William Godwin

gigatos | October 20, 2021


William Godwin (Wisbech, March 3, 1756 – London, April 7, 1836) was a British philosopher, writer and libertarian politician. Thinker of the late Enlightenment and inspired part of English Romanticism, especially the “second generation of Romanticism” including John Keats, his son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon Byron, radical and republican, is considered one of the first modern anarchist theorists. Godwin”s most famous work is the essay Inquiry into Political Justice in which he expresses an ideal of philosophical anarchism.

His wife was the writer Mary Wollstonecraft, forerunner of liberal feminism and women”s rights and author of Vindication of Women”s Rights. From their union was born Mary Godwin, known, after her marriage with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as Mary Shelley, author of the famous novel Frankenstein.


William Godwin belonged to a Calvinist Puritan-Presbyterian family, and his father was a minister of worship in the local church, Guestwick, Norfolk, and a member of the dissenting congregation. Godwin was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, to John and Anne Godwin, the seventh of thirteen children. The locals, and his ancestors, had participated in the English Revolution alongside Oliver Cromwell, helping to organize the movement of independents and heeding the teachings of the Levellers (“levelers”), who were in favor of an egalitarian society within the new Commonwealth republic. His father died young, without arousing great displeasure in William, who had a conflicting relationship with him; with his mother, despite the considerable differences of opinion, there was always a great affection, until her death, which occurred at an advanced age.

At the age of 11, he became the only pupil of Samuel Newton, who was a disciple of Robert Sandeman. Godwin will speak of him as “a celebrated apostle from the north country, who, after Calvin damned ninety-nine out of a hundred men, devised a system to damn ninety-nine out of a hundred of Calvin”s followers.” Newton was a powerful figure among Norwich”s Puritan dissenters, but Godwin also described him as a “little tyrant” and “like a retired butcher, ready nevertheless to travel fifty miles for the pleasure of killing an ox.” Newton”s aversion to violence caused in him a hatred of coercion that would last throughout his life.

Godwin attended Hoxton Presbyterian College in order to learn the same profession as his father. Here he studied with biographer Andrew Kippis, and Dr. Abraham Rees, one of the authors of the Cyclopaedia. He began to practice his profession as a Calvinist minister at Ware, Stowmarket, and Beaconsfield. At Stowmarket he first read Enlightenment authors, particularly John Locke, David Hume, Voltaire, Helvétius, d”Holbach, Diderot, and especially Rousseau, and was extremely impressed. Under the influence of his readings he abandoned the faith and decided to leave the ecclesiastical career, to devote himself to journalism and treatises. He risked arrest for criticizing the prime minister William Pitt the Younger. He was at first, from a religious point of view, a Calvinist, a Socinian, then a deist, to become then openly unbelieving and atheist, and finally in his old age to arrive at a vague non-denominational theism.

Godwin philosopher

Godwin moved to London in 1782, still nominally as a minister, with the intent of regenerating society with his pen. He adopted the principles of the French encyclopedists, setting as his goal the complete overthrow of all existing political, social, and religious institutions. He believed, however, that only quiet discussion was the only thing necessary and useful to bring about change, and from the beginning to the end of his career he advised against any approach to violence. Godwin from this point on was a radical philosopher in the strictest sense of the word.

In the early works he still makes references to religion: although he was an atheist, making a character speak he states: “God himself has no right to be a tyrant.” Introduced by Andrew Kippis, he began writing in 1785 for the New Annual Register and other periodicals, also writing three novels that did not leave their mark. His main contributions to the “Annual Register” were the “Sketches of English History” which he wrote annually, annual summaries of domestic and foreign political affairs. He was part of a club called “the revolutionaries,” along with Lord Stanhope, Horne Tooke and Holcroft.

He moved closer to the left wing of the English Liberal (Whig) party and, in the wake of the emotion aroused by the French Revolution, felt the need to take a stand, writing and publishing in 1793 the famous treatise “An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness,” known as An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice or Political Justice. Godwin conceived the essay as a support for Thomas Paine”s The Rights of Man, and a critical response to Reflections on the Revolution in France, by the conservative old whig Edmund Burke. Although a pacifist, he supported the underlying reasons and merits of the French Revolution, but condemned the statism of Maximilien de Robespierre”s Jacobins, which ended in the Reign of Terror, and shared more in the ideas of Jacques Roux and François-Noël Babeuf, although he disagreed with the methods. Of the thought of Thomas Paine he was a profound connoisseur.Political Justice contains practically all William Godwin

He actively participated in the debates of the “Constitutional Society” and his house became frequented by intellectuals and artists including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walter Scott.

The marriage and the death of the first wife

In 1796 he began a romantic relationship with feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft creating a scandal because she became pregnant with his daughter Mary.

Godwin had met Wollstonecraft a few years earlier, when she had intervened in the revolutionary debate against Burke, with Vindication of the Rights of Man, followed by Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft had gone through a bad period where she attempted suicide, but was saved. She ended up getting rid of the depression and returned to work in the Johnson Publishing House and to attend the old intellectual circle where there were, in particular, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, Sarah Siddons and where she found William Godwin. Godwin had read her Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and commented that it “was a book that could make a reader fall in love with its author. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and melts our souls into tenderness, and at the same time reveals to us a genius that demands all our admiration.”

An affair began between them and they decided to marry after Mary became pregnant. The fact that Mary was an “unmarried mother” and that she married when she was already expecting a child, could scandalize the society of the time, not Godwin that, not surprisingly, in his writing Political Justice, had declared himself in favor of the abolition of marriage. They got married only to stop, as far as possible, the gossip and the ostracism of London society towards Mary: in fact, after the marriage celebrated on March 29, 1797, they went to live in two adjacent houses, so that each one could keep its independence.

Their union lasted a few months: August 30, 1797 Mary gave birth to his second daughter, Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft, known future writer, but the consequences of the birth were fatal to the mother, who died September 10 of septicemia. William wrote to his friend Thomas Holcroft: “I firmly believe that there was no woman equal to her in the world. We were made to be happy and now I have not the least hope of ever being happy again.” Godwin was thus left alone with little Mary and Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft”s firstborn daughter, born from a relationship with the American Gilbert Imlay, to whom he decided to give his own surname, raising her as his own daughter. A year after the death of his wife Godwin published Memoirs of the author of the Vindication of Women”s Rights (1798), with which he intended to pay tribute to the memory of his wife. However, the content of the work was considered immoral because of Wollstonecraft”s extramarital affairs and illegitimate children, thus affecting the author”s fame and works. Mary Godwin would read these memoirs and the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, which helped to reinforce Mary”s affection for her mother”s memory.

The Godwin Family

Godwin, once widowed, in 1801 remarried Mary Jane Clairmont, who already had two children, Jane, later known as Claire, and Charles, and by whom he had a son William: Godwin in fact was often in debt and, convinced he was not able to take care of two children alone, he changed his ideas about marriage deciding to contract a second one; after two failed proposals of marriage to two acquaintances Godwin convinced his neighbor, Mary Jane Clairmont, a housewife with two illegitimate children probably had by two different partners, Charles Gaulin Clairmont and Claire Clairmont. To support the large family took a publishing business in Skinner Street, among huge financial difficulties.

Many of Godwin”s friends despised his new wife, often describing her as a cruel and quarrelsome person, but Godwin was devoted to her and the marriage was successful; little Mary Godwin, on the other hand, detested her stepmother. Godwin”s biographer, C. Kegan Paul, suggested that perhaps Mrs. Godwin favored her own children over those of Wollstonecraft.

In 1805, at the suggestion of his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Godwin founded a publishing house for children, the Juvenile Library, which published works such as Mounseer Nongtongpaw (a work attributed to Mary Shelley) and Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb, as well as Godwin”s own works written under the pseudonym Baldwin. However, the publishing house was not making a profit, to the point that Godwin was forced to borrow a substantial amount of money to get by. Godwin continued to borrow money to try to make up for the debts incurred, thus worsening his financial situation. By 1809 his business failed and he felt “close to despair”. He was saved from prison thanks to some supporters of his philosophical theories, including Francis Place, who lent him a considerable amount of money. Since then Godwin devoted himself almost entirely to the education of his daughter. Although Mary Godwin received little formal education, her father also contributed to her education in various other fields. He often took his children on educational trips, gave them free access to the home library, and had them attend visits from intellectuals such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Mary and Claire attend his reading of The Ballad of the Old Mariner) and future U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr.

Godwin admitted that she did not agree with Mary Wollstonecraft”s educational conceptions found in the work Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (Nevertheless, Mary Godwin received an unusual and advanced education for a girl of her time. In fact she had a governess, a tutor and had the opportunity to read the manuscripts of the children”s books written by her father on Greek and Roman history. In 1811 Mary attended a college in Ramsgate for a period of six months. At the age of fifteen her father described her as “remarkably bold, rather imperious, and active of mind. Her desire for knowledge is great and her perseverance in all that she undertakes almost invincible.”

In June 1812, Godwin sent Mary to reside with the radical family of William Baxter, his friend, near Dundee, Scotland. To Baxter he wrote, “I want her to grow up (…) as a philosopher, nay, as a cynic.” Several scholars have speculated that the reason for this trip had to do with Mary”s health problems (Muriel Spark in her biography of Mary Shelley speculates that the weakness in her arm from which Mary suffered at certain times might have resulted from nervous reasons given by her bad relations with Clairmont), to get her away from the family”s unpleasant financial situation, or to introduce her to radical political ideas. Mary Godwin spent happy times at Baxter”s house; however, her stay was interrupted by her return home with one of Baxter”s daughters in the summer of 1813; seven months later, however, Mary returned, accompanying her friend, and remained there for another ten months.

Godwin and Shelley

Godwin”s political ideas had a decisive influence on some contemporary authors, such as the great romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Shelley, a rebel and non-conformist, author of The Necessity of Atheism, translated Godwinian philosophy into poetry, in works such as Ozymandias, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unleashed, Ode to Intellectual Beauty, Ode to the West Wind and many others. He became close friends with Shelley, but their relationship became strained after he fell in love with his sixteen-year-old daughter Mary and ran away with her (Mary was pregnant with a daughter who died shortly after her birth, and Shelley was already married, and with two young children, one of whom was born almost at the same time as Mary”s daughter), and after he failed to repay Godwin numerous loans he had received (although Shelley himself had loaned Godwin some sums). Godwin, once an advocate of free love, for a time did not want to have relations with his daughter and future son-in-law, feeling disappointed at being abandoned by Mary and her disciple.

In the same period of time his adopted daughter Fanny died by suicide, poisoning herself with laudanum, but Godwin spread the rumor that she had died of illness in Ireland. Godwin”s radical ideas were now at odds with his quest for “bourgeois respectability” which he demonstrated on the occasions of Mary”s engagement and Fanny”s death. In reality, Godwin”s ideas had not changed much, but he felt he had to keep a low profile and a good social appearance, as conservatives wasted no opportunity to discredit him and his writings, reducing him to poverty with a family to support. Moreover, since suicide was considered a crime at the time, Godwin wanted to protect his stepdaughter”s reputation and avoid legal problems for the family, by making a fictitious declaration and removing the name “Fanny Godwin” from the suicide note (according to others, it was Fanny herself who removed at least her surname, out of respect for Godwin and the family). The other stepdaughter, Claire, had also run away with Mary and Percy, and will have a child, Alba, later called Allegra, by another of Godwin”s young friends, Lord Byron.In 1816-1817 Mary wrote the gothic novel, published the following year under the name of Percy, Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, dedicated to Godwin.

Godwin finally reconciled with the Shelleys at the birth of their grandson William, named in his honor, shortly after the two young people returned from their trip to the continent. At the suicide of his wife Harriet, found drowned in the lake of Hyde Park, because she did not share the ideal of free love of Percy and was left by him, Shelley married Mary, act recommended to him to have custody (to avoid problems for Shelley, even the suicide of Harriet (perhaps pregnant again at the time) was not publicly revealed. The marriage ceremony between Mary and Percy took place in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Godwin. During a second and longer journey in the continent, in Italy, William and Clara Everina (the other daughter of Mary, recently born), the two grandchildren of Godwin, died of disease (Clara in 1818 and William in 1819) and the same Mary risked her life for a miscarriage. In Florence will be born instead, always in 1819, Percy Florence, the only son of Mary and Shelley to survive their parents.

The last years

On July 8, 1822 Percy Shelley died drowned at sea near Viareggio, and Mary returned the following year to England, getting very close to her father: in 1823 she and her son lived, for a short time, at number 195 of the Strand, in the apartment of Godwin and his wife. The last years of Godwin, who continued his literary activity, were serene, despite the death of his son William jr. in 1832, spent with his second wife and the frequent visits of Mary and his grandson Percy Florence, who inherited from his paternal grandfather the title of baronet. Even Claire, whose daughter, entrusted to her father Lord Byron, had died long ago in an Italian convent, will return to live in London (Byron himself ended his life in Missolonghi, Greece, struck by malaria). The stepson Charles Clairmont will become instead a man of letters and instructor, and will be one of the tutors of the future emperor of Austria Francis Joseph.William Godwin died eighty years old, struck by bronchitis, April 7, 1836, and was buried, as per his request, next to Mary Wollstonecraft in the cemetery of the church of Old St. Pancras in London. Pancras in London; some years later (1851), by the will of his nephew Percy Florence and his wife, Mary St. John, the mortal remains of the couple will be moved to the churchyard of Bournemouth and buried alongside his daughter Mary Shelley, who died that same year.

Godwin is considered one of the main pioneers of anarchist thought.Disappointed by the French Revolution and the Jacobin dictatorship, he elaborated a social order based on administrative and judicial decentralization, on the construction of free independent communities and on the abolition of the central government: a gradual change of liberation of society from the state, based on the maturation of an ethic both individualist and communitarian.

Reason as a guide

The basis of his thought is Enlightenment: Reason is the light that illuminates the human path and is the beacon to follow. Society can change, albeit gradually, the more men”s minds open to reason. The fundamental political assumption is that all forms of power are not based on reason and impose laws that are not born of the free will of the members of society: even the best form of government (democracy) is based on the strength of numbers, and therefore on demagogy.

Against liberal contractualism

Godwin contests the contractualist theory of the liberal school: the pact originally signed tends to become eternal, so that subsequent generations are forced to obey the will of those who preceded them, and even if today”s citizens were called to renew the pact, however, “pacts and promises are not the foundation of morality” and do not guarantee the success of reason.

Maintaining order and anti-authoritarianism

Godwin criticizes so radically the principle of authority that he contrasts it with the opposite principle of anarchy: “each man is wise enough to govern himself” and “no satisfactory criterion can put one man, or a group of men, in command of all others”. Institutions must only limit evil, since man is not perfect: the improvement of society, the creation of a civilization of free and equal, however, will gradually eliminate the “causes of crime” making repressive institutions unnecessary, since the character of man is not given by nature but by society (so-called “perfectibility of man”). Godwin concludes his libertarian criminology, anticipating Pietro Gori”s anti-Lombrosian criminology, not by calling for the immediate abolition of the police, but a gradual overcoming through a less coercive guard, as long as there is a need, but by arguing that evildoers should be locked up only as a temporary expedient and treated with as much respect and courtesy as possible.

Direct Democracy

In the meantime, since the complete overcoming of any government can only occur with the maturation of a high civil consciousness, a social system based on popular participation must be sought.

From here Godwin starts to theorize direct democracy, decentralization and federalism, defending a form of communitarianism: a recipe applicable to every society, since the unifying datum common to all is reason; love of country, therefore, is deceptive, because it arbitrarily separates men and sets the interests of one against the interests of the other. Similarly, offensive war and colonialism are also immoral, as is the exploitation of workers.

Human existence and ethics

For Godwin, Reason, Justice and Happiness coincide: since reason is universal, the universality of justice is also derived, which in turn leads to individual and collective happiness and true freedom. He also adheres to sensism and utilitarianism, also supporting a libertarian pedagogy, derived in part from Rousseau. While reaffirming the centrality of the individual as a subject of rights, from which all the rights of society derive, he supported philanthropy.In his later years he also devoted himself to science fiction, hypothesizing scientific discoveries that could achieve immortality to the human being; it is believed that Godwin”s interest in these topics has also influenced his daughter Mary Shelley for the writing of his Frankenstein. Godwin and his intellectual circle (Shelley in the lead) also viewed animal rights and vegetarianism with interest.

Political Justice

Godwin began thinking about the Inquiry into Political Justice in 1791, after the publication of Thomas Paine”s The Rights of Man in response to Edmund Burke”s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). However, unlike most of the works that sprang up in the wake of Burke”s work during the so-called revolutionary controversy, Godwin”s did not address the specific events of the time, but dealt with the underlying philosophical principles. Its length and price (it cost over £1) made it inaccessible to the popular audience of The Rights of Man and likely protected Godwin from the persecution that other writers such as Paine experienced. Nonetheless, Godwin became an honored figure among radicals and progressives and was seen as an intellectual leader among their groups. One of the ways this happened was through the many unauthorized copies of the text, the excerpts printed in radical newspapers, and the lectures given by John Thelwall based on his ideas.

Although published during the French Revolution, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the events leading up to the 1794 treason trials in Britain, Political Justice argues that humanity will inevitably progress, siding with human perfectibility and enlightenment. McCann explains that “Political Justice is … first and foremost a critique of political institutions. His view of human perfectibility is anarchic in that he sees government and related social practices such as monopoly over property, marriage, and monarchy holding back the progress of humanity.” Godwin believes that government “creeps into our personal inclinations and imperceptibly transmits Its spirit to our private transactions.” Instead, Godwin proposes a society in which human beings use their reason to decide the best course of action. The very existence of governments, even those founded through consensus, demonstrates that people cannot yet regulate their conduct according to the dictates of reason.

Godwin argued that the link between politics and morality had been severed and he wanted to restore it. McCann explains, quoting phrases from the essay, that in Godwin”s view, “as public opinion develops in accordance with the dictates of reason, so should political institutions change until eventually they wither away altogether, allowing the people to organize themselves into what would be a direct democracy.” Godwin believed that the public could be rational; he wrote, “Opinion is the most powerful engine that can be brought into the sphere of political society. False opinion, superstition, and prejudice, have hitherto been the true advocates of usurpation and despotism. The investigation and improvement of the human mind, are now shaking to the core those bulwarks which have so long held mankind in bondage.”

Godwin was not a revolutionary of the tenor of John Thelwall and the London Corresponding Society. A philosophical anarchist, he believed that change would come gradually and that there was no need for violent revolution. He argued that “the task which, at present, should occupy the first place in the thoughts of man”s friend is inquiry, communication, discussion.” Godwin thus believed in the desire of individuals to reason sincerely and truthfully with one another. In the 20th century, Jürgen Habermas developed this idea further.

However, paradoxes and contradictions surface throughout Political Justice. As McCann observes, “a faith in the ability of public opinion to progress toward enlightenment by relying on its own exercise of reason is constantly nullified by the actual forms of public action and political life, which for Godwin dangerously end up including the individual in the collective.” For example, Godwin criticizes public discourse because it appeals to feeling rather than reason and the press because it can enlighten but also perpetuate dogma.

Thought Reception

The greatest popularizer of Godwin”s thought was his son-in-law Percy Shelley, with his poetry. The English thinker will influence the work of Herbert Spencer.

In Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus (already in the title appears the theme of romantic titanism) of his daughter Mary was also noted a strong influence of his father and his anarchist ideas: William Godwin in Political Justice argues that institutions such as government, law or marriage, although positive, tend to exert despotic forces on people”s lives, he aspires to a new social order based on universal benevolence, contradicting the seventeenth-century vision of Thomas Hobbes of an essentially selfish society. In Rousseauian style, it is the institutions and behavior of others that make man, in most cases, prey to evil instincts. The Creature, completely estranged from society, considers himself as an evil demon and asks for justice in a Godwinian sense: “Do your duty towards me”. (“Do your duty towards me”), says the Monster to Victor Frankenstein who gave birth to him, then abandoning him for the horror that aroused him; Frankenstein refuses and the Monster, as he promised in case of denial (and as he has already done after being abandoned and repudiated by all), will take revenge by killing his friends and his family, then leading to death the scientist himself, but finally will commit suicide for remorse. It is not by chance that the epigraph is the quotation of Adam from Paradise Lost by John Milton (a radical Christian revolutionary like Godwin”s ancestors): “Did I ask you, Creator, to make me man from clay? Did I ask you to draw me out of darkness?”

There is in Frankenstein, more generally, a reminiscence of the style and characters of Godwin”s repertoire, and the morality that implies a return of the evil done or the good omitted, as a punishment on the responsible, sooner or later; the Monster is in fact born good (generous, reasonable and even vegetarian, a kind of good savage), but is made extremely evil by the contempt of men towards him; Frankenstein himself, having created him defying the laws of nature and having then rejected him despite being his “son”, is responsible. The Monster is transformed into a sort of fierce avenger of himself:

Robert Owen will also pick up on his concepts. Proudhon, on the other hand, mentions Godwin only once, and Bakunin does not make much reference to him either. Marx, a reader of Shelley, ignores him as a utopian thinker, according to his vision. It will be only in the twentieth century that interest in his thought will be reborn, although some of his ideas will be found already among the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune, even if Godwin had come out against the insurrections. Interested in his thought were also Pyotr Alekseevič Kropotkin and, outside the anarchist sphere, John Stuart Mill.


  1. William Godwin
  2. William Godwin
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