William Godwin was born to a Dissenting minister, the seventh of thirteen children. He was reared according to strict Calvinist principles. Physically disadvantaged and intellectually precocious, Godwin began the first of four trial ministries on graduation from London’s famous Hoxton Academy. The sermons and personality of the aloof and cerebral Godwin invariably disaffected the small rural congregations to which he was assigned.
Furthermore, beginning around 1780, Godwin’s faith in God was eroded by his reading of French philosophers such as Voltaire. Moving to London, Godwin soon involved himself both with the Whig Party and with the radicals. He breakfasted with the noted feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and with Thomas Paine, reading the latter’s The Rights of Man (1791-1792) in manuscript. Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the events of the French Revolution all contributed to the thoughts expounded in Godwin’s most famous theoretical work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), a book that made its author the best-known radical political philosopher of his day. Godwin’s most famous novel, Caleb Williams, was undertaken as a case study of the principles outlined in this theoretical work. A friend of Godwin, imprisoned in Newgate for sedition in an example of the kind of injustice Godwin was protesting, read the novel in one night. Godwin had the courage to...
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