Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

William GODWIN

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"NO WORK IN OUR TIME GAVE SUCH A BLOW TO THE PHILOSOPHICAL MIND OF THE COUNTRY" (HAZLITT): RARE FIRST EDITION OF WILLIAM GODWIN'S ENQUIRY CONCERNING POLITICAL JUSTICE, 1793, A KEY INFLUENCE ON JEFFERSON IN ITS POWERFUL CALL FOR INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY

GODWIN, William. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, And its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1793. Two volumes. Tall quarto (9 by 11 inches), 19th-century straight-grain red morocco expertly rebacked, elaborately gilt-decorated spine and covers, raised bands, marbled endpapers, all edges gilt; pp. xiii, (21), (1) 2-378; (xxviii), (389) 380-895.

First edition of Godwin' revolutionary masterwork—"his passionate advocacy of individualism, his trust in the fundamental goodness of man, and his opposition to all restrictions on liberty have endured" (PMM)—a profound influence on Thomas Jefferson, who had the first American edition in his library and is viewed as Godwin's "American born counterpart," a beautiful wide-margined copy.

Godwin's Political Justice, triggered by Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and a response to Montesquieu, remains "one of the earliest, the clearest, and most theoretical expositions of socialist and anarchist doctrine. Godwin believed that the motives of all human action were subject to reason, that reason taught benevolence, and that therefore all rational creatures could live in harmony without laws and institutions… All control of man was intolerable and 'government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of original mind'… His passionate advocacy of individualism, his trust in the fundamental goodness of man, and his opposition to all restrictions on liberty have endured." Godwin is famed, as well, for his marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). After her tragic early death, he continued to be major influence on their daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818), and her husband, Percy Shelley. For many of that generation Godwin, "with his revolutionary opinions,… seemed almost a prophet" (PMM 243).

Publication of Political Justice in February 1793 "brought Godwin immediate renown, perhaps above all as a philosopher who had raised issues of contemporary political debate to a more elevated sphere. Hazlitt's account of Godwin's reputation, written nearly 30 years later, captures some of the reaction… 'No work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country… Tom Paine was considered for a time as Tom Fool to him'" (Mark Philp). It "remains a work of real philosophical power… his advocacy of the full and free exercise of private judgment is as eloquent a defense of individual liberty as anything in subsequent generations of liberals, including John Stuart Mill… With many of his major works consistently in print, Godwin's modern reputation, as the founder of philosophical anarchism, the originator of the psychological novel, and as a key figure in the British response to the French Revolution, is finally secure" (ODNB).

This mammoth two-volume work also had a profound influence on Thomas Jefferson, who had the 1796 first American edition in his library (Sowerby 2359). To historian Andrew Burstein, Godwin "espoused a radical view of politics that Jefferson thoroughly approved… Political Justice was a bold endorsement for individual self-affirmation, rich in the vocabulary of natural rights. Only the emigrant Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense [1776] prompted Americans to declare their independence in 1776, was a half-step ahead of Godwin… Jefferson was the American-born counterpart to Paine and Godwin" (Jefferson's Secrets, 105). Godwin's ideas, including his oft-quoted statement, "the object of government… is the exertion of force," played a central part in the controversy between the Jeffersonians and the Federalists at the turn of the century" (Marshall, William Godwin). The year following publication of Political Justice, Godwin's reputation was heightened by Caleb Williams, the first of his six major novels. An intricate and politically resonant work, it is often seen as a "more deeply considered, researched, academic book than Rights of Man [1792]" (Butler, Burke, Paine, Godwin, 149). With half titles in each volume; errata leaf with directions to binder (I). A4 of Volume I is a cancel, as usual. Occasional mispagination as issued without loss of text. ESTC T94275. Rothschild 1016. Goldsmiths 15825. Kress B2529. Bookplates of scholar and bibliophile Arnold Muirhead.

A few expert marginal paper repairs, faint scattered foxing, binding lovely, gilt quite bright. An excellent copy.

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