Front Page Titles (by Subject) 422.: THE TREATY OF 1856  THE TIMES, 24 NOV., 1870, P. 3 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
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422.: THE TREATY OF 1856  THE TIMES, 24 NOV., 1870, P. 3 - 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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THE TREATY OF 1856 
Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, criticized the views of Mill expressed in No. 421, in a letter headed “Lord Shaftesbury on the Russian Note,” The Times, 22 Nov., p. 3, from which Mill quotes in this reply, headed “The Treaty of 1856,” with the subhead, “To the Editor of The Times.” It is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A further letter on the same subject [as No. 421] in the Times of Nov. 24, 1870”
(MacMinn, p. 99).
The letter in which Lord Shaftesbury, in your paper of Tuesday, the 22d, animadverted upon a letter of mine which you did me the favour to insert, deserves so much respect for its manifestly conscientious feeling, and states the question, besides, so neatly and compactly, that I must address myself to your courtesy for an opportunity of, if possible, setting myself right with him.
The opinion which I maintain concerning treaties is very remote indeed from that which Lord Shaftesbury ascribes to me. He understands me to have said that a country is not bound “to observe” the terms of a treaty “unless they be so convenient that the country would be ready to enter on them afresh.” What I did say is, that a country is not bound to enforce the observance of terms which it has imposed on others, “until it has considered whether it would impose them afresh at the present day.”1 And if it not only would not, but, according to its present judgment, ought not to impose them afresh, it is not merely not bound to go to war for their enforcement, but would commit a great crime if it did so.
There is a wide difference between affirming that I may break a promise, as soon as it is inconvenient to me to keep it, and maintaining that if another person breaks a promise made to me I am not necessarily bound to shed his blood. I cannot believe that Lord Shaftesbury, with the two doctrines before him, will hold the latter to be “one in principle” with the former.
Let the people of England, then, deliberately consider whether a stipulation denying to a country the legitimate liberty possessed by all other countries, of maintaining military and naval defences on its own coast, is one which they think they have a right permanently to impose. If not, then in however objectionable a manner the claim may be disputed we shall be criminal if we go to war to enforce it.
Having now, as I hope, cleared myself from the very serious charge brough against me by Lord Shaftesbury, allow me to make one more remark.
Treaties are the promises of nations; and in the breach of a treaty, as in that of a private promise, there are all degrees of guilt, from some of the gravest to some of the most venial. The degree of Russia’s guilt in this particular repudiation of treaty is not to be decided off hand. I have no desire to extenuate it, but it is not pertinent to the question. It is sufficient that treaties and other engagements will be broken if they are imposed without limit as to duration. An individual, however, has no power of promising anything beyond the duration of his mortal life; but nations have the wild folly to make, and to exact, engagements for all time. Mankind, happily, are now beginning to find out that anything whatever to which a nation attempts to bind either itself or others in perpetuity, be it a Constitution, a dynasty, an irrevocable law, a particular disposition of public or private property, or whatever else, will assuredly, at some time or other, require to be, and will actually be, shaken off by those to whom it is injurious. The present generation has had sufficiently convincing experience that to this rule treaties are no exception. Lord Shaftesbury warns England, if the Russian doctrine be admitted, to “take good care never to contract another” treaty. The warning I would give is, if we wish to be able successfully to combat the Russian doctrine, to make no more treaties except for terms of years.
I am, &c.,
[1 ]Mill does not quote himself exactly; see No. 421.