William Godwin

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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...

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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, Godwin became a celebrity among the radical intellectuals, who saw his treatise as the definitive response (among some thirty others) to Burke’s reactionary Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), far exceeding (at the time) the impact of Thomas Paine’s earlier reply to Burke, The Rights of Man (1791, 1792). Godwin’s attacks on marriage, property, God, and the state were tempered by complex, anarchistic affirmations of individual freedom, cultural determinism, economic egalitarianism, and the liberating role of education—all of which, he claimed, nurtured a universal, moralistic benevolence among human beings. That he rejected God in favor of materialism and the authority of government in favor of individual moral judgment did not hinder his popularity among the liberals. Political societies purchased the book communally, and passages read aloud were frequently the centerpiece of meetings. In five years, the treatise went through three revised editions (1793, 1796, and 1798). So strongly stated were Godwin’s opinions that only Prime Minister William Pitt’s refusal to believe that a cheaply produced book could incite public political opinion prevented Godwin’s prosecution for treason.

Godwin was to continue in the center of intellectual debate for much of the 1790’s. His work appealed to young radicals and poets, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. His own literary reputation came with the publication of Things as They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), one of the first mystery novels. In it, Godwin fashioned one of the most memorable characters in English fiction of the period: Falkland, a man whose sense of honor leads him to betray his own moral standards when he chooses to murder rather than to lose his good name. In the didactic passages of the novel, Godwin achieved in fiction what his work in philosophy had accomplished: He further cemented his reputation as a tough-minded, controversial thinker.

In 1794, Godwin also intervened in a famous trial of parliamentary reformers, among them his old friend Thomas Holcroft and John Horne Tooke, one of the leading liberal scholars, who were charged with treason. His anonymously published Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury (1794) was widely attributed as leading to the acquittal of all twelve defendants. While he was studious and contemplative, Godwin never hesitated to involve himself actively in the public affairs of his day.

Continuing to enjoy his notoriety and to write pamphlets and essays as well as substantially revise his major work for its second edition, Godwin met Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796. Having left the American Captain Gilbert Imlay with her daughter Fanny Imlay to live with Godwin, Wollstonecraft, with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), had earned a reputation nearly as widespread as Godwin’s own. With compatible and complementary democratic philosophies, Godwin and Wollstonecraft became the epitome of London’s radical society. When she became pregnant, however, Godwin and Wollstonecraft shocked the radical intellectuals by announcing their marriage of March 29, 1797. Startled by the seeming contradiction to their ideals, previous followers—dismayed at their conventional response to the pregnancy—began to indulge in the critical rejection of Godwin and his ideas. With the birth, however, of their daughter Mary on August 30 (she would elope later with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley, much to Godwin’s disapproval, and become the famous author of Frankenstein, published in 1818), Wollstonecraft developed complications from the delivery, and she died on September 10, 1797.

The tragedy of Wollstonecraft’s death and the increasingly conservative reaction in England to the violent excesses of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon marked the onset of Godwin’s decline in reputation. Left with two small children and denounced by former supporters, Godwin—after having been rejected by several other women—married Mary Jane Clairmont, a widow with two children of her own, in 1801. He had continued, however, to write, publishing Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), a loving portrait edited anonymously, and St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), his second-best novel, which recast the character of Caleb Williams in medieval France. Burdened with literary quarrels, financial disasters, and an unhappy second marriage, Godwin produced a steady stream of books, including histories of Greece, Rome, and England and a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer as well as novels and plays; none of them, however well written, was a commercial success, and he was twice bankrupt. His previous stature with Wordsworth and Coleridge had disappeared, although Godwin had, by 1800, accepted a vague belief in theism as a result of his reflections on Coleridge’s philosophy. Shelley, who had provided generous financial support and who had assimilated much of Godwin’s radicalism into his poetry, outraged Godwin by eloping with his daughter, Mary, in 1814. When Fanny, his stepdaughter from the Wollstonecraft marriage, committed suicide in 1816 and Shelley married Mary at the end of the same year shortly after his wife’s death, Godwin had already been nearly forgotten by his contemporaries. Suffering a slight stroke in 1818, he did keep writing, but he was never again to have any but modest success.

Godwin outlived a son, William Godwin, by his second marriage, and it was not until 1822 that Mary Shelley (after her husband’s death in Italy) returned to care for him. While Godwin continued to write until two years before his death, his poverty went largely unrelieved until a minor government appointment in 1833. After three decades of personal disappointment and relative obscurity, Godwin died in London on April 7, 1836, and was buried beside Mary Wollstonecraft.


Of the nearly forty books which William Godwin published in his lifetime, only An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness and Things as They Are have survived to attest his genius. More often than not, Godwin is known primarily as the inspiration for Shelley’s ideas, the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and the father of Mary Shelley. Yet Godwin’s accomplishment was far greater than merely his association with more famous luminaries: His meteoric rise and fall in the 1790’s is a barometer for one of the most tumultuous decades in English history. Godwin’s synthesis of eighteenth century idealism and his systematic analysis of revolutionary democratic principles far exceeded the controversy and notoriety of his lifetime. Later democratic, communist, anarchist, and feminist theoreticians owe Godwin a considerable debt, for many of the most important developments in English liberal thought have their seeds in Godwin’s philosophical speculations.

While Godwin’s prose is likely to strike modern readers as pedantic and verbose, students of the Romantic period cannot omit him from their considerations. His work is informed by the dispute between reason and feeling, the optimism of the imagination, the imperative of the will, and the egalitarian idealism that were to characterize his age. Any reading of the Romantics ignores Godwin at its own peril, because Godwin—more than any thinker of the day—defined the major issues of his time, responded to them systematically, and speculated beyond mere paraphrase. Those ideas which so shocked conservatives and rallied liberals in the 1790’s—a just economic distribution of goods as prerequisite to a healthy democracy, marriage as an insidious form of property, the sanctity of individual morality, and the eventual waning of all formal government—seem almost commonplace in latter-day political thought. Perhaps Godwin’s optimistic faith in individual reason as more important than social and political institutions is his enduring legacy, both unique in its thorough consideration and speculative presentation and entirely representative of the revolutionary turmoil in his era.


Brailsford, H. N. Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1951. Rigorous analysis of the intellectual and political climate in the 1780’s and 1790’s. Locates and defines the major currents and conflicts in relation to Godwin and Shelley. Includes balanced discussions of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. Excellent on the English reaction to the French Revolution.

Brown, Ford K. The Life of William Godwin. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1926. Sympathetic but detached scholarly biography; a basic introduction to Godwin’s ideas, but limited in its reliance on anecdote and in its intellectual and literary analysis. More thorough on the formative years than other biographies. Good bibliography of primary materials.

Fleisher, David. William Godwin: A Study in Liberalism. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1951. Best analysis yet published of Godwin’s ideas and system. Commentary well supported by generous quotation from critically important passages. More thorough in discussion and clarification of political thought and philosophical ideas than in evaluation of those ideas in Godwin’s use of them in his literary works.

Grylls, Rosalie G. William Godwin and His World. London: Odhams, 1953. Average in biographical data and limited information on later life, but excellent discussion of social and political milieu in which Godwin rose to fame. Scholarly analysis links Godwin with the thought of the late Enlightenment era rather than with the Romantics of the early nineteenth century.

Hazlitt, William. The Spirit of the Age: Or, Contemporary Portraits. In The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, edited by P. P. Howe, 21 vols. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1930-1934. The most complete account of Godwin and his friends from his own time, originally published in 1825. Often rhetorical and satirical, the anecdotes relate Godwin to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Hazlitt’s own style reveals the controversial attitudes that surrounded Godwin.

Paul, Charles Kegan. William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries. 2 vols. London: Henry S. King and Co., 1876. Still the best source for Godwin’s journals, letters, and autobiographical writings. Commentary at times is overly sympathetic and eulogistic but gathers basic biographical data; attests Godwin’s later stature. The only available source for much of Godwin’s personal writing, yielding anecdotes on the Romantic poets.

Preu, James Arthur. The Dean and the Anarchist. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1959. Excellent study of Jonathan Swift’s influence on Godwin. Provides a lucid summary of the philosophical and political debates in the social climate that pushed Godwin to the writing of his major work. Scholarly and balanced; focuses on the primary ideas, summarizing them clearly and succinctly.

Smith, Elton E., and Esther G. Smith. William Godwin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965. Scanty in biographical data, but offers a thorough overview and accessible discussion of the political theory. Includes discussions of novels, plays, and children’s books usually omitted from other studies. Good on elucidating the political ideas as they are applied in later literary works. Good bibliography of secondary studies.

Woodcock, George. William Godwin: A Biographical Study with a Foreword by Herbert Read. London: Porcupine, 1946. Scholarly and balanced but accessible presentation of both the life and ideas. More sympathetic to liberal traditions than Brown’s earlier biography (see above). Excellent in establishing Godwin as a seminal thinker who is important to later developments in liberalism and in relating Godwin to and distinguishing him from other liberals in his own time.


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The image of the prism might best exemplify the multifaceted mind of William Godwin (1756–1836). Isaac Newton's experiments in optics demonstrated that a beam of light, refracted by a prism, consisted of different types of light moving at different speeds, thus creating the colors that we are equipped to interpret. Born into a century that valued heightened rationality and even required that individual reason and judgment become fully directed toward the goal of perfecting human society, Godwin filtered many of the powerful forces of history, revolution, science, and the arts of his age and rendered a rich personalized account of their effects in articles, pamphlets, books, novels, and other forms of expression.

His own childhood experiences indicated the type of inquiring mind Godwin would develop. As a dissenting minister, John Godwin, William's father, left one ministry for another, not afraid to go where his freethinking tendencies led him. William himself would repeat his father's history as he, too, looked within himself and his judgement for the "assent" that would allow him to accept one belief system over another. For instance, he often changed schools based on his different affiliations with different belief systems. By 1782, Godwin's disagreements with the congregations to which he ministered led him to London. His beliefs ranged from deism to atheism, but his conversations with Samuel Taylor Coleridge would lead him back to the comfort of an informed agnosticism.

In London, Godwin affiliated himself with the Whig Party and wrote assessments of the political developments of his period, such as "History of the Life of William Pitt" (1783) and "Defense of the Rockingham Party" (1783). In 1785, Godwin was an established essayist for the Whig cause, which embraced such policies as increased power for Parliament and acceptance of religious dissenters. Catholic Emancipation, which gained ground in the early nineteenth-century, would be conditioned by Godwin's earlier writings that championed the separation of government and church. Godwin also produced short novels such as "Imogen: A Pastoral Romance" (1784) based on British prehistory, marking one trend in the development of Romanticism. As the French Revolution gained in momentum, Godwin associated himself with radical elements of the Jacobin party and witnessed government crackdowns on dissent. By 1792, Godwin, well-known in dissenting circles, met Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women."

Godwin is known for what is called his political anarchism, a system more fully expressed in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). In this pathbreaking book, Godwin carries his faith in rationalism to a logical conclusion by asserting the need for the individual to fully develop his or her capacity for reason and judgment; only then could one be a freethinking, moral agent who is independent of the strictures of church and government. His relationship with the protofeminist Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796, and marriage to her in 1797, demonstrates the evolution of his egalitarianism in far reaching ways.

His novel Caleb Williams (1794) is a dramatization of the concepts put forth in his theoretical writings. The protagonist, Caleb Williams, is subject to innumerable examples of the illogical and inhuman treatment people mete out to one another. It is also a fascinating protopsychological analysis of the ways in which structures of power become embedded in the psyche of individuals whose own ideals and virtues evolve within those structures. Thus, the most benevolent and idealistic of men, Falkland, becomes the greatest of tyrants. The philosophical captain of the thieves, Mr. Raymond, despite his belief in living outside the system of lawful justice and abiding by an equally valid honor code, is a slave, so to speak, of that system. Caleb himself, a kind of mole who burrows through the brick and mortar of the prisons and the human wreckage of the system of justice, in one ending of the novel is paralyzed, like a paranoiac, by the sense of having the "eye" of justice pursue him into the grave. He imagines his one monument to be a sterile obelisk, symbolic of the crushing weight of a moribund, antirational, inhuman power structure.

As a major figure in English literary and political circles, Godwin would interact with many of the major writers of the period. He was noted as a "spirit of the age" and was embraced by revolutionaries and rejected by the forces of reaction. His daughter Mary Shelley would reinvent a Caleb for a new generation, one of the most famous stories of all times, Frankenstein. His belief in rationalism was a product of his period, and his productivity was a mark of genius.

His novel Caleb Williams, though, from a slightly different perspective, exposes the weaknesses of a rationalist philosophy as a guide to a better society. If we accept the published ending to the novel, it requires that we accept that after perhaps a year of pursuing Caleb with the intensity of a demon, Falkland has a sudden conversion to his old benevolent self and embraces Caleb whose sufferings and acceptance of his own guilt move him to tears. Such an ending is miraculous. If we prefer the manuscript ending, we are faced with little or no exit from "things as they are." In that regard, the novel—and perhaps Godwin himself—presages a major theme of Romanticism: it is the imagination that is required to complete the work of life. Or, to paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we must predict catastrophe but pray and imagine blessings.


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