William Godwin

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In response to a treason trial of some of his fellow British Jacobins, among them Thomas Holcroft, Godwin wrote Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, October 2, 1794 where he forcefully argued that that the prosecution's concept of "constructive treason" allowed a judge to construe any behaviour as treasonous. It paved the way for a major, but mostly moral, victory for the Jacobins, as they were acquitted.

However, Godwin's own reputation was eventually besmirched after 1798 by the conservative press, in part because he chose to write a candid biography of his late wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, including accounts of her two suicide attempts and her affair (before her relationship with Godwin) with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, which resulted in the birth of Fanny Imlay.

Godwin, consistent in his theory and stubborn in his practice, practically lived in secret for 30 years because of his reputation. However, in its influence on writers such as Shelley and Kropotkin, Political Justice takes its place with Milton's Areopagitica and Rousseau's Émile as a defining anarchist and libertarian text.

Interpretation of political justice

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 construction, he gradually came to consider that "government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of original mind," demonstrating anti-statist beliefs that would later be considered anarchist.

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 intolerable, 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.

Such optimism combined with a strong empiricism to support Godwin's belief that the evil actions of men were solely reliant on the corrupting influence of social conditions, and that changing these conditions could remove the evil in man. This is similar to the ideas of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, concerning the shortcomings of women being down to their discouraging upbringings.

Godwin did not believe that all coercion and violence was immoral per se, as Bakunin and Tolstoy did, but rather recognized the need for government in the short term and hoped that the time would come when it would be unnecessary. Thus, he was a gradualist anarchist rather than a revolutionary anarchist; Godwin supported the ideology behind the French Revolution but certainly not its means. Neither was he as egalitarian as most anarchists are, but he simply thought that discrimination on grounds other than ability was immoral. His utilitarian case for saving the Archbishop of Canterbury before his mother from a burning house is seen as abhorrent even by many egalitarians.

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