William Godwin: The First Modern Anarchist

By Keith Preston

Few thinkers personified the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment to a greater degree than the English political philosopher and novelist, William Godwin. In 1793, Godwin published his most influential work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, which at the time was considered to be one of the most significant literary responses to the events of the French Revolution, along with the works of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. True to Enlightenment ideals, Godwin suggested that human beings were born as a Lockean tabula rasa, and that education, along with improved social and political conditions, could result in significant steps toward human perfectibility. Such an evolved condition of human existence would render the state unnecessary as individuals would be inspired by reason to act on behalf of what was in the best interest of the community. Similarly, Godwin envisioned that an enlightened society would be less in thrall to vices such as greed and acquisitiveness, and a more equitable distribution of resources would result. The classical theoretician of anarchist-communism Peter Kropotkin would, more than a century later, suggest that Godwin was in fact the first modern proponent of anarchist-communism.

Family, Marriages and Children

            From a historical perspective, Godwin is today recognized more for his famous family members than for his political ideas. His first wife was Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer feminist who produced the classic work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published in 1792, and argued for the extension of the Enlightenment idea of “natural rights” to include women as well as men. Wollstonecraft died in 1797 due to complications from giving birth to the couple’s daughter, Mary. However, Mary would later become famous both for her marriage to the Romance poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and for her authorship of the novel Frankenstein, widely considered to be a pioneer work in the genres of horror and science fiction.  Clearly, Godwin’s family exercised considerable influence in British literary circles during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Godwin himself also produced a pioneer work in the genre of the “thriller” called Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, and the family’s literary business, known as the Juvenile Library, also published children’s books as well.

William Godwin was born on March 3, 1756 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. His family was solidly middle class, with his mother originating from a wealthy merchant family, and his father being a Calvinist minister of the Non-Conformist variety. Godwin was the seventh child to be born to his parents, who had thirteen children altogether, although his father died in 1773 at the age of 50 when William was still in his teens. William began studying for the ministry at the age of 11, and was privately tutored by the Calvinist Samuel Newton. Godwin would later describe Newton as “a celebrated north country apostle, who, after Calvin damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, has contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin.” As a very young man, Godwin himself served as a minister, but later became heavily influenced by the ideas of the French Encyclopedists, after which he eventually became an atheist, and emerged as a political, religious and social radical.

Godwin’s first published writings were produced in the 1780s, and a common theme in these early writings was criticism of religious orthodoxy. It was during this time that he first met Mary Wollstonecraft at the home of their publisher, Joseph Johnson, who at the time was hosting a dinner party in honor of Thomas Paine. However, Godwin and Wollstonecraft would not meet again until 1796, after Wollstonecraft had published another work about her travels in Scandinavia, during which time she also had a daughter with the American businessman Charles Imlay. After meeting for the second time, Godwin and Wollstonecraft began a relationship, and decided to marry after Mary became pregnant. Their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was born on August 31, 1797, and the newborn infant’s mother died ten days later from complications related to the pregnancy. William was left as a widower with both his newborn daughter and his wife’s other daughter from her relationship with Imlay to care for.

Four years later, in 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, who had young son and daughter from two previous affairs, and who had at one point been imprisoned for non-payment of debts. William and Mary Jane married after she had become pregnant with her third child, who would be born as Godwin’s only natural son, also named William. At this point, William was acting as the father of five children, including his daughter Mary from his marriage to Wollstonecraft; Wollstonecraft’ daughter Fanny Imlay, Clairmont’s children Charles and Claire, and their son William. The marriage between Godwin and Mary Jane would continue for 35 years until Godwin’s death in 1836. Mary Jane would pass way five years later in 1841. Only two of the five children Godwin raised were his natural children, his daughter Mary with Wollstonecraft, and his son William with Mary Jane. He would also outlive two of these children, as Fanny would commit suicide at the age of 22, and William would pass away at the age of 29, although he left behind a novel that his father published posthumously.

Mary Jane’s son Charles would later become a professor of English literature at Vienna University, and a tutor to members of the Austrian royal family. Mary Jane’s daughter Claire became a writer and the lover of the Romance poet Lord Byron, with whom she had a child, although the child eventually passed away at the age of five. During their marriage, Mary Jane would become the only female literary agent in England of any influence, and she was known for her business acumen in contrast to Godwin’s reputation for financial improvidence. Mary proved to be the most intellectually promising of any of Godwin’s children, and Godwin ensured that she was provided with what he described as a “masculine education,” meaning a much more rigorous education than what was commonly provided to women at the time. Godwin’s approach to the education of his daughters was consistent with the views of Mary Wollstonecraft, who had suggested that common claims concerning the alleged intellectual inferiority of females were rooted in the social practice of depriving women of access to education.

Political Ideas

Godwin’s Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness is widely considered to have been one of the most influential political works of its era. The arguments that are developed by Godwin in this work are an extension of earlier arguments made by Edmund Burke in his proto-anarchist book, A Vindication of Natural Society. Although the British authorities of the period vigorously sought to combat the influence of radicalism, fearing a repeat of the upheavals of the French Revolution in their own country, Prime Minister William Pitt declined to impose censorship on the work, reasoning that because the book cost a full pound it was unaffordable to most Britons. However, the book actually sold 4000 copies, a very large number for the time, and Godwin became a famous writer because of his authorship of the work. The following year, in 1794, Godwin published the fictional novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. Although fictional, this work also had a strong political theme in that it attacked aristocratic privilege.

Godwin also published Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, 2 October 1794 during the 1790s, which criticized the placing of a group of British radicals on trial for treason. Godwin also wrote a biography of his late wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, which was published in 1798, a year after her death. The work was titled Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The biography spoke candidly of Mary’s troubled life, including two suicide attempts as well as the birth of her illegitimate child with Imlay. The conservative press in England used the information in the book to attack Godwin as a scandalous figure for the purpose of discrediting his political ideas. However, along with such works as John Milton’s Areopagitica and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, Godwin’s Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness would go on to heavily influence the anarchist movement that developed in the nineteenth century, and continues to be considered a pioneer work by historians of anarchist and libertarian thought.

Debate with Thomas Malthus

A memorable aspect of Godwin’s work involves his debate with Thomas Malthus, who argued against Godwin’s belief in the possibility of human perfectibility by mean of education, reason, and enlightenment. Malthus suggested that too great an improvement in the human condition would generate overpopulation, which would in turn result in a shortage of food. Consequently, it was Malthus’ view that famine, war and disease had the necessary effect of maintaining the human population at sustainable levels. Without such effects, Malthus believed that the human population would double every quarter century. Godwin’s 1820 book Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind was an attempted rebuttal of Malthus in which Godwin argued that for such an exponential population increase to occur, every family would have to produce an average of at least eight children. Godwin suggested that over time technological advancements, increased economic productivity, better education, sexual restraint and the general moral and intellectual improvement of humanity would have the impact of controlling population growth.

It is interesting to consider the debate between Malthus and Godwin in light of two centuries of subsequent experience. While the human population has indeed grown exponentially on a global basis, the rate of population growth has actually been higher in the regions of the world that continue to be the most impoverished. It is in these areas where war, disease, famine, illiteracy, and, by contemporary standards, retrograde cultural norms continue to be the most common. Among the native populations of the technologically developed industrial and post industrial economies of the Northern hemisphere, birth rates have actually started to decline. Multiple factors have contributed to this trend, including the development of contraceptive techniques that were unknown in the era of Godwin and Malthus, smaller families, later marriage, the greater availability of non-procreative sexual options, and changes in social norms and cultural mores which allow for the greater acceptability of these practices.

As Godwin predicted, the combination of technological improvements, improved education, and greater economic development have actually had the effect of reducing the rate of population growth in developed countries over time. While there is likely no more sexual restraint in the present era than there was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and perhaps even less, contraceptive technology, better healthcare and improved health standards have rendered sexual pursuits less consequential. Many of Godwin’s predictions along these lines have been subsequently borne out by experience of industrialized nations. However, the arguments of Malthus have proven to be much more prescient in the regions of the world where the industrialization process is only just beginning, or has never taken root. The Industrial Revolution was only beginning when the debate between Godwin and Malthus occurred, and neither man could have anticipated the full range of its effects.

Assessing Godwin’s Legacy Two Centuries Later

Godwin’s primary argument was that the human condition and human personality could be improved by means of education and moral enlightenment. Many of his views are certainly reflective of the utopian and excessively optimistic intellectual tendencies that emerged during the apex of the Enlightenment, which was precisely the time during which Godwin was the most prolific. In this sense, Godwin was very much a man of his time and generation. However, in many ways Godwin was also very much ahead of his time. He predicted the capability of technological advancement and economic development to improve the human condition on a significant level, at least with regard to many areas of life. His emphasis on education has been vindicated at least in part by the dramatic rise in literacy rates in the developed world in the two centuries since Godwin was writing.

Godwin’s opposition to the monarchy, the privileges of the hereditary aristocracy, and the Church has been vindicated by the dramatic decline in the power of these institutions since his own lifetime. The successes of modern feminism were foreshadowed by the advocacy for women’s rights championed by Godwin and his first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft. Godwin in many ways epitomized the ideals of liberalism in the classical sense, and no doubt he would be pleased by many of the far-reaching changes that have taken place in the modern world since his time. Godwin likewise serves as a prototype for later anarchist figures (for example, Emma Goldman) that foreshadowed many important political, economic, and social changes to come, even if their pure anarchist ideals remain a lofty vision.

Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

Leave a Reply