William Godwin’s Stunning 1794 Advice to a Young Activist on How to Confront the Status Quo with Self-Possession, Dignity, and Persuasive Conviction
By Maria Popova
In the autumn of 1793, the thirty-year-old West Indian political reformer Joseph Gerrald set out for Edinburgh as a delegate for a convention of British reformers gathering there to advance the then-radical causes of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. During the trip, he toured the Scottish countryside to promote the ideals of the reform movement and soon published a fiery pamphlet addressed to the people of England, unambiguously titled A Convention, the Only Means of Saving Us from Ruin.
Although the aims of the convention were rather moderate, they were still deemed incendiary against the backdrop of the era’s extreme conservatism. Gerrald and his collaborators were arrested on charges for sedition. A trial was scheduled for March 10, 1794.
On January 23, Gerrald received an extraordinary letter of solidarity, moral support, and astute advice on how to handle himself in court from the English political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836), who was yet to forge the original union of equals with the great Mary Wollstonecraft and father Frankenstein author Mary Shelley with her.
The letter, posthumously published in William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries (public library | public domain), stands as a timeless document of dignity, reason, and resistance, advising the young idealist — any young idealist, in any era, along any axis of social change — on how to stand up to the status quo with unfaltering self-possession, dignity, and persuasive conviction.
Nearly two centuries before Audre Lorde issued her sobering exhortation that “your silence will not protect you,” Godwin frames the trial hearings as “the means of converting thousands, and, progressively, millions, to the cause of reason and public justice,” urging Gerrald to use his voice and visibility, even under assault, as a platform for advancing the reform movement:
You have a great stake, you place your fortune, your youth, your liberty, and your talents on a single throw. If you must suffer, do not, I conjure you, suffer without making use of this opportunity of telling a tale upon which the happiness of nations depends. Spare none of the resources of your powerful mind.
Reflecting on the value of the convention and of activists gathering around shared ideals of progress, he adds a rhetorical aside of astounding timeliness today:
Will the present overbearing and exasperating conduct of government lead to tranquillity and harmony? Will new wars and new taxes, the incessant persecution, ruin, and punishment of every man that dares to oppose them heal the dissensions of mankind? No! Nothing can save us but moderation, prudence and timely reform. Men must be permitted to confer together upon their common interests, unprovoked by insult, counteracting treachery, and arbitrary decrees.
Bolstering the young man’s self-assurance with words of electric encouragement, Godwin goes on to delineate the optimal psychological framework of persuasion:
Never forget that juries are men, and that men are made of penetrable stuff: probe all the recesses of their souls. Do not spend your strength in vain defiance and empty vaunting. Let every syllable you utter be fraught with persuasion. What an event would it be for England and mankind if you could gain an acquittal! Is not such an event worth striving for? It is in man, I am sure it is, to effect that event. Gerrald, you are that man. Fertile in genius, strong in moral feeling, prepared with every accomplishment that literature and reflection can give. Stand up to the situation — be wholly yourself.
It is the nature of the human mind to be great in proportion as it is acted upon by great incitements. Remember this. Now is your day. Never, perhaps never, in the revolution of human affairs, will your mind be the same illustrious and irresistible mind as it will be on this day.
Godwin ends his letter with a passage of uncommon insight into the art of debate, replete with timeless wisdom on holding one’s ground with dignity — wisdom so timely in our own age of highly combustible opinion-weaponry:
Do not fritter away your defence by anxiety about little things; do not perplex the jury by dividing their attention. Depend upon it, that if you can establish to their full conviction the one great point… you will obtain a verdict.
Above all, let me entreat you to abstain from harsh epithets and bitter invective. Show that you are not terrible but kind, and anxious for the good of all. Truth will lose nothing by this. Truth can never gain by passion, violence, and resentment. It is never so strong as in the firm, fixed mind, that yields to the emotions neither of rage nor fear. It is by calm and recollected boldness that we can shake the pillars of the vault of heaven. How great will you appear if you show that all the injustice with which you are treated cannot move you: that you are too great to be wounded by their arrows; that you still hold the steadfast course that becomes the friend of man, and that while you expose their rottenness you harbour no revenge. The public want men of this unaltered spirit, whom no persecution can embitter. The jury, the world will feel your value, if you show yourself such a man: let no human ferment mix in the sacred work.
Farewell; my whole soul goes with you. You represent us all.
Godwin’s daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — herself a visionary far ahead of her time — would later recount that despite Gerrald’s eloquent defense, the judge interrupted him with the astounding assertion that he was even more dangerous to society because his motives were pure rather than criminal. He was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to fifteen years of penal transportation — a verdict Shelley considered equivalent to a death sentence, for Gerrald was already ill with tuberculosis and could not be expected to survive a long journey to a faraway colony.
After a yearlong imprisonment in London, he was put on a cargo vessel named Sovereign — one final jab of irony — and shipped off to New South Wales, where he died four months later, shortly after his thirty-third birthday. But his example ignited in generations of reformers the passion for justice and human rights — a bittersweet reminder that, in Zadie Smith’s beautiful words, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
Complement with Albert Camus on what it really means to be a rebel and Albert Einstein’s wonderful letter of solidarity and advice to Marie Curie when she — yes, even she — was besieged by detractors, then revisit Godwin’s soul-stirring love letters to and from Mary Wollstonecraft.
Published June 10, 2019