Godwin, William

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Godwin, William (1756-1836). English Political Thinker.

William Godwin was an infamous radical philosopher and essayist. In 1793, he achieved instant notoriety and acclaim with the publication of his work An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. A prolific writer, Godwin enjoyed moderate success with other works during his life, although the only text besides Political Justice to generate immediate attention was a scandalously revealing memoir he penned of his wife Wollstonecraft, Mary. Godwin's life was notorious and he never achieved a great deal of financial success, but he outlasted many of the contemporaries who stood against his radical views, and with shifting political fortunes of the era he was eventually vindicated by an appointed government position in 1833. When he died, in 1836, he was regarded as an influential political writer, humanitarian, and novelist.

Born in 1756, in relative obscurity, his early education influenced his later work considerably. His father was an austere Calvinist, but those strict doctrinal views were challenged and modified by the young boy's tutor, Samuel Newton. Newton's Sandemanian belief that man's relationship to God should be spiritual, rather than bound up in secular institutions, reveals its influence even in late Godwin late texts. Enrolling in the Dissenting Academy at Hoxton, he encountered many of the liberal thinkers of his day, who further challenged his religious and political upbringing.

In 1783, Godwin anonymously published The History of the Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, containing the seeds of ideas that can be found in a number of his subsequent writings. In particular, the biography emphasized Godwin's assertion that the goal of education, and culture as a whole, is to lead Man towards his own perfection. The work was not a financial success, but Godwin was not discouraged, and his enthusiasm was justified with the publication of Political Justice. Both praised and attacked, the work became an instant focus of controversy and discussion. In it, Godwin suggests the dissolution of any present political structures that restrict Man's process of growth and development. Fortunately, Godwin himself escaped persecution for the anarchist proclamations of the work, though the turmoil of the recent French Revolution made the English government react strongly in other cases of potential threats to political authority and stability.

Godwin continued to reproduce his political ideas in other forms. His most distinguished novel is Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which was intended to duplicate the ideals of Political Justice. Caleb Williams describes the plight of the individual against outmoded social institutions. While not particularly influential, the novel was well received, is often considered representative of the period, and has been praised as a precursor to the detective novel.

In 1795, Godwin began a relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft, who had already achieved her own measure of radical fame. After Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they wed, although Godwin had previously and famously proclaimed himself against the institution of marriage. Six months later, she died after giving birth to their daughter, Mary. In an attempt to honor his wife, he published Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, which again catapulted him to notoriety. Godwin's admission of their intimate relationship outside of wedlock was too much for the audience of his day. Wollstonecraft’s texts were subsequently shunned by contemporary feminists, eager to keep feminism and illicit sexuality as separate as possible in the minds of their public. While later critics have found the Memoirs a compelling and useful biography, Wollstonecraft's writings had to wait until well into the 20th century before they would again receive critical interest and praise.

Godwin published a number of other novels and essays before his death in 1836. His later works, including biographies and histories published under pseudonym, were not entirely unsuccessful, though they did not achieve particular acclaim. While Godwin's reputation today rests, as it did in his own era, on Political Justice, contemporary critics from the 1950’s onward have had an increasing regard for his other works, and he is currently accepted as a central figure of the Romantic era.

Further Reading:

E. E. Smith and E.G. Smith, W.G., 1965.

St. Clair, W., The Godwin’s and the Shelleys, 1989.

Steven Zani

Lamar University