Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911
GODWIN, WILLIAM - (1756—1836), English political and miscellaneous writer, son of a Nonconformist minister, was born on the 3rd of March 1756, at Wisbeach in Cambridgeshire. His family came on both’ sides of middle-class people, and it was probably only as a joke that Godwin, a stern political reformer and philosophical radical, attempted to trace his pedigree to a time before the Norman conquest and the great earl Godwine. Both parents were strict Calvinists. The father 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 was under Andrew Kippis the biographer and Dr Abraham Rees of the Cyclopaedia, and 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.
His first published work was an anonymous Life of Lord Chatham (1783). Under the inappropriate title Sketches of History (1784) he published under his own name 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 Annual Register and other periodicals, producing also three novels now forgotten. The “Sketches of English History” written for the Annual Register from 1785 onward still deserve study. He joined a club called the “Revolutionists,” and associated much with Lord Stanhope, Home Tooke and Holcroft. His clerical character was now completely dropped.
In 1793 Godwin published his great work on political science, The Inquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Although this work is little known and less read now, it marks a phase in English thought. Godwin could never have been himself a worker on the active stage of life. But he was none the less a power behind the workers, and for its political effect, Political Justice takes its place with Milton’s Areopagitica, with Locke’s Essay on Education and with Rousseau’s Emile. 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.” 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. But all was 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 ever ready to give of his hard-earned income to more than one ne’er-do-well 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, not only that of death. Property was to belong to him who most wanted it; accumulated property was a monstrous injustice. Hence marriage, which is law, is the worst of all laws, and as property the worst of all properties. A man so passionless as Godwin could venture thus to argue without suspicion that he did so only to gratify his wayward desires. Portions of this treatise, and only portions, found ready acceptance in those minds which were prepared to receive them. Perhaps no one received the whole teaching of the book. But it gave cohesion and voice to philosophic radicalism; it was the manifesto of a school without which liberalism of the present day had not been. Godwin himself in after days modified his communistic views, but his strong feeling for individualism, his hatred of all restrictions on liberty, his trust in man, his faith in the power of reason remained; it was a manifesto which enunciated principles modifying action, even when not wholly ruling it.
In May 1794 Godwin published the novel of Caleb Williams, or Things as they are, a book of which the political object is overlooked by many readers in the strong interest of the story. The book was dramatized by the younger Colman as The Iron Chest. It is one of the few novels of that time which may be said still to live. A theorist who lived mainly in his study, Godwin yet came forward boldly to stand by prisoners arraigned of high treason in that same year—1794. The danger to persons so charged was then great, and he deliberately put himself into this same danger for his friends. But when his own trial was discussed in the privy council, Pitt sensibly held that Political Justice, the work on which the charge could best have been founded, was priced at three guineas, and could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare.
From this time Godwin became a notable figure in London society, and there was scarcely an important person in politics, on the Liberal side, in literature, art or science, who does not appear familiarly in the pages of Godwin’s singular diary. For forty-eight years, beginning in 1788, and continuing to the very end of his life, Godwin kept a record of every day, of the work he did, the books he read, the friends he saw. Condensed in the highest degree, the diary is yet easy to read when the style is once mastered, and it is a great help to the understanding of his cold, methodical, unimpassioned character. He carried his method into every detail of life, and lived on his earnings with extreme frugality. Until he made a large sum by the publication of Political Justice, he lived on an average of £120 a year.
In 1797, the intervening years having been spent in strenuous literary labour, Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft. Since both held the same views regarding the slavery of marriage, and since they only married at all for the sake of possible offspring, the marriage was concealed for some time, and the happiness of the avowed married life was very brief; his wife’s death on the 10th of September left Godwin prostrated by affliction, and with a charge for which he was wholly unfit—his infant daughter Mary, and her stepsister, Fanny Imlay, who from that time bore the name of Godwin. His unfitness for the cares of a family, far more than love, led him to contract a second marriage with Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801. She was a widow with two children, one of whom, Clara Mary Jane Clairmont, became the mistress of Lord Byron. The second Mrs Godwin was energetic and painstaking, but a harsh stepmother; and it may be doubted whether the children were not worse off under her care than they would have been under Godwin’s neglect.
The second novel which proceeded from Godwin’s pen was called St Leon, and published in 1799. It is chiefly remarkable for the beautiful portrait of Marguerite, the heroine, drawn from the character of his own wife. His opinions underwent a change in the direction of theism, influenced, he says, by his acquaintance with Coleridge. He also became known to Wordsworth and Lamb. Study of the Elizabethan dramatists led to the production in 1800 of the Tragedy of Antonio. [...]
The events of Godwin’s life were few. Under the advice of the second Mrs Godwin, and with her active co-operation, he carried on business as a bookseller under the pseudonym of Edward Baldwin, publishing several useful school books and books for children, among them Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. But the speculation was unsuccessful, and for many years Godwin struggled with constant pecuniary difficulties, for which more than one subscription was raised by the leaders of the Liberal party and by literary men. He became bankrupt in 1822, but during the following years he accomplished one of his best pieces of work, The History of the Commonwealth, founded on pamphlets and original documents, which still retains considerable value. In 1833 the government of Earl Grey conferred upon him the office known as yeoman usher of the exchequer, to which were attached apartments in Palace Yard, where he died on the 7th of April 1836.
In his own time, by his writings and by his conversation, Godwin had a great power of influencing men, and especially young men. Though his character would seem, from much which is found in his writings, and from anecdotes told by those who still remember him, to have been unsympathetic, it was not so understood by enthusiastic young people, who hung on his words as those of a prophet. The most remarkable of these was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in the glowing dawn of his genius turned to Godwin as his teacher and guide. The last of the long series of young men who sat at Godwin’s feet was Edward Lytton Bulwer, afterwards Lord Lytton, whose early romances were formed after those of Godwin, and who, in Eugene Aram, succeeded to the story as arranged, and the plan to a considerable extent sketched out, by Godwin, whose age and failing health prevented him from completing it. Godwin’s character appears in the worst light in connexion with Shelley. His early correspondence with Shelley, which began in 1811, is remarkable for its genuine good sense and kindness; but when Shelley carried out the principles of the author of Political Justice in eloping with Mary Godwin, Godwin assumed a hostile attitude that would have been unjustifiable in a man of ordinary views, and was ridiculous in the light of his professions. He was not, moreover, too proud to accept £1000 from his son-in-law, and after the reconciliation following on Shelley’s marriage in 1816, he continued to demand money until Shelley’s death. His character had no doubt suffered under his long embarrassments and his unhappy marriage.
Godwin’s more important works are—The Inquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793); Things as they are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794); The Inquirer, a series of Essays (1797); Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Woman (1798); St Leon, a Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799); Antonio, a Tragedy (1800); The Life of Chaucer (1803); Fleetwood, a Novel (1805); Faulkner, a Tragedy (1807); Essay on Sepulchres (1809); Lives of Edward and John Philips, the Nephews of Milton (1815); Mandeville, a Tale of the Times of Cromwell (1817); Of Population, an answer to Malthus (1820); History of the Commonwealth (1824—1828); Cloudesley, a Novel (1830); Thoughts on Man, a series of Essays (1831); Lives of the Necromancers (1834). A volume of essays was also collected from his papers and published in 1873, as left for publication by his daughter Mrs Shelley. Many other short and anonymous works proceeded from his ever busy pen, but many are irrecoverable, and all are forgotten. Godwin’s life was published in 1876 in two volumes, under the title William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, by C. Kegan Paul. The best estimate of his literary position is that given by Sir Leslie Stephen in his English Thought in the 18th Century (ii. 264-281; ed., 1902). See also the article on William Godwin in W. Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age (1825), and "Godwin and Shelley" in Sir L. Stephen’s Hours in a Library (vol. iii., ed. 1892).