Godwin began thinking about Political Justice in 1791, after the publication of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). However, unlike most of the works that Burke's work spawned in ensuing Revolution Controversy, Godwin's did not address the specific political events of the day; it addressed the underlying philosophical principles. Its length and expense (it cost over £1) made it inaccessible to the popular audience of the Rights of Man and probably protected Godwin from the prosecution that other writers such as Paine experienced. Nevertheless, Godwin became a revered figure among radicals and was seen as an intellectual leader among their groups. One way in which this happened is through the many pirated versions of the text, the extracts printed by radical journals, and the lectures John Thelwall gave based on its ideas.
Political Justice was also revered by the first generation of Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, although they would later turn away from radicalism. However, as Romantic scholar Andrew McCann explains, "it is in the radicalism of Percy Shelley's work that Godwin's thinking exerted its greatest influence on the Romantic movement, and ... Shelley's work was most central to the resurgence of radical sentiment after the end of the Napoleonic Wars."
Despite being published during the French Revolution, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the lead up to the 1794 Treason Trials in Britain, Political Justice argues that humanity will inevitably progress: it argues for human perfectability and enlightenment. McCann explains that "Political Justice is ... first and foremost a critique of political institutions. Its vision of human perfectibility is anarchist in so far as it sees government and related social practices such as property monopoly, marriage and monarchy as restraining the progress of mankind." Godwin believed that government "insinuates itself into our personal dispositions, and insensibly communicates its own spirit to our private transactions". Instead, Godwin proposes a society in which human beings uses their reason to decide the best course of action. The very existence of governments, even those founded through consensus, demonstrates that people cannot yet regulate their conduct by the dictates of reason.
Godwin argued that the link between politics and morality had been severed and he wanted to restore it. McCann explains that in Godwin's vision, "as public opinion develops in accordance with the dictates of reason, so too should political institutions change until, finally, they will wither away altogether, leaving the people to organize themselves into what would be a direct democracy." Godwin believed that the public could be rational; he wrote: "Opinion is the most potent engine that can be brought within the sphere of political society. False opinion, superstition and prejudice, have hitherto been the true supporters of usurpation and despotism. Enquiry, and the improvement of the human mind, are now shaking to the center those bulwarks that have so long held mankind in thraldom."
Godwin was not a revolutionary in the vein of John Thelwall and the London Corresponding Society. A philosophical anarchist, he believed that change would come gradually and that there was no need for violent revolution. He argues that "the task which, for the present, should occupy the first rank in the thoughts of the friend of man is enquiry, communication, discussion." Godwin thus believed in individuals' desire the reason sincerely and truthfully with each other. In the twentieth century, Jürgen Habermas developed this idea further.
However, paradoxes and contradictions surface throughout Political Justice. As McCann explains, "a faith in the ability of public opinion to progress towards enlightenment, based on its own exercise of reason, is constantly undone by actual forms of public action and political life, which for Godwin end up dangerously subsuming the individual into the collective." For example, Godwin criticizes public speeches because they rely on sentiment and the printing press because it can perpetuate dogma as well as enlighten.
"Professed Enemies of Politeness": Sincerity and the Problem of Gender in Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice and Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Dec 22, 2000; WOLLSTONECRAFT'S VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN (1792) identifies dissimulation as a specifically female problem. Attacking...