and his concerns show up in his writings. Caleb...
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