History of Liberalism: The Relationship Between William Godwin and Edmund Burke
Written by Elliot Temple, on July 29, 2011

Godwin moved to London in 1782. There, he learned a lot. He especially favored the speeches of Edmund Burke and Charles Fox (approximately a disciple of Burke). This helped liberalize Godwin's thinking. Later, he became friends with radicals. Godwin wrote:

I have always deemed it not less fortunate, that such men as Fox and Burke were at that time [when Godwin formed his political views] the most eminent speakers in our parliament


One of Godwin's principles, learned around 1781, was "That commerce ought not to be regulated".

Godwin's favoring of free trade (as one of his major philosophical principles!) is in agreement with Burke and contrary to Godwin's false reputation as a socialist. In 1785 or 1786, Godwin wrote in a letter:

It must be granted indeed that commerce never stands on so noble and fair a basis, as when it is made free as the air we breathe, and every species of manufacturer and exchange is committed whole and unmutilated to the hands of industry.

Godwin's magnum opus, _Political Justice_, published 1793, advocates liberalism and some anarchism. It reuses some of Burke's arguments on anarchy, and cites as follows:

Most of the above arguments may be found much more at large in Burke's Vindication of Natural Society; a treatise in which the evils of the existing political institutions are displayed with incomparable force of reasoning and lustre of eloquence, while the intention of the author was to show that these evils were to be considered as trivial.

The third edition also contains this in a different part of the book:

Whilst this sheet is in the press for the third impression, I receive the intelligence of the death of Burke, who was principally in the author's mind, while he penned the preceding sentences. In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard him as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In subtlety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed.

Unfortunately, the admiration was not mutual. Burke dismissed Godwin and Political Justice without ever reading it. He guessed its contents -- quite incorrectly -- based on some of Godwin's associates, and comments by some of Burke's associates. Burke was also very old at the time so he did not have long to discover his mistake.

Godwin favored the same whig party that Burke was a prominent member of. He was offered, but declined, to get more involved with it. He wanted to retain total freedom of thinking, and not be under any pressure to conform to a political platform.

Godwin and Burke moved in somewhat the same circles of people at that time. But Godwin was not well known yet and hadn't written a lot. And Godwin associated with some people favoring very vigorous reform (more than politically feasible). He found them interesting to have discussions with, even if he didn't always agree with them.

One reason for this is that Godwin was interested in *philosophical theory* more than practical reform. Radicals are some of the people that would be most willing to discuss anarchism and the long term, ideal implications of liberalism.

Radicals would also have been some of the people most willing to listen to, and discuss, Godwin's strong critiques of parenting and educational practices, and his opposition to marriage. Basically no one understood Godwin in these areas, but radicals had the sort of mindset where they were interested in strong and unintuitive ideas about reform.

Godwin had social views that are still ahead of their time today. To some extent, a person like that has to look to the fringes of intellectual discourse to find any associates. And he can't expect to only associate with people who he agrees with everything about.

Then came the French Revolution. Burke published his book opposing it in 1790. But Fox and many other whigs favored the revolution. The whig party split, with Burke on one side and almost everyone else on the other side. But Burke gradually won people over to his side over the next several years (before retiring in 1795 and dying 1797).

Burke's book was met with many critical replies over the next few years. Godwin's _Political Justice_ has been classified as one of those replies. However, it wasn't. In the book, Godwin strongly sided with Burke in opposing revolutions. Further, Godwin wrote philosophical book which avoided any discussion of current events.

Nothing in _Political Justice_ significantly contradicts Burke, and all the main themes are in line with Burke and liberalism. Further, Godwin added new arguments and perspectives which Burke (and everyone else) did not know, to make liberalism even better.

But this was badly misunderstood. Many radicals took Godwin as their champion, and he was very popular and well known for several years. Godwin was mistaken was being a Jacobin (French Revolution supporter); many of his more enthusiastic readers were Jacobins.

Godwin denied it whenever it came up, and had written clearly against revolutions in _Political Justice_, but, apparently, no one was listening too closely.

A few months after finishing Political Justice, Godwin wrote this (which went unpublished):

Mr Burke is entitled to great applause for having seen earlier than perhaps any other man the events the seeds of which were sown in the French revolution.


While Burke split the Whig party because he could not abide French Revolution supporters, Godwin (somewhat later) started falling out with some of his radical friends. They strongly supported the French revolution, but he did not. And eventually they started noticing and complaining.

Then, as the violence of the French Revolution escalated, Godwin started falling out with radical friends for a different reason: some of them turned into conservatives and started strongly opposing the French Revolution, and even denouncing Godwin. Meanwhile Godwin's views remained unchanged the entire time. But Godwin's favorability to the revolution had been strongly overestimated by his radical friends, and so some of them demanded he make retractions, but Godwin, having nothing to retract, refused.

Godwin complained in 1801 that a number of his friends first criticized him for not agreeing with their radical notions, and then second criticized him for not strongly opposing their former radical notions. They jumped from one side to the other. Meanwhile Godwin thought more carefully before saying anything and didn't have to dramatically revise his positions.

Many liberals gave up on liberalism as the French Revolution failed (often a bit late, e.g. after years of bloodshed). They thought that it actually was functioning according to the liberal principles it claimed to promote. So they despaired and turned conservative. But Godwin stayed a liberal, and ended up somewhat alone. That isolation is similar to Burke, except that Godwin did not gradually win a lot of people to his cause over time, he remained unpopular for life.

The French Revolution was not a valid refutation of liberalism. The best liberals (e.g. Godwin and Burke) opposed it  and explained mistakes in it, and explained what liberalism really says and how to do things better.

Godwin's unpopularity was increased by the honest memoirs he published about his dead (in child birth in 1797) first wife, Mary Wollestonecraft. She had violated sexual taboos and he was condemned for telling the truth publicly instead of hiding it. Later, Godwin's reputation took another hit when his daughter, Mary Wollestonecraft-Godwin, eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. There were absurd rumors, e.g. that he had sold her to Shelley to pay his debts (Shelley had given money to Godwin because he wanted to support Godwin's philosophy. Shelley was very strongly in favor of Godwin's ideas.)

This helps illustrate how socially conservative society was at the time (including regular liberals), compared to today, and why Godwin had to turn to radicals to find anyone willing to entertain his advanced social ideas.

While many scholars have assumed Godwin to basically agree with his friends, we can learn more about his ideas by reading his books and understanding his philosophy itself. Further, let me consider one particular case: Robert Owen, a socialist.

Robert Owen has been (ridiculously) called Godwin's disciple. If that were true, it would put Godwin quite at odds with Burke. Better choices for Godwin's disciples are his daughters, Mary and Fanny, though no one really qualifies and Godwin's ideas are neglected to this day. Here is what Fanny wrote in a letter to Mary in 1816:

The outline of his plan is this: "That no human being shall work more than two or three hours every day ; that they shall be all equal ; that no one shall dress but after the plainest and simplest manner ; that they be allowed to follow any religion, or no religion, as they please ; and that their studies shall be Mechanics and Chemistry." I hate and am sick at heart at the misery I see my fellow-beings suffering, but I own I should not like to live to see the extinction of all genius, talent, and elevated generous feeling in Great Britain, which I conceive to be the natural consequence of Mr. Owen's plan.

and later Fanny wrote:

[Robert Owen] has come to town to prepare for the Meeting of Parliment, there never was so devoted a being as he is--and certainly it must end in his doing a great deal of good though not the good he talks of.

(I quote Fanny because I haven't found much, one way or another, written by Godwin about Owen. Fanny and Mary were devoted students of Godwin, who had tons of access to his real and honest opinions, and who certainly discussed Owen with Godwin. If Fanny saw through Owen, Godwin must have too.)

While Burke did not understand Godwin, it must also be pointed out that Godwin, despite his admiration for Burke, and learning many things from Burke, did not fully understand Burke. Godwin wrote in 1807:

Mr Burke certainly did depart from and seemingly contradict those sentiments which had obtained him my early admiration: he alleged that he only accommodated himself to circumstances, and brought into view one branch and another of his creed as occasion demanded: I was always willing to believe that his seeming tergiversation might be resolved into no dishonorable error of judgment.

It was as Burke alleged: he emphasized different and compatible aspects of liberalism as the situation required. This was also complicated because some of the stated *principles* of the French Revolution were liberal ideas. Godwin appreciated this at the same time as abhorring the methods and violence, and believing the revolution a very bad idea. Burke must have appreciated it too, but he did not say so because that would have been unwise politically. At least, Burke didn't say so once he saw the French must be stopped. Burke did say so before in 1789:

England gazing with astonishment at a French struggle for Liberty and not knowing whether to blame or to applaud! … The spirit it is impossible not to admire; but the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner


So what was Godwin complaining about? One point on which they differed is Britain going to war with France. Burke in favor, Godwin opposed. Burke considered France considerably more dangerous to other countries than Godwin did.


There is a quote found in a number of papers on these topics in which Burke condemns Godwin. This seems to contradict some of what I said and to make Godwin and Burke seem further apart than they are. Here is my answer to it: it is a forgery. Here is an example ( source: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&docId=9207723 )

'Pure defecated Atheism', said Burke [of Godwin], 'the brood of that putrid carcase the French Revolution.'


If you try to look up the cite, it cannot be traced back to Burke. It was simply fabricated. I also consulted an expert who agrees it is a forgery.

There is also a quote where Burke calls Godwin an "architect of ruin" which is also, ultimately, unsourced and fake. Googling, one can find various claims for Burke to have said it with different targets, mostly the French people doing the revolution. That may well be legitimate, I don't know, but he didn't say it about Godwin.


As far as philosophical ideas of liberalism, Burke and Godwin agreed a great deal. This will hopefully be clear from my individual posts about each of them. They believed improvement was possible and could be accomplished by gradual reform but not revolution.

(read more of Elliot Temple's writing at http://www.fallibleideas.com )