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Seeds of Antagonism

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The seeds of Godwin’s antagonism to government were sown in his youth. He was born in the small English town of Wisbech to a family of Dissenters, Protestants who had broken from the Anglican Church and were consequently deprived of many political rights. As a young man, Godwin followed his father into the ministry, but after a brief and disappointing stint as a clergyman, he left in 1783 for London, where he managed a meager existence as a writer and journalist.

Growing disdainful of the oppressive status quo, and inspired by reformist works such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791–92), Godwin published his masterpiece, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in 1793. Written during the French Revolution, it argued that man and society were perfectible. If individuals were allowed to follow their own reason and private judgment, unconstrained by law or custom, then their actions would naturally be benevolent, maximally beneficial both to themselves and to others, allowing repressive institutions to fade away — government would be unnecessary. Because of these ideas, Godwin is known as the father of philosophical anarchism.

Godwin’s polemic brought him real fame, striking a chord with British advocates of social reform whose excitement and hopes had been roused by the revolution in France. The optimism of Political Justice also exerted a powerful influence on Percy Bysshe Shelley, who read the work avidly as a young man and returned to it regularly, annotating the copy shown here in 1820.