William Godwin Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Having evolved in his thinking from a radical Protestant position to the revolutionary, atheistic synthesis of the massive treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, Godwin developed the ideas of libertarian socialism that were to influence profoundly both the individualism of English Romanticism and the later anarchistic, communist ideas of the utopian Robert Owen, the Socialist economist William Thompson, and the young Karl Marx. His friendship with and marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft contributed to early feminist thought, and his ideas stimulated nearly all the Romantic poets.

Early Life

William Godwin was born at Wisbech, a small town in Cambridgeshire, on March 3, 1756. The seventh of thirteen children of John Godwin, a Dissenting minister in the Calvinist tradition like his father before him, the young Godwin moved with his family to Debenham in 1758 and to Guestwick in Norfolk in 1760. At the age of eight, Godwin began three years of school at Hindolveston near Guestwick; in 1767, he began three years of private tutoring in classical education with the Calvinist preacher Samuel Newton at Norwich. When Godwin was fifteen, he returned to Hindolveston, serving for nearly a year as an usher in a small school administered by his former teacher, Robert Akers. After the death of his father on November 12, 1772, Godwin moved with his mother to London in April, 1773. He had intended to enter Homerton Academy, but he was rejected for his Sandemanian views (which opposed the authority of church and state), espoused a belief in communal property, and endorsed the progressive reform of individual morality and action.

Accepted for training in the ministry at Hoxton Academy, a Dissenting college founded because of the refusal of the established universities to admit Nonconformists, Godwin spent the next five years completing his formal education. Continuously under the influence of the Sandemanians (a sect that had been expelled by the Presbyterians) and resisting the liberal views of noted scholar Andrew Kippis, Godwin was graduated from Hoxton in 1777 and became a Sandemanian minister in East Anglia and Home Counties from 1778 to 1783. At Hoxton, he had gained a reputation for his immodest passion in intellectual argument, often asserting an unusual view that combined Tory conservatism, radical Calvinist theology, and materialistic philosophy. Diligent and disciplined, Godwin rose at five in the morning and often engaged in heated metaphysical discussions until after midnight. While he was generally regarded as sensitive and respectful, his fellow students noted his hunger for recognition and his obsession for winning arguments, usually with a seemingly cold detachment. Godwin was neither a particularly gifted debater nor a spontaneous conversationalist; his intellectual genius was more the product of deliberate study and dedicated willpower than intuitive insights.

In an era when religious dissent was also political dissent, Godwin attempted to carry on the profession of his father; in 1777, he preached at Yarmouth each Sunday morning and at Lowestoft each afternoon. In 1778, he secured his first regular appointment as Dissenting minister in Ware, Hertfordshire; Godwin, however, was not a popular minister and, in 1779, left Ware for London, where he attended speeches by leading politicians, among them Charles James Fox (the emerging leader of the Whig Party) and Edmund Burke (the leading Tory spokesman). Moving freely and engaging in discussions within various radical circles, Godwin soon exhausted his meager savings and had to leave London later in 1779 in order to support himself as a minister at Stowmarket in Suffolk.

Godwin’s reading over the next three years was to change profoundly his religious and political views, although he was to carry many of his Sandemanian views into his secular philosophy. After reading the political discourses of Jonathan Swift and the Latin historians, Godwin became convinced that monarchy was a corrupt system, and his Tory beliefs eroded rapidly. As a result of reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Claude Adrien Helvétius, and Baron d’Holbach, Godwin’s faith not only in Calvinism but also in the existence of God was so severely shaken that, by 1782, he could no longer sustain the ministry at Stowmarket, resigning after a minor dispute regarding church discipline.

Godwin left Stowmarket for London, hoping to pursue a literary career, but he was unsuccessful and was forced to accept a post as clergyman at Beaconsfield in 1783. Despite retaining his theological role there until 1788, he was determined to develop his writing career. From 1783 to 1789, he wrote (often anonymously) three novels (none of which has survived), a number of pamphlets, a biography of William Pitt, a prospectus for a private-school curriculum, political commentaries for a Whig review, and historical entries for the liberal New Annual Register, edited by his former tutor Kippis and published by George Robinson. Relieved from poverty—despite his writing, preaching, and tutoring in the early 1780’s—by Robinson’s employment of him, his role seemed to be that of a modestly successful hack writer.

By the age of thirty-one and as a result of conversations from 1787 to 1789 with Thomas Holcroft, a republican reformer, Godwin had become essentially an atheist. Dropping his title “Reverend” and breaking with his orthodox family, the short, stocky Godwin presented the figure of a self-absorbed, contemplative, even aloof, soberly dressed man of dignity and detachment. His large brow, long nose, and pointed chin seemed indicative of an overbearing intellectual, but Godwin was, for the most part, unknown and unrecognized among most of his intellectual contemporaries in 1789.

Life’s Work

Like many of the liberals in England, Godwin responded to the onset of the French Revolution, the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, with an enthusiastic participation in meetings and sympathetic approval of the Jacobins (violent French extremists in the revolution). As the revolution proceeded, Godwin welcomed the declaration of France as a republic by the National Convention in 1792. He had, however, characteristically already turned his industriousness to going beyond even the consensual views of the radicals with whom he associated. In July, 1791, he had persuaded Robinson to take the unusual step of supporting him while he pursued a philosophical treatise on political justice. With an unflagging faith in reason, a belief in the gradual, inevitable perfection of humanity, and an egalitarian view of economics and politics which denounced the identification of private property with happiness, Godwin spent the next eighteen months defining and developing his ideas.

In January, Godwin published his most important work, the eight-volume An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). Almost overnight,...

(The entire section is 2890 words.)