1902 Encyclopedia > William Godwin

William Godwin
English journalist, political philosopher and novelist
(1756-1836)




GODWIN, WILLIAM (1756-1836), an English political writer, historian, novelist, and dramatist, was born March 3, 1756, at Wisbeach in Cambridgeshire, at which place his father was a Nonconformist minister. His family came on both sides of worthy middle-class people, able to trace their descent in the same level of society for about 150 years; 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. His father was a cold and dull man, his mother uneducated, but clever, shrewd, and full of sound common sense. Both parents were Calvinists : the father strict in observances beyond what was even then ordinary; the mother regretting in Godwin's maturer years, and when some of her sons had turned out ill, that she had given birth to so many children, who, as she thought, were heirs of damnation. Mr Godwin, senior, died young, and never inspired love or much regret in his son; but in spite of wide differences of opinion, the most 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, and was at first more Calvinistic than his teachers, becom-ing a Sandemanian, of which sect he says, that they were the followers of " a celebrated north-country apostle [Glas], 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 officiated as a minister at Ware, Stowmarket, and Beaconsfield. At the second of these places the teachings of French Beformers were brought before him by a friend, and these, while they intensified his political, undermined his religious opinions. He came to London, still nominally a clergyman, to set about the work of the regeneration of society with his pen—a real enthusiast, who, theoretically, shrank from no conclusions from the premises which he laid down. These were the principles of the Encyclopedists, 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, like Bentham—whom, however, he does not seem to have influenced or been influenced by—a philosophic radi-cal in the strictest sense of the term.

His first published work was an anonymous Life of Lord Chatham; the first to which he gave his name was still nominally clerical. Under the inappropriate title Sketches of History, he published six sermons on the characters of Aaron, Hazael, and Jesus, in which, though writing in the character of an orthodox Calvinist, he enunciates the preg-nant proposition, " God himself has no right to be a tyrant." This was published in 1782, and for the next nine years he wrote largely in the Annual Register and other periodicals, producing also three novels, which have more completely vanished from the world than even the contributions to reviewy. They were probably not worth preserving, but the "Sketches of English History" written for the Annual Register from 1785 onward still deserve study. He joined a club called the Bevolutionists, and associated much with Lord Stanhope, Home Tooke, Holcroft, and others, who, from their political principles and activity, were obnoxious to men in power. It is perhaps needless to say that the title of " reverend" dropped off from him without difficulty, and with no sense of discordance be-tween the old and the new. Doubt and change never seem to have brought with them any keen sense of pain or outrooting. The equable calm of a cold temperament preserved him from much which affects warmer natures; but he also knew that he was at all times seeking after truth, and striving for what seemed right; and while such an one can scarcely be called modest, he is preserved for many qualms which affect more nervous and more self-distrustful persons,

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 was one of the epoch-making books of 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 Political Justice takes its place with Milton's Speech for Unlicensed Printing, with Locke's Essay on Education, with Bousseau's Émile, among the unseen levers which have moved the changes of the times, It is there-fore necessary to speak of this book more particularly. 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 con-struction, 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 in-tolerable, 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 dis-cussion. 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 main-tained 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 wants it; accumulated property was a monstrous injustice. Hence marriage, which is law, is the worst of all laws, and 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 radi-calism ; it was the manifesto of a school without which the milder and more creedless liberalism of the present day had not been. Godwin himself in after days modified his com-munistic views, but his strong feeling for individualism, his hate 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 politi-cal object is overlooked by many readers in the strong interest of the story. 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 dis-cussed 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 poli-tics, 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 con-tinuing 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, unimpas-sioned characters. 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 (see ]a3t article). Since both held the same views regard-ing the slavery of marriage, and since they only married at all for the sake of possible offspring, the marriage was con-cealed for some time, and the happiness of the avowed married life was very brief. Mrs Godwin died in giving birth to a daughter, afterwards the second wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, on September 10, 1797, leaving Godwin, prostrated by affliction, and with a charge for which he was wholly unfit—his own little daughter Mary, and her step-sister, Fanny Imlay, who ever afterwards 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 Mrs Clairmont, in 1800. She was a widow with two children, 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 fiction 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, which was drawn from the character of his own wife.

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, under which name he published seve-ral useful school-books and books for children, some by Charles and Mary Lamb. But the speculation was unsuc-cessful, 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. In his later years the Government of Earl Grey conferred upon him the office known as "Yeoman Usher of the Exchequer," to which were attached apart ments in Palace Yard, where he died in the full posses, sion of his faculties, April 7, 1836, having completed his. eightieth year.

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 remark-able 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 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, 1796 ; Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Woman, 1798; St Leon, a Tale of the Sixteenth Cen-tury, 1799; Antonio, a Tragedy, 1801; The Life of Chaucer, 1803; Fleetwood, a Novel,l&05; Faulkner, a Tragedy, 1807; Essay on Sepul-chres, 1809; Lives of Edward and John Philips, the Nephews of Milton, 1815; Mandeville, a Tale of the Times of Cromwell, 1817; History of the Commonwealth, 1824-1828; Cloudesley, a Novel, 1830: Thoughts on Man, a series of Essays, 1831; Lives of the Necroman-| cers, 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 place in literature is permanent, in that he produced one work which proved effective in changing the course of thought in its time, but not permanent in the sense that his writings will continue to be widely read. His 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 Mr Leslie Stephen in his English Thought in the mh Century. (C. K. P.)






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