William Godwin was a political philosopher and novelist. This is his major text, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which explored the idea of dismantling the power of the state; in the international context of the French Revolution, this way of thinking was inevitably alarming to many people in England.
Political Justice proposes that there should be no limits on freedom of thought and expression of the individual; and that the pursuit of knowledge should be the primary aim of the individual. Godwin states his belief that crime and moral failings derive from poor thinking and reasoning – thus they can be corrected and should not be punished. Godwin believes these measures would ultimately have a fundamental impact both on the individual and on society at large, and that eventually the institutions of government would become redundant. Godwin states that the promise as a concept is morally unsustainable, so marriage is inevitably an unrealisable goal, and thus an injustice.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s relationship with Godwin was long and tempestuous. Shelley, initially in awe of Godwin, met him when the philosopher was financially troubled; a friendship with the dazzling young poet offered the possibility of more than just homage from the younger man from a wealthy family, particularly as Shelley’s support for Godwin’s ideas of property-sharing offered the older man the possibility of financial security. While Shelley used Political Justice as a fund of ideas for Queen Mab, he grew less keen on supporting Godwin financially, and a negotiation over this broke down when Shelley eloped with Godwin’s daughter Mary and her stepsister Jane.