Front Page Titles (by Subject) 398.: STABILITY OF SOCIETY LEADER, 17 AUG., 1850, P. 494 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
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398.: STABILITY OF SOCIETY LEADER, 17 AUG., 1850, P. 494 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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STABILITY OF SOCIETY
Mill here comments on W. Thomas, “Speaking Out,” Leader, 13 July, 1850, pp. 374-5, from which the first set of quotations is taken. This letter to the editor, like No. 397, appeared in the “Open Council” section. It is dated 14 Aug., 1850, and headed as title. The entry in Mill’s bibliography reads: “A letter signed C. and headed ‘Stability of Society’ in the Leader of 17th August 1850”
(MacMinn, p. 75).
Your “Open Council,” I presume, is an arena for the discussion, not merely of opinions, but of modes of arguing; and few things require discussion more. Availing myself of this liberty, I will put a few questions to one of your correspondents (signing himself W. Thomas) who is a very active questioner of others, and is much dissatisfied that nobody is willing to be “plain” and “precise.” Mr. Thomas stands up for the indissolubility of the marriage contract for the following plain and precise reason: “The stability of society rests upon the permanence of the marriage tie; loosen that, and society is on a sandbank.” These he thinks threatening words, since he puts them in italics. I ask, what he intends to be understood by them. “The stability of society” is an expression I have often heard before; but I cannot say I have ever been instructed what it meant. Indeed, I have remarked that it is mostly used by people who are not in the habit of attaching any very particular meaning to what they say. If the foundations of a house give way, the house falls, and there is no longer a house. What is it that happens if society falls? And what is this thing called “society” that requires to be protected from falling? Has it anything to do with you, and me, and the remainder of the men and women in the world? Does it mean the men and women themselves? If so, what is meant by the stability of the men and women? If it does not mean the men and women, does it mean anything belonging to them? And if so, what? And what is the precise nature of the mischief to be apprehended in case this something, I know not what, should come upon a “sandbank”? When a ship comes upon a sandbank, I know what happens; the ship breaks to pieces and the passengers are drowned. I want to have it made equally clear to me what would happen if, in consequence of permitting facility of divorce, “society” should, as Mr. Thomas says it will, come upon a sandbank.
I am the more desirous to be enlightened on this matter as I cannot call to mind any great improvement in human affairs, or the eradication of any deep-rooted and long-standing evil, which was not, at the time when it happened, represented as subverting the foundations of society. The abolition of slavery; what a laying prostrate of the whole fabric of society was there! There was a time when even the boldest speculators were afraid to entertain such an idea. The destruction of the temples and altars of the old divinities, by the introduction of Christianity, was, according to the gravest people, the demolition of society altogether. The Reformation! another dreadful blow to the stability of society. The Revolution of 1688, which expelled God’s anointed and set up the people’s delegate;1 nay, the Reform Bill, and even Catholic emancipation, all made society crack and totter. Cheap newspapers, teaching the people to read; this last was a thing after which, we were told by many people, society could not much longer exist. A Turk thinks, or used to think (for even Turks are wiser now-a-days), that society would be on a sandbank if women were suffered to walk about the streets with their faces uncovered. Taught by these and many similar examples, I look upon this expression of loosening the foundations of society, unless a person tells in unambiguous terms what he means by it, as a mere bugbear to frighten imbeciles with. The utmost it can mean is, that the thing so characterized would be a great change—of some sort; which change may either be for the better or for the worse. I am one who thinks that not only divorce, but great changes in most matters are needed; and I confidently hope for many more as complete subversions of the foundations of “society” as were made by Christianity, the Reformation, and the enfranchisement of the slave.
I cannot conclude without a word or two on the naïve selfishness of another letter, in the same number of your paper and on the same question, but on the contrary side of it, in favour of Divorce. The writer shows the most unaffected unconsciousness that anybody has an interest in the matter except the man, whom he purposes to liberate from the consequences of an “act of youthful folly or inexperience.”2 Not a word of the woman, who is in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the chief sufferer, as is inevitable so long as the law gives all the power to the man; and on whose account, far more than even on that of the man, it is necessary that the yoke should be lightened. But this entire ignoring of women, as if their claim to the same rights as the other half of mankind were not even worth mentioning, stares one in the face from every report of a speech, every column of a newspaper. In your paper of the 27th ultimo, there is a long letter signed Homo, claiming the “right of the suffrage” as justly belonging to every man, while there is not one line of his argument which would not be exactly as applicable if “woman” were read instead of “man;” yet the thought never appears to occur to him.3 In a Conservative this would be intelligible—monopoly, exclusion, privilege, is his general rule; but in one who demands the suffrage on the ground of abstract right, it is an odious dereliction of principle, or an evidence of intellectual incompetence. While the majority of men are excluded, the insult to women of their exclusion as a class is less obvious. But even the present capricious distribution of the franchise has more semblance of justice and rationality than a rule admitting all men to the suffrage and denying it to all women.
[1 ]I.e., expelled James II and enthroned William III.
[2 ]“Marriage,” Leader, 13 July, 1850, p. 375.
[3 ]“Homo,” “Right of the Suffrage,” ibid., 27 July, 1850, pp. 422-3. (“Ion,” i.e., G.J. Holyoake, had answered this letter, ibid., 10 Aug., p. 465.)