William Godwin (1756-1836), the famed British political writer and thinker, has long been considered the "philosophical father" of anarchism as a theory in its own right. Godwin was seventh in a family of thirteen children, and was intellectually precocious but also known for his physical weakness and introversion. He was raised in a strictly Calvinist environment, as his father was a minister of the Sandemanian school of that denomination and expected William to follow in his footsteps (not too unlike Friedrich Nietzsche's confrontation with the Lutheran patriarch of his own family). Godwin would later describe Sandeman, the founder of his sub-denomination, thusly: a "celebrated north country apostle, who, after Calvin had damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, had contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin." Godwin's intellect struck against the harsh and unquestioning doctrine of his youthful upbringing time and time again, which may lead to some clue as to his own keen distrust of social institutions in his later life.

The young man, apart from his ministerial education, began to study Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and other English and French philosophers who were espousing egalitarian ideas that challenged the traditional role, and the traditionally claimed origins, of Crown and church in European social life. He became politically liberal in a time when liberalism was almost identical to radicalism in certain circles - his political beliefs progressing from Christianity to deism, agnosticism, atheism, and finally what has been called a "vague theism" on par with that of Patrick Henry, invoking the Creator to support points about a just form of society but rarely, if ever, associating such a figure with a religious doctrine. Godwin, after moving from the countryside to London, began to contribute heavily to radical journals and to travel among corresponding circles, although he avoided official association with any of them. A dedicated Rationalist, he was influenced heavily by the French Revolution, even as he argued against many of its irrational aspects.

Given an advance by his publisher to write a treatise on society and government, Godwin produced his best-selling 1793 work, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. This, together with his novel Things as They Are, presented his view of a virtuous and cooperative humankind that was victimized by an oppressive society that turned individual against individual. Godwin outlined his belief that the better government is one which governs less, and the best is one that does no governing at all. Man, according to Godwin, must be guided by eternal rules of benevolence, justice, and candor, not by legalist attempts to approximate those laws in a form acceptable to those in power.

Godwin justified the continued existence of government (he was even appointed to a government sinecure late in his life!) based on the inadequate reasoning, and thus the strong vices, of mankind under tyranny. He promoted slow reform, not revolutionary force, to deconstruct the government, coupled with education of citizens as to rational thought and what Godwin saw as the morality that bound all of humanity - thus allowing the people to take the reins of social forces that had previously only been held by the throne, the aristocracy, the Church, and other elitist institutions.

Such a "progressive enlightenment", Godwin maintained, would allow each individual to understand his or her role in a benevolent and honest society, which when joined with sufficient resources to reduce or eliminate unequal distribution of wealth, would cause government to disappear. Godwin had extremely strong views on education: that it must be presented, and never imposed; that it must be based on freedom, and not deception or authoritarian demands by a teacher. Education's role was to strengthen the qualities of the mind, which would allow for a full understanding of each person's role in society.

Godwin was also one of the first male political writers to release a complete work on how the upsurge of rationalism affected women - influenced heavily by his first marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft, which produced, besides Godwin's "poignant but poorly-received" Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft, who would become the author Mary Shelley. Godwin was against marriage as an institution, as was Wollstonecraft, but when news came out that Wollstonecraft was pregnant, the two antiestablishment authors married amidst a hail of ridicule in the popular press.

Godwin was the founder of many basic ideas regarding anarchism, anti-statism, anti-establishmentarianism, and other such movements as they occurred in the Western world. He is not, however, considered to be a major influence on the theory of modern, "scientific" anarchism in the form of Mikhail Bakunin or Peter Kropotkin, which, when appearing in the 19th century, was much more inclined towards revolutionary politics and labor and socialist vanguards than to the slow reform and discussion promoted by Godwin as a way to an egalitarian, non-statist society. Still, Godwin's influence cannot be dismissed out of hand: a forgotten contemporary of many Western political philosophers, Godwin was the first to advance a theory that might be called "anarchism".