Political philosopher William Godwin (1756–1836) was born in Cambridge shire, England, to middle-class parents. His father was a Nonconformist minister, a profession for which Godwin was initially educated. His life was at times turbulent; he was declared bankrupt in 1825 and was scorned and satirized by for me friends and in the conservative press for both his political views and his personal life. In his later years, his troubled reputation led him to publish under pseudonyms.
Godwin married protofeminist and social critic Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, an act that surprised many, given his controversial claim, as stated in his 1832 Fleetwood: The New Man of Feeling, that “marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of monopolies.” Wollstonecraft died that same year, shortly after the birth of their daughter Mary, who would become the author Mary Shelley. Godwin’s candid biography of Wollstonecraft, Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), added to the notoriety of both. Godwin remarried in 1801 and raised five children, three of them stepchildren.
Godwin published work in biography, fiction, children’s literature, history, and drama in addition to his noted writings in political philosophy. He also campaigned on behalf of some of his fellow Jacobins—those sympathetic to the aims of the French Revolution (1789–1799)—when they were charged with treason.
In his political writings, Godwin was deeply preoccupied with the ways in which institutions, particularly those of the state, undermine personal autonomy, and he became widely regarded as an important figure in the anarchist tradition. Like John Locke, he was also strongly empiricist in his approach, and to an extent embraced the idea of the perfectibility of humanity, a project that he hoped could be achieved through social policy as well as on an individual basis. He is therefore also considered to belong to the utilitarian tradition.
Godwin’s optimism about the future in relation to the possibility of increasing standards of living was a target for Thomas Malthus’s criticism in the latter’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). In reply, Godwin published Of Population in 1820, in which he rebutted the generalizations on which he believed Malthus’s figures regarding population growth were based. Godwin was also an early advocate of the idea that social injustice could be exposed in fiction, and he wrote several novels that embodied his political ideas, the most successful of which were Things as They Are or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) and Fleetwood (1805).
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, published in 1793, is the best known of Godwin’s political works. Along with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), Godwin’s Political Justice was one of the most widely read and discussed responses to the French Revolution.
In later years, Godwin developed friendships with notable writers of the Romantic period, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by whom he was greatly influenced, Godwin wrote about themes that spanned the Enlightenment and romanticism, particularly in his later works, which combined a belief in rational judgment as the key human ability with studies of human psychology and the impact of emotion on human action.
- Clemit, Pamela. The Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin. 7 vols. Brookfield,VT: Pickering and Chatto, 1999.
- Godwin,William. Fleetwood:The New Man of Feeling. 1832.
- Edited by Gary Handwerk and A. A. Markley. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2000.
- Mukherjee, Subrata, and Sushila Ramaswamy. William Godwin: His Thoughts and Works. New Delhi: Deep and Deep, 1998.
- Philip, Mark. Godwin’s Political Justice. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1969.
- Woodcock, George. William Godwin: A Biological Study. Folcraft, Pa.: Folcraft Library Editions, 1975.
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