William Godwin is perhaps most commonly known as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley, but he was also an extremely influential political philosopher, novelist, journalist, and proponent of utilitarianism and anarchism. He was born to a middle-class Calvinist couple in Cambridgeshire. He was educated at Hoxton Academy and then became the pupil of Samuel Newton, a man who strongly criticized Calvinists. Godwin became a minister and served at Ware, Stowmarket, and Beaconsfield; he soon traveled to London and began to develop his nascent ideas of overthrowing systems of religion, society, and government with the intention that reasoned discussion would be the primary mode through which revolution would occur. In 1783 he became an atheist and gave up his ministry. He was well-versed in the philosophers Rousseau, d'Holbach, and Helvétius.
His first published work was the Life of Lord Chatham (1783), followed by six sermons on the figures of Aaron, Hazael, and Jesus. He wrote for several periodicals and published a few more unremarkable novels. He also joined a club called the "Revolutionists." During the French Revolution he published his magnum opus on political science, Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), an anarchist critique of Edmund Burke and a dissertation on how an anarchist state would realistically work. It condemned government's organized control over citizens, including, taxation, marriage, contractual agreements, and legal punishment of crimes. It sold thousands of copies and was both popular and influential. Godwin became famous throughout Europe for his views.
His next well-known publication was a novel, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. Some literary scholars have referred to it as the first thriller; it was also notable for its excoriation of the justice system and its literary technique of telling the story backward.
Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft on March 29, 1797, after they reestablished their friendship from years earlier. Not long after their marriage, Wollstonecraft gave birth to their daughter, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley, wife of Percy Shelley and author of Frankenstein). Unfortunately, due to complications in childbirth, Wollstonecraft died ten days later. Godwin was devastated, writing his friend, "I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again."
In 1798 he published a biography about his wife that proved extremely controversial in its revelation of her posing as a former lover's wife and bearing his child out of wedlock. For the rest of his life, dismayed by the book's reception and depressed over the death of his wife, Godwin lived virtually in secret.
William Godwin died on April 7, 1836, in London, England. The English writer William Hazlitt famously described Godwin's reputation in an essay in his Spirit of the Age: "No work gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the celebrated Enquiry ... Tom Paine was considered for a time as Tom Fool to him, Paley an old woman, Edmund Burke a flashy sophist. Truth, moral truth, it was supposed had here taken up its abode; and these were the oracles of thought." Indeed, he was one of the most significant intellectuals of the Age of Reason.