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An Uneasy Affair: William Godwin and English Radicalism, 1793-1797

Chapter 3: Godwin and Radical Politics

In the preface to the first edition of Political Justice Godwin credits much of his political theory to the then recent experiments in America and France. He was attracted to the idea of a simple form of government and society by the ideas suggested in the French Revolution. That event more than anything else prompted his writing the Enquiry. Like Richard Price's sermon at the meeting of the London Revolution Society, Paine's Rights of Man, Mackintosh's Vindiciae Gallicae and Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Godwin's Political Justice was part of the literary outburst produced among the English Jacobins by the French Revolution. Indeed,

his most famous work, the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, was widely looked upon as the foremost theoretical justification of the movement for social change which manifested itself in England in the struggle for parliamentary reform and expansion of individual freedom, and on the Continent . . . in the French Revolution.[1]

But Godwin's response to this event, when examined closely, is strikingly similar to another treatise produced in the early 1790s, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Godwin, the cool and sober philosophic anarchist, has little sympathy with any political activism designed to encourage or hasten the achievement of either human perfectibility or philosophic anarchism. The French Revolution had, to be sure, awakened Godwin's love of freedom, but it had also frightened him. Thus in Political Justice Godwin specifically and emphatically denounces all reform politics, which, in the context of the 1790s, means that he opposed all organized efforts to change the social and political order.

"Tumult and violence," the phrase he constantly used in Political Justice to describe what he saw as the anarchy of radical politics, could never produce an ideal social order. Only when the great majority of people in society were persuaded by the principles of sincerity, candor and benevolence would the chains of tyranny be broken. Any effort to introduce sudden political change that did not consider the public mind would be both absurd and injurious.[2] Men ought to speculate on the ideal form of political society, Godwin argued, but they should be on guard against precipitate measures. According to F. E. L. Priestley, "Everything which suggests precipitancy, more especially everything which suggests violent introduction of change, is anathema to Godwin."[3] Philosophical ideals could be securely established only when there was a general and genuine preference in their favor. Philosophers might well know that one form of government is most desirable, but inferior forms of government must still be tolerated since immediate efforts to remove them would introduce something far worse, chaos and turbulence. All the wheels, Godwin writes, must move together lest the fragile structure of society break down.

The interests of the human species require a gradual, but uninterrupted change. He who should make these principles the regulators of his conduct would not rashly insist upon instant abolition of all existing abuses . . . Truth, however unreserved by the mode of its enunciation, will be sufficiently gradual in pits progress. It will be fully comprehended only by slow degrees, by its most assiduous votaries; and the degrees will be still more temperate by which it will pervade so considerable a portion of the community as to render them mature for a change of their common institutions . . . we shall have many 'reforms, but no revolutions . . . . Revolutions are the produce of passion, not of sober and tranquil reason.[4]

The proper task for the friends of liberty and humanity was not to introduce new practices into politics, but enquiry, communication and discussion. Godwin attacked Rousseau's Social Contract on this very point. He felt that Rousseau's recourse to a "civic religion" in the effort to transform the public mentality established a new authority over a people not yet capable of perceiving the wisdom of the new order. Convincing men to accept a system whose reasonableness is not a part of their general understanding is, for Godwin, the grossest of errors. Persuading men not to use their understanding is just as wrong when used to change established order as when used to uphold it.

The great cause of humanity, which is now pleading in the face of the universe, has but two enemies; those friends of antiquity, and those friends of innovation, who, impatient of suspense, are inclined violently to interrupt the calm, the incessant, the rapid and auspicious progress which thought and reflection appear to be making in the world.[5]

The focus of Godwin's caution, however, is directed against the English agitators who preach the immediate dissolution of all government. Godwin contends that if a revolution were to occur in England in 1793, a period when political understanding and truth had not yet permeated the minds of all, an anarchy of barbarism and violence would be sure to follow. Revolutions, according to Godwin, "disturb the harmony of intellectual nature. They propose to give us something for which we are not prepared, and which we cannot effectively use. They suspend the wholesome advancement of science, and confound the process of nature and reason."[6] The resultant insecurity and public disorder would be far worse than the preceding despotism. Particularly vulnerable for Godwin, were not the poor and exploited, but men such as Godwin himself, the enlightened "best men," who were to be the vanguard of moral and social improvement. True anarchy could not and would not result from the headlong and impatient actions of agitators. This was so because "in order to anarchy being rendered a seed-plot of future justice, reflection and enquiry must have gone before, the regions of philosophy must have been penetrated, and political truth have opened her school to mankind."[7]

This theoretical repudiation of all political activism found in Godwin's Political Justice, was soon to be put to the test in the volatile arena of Jacobin politics. In 1795 and 1796 Godwin's case for philosophical anarchism and the politics of radical agitation met head on. The second party to this confrontation was the London Corresponding Society and its leading spokesman, John Thelwall.

The London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792 by the Scottish bootmaker, Thomas Hardy, hardly seems to merit Burke's assessment in the Reflections as "the mother of all mischief." Its membership, according to Francis Place, an early official of the Society, was about two thousand; more generous estimates place it around twenty thousand. The social types it attracted were primarily artisans, in particular, hatters, bakers, grocers, booksellers, carpenters, watchmakers and shoemakers. Its object was to unite agitation all over England in the form of units of thirty members who would pay a penny each to defray the costs of correspondence and the publication of political literature. Finally, it was the London Corresponding Society and other societies like it "which introduced the reform movement into a new layer of society. The Corresponding Society was open to any working man, and the testimony of Government agents a little later shows that it was, a poor man's society."[8]

The formation of the L.C.S. owed less to the principles of the French Revolution than to the social and political tensions generated within the local environment. According to Gwyn Williams, "the most remarkable feature of this period is not really the growth of organized societies, but the undifferentiated 'diffusion' of political ideals, often related directly, in their turn, to strictly 'local' experience."[9] The division meetings of the Society were devoted to political discussion and communication with other radical societies, the largest being in Sheffield, Norwich, Leeds, Derby, Manchester, Coventry, Newcastle and London. Pamphlets and broadsides were periodically printed proclaiming the Society's positions on current social and political issues. The ideology of the group was simple and straight-forward and was shared by most of the Jacobin groups of the 1790s. It stood for three basic principles; principles enunciated in part during the Wilkite agitation and Yorkshire Association movement of the 1770s: annual parliaments, universal suffrage and parliamentary reform. It might also be added that these principles formed the basis of the six point plan of the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s. By setting up an antiparliament through the use of associations, corresponding societies and national conventions, the radical agitators of this fifty year period of protest placed all their hopes on parliamentary reform. "The London Corresponding Society," writes Henry Collins, "was a heroic attempt to achieve democracy by the efforts of working people, organizing themselves as what we should call a political party, independent of the aristocracy and middle class."[10]

Despite a liberal dose of Thomas Paine's ahistorical and non-constitutional argument from nature and natural rights, most of the Society's rhetoric was couched in terms of recapturing ancient lost English civil and political liberties. The communications and pamphlets which circulated among the divisions of the Society were often signed "Anglo-Saxon" or "citizen." The ancient constitution, freed from its "Norman Yoke," was authority enough upon which to build true English liberty in these areas of reform.[11]

There were in the Society very few who were driven to violent and absurd measures to promote their political aims. Some members, for example, accepted Painite Republicanism, but even they assumed that it would only be achieved after the House of Commons was reformed and the King and House of Lords set aside peacefully. The L.C.S. was, in short, an association of sober shopkeepers, craftsmen and journeymen. "The artisans of the L.C.S.," according to Craig Calhoun, "decided to include in their ^number some from among the more 'common' workers, but it was the artisans who had the community, the organization and the choice."[12] The Society's spokesmen were primarily elite artisans who had previously been excluded from the main currents of political power. As such, instead of wasting time in the public house, the members of the L.C.S. were encouraged to read books, to think for and respect themselves. This notion of artisanal self-respect did not end here either--we find it expressed by working men and their organizations throughout the nineteenth century, most notably in Francis Place, Thomas Cooper and William Lovett. Through knowledge, both of self and the world around him, the artisan felt he would be capable of partaking in the political affairs of the nation. "Education, through the writings of Montesquieu and Condorcet, and later of Godwin, was looked upon as a universal talisman; and the reformers felt certain that if only all men were taught to realize the benefit of their suggestions, the rest would follow inevitably."[13] In the world of late-eighteenth century laissez-faire capitalism, the artisan was attracted to political democracy, for political recognition of himself and the class of men to which he belonged. It was this political motive which behind the activities of the London Corresponding Society and other societies like it.

It was not really surprising then that in May 1794 Pitt's government should try the leaders of the London Corresponding Society for treason. The great treason trials of that year brought to a close the first stage of Pitt's repression of the radical Jacobin community and "by the end of the century Pitt presided over a country in which opposition had been beaten into submission."[14] Pitt's repression had begun more than a year earlier with his decision to ban Paine's Rights of Man and with Paine's subsequent flight to Paris and trial in his absence. Anti-Jacobin and "Church and King" societies quickly spread across England and Scotland, the most important and influential being John Reeves' "Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers." Founded in 1792, ". . . the Association deepened the public mood of suspicion against reformers and helped create the distorted impression that a great, monolithic majority pledged itself to suppressing freedom of expression."[15] Moreover, in 1793 Louis XVI was executed by the French revolutionaries and England went to war with France.

The reason behind Pitt's arrest and trial of the leading members of the radical societies was the public meeting held by the L.C.S. at Chalk Farm on April 14, 1794. This outdoor meeting was attended by members of both the L.C.S. and the older and more moderate Society for Constitutional Information. It was also attended by government spies who reported to Pitt that the radicals were plotting "to assemble a pretended convention of the people, for the purpose of assuming the character of a general representation of the nation superseding the representative capacity of the House and arrogating the legislative power of the country at large."[16] This "convention," "The British Convention of the Delegates of the People to obtain Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments," was designed to take place in the summer of 1794. Pitt viewed the radicals' efforts to form a national 'convention on the French model as a deliberate attempt to overthrow the English government. So in May of 1794, he had arrested seven members of the L.C.S. and six members of the S.C.I. The importance of the ensuing treason trials is best expressed by W. L. Renwick, who writes: 

The question at issue in the trials of 1794 was less the propriety of Englishmen's sympathizing with the ideas of the French Revolution than the preservation of the traditional right of Englishmen to disagree with the English government, but a harassed and nervous government saw nothing but danger in disagreement.[17]

Godwin knew most of the accused. Three of them -- John Home Tooke, Joseph Gerrold and John Thelwall -- were close friends. One defendant, Thomas Holcroft the dramatist and close friend of Godwin, voluntarily entered Newgate for the purpose of expressing his sympathy with the accused. Nevertheless, Godwin had little love or sympathy for the members of any of the political societies. They stood forever condemned by all he had written in Political Justice about political reform and political associations. Moreover, in Political Justice he had even criticized those who argued for change in the name of antiquity. Also he condemned what he saw as the narrowness of vision of groups like the L.C.S. who, in his mind, opposed a specific tax or sought to remedy some temporary or inconsequential grievance.[18] He, after all, had proposed a truly radical restructuring of society, albeit one not readily attained. But his conviction that Pitt's charges were based not on actions but on publications and speeches won out, however, and Godwin anonymously published the Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury on October 21, 1794.[19]

Godwin's contribution in the Cursory Strictures represented perhaps the most signal service he ever rendered to the cause of English radicalism -- in so far as it demonstrated that ministers. Crown lawyers. Privy Counsellors, judges and even parliamentarians had not the clear grounds for incriminating the prisoners that they had claimed. Eyre had presented the formal charge to the Grand Jury building upon a statute of Edward III defining High Treason as any overt act to imagine the death of the king. From this statute Eyre decided that any system propagated to overthrow the government was actually a threat upon the life of the king -- influencing Parliament through standard channels was not treasonable, but any method to force the issue clearly was. Godwin showed Erskine, the main defense counsel, how vulnerable the doctrine of "constructive treason" was and how it could be demolished. "This," Godwin wrote,

is the most important crisis, in the history of English liberty, that the world ever saw. If men can be convicted of High Treason, upon such constructions and implications as are contained in this charge, we may look with conscious superiority upon the republican speculations of France, but we shall certainly have reason to envy the milder tyrannies of Turkey and Ispahan.[20]

If a true bill could be returned against the prisoners that a dubious case of "constructive" treason should be determined in the courts, Godwin's savage indignation was surely justified. "According to this method of estimate," the Strictures implied, "laws, precedents, cases and reports are of high value, and the hanging of a few individuals is a very cheap, economical, and proper way of purchasing the decision of a doubtful speculation."[21] The proper method of creating new treasons unknown to the law was not by judicial interpretation but by the passing of special legislation. The rest of the charge Godwin "cursorily" dismissed as "made up of hypothesis, presumption, prejudication and conjecture."[22] It suddenly began to look as if the real "conspiracy" was one against the prisoners and with Pitt as the chief architect.[23]

When the twelve defendants, or "Acquitted Felons," were found innocent by the jury thanks to the indefatigable efforts and histrionics displayed by Thomas Erskine, Horne Tooke went so far as to claim that Godwin's Cursory Strictures was directly responsible for their ultimate acquittal. Soon, however, the basic differences between Godwin and the principles and actions of the L.C.S. would surface, and true to his own creed of outspoken and sincere censorship, no amount of friendship would quiet Godwin and prevent the developing confrontation with the English Jacobins. The essential ingredient for the evolution of the controversy was the emergence after the treason trials of 1794 of one of the defendants, John Thelwall, as the leading figure in the L.C.S. He gave to the Society a new and decidedly more radical face; "The government feared him mightily. No other radical writer was watched more closely."[24] Poet, playwright, pamphleteer and politician, Thelwall cut a fascinating figure in the 1790s. Friend and confidant of Coleridge, author of Rousseauean pastorals, publisher and sole contributor to a weekly radical newspaper and ever-present agitator at public meetings and lecture halls, Thelwall may well deserve a place in history as one of the first great leaders of the English urban working class. Yet Thelwall was neither an original, nor a subversive thinker, and in nothing was he more representative of his generation than in the unrestrained violence of his rhetoric and in the temporizing moderation evident in his own conduct and the political advice which he gave to his popular audiences -- advice which spoke of the need to be "at once active, vigilant and prudent."[25] In this he showed himself to be the true disciple of Horne Tooke and Godwin -- though Godwin frequently attempted to dissuade him from continuing his lectures and bitterly criticized his failure to do so.[26]

The spies who listened in smoke-filled taverns to Thelwall's emotional indiscretions and his blasphemous raillery, and the government which discovered from his intercepted correspondence that he proudly claimed to be both a republican and a "sans-culotte," could hardly be expected to interpret his opinions as purely speculative.[27] For them, Thelwall was a self-confessed revolutionary. In his public lectures at the Beaufort Buildings, his speeches at large outdoor meetings and in his political weekly, The Tribune, Thelwall constantly used his rhetoric to arouse the sentiments of the working class.

I will proclaim my principles, because I am sure if mankind would but act candidly and fairly, and avow the genuine feelings of their hearts, that system of terror and tyranny which has so long subjugated the nations of Europe, must fade and shrink away without a struggle -- without an individual victim. -- I glory in the principles of the French Revolution; I exult in the triumphs of reason; I am an advocate for the rights of man.[28]

Yet in a speech at the Coachmaker's Hall, delivered early in 1791, Thelwall's tone is much more Godwinian, that is, cool and collected. It was human reason and benevolence, which for Thelwall as well as Godwin, was to be the most effective impulse behind the improvement of man's condition.

But so sure, though slow, in their operations, are the principles of reason, that if mankind would be but persuaded to be more forward in comparing intellects, instead of measuring swords, I can find no room to doubt, that the result must be such a degree of unanimity as would annihilate all rancour and intolerance, and secure the peace and harmony of society.[29]

It is sufficient to say that Thelwall was an ardent disciple of Godwin. In his Tribune articles, and in his popular Rights of Man (1796) he too was a perfectionist, who wrote on necessity, the fraud of punishment and hypocrisy or patriotism as a "pretended virtue," marriage, and gratitude. Thelwall, like Godwin, immediately recognized the obligations of sincerity and truth over friendship. He refused, however, to follow Godwin into the utopia of "political simplicity." For Thelwall, "it is human sympathy in the presence of immediate suffering and his eager wish to hasten practical reforms like universal suffrage and the abolition of 'rotten boroughs' which made him indifferent to futile closet speculations."[30] Much more concerned with economic and social questions, he wrote primarily of specific reforms required to improve the lot of the working man. "What Thelwall is really pleading for," writes B. Sprague Alien, "is not the radical reorganization of the whole system of property, but the just recognition of the social importance of the agricultural laborer, accompanied by a consequent impartial distribution of the necessities of life by virtue of his activities in production."[31] E. P. Thompson has described Thelwall as taking "Jacobinism to the borders of Socialism"; and taking "it to the borders of revolution."[32]

Thelwall led the L.C.S. in the post-trial period in its vigorous opposition to Pitt and the legions of "Church and King." His immediate tactics were twofold. First, he gave rousing lectures with great rhetorical flourish. The lectures soon became the source of inspiration for a multitude of militant Jacobins. Second, and much more courageous, was his other tactic, mass outdoor meetings, some of which were attended by more than 100,000 people. Whatever his cause -- universal suffrage, annual parliaments, shorter working hours or the redistribution of wealth -- he brought an intensity and activism that pushed the L.C.S. from moderation to agitation and active intervention in the street politics of London. As an activist he was disdainful of the philosophical and literary effusions of men like Godwin who refused to participate in Jacobin agitations.

Moderation; Moderation; A compromise between right and wrong; I detest it . . . for what is moderation of principle, but a compromise between right and wrong; an attempt to find out some path of expediency, without going to the first principles of justice. Such attempts must always be delusive to the individual and fatal to mankind. If there is anything sacred, it is principle; Let every man investigate seriously and solemnly the truth and propriety of the principles he adopts, but having adopted, let him pursue them into practice: let him tread on the path which they dictate.[33]

The change in direction Thelwall brought to the once sober L.C.S. did not go unchallenged within the organization. Quietly and beneath the surface there occurred the first skirmish between Thelwall's political tactics and Godwin's principles.[34] In particular, a serious split developed in the Society over the issue of large mass meetings, a split between Thelwall's activist followers and the disciples of Godwin who saw the group as merely engaged in educational work and disseminating political wisdom and truth through publication and discussion. The Godwinian faction lost this fight as evidenced by the resignation of several of the Society's members.

This disagreement took place solely within the radical family. But the next and more devastating confrontation took place in the open for all to see. It came to a head in late 1795 and early 1796 with the introduction into Parliament of Pitt's notorious Anti-Sedition Acts. For Pitt's response to L.C.S. agitation was not the hoped for reform of Parliament, but the introduction of laws abrogating freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. Fearful for its very survival, Pitt's government attacked the Jacobin threat. Food riots had spread through England in the summer of 1795; inflammatory tracts appeared with titles like King Killing, the Reign of the English Robespierre, or the Happy Reign of George the Last. On the way to Parliament, George III was hissed and booed by a large crowd of Londoners thronging the streets. His carriage window was broken by a stone during the procession. For many, the nightmare world of "Revolutionary Paris" seemed to have arrived at St. James. The Anti-Sedition Acts were Pitt's response to all of this. The Foxite opposition fought the bills unsuccessfully, and upon their passage in December, habeas corpus was suspended for eight years. The L.C.S. and the English Jacobins were stilled only to revive in the short-lived naval mutinies of 1797.

Where did Godwin, the philosopher of truth and freedom, stand in all of this? As a careful reading of Political Justice might have predicted, he criticized the L.C.S. and more specifically his one time friend, John Thelwall. His exact position is to be found in his pamphlet, Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr. Pitt's Bills, Concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices, and Unlawful Assemblies, published anonymously in November, 1795, and signed by Godwin as "A Lover of Order." The general reaction of the reformers to this pamphlet was particularly harsh. "In 1795," writes Ford K. Brown,

a second political pamphlet, written under conditions nearly as pressing as those of 1794, showed [Godwin] returned to his philosophic aloofness; the practical reformers were deeply offended; a movement or reaction against the New Philosophy was begun among them that soon included conservatives and liberals alike, and left Godwin almost without an adherent practical or theoretical.[35]

The Considerations began with a general discourse on the principles of philosophical anarchy, as differentiated from false anarchy, offered by one "untainted with the headlong rage of faction." Governing men in a limited circle is easy and can be done without the intervention of institutions. It must be done by reason alone. All men will exercise an inspection over the rest as no deeds can be obscured from the general censure. But in nations, with millions of men, there is no eye but government that is penetrating enough to detect every calamity. Governments are needed to keep public order and to provide security. In language quite similar to that of Burke, Godwin describes the fragility and complexity of society and government.

He that deliberately views the machine of human society, will, even in his speculations, approach it with awe. He will recollect, with alarm, that in this scene, 'fools rush in where angels fear to tread.' The fabric that we contemplate is sort of a fairy edifice, and, though it consist of innumerable parts, and hide its head among the clouds, the hand of a child almost, if suffered with neglect, may shake it into.[36]

To be sure, there are abuses in society -- there are, for example, large numbers of poor and very few rich. But these abuses, Godwin insists, are woven into the social fabric and must be carefully corrected with judgment and deliberation lest one destroy faster than one creates, and produce false anarchy and barbarism. The prime responsibility of government is the protection of order and stability. The major threat to this order is ultimately the L.C.S. Like the French Jacobins, its ranks are filled with ardent zealots. Its speeches and resolutions show a lack of temperance and hence threaten civil order.

Having done with the L.C.S., Godwin then turns upon Thelwall, whose lectures and public addresses violate all reasonable tenets of public life. The public mind, according to Godwin, ought to be enlightened and a uniformity of understanding attained such that no minister would be powerful enough to ignore it. Could this occur in Thelwall's crowded, noisy meetings? No, answers Godwin, and so he condemns Thelwall:

True, we must reform. . . . But reform is a delicate and an awful task. No sacrilegious hand must be put forth to this sacred work. It must be carried on by slow, almost insensible steps, and by just degrees . . . .This is the genuine image of reform; this is the lovely and angelic figure that needs only to be shewn, in order to be universally adored. Oh Reform! Genial and benignant power! how often has thy name been polluted by profane and unhallowed lips! How often has thy standard been unfurled by demagogues, and by assassins drenched and disfigured with human gore![37]

An impatient and impulsive reformer, Thelwall is in no position to weigh his words with proper deliberation and distinguish truth from falsehood. It is easy to anticipate Godwin referring to Thelwall and the L.C.S. in language similar to Burke's: "unacquainted with the world in which they are fond of meddling . . . they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite."[38]

Thelwall was genuinely surprised at the attack leveled against him by Godwin in the Considerations. He lamented that even Godwin, his friend and defender in the treason trials, should turn on him when all the forces of Pitt's repression were against him. But Thelwall ought to have known that candor and sincerity were more important values to Godwin than personal friendship, and that, true to his own teaching, Godwin was obliged to censor his neighbor and thus to contribute to the formation of a more virtuous character. While Political Justice may have been the vision of a total transformation of social life, in practical affairs Godwin was a man of moderation and philosophic detachment. As he later cautioned an impetuous Shelley off to Ireland to help free the Catholics, organized political action was foolhardy: 

Discussion, reading, enquiry, perpetual communication, these are my favorite methods for the improvement of mankind, but associations, organized societies, I firmly condemn. You may as well tell the adder not to sting . . . . Has tell organized societies of men, associated to obtain their rights and to extinguish oppression . . . to be innocent, to employ no violence, and calmly to await the progress of truth. I was never at a public dinner, a scene I have now not witnessed for many years, that I did not see how the enthusiasm was lighted up, how the flame caught from man to man, how fast the dictates of reason were obliterated by the gusts of passion, and how near the assembly was, like Alexander's compatores at Persepolis, to go forth and fire the city, or, like the auditors of Anthony's oration over the body of Caesar, to apply the flaming brand to the mansion of each several conspirator.[39]

What alarmed Godwin most about the London Corresponding Society was the absence at its meetings of "persons of eminence, distinction, and importance in the country," who could temper the enthusiasm of those "not much in the habits of regular thinking." In addition, Godwin charged that Thelwall was "not calmed and consecrated by the mild spirit of philosophy."[40] But as in his attack on reformers in general, the intellectual disdain shown here was by no means a novel departure in Godwin's public writings. Political Justice had been just as outspoken on this score. There, for example, Godwin describes the greater part of the people as "mere parrots" who mouth arguments of which they understand little or nothing about."[41] The masses, for Godwin, as well as for Burke, do not know what they want. "Political simplicity can neither be realized by popular agitation led by radical reformers, nor by the revolutionary overthrow of the existing social order. Nor, for that matter, would widespread popular education suffice. For unlike Paine and Wollstonecraft (one might add Condorcet as well), who advocated a government-run school system, Godwin saw schemes of national education as only further examples of coercive interference with an individuals' unfettered exercise of public judgment.[42]

But if the age of felicity and enlightenment could not be entered through the schoolhouse, nor through street pressures on a weak Parliament, how would it be accomplished? How would Godwin's "simple form of society without government" be at all possible? Power and force could never be the allies of truth and reason; nor, for that matter, could monarchs ever be capable of encouraging progress. The same could be said for the clergy and the aristocracy. As for the emergent middle class of newly enriched commoners, they too were ruled out as too selfish to be entrusted with human amelioration. Lawyers who favored the rich at the expense of the poor were most certainly not Godwin's answer.

Thus the only group capable of the noble mission of moving society to its blissful, uncomplicated future was, for Godwin, the literary and intellectual elite. At heart, Godwin harbors the one basic prejudice shared by most of the eighteenth century philosophes, with the possible exception of Rousseau -- a faith in the power of reflective man. If only a small number of educated and reflective members of society would serve as guides and instructors then "the business would be done."[43] "Real intellectual improvement," according to Godwin, "demands that mind should as speedily as possible, be advanced to the height of knowledge already existing among the enlightened members of the community, and start from there in the pursuit of further acquisitions."[44] Those few  "enlightened friends of political justice," ought to communicate their wisdom to all, and through them, not through national schooling or any other species of education, enlightenment would filter down to all mankind. The process is most succinctly described by Godwin in his series of essays, The Enquirer, published in 1797.

Men of genius must rise up . . . to analyse the machine of society, to demonstrate how the parts are connected together . . . and point out the defects and the remedy. It is thus only that important reforms can be produced. . . . He who is a friend to general happiness, will neglect no chance of producing in his pupil or his child, one of the long-looked for saviours of the human race.[45]

There is no doubt who these men of genius were. They could be found in the literary and philosophical circle that always had Godwin at its center, the circle of Thomas Holcroft and Godwin's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, and that of Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Godwin's son-in-law, Shelley. Writing to a friend, Godwin unabashedly described himself and his correspondent as "of course among the few enlightened."[46] His close friend William Hazlitt wrote that Godwin "has the happiness to think an author the greatest character in the world."[47] His friend Coleridge, however, soon to leave the fold of eighteenth century rationalism, did not even in 1795 share its and Godwin's high hopes for the intellectual elite. In two sentences he repudiates the intellectualism of Godwin in particular and the philosophes in general.

The annals of the French Revolution prove that the knowledge of the few cannot counteract the ignorance of the many . . . the light of philosophy, when it is confined to a small minority, points out the possessors as the victims rather than the illuminators of the multitude.[48]


[1] Clark, Philosophical Anarchism of Godwin, p. 3.

[2] Godwin, Political Justice. 1:242.

[3] Priestley, Introduction to Political Justice. 3:50.

[4] Godwin, Political Justice. 1:244-5.

[5] Ibid., 1:256.

[6] Ibid., 1:274.

[7] Ibid., 2:371.

[8] Philip Anthony Brown, The French Revolution in English History (New York, 1924), p. 56.

[9] Gwyn A. Williams, Artisans and Sans-Culottes: Popular Movements in France and England During the French Revolution (New York: 1969), p. 67.

[10] Henry Collins, "The London Corresponding Society," in John Saville, ed., Democracy and the Labour Movement (London, 1954), p. 132. See also the excellent discussion by T. M. Parssinen on the origin and development of the notion of antiparliamentary pressure groups in "Association Convention and Anti-Parliament in British Radical Politics, 1771-1848," English Historical Review 88 (1973): 504-33.

[11] For a discussion of the Norman Yoke, see Christopher Hill, The Norman Yoke," in Saville, ed., Democracy and the Labour Movement. Hill writes, "Once the role of the working-class movement in modern industrial society has been grasped, nostalgic yearnings for an idealized past give place to a scientific program of action for building the future out of the present." (p. 66). See also J. G. A Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge. 1957).

[12] Craig Calhoun, The Question of Class Struggle: Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism during the Industrial Revolution (Chicago, 1982), p. 35.

[13] Birley, The English Jacobins, p. 15.

[14] John Cannon, Parliamentary Reform, 1640-1832 (Cambridge, 1973), p. 134.

[15] Cone, The English Jacobins, p. 145.

[16] Quoted in Brown, French Revolution in English History, p. 112.

[17] W. L. Renwick, English Literature, 1789-1815 (Oxford, 1963), p. 4.

[18] According to Don Locke, Godwin "believed, and with justice that the debate had concentrated too much on purely local issues, on what had happened in France or might yet happen in Britain, when what was needed was a whole system of moral and political truth, within which each particular problem could find its due solution. Fantasy of Reason, p. 49.

[19] The Cursory Strictures were written between October 17 and 20, 1794, and published in the Morning Chronicle on October 21.

[20] Godwin, Cursory Strictures, p. 24.

[21] Ibid. , p. 22.

[22] Ibid., p. 10.

[23] "The man in whose mind the scheme of this trial was engendered was Pitt." Paul, William Godwin, 1:118.

[24] Walter Phelps Hall, "British Radicalism, 1791-1797," in Columbia University Studies in History, Economics and Public Law 49 (New York, 1912), p. 126.

[25] Quoted in Mrs. Thelwall, The Life of John Thelwall (London, 1837), vol. 1, p. 129. 

[26] John Thelwall, The Tribune: A Periodical Publication, Consisting Chiefly of the Political Lectures of John Thelwall, 3 vols. (London, 1/95-96), 2:viii.The Tribune was printed between March 14, 1795 and April 25, 1796, when it was suppressed by Pitt. 

[27] ". . . I look into my own heart, and I believe I know my motives! . . . I am a 'sans-culotte; ' one of those who think the happiness of millions of more consequence than the aggrandizement of any party junto! or, in other words, an advocate for the rights and happiness of those who are languishing in want and nakedness. John Thelwall,  "The History of Prosecutions for Political Opinions," quoted in Mrs. Thelwall, Life of Thelwall, vol. 1, p. 128.

[28] Thelwall, The Tribune, 1:155.

[29] Quoted in Mrs. Thelwall, Life of Thelwall, vol. 1, pp. 51-2.

[30] B. Sprague Alien, "Godwin's Influence Upon John Thelwalt," Publication of the Modern Language Association 37 (December 1922): 678.

[31] Ibid., p. 679.

[32] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1966), p. 160.

[33] Thelwall, The Tribune, 1:216.

[34] "It was a definite and serious break between radical imaginative theory and radical business-like agitation, the exponents of both which were seen to be driven from public life by the old order." Brown, Life of Godwin, p. 103.

[35] Ibid., p. 97.

[36] William Godwin, Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr. Pitt's Bills, Concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices, and Unlawful Assemblies (London, 1795). pp. 4-5.

[37] Ibid., pp. 17-8.

[38] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited by Thomas H. D. Mahoney (New York, 1955), p. 13.

[39] Godwin to P. B. Shelley (1812), quoted in Brown, Life of Godwin, pp. 261-2.

[40] Godwin, Considerations, pp. 14, 19.

[41] Godwin, Political Justice, 1:181.

[42] See Godwin, Political Justice, vol. 2, Book VI, chapter VIII for his discussion of plans for "National Education."

[43] Godwin, Political Justice, 1:104.

[44] Ibid., 2:299.

[45] Godwin, The Enquirer, pp. 10-11.

[46] Paul, William Godwin, 2:105.

[47] Hazlitt, Spirit of the Age, p. 41.

[48] S. T. Coleridge, Essays on His Own Times, 3 vols. (London, 1850), 1:7-8.

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