Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2011
In the British controversy on the French Revolution, William Godwin's An Enquiry concerning Political Justice stood alone. Its format was significantly different from the mass of pamphlets which appeared in reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). They were designed as interventions in public debate, were published quickly and cheaply, and were likely to be read only once. Political Justice, by contrast, was a philosophical treatise published in two quarto volumes, written for posterity as well as for contemporaries. Its expansive typographical lay-out, frequent sub-divisions and marginal glosses, were meant for readers who would weigh its arguments carefully and often. Its high price of thirty-six shillings – not three guineas as stated in some early accounts – suggested that its intended readership was mainly confined to the educated middling and higher classes of society, and confirmed its distance from the ‘dangerous portability’ of the occasional pamphlet.
Political Justice did not represent a decisive break with Godwin’s intellectual past. When in 1789 his heart ‘beat high with great swelling sentiments of liberty’, he had already been ‘for nine years in principles a republican’ (though he always remained ‘in practice a Whig’). Political Justice was no sudden outgrowth of revolutionary enthusiasm, but drew on longstanding traditions of British thought. Godwin was educated in the philosophical and theological traditions of eighteenth-century Protestant dissent, which had been extended to the secular sphere by the Rational Dissenters.