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William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries
Ch. V. 1783-1794

Contents Vol. I
Ch. I. 1756-1785
Ch. II. 1785-1788
Ch. III. 1788-1792
Ch. IV. 1793
‣ Ch. V. 1783-1794
Ch. VI. 1794-1796
Ch. VII. 1759-1791
Ch. VII. 1791-1796
Ch. IX. 1797
Ch. X. 1797
Ch. XI. 1798
Ch. XII. 1799
Ch. XIII. 1800
Contents Vol. II
Ch. I. 1800
Ch. II. 1800
Ch. III. 1800
Ch. IV. 1801-1803
Ch. V. 1802-1803
Ch. VI. 1804-1806
Ch. VII. 1806-1811
Ch. VIII. 1811-1814
Ch. IX. 1812-1819
Ch. X. 1819-1824
Ch. XI. 1824-1832
Ch. XII. 1832-1836
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With the publication of “Political JusticeGodwin first became known as an author, and appeared before the world under his own name, except so far as the “Sketches of History” were an exception.

The six sermons which bear that wholly inappropriate title are on the characters of Aaron, Hazael and Jesus—four sermons being devoted to the last. They are fair specimens of Nonconformist pulpit oratory, and, with the exception of one or two sentences, are remarkable chiefly for the extreme lucidity of style. Then, as always, it was impossible to mistake Godwin’s meaning. Simple and straightforward, his language rose sometimes to a rare eloquence, not because he desired it, or valued rhetoric for its own sake, but because the words he used were the fittest to clothe his most intimate convictions, and therefore appealed to the hearts of other men. An early and a diligent student of French literature, there is something in his own style of the characteristics of the better French writers, where the thoughts are seen through rather than in the language, like pebbles in a deep well, and invested with a beauty beyond their own.

Other points for which the Sermons are noticeable are these. Writing nominally as a strong Calvinist, and believing himself to uphold the absolute sovereignty of God, he yet strikes a note which, though he knew it not, was dissonant to all the rest. “God himself,” he says in
Sermon I., “God himself has no right to be a tyrant.” Of this passage the
English Review, in a very favourable article, says: “In some instances his vivacity transports him beyond the bounds of decorum.” It was the enunciation of a principle from which he was afterwards to draw unexpected conclusions.

Again, writing as an orthodox believer, he no doubt thought that he held that Jesus Christ was God, and by that fact different from all men, not to be compared or placed on the same level with them. But at the bottom of his mind was the feeling that if Jesus were to be loved and venerated, it was not as God, but for his likeness to, and his oneness with, humanity. And this found expression in the sentence which ends the Sermon on the Resignation of Aaron.


“May we all of us exemplify the quietness of an Aaron, and the unresentful mildness of a redeemer, that so we may be united with these great and illustrious characters for ever hereafter.”


Little can here be said of the three novels which issued in such rapid succession from Godwin’s brain and pen during the years 1783-4—“Damon and Delia,” “The Italian Letters,” and “Imogen; a Pastoral Romance,” professing to be a translation from an old Welsh MS. These appear to have vanished into nothingness as well as forgetfulness, and the most diligent researches have as yet obtained only slight indications that once they were deemed interesting. But this need scarcely be regretted. The emotional part of Godwin’s nature had never as yet been stirred, while he had gained no such experience of life as was his when he wrote “Caleb Williams.”

It is, however, a real misfortune that much else which Godwin wrote at this date is buried in the pages of reviews,
some of them extinct and hard to discover, and some, like the older volumes of the
Annual Register, reposing dusty, worm-eaten, and seldom handled, on the more inaccessible shelves of libraries. The sketch of English History which Godwin contributed to the Annual Register from 1785 onward is well worthy to stand alone and to live. It is entitled “The History of Knowledge, Learning, and Taste in Great Britain,” and the portion contributed by him begins with the reign of Henry VII. In addition to his invariable clearness and method in the grouping and presentation of his facts, there is much curious learning and research displayed, much wide reading, sympathy with art, keen power of criticism, and a kindly toleration for views the most opposed to his own. It may be suspected that the apparent research of some of his contemporaries is really Godwin’s research alone. It is scarcely likely that he, Charles Lamb, and Coleridge were all reading the Schoolmen at the same time, all picking out the same absurd questions from Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas! yet there is a most suspicious resemblance in the selections made by all three, ending with the enquiry whether a million of angels might not sit upon a needle’s point; and these selections certainly appeared first in the Annual Register.

The paragraphs in which the Schoolmen and their influence are dismissed after a fairly full account may serve to show the calm and judicial tone of the writer, and the work done for the Annual Register is an adequate specimen of the manner in which he performed the whole of that class of work, anonymous, underpaid, and almost unnoticed.


“With all the misapplication of their talents, the school divines and philosophers were many of them great men. Thomas
Aquinas in particular had extraordinary abilities which, if they had been properly directed, might have rendered him very useful to mankind. Nor is it to be imagined that everything in him is trifling and ridiculous. There are, it is believed, parts of his works which might even now be read with pleasure and advantage.

“So far as it is an honour to have produced the Schoolmen our own country had its full share in that honour. Not to mention Lanfranc and Anselm, Duns Scotus was a Briton, probably born in Scotland, and William Occam was an Englishman. Alexander Hales, John Baconthorpe, Thomas Bradwardine, and a large list of names might be produced, if it were necessary to rescue them from the oblivion in which they have long slept.”—New Annual Register, 1786, p. viii.


Though, however, the “Sketches of History” were the firstfruits of Godwin’s pen, his first published work was the “Life of Lord Chatham.” It was issued anonymously, probably because it was a first effort, and its author was as yet uncertain of his own powers, as well as his own opinions; and even up to the date at which these lines are written, it stands in the British Museum catalogue with a query as to whether it is really Godwin’s.

The book is rare, but, for those who can lay hands on it thoroughly worth reading in itself, and also as showing how the commanding figure of the great tory statesman drew the enthusiastic admiration of one who was so soon to startle his contemporaries, by asserting in “Political Justice” that all government whatever was an infringement of the Rights of Man. A few sentences of the concluding chapter may be given.


“Like the first king of the Jews, he walks, elevated by the head above his compatriots, who seem as they were born his subjects. Men of genius and attraction, a Carteret, a Townshend, and I had almost said, a Mansfield, however pleasing in a limited
view, appear evidently in this comparison to shrink into narrower dimensions, and walk a humbler circle. All that deserves to arrest the attention in taking a general survey of the age in which he lived is comprised in the history of

“No character ever bore the more undisputed stamp of originality. Unresembled and himself, he was not born to accommodate to the genius of his age. While all around him were depressed by the uniformity of fashion, or the contagion of venality, he stood aloof. He consulted no judgment but his own, and he acted from the unstained dictates of a comprehensive soul. He loved fame too much, but it was the weakness of a noble mind. He loved power too much, but it was power of a generous strain. And he had passions that had nothing selfish in their texture. No spirit ever burned with a purer flame of patriotism.”
Life of Chatham, pp. 287, 288.


These writings were, however, one and all, provisional and preparatory. They were soon forgotten; the fate, with the rarest exceptions, of all anonymous writing. But the publication of “Political Justice” marked an epoch in English thought. It was coincident with the rise of a school of philosophic radicals, and in large measure placed in clear words the views of that school, on many, though perhaps not all, of the subjects treated. There were, however, very few who carried out logical conclusions so consistently and unshrinkingly as Godwin. He alone formulated, among his political judgments, the extreme severity of social principles, the denial of all play to feeling and affection, which Fawcet and Holcroft had more loosely held as matters for informal discussion.

By the words “Political Justice,” the author meant “the adoption of any principle of morality and truth into the practice of a community,” Vol. I. p. 19, and the book was therefore an enquiry into the principles of society, of govern-
ment, and of morals. The first volume deals with principles only; the second with the mode in which those principles would exhibit themselves in politics and in society.

Twelve years before he wrote his preface, that is, when living under the influence of Mr Frederic Norman at Stowmarket, Godwin “became satisfied that monarchy was a species of government unavoidably corrupt,” Vol. I. p. viii. The ideas suggested by the French Revolution induced him to desire a government of the simplest construction, and he gradually became aware that “government, by its very nature, counteracts the improvement of original mind,” Vol. I. p. x. 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,” Vol. I. p. 18. Education, literature, and political justice “are three principal causes by which the human mind is advanced towards a state of perfection,” Vol. I. p. 19; hence what is really required is that the truth should be placed before men, and free discussion allowed; they would then, in the widest sense of the words, “know the truth, and the truth would make them free.” Hence all control of man by man is more or less intolerable, and the day will come when each man, doing what seems right in his own eyes, will also be doing what is in fact best for the community, because all will be guided by principles of pure reason. But all was to be done by calm discussion, and matured change resulting from discussion. Hence, while Godwin thoroughly approved of the philosophic schemes of the precursors of the Revolution, he was as far removed as Burke himself from
agreeing with the way in which they were carried into practical life, and he strongly disapproved of the mode in which some English politicians of his own school from time to time endeavoured to hasten the course of events. He says, in a note to his first chapter, that the foregoing “arguments are for the most part an abstract, the direct ones from
Locke on the ‘Human Understanding,’ those which relate to experience from Hartley’sObservations on Man,’ and those respecting education from the ‘Emile’ of J. J. Rousseau.” In these views he never wavered, and his life was thoroughly consistent. He never allowed himself to be converted to the expediency of giving and taking in politics, or to see that principles can be applied to facts only by losing a portion of their gloss and of their truth. He never could have been a worker on the active stage of life. But he was none the less a motive power behind the workers, and “Political Justice” may take its place with the “Speech for Unlicensed Printing,” the “Essay on Education,” and “Emile,” among the unseen levers which have moved the changes of the times.

The first edition of the book—to which all references are made—so well deserves reading for its own sake, even at this date, that. no exhaustive extracts need here be given: it is enough to describe the scope of the book. But some points in which the writer touched on matters still under discussion, and full of interest for us, may yet detain us awhile. In the chapter on the Perfectibility of Man, entitled “Human Inventions capable of perpetual improvement,” Godwin found himself face to face with the problem of the origin of language. It would be difficult even now to put forward the interjectional, and probably sound theory on this subject more clearly and excellently than is here done:—


“Its beginning was probably from those involuntary cries which infants, for example, are found to utter in the earliest stages of their existence, and which, previously to the idea of exciting pity or procuring assistance, spontaneously arise from the operation of pain upon our animal frame. These cries, when actually uttered, become a subject of perception to him by whom they are uttered, and being observed to be constantly associated with certain preliminary impressions, and to excite the idea of those impressions in the hearer, may afterwards be repeated from reflection, and the desire of relief. Eager desire to communicate any information to another will also prompt us to utter some simple sound for the purpose of exciting attention. This sound will probably frequently recur to organs unpractised to variety, and will at length stand as it were by convention for the information intended to be conveyed. But the distance is extreme from those simple modes of communication which we possess in common with some of the inferior animals, to all the analysis and abstraction which languages require.”—Vol. I., p. 45.


Again, when discussing the effect that climate and other physical influences have on the character of man, Godwin recognised in the frankest way the animal nature which can thus be affected, even while he combats the view that man is unable to triumph over those physical environments.


“‘Breed, for example, appears to be of unquestionable importance to the character and qualifications of horses and dogs. Why should we not suppose this or certain other brute and occult causes to be equally efficacious in the case of men? How comes it that the races of animals perhaps never degenerate if carefully cultivated, at the same time that we have no security against the wisest philosopher’s begetting a dunce?’

“I answer that the existence of physical causes cannot be controverted. In the case of man, their efficacy is swallowed up in the superior importance of reflection and science. In animals, on the contrary, they are left almost alone. If a race of negroes were taken, and maintained each man from his infancy, except so
far as was necessary for the propagation of the species, in solitude; or even if they were excluded from an acquaintance with the improvements and imaginations of their ancestors, though permitted the society of each other, the operation of breed might perhaps be rendered as conspicuous among them as in the different classes of horses and dogs. But the ideas they would otherwise receive from their parents and civilized or half civilized neighbours would be innumerable, and if the precautions above mentioned were unobserved, all parallel between the two cases would cease.”—Vol. I., pp. 58, 59.


It was, of course, impossible that the writer of the above should, in the then state of science, be aware how large a part exterior causes play in influencing the breeds of man, nor the vast time in which such causes may have been at work; but the fact that the above sentences could not be written now, by no means detracts from their value then.

So logical and uncompromising a thinker as Godwin, so plain spoken and unequivocal a writer, could not go far in the discussion of abstract questions without coming into collision with received opinions. The chapter on justice is interesting, as showing how largely he was still under the influence of Fawcet, and Fawcet’s teacher, Jonathan Edwards. He says:—


“Justice is a rule of conduct originating in the connection of one percipient being with another. A comprehensive maxim which has been laid down upon the subject is ‘that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.’ But this maxim, though possessing considerable merit as a popular principle, is not modelled with the strictness of philosophical accuracy.

“In a loose and general view I and my neighbour are both of us men, and of consequence entitled to equal attention; but in reality it is probable that one of us is a being of more worth and importance than the other. A man is of more worth than a beast, hecause, being possessed of higher faculties, he is capable of a
more refined and generous happiness. In the same manner the illustrious
Archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his chambermaid, and there are few of us who would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred.

“Supposing I had been myself the chambermaid, I ought to have chosen to die rather than that Fenelon should have died. The life of Fenelon was really preferable to that of the chambermaid. But understanding is the faculty that perceives the truth of this and similar propositions, and justice is the principle that regulates my conduct accordingly. It would have been just in the chambermaid to have preferred the Archbishop to herself. To have done otherwise would have been a breach of justice.

* * * *

“Supposing the chambermaid to have been my wife, my mother, or my benefactor, this would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the chambermaid, and justice, pure unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fenelon at the expense of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ to overturn the decisions of everlasting truth? My wife or my mother may be a fool or a prostitute, malicious, lying, or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it that they are mine?

“‘But my mother endured for me the pains of childbearing, and nourished me in the helplessness of infancy.’ When she first subjected herself to the necessity of these cares, she was probably influenced by no particular motives of benevolence to her future offspring. Every voluntary benefit, however, entitles the bestower to some kindness and retribution. But why so? Because a voluntary benefit is an evidence of benevolent intention, that is of virtue. It is the disposition of the mind, not the external action that entitles to respect But the merit of this disposition is equal whether the benefit was conferred upon me or upon another. I and another man cannot both be right in preferring our own indi-
vidual benefactor, for no man can be at the same time both better and worse than his neighbour. My benefactor ought to be esteemed, not because he bestowed a benefit on me, but because he bestowed it upon a human being. His desert will be in exact proportion to the degree in which that human being was worthy of the distinction conferred . . . . Gratitude therefore . . . is no part either of justice or virtue. By gratitude I understand a sentiment which would lead me to prefer one man to another from some other consideration than that of his superior usefulness or worth; that is which would make something true to me (for example this preferableness), which cannot be true to another man, and is not true in itself”—Vol. I., p. 84.


Much more, however, was to come which ran still more counter to the feelings of society. The propriety of allowing or not allowing play to the affections might seem to most persons a purely abstract question. But no abstract speculation was advanced when in a day in which the penal code was still extremely severe Godwin argued gravely against all punishments, not only that of death. He considered that the only true end of punishment is correction—a proposition which may well be disputed—and that the only proper way of conveying to any understanding a truth of which it is ignorant, or enforcing a truth imperfectly held, is by an appeal to reason. And as no two men were ever guilty of the same crime, positive law was an evil in that it levels all characters and tramples on all distinctions.

Yet, however faulty might the law be, however vicious the state of society, however tyrannical the government enforcing the one and upholding the other, no conceivable state of things would justify any violent change, plot or conspiracy, still less tyrannicide or the execution of the malefactor to the State, for


“If the attempt prove abortive it renders the tyrant ten times more bloody, ferocious, and cruel than before. If it succeed and the tyranny be restored, it produces the same effect on his successors. In the climate of despotism some solitary virtues may spring up but in the midst of plots and conspiracies there is neither truth nor confidence, nor love nor humanity.”—Vol. I., p. 228.


In all this Godwin was in fact ignoring what every statesman must face, and what history as yet has ever proved true, that to carry any principle into practical life some part of the principle must of necessity be lost, that there is no progress whatever without attendant circumstances which fall hard on some of the community. Godwin approved the French Revolution so long as he had to consider only the problems presented to him by Rousseau, and the reforms urged by Turgot; he shrank not only from the violence of the Terror, but even from the political associations which sought to mature possible changes before they were openly suggested, and from such healthy popular risings as the destruction of the Bastille.

Before passing from the strictly theoretical portion of the work, whence the foregoing extracts have been taken, Godwin paused in order to consider those general principles of the human mind, which were most intimately connected with his subject. None of these principles seemed of greater moment than that which affirms that all actions are necessary. The chapters on the doctrine of necessity are among the most interesting and lucid in the whole book, nor is the interest diminished by his admission that the substance of a large part of his arguments may be found in Hume’sEnquiry concerning Human Understanding,” and in Jonathan Edwards’sEnquiry into the Freedom of the Will.” The arguments on either side of the controversy must in any age be much the same in all the writers of
that age, and their immediate intellectual descendants, but the clearness and precision of the words in which they are clothed is Godwin’s own.

When these principles, as laid down in the first five books, were to be applied to existing society, Godwin came most decidedly into collision with all opinion which was considered respectable, orderly, and religious. Not only did he assail all government, even that then considered by the liberal party as full of promise—the government by National Assemblies; not only did he assail religious establishments and tests, but property itself, and marriage, were not to him sacred things, apart and unassailable. His observations on property include some suggestive hints on his whole scheme of political justice, if, indeed, the word “scheme” can apply in any sense to his theory of life in a community.


“The subject of property is the key-stone that completes the fabric of political justice. According as our ideas respecting it are crude or correct, they will enlighten us as to the consequences of a simple form of society without government, and remove the prejudices that attach us to complexity. There is nothing that more powerfully tends to distort our judgment and opinions than erroneous notions concerning the goods of fortune. Finally, the period that shall put an end to the system of coercion and punishment is intimately connected with the circumstance of property being placed upon an equitable basis.

* * * * * * *

“To whom does any article of property, suppose a loaf of bread, justly belong? To him who most wants it, or to whom the possession of it will be most beneficial. Here are six men, famished with hunger, and the loaf is, absolutely considered, capable of satisfying the cravings of them all. Who is it that has a reasonable claim to benefit by the qualities with which this loaf is endowed? They are all brothers, perhaps, and the law of primogeniture bestows it
exclusively on the eldest. But does justice confirm this award? The laws of different countries dispose of property in a thousand different ways; but there can be but one way which is most conformable to reason.

“The doctrine of the injustice of accumulated property has been the foundation of all religious morality. The object of this morality has been to excite men by individual virtue to repair this injustice . . .

“But while religion inculcated on mankind the impartial nature of justice, its teachers have been too apt to treat the practice of justice, not as a debt, which it ought to be considered, but as an affair of spontaneous generosity and bounty. They have called on the rich to be clement and merciful to the poor. The consequence of this has been that the rich, when they bestowed the most slender pittance of their enormous wealth in acts of charity, as they were called, took merit to themselves for what they gave, instead of considering themselves as delinquents for what they withheld.

“Religion is in reality, in all its parts, an accommodation to the prejudices and weaknesses of mankind. Its authors communicated to the world as much truth as they calculated that the world would be willing to receive. But it is time that we should lay aside the instruction intended only for children in understanding, and contemplate the nature and principles of things. If religion had spoken out, and told us it was just that all men should receive the supply of their wants, we should presently have been led to suspect that a gratuitous distribution to be made by the rich was a very indirect and ineffectual way of arriving at this object The experience of all ages has taught us, that this system is productive only of a very precarious supply. The principal object which it seems to propose, is to place this supply in the disposal of a few, enabling them to make a show of generosity with what is not truly their own, and to purchase the gratitude of the poor by the payment of a debt. It is a system of clemency and charity, instead of a system of justice. It fills the rich with unreasonable pride by the spurious
denominations with which it decorates their acts, and the poor with servility by leading them to regard the slender comforts they obtain, not as their incontrovertible due, but as the good pleasure and the grace of their opulent neighbours.”—Vol. II., pp. 788-798.


There is one institution which is in the minds of most men—or at least most men would have it supposed to be so—yet more sacred than that of property, namely, marriage. It is generally assumed that whoever would strike a blow at this relation can only do so in a spirit of lawless lust. Such, however, was evidently not the case with Godwin. He was a man to whom passion was unknown, who could discuss the relation of the sexes quite apart from any special application. And this very fact made his opinions more important than they would otherwise have been. To marriage he at this time objected altogether, and his objections are extremely curious, when, and in so far as, they go beyond those superficial ones easily made, and as easily refuted. These are such as that the inclinations of two human beings do not coincide through any length of time, that thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex do not know their own minds, and are reduced to make the best of an inevitable mistake. But the real objections felt by Godwin are those which are bound up with the whole idea of his book. Thus—


“Marriage is law, and the worst of all laws. Whatever our understandings may tell us of the person from whose connection we should derive the greatest improvement, of the worth of one woman, and the demerits of another, we are obliged to consider what is law, and not what is justice.

“Add to this that marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institution to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice is alive and vigorous. . . .


“The abolition of marriage will be attended with no evils. We are apt to represent it to ourselves as the harbinger of brutal lust and depravity. But it really happens in this, as in other cases, that the positive laws which are made to restrain our vices irritate and multiply them. . . . . The intercourse of the sexes will fall under the same system as any other species of friendship. . . . I shall assiduously cultivate the intercourse of that woman whose accomplishments shall strike me in the most powerful manner. ‘But it may happen that other men will feel for her the same preference that I do.’ This will create no difficulty. We may all enjoy her conversation, and we shall all be wise enough to consider the sensual intercourse a very trivial object.”—Vol. II., pp. 849-851.


But perhaps the most striking instance of Godwin’s thorough consistency is to be found in the fact that he does not shrink from applying his doctrine to the case even of the young. It will of course follow that if in an ideal community the child, however wise, cannot know his own father, education will be the business, not of the family, but of the state. But


“The task of instruction under such a form of society as that we are contemplating will be greatly simplified and altered from what it is at present. It will then be thought no more legitimate to make boys slaves than to make men so. The business will not then be to bring forward so many adepts in the egg-shell that the vanity of parents may be flattered in hearing their praises. No man will then think of vexing with premature learning the feeble and inexperienced, for fear that when they come to years of discretion they should refuse to be learned. Mind will be suffered to expand itself in proportion as occasion and impression shall excite it, and not be tortured and enervated by being cast in a particular mould. No creature in human form will be expected to learn anything but because he desires it, and has some conception of its utility and value; and every man, in proportion to his capacity,
will be ready to furnish such general hints and comprehensive views as will suffice for the guidance and encouragement of him who studies from a principle of desire.”—Vol. II., pp. 853, 854.


Portions of this treatise, and only portions, found ready acceptance in those minds which were prepared to receive them. Perhaps no one received the whole teaching of the book. Every strong reformer, religious or political, states general principles which must be accommodated to the existing state of things, only those are accepted in which he gives a voice to opinions which are “in the air,” while the originality and independence of thought gain for him the hearing which would not be his did he merely put forward thoughts which were struggling for expression. The book gave cohesion and voice to philosophic Radicalism; it was the manifesto of a school without which the milder and more creedless liberalism of the present day had not been. Godwin himself in after days modified his communistic views, but his strong feeling for individualism, his hate of all restrictions on liberty, his trust in man, his faith in the power of reason remained; it was a manifesto which enunciated principles modifying action even when not wholly ruling it. Perhaps none but the founder of any system ever believes that it can be maintained in its entirety, and among such founders few have been so consistent and uncompromising as Godwin.

But while his friends and admirers allowed to slip that which they could not accept, it was far other with his political opponents. He who was to the one party all but an inspired teacher, though the source of the inspiration would have been hard to define, was to the other party a revolutionary Atheist, who went in daily danger of a prosecution for treason. He had the affection of a small and growing band of friends, but he was a mark for the scorn
of all who were, or desired to be considered, orthodox and respectable.

In a separate note-book headed “Supplement to Journal,” Godwin has recorded conversations of various friends, partly in regard to his book. Under date of 1793, March 23, he writes:—


Dr Priestley says my book contains a vast extent of ability—Monarchy and Aristocracy, to be sure, were never so painted before—he agrees with me respecting gratitude and contracts absolutely considered, but thinks the principles too refined for practice—he felt uncommon approbation of my investigation of the first principles of government, which were never so well explained before—he admits fully my first principle of the omnipotence of instruction and that all vice is error—he admits all my principles, but cannot follow them into all my conclusions with me respecting self-love—he thinks mind will never so far get the better of matter as I suppose; he is of opinion that the book contains a great quantity of original thinking, and will be uncommonly useful.

Horne Tooke tells me that my book is a bad book, and will do a great deal of harm—Holcroft and Jardine had previously informed me, the first, that he said the book was written with very good intentions, but to be sure nothing could be so foolish; the second, that Holcroft and I had our heads full of plays and novels, and then thought ourselves philosophers.”


Caleb Williams,” the first of Godwin’s novels which was destined to survive, was published in May 1794. Very many years afterwards, he wrote a short notice of his intention in this book:—


“I believed myself fortunate in the selection I had made of the ground-plot of that work. An atrocious crime committed by a man previously of the most exemplary habits, the annoyance he suffers from the immeasurable and ever-wakeful curiosity of a raw youth who is placed about his person, the state of doubt in which
‘Caleb Williams.’117
the reader might for a time be as to the truth of these charges and the consequences growing out of these causes, seemed to me to afford scope for a narrative of no common interest.”
Advertisement to “
St Leoned. of 1831.


He was not disappointed; the novel had very great success, and was dramatized by Colman under the name of “The Iron Chest.” In spite of the amazing impossibilities of the story and its unrelieved gloom; in spite of the want of almost any character to admire—since Mr Clare, by whom Godwin probably intended to represent his friend Fawcet, dies early in the tale; though there is no real heroine and scarcely mention of love, the story has survived and has probably been read by very many persons who, but for it, have never heard of Godwin. It is a very powerful book, and the character of Falkland the murderer is unique in literature.

In the year 1794 Godwin found it his duty to fling himself to a greater extent than he had hitherto done into the stream of active politics. He came out of his study to stand by prisoners arraigned of a crime of which the terrors then were real—High Treason. His own note best sums up the circumstances—


“The year 1794 was memorable for the trial of twelve persons, under one indictment upon a charge of high treason. Some of these persons were my particular friends; more than half of them were known to me. This trial is certainly one of the most memorable epochs in the history of English liberty. The accusation, combined with the evidence adduced to support it, is not to be exceeded in vagueness and incoherence by anything in the annals of tyranny. It was an attempt to take away the lives of men by a constructive treason, and out of many facts, no one of which was capital, to compose a capital crime. The name of the
man in whose mind the scheme of this trial was engendered was
Pitt. Mr Horne Tooke was apprehended on the 12th of May. The novel of “Caleb Williams” was then ready for publication, and appeared about a fortnight after. In the following month I paid a visit to Mr Merry at Bracon Ash, near Norwich, and to my friends and relatives in Norfolk, whom I had not visited for twelve years. In October I went into Warwickshire on a visit to Dr Parr, who had earnestly sought the acquaintance and intimacy of the author of “Political Justice.” My position on these occasions was a singular one: there was not a person almost in town or village who had any acquaintance with modern publications that had not heard of the “Enquiry concerning Political Justice,” or that was not acquainted in a great or small degree with the contents of that work. I was nowhere a stranger. The doctrines of that work (though if any book ever contained the dictates of an independent mind, mine might pretend to do so) coincided in a great degree with the sentiments then prevailing in English society, and I was everywhere received with curiosity and kindness. If temporary fame ever was an object worthy to be coveted by the human mind, I certainly obtained it in a degree that has seldom been exceeded. I was happy to feel that this circumstance did not in the slightest degree interrupt the sobriety of my mind.

“On the 6th of October, the day after that on which I left London for Warwickshire, the grand jury found a bill of indictment against the twelve persons who had been accused before them. Among the names in the indictment were included not only the persons known to me who were already in confinement, but also that of my friend Holcroft, and others who were at large. Holcroft immediately surrendered himself, and was committed to Newgate: he wrote me word of his situation, and requested my presence. I left Dr Parr on Monday the 13th, and reached town on that evening. Having fully revolved the subject, and examined the doctrines of the Lord Chief Justice’s charge to the grand jury, I locked myself up on Friday and Saturday, and wrote my strictures on that composition, which appeared at full length in the Morning Chronicle of Monday, and were transcribed from thence
into other papers. During the progress of these trials I was present at least some part of every day.
Hardy’s trial lasted eight, and Horne Tooke’s six days. Among the many atrocities witnessed on that occasion, perhaps the most flagitious was the speech of the Attorney-General, now Lord Eldon, at the close of the trial of that extraordinary man. In his peroration he burst into tears, and entreated the jury to vindicate by their verdict his character and fame; he urged them by the consideration of his family to co-operate with him in leaving such a name behind to his children as they should not look upon as their disgrace. It was in the close of this year that I first met with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, my acquaintance with whom was ripened in the year 1800 into a high degree of affectionate intimacy.”


The Diary does no more than confirm the above, adding some touches of detail. Thus it is recorded, that during his stay with Dr Parr he went to church, and had an altercation with Mrs Parr about the Lord’s Supper, or, in his own curious mixture of Latin and French, “altercation de Madame de cœnâ dom.” He was very regular in attendance at the “Philomaths,” a society which met every Tuesday and discussed abstract questions, such as, taken at random, “Fame,” “Tribunes,” “Marriage,” “Incest,” “a God.” His interest in the political trials was most keen and unselfish, though he must have felt the force of the “tua res agitur paries quum proximus ardet.”

The real charge against the prisoners, when divested of amplifications and technicalities, was that they had endeavoured to change the form of Government established, by publishing, or causing to be published, divers books or pamphlets, and by belonging to political societies having the same object.

Mrs Shelley has left, as was natural in the daughter of such a father and the wife of such a husband, very full
notes in reference to the political trials, which may be quoted at length, for they clearly represent not only her own mind, but the impression left on her by the conversation of her father in his later years. Though the circumstances of which she speaks occurred before her birth, she yet had a knowledge of them at second-hand in a way impossible to those of us who can only read them in the dry pages of annual registers and biographical dictionaries.

The trials of Palmer, Muir, and others in Scotland for treason, or, as it was then called in Scotland, “leasing making,” took place in the autumn of the year 1793.


“In these years,” she writes, “the collision between Government and the advocates for reform, or something more, was at its height. While one set of men saw an opening for their endeavours for political freedom, another became panic-struck, believing that the horrors of the French Revolution were about to overflow into this island. There were many whose zeal transported them with a wish to excite the multitude to use their numerical strength to force Government to adopt liberal measures; nor can we wonder that Ministers considered it right to put down such appeals, rendered trebly dangerous by the state of excitement into which the country was thrown.

“As the ministers of those days were in no degree favourable to the extension of the liberty of the subject, they became exasperated by the attempts of the reformers, and yet were not sorry to see them come to such a head as would admit of their taking vindictive measures. They resolved not to be sparing in their punishments, and to use the whole force of the law against such as should become their victims. Their first operations were entered on in Scotland, where the laws against sedition were severer than here, and juries more entirely under the direction of the court. Messrs Palmer, Skirving, and Muir were apprehended for various seditious practices. They were found guilty, and sentenced to be transported for seven and fourteen years. This
sentence was put into execution soon after, and by its atrocity, and the horror excited by the idea that men of good education were to be subjected to the treatment of felons excited universal compassion. Their case was brought forward in Parliament, but without effect, and called forth also the following indignant letter from
Mr Godwin to the Morning Chronicle:

“‘To the Editor of the ‘Morning Chronicle.’

“‘Sir,—The situation in which Messieurs Muir and Palmer are at this moment placed is sufficiently known within a certain circle, but is by no means sufficiently adverted to by the public at large. Give me leave, through the channel of your paper, to call their attention to it.

“‘All the consolations of civilized society are pertinaciously refused to them. Property, whether originally their own or the gift of their friends, is to be rendered useless. Supplies of clothing, it seems, have been graciously received on board the vessels; but stores of every kind and books have constantly been denied admission. The principle which has been laid down again and again by the officers of Government is—they are felons like the rest,

“‘This, sir, is a species of punishment scarcely precedented in the annals of mankind. Tiberius, and his modern antitype, Joseph the Second, are mere novices in the arts of cruelty compared with our blessed administration. Joseph took judges from the bench, men accustomed to reflection, to deference and elegant gratification, and made them scavengers in the streets of Vienna. Mr Pitt probably took the hint from this example. But he has refined upon his model, inasmuch as he has sent the victims of his atrocious despotism out of the country. If I must suffer under the barbarian hand of power, at least let me suffer in the face of day. Let me have this satisfaction, that my countrymen may look on and observe my disgrace. Let them learn a great lesson from my suffering. It is for them to decide whether it shall be a lesson of aversion to my guilt, or abhorrence against my punisher.
On that condition, I will stand on their pillories, and sweep their streets with satisfaction and content. But to shut me up in dungeons and darkness, or to transport me to the other side of the globe, that they may wreak their vengeance on me unobserved, is base, coward-like, and infamous.

“‘Perhaps, Mr Editor, I may be told that, in holding up these proceedings to the indignation of my countrymen, I am guilty of sedition. You know, sir, that there is not in the Island of Great Britain a more strenuous advocate for peaceableness and forbearance than I am. But I will not be the partaker of their secrets of State. What they dare to perpetrate, I dare to tell. Do they not every day assure us that the great use of punishment is example, to deter others from incurring the like offence? And yet they delight to inflict severities upon these men in a corner, which they tremble to have exposed in the eyes of the world. I join issue with administration on this point: I, too, would have the punishment of Messieurs Muir and Palmer serve for an example. Sir, there are examples to imitate and examples to avoid.

“‘Mr Dundas told Mr Sheridan, when that gentleman applied to him officially upon this subject a few months ago, that he saw no great hardship in a man’s being sent to Botany Bay. Observe that in this sentence, as now appears, is meant to be included an exclusion from all the means of intellectual pleasure and improvement, a reduction of men of taste and letters to the condition of galley-slaves. I can readily believe that to a man so obdurate in feeling and unhumanised in manners as Mr Dundas, a privation of the sources of intellectual pleasure may appear no hardship. Let me appeal, then, to Mr Burke. Who knows so well as he what is due to elegance of education, delicacy of manners, and refinement in literature? Who has declaimed so powerfully against those systems, by which all classes of society are confounded together, and all that is venerable for antiquity, lovely in cultivation, and elevated by imagination and genius, is overwhelmed by the iron hand of a barbarous usurpation? Never was the principle of taking lessons from an enemy so extensively adopted as at present. We declaim against the French, and we
imitate them in their most horrible atrocities. Administration is desirous of conducting themselves with respect to Messieurs
Muir and Palmer as the Germans have acted towards M. de la Fayette, who, we are told, in consequence of the rigours he has endured, is reduced to the state of an idiot.

“‘And who are the men that are destined to this treatment, that are to be considered as felons like the rest? I hear the moderate and respectable friends of Government perpetually confessing that they are men of excellent character and irreproachable manners. What is it by which they have incurred this punishment? I learn from the same quarter that it is by an ill-directed zeal for what they thought a good cause. I agree to that statement; I think they did wrong. Let us suppose that for that wrong, that well-meant but improper zeal, they ought to be punished. In what manner punished? Not, sir, as if they were felons. A mild and temperate punishment might, for aught I know, have operated upon others to induce them to act with more becoming deliberation. But a punishment that exceeds all measure and mocks at all justice, that listens, to no sentiment but revenge, and plays the volunteer in insolence and cruelty—a punishment the purpose of which is to inflict on such men slavery, degradation of soul, a lingering decay and final imbecility—can do nothing but exasperate men’s minds, and wind up their nerves to decisive action.

“‘You will perceive, sir, that in this letter I have entered into no comment upon the justice of the sentence of the Court of Session, and that the baseness of which I complain belongs exclusively to the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the rest of the Cabinet junto.’

“But on March 10th, 1794, occurred another trial in which Mr Godwin was far more deeply interested, that of Joseph Gerrald for sedition. Gerrald was a West Indian, and a man of property. He had been a pupil of Dr Parr, who regarded him with warm and affectionate interest. Every one who knew him loved him, but his character was unguarded, ardent, and even dissipated. His property became involved, and his health was injured by his
irregularities and extravagance; and yet, in spite of his conduct, his friends were enthusiastically attached to him on account of his brilliant talents, and his nice sense of honour, and an unconquerable ardour in the pursuit of objects which seemed to him the noblest in the world. He had emigrated to America early in life, and had practised as an advocate in the courts of Pennsylvania. Returning to England a confirmed republican, he entered into societies founded for the spread of his favourite doctrines. He was arrested with several others who had met in what they called a Convention of Delegates at Edinburgh, on a charge of sedition, and brought for trial before the High Court of Justiciary.

“The high spirit and generous sense of honour of this unfortunate man are shown by the fact that his friends offered him every means of easy escape, of which he refused to avail himself. He was at large, and on bail in London, when intelligence came of the trial and conviction of several of his associates. Dr Parr, and others of his friends, implored him to fly, promising to indemnify his bail. He indignantly refused, resolving that his lot should be the same as that of his partners in a cause, which he looked upon as sacred, and considered it as a base desertion to refuse to share their fate.

“Such noble feelings, which mirrored the devotion and honour of his favourite heroes of Greece and Rome, excited the deepest interest in Godwin; he always spoke of Gerrald with affectionate admiration, and his feelings were strongly excited by the peril his friend incurred. During the January of 1794, while the trial was expected, there is frequent mention in the journal of seeing Gerrald; he conversed with him on his trial, the conduct he ought to hold in regard to it, and the defence he ought to make. To render his advice more impressive, he wrote to him. The tone of his letter is calculated to encourage and animate. Godwin, who knew the human heart so well, was aware that nothing so inspires courage and magnanimity as a belief in the sufferer that he is regarded with respect by his fellow-men. In his letter, therefore, he casts into the shade the sad and fearful evils attendant on con-
viction, and endeavours to bring forward only such ideas as would animate Gerrald to self-complacency and fortitude.

Gerrald’s defence was eloquent and good, but the judge did not hesitate to interrupt it to tell him it was seditious, adding the singular assertion that, taking his, Gerrald’s, account of the matter to be just, supposing that he acted from principle, and that his motives were pure, he became a more dangerous member of society than if his conduct had been really criminal, springing from criminal motives. Thus urged, the jury found him guilty, and the court showed no mercy; he was sentenced to be transported for fifteen years, which, in his precarious state of health, was considered, as it proved to be, equivalent to a sentence of death. When Gerrald, in his defence, professed himself ready to sacrifice his life for the cause he espoused, he was well aware that he made no empty boast, and that his life would indeed expire under the severities to which he was exposed.

“In April Gerrald was removed to London, and committed to Newgate, where Godwin and his other friends were allowed to visit him. It is said that he refused the offer of a pardon made him by the Secretary of State, because coupled with conditions which he felt it impossible to accept. In May 1795 he was suddenly taken from his prison, and placed on board the hulks, and soon afterwards sailed. He survived his arrival in New South Wales only five months. A few hours before he died he said to the friends around him, ‘I die in the best of causes, and, as you witness, without repining.’”


This extract is a fitting introduction to the very noble letter addressed by Godwin to Gerrald, of which Mrs Shelley speaks. Its lofty tone takes us back alike to the dangers and the enthusiasm of the time.

William Godwin to Joseph Gerrald.
“Jan. 23, 1794.

“I cannot recollect the situation in which you are in a few days to be placed without emotions of respect, and I had almost said of envy. For myself I will never adopt any conduct for the express purpose of being put upon my trial, but if I be ever so put, I will consider that day as a day of triumph.

“Your trial, if you so please, may be a day such as England, and I believe the world, never saw. It may be the means of converting thousands, and, progressively, millions, to the cause of reason and public justice. You have a great stake, you place your fortune, your youth, your liberty, and your talents on a single throw. If you must suffer, do not, I conjure you, suffer without making use of this opportunity of telling a tale upon which the happiness of nations depends. Spare none of the resources of your powerful mind. Is this a day of reserve, a day to be slurred over in neglect—the day that constitutes the very crisis of your fate?

“Never forget that juries are men, and that men are made of penetrable stuff: probe all the recesses of their souls. Do not spend your strength in vain defiance and empty vaunting. Let every syllable you utter be fraught with persuasion. What an event would it be for England and mankind if you could gain an acquittal! Is not such an event worth striving for? It is in man, I am sure it is, to effect that event Gerrald, you are that man. Fertile in genius, strong in moral feeling, prepared with every accomplishment that literature and reflection can give. Stand up to the situation—be wholly yourself. ‘I know,’ I would say to this jury, ‘that you are packed, you are picked and culled from all the land by the persons who have at present the direction of public affairs, as men upon whom they can depend; but I do not fear the event; I do not believe you will be slaves. I do not believe that you will be inaccessible to considerations irresistible in argument, and which speak to all the genuine feelings of the human heart. I have been told that there are men upon whom truth, truth fully and adequately stated, will make no impression. It is a vile and groundless calumny upon the character of the human mind. This is my theory, and I now come before you for the practice.’

“If you should fail of a verdict—but why should I suppose
it?—this manner of stating your defence is best calculated to persuade the whole audience, and the whole world, for the same reason that it is best calculated to persuade a jury.

“It is the nature of the human mind to be great in proportion as it is acted upon by great incitements. Remember this. Now is your day. Never, perhaps never, in the revolution of human affairs, will your mind be the same illustrious and irresistible mind as it will be on this day.

“You stand on as clear ground as man can stand on. You are brought there for meeting in convention to deliberate on grievances. Do not fritter away your defence by anxiety about little things; do not perplex the jury by dividing their attention. Depend upon it, that if you can establish to their full conviction the one great point—the lawfulness of your meeting—you will obtain a verdict.

“That point is fully contained in the Bill of Rights, is the fundamental article of that constitution which Englishmen have been taught to admire. Appeal (for so upon your principles you can) to an authority paramount to the English constitution, to all written Law and parchment constitutions; the Law of universal Reason, authorising men to consult. Ireland was always the least emancipated part of the British Empire. In Ireland they thought proper to pass a tyrannical law taking away this inalienable privilege. But in Britain they do worse; ministers are said to have it in contemplation to pass a similar law here, and in the meantime ‘you, the jury, are called upon to act as if the law were already in existence. Was ever so atrocious a breach of equity and reason? They pride themselves in having drawn us, and a great part of the Scottish nation, into the snare, and overwhelmed us with a destruction which no prudence could foresee, and no innocence avert.’

“The next point I would earnestly recommend to your attention is to show that you and the reformers are the true friends of the country, that you are actuated by pure philanthropy and benevolence, and have no selfish motives, that your projects lead to general happiness, and are the only means of averting the scene
of confusion which is impending over us. ‘Our whole effort is directed to the preventing mischief, and the sparing every drop of blood. The longer the confederates of foreign despots among us go on in their present impious career, the more you will want us. We place ourselves in the breach to snatch your wives and children from destruction. Will the present overbearing and exasperating conduct of government lead to tranquillity and harmony? Will new wars and new taxes, the incessant persecution, ruin, and punishment of every man that dares to oppose them heal the dissensions of mankind? No! Nothing can save us but moderation, prudence and timely reform. Men must be permitted to confer together upon their common interests, unprovoked by insult, counteracting treachery, and arbitrary decrees. It is for this antidote to the madness of men in power that we have, made every sacrifice, and are ready to sacrifice our lives. If you punish us, you punish us because we have watched for your good.’

“Above all, let me entreat you to abstain from harsh epithets and bitter invective. Show that you are not terrible but kind, and anxious for the good of all. Truth will lose nothing by this. Truth can never gain by passion, violence, and resentment It is never so strong as in the firm, fixed mind, that yields to the emotions neither of rage nor fear. It is by calm and recollected boldness that we can shake the pillars of the vault of heaven. How great will you appear if you show that all the injustice with which you are treated cannot move you: that you are too great to be wounded by their arrows; that you still hold the steadfast course that becomes the friend of man, and that while you expose their rottenness you harbour no revenge. The public want men of this unaltered spirit, whom no persecution can embitter. The jury, the world will feel your value, if you show yourself such a man: let no human ferment mix in the sacred work.

“Farewell; my whole soul goes with you. You represent us all.

W. Godwin.”

Mrs Shelley’s note on the English State Trials is also fortunately extant, and is here mainly reproduced. After
mentioning that on learning that the grand jury had found a true bill against the twelve men, among whom were
Holcroft, Horne Tooke, and several other of his personal friends, Godwin immediately started for London, and sent in a formal application to be allowed to visit the prisoners, Mrs Shelley continues:—


Godwin well understood, that had these trials been followed by a verdict of ‘guilty,’ he would have subsequently shared their fate as their friend and intimate associate. Neither the difference of his own opinion from those of his friends, in some points considerable, nor his own personal risk, could prevent a man so enthusiastic and intrepid as my father, from exerting all his powers in their cause.

“That ministers should have accused of high treason men whose crime could not by any perversion be interpreted beyond sedition, might excite his indignation, but not surprise, but that Grand Jury should have given their sanction to the proceeding seemed extraordinary and overwhelming. These sentiments were increased by the charge of Chief-Justice Eyre. Godwin, on returning to London, lost no time in writing an answer to the charge. On this occasion, speed being a main ingredient of success, he wrote by dictation, his old and tried friend Marshal being his amanuensis. As he warmed in his subject, he paced the room with quick, eager steps, pouring out his arguments with an animation and fervour which sat well on features and manner usually too quiet and undemonstrative. He looked on this crisis as one of awful moment to all Englishmen. The law of high treason, accurately defined by the statute, and ably commented on by the best lawyers, was to be stretched and bent for the destruction of these men. Because they had entered upon a line of conduct which, if carried to its utmost extent by the worst of men, might be supposed in the result as tending to overthrow the monarchy, they whose motives were pure, and who abhorred blood, were to be condemned as traitors. Nay more. Their ostensible object was confessedly legal, and it was behind this avowed and
innocent intention that hidden and treasonable acts were to be discovered and punished.

“They had met in convention for the sake of furthering a plan to obtain annual parliaments. This was their apparent crime; it remained to discover the guilt of high treason behind so innocuous an outside. Chief-Justice Eyre explained the law of treason according to the statute 25 Edward III., which is the law of England. He set forth what an overt act was, and that it was necessary to prove by two witnesses the committing of an act, which had in its intent and effect the compassing and imagining the death of the king. He allowed that meeting in convention for the sake of obtaining annual parliaments was not treasonable, but he averred that a secret and evil design was in the present instance most probably concealed by this pretext He said that if the convention had for its intention the enforcing annual parliaments of its own authority, that was an act of treason. He further observed that whether the project of convention, having for its object the collecting together a power which should overawe the legislative body and extort a parliamentary reform, would, if acted upon, amount to high treason, and to the specific treason of compassing and imagining the death of the king was a more doubtful question, and he added, ‘If charges of high treason are offered to be maintained on this ground only, perhaps it may be fitting that, in respect of the extraordinary nature, and dangerous extent, and very criminal complexion of such a conspiracy, that case, which I state to you as a new and doubtful case, should be put into a judicial course of inquiry, that it may receive a solemn adjudicature whether it will or will not amount to high treason, in order to which the bills must be found to be true bills.’

“In short, after sketching and rendering as vague as possible the narrow and defined limits of the law of treason, the judge set up a new case, not acknowledged as treason by the law of the land, but of which, when the criminals were found guilty, the judges, against whom it is a principle of our constitution to guard the accused, were to decide upon, and determine whether they were or were not to be hanged, thus erecting the mere executive
into legislative, and giving an awful stretch of power, which would have placed every disaffected Englishman in the hands of government to be dealt with as it chose, and the mercy to which it was inclined was manifested in the present trials.

Godwin’s keen and logical mind easily detected the flaws in Sir James Eyre’s reasoning, and his eloquence set them forth clearly and forcibly. He repeated and praised the first exposition of the Law of Treason by the Judge. ‘In all this preamble of the Chief Justice,’ he says, ‘there is something extremely humane and considerate. I trace in it the language of a constitutional lawyer, a sound logician, and a temperate, discreet, and honest man. I see rising to my view, a Judge resting upon the law as it is, and determinedly setting his face against new, unprecedented, and temporizing constructions. I see a Judge that scorns to bend his neck to the yoke of any party or any administration, who expounds the unalterable principles of justice, and is prepared to try by them, and them only, the persons that are brought before him. I see him taking to himself, and holding out to the jury, the manly consolation that they are to make no new law, and force no new interpretation, that they are to consult only the statutes of the realm, and the decisions of those writers who have been the luminaries of England. Meanwhile, what shall be said by our contemporaries, and by our posterity, if this picture be reversed, if these promises were made only to render our disappointment more bitter, if these high professions merely served as an introduction to an unparalleled mass of arbitrary constructions, of new-fangled treasons, and doctrines equally inconsistent with history and themselves.’ He then proceeds to argue that the thing to be proved was not whether the accused were guilty of a moral crime, but of a crime against law. ‘Let it be granted,’ he says, ‘that the crime is, in the eye of reason and discretion, the most enormous that it can enter into the heart of man to conceive, still I have a right to ask, is it a crime against law? Show me the statute that describes it; refer me to the precedent by which it is defined, quote me the adjudged case in which a matter of such unparalleled magnitude is settled.’


Mr Godwin then proceeds to analyse the various modes in which the Chief Justice supposes it possible that these men, associated for the purpose of obtaining Parliamentary Reform, were guilty of High Treason. ‘One mode,’ he says, ‘is by such an association, not in its own nature, as he says, simply unlawful too easily degenerating, and becoming unlawful in the highest degree.’ It is difficult to comment upon this article with the gravity that may seem due to a magistrate delivering his opinion from a bench of justice. An association for Parliamentary Reform may degenerate, and become unlawful in the highest degree, even to the enormous extent of the crime of High Treason. Who knows not that? Was it necessary that Chief Justice Eyre should come in 1794, solemnly to announce to us so irresistible a proposition? An association for Parliamentary Reform may desert its object, and become guilty of High Treason. True; so may a card club, a bench of justice, or even a Cabinet Council. Does Chief Justice Eyre mean to intimate that there is something in the purpose of a Parliamentary Reform, so unhallowed, ambiguous, and unjust, as to render its well-wishers objects of suspicion rather than their brethren and fellow subjects? What can be more wanton, cruel, and inhuman than thus to single out the purpose of Parliamentary Reform, as if it were of all others most especially connected with degeneracy and treason.

“‘But what is principally worthy of attention is the easy and artful manner in which the idea of treason is introduced.’ After commenting with extreme severity on the insinuation of intention, of which there was not a particle of truth, he continues: ‘But the authors of the present prosecution probably hope that the mere names of Jacobin and Republican will answer their purposes, and that a jury of Englishmen will be found who will send every man to the gallows without examination to whom these appellations shall once have been attributed.’

Mr Godwin then comments on the Chief Justice’s observations on a convention, a word brought into disrepute by its adoption in France, but by no means foreign to English History. Because of the present use of the name, the Judge declared that
it ‘deservedly became an object of jealousy to the law.’ ‘Can anything,’ exclaims Godwin, ‘be more atrocious than the undertaking to measure the guilt of an individual and the interpretation of a plain and permanent law by the transitory example that may happen to exist before our eyes in a neighbouring country.’

“After much more on this and on other heads, Mr Godwin comes to the last point of the charge—that in which he bids the Grand Jury find a true bill, if they should discover on the part of the accused a design to overawe King and Parliament, so that afterwards it might be subjected to a judicial course of enquiry. ‘The Chief Justice,’ he says, ‘quits in this instance the character of criminal judge and civil magistrate, and assumes that of a natural philosopher, or experimental anatomist. He is willing to dissect the persons that shall be brought before him, the better to ascertain the truth or falsehood of his preconceived conjectures. The plain English of his recommendation is this. Let these men be put on their trial for their lives, let them and their friends be exposed to all the anxieties incident to so uncertain and fearful a condition; let them be exposed to ignominy, to obloquy, to the partialities, as it may happen, of a prejudiced Judge, and the perverseness of an ignorant jury; we shall then know how we ought to conceive of similar cases. By trampling on their peace, throwing away their lives, or sporting with their innocence, we shall obtain a basis on which to proceed, and a precedent to guide our judgment in future instances.’

“The effect of this appeal, of which the passages quoted may give a sufficient notion, when it became widely spread through the papers, was memorable. Hitherto men had heard that the King’s Ministers had discovered a treasonable conspiracy, and had arrested the traitors. They believed this. No project was believed too wild or wicked for those who had imbibed the infection of the French Revolution, nor could any believe that the highest and most solemn council of the State would have proceeded against twelve subjects of the realm but on clear and undoubted grounds. The charge of the Chief Justice did not dissipate the illusion. It is true that all he said was wrapped in
‘May-be,’ and the Grand Jury was told that they were to discover secret, treasonable designs; but still
Mr Pitt was a man of high character and vast talents—men leant on him with confidence, and readily saw gigantic dangers in the shadowy images of treason that were evoked. They could not believe that for the sake of an experiment, for the purpose of overawing the country, and extending his power beyond the limits of the constitution, he would put in slight account the lives and liberties of twelve men, his fellow subjects, whom he knew that there was no law to condemn, whom he only hoped to destroy through the influence of the panic which the proceedings in France had engendered in this country. But these remarks dissipated the mist that clouded men’s understandings; they who before believed that the accused were undoubtedly guilty of treason began to perceive that a design to reform Parliament was not treasonable, and that however wrong-headed, and even reprehensible it might be to associate for such a purpose, this was no cause why men, otherwise innocent, should, themselves and their families, be subjected to the frightful pains and penalties of treason.

“Impartial men now looked forward to the event of these trials with very different expectations, both as to the nature of the charges to be brought, and the result. The friends of the accused, now that they dared hope for a fair trial, confided in an acquittal. The event shewed how reasonable and just were Godwin’s reasonings; how strained, tyrannical, and barbarous the proceedings of ministers.

Hardy, a shoemaker by trade, was the man first selected by the Attorney-General to be placed at the Bar. The trial lasted eight days; the evidence brought was complicated and vast, but vague and inconclusive. He was acquitted. The trials of Horne Tooke and Thelwal followed; but the whole force of Government had been directed against Hardy, and when these also were acquitted, the public accusers felt their task ended. They allowed verdicts of acquittal to be recorded in favour of their other prisoners.

Godwin, as he says, attended the trials every day, though he
knew himself to be a marked man, had his friends been found guilty. He was present when the Attorney-General announced that he gave up his intention of proceeding against
Holcroft, who, on being liberated, left the dock, and, crossing the court, took his seat beside Godwin. Sir Thomas Lawrence, struck by the happy combination and contrast exhibited in the attitude and expression of the two friends, made a spirited sketch of them in profile.

“The feeling of triumph among the friends of liberty was universal. Even now there lingered on the English shores Gerrald, Muir, Palmer, and Skirving, who, victims of Scottish law, were sentenced to be transported to Botany Bay. Their fate filled their friends with grief and indignation; but worse had been since attempted, and it was a matter of virtuous triumph to find that the attempt failed, that our country was restored to the protection of its laws, and a boundary placed to the encroachments of arbitrary power. Godwin never forgot the delightful sensations he then experienced; it was his honest boast, and most grateful recollection, that he had contributed to the glorious result, by his letter to Chief-Justice Eyre.”


The panic which was felt by some, who, belonging to the liberal party, feared they might be compromised by their accused friends, is reflected in a letter from Mrs Reveley, whom Holcroft had proposed to call as a witness, to what special point in his defence does not appear.

Mrs Reveley to William Godwin.
Southampton Row, Edgware Road,
Monday Morng., 27 October.

“I was very much surprised last night, to hear your statements of Mr Holcroft’s determination concerning me, as it differed materially from what had been represented to me before; hitherto I have had no opportunity of conversing with you on the subject, and it is necessary that I should inform you of the exact state of my mind. Should it appear that Mr Holcroft’s life is at all in
danger, and that my evidence would tend in the least to avert that misfortune, far from repining, I profess myself, without hesitation, ready calmly to encounter every odium, every public or private resentment—in a word, ruin—to save him.

“But if, on the other hand, he means to sacrifice me, with scarcely a possibility of advantage to himself, and the evidence I am able to give should have nothing singular and particular, or out of the power of any other person to produce; from what could such conduct arise, but wanton cruelty or insanity?

“If this should be his determination, I declare to you, as I did last night, that I will not expose myself to the evils which this puerile conceit is thus preparing for me.

“What could be more tyrannical than Mr Holcroft’s assertion, that whatever might be my dislike, he would force me to do my duty? As if he were to be the judge of it. The Despots say no more! His treatment of Mr Reveley excites in me the most unpleasant feelings; I believe I shall ever think of it with detestation.

“I feel a doubt that, from many circumstances which have lately occurred, you should imagine that any change has taken place in my opinion of you. Be assured that the high esteem and veneration which your virtues and genius entitle you to, have not suffered the smallest diminution in the sentiments of

Maria Reveley.”

When Hardy’s trial was over, Godwin received a letter from the friend from whose house he had hurried to help his friends.

Dr Parr to William Godwin.
Nov. 10, 1794.

“Your anxiety, dear Mr Godwin, during Hardy’s trial could not be more intense than mine, your joy at the close of it was not more rapturous, your approbation of the jury is not more warm, and your indignation against the judge seems to be less fierce. Is it possible, my friend, that any baseness can be more foul, any injustice more
pernicious, any treason more atrocious, than the deliberate, technical, systematic perversion of law? My bosom glowed with honest rage when I saw the snares that were laid for men’s lives in that odious address to the Grand Jury; but I doubt whether the dagger of an assassin, reeking with blood, would have given a more violent shock to my feelings than the close of
Eyre’s speech at the Old Bailey. I can make great allowances for the projects of statesmen, the errors and prejudices of princes, and even the outrages of conquerors; but when I see the ministers of public justice thirsting with canine fury for the blood of a fellow-creature, my soul is all on fire . . . I very strongly disapproved of the Convention; I would oppose the doctrine of universal suffrage; I look with a watchful, and perhaps with an unfriendly, eye upon all political associations; I wish to see the people enlightened, but not inflamed; I would resist with my pen, and perhaps with my sword, any attempts to subvert the constitution of this country, but I am filled with agony when laws, intended for our protection, arc stretched and distorted for our destruction . . . I am glad the charge was published, because it has been answered; and as I think the answer luminous in style, powerful in matter, and solid in principle, I am extremely desirous of knowing who is the author. He is entitled to my praise as a critic, and my thanks as an Englishman. I shall not be satisfied till Mr Fox takes up, in Parliament, the subject of constructive treason; and I trust that, by perseverance, he will be no less successful than we have already seen him in vindicating the rights of juries. He is a sound and sober statesman, a real lover of his country, and a friend to the collective interests of social man . . . Remember me kindly to Mr Holcroft. Come again to see me at my parsonage, when the weather is finer, the days longer, the roads cleaner, and the aspect of public affairs less gloomy.—Believe me, dear sir, with great respect, your well-wisher and obedient servant,

T. Parr.”