7 December 1794
Mary Hays, 2 Paragon Place, Surrey Road, to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, 7 December 1794.1
I have perused the book you obligingly put into my hands with avidity & attention: Were I to attempt to paint all the reasonings and sentiments which it excited in my mind, my letter might swell to a volume. In every page my respect for the author increased! The influence of political institutions on the virtue and happiness of mankind – The causes which have impeded the progress of society – The inseparable connection between virtue & intellect – The strong analogous argument, taking a retrospective view of what has been done, in favor of what yet may be achieved3 – The wise & benevolent recommendation of the gradual diffusion of knowledge, like a soft & plentiful shower of dews, imperceptibly fructifying the sterile soil, & preparing it for future abundant harvest’s – The energetic reasoning in favor of intrepid, unequivocal, sincerity – The comprehensive signification of the term justice superceding, strictly speaking, every other definition of virtue – The absolute evil of every description of government, with the comparative4 obligation of making choice of that which may be the least adverse, the least sophisticated, the most simple; that which in the fewest cases would interfere with the most sacred of all duties, the duty of exercising private, individual, judgement, & of acting upon its decisions, the only disposition deserving the name of virtuous, the only one by which the faculties can acquire health & vigor – The abstract & uniform nature of rectitude, with the distinction proper to be observed between a good disposition & a right action – The artificial, consequently enervated, state of society, as at present constituted; the palsy, if I may so express myself, of false refinement, requiring to be roused from its apparent morbid state by the electrical force of genius, by those persevering determined minds which are only stimulated by obstacles, & before whom ultimately, when clad in the armour of truth, every obstacle must give way – These, with a variety of other propositions, appear’d to me demonstrative as the theorems & problems of Euclid, requiring only patience to follow the series, & comprehension to take in the result, to ensure conviction!
Yet, after this, will you allow me to say, though it may be in saying it I shall give a proof of my own weakness and inconsistency, that the feelings of my heart sometimes revolted against the decisions of my judgement: and that notwithstanding I had multiplied sorrows in the indulgence of private affections, I started at the idea of their annihilation, & could not but regard them as the centre of humanity form whence embracing a wider, & still wider, circle, emanated that sublimer sympathy which acknowledges not other limits than those of animated nature. I will also confess, that considering man as a sensitive as well as rational animal, I felt inclined to attribute the hypothesis of the entire subjection of the former to the latter to the noble enthusiasm of genius, warm’d by contemplating the glowing enchantments of its own magic pencil! I also hesitated, where virtue is affirmed to be happiness, consequently the most virtuous the most happy. I am aware that this proposition is as a corollary to the former: But does observation and experience demonstrate its truth? Does it not require powers to which the mix’d nature of man is inadequate? Virtue is undoubtedly a means, of which happiness is the end! But may not other causes, causes without us, intervene to prevent its full effect? Corn, generally speaking, is nutritive to animal life but in particular cases, from some counteracting principle, may fail of this effect. We know nothing of causes (says Mr Hume5) but from their effects, & are those effects at all times invariable? Strong passions, or a capacity of receiving lively impressions, are said to accompany strong mental powers. We may thank for almost every stable principle (says an admirable writer) the force of our passions, permitted to overleap the boundaries of content.
It was happily observed, by a deceased and respected friend of mine,6 that the rock must be convulsed ere it produced the diamond. Symptoms of such convulsion I think I can trace even in the calm philosophical principles of the author of political justice! Habits of effervescence, destructive of tranquillity, without constant watchfulness are every moment on the point of being renew’d: The necessity of this watchfulness implies arduous conflict, & without conflict, it has been asserted there can be no virtue. May not the victory, if ever completely attain’d, cost us so dear, and be achiev’d7 so late, that the race of life is finish’d by the time we arrive at the goal? If this be often the case, & if virtue, indeed, points to happiness as its end – does not this unveil a cheering prospect of future, fairer, systems, preparatory for which the present, to borrow a trite idea, is as education, the first step in an infinite series?
These questions I think I may with propriety address to you: your system of intellectual, opposed to material, mechanism, awaken’d in my mind some interesting enquiries. Thought, you say, is the medium, the origin, of even the simplest motion! How do you define thought &, traced to final causes, where does the definition tend? I have met with some persons who professing to have read your writings, appear to me not to have given a fair statement of them: I have, I think, already detected the fallacy of some of these partial observers, & my suspicions extend yet further. I may have over-rated my own discernment! However this may be, I honor the man who dares intrepidly follow truth wherever he thinks it may lead: This if not, strictly, virtue is the next step to it, a virtuous disposition: Such a disposition I hope I have manifested, however weak or unconsequential may be my reasoning! The education of women, like the boasted polish of the Ancients, extends not beyond the cultivation of the taste: This renders a habit of severe investigation & abstract attention difficult to be attain’d – But tho’ failing a thousand times, I am not of a disposition to give up anything as impracticable. I have ever eagerly embraced, & endeavour’d to make the most of, every opportunity of improvement, because I have found in the exercise of my understanding the only means of stilling the importunate suggestions of a too exquisite sensibility – foster’d by the delicacy of female education, & those habits of privacy & retirement which afford the imagination too much leisure to seduce by its enchantments, or subdue by its imperious tyranny! I ask, with confidence, your assistance! If you think me capable of understanding & of profiting by your conversation, I trust in your principles that I shall not ask it in vain! From you I shall expect truth, truth which ^by^ sexual prejudices, voluptuous & impertinent precautions, has hitherto ^been^ prevented, like the winds of heav’n, from visiting us too roughly! “I have been in the habit of flattering women (says Mr H Tooke on his trial) but I will not flatter men.”8 “Women (on another occasion are rhetorically asserted by Mr Sheridan) to have most strength in their weakness.”9 “Opinion (is declared by Rousseau) to be their throne, but the grave of men.”10 All the indignation, the honest scorn, which a Necessarian may be allow’d to feel, these insulting paradoxes have excited in my mind. I own myself weak – frequently very weak – but I trace it to a different source. Let not those who, with barbarous usurpation, have endeavour’d by brute force to monopolize the chief11 good – knowledge – aggravate injustice by contempt: Or let them recollect, to humble a pride so mean, how long the boasted reason of man has been held in subjection by the wiles of the interested & the tyranny of prejudice & prescription!
I shou’d not have retain’d the volume I now return, with unfeign’d acknowledgements, so long, but from the wish of making a sister,12 who resides not with me but with whom I have long been united in habits of strict friendship from a similarity of mind & principle, a participator of the satisfaction experienc’d from the perusal of it.
I will not make any apology, because I do not conceive it necessary, to Mr Godwin, for the frankness with which I have express’d myself. I hope by the Bearer of this to be favour’d with the second volume, which I await with some degree of impatience. I am with esteem & respect your obliged &c
No 2. Paragon Place – Surry Road Decer 7th – 94.
Address: Mr Godwin | 25 Charlton [sic] Street | Somers Town
1 MS MH 0002, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 384-88.
2 Godwin called on Hays for the first time on 15 November 1794. On 7 December 1794 Hays calls with Walker (formerly of Warrington Academy) at Godwin’s, which is probably when she received the book.
3 atcheived] MS
4 comparitive] MS
5 See David Hume (1711-76), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).
6 Robert Robinson, Hays's friend and correspondent who died in 1790.
7 atcheiv’d] MS
8 Horne Tooke (1736-1812) was initially a minister in the Church of England prior to entering the political scene as a result of his support of the controversial populist John Wilkes during the famous Middlesex election of 1768. By 1771 Tooke’s support of Wilkes had lessened considerably; that year he and several other former associates of Wilkes formed the first Constitutional Society. His subsequent public quarrels with Wilkes resulted in Tooke’s loss of church preferment and popular support. He spent a year in jail for his opposition to the war with the American colonies, and after repeated failed attempts to gain entrance to the bar, he received an inheritance from his father that enabled him to live thereafter somewhat comfortably. He remained a political agitator, however, joining the Society for Constitutional Information (the successor to his earlier Constitutional Society) in 1780, pushing relentlessly for a reform of parliament and the protection of the rights of citizens and the curtailment of aristocratic privilege. He lost to Charles James Fox in the election for Westminster in 1790, but continued to attend the meetings of the Society, which openly sympathized with the French Revolution. He was arrested in May 1794, along with John Thelwall, Thomas Hardy, and several others, for treason, but was acquitted in December of that year. He served as an MP briefly in 1801-1802 before retiring to his house in Wimbledon, where he died in 1812.
9 Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) was known both as a statesman and a dramatist. He first gained notoriety through his plays, the most famous being The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777). In 1776 he replaced David Garrick as manager of Drury Lane Theatre. While continuing his theatrical interests, Sheridan entered Parliament for Stafford in 1780, joining with the Rockingham Whigs in opposing the war with America. He later joined with Fox in pushing for Parliamentary reform and rejoiced with those who saw great promise in the French Revolution. He opposed the war with France, believing that the French should be free to determine their government without English interference. He would later reverse that position.
10 The phrase is taken from Rousseau's novel, Emile, or Education (1763).
11 cheif] MS
12 Mary's sister, Elizabeth, was still living with her mother and brothers in the family home in Gainsford Street. Mrs Hays maintained a wine vault there, and her sons were commencing their work with John Dunkin as cornfactors nearby at 90 Shad Thames.