Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAYS ON GOVERNMENT 1840 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I
Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
ESSAYS ON GOVERNMENT 1840 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
ESSAYS ON GOVERNMENT
London and Westminster Review, XXXIV (Sept., 1840), 518-19, in “Philosophy and Legislation” section, headed “Essays on Government, 1839. [London:] Effingham Wilson.” Signed “A.” Not republished Identified in JSM’s bibliography as “A short notice of a book entitled ‘Essays on Government’ in the same number of the same review.” (I.e., in the same number as his review of Milnes’s Poetry for the People, the previous item in the bibliography.) (MacMinn, 52.) No copy in the Somerville College Library. There are no references to this brief review in JSM’s Autobiography or letters.
Essays on Government
this little volume is unquestionably the production of a thinker, though of one who has not yet thought with much originality or depth. It is, however, interesting, as indicative of the ideas which thinkers of a numerous and increasing class are now becoming possessed of, and eagerly turning to use.
For instance, the author’s first fundamental principle is, that the successive changes which take place in human affairs are no more left to chance “in the moral than in the physical world, but that the progress of society, social, moral, and political, together with the whole train of events which compose the history of the human race, are as much the effect of certain fixed laws as the motions of the planets or the rotation of the seasons.” [P. 2] His second principle is, that the changes in political institutions are the effects of previous changes in the condition of society and of the human mind. It may truly be said, that whoever knows these two principles, possesses more of the science of politics than was known even to eminent thinkers fifty years ago.
Setting out from this starting point, our author ends his inquiries in the common conclusions of radicalism; but shows less acquaintance than might be wished with the real difficulties of the subject, and with the point which the discussion has now reached among political philosophers. He lays it down as a maxim that there is everywhere a natural aristocracy, that is, a class who are looked up to by the community generally; that, in a rude age, nobles, or priests, or persons of large property, form this class; in an enlightened period, it consists of the persons most distinguished for wisdom and virtue. In every age, unless the natural aristocracy be the power which governs, there will be growing disaffection to the government, and at length either a peaceable or a violent change. Having established that the natural aristocracy in a highly civilised society is the aristocracy of personal qualities, he affirms, and has little difficulty in showing, that neither an aristocracy of birth nor one of wealth affords any guarantee for the existence of these qualities. He therefore recommends, wherever the community is sufficiently advanced to admit of it, a republican government by universal suffrage and ballot, as a means of selecting and installing the natural aristocracy. But this part of his doctrine, which is the part most likely to be assailed with objections, is unfortunately that which he has taken least pains to fortify against them. That the people in a democracy would know where to find the natural aristocracy, or would wish to be governed by them, is the point to be proved, not assumed. We cannot find that anything is said to prove it by our author. He thinks, indeed, that the people cannot themselves govern, but can only choose their governors, and will prefer, as they must choose somebody, to choose those to whom they already look up. “Democracy may cause its feelings and opinions to be attended to and respected, but it can never govern.” [P. 169.] We think that democracy can govern: it can make its legislators its mere delegates, to carry into effect its preconceived opinions. We do not say that it will do so. Whether it will, appears to us the great question which futurity has to resolve; and on the solution of which it depends whether democracy will be that social regeneration which its partisans expect, or merely a new form of bad government, perhaps somewhat better, perhaps somewhat worse, than those which preceded it.
There seems to be something wavering and undecided in our author’s conception of what constitutes the test of good government. He continually enumerates among the requisites of government that it should be conformable to the opinions of the governed. He insists, as often, upon another requisite, that the governors shall be the wisest and best persons in the community. But the wisest and best members of the community very often would not consent to govern in conformity with the opinions of the less wise portion: our author must elect, therefore, which of the two requisites he will in that case dispense with. Perhaps he will say that, by a government in conformity to the opinions of the people, he does not mean one which implicitly obeys public opinion, but one which pays that degree of regard to it as an existing fact, which the best and wisest government must pay, and which would be paid to any other fact of equal importance. If so, the test is unexceptionable; but then, he is on the other horn of the dilemma: is this that kind and degree of deference to their opinions which a democratic people, electing their rulers by universal suffrage, will be likely to be content with?
After all, our author’s practical conclusions fall short of what his speculative principles would seem to warrant, since he is for constituting the legislative body of two elective chambers, the one representative of numbers, the other of property. We believe that this would be theoretically the best form of government for a state of society like that of modern Europe; subject to the two conditions, that it were possible to introduce it, and that, if introduced, it would work without a civil war between the two houses. Perhaps when the two great classes, the propertied and non-propertied, shall have tried their strength and found their inability to conquer one another, this, as a possible mode of peaceable compromise, may in time suggest itself to the wiser leaders of both.