Political Justice: A Description of the Holograph Manuscript

By Pamela Clemit

William Godwin (1756-1836) was an English radical political philosopher of the French Revolutionary era and the head of one of Britain’s leading literary families. He married Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), the early advocate of women’s rights, but she died shortly after the birth of their daughter Mary (1797-1851). Mary grew up to marry her father’s disciple, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), and to write Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

Godwin rose to fame with two books: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), now seen as a founding text of philosophical anarchism, and Caleb Williams (1794), one of the great novels of the eighteenth century. He also wrote five more full-length novels, works of educational theory, children’s books, plays, philosophical biographies, essays, political pamphlets—and a four-volume History of the Commonwealth of England (1824-8). Sociable on principle as well as by disposition, he knew or corresponded with almost everyone of note on the political left from the 1790s to the era of the Great Reform Bill (1832)—including nearly all the major literary figures of the period. Godwin’s greatest impact was in the debates following the French Revolution, but his influence has been through several revivals, and is currently rising again among scholars and political thinkers.1

Political Justice was published on 14 February 1793 under the title, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. A second, extensively revised edition appeared on 26 November 1795 under the title, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness (dated 1796). A third edition, with further revisions, appeared in December 1797 (dated 1798).2 Godwin prepared a Prospectus, dated 9 October 1832,3 for a planned new edition of Political Justice, but the work was never published. A reprint of the third edition was published by James Watson in 1842 and a reprint (from the 1793 edition) of Book VIII: Of Property, edited by H. S. Salt, appeared in 1880. Twentieth-century editors have traditionally used the third edition as the main text; a facsimile of this edition, with a list of substantive variants from the first and second editions, was produced by F. E. L. Priestley (1946). This tradition changed with Mark Philp’s edition in Volumes III and IV of Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, gen. ed. Mark Philp, 7 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1993). Philp’s text is based on the first edition and provides a list of substantive variants from the second and third editions (along with selected manuscript variants). The first edition was preferred because it captured Godwin’s original intentions, while the list of variants provided a record of his changing ideas which could be studied separately. Philp’s Oxford World’s Classics edition of Political Justice (2013) made the 1793 text available for classroom use.

The present publication is the first to make available online the sole surviving holograph manuscript of Political Justice (Victoria and Albert Museum MSL/1876/Forster/222).4 It provides a unique opportunity to study the process of composition of the original treatise and is a rare example of a printer’s copy of a late eighteenth-century philosophical text.

Godwin died on 7 April 1836. In his will, he gave his daughter Mary Shelley authority ‘to look over the manuscripts that shall be found in my own handwriting, & decide which of them are fit to be printed, consigning the rest to the flames’.5 The manuscript of Political Justice was sold, along with thirteen other holograph manuscripts, at the Sotheby’s sale of Godwin’s library in June 1836. An annotated copy of the sale catalogue at the British Museum shows that the manuscript of Political Justice, together with nine other Godwin manuscripts, was purchased by the Norfolk banker, antiquary, and collector Dawson Turner (1775-1858).6 When Turner’s library was sold by Puttick and Simpson in 1859, the manuscript of Political Justice, along with those of Caleb Williams, Life of Chaucer, and History of the Commonwealth of England, was purchased by the author and collector John Forster (1812-76), an admirer and acquaintance of Godwin.7

On Forster’s death in 1876, the four Godwin manuscripts, together with the rest of his collection, were bequeathed to his wife, Eliza Ann Forster (1819-94), widow of the publisher Henry Colburn, during her lifetime. Forster stipulated that after her death the collection was to be presented to the South Kensington Museum (renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899). She chose, however, to pass the entire collection to the museum immediately.8

The only previous study is in Mark Philp, ‘William Godwin’s Political Justice’, Notes and Queries, NS 40 [238] (1993), 456-8. Philp announced the discovery in the holograph manuscript of a previously unidentified chapter-length first draft of the opening of Political Justice. Most of the note is devoted to an account of the content of this material, with a paragraph describing the manuscript as a whole. An editorial reconstruction of the first draft, along with sections of draft revisions, was published in an appendix to Volume IV of Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin.9

The manuscript is comprised of loose leaves mounted in three guard books. This method of binding loose leaves into volumes was used extensively throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and earlier. The guard book has sponge-marbled red boards (measuring approximately 260 x 229 mm), half-leather binding, and gilt decorations. Single leaves of Godwin’s manuscript are pasted onto stubs or guards of uniform height. The leaves are slightly smaller than the boards, and are positioned alternately higher or lower on the guards to keep their edges even. The guard books were evidently commissioned by Dawson Turner, rather than by the Godwin family. The binding closely resembles those of other manuscripts from Turner’s collection, including the three further Godwin holograph manuscripts at the V&A, three Godwin holograph manuscripts in the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library, and a number of other volumes of literary manuscripts now held at the Bodleian Library.10

The manuscript is written in Godwin’s hand, which is nearly always clear and well formed. He wrote in black ink which has uniformly faded to a medium brown. The manuscript is undated and comprises 629 leaves of laid paper, trimmed to approximately 240 x 192 mm: 216 in the first guard book, 214 in the second, and 199 in the third. The total number of leaves in each guard book includes several smaller slips of paper used by Godwin for revisions to the text, and tipped to the guards in the same way as the whole leaves. Most of the leaves with identifiable, named watermarks were made by Buttanshaw; Curteis & Sons; Edmeads & Pine; S. Lay; or (in the third guard book only) ‘J. Whatman │ 1794’.

Book, chapter, and paragraph divisions were clearly marked by Godwin in the process of composition, as were side-notes indicating the subjects of particular sections of text. Most of the leaves are paginated in Godwin’s hand, though leaves containing revised portions of text marked by Godwin for insertion are mostly paginated in another hand. There are multiple pagination sequences across the whole manuscript. The manuscript in the first two guard books largely corresponds to the two volumes of the first edition of the published work (though there is some material for the second edition at the start of the first guard book and at the end of the second one). In the first two guard books, Godwin’s pagination is replaced at intervals by the same other hand to create more continuity in the pagination sequences.

In the third guard book, the first 90 leaves are paginated 51-190 by Godwin. These are followed by two leaves containing portions of revised text (paginated 21 and 22). A pencilled note in an unknown hand on the recto of the second of these leaves describes the remainder of the contents of the guard book as preliminary revisions: ‘This bundle appears principally loose sheets, & rewritings of the same portions—or, probably, materials for 2nd & 3rd Editions’. The bundle comprised several separate sequences of pagination in Godwin’s hand, some of which are in pencil, not all of which are fully legible, and some of which are replaced by pagination sequences in another hand.

Godwin revised the text as he went along, or immediately on finishing a section, chapter, or book. The manuscript has numerous cancellations of words, sentences, and longer passages, with revisions between the lines, in the margins, and sometimes on separate leaves or scraps of paper, where portions of new or altered text are keyed to insertion points in the manuscript by asterisks, crosses, or other symbols. That this became Godwin’s habitual method of composition is corroborated by a letter to the publisher Archibald Constable about his 1817 novel, Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England: ‘In finally looking over the manuscript for the press, I have been struck with the complexity of my insertions & reinsertions in the few places where I found it most difficult to please myself in writing.’11 Godwin made other revisions in the manuscript of Political Justice by patching slips of paper containing new text over passages to be replaced, using pieces of adhesive wafer, some of which are still partly or wholly attached. When revising or augmenting the text for the second and third editions, Godwin wrote new portions of text on loose sheets, indicating points for the insertion of new text by the phrase ‘letter press’, followed by the page numbers in the relevant edition of the published text.12

There is an abundance of printers’ marks throughout the first two guard books and on the first 86 leaves of the third guard book. These include signature indications for typesetting and, in the second guard book, names of compositors responsible for setting particular sections of text. This confirms that the first edition of Political Justice was set in type from the present manuscript. Further light is shed on Godwin’s practice of overseeing the printing of his works by his correspondence with Constable, who insisted on setting type for Mandeville in Edinburgh, separating the sole manuscript from its author. Godwin explained that during the production of Caleb Williams, St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), and Fleetwood; or, The New Man of Feeling (1805), he had been accustomed to close interaction with, and easy geographical access to, his printer: ‘my printer was in London; the manuscript was at the distance of three streets; & upon any unforeseen emergence I could immediately have recourse to & consult it.’13 No printers’ marks have been found on the leaves comprising the bundle identified as working drafts of materials for the second and third editions, suggesting that they did not serve as printer’s copy.

According to Godwin’s diary, he began writing Political Justice on 15 September 1791 (‘Write 3 pages’). Over the sixteen months in which he was engaged on the work, public opinion turned sharply against the French Revolution and its English sympathisers.14 Godwin worked slowly and carefully, with few interruptions, reading widely, consulting his radical associates, and revising as he went along. In a cancelled manuscript passage in the Preface to the first edition, and writing in the third person, he acknowledged the special contribution made by ‘the conversation <and advice> of two friends for whose talents and character he has the highest esteem, Mr. Thomas Holcroft and Mr. William Nicholson’.15 The following sequence of diary entries from 1791 is typical of his record of writing the early parts of the work:

Sep. 25. Su. Write 3½ pages.

[Sep.] 26. M. Dine at Holcroft’s; read together Introduction.

[Sep.] 27. Tu. Rewrite a paragraph.

[Sep.] 28. W. Write 5 pages.

[Sep.] 29. Th. Write 2 pages.

[Sep.] 30. F. Write 2 pages. Tea at Nicholson’s; criticise the Introduction; talk of économistes, taxation & commerce.

Oct. 1. Sa. Return to the Introduction; write 5 pages.

[Oct.] 2. Su. Holcroft reads: write 1 page.

Godwin wrote almost daily for the rest of the year, apart from short breaks to read the manuscript of Holcroft’s radical novel, Anna St Ives (1792), and to attend (with around 350 others) the London Revolution Society’s anniversary dinner at the London Tavern on 4 November, where one of the most prominent guests was Thomas Paine.16

By the spring of 1792, the manuscript of Political Justice was sufficiently advanced to be read by a third party. Godwin noted in his diary, ‘Carry the ms to Nicholson’ (14 April), followed by ‘Sup at Nicholson, revisal de mon ouvrage’ (29 April). His painstaking method of composition meant that he was able to send portions of the manuscript to the printer as he went along, noting on 16 May, ‘Send copy’, and on 22 May—the day after the issue of a Royal Proclamation against Seditious Writings and Publications17—‘First proofs’. This became his customary writing practice, as he later explained to Constable: ‘It has been my habit … to write with so much deliberation & thought, that I have never hesitated to send my work to the press by the time the half of it was completed; & as it drew to its conclusion, the printer & the author generally finished within three days of each other’.18

By 9 August 1792 Godwin was at work on August he was at work on ‘Book V;19 he noted starting Book VI on 28 September, Book VII on 31 October, and Book VIII on 11 December. On 18 December, he took a day off to attend Paine’s trial, in absentia, for seditious libel in Part Two of Rights of Man (1792)—a work with which he believed his own shared a common purpose—where a hand-picked special jury returned a guilty verdict as soon as the defence speech was concluded.20 Godwin worked on through Christmas and New Year, recording in his diary, ‘Sup at Nicholson’s, revise Book VIII avec lui’ on 25 December, and ‘Sup at Nicholson’s, revise avec lui B. VIII. Chap. VIII’ on 2 January 1793.

Godwin’s diary entry for 4 January 1793 (‘Call on Davis, best book that ever was published’) suggests that the main text of Political Justice was substantively complete and printed by this date—Davis was Robinson’s printer.21 On 7 January he turned his attention to the Preface while reading through Volume I (12-17 January) and Volume II (19-29 January), and writing a series of letters to the Morning Chronicle, signed ‘Mucius’, in which he protested at the government’s clampdown on freedom of speech.22 Although the Preface is dated 7 January, Godwin continued to make final adjustments to Political Justice over the next fortnight, probably seeking to forestall prosecution for authorship of the work. On 10 January he noted in his diary: ‘Sup at Nicholson’s, revise Preface avec lui, applauds dissimulation’.

These last-minute revisions were made at a time when Britain was preparing for war with France.23 On 17 January, Louis XVI of France was sentenced to death by the French National Convention; the news reached London on 21 January, the same day as his execution. Although reports of the execution did not reach London until the evening of 23 January, the French ambassador to Britain, Bernard-François, marquis de Chauvelin, had already been recalled by his own government.24 On 22 January Godwin called on Chauvelin, drafted a letter to the French National Convention to accompany an advance copy of Political Justice, and noted adding a final paragraph to the Preface.25 On 24 January, the British government ordered Chauvelin to leave, a step that escalated tensions with France. Chauvelin was reported to have sailed from Dover on 26 January, and on the following day Godwin delivered a copy of Political Justice to his London residence, from where it was taken to France.26 On 1 February the French National Convention declared war on Britain and Holland, urging the British people to rise against their oppressors—three days after Godwin had recorded in his diary, ‘Finish Pol. Justice’.

Queen Mary University of London


  1. Pamela Clemit and Avner Offer, ‘Godwin’s Citations, 1785-2005: Highest Renown at the Pinnacle of Disfavor’, Nineteenth-Century Prose, 41 (2014), 27-52.

  2. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, 2 vols. 4to (London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1793); Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, second edition corr., 2 vols. 8vo (G. G. and J. Robinson, 1796); third edition corr., 2 vols. 8vo (G. G. and J. Robinson, 1798).

  3. Bod. MS Abinger c. 29, fos. 90-2; Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, gen. ed. Mark Philp, 7 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1993), iv. 421-4 (with errors).

  4. A microfilm of the manuscript was published in The Forster and Dyce Collections from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Brighton: Harvester Microform / Reading: Research Publications, 1987-9), Part Three, Reel 45.

  5. Godwin’s will, 12 Mar. 1827, Pforz. MS G 0022, fo. 2.

  6. In the British Museum copy of the sale catalogue, the following autograph manuscripts are listed (lots 913-26), and annotated in an unknown hand with their price and purchasers:

    The Enquirer–: 5:6Miller
    Political Justice1: 11:6Turner
    Caleb Williams–: 10:6Do
    St. Leon–: 10:6Do
    Fleetwood–: 7: –Do
    Reply to the Attacks of Dr. Parr
    in his celebrated Spital Sermon
    –: 4: –Black
    Mandeville–: 5: –Turner
    Cloudesley–: 5: –Do
    Deloraine–: 5: –Do
    Life of Chaucer, 2 vol.–: 10:6Do
    Lives of Edward and John Philips1: 15: –Rodd
    History of the Commonwealth, 4 vol.2:16: –Turner
    Thoughts on Man–: 15: –Do
    History of Necromancers–: 7: –Do

    (Catalogue of the Curious Library of that Very Eminent and Distinguished Author, William Godwin, Esq. to which are added, the very interesting and original Autograph Manuscripts of his highly esteemed Publications, which will be sold by auction, by Mr. Sotheby and Son, Wellington Street, Strand, On Friday, June 17th, 1836, and following Day, at Twelve o’Clock (London: Sotheby & Co, 1836), 38; see also Shelley and his Circle, 1773-1822, ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron, Donald H. Reiman, and Doucet Devin Fischer, 10 vols. to date (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961-), i. 335, n. 3.)

  7. In the Turner sale, the manuscripts (lots 203-13) are all described as quarto volumes bound in ‘half-morocco’ (Catalogue of the Manuscript Library of the Late Dawson Turner, Esq. … Which will be Sold by Auction, by Messrs Puttick and Simpson … On Monday, June 6, 1859, and Four Following Days, at One o’Clock Precisely (London: Puttick and Simpson, 1859), 85-6; see also Shelley and his Circle, i. 335, n. 3). Forster first called on Godwin with Leigh Hunt on 2 Dec. 1831 and they exchanged visits occasionally throughout the winter of 1831-2 (The Diary of William Godwin, ed. Victoria Myers, David O’Shaughnessy, and Mark Philp (Oxford: Oxford Digital Library, 2010), http://godwindiary.bodleian.ox.ac.uk; hereafter GD). In a letter to James Whiteside, dated 31 Dec. 1831, Forster wrote of Godwin: ‘I reckon now with pride among my acquaintances and visitors that remarkable & immortal man. Oh James how little he is in stature!—but in mind how great. He is less than (not to be profane in mentioning them in the same sentence) Johnson. (Not Doctor Johnson!) He sits in his little library in Gower Place surrounded by musty folios Quartos & octavos in plentiful abundance … He is all intellect—you feel that in looking at him—and the slightest word he says fixes your attention—for you feel raised by his presence. He talks slowly—and his hands move meanwhile with a nervous fidgettiness—which however does not appear or have vent in any other way.—But I must defer a great deal about him to my next. He has visited me twice & I manage to see him as often as possible. I have a general invitation from him to call when I please.’ (Pforz. MS S’ANA 0248, fos. 3-4.)

  8. Henry Morley, ‘Biographical Sketch of Mr. Forster’, Handbook of the Dyce and Forster Collections in the South Kensington Museum (London: Chapman and Hall, 1880), 53.

  9. Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, gen. ed. Mark Philp, 7 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1993), iv. 365-413.

  10. Holograph MSS of Caleb Williams (V&A, MSL/1876/Forster/223); Fleetwood (Pforz. MS G 0060); Life of Chaucer (V&A, MSL/1876/Forster/224); History of the Commonwealth of England (V&A, MSL/1876/Forster/225); Cloudesley (Pforz. MS G 0056); Lives of the Necromancers (Pforz. MS G 0002); Bod. MS Lat. misc. c. 19; Bod. MS Bodl. 1013; Bod. MS Bodl. 1003; Bod. MS Bodl. 1004-6; Bod. MS Eng. poet. d. 13.

  11. Godwin to Archibald Constable, 29 Dec. 1816, NLS MS 327, fos. 246-7.

  12. For a study of holograph revisions on the proofs of the third edition of Political Justice, Volume I (Pforz. MS G 0211), see Shelley and his Circle, i. 161-9.

  13. Ibid.; for a study of the composition of Fleetwood, see Shelley and his Circle, i. 335-73.

  14. Albert Goodwin, The Friends of Liberty: The English Democratic Movement in the Age of the French Revolution (London: Hutchinson, 1979), 208-67; John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt, 3 vols. (London: Constable, 1969-96), ii. 91-171, 206-33.

  15. Political and Philosophical Writings, iv. 4.

  16. Godwin read ‘Holcroft’s Novel’ from 16 to 17 Oct. 1791, and ‘Anna, Vol. 5’ from 17 to 18 Dec. 1791 (GD); Goodwin, Friends of Liberty, 186-8; GD, 4 Nov. 1791.

  17. Goodwin, Friends of Liberty, 215.

  18. Godwin to [Archibald Constable], 18 Dec. 1815, NLS MS 327, fos. 207-9.

  19. ‘Transcribe 2 pages, Book V, with corrections’ (GD, 9 Aug. 1792).

  20. GD, 18 Dec. 1792; Godwin to Thomas Paine, [7 Nov. 1791], [16 Feb.-11 Mar. 1792], The Letters of William Godwin, gen. ed. Pamela Clemit, 6 vols. in progress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-), i. 64-5, 67-8; A Complete Collection of State Trials, ed. William Cobbett and T. B. Howells, 30 vols. (London: T. C. Hansard, 1816-22) xxii. cols. 357-471.

  21. ‘Davis’ was probably Jonas Davis (b. c.1755, d. 1827), Unitarian printer who traded from Chancery Lane from 1783 until his retirement in 1800 (W. H. Brock and A. J. Meadows, The Lamp of Learning: Two Centuries of Publishing at Taylor and Francis, 2nd edn. (London: Taylor and Francis, 1998), 19-20; see also Letters of William Godwin, i. 214, 217).

  22. The first four ‘Mucius’ letters were written from 16 to 18 Jan. 1793, but did not appear in the Morning Chronicle until 1 Feb., 8 Feb., 26 Mar., and 30 Mar. respectively (GD; Political and Philosophical Writings, ii. 3-5).

  23. Jeremy Black, British Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolutions, 1783-1793 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 445-7.

  24. Patricia Chastain Howe, Foreign Policy and the French Revolution: Charles-François Dumouriez, Pierre LeBrun, and the Belgian Plan, 1789-1793 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 143, and 228 n. 75.

  25. ‘Call on Chauvelin (see Renaud) … Write to National Convention … paragraph in preface. Sup at Nicholson’s’ (GD, 22 Jan. 1793); for the letter in question, which was finalised and dated on 26 Jan. 1793, see Letters of William Godwin, i. 76-7; for the final paragraph in the Preface, see Political and Philosophical Writings, iii, p. v.

  26. Morning Herald, 29 Jan. 1793; ‘Carry my book to Chauvelin’s’ (GD, 27 Jan. 1793); the receipt of Political Justice is confirmed by the minutes of the National Convention (Letters of William Godwin, i. 77, n. 3).