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Source: Editor's introduction to The Collected Works
of John Stuart Mill, Volume XX - Essays on French History and Historians, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction
by John C. Cairns (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1985).
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Introduction by JOHN C. CAIRNS
john mill’s interest in french public life between the two empires is somewhat flatly proposed in his Autobiography. The casual reader of the few and sober pages alluding to his lifelong acquaintance with the land, the people, and the history might not readily grasp what France had been to him: not merely a window on the wider cultural world, but a laboratory of intellectual exploration and political experimentation, and a mirror, the clearest he knew, in which to see what preoccupied him in England. There were times when he thought they did “order this matter better in France,” times when he did not; times even when his criticisms of the faults he perceived in the French character approached in severity his denunciations of faults in the English. But sympathetic or censorious, and preoccupied with responsibilities and problems in England, he followed French thought and French public life more closely perhaps than any other Englishman of his time. France offered not only the most exciting intellectual and political spectacle in Europe, but an instructive angle of vision from which to perceive England. France’s history, its men of thought and action were as integral a part of Mill’s education as the famous tutorship of his father and Bentham had been. Like the early philosophes, he eagerly sought out the stimulating relativity of another society.
The essays in this volume, mostly occasional pieces on revolution and history, span the two decades from youth to middle age, from the embattled liberalism of the opposition under the rule of Charles X (set against the Tory administrations of Canning and Wellington) almost to the eve of the Second Empire. At their centre is the Revolution of 1789, cataclysmic, still mysterious, the ultimate implications of which were far from clear, and about which Mill grew increasingly uncertain. He followed the revived debate of this great affair with intense interest. By no means uncommitted among its protagonists, he tried to weigh the evidence and extract the lessons. Avid for fresh insights, scornful of uncongenial interpretations, he came to see that 1789 could not by itself provide what he wanted. He cast about more broadly for the grand hypothesis that would situate the age of revolution through which he was living and illuminate the whole course of European civilization. Finally he searched for a philosophy and a science of history. Following at the same time the progress of the struggle for liberty and order in France, he commented and judged and published his opinions until the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848 betrayed the high liberal hopes of February. When for the second time he witnessed the collapse of liberalism, Mill fell silent. He had found and absorbed what he sought from French thought; he did not believe that for the foreseeable future French public life had instruction to offer; his radical and democratic enthusiasms were muted. Thereafter he continued to observe; he continued to travel in France; he was led by the accident of his wife’s death there to take up his last residence in France. But he did not write publicly about it. Writing publicly about it belonged to an earlier and more hopeful time.
MILL’S EXPERIENCE OF FRANCE AND THE FRENCH
the french education of john mill was, like its English counterpart, precocious, thanks not only to his father’s ambition but also to the hospitality of General Sir Samuel Bentham and his wife. Lady Bentham particularly had a clear notion of what was good for her young charge; the boy was willing and the father acquiescent. The long summer season of 1820 in southwest France turned into a year, in which the agreeable pleasure of swimming in the shadow of the Pont du Gard was mixed with attention to serious studies and precise accounts of things seen, done, and learned from Toulouse and Montpellier to Paris and Caen.
John Mill would recollect that he had returned home in July 1821 with “many advantages.” He singled out three: “a familiar knowledge of the French language, and acquaintance with the ordinary French literature,” the advantage of “having breathed for a whole year the free and genial atmosphere of Continental life,” and “a strong and permanent interest in Continental liberalism, of which [he] ever afterwards kept [himself] au courant, as much as of English politics.” He had arrived observing, comparing, judging; he left doing much the same, but with less concern to memorize the Departmental “chefs lieux by heart so as to be able to repeat them without hesitation,” and a superior capacity to comment on the struggle among liberals, conservatives, and reactionaries around Louis XVIII. He said that France had taught him a relativity of values which thereafter kept him “free from the error always prevalent in England, and from which even [his] father with all his superiority to prejudice was not exempt, of judging universal questions by a merely English standard.” He had certainly discovered people different from those James Mill had perceived coming up in post-war France (“very quiet & contented slaves” under “a quiet, gentle despotism”), and he took the trouble to jot down his independent view. When fourteen, he had met “many of the chiefs of the Liberal party” at J.B. Say’s house in Paris. Afterwards, he recalled having encountered Henri Saint-Simon there, “not yet the founder either of a philosophy or a religion, and considered only as a clever original.” Considering the fuss Saint-Simon had provoked by the spring of 1820 with his celebrated parable, contrasting two hypothetical losses to France (all its creative and industrious élite, or all its 30,000 dignitaries and high functionaries), which led to his unsuccessful prosecutions and trial on various charges—a scandal compounded by the outrage and uproar over Louvel’s almost simultaneous assassination of the duc de Berry—this was the least one could say.
John Mill was addicted to recording facts and figures. Yet it is clear from the reports he shaped to his father’s expectation that he was not indifferent to the land. He saw much of it then; later he tramped over large stretches of it, seeking a return to health. His letters reveal the profound impact on him of the magnificent French countryside: “I never saw anything more lovely than the Peyrou & its view this evening just after sunset,” he wrote Harriet from Montpellier in December 1854; “everything was pure & the tone that of the finest Poussin.”
Following his year among the French, Mill’s attentions were again absorbed by his father’s curriculum and his own “self-education.” This included Condillac and a first appreciation of the French Revolution, but it seems to have left no room for broader pursuit of his continental interests. France had stimulated his desire to travel, but, still a lad, he spent holidays with his family in the country, later in the 1820s, with no more than a month off from his responsibility at India House, he settled for walking tours with friends in the English counties. Ten years passed before his return to France. But he constantly followed its public life; as early as April 1824 he sprang to the defence of French liberalism under attack in the Edinburgh Review, protesting the “torrent of mere abuse . . . poured out against the French, for the sole purpose of gratifying [English] national antipathy,” and extolling French science and letters. His commitment to France was made long before the first of the intellectual encounters (if we except the brief friendship with the future chemist Antoine Jérôme Balard during his year with the Benthams) that accompanied his reading of the political scene.
Gustave d’Eichthal, a recruit to the rising Saint-Simonian school, first saw Mill at the London Debating Society in May 1828; he was to correspond with him on and off for more than forty years. “Dans une mesure,” d’Eichthal recalled, “c’est lui qui m’a ouvert l’Angleterre comme je lui ai ouvert la France. Ce qui nous rapprochait ce n’étaient point des idées abstraites. C’était notre nature et nos désirs d’apôtre.” Though he did not convert Mill to the faith in its brief but curious heyday under Prosper Enfantin, directly and indirectly d’Eichthal planted the seeds of alternative visions in Mill’s mind shortly after the apparent collapse of the world Mill had made for himself at the Westminster Review. Afterwards, Mill said that he and his friends had “really hoped and aspired” to be the new philosophes, and that “No one of the set went to so great excesses in this boyish ambition as I did. . . .” In 1826 he “awakened from this as from a dream.” As he arranged all this in retrospect, Weber and Wordsworth then offered the consolations and stimulus of contemplation and inner happiness. But it was the Saint-Simonians who proposed a view of history and human development that plausibly situated the times. It was they who, for Mill, best explained the century’s collisions and angularities as characteristic of the transition from an “organic period” of faith to a “critical period” of disputes and uncertainties, the resolution of which, he hoped, would bring a new era of liberty informed by education and “the true exigencies of life.”
It is doubtful that Mill in the late 1820s shared such an understanding. And though he may well have read Saint-Simon and Augustin Thierry’s address “To the Parliaments of France and England” of 1814, with its appeal for a Franco-British union that could “change the state of Europe” and bring true peace, it is more likely to have been after July 1830 than before. D’Eichthal pressed him in the autumn of 1829 for a statement; Mill was reserved. Sympathetic to his correspondent’s exposition of the doctrine, he condemned the Saint-Simonian books he had read (one such seemed “the production of men who had neither read nor thought, but hastily put down the first crudities that would occur to a boy who had just left school”). Auguste Comte’s early outline of a Système de politique positive (1824), sent by d’Eichthal the previous year, he found at least plausible, clear, and methodical, but ultimately a clever exercise. Its conception of the ends of government and the constitution of a new ruling class Mill rejected completely. A month after this cold douche, he made amends by saying something favourable about the Saint-Simonians, but it was little enough. He discouraged d’Eichthal from coming to England “with a view to my complete initiation in the St Simonian doctrine.” Doubting its applicability in France, he was sure it was unacceptable and undesirable in England. Given the report he had of a meeting, Mill wondered “how you have hitherto escaped the jokers and epigrammatists of the Parisian salons.”
Nevertheless, the Saint-Simonians had something he wanted. The celebrated “crisis” in his “mental history” was on him. He had come through “the dry heavy dejection of the melancholy winter of 1826-27,” was questioning and doubting Bentham and his father, discovering the weak places of his philosophy. He had “only a conviction, that the true system was something much more complex and many sided” than he had imagined. He discovered from acquaintance with European, especially French, thought the logic of the mind’s “possible progress,” the relativity of historical institutions, and the truth that “any general theory or philosophy of politics supposes a previous theory of human progress, and that this is the same thing with a philosophy of history.” On the eve of the July Revolution, he was apparently feeling his way. Closer contact with the Saint-Simonian school in Paris during the summer of 1830 eventuated in the Examiner articles, “The Spirit of the Age,” which revealed that while he was no convert, as he put it, “je tiens bureau de St Simonisme chez moi.”
More sympathetic, he remained unconvinced. If in the aftermath of 1830 he placed the Saint-Simonians “decidedly à la tête de la civilisation” and imagined their prescription as “likely to be the final and permanent condition of the human race,” he guessed mankind would not be ready for it for “many, or at least several, ages.” He assisted d’Eichthal and Charles Duveyrier before and during their mission to England, publicly (though also anonymously) criticized the French government for prosecuting the Saint-Simonians, but concluded that that phase of their work, which had transformed political discourse in France, was almost done. His private remarks about the communal life reported from Ménilmontant where, following schism, most of the sect had followed Père Enfantin (“the best man they know, but I wish they had a better still”) were cool. After the sensational trial of Enfantin and his disciples on 27-28 August, 1832, resulting in fines, imprisonments and dissolution of the school, Mill remarked to Carlyle that “There was much in the conduct of them all, which really one cannot help suspecting of quackery.” In the Examiner, however, he condemned the government’s heavy hand. The subsequent scattering of the disciples, the notorious journey to Constantinople in search of la femme libre, la Mère suprême, left him melancholy that so much creativeness should have succumbed to such madness. Uncharacteristically patronizing, he noted that “St Simon really for a Frenchman was a great man,” and the society bearing his name had been “the only spiritual fruit of the Revolution of 1830.” He defended it against the ridicule of The Times, however, concluding it had had a “highly beneficial influence over the public mind of France.” Years later, he still referred to “my friends the St. Simonians.” He could scarcely have imagined the immense influence some of them were to have in the engineering, railway, and banking enterprises of France after 1840.
The Saint-Simonians reinforced Mill’s intense interest in the affairs of France; stimulated by them, he developed a progressive view of history working itself out through organic and critical periods. He said they had “much changed” him. Whatever their absurdities, their bold vision of the ideal society, ostensibly democratic and led by an intellectual élite, must help others to move the world toward it. But unlike Saint-Simon, Mill did not think the times were ripe. Hence his own rather Saint-Simonian conclusion that “the mental regeneration of Europe must precede its social regeneration,” for all the dogmas, from religion to rationalism, had proved inadequate.
For several years it seemed to Mill that Auguste Comte might prove to be the prophet of this “mental regeneration.” Comte had broken with the Saint-Simonians in 1828. Mill’s first impression of the short work d’Eichthal sent him, however, was unfavourable. Despite its arresting aspects, he then thought the view of history “warped & distorted by the necessity of proving that civilisation has but one law, & that a law of progressive advancement.” Yet it was to this conclusion that the liberal school of French historians, to which Mill soon subscribed, was attached. Moreover, after 1830 he became increasingly sympathetic to the Saint-Simonian world-view. When therefore he read the first two volumes of Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive in 1837, he was more impressed: “one of the most profound books ever written on the philosophy of the sciences.” Further volumes sustained his enthusiasm: “He makes some mistakes, but on the whole, I think it very nearly the grandest work of this age.” No one before Comte, Mill was to say thirty years later, “had penetrated to the philosophy of the matter, and placed the necessity of historical studies as the foundation of sociological speculation on the true footing.” In the course of the decade, from about 1828, Mill had been influenced to rethink fundamentally his conception of history and its function. To Comte more than to any other he was indebted for his new insight. The sectarianism, however, to which he had objected earlier, became clearer as Comte’s work advanced and even less acceptable to Mill as he came under the influence of the liberal journalists and Tocqueville.
Encouraged by Armand Marrast, former editor of the liberal Tribune, who had fled Sainte-Pélagie prison in July 1835 to find refuge in England, Mill wrote Comte directly in 1841. The correspondence flourished, Mill keeping his distance, minimizing their differences, Comte explaining but giving no ground. Comte paraded his persecution by the government; Mill sought to assuage his bitterness, passing on the favourable remarks by Guizot (who had been Ambassador in London, February-October 1840), juggling with the confidences about Comte’s marital problems, promising (rashly) that he should not worry about material matters “aussi longtemps que je vivrai et que j’aurai un sou à partager avec vous.” Comte’s final importunings and intransigences wore the friendship down. The financial generosity Mill had arranged from George Grote, William Molesworth, and Raikes Currie ran out. Grote broke with Comte in 1848. Mill professed a high opinion for “la théorie de la méthode positive,” but made clear his disapproval of the manner in which Comte applied it to social questions. Comte put his complaints in print; this did not affect the even estimate Mill gave of him in the Autobiography. On the question of equality of women, on the ultimate immovability of Comte regarding his own pouvoir spirituel, they parted company. “He is a man,” Mill remarked, “one can serve only in his own way.”
For all the angular behaviour, Mill had nevertheless remained sympathetic to Comte’s distress. Harriet Taylor’s tart strictures (Mill had shown her some of the correspondence) on “This dry sort of man” as being “not a worthy coadjutor & scarcely a worthy opponent” he did not share. Year after year he had been responsive, protective, patient. But by 1844 Mill’s concern with liberty was so marked that, much as he appreciated Comte’s “admirable historical views,” “I think and have always thought him in a radically wrong road, and likely to go farther and farther wrong. . . . ” The prediction was accurate. Sectarianism was the problem. The final statement in the Système de politique positive meant that free thought would be coerced by the tyranny of public opinion sanctioned by moral authority. In the guise of a “plan for the regeneration of human society,” Comte’s imagination had conceived a humourless, ludicrously detailed, anti-intellectual “absolute monarchy.” After Comte’s death, Mill attributed the work to the “melancholy decadence of a great intellect.” The result of such a system would be “a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers.” With Comte, as with the Saint-Simonians, however, Mill had undertaken “the task of sifting what is good from what is bad.” In neither case had he been able to accept the whole, to join without reservation the “active and enthusiastic adherents, some of them of no inconsiderable personal merit, in England, France, and other countries.” Reading a French obituary notice of Comte’s death in 1857, he noted ironically, “It seems as if there would be no thinkers left in the world.”
By then he had been acquainted with Alexis de Tocqueville for more than two decades. For while Mill was assiduously, even deferentially, corresponding with Comte, he deepened his knowledge of Tocqueville’s views, following his early acquaintance with De la démocratie en Amérique. The style of his exchange with Tocqueville differed greatly from that of his relations with Comte or the Saint-Simonians. With the last he had been the pursued, the reserved commentator, to some extent the receptive pupil, the distressed friend and even-handed defender. With Comte, after an initially negative reaction, he had been the admiring convert and interlocutor, the helpful friend, and finally the disenchanted critic, convinced that, though Comte’s insight into the nature of the historical process was profound and true, the ultimate meaning of his system was abhorrent. With Tocqueville there were reservations, question marks, but the meeting of minds at first seemed close. If the Saint-Simonians raised doubts about the steadiness of brilliant French thinkers, and Comte illustrated the limitation of the doctrinaire mentality, Tocqueville confirmed that impression of liberality in the “continental” mind Mill said he had taken back to England from his boyhood visit to France. In each case, what first attracted Mill was the broad historical conception they all advanced.
“I have begun to read Tocqueville,” he noted in April 1835. “It seems an excellent book: uniting considerable graphic power, with the capacity of generalizing on the history of society, which distinguishes the best French philosophers of the present day. . . .” On Tocqueville’s second visit to England in May 1835, Mill’s direct overture to him as a possible correspondent for the London Review brought the warmest response, and flattery that “peu de Français savent manier leur langue comme vous maniez la nôtre.” Their differences about democracy were in the open from the beginning, even if Mill underplayed beforehand his published criticism of the first two volumes of the Démocratie (“a shade more favourable to democracy than your book, although in the main I agree, so far as I am competent to judge, in the unfavourable part of your remarks, but without carrying them quite so far”). The review was handsome enough: he pronounced the book to be a work “such as Montesquieu might have written, if to his genius he had superadded good sense.” This broad proclamation that the “insular” crowd of English politicians should take it from a Frenchman, “whose impartiality as between aristocracy and democracy is unparalleled in our time,” that “the progress of democracy neither can nor ought to be stopped” was the vigorous beginning of his reflection on and dialogue with Tocqueville. Tocqueville reshaped Mill’s approach to, acceptance of, and effort to resolve the difficulties and dangers of democracy. Of all his reviewers, he said, Mill was “le seul qui m’ait entièrement compris, qui ait su saisir d’une vue générale l’ensemble de mes idées, la tendance finale de mon esprit.”
As it turned out, Tocqueville contributed only once to Mill’s journal; Mill ventured to convey that “people here” found the article “a little abstract.” But their relations were good: he once told Tocqueville that he and Armand Carrel (an odd couple) were the only Frenchmen for whom he had “une véritable admiration.” Yet Tocqueville was the more solicitous of their friendship, Mill more elusive than Tocqueville’s other English friends and correspondents. Again Mill’s notice of the third and fourth volumes of Démocratie, though it appeared in October 1840 at a moment when Anglo-French relations were strained almost to the point of rupture, was graciously received, and the remark of Royer-Collard next year that it was “un ouvrage original” passed on to the reviewer. But Mill told Tocqueville, “you have so far outrun me that I am lost in the distance,” and that it would take him time to sort out what he could accept from what would require further explanation. “In any case you have accomplished a great achievement: you have changed the face of political philosophy. . . . I do not think that anything more important than the publication of your book has happened even in this great age of events. . . .” It would be read even “in this stupid island.” To others, however, he remarked that French philosophers had created “almost a new French language,” that Tocqueville was “really abstruse,” and that he found it “tough work reviewing him, much tougher than I expected.” Nevertheless, looking back, he decided that his own thought had “moved more and more in the same channel” as Tocqueville’s, and that his “practical political creed” over the quarter century had been modified as a result.
In the case of the Saint-Simonians and Comte, Mill had been led through study of their works to reflect more fully on French public policy and the fate of opposition opinion. The correspondence with Tocqueville concentrated on the uncertain Franco-British relationship. In the vanguard of “insular” and “ignorant” English journalism, Mill early distinguished the Edinburgh Review, as he later insisted upon The Times. He said one could almost count the Englishmen who were “aware that France has produced any great names in prose literature since Voltaire and Rousseau.” Seeking his collaboration with the London Review, he told Tocqueville that politicians, publicists, and people “know about as much of France as they do of Timbuctoo.” The severity of his comparisons of the two nations was sometimes exaggerated. Even as a boy, he claimed, he had felt “the contrast between the frank sociability and amiability of French personal intercourse, and the English mode of existence in which everybody acts as if everybody else (with few, or no, exceptions) was either an enemy or a bore.” But this judgment, set down later in life, was much affected by his peculiar situation; close friends had been few and, as in J.A. Roebuck’s case, Mill’s feeling toward them had been at risk when they presumed to speak of his deepest attachment. Alexander Bain remarked that Mill himself did not show a “boundless capability of fellowship,” and it is clear that Tocqueville, sensitive in his own approaches, registered this reserve. Bain thought Mill dealt partially with France and the French, however, by comparison with England and the English. But if this bias did exist, it did not carry over into all matters; certainly not into foreign affairs. In private he was quite capable of turning the comparison to the advantage of his own people. Of Aristide Guilbert’s offer of an article for the London and Westminster Review, Mill commented that it “promises fair, but I have never found that a Frenchman’s promise to do anything punctually could be depended upon. They promise everything and do nothing. They are not men of business. Guilbert is better, being half an Englishman.” Public disputes between the two countries were not so lightly laughed off.
Mill himself was alive to the danger of too great a concentration of interest in another society. “I sometimes think,” he observed in his diary, “that those who, like us, keep up with the European movement, are by that very circumstance thrown out of the stream of English opinion and have some chance of mistaking and misjudging it.” The intense diplomatic crisis of 1839-41 revealed clearly that he had by no means lost his native bearings. It marked the beginning of a profound difference between himself and Tocqueville which never was resolved; it showed a very real limitation to Mill’s capacity for evaluating the rights and wrongs of the old Anglo-French antagonism. He said he understood the sense of humiliation that created the noisy popular demand for fortification of Paris: “This is foolish, but who can wonder at it in a people whose country has within this generation been twice occupied by foreign armies? If that were our case we should have plenty of the same feeling.” He bracketed Adolphe Thiers with Lord Palmerston as “the two most lightheaded men in Europe,” who had done “incalculable” evil and “rekindled” the old national antipathies. He was inclined to think that “that shallow & senseless coxcomb Palmerston” had unnecessarily challenged Thiers, that “no harm whatever to Europe would have resulted from French influence with Mehemet Ali, & it would have been easy to bind France against any future occupation of [Egypt] for herself.” However, the deed was done, and “this mischievous spirit in France” had been raised. And when Tocqueville put it to him that Thiers had had no alternative save to take a high line, and that the British government’s actions in isolating France and forcing her to accept war or humiliating retreat had been inexcusable, Mill stood firm. Culpable as the British government had been, he replied, it would not have acted so badly save for “such a lamentable want both of dignity & of common sense on the part of the journalists & public speakers in France,” “the signs of rabid eagerness for war, the reckless hurling down of the gauntlet to all Europe, the explosion of Napoleonism and of hatred to England, together with the confession of Thiers & his party that they were playing a double game, a thing which no English statesman could have avowed without entire loss of caste as a politician.” Still it was true, too, that he would “walk twenty miles to see [Palmerston] hanged, especially if Thiers were to be strung up with him.”
This was not Tocqueville’s style. The disagreement here never was resolved. France, he said, was saddened and humiliated. He explained that the worst danger for any nation came when its moral fibre was weakened. After Thiers’ defiance, Guizot had been called in to give way, a large part of the middle class cravenly opted for peace and its own selfish interest. The result had been a sauvequi peut, peace at any price. “Il faut,” he told Mill, “que ceux qui marchent à la tête d’une pareille nation y gardent toujours une attitude fière s’ils ne veulent laisser tomber très bas le niveau des moeurs nationales.” No nation could surrender its pride. Mill granted that, but delivered a lecture, too:
The desire to shine in the eyes of foreigners & to be highly esteemed by them must be cultivated and encouraged in France, at all costs. But, in the name of France & civilization, posterity have a right to expect from such men as you, from the nobler & more enlightened spirits of the time, that you should teach to your countrymen better ideas of what it is which constitutes national glory & national importance, than the low & grovelling ones which they seem to have at present—lower & more grovelling than I believe exist in any country in Europe at present except perhaps Spain.
In England, by contrast, “the most stupid & ignorant person” knew that national prestige followed from industry, good government, education, morality. The implication, of course, was that in France they did not. Mill’s countrymen, he added, saw French conduct as “simple puerility,” judging the French “a nation of sulky schoolboys.”
Considering what had happened in the eastern Mediterranean crisis, the sentiment is remarkable. Evidently he permitted himself to deliver this scolding because he prefaced it with a renewed declaration of sympathy for France, a country “to which by tastes & predilections I am more attached than to my own, & on which the civilization of Continental Europe in so great a degree depends.” Tocqueville absorbed it quietly. However, his public statement in the Chamber of Deputies, some months later, was no less firm. This in turn brought Lord Brougham to attack him in the House of Lords, and Mill, saddened to see Tocqueville included in the French “war party,” defended him in the Morning Chronicle. All the same, he thought fit to say to Tocqueville privately, “voyez ce qui est advenu de ce que nous avons eu, un seul instant, un homme à caractère français à notre Foreign Office.” Clearly Mill never understood Tocqueville’s concept of national prestige, or his fears for the health of the French national spirit; across more than a century thereafter, few Englishmen did: it remained an impenetrable mystery for most of them, and Mill, for all his francophilism, appeared scarcely better equipped to penetrate it. In the autumn of 1843, Tocqueville made one last reference to the continuing Franco-British tension in Europe and around the world, uncompromising but optimistic: “La trace des fautes commises par votre gouvernement en 1840 s’efface assez sensiblement.” He thought both the government and the people of the United Kingdom were seeking to draw closer to France and were having “une heureuse influence sur l’esprit public en France.” Mill having sent him his Logic, Tocqueville thanked him warmly, asking again whether Mill could not come to visit them. Mill made no further mention of the Mediterranean affair, thanked him, and asked whether Tocqueville would not come to England.
Four years passed before they made contact briefly in 1847. They perceived the Revolution of 1848 very differently. Tocqueville had set his face against social revolution; February brought misgivings, and the insurrection in June seemed to him inevitable. Mill could never have used the words Tocqueville chose to characterize the desperate challenge from the streets flung at the government and the National Assembly. In the parliamentary debate on a constitution for the new Republic, Tocqueville argued for a second chamber. Mill took a contrary view of the matter. Moreover, he favoured inclusion of the droit au travail in the constitution, and to this Tocqueville was opposed Between them still was their disagreement on foreign policy: on 30 November, 1848, Tocqueville indicted Great Britain and Russia for conspiring to bar France from the eastern Mediterranean, saying he preferred war to humiliation. What Mill thought of Tocqueville’s brief but pacific tenure as Foreign Minister, June-October 1849, one must guess.
When their nine years’ silence was broken by Tocqueville in June 1856, he was graceful, slightly formal: “Voilà bien longtemps, mon cher Monsieur Mill, que nous avons perdu la bonne habitude de correspondre.” He reiterated his compliments and his “sentiments de vieille amitié.” Mill replied six months later (though he had been on holiday for no more than three months following arrival of the letter), thanking “cher Monsieur de Tocqueville” for sending his L’ancien régime et la révolution, praising it (“Envisagé seulement comme un chapitre d’histoire universelle, il me paraît un des plus beaux qu’on ait jamais fait . . .”), saying he had not wished to write until he had read it through twice. Of public affairs Mill noted only that the book’s “noble amour de la liberté” was a permanent reproach to “le triste régime que votre grande patrie, l’oeil droit du monde, est réduite à subir dans ce moment.” By return of post, Tocqueville replied, barely revealing his slight hurt: “J’avais été un peu chagriné de votre silence, avant que ses causes ne m’eussent été expliquées,” adding that no one else’s opinion was more precious. He would gladly write of politics, but he feared his letter would be seized. “Ne m’oubliez pas entièrement,” he concluded, “c’est tout ce que je réclame de vous en ce moment.” Mill appears to have been silent. Two years later, he sent Tocqueville his On Liberty. Tocqueville replied at once, warmly addressing him again as “Mon cher Mill,” as he had used to do years before. There seems to have been no reply.
Critical as Mill was of the English ruling class, he laid the principal blame for Anglo-French misunderstandings at the French doorstep. The French “character”, he told Robert Fox, was “excitable,” unstable, “& accordingly alternates between resentment against England and Anglomania.” Palmerston might make the occasion, but the underlying cause was the “mischievous spirit in France.” D’Eichthal was treated to some home truths: “It is impossible not to love the French people & at the same time not to admit that they are children—whereas with us even children are care-hardened men of fifty. It is as I have long thought a clear case for the croisement des races.” If the two nations avoided war, it was thanks to English indifference. “Heureusement,” he told Tocqueville in 1843, “notre public ne s’occupe jamais d’affaires étrangères. Sans cela l’Europe serait toujours en feu. . . .” However much Mill was drawn to the culture of France, he reacted to collisions of national sentiment as an Englishman. Nevertheless, if inevitably he was an outsider, he was also a deeply informed and committed observer, looking for fresh signs and portents. France remained a mirror, in it he continued to see much of what he thought best in European civilization.
This was true even during “le triste régime” of Napoleon III. In the summer of 1857, long before the substantial dismantling of the authoritarian Empire began, Mill discerned stirrings in the general elections that returned eight independents and five republicans, despite the fact that 84.6% of the vote went to official government candidates. Over-optimistic after 1860, he exaggerated signs of the devolution of authority and felt consoled by “the wonderful resurrection of the spirit of liberty in France, combined with a love of peace which even sympathy with Poland does not prevail over.” He was not entirely wrong in this, but he mistook a particular for the general phenomenon. Like most observers, he did not sense on the tranquil eve of the Imperial catastrophe that the republican party, which he favoured, was potentially a great force. The war of 1870 was a surprise.
Believing that Prussia was fighting for her own liberty and for Europe’s. Mill called for “many” demonstrations against Bonaparte and advocated preparations for war since England’s “turn must come” if the Prussians were defeated. For the French people he expressed sorrow; it was Napoleon’s war. All the same, it was time that France drew the consequences of her situation: “elle devra se contenter d’être l’une des grandes puissances de l’Europe, sans prétendre à être la seule, ou même la première. . . .” Like others, he thought Gladstone could have prevented one “of the wickedest acts of aggression in history,” but the specific guilt was clear. If the “ignorant” French people were to be pitied, the “whole writing, thinking, & talking portion of the people” was not. It was of this élite that he thought when he said France had deliberately sought war because “she could not bear to see Germany made powerful by union” and that she should therefore be punished. Admitting after the military disaster that no one had anticipated so swift a collapse, he still insisted that “to those who knew France there was nothing surprising in it when it came. I hope it will tend to dispel the still common delusion that despotism is a vigorous government. There never was a greater mistake.” A certain hardness of tone had crept in.
In the aftermath of the Commune, Mill denounced Thiers’s savage treatment of Paris: “The crimes of the parti de l’ordre are atrocious, even supposing that they are in revenge for those generally attributed to the Commune.” He feared repression would produce still another explosion, whereas France needed a policy of limited social experimentation. But seeing the strong republican tide coming in from the summer of 1871 on, hoping for a federalist government, he took heart. With his new friend, Louis Blanc, still embittered over the outcome of 1848, Mill disagreed about the new republicanism; he did not think (as Thornton had reported Blanc did) that the peasantry were contributing to it “in the same un-intelligent way in which they were lately imperialists.” Rather, he accepted the judgment of his stepdaughter that the key to this phenomenon of growing republican strength was the lay schoolmaster. As for the then fashionable talk about France’s decadence, Mill did not venture to pronounce on the matter. He thought moral decadence the only real form. It was true that “le caractère français a de très grands défauts, qui ne [se] sont jamais plus montrés que dans l’année malheureuse qui vient de s’écouler,” but he supposed it had been much the same in what were called “les plus beaux jours de la France.” What worried him was that the quality of discourse seemed defective; he detected “l’insuffisance intellectuelle de la génération présente pour faire face aux difficiles et redoutables problèmes d’un avenir qui a l’air d’être très prochain.”
By then his virtually lifelong French education was drawing to a close. It had accounted for three or four shifts of direction in his intellectual journey. It made him both an enthusiast and a severe critic. Though he knew very well the land he found so dramatic and so consolatory, lived there a fair portion of his life, and chose to lie there forever, he remained what he had always been since the age of fourteen, an observer with his French notebook open, but with a primarily English agenda. It pained him, as it had Saint-Simon long before, that the two peoples should get along so poorly. “There is something exceedingly strange & lamentable,” he remarked to his most enduring French friend, “in the utter incapacity of our two nations to understand or believe the real character & springs of action of each other.”
MILL AND HISTORY
mill’s life coincided with the rise of the modern historical profession. The origins of the new history lie in the eighteenth century, in the work of both the “philosophical” historians who sought pattern and meaning, and the “critical” historians who began the search for sources and their collection and evaluation. At Mill’s birth, the state of history was far from brilliant. The archives were neglected and disarranged, the libraries were unwelcoming. In 1800, Madame de Staël had noted “la médiocrité des Français comme historiens.” On the eve of the Imperial defeat, Chateaubriand remarked how strange it was “comme cette histoire de France est tout à faire, et comme on s’en est jamais douté.” Napoleon, of course, had done little to encourage serious historical studies. The Revolution before him had set about the organization of its archives under the direction of the Jansenist politician Armand Camus; Bonaparte in turn appointed the professor, politician, and former cleric Pierre Daunou to continue the work at the national and departmental levels, and although Daunou was no special friend of the Empire, he lent his scholarly abilities to the defence of the régime when Napoleon’s purposes and prejudices coincided with his own. The Emperor conceived of written history as a political and social instrument: Pierre Edouard Lemontey was directed to write a history of France from the death of Louis XIV to demonstrate the decadence of the Bourbon monarchy. Historians had to be “trustworthy men who will present the facts in their true light and offer healthy instruction by leading the reader up to the year 8.” Those who conceived the task differently would not be “encouraged by the police.” The immediate inheritance of the Bourbon Restoration was meagre.
In England the situation, though different, was no better. Mill’s reiterated complaints were justified. The universities were, and were to remain until after the mid-century, largely uninterested in modern history. In the uncatalogued depositories, whether Westminster Abbey’s chapter-house or the Tower of London, rats and mice went about their casual destruction. Foreign scholars who came calling were appalled. The Society of Antiquaries, founded in 1751, was unconcerned. The Record Commission Gibbon had asked for, established in 1800, was largely made up of Anglican divines and politicians, uninterested, incompetent. Sir James Mackintosh, appointed to it in 1825, was its first historians. Not until Sir Harris Nicolas, a former naval officer and barrister turned antiquarian, revealed the research conditions he had experienced in editing Nelson’s letters did anyone pay attention. In 1830, addressing himself to the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, Nicolas declared the existing history of England “not merely imperfect and erroneous but a discredit to the country, for almost every new document proves the current histories false. Scarcely a statement will bear the test of truth.” His evidence in 1836 before the Select Committee, chaired by Mill’s friend Charles Buller, was instrumental in bringing about the replacement of the indolent Record Commission. Then, with the establishment of the Public Record Office in 1838, the work of collecting and preserving the nation’s archives seriously began. But the mid-century passed before the kind of collection and publication of sources Guizot directed under the July Monarchy was started in England.
History, often the mere servant of philosophy and policy, was the concern of the very few. All the same, a profound change had set in, outgrowth of the Enlightenment, consequence of the Revolution. A new desire to know the past was abroad, to find a legitimating past to sanction the present. By the time John Mill was choosing his own reading, the French and German historical fields were alive with érudits and writers. He classified history as part of his “private reading.” He said it had been his “strongest predilection, and most of all ancient history.” His father having alerted him to the problem of bias in history, he had read critically from the first. Naturally he had also written histories—of India, of the ancient world, of Holland. At ten he began what he hoped would be a publishable history of Roman government, but he abandoned the project and destroyed the manuscript.
If history had been his strongest “predilection” as a child, its attractions for him weakened. It was never at the centre of his adult activity. Whether it was a hobby is debatable; the evidence is not strong. But Mill read history, reflected on history, principally the history of Europe. History in general he defined as “the record of all great things which have been achieved by mankind.” The history of Europe was peculiarly instructive because “among the inhabitants of our earth, the European family of nations is the only one which has ever yet shown any capability of spontaneous improvement, beyond a certain low level.” After 1826 his interest shifted steadily toward the philosophy of history and discovery of the laws governing human progress. Still severe in criticism of those whose scholarly standards failed his test, he became bent on the subordination of history to philosophy, seeking principles from historical facts, interpreting facts in the light of principles. He was sure all history was in its “infancy.” What passed for history “till near the present time,” he said in 1836, was “almost entirely useless in fact.” But a great change had set in: “intelligent investigation into past ages, and intelligent study of foreign countries” had begun. Almost two decades later, he again remarked on
how new an art that of writing history is, how very recently it is that we possess histories, of events not contemporary with the writer, which, apart from literary merit, have any value otherwise than as materials; how utterly uncritical, until lately, were all historians, even as to the most important facts of history, and how much, even after criticisms had commenced, the later writers merely continued to repeat after the earlier.
The convention that history should be in the narrative form he dismissed with the observation that “it is as much the historian’s duty to judge as to narrate, to prove as to assert.” Moreover, where the requisite materials were missing, “a continuous stream of narrative” was impossible. Showing some inclination to dismiss narrative as “an amusing story,” he nevertheless remarked of Grote’s History of Greece, “Wherever the facts, authentically known, allow a consecutive stream of narrative to be kept up, the story is told in a more interesting manner than it has anywhere been told before, except in the finest passages of Thucydides. We are indeed disposed to assign to this history almost as high a rank in narrative as in thought.” But it was “thought,” not narrative, that concerned Mill. In a system of education, history, “when philosophically studied,” would offer “a certain largeness of conception,” permitting the student to realize completely “the great principles by which the progress of man and the condition of society are governed.” Mill did not unduly prize historiography; at best, for him, it was the first step toward a proper understanding of the past. Niebuhr may have effected “a radical revolution” in Roman history, and Grote may have rescued Greek history from hitherto superficial examination, but Mill’s object in studying the past was less historiographical than sociological. The past existed to be made use of. It was the present that concerned him, or the present in history, what he called “the most important part of history, and the only part which a man may know and understand, with absolute certainty, by using the proper means.” The past itself was no guide to the present: “the present alone affords a fund of materials for judging, richer than the whole stores of the past, and far more accessible.” At best, then, history, like travel, was “useful in aid of a more searching and accurate experience, not in lieu of it. No one learns any thing very valuable from history or from travelling, who does not come prepared with much that history and travelling can never teach.” History’s value “even to a philosopher” is “not so much positive as negative”: it teaches “little” but is “a protection against much error.” Conversely, since one could not know other people and other ages as well as one knows one’s own, knowledge of the present age could help in interpreting the past and in making “a faithful picture” of earlier people and modes of existence, and in assigning “effects to their right causes.”
Mill was concerned with the present in historical context, hence his immediate attraction to the historical periodizations of the Saint-Simonians and Comte. They persuaded him that the early nineteenth century was “an age of transition.” In such an age, the old doctrines and institutions no longer responded to current needs; contradictory voices spoke; the old authorities clung to power; the new men struggled to take over in “a moral and social revolution.” This process had “been going on for a considerable length of time in modern Europe,” but the present moment was crucial. The authority, the legitimacy of the old institutions, lay and religious, had vanished. Change, the “progress” of “civilization,” could be resisted temporarily—Bonaparte had done that—but the process was ultimately irresistible: “The revolution which had already taken place in the human mind, is rapidly shaping external things to its own forms and proportions.”
As a social scientist, Mill found the intelligible historical unit in the “State of Society,” which he defined as “the simultaneous state of all the greater social facts or phenomena.” He concluded that such states, or ages, were linked causally. The task was “to find the laws according to which any state of society produces the state which succeeds it and takes its place.” He thought the evidence proved that this succession took place not, as Vico had proposed, in “an orbit or cycle,” but in “a trajectory or progress.” Progress did not necessarily imply “improvement,” but the “general tendency” was and would continue to be “towards a better and happier state.” French thinkers, he remarked, hoped from mere historical analysis to discover “the law of progress” which would permit prediction of the future. But by such means they could at best discover some rough “empirical law,” not “a law of nature.” Comte had shown that the principal social phenomena changed from age to age, particularly from generation to generation. He alone had seen that man’s condition and actions were increasingly the result of “the qualities produced in [him] by the whole previous history of humanity.” Only when generalizations from history were properly linked with “the laws of human nature” would historical study reveal “Empirical Laws of Society.”
The key to unlocking the secret of progress was intellect, “the state of the speculative faculties of mankind; including the nature of the beliefs which by any means they have arrived at, concerning themselves and the world by which they are surrounded.” Intellect and knowledge made possible both material advances and social unity; each new mode of social thought was the primary agent in shaping the society where it appeared (society itself created that thought only in a secondary manner). Hence Mill’s conclusion that human progress depended mainly on “the law of the successive transformation of human opinions.” Comte alone had tried to determine that law. Whatever the results to date, Mill believed that historical enquiry covering “the whole of past time, from the first recorded condition of the human race, to the memorable phenomena of the last and present generations” was the method “by which the derivative laws of social order and of social progress must be sought.” With this instrument, men could see “far forward into the future history of the human race,” determine how and how much “to accelerate the natural progress in so far as it is beneficial,” and to fend off those perils that even genuine progress entailed. So history was to serve “the highest branch of speculative sociology” and “the noblest and most beneficial portion of the Political Art.” A glittering vista of science and art stretched ahead, united to complete “the circle of human knowledge.”
Some twenty years after he had formally stated this view of things (1843), Mill denied the charge that his doctrine implied “overruling fatality.” He said that “universal experience” showed that human conduct could be accounted for not only by “general laws” but by “circumstances” and “particular characters” also. The will of “exceptional persons” might be “indispensable links in the chain of causation by which even the general causes produce their effects.” Taking issue with Macaulay on the role of the great man, somewhat relaxing his claim for the predictive capability announced in 1843, he proposed in 1862:
The order of human progress . . . may to a certain extent have definite laws assigned to it, while as to its celerity, or even as to its taking place at all, no generalization, extending to the human species generally, can possibly be made; but only some very precarious approximate generalizations, confined to the small portion of mankind in whom there has been anything like consecutive progress within the historical period, and deduced from their special position, or collected from their particular history.
To an extreme degree, ancient Greece showed the extraordinary influence of a single city-state and a few exceptional individuals. The experience would not be repeated. Mill stood by his view, derived from Comte, that with the progress of civilization the influence of chance and character must decline: “the increasing preponderance of the collective agency of the species over all minor causes is constantly bringing the general evolution of the race into something which deviates less from a certain and pre-appointed track.” Comte had been “free from the error of those who ascribe all to general causes, and imagine that neither casual circumstances, nor governments by their actions, nor individuals of genius by their thoughts, materially accelerate or retard human progress,” but neither he nor Mill committed “the vulgar mistake” of imagining that men of action or of thought could “do with society what they please.”
Mill was interested in history for what it could do rather than for what it might be. And what he called “historical science” was becoming more tractable, not only because historians were more inquiring, or more skilful, but because “historical science” itself was changing: “in every generation, it becomes better adapted for study.” The past properly understood, as the raw material for the science of society, was taking shape. Helped by “the historical school of politicians” in France (and, he said, in Germany), Mill had moved on to Comte and a serviceable philosophy of history. More than thirty years later he would still say, “We find no fundamental errors in M. Comte’s general conception of history.”
Mill seems not to have had the temperament to be an historian. After 1830, especially, his interests drew him along another path. John Carlyle rated him “a strange enthusiast with many capabilities but without much constancy of purpose.” Thomas Carlyle was breezily patronizing: “a fine clear Enthusiast, who will one day come to something. Yet to nothing Poetical, I think, his fancy is not rich; furthermore he cannot laugh with any compass.” The estimate appears to cut across his own proposal two years later that Mill should write a history of the French Revolution. This had certainly seemed to be Mill’s intention. He had collected materials, made himself expert. He told Carlyle that he had “many times” thought of writing such a history, “it is highly probable that I shall do it sometime if you do not,” but he saw two obstacles:
the difficulty of doing so tolerably . . . [and the] far greater difficulty of doing it so as to be read in England, until the time comes when one can speak of Christianity as it may be spoken of in France; as by far the greatest and best thing which has existed on this globe, but which is gone, never to return, only what was best in it to reappear in another and still higher form, some time (heaven knows when). One could not, now, say this openly in England, and be read—at least by the many; yet it is perhaps worth trying. Without saying out one’s whole belief on that point, it is impossible to write about the French Revolution in any way professing to tell the whole truth.
The two comments were apposite: Carlyle judged Mill incapable of an empathetic reading of the evidence and an imaginative reconstruction of the explosive and deeply mysterious episode he conceived the Revolution to have been; Mill’s own interest in the Revolution had altered: it was no longer the storehouse of wisdom for the radical reform movement, but an integral part of, a critical episode in, the development of civilization toward the understanding of which he and others were only beginning to move. His preoccupation was to say “one’s whole belief,” “to tell the whole truth.” The remark that it was “perhaps worth trying” revealed his diminishing purpose to write history.
Mill wanted to write about history, to philosophize about it, to subordinate the facts of history to “principles,” to extract instruction from history. Drawn naturally to France from his boyhood experience, he saw clearly that French history offered a potentially rich field for the exploration of the interplay of character, circumstance, thought, and great impersonal forces and tendencies. He would echo Guizot in saying, “A person must need instruction in history very much, who does not know that the history of civilization in France is that of civilization in Europe” (230 below). Reading the young French liberal historians, he was impelled not to write like them but to write about them, to make use of them, to extract the moral from them. He would like, as he told Macvey Napier, “to write occasionally on modern French history & historical literature, with which from peculiar causes I am more extensively acquainted than Englishmen usually are.” He prided himself on his broad reading in the subject as forthrightly as he disapproved of his fellow countrymen who knew nothing of it. He believed it a scandal that “while modern history has been receiving a new aspect from the labours of men who are not only among the profoundest thinkers, . . . the clearest and most popular writers of their age, even those of their works which are expressly dedicated to the history of our own country remain mostly untranslated and in almost all cases unread.” Unlike the productions of narrative historians, their histories of revolution, whether of France in 1789 or of England in 1688, were a significant part of the literature of political and social commitment under the Bourbons. Mill had seen this before 1830, and he was as clear about it after. The history of France, he remarked about the mid-century, was “perhaps the most [interesting] & certainly the most instructive in so far as history is ever so.”
By then, Mill had long since abandoned whatever intention he had formerly had of contributing to the history of the Revolution. His task was not historiography but commentary and historical speculation: the search for a science of history. The European tendency, he wrote in 1836, “towards the philosophic study of the past and of foreign civilizations, is one of the encouraging features of the present time.” A similar tendency was perceptible even in England, “the most insular of all the provinces of the republic of letters.”
DULAURE AND SISMONDI
with dulaure and sismondi Mill was reaching back into the pre-Revolutionary generations where the origins of the liberal historical interpretation lay. In 1826, Jacques Antoine Dulaure was seventy-one years old. After 1789, he had quickly turned his pen against the old régime with a volume detailing the crimes and follies of the aristocracy. A sometime member of the Cordelier and Jacobin clubs, he had sat in the Convention with the Girondins, though he was an independent deputy from Puy-de-Dôme. He voted for the death penalty for Louis XVI and defended Madame Roland before fleeing to asylum in Switzerland. Returning in 1795, he became an agent of the Directory in Corrèze and the Dordogne until his opposition to Bonaparte on 18 Brumaire ended his political career. During the Hundred Days, he used his pen against the Emperor. He was thus congenial to Mill as an early member of “the historical school of politicians.”
By contrast, Charles Simonde (who assumed the additional Italian form de Sismondi), fifty-three years old in 1826, a Protestant pastor’s son and a citizen of Geneva, had a more unhappy experience of the Revolution. Apprenticed in Lyon in 1792, he returned home almost immediately, only to be driven to England by the Revolutionary coup at the end of the year. Returning home again in 1794, he and his family soon fled to a farm near Lucca. But the ebb and flow of revolution and reaction there put him in prison three times before 1800, when he went back to Geneva. He wrote an Histoire des républiques italiennes du moyen âge before determining in May 1818 to write the history of France, an immense enterprise of twenty-nine volumes that occupied him to the eve of his death in 1841. Like Dulaure, Sismondi had not been sorry to see Napoleon humbled in 1814, but his loyalties were confused in the chassé-croisé of that uncertain moment (he had been on the government’s books in 1810 for a 2000 franc subvention). Nor was he favourable to the Bourbons. But he had returned to Paris in 1813, and had made the acquaintance of the liberal politician Benjamin Constant. An intimate friend of Germaine de Staël, Constant had bitterly attacked the Emperor. Yet on Bonaparte’s return from Elba, Constant permitted the infinitely resourceful Fouché to persuade him to take a seat on the Conseil d’état and to produce the Acte additionnel of 22 April, 1815, a liberal supplement to and modification of the Imperial system, which pleased few and was accepted by Napoleon (who would have abandoned it had the decision at Waterloo not gone against him) as an exercise in public relations. Sismondi’s relations with Constant must explain his defence of the document, for which the Emperor rewarded him with a long interview. Not unreasonably, therefore, the news from Belgium after 18 June led Sismondi to return to Geneva. Madame de Staël remained friendly, but other friends were cool. Mill seems not to have held this Bonapartist flirtation, supposing he knew of it, against Sismondi. The main thing was that the preface of his Histoire showed an earnest commitment to social progress: “En rassemblant les souvenirs nationaux, c’est moins à la réputation des morts qu’au salut des vivans que nous devons songer.” Liberty was his passion. Perhaps less awkwardly than Dulaure, Sismondi could be made to fit the conception of “philosophical historian” Mill came to hold.
Mill’s review of the works of these two men was a vehicle for taking aim at aristocracy, church, monarchy, and the conservative historiography perpetuating the myth of chivalry. Characteristically, he began with an ironical cut at the Quarterly Review and his fellow countrymen who had yet to discover the superiority of other nations in certain matters, specifically literature and history. The starkest contrast was drawn between pre- and post-Revolutionary studies: mere ornament and frivolousness, the mark of literature in “every country where there is an aristocracy,” having yielded to earnest regard for truth in the flood of important histories since 1821. A cascade of generalized scorn for previous historians of France set off the merits of Dulaure and Sismondi with their scrupulous regard for “facts” (17). Like most historians then and later, Mill did not trouble to consider seriously what a historical fact might be. The unquestioned assumptions of the critical method in historiography are apparent in his magisterial commentaries.
Lest readers mistake his purpose, he laid bare the object and conclusion of his examination at the outset, namely, proof that “the spirit of chivalry” was almost unknown in the Middle Ages (20). Rather, it was a set of ideals in the rough and tumble of a time, marked by depravity and misery, whose noble class was the antithesis of civilization. His allusion to the persistence of the knightly state of mind in the nineteenth century was not subtle. Though claiming high regard for objective fact, Mill fell back upon the “hue and cry” of Dulaure’s French conservative critics as proof of Dulaure’s reliability (21). Almost simultaneously, he attacked defenders of the English status quo. In short, it was quickly apparent that Mill had some trouble keeping his mind on the remote past. He confined himself principally to France, he explained, because “the feudal system never existed in its original purity, in England” and because no English historian had yet, like Dulaure, undertaken “the toilsome and thankless service of dragging into light the vices and crimes of former days” (26). His description of feudal society emphasized the “perpetual civil war,” the cruelties visited by kings and aristocrats on the people (28). He noted that in England “it has been the interest of the powerful, that the abominations of the clergy in the middle ages should be known” (32), but also that in reality they had been less heinous than those of the barons. With the aid of Dulaure’s and Sismondi’s narratives, he challenged the latter-day descendants of what he took to be a barbarous aristocracy and the new “romantic” historians. Vigilant against the conservative implications of sentimentalizing the Middle Ages, he hailed the enthusiasm for history of which romanticism was nevertheless a powerful component. He distinguished, in short, between “nostalgic historiography and historiography which restored,” chiding those who could not or would not do so—“Even Mr. Hallam does not believe in the reality of knights-errant . . .” (34).
Mill’s Middle Ages were nearly an unrelieved catalogue of aristocratic and monarchical wrongdoing. The most glamorous actors, such as Richard Coeur de Lion, were brought to book in light of the misdeeds chronicled by Dulaure and Sismondi (34). Only with the appearance of “a sort of public opinion” once the national power came into being, he argued, was there any improvement of noble conduct (42). Urban privileges had to be wrung from a perfidious feudal class. The only luminous figure Mill perceived in a dark landscape was Saint Louis, “a perfect specimen of a mind governed by conviction; a mind which has imperfect and wrong ideas of morality, but which adheres to them with a constancy and firmness of principle, in its highest degree perhaps the rarest of all human qualities” (44).
Approaching the subject that subsequently became important to him, he considered the question of gallantry to which he attributed “nine-tenths of the admiration of chivalry” (45). It amounted to mere male vanity; the idolatry of women marked a “low state of civilization” (46). If the few were set on pedestals, the many were disregarded in a world of mistreatment and rape. In time, the aristocracy gave up its independent power, but not its masculine conceits and illusions; it never reformed itself. Thanks to works like Dulaure’s and Sismondi’s, the French at least would be disabused about the romanticized past. Unhappily, there were no English equivalents. Hallam was granted some measure of “liberality” in his discussion of the Middle Ages (52), but he had been taken in by legend and was without philosophy; if he knew the sources and had something to say about English constitutional history, his work was judged “a sketch of one of the most remarkable states of society ever known, at once uninstructive and tiresome.” His volumes were “an utter failure” (52).
The breathtaking judgments the young Mill handed out, founded more on a philosophy of history than on close acquaintance with research, may not seem entirely off the mark. But that his reading was openly inquisitive might be difficult to show. François Mignet, whom he much admired, would, like historians since, point to Sismondi’s attention to the effect of economic change in history, an emphasis Mill appears not to have noticed. Nor did he comment on the inflexibility of the moral code Sismondi applied to his thirteen centuries, possibly because he then still shared the assumption. It was revealing that only at the end of his review did Mill draw attention to the lack in Dulaure of a generalizing, that is, of a philosophical mind: he states the facts as he finds them, praises and censures where he sees reason, but does not look out for causes and effects, or parallel instances, or apply the general principles of human nature to the state of society he is describing, to show from what circumstances it became what is was. It is true he does not profess to be a historian, but only to sketch a tableau moral (51). Reading this from another pen, Mill might have said, “On croit rêver!” By nearly every test he would normally apply, Dulaure should have failed almost as absolutely as Henry Hallam. The secret, however, was in the point of view.
Sismondi offered more generalizations, if not more philosophical reflection, and sustained the underlying assumption of Mill’s review. Showing movement if little colour, his long narrative continued to appear for years after the first volumes Mill surveyed. Its principal value lay in the sources brought together. But the verdict was to be that the first three volumes, the historical event of 1821, Camille Jullian said, were the best of it. They were received by both the philosophic and the romantic schools, welcomed by Augustin Thierry and Guizot. Even Michelet was said to have remarked of Sismondi, “notre père à tous.” Mill was not wrong to single him out.
MILL AND THE REVOLUTION OF 1789
mill encountered the French Revolution shortly after his return from France in 1821. He learned that “the principle of democracy” had triumphed a generation earlier to become “the creed of a nation.” This revelation made sense of fragmented melodramatic events, all he had known of the matter, and sustained all his “juvenile aspirations to the character of a democratic champion.” He imagined himself caught up in a similar revolution, “a Girondist in an English Convention.” If the recollection across three decades was accurate, it might seem unexceptional, were it not that Mill’s identification with the Girondins was an assertion of independence from his father, who dismissed the Revolution as “some kind of ruffians in the metropolis [being] allowed to give laws to the whole nation.” Lamartine was to colour the confused tragedy of the Girondins in 1847, but their drama was known long before. Their neo-classical poses and search for glory may well have appealed to John Mill. He would have met them in François Toulongeon’s Histoire de France depuis la révolution de 1789, and learned that they supported a republic only after the abolition of the monarchy. In Madame de Staël’s Considérations sur les principaux événemens de la révolution française, he would have seen them less heroically. What is sure is that the liberal historians of the 1820s took them as champions; the sympathetic treatment by Thiers and Mignet may have confirmed in the mind of the memorialist the germ of the thought held by the boy of fifteen.
There is no evidence that Mill thought before the second half of the 1820s of writing a history of the Revolution. In his review of Mignet in April 1826, he alluded to documentary materials accessible in England, adding, “We purpose to lay some of them before our readers ere long” (5). Almost two years later he protested that “on est ici dans une si crasse ignorance sur la révolution, et tous, jusqu’aux individus les plus instruits, ont des idées tellement ridicules sur la nature de cette crise politique, qu’avec mon peu de lumières et de connaissance des faits j’ai crû pouvoir faire quelque chose pour dessiller les yeux de mes compatriotes.” Claiming to know almost everything from the standard histories and the published memoirs, he asked Charles Comte to recommend further materials on royalist intentions before the flight to Varennes. But beyond “quelques articles,” he mentioned no larger project, although, he added, “je ne vois guère que moi en angleterre qui rendent justice à la révolution.” The collection of books and materials he had, however, suggests that such was his intention. The years immediately preceding the collapse of the Bourbon monarchy showed no progress toward realizing this project, despite his detailed attack on Sir Walter Scott’s version of the Revolution. And it may be supposed that his “half formed intention of writing a History of the French Revolution” was steadily weakening as he was drawn toward the broad historical perspectives of the Saint-Simonians. His own explanation was that he was then digesting and maturing his thoughts “without any immediate call for giving them out in print,” and that had he “gone on writing” he “would have much disturbed the important transformation in [his] opinions and character, which took place in those years.” Perhaps the initial great enthusiasm he felt over the events of July 1830 stimulated his earlier ambitions to write a history, but the increasing disappointment he experienced in closely following the course of the new régime may well have confirmed his growing interest in a much larger view of the historical past, convinced him that the Saint-Simonians had properly seen beneath the surface events of political revolutions, and led once more to his letting 1789 slip away. Moreover, his encounter with Carlyle, whom he first met in September 1831, may also have affected his intent as it became clearer that Carlyle was becoming set on writing a history himself.
To Carlyle’s statement that, despite the difficulty of writing, it was one of his “superstitions never to turn back,” and that thus one must “march on, & complain no more about it,” Mill responded in a minor key: he had the same thought. If he was to attempt “a general view of any great subject” he wished to say not merely “something true, but to omit nothing which is material to the truth.” The sole encouragement to undertake such a task was that “imperfect and dim light” was still better than “total darkness.” His long rumination betrayed serious doubts about so immense a subject. He spoke of returning to work after a brief holiday, when he hoped to “produce something worthy of the title you give me,” but thought he was “rather fitted to be a logical expounder than an artist.” Still, there was work to be done in exposing the logical side of “Truth” before the poetic, and that he hoped to do.
He was proposing Carlyle would do the great artistic history, while he could do only the analytical. Despite reservations about Mill’s literary capacity, Carlyle nevertheless urged him to set forth his “ideas and acquisitions” about the Revolution at greater length, for “It is properly the grand work of our era. . . .” But Carlyle was already moving toward his own French Revolution. Mill continued to remark, as he did to Tocqueville, “We have not so much as one readable history of the Revolution. . . .” but himself made no move to supply it. He may well not have had the time for it. Moreover, his growing attraction to French historical speculation was leading him steadily away from any such specific task. From the summer of 1832, he steadily despatched books from his own library and procured fresh materials for Carlyle. And, although he continued to reflect and comment on the Revolution from time to time, it was clear, long before Carlyle was in print, that Mill had abandoned even the glimmering of his former project.
However halting Mill’s resolve to write an analytical history became, he had been sufficiently motivated for the better part of a decade, and sufficiently convinced that such a study could be a vehicle by which to forward his argument in England, that he followed the literature and published four essays on as many of the Revolution’s historians. In this connection, Dulaure had been a transitional figure, useful to Mill (like Sismondi) principally for furnishing materials with which to challenge the romanticized version of the past. Not only were the Middle Ages brutal and strife-ridden, Mill concluded, but their feudal survivals in the eighteenth century were preposterous. In the young historians Adolphe Thiers and François Mignet he found the support he was looking for. They could help him make his case against the ancien régime, broadly conceived, and on behalf of the liberal reformers of the Revolution’s early phase. Unencumbered by personal experience and memory, they did not linger over the reservations and dilemmas of the earlier liberal champions like Madame de Staël. They observed but were not embarrassed by the break between the liberal phase of the Revolution and the Terror. They accepted the challenge of the counter-revolution head-on. “Ecrivez, Messieurs, faites des livres,” Royer-Collard, leader of the doctrinaires, remarked when the liberal Decazes ministry fell following the duc de Berry’s assassination; “il n’y a pas autre chose à faire en ce moment.”
In 1821 Thiers and Mignet appeared in Paris from the south. They were just twenty-four; the liberal opposition was warming up. With letters of introduction to Jacques Antoine Manuel, leader of the Chamber opposition, they made the acquaintance of this group, including Talleyrand, and established themselves in the opposition salons and press, Thiers at the Constitutionnel, Mignet at the Courrier Français. They were lawyers from the Faculté at Aix, attracted by history, Thiers the more politically ambitious, Mignet the more scholarly. Mignet had already obtained the couronne of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres for his memoir, Les institutions de saint Louis. Established as a lecturer at the Athénée, 1822-24, he discussed the Reformation and the English revolutions of the seventeenth century in such a way as left no doubt that he was attacking the Bourbon monarchy. Guizot had been silenced at the Sorbonne in 1822 for just this lèse-majesté; Mignet fell under no ban. But reaching for a wider audience, he, like Thiers, determined to write the history of the Revolution.
His two volumes were published in May 1824, offering in a single instalment the whole of the version Thiers served up at greater length over five years. It was less narrative than exposition, an analysis of a great event that worked itself out as it had to. After collecting materials for two years, Mignet had written his book rapidly in November-December 1823. Jules Simon proposed that Mignet might have said “ma révolution” (a boutade concerning 1830 incorrectly ascribed to Thiers). Louis Halphen remarked that Mignet, like Thiers and (as would be said later on) Guizot, gave the impression “of having known from the beginning of time what [he] had just learned that morning.” The work was marked by the fatalisme historique distinguishing the liberal counter-offensive against the Ultra-royalist reaction, almost in response to Sismondi’s dictum that “l’étude des faits sans philosophie ne seroit pas moins décevante que celle de la philosophie sans faits.” It echoed, as Sainte-Beuve pointed out, Joseph de Maistre’s view of the Revolution as a great irresistible force. Accusing the aristocracy of the whole responsibility for the outbreak of the Revolution and all the ensuing violence, Mignet challenged not merely the régime and its supporters but also the old liberals who had agreed with Benjamin Constant that one must distinguish “those measures which [the government] had the right to take, from those crimes which they committed and which they did not have the right to commit.” It was the first complete history, “un tableau d’ensemble vivant et rapide, un résumé frappant, théorique, commode.” It had a huge success, with translations into five other languages.
Mill’s review distinguished a greater degree of popular narrative in Mignet than some were inclined to, while underlining his subordination of history to “philosophy,” a characteristic of the “modern” style of historiography. Like Carlyle, he proclaimed Mignet “the highest specimen” of the new school, stated his agreement with the account, and once more berated the old narrative historians in England (4). In contrast to what Carlyle would later say, however, he approved Mignet’s skill in the selection and marshalling of details (4). Mill gave so much space to illustrative extracts that one has the feeling he had little to say. He made no comment on the uncritical handling of sources; or upon the use Mignet made of oral evidence; or upon the role of individuals within the controlling conditions of fatalisme historique. And he did not mention the conception of class struggle as a motor force. But, anticipating Carlyle, Mill was critical of the reflections which principally established the work in Revolutionary historiography and which made it, as Thiers is said to have thought of his own book, “une arme de guerre” against the Bourbons. If he was not affronted, as Constant was, by the global explanation of the whole Revolutionary experience, he was unimpressed by Mignet’s talent for generalization, an aptitude with which he considered Madame de Staël firmly endowed, even though her taste for dubious epigrams was still more marked (13). The result was a short, schoolmasterly reprimand, separating the faux brillants from the vrais. An entertaining story well told, the book would reveal to the English “what intelligent Frenchmen think and say on the subject of the French Revolution” (13-14). But this remark did not quite catch the controversial, essentially political nature of Mignet’s work.
Years later, in December 1861, Taine, who was no friend of “la vulgate de Thiers et de Mignet,” chanced to have a chat with Mignet whom he had not previously met. “Il y a un fonds de stérilité; on voit qu’il n’a pas vécu dans les idées générales, qu’il y est impropre,” he noted. “Il n’est pas artiste non plus, voyez son histoire de Marie Stuart, sa Révolution française; c’est glacé. Il est propre à digérer des matériaux indigestes, à exposer clairement, en bel ordre. Il a le talent français de la classification parfaite et de l’élégance noble académique,” but about les forces profondes, “il a l’air encore dépaysé.” By then, of course, Mignet had long since abandoned the political scene, having settled for the archives of the Foreign Ministry under the July Monarchy, and become secrétaire perpétuel of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. Philosophical history as practised by the opposition literati under the Bourbon monarchy had become an historiographical artifact. But perhaps Mill had caught something of the limitation Taine perceived thirty-five years later.
Still it is true that Mignet’s Revolution was a youthful tour de force, part of a general movement that finally toppled the Bourbon monarchy. Whatever his criticisms, Mill had recognized its significance as a pièce d’occasion; by praising Mignet’s skill and achievement, he had early singled out an historian whose total work, some twenty volumes, would win the approval of scholars at home and abroad.
When Mignet arrived in Paris, the battle over romanticism was at its height, with Walter Scott at its centre. Mignet waited a year before making a statement, but the popular verdict was in: the reading public was entranced. The novels were translated into French beginning in 1816, and 200,000 copies were sold during Louis XVIII’s reign, 1.5 million by the end of Charles X’s. If Chateaubriand and others had pointed the way, Scott’s pre-eminence was established so rapidly that historians (whose audience in those days was the literate general public) greeted this voice with some approval. The earliest was Augustin Thierry, former secretary to Saint-Simon, a journalist, not yet the historian of the Norman Conquest, not quite so cautious as he would be later on. Of Scott’s books he said there was more true history in them than in “les compilations philosophiquement fausses” claiming the name of history. He discerned in Scott’s reading of the past “cette seconde vue que, dans les temps d’ignorance, certains hommes s’attribuent pour l’avenir.” He named it “divination historique.” Experience and time brought Thierry justifiably to rate his own historical gifts superior to Scott’s, but he conceived them as complementary spirits, and years after he was sufficiently secure to admit the fact.
Mignet was initially spellbound: “Il faut le dire, Walter Scott est un des quatre premiers génies anglais; il se montre l’égal de Richardson, de Milton, de Shakespeare,” a man who knew how to infuse history with movement and vitality, how to identify the essential characteristics of an epoch. Reflection brought reserve. Scott, he concluded a little later, was more familiar with Scottish chronicles than with French: “Où sont nos villes, leurs corporations, leurs bourgeois, leurs quarteniers, leurs échevins? Où sont nos parlements . . . nos paysans? On connaît la cour de Louis XI, on ne connaît pas son siècle.” As the new historians made their way. Scott’s reputation with the French historians was qualified but not extinguished. He had shown them something essential; his reputation and influence remained greater with them than with English historians.
Mill was familiar with the French reception of Scott. His own experience did not predispose him to share it. As a child he had known “the metrical romances” his father recommended to him and been “intensely delighted” with their “animated narrative.” But when still in his teens, he had scathingly criticized Hume’s History as “really a romance,” bearing “nearly the same degree of resemblance to any thing which really happened, as Old Mortality, or Ivanhoe. . . . Romance is always dangerous, but when romance assumes the garb of history, it is doubly pernicious.” He continued to judge the novels harshly, for offering mere amusement. Scott, he declared later, had “no object but to please.” He neverthless granted that “at the height of his popularity” Scott “was breathing the breath of life into the historical literature of France, and, through France, of all Europe.” During the 1820s, however, he was not greatly impressed. The publication in June 1827 of Scott’s Life of Napoleon Buonaparte decided him to make a prolonged statement. His review, the last article he wrote for the Westminster Review in the 1820s, cost him “more labour than any previous; but it was a labour of love, being a defence of the early French Revolutionists against the Tory misrepresentations of Sir Walter Scott.” He even bought many books “for this purpose,” in numbers that “far exceeded the worth of the immediate object”; but, as we have seen, he “had at that time a half formed intention of writing a History of the French Revolution.”
The review constitutes the nearest thing to a fully developed statement about the Revolution Mill ever set down. It was also a blistering attack on Scott. After a preliminary bow to his literary talent, Mill said the book “would be admirable as a romance” but was not history (55). Bonaparte’s life would require other talents. Mill’s subject, of course, was not Napoleon, but rather the nature of history, the distortions of Tory history, and a defence of the Girondins. Whatever his subject, however, a true historian must be “a philosopher,” able to render the facts of history useful by adducing principles from them and applying principles to explain them, a man of broad views and experience, able to weigh and link evidence, “a consummate judge” (56). In a word, “the historian” resembled considerably the continental philosophical historian and no other. Scott did not measure up: bland and aristocratic, hard-working, wishing to please all, he was finally judged to be a not entirely illiberal or disingenuous “advocate of the aristocracy against the people” (57). His social and political philosophy was summarized as “whatever is English is best; best, not for England only, but for every country in Christendom, or probably the world” (60). There followed a catalogue of his sins and errors: ignorant of the facts about France and the French, he had read few authorities, failed to understand circumstances, and was “not to be trusted” (63). At best, Scott saw “a part of the truth” but was “far too slightly acquainted with the monuments of the times, to have the faintest or most distant perception of it as a whole” (65). His pre-Revolutionary chapters were prejudiced and misleading; what followed was worse. His skilfully told story, doubtless sincerely intended, manipulated the facts in the cause of a theory that was not true. Still, Mill gave him this: the work was “less malignant” than most other Tory studies of the Revolution (110).
Mill’s view of the early Revolution, what he would call its “true history,” was in stark contrast to Scott’s. The Bonapartist episode he quickly dismissed as a vulgar coda, a familiar exercise of power by an adventurer moved by “the lowest impulses of the lowest description of human beings” (58). The Revolution was something else: a “vast convulsion,” originated, heroically defended, and at last ended by “the people” when they awoke from “the frenzy” into which the privileged orders had driven them by opposing “representative government” (58). As an unprecedented manifestation of popular will, it could not be judged by ordinary rules. Where Scott saw ambitious men seeking office, Mill saw patriots seeking liberty. Where Scott proposed the perverse nature of the lower orders running amok, Mill saw ordinary men driven to excess by injustice and oppression. Scott was granted the perceptiveness of glimpsing some part of the truth (for instance, about peasant-landlord ties in the Vendée), but accused of general failure to comprehend social relations under the ancien régime. Where Scott saw vicious, irreligious philosophes undermining society, Mill saw benefactors of mankind. Scott’s court was weak and ineffectual. Mill’s wicked and tyrannical. Mill was amused by the suggestion that the royal government might have forced the election results it needed, a course “so perfectly according to the English model” (72). Against Scott’s “conjuring up a republican party” (79), Mill argued there had been no such party, only varieties of constitutional monarchists in the Legislative Assembly until such time as both “the nullity of the Duke of Orleans as a politician” (81) and the perfidy of the King forced them to become republicans. Mill ridiculed Scott’s suggestion that the Revolution ought to have adopted something like the British constitution in the circumstances following the States General, when “the struggle was not for a revolution, but against a counter-revolution” (86). To Scott the Girondins were “philosophical rhapsodists” willing to use force to establish “a pure republic”; Mill exalted them as “the purest and most disinterested body of men, considered as a party, who ever figured in history,” statesmen who had war thrust on them, who laboured vainly to save the crown, and who were left with no alternative save a republic (98).
All this was put with passion (Scott was called “childish,” accused of “effrontery,” supposed to be suffering “mental hallucination” [68n, 69n, 79n]), buttressed by appeal to authorities of all persuasions. It was the liberal version of the early Revolution, stopping short of the Jacobin period that Mill found distasteful. If he had a clear overview, it was close to Mignet’s. But it was significant that he did not push on beyond the early years. What concerned him was defence of the liberal champions of constitutional monarchy against an unscrupulous aristocracy, that is, defence of “the honest part of the revolutionists” against “the general opinion” in England that had done them (and, it went without saying, those in England who thought like them) more harm even than Scott (110). If Scott had a didactic purpose, Mill had nothing less. But he must be read in the context of an entrenched conservative historiography, deep-seated national prejudice against the French, and of course the struggle for reform of the House of Commons. He admitted that the Life contained “juster views” than those he particularly took issue with (110), though how they appeared in a writer so roundly declared unfit for the historian’s task he did not venture to explain.
Notoriously, Scott’s book was put together under great pressure, nine volumes in a year, amid many anxieties. He himself acknowledged some part of its limitation. Carlyle’s famous tribute was that Scott “taught all men this truth, which looks like a truism, and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history and others, till so taught: that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies and abstractions of men.” No doubt this was less true of the Life of Napoleon than of the historical novels. Perhaps Mill would, some years after he wrote his devastating review, have been more inclined to grant as much. His own views about the depths and poetry of history were changing. But he never found the words. Whether he could have accepted Carlyle’s posthumous verdict that Scott “understood what history meant; this was his chief intellectual merit,” one must guess.
Mill believed that the huge sales Scott enjoyed had a harmful effect on the public mind. But he also knew that Scott had made an important contribution to the revival of written history, that he was dealing with not merely a pillar of the Tory establishment but a formidable man of letters. In taking on the work of Alison, however, he was jousting with a writer of more ordinary talents, if also of great industry, whose account of the Revolution was also Tory propaganda. What ultimately justified taking notice of such a study was, again, the immense sales Alison had both at home and, in translation, abroad. Of the whole multi-volume History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the Restoration of the Bourbons, more than half a million copies were sold before his death, though at the time Mill could hardly have foreseen it would have such success.
A native of Shropshire who had early moved to Edinburgh where he took up the law, Alison became an advocate-deputy for Scotland, wrote books on the criminal law, and was eventually appointed sheriff of Lanarkshire. By the time he visited France in 1814-15, his conservative views were fixed. Leslie Stephen’s judgment that he was “intelligent and hard-working, if not brilliant,” is borne out by his numerous publications. He had defeated Macaulay in election as Lord Rector of Marischal College, Aberdeen, and Palmerston as Lord Rector of Glasgow. He was a believer in the institution of slavery, and later a strong supporter of the American Confederacy. His literary taste ran to “elevating” romances and against the Dickensian preoccupation with the manners of the middle and lower classes. He refused to “worship the Dagon of Liberalism.” He was very nearly everything Mill was not, their views could hardly have been more different, whether of the French Revolution or, late in life, the American Civil War: Alison supported the Confederacy, while Mill, “very retiring and embarrassed in his manner,” as Henry Adams noted, was “a mighty weapon of defence for our cause in this country.”
Alison began his History on New Year’s Day 1829, intending to illustrate the corruption of human nature and the divine hand in events; his work was induced, he said, “by the clear perception that affairs were hurrying on to some great social and political convulsion in this country. The passion for innovation which had for many years overspread the nation, the vague ideas afloat in the public mind, the facility with which Government entered into these views—all these had awakened gloomy presentiments in my mind.” His first two volumes were published in April 1833.
As Alison had published a year-long series of articles in Blackwood’s on the French Revolution and the English reform issue in 1831-32. Mill knew what to expect. But he inquired of Carlyle whether the book “is worth reading, or reviewing—I suppose it is wrong, when one has taken the trouble to accumulate knowledge on a subject, not to work it up if one can into some shape useful to others—and if I am to write about the F.R. it may as well be while my recollections of the original authorities are fresh.” Clearly Mill, though now far from sure that he wished to pursue his former intention to write a history and evidently yielding the ground to and actively assisting Carlyle, still wished to make a statement. He wished to pillory the errors, bias, and flaccid lack of philosophy he found in Alison. He wished also to discuss his own conception of history. Alison’s work was both an affront to scholarship and an occasion for Mill to reveal something of his recent historical reflection. Carlyle was encouraging: “by all means review him, and in the widest vehicle you can get. It is a thing utterly unknown to the English and ought to be known. Speak of it what you know. If Alison prove stupid dismiss him the sooner, but tell your own story freely without fear or favour.”
Mill was eager to take on both Whig and Tory. Having read Alison, he wrote again:
the man is quite inconceivably stupid and twaddling. I think beyond anybody who has attempted to write elaborately on the subject. He has no research; the references with which he loads his margin are chiefly to compilations. I could write something about him or rather about his subject; but I could employ myself better unless there were some widely-circulated periodical that would publish it, the Edinburgh Review perhaps would, were it not that I should wish to shew up Macaulay’s ignorance of the subject and assumption of knowledge, as shewn in that very review.
Simultaneously, however, he offered to the Monthly Repository “a few pages on a stupid book lately published by a man named Alison, and pretending to be a history of the French Revolution.” He then followed this proposal with the tired and dutiful statement, “I am sick of that subject, but I could write something on it which perhaps would be of more use to the M.R. than something better would be. . . .”
Mill could not see how to strike the larger target behind Alison. When done, he called his review “a poor, flimsy, short paper on that book of Alison’s, which I undertook in an evil hour, when the subject was as remote as possible from those which were occupying my thoughts and feelings at the time; and which I accordingly performed exceedingly ill, and was obliged to cancel the part which had cost me most labour.” What this part was he did not reveal; why he abandoned it is unknown. He told Carlyle the review was “not worth your perusal.” Mill seems to have believed that the book was not worth his critique, was too slight to bear the weight of the crushing rejoinder he had in him. Five years earlier, when he had still thought seriously of doing a history, he had dissected Scott’s work, using detailed references to the memoirs and histories. Now he was no longer interested in doing that. Neither Alison nor his work justified presentation of what Mill had once thought he had to say about the Revolution as a result of his exacting scrutiny of the published sources, and in the light of his Radical beliefs.
Alison’s qualifications were quickly discarded: it was not even a question of measuring him against an ideal historian’s talent to create character, summon up the historical setting, establish the play between personality and circumstance. As a Tory, Mill noted, Alison might be expected to disapprove of his actors; instead he offered only indiscriminately charitable judgments. Rather than “that highest impartiality which proceeds from philosophic insight,” there was “abundance of that lower kind which flows from milkiness of disposition.” Free of cant, he was devoid of originality. If he followed Thiers and Mignet, he rendered the drama of events “flat, cold, and spiritless” (116). If he honestly revealed his sources, their poverty betrayed his slight reading. His memory was defective, his knowledge of the French language flawed. He knew enough about neither the Revolution nor “the universal subject, the nature of man” (122). His reflective capacity was barren, his generalizations were either truisms or “such as a country-gentleman, accustomed to being king of his company, talks after dinner” (116). Alison’s “insignificant book” was judged to be empty of knowledge, thought, and philosophy (122). But, as Mill pointed out, if that were all he himself had to say, his article might end.
He had two things to say, the first of which had been slipped in earlier, in praising this not very exceptional writer, Mill had noted that Alison at least “does not join in the ill-informed and rash assertion of the Edinburgh Review, reechoed by the Quarterly, that the first authors of the French Revolution were mediocre men” (115). This was as close as he got, on this occasion, to assailing Macaulay directly. The second, more important thing he wished to repeat was that the Revolution could never be understood unless as “one turbulent passage in a progressive revolution embracing the whole human race.” There was an immense “moral revolution” under way, in which the events in France were “a mere incident in a great change in man himself, in his belief, in his principles of conduct, and therefore in the outward arrangements of society; a change which is but half completed, and which is now in a state of more rapid progress here in England, than any where else.” All this, which Mill believed to be part of “the scientific aspect” of history, escaped Alison (118). Mill’s position was that the Revolution had produced “substantial good . . . at the cost of immediate evil of the most tremendous kind.” No one could ever know whether more could have been obtained for less, or whether averting revolution (how this might have been achieved he did not explain) would not have halted all progress and reduced the French to “the condition of Russian boors.” The Tories had reduced revolution to “a bagatelle,” the work of a handful of wilful bloody-minded men; they refused to understand that “rapid progress” and “practical good” might not be achieved by peaceful means. They would not see that it was the French crown and its advisers that had abandoned peaceful means. Crimes were committed, some by “bad men,” but all with a single object: to save the Revolution, whatever the cost (120, 121).
When he read the first volume, Mill may have underestimated Alison’s work as popular history and propaganda. In reply to Carlyle’s note of approval of the review, Mill remarked somewhat evenly, “I also am conscious that I write with a greater appearance of sureness and strong belief than I did for a year or two before, in that period of recovery after the petrification of a narrow philosophy. . . .” This rather mixed and invertebrate review, however, does not make a strong impression. It is uncertainly dependent on three disparate intentions: to rekindle, if only momentarily, the fire of Mill’s earlier defence of the Revolution; to strike out at political opponents; to say something about his currently developing philosophy of history. Naturally it did nothing to give Alison pause: if it led him to fatten up his bibliographical prefaces, it by no means discouraged him from pursuing his narrative. He continued to revise his work, which had an immense success as a detailed history of the Revolution in its wider setting. It was translated into many languages and became the best-selling such work for much of the century in England and North America. Mill was unrepentant. Nine years after his review, when Alison had completed the final volume, he told Napier, “You have touched up Alison very well & it was time. My fingers have often itched to be at him. The undeserved reputation into which that book is getting, merely because it is Tory history, & the only connected one of that important time, is very provoking.”
When Mill first mentioned Alison to him, Carlyle already had a copy “lying on a Table.” Having “glanced” at it, he was both impressed and dismissive. His reaction told something about his own scholarship. “He is an Ultra Tory,” he told Mill, “and therefore cannot understand the French Revolution; otherwise, they say, a man of considerable ability; his Margin bears marks of great inquiry (Thiers and the like I saw quoted almost every page), the man too was in France and published Travels. . . .” That Carlyle should have been impressed by Alison’s first citation of his references, where Mill was so scathing, illustrated a gap between their conceptions of research that one might not infer from Mill’s appreciation of Carlyle’s History in 1837. At the time of his review of Alison, Mill had of course revised his early estimate of Carlyle’s writing as “consummate nonsense.” On Carlyle’s initiative they had met in September 1831 and begun a correspondence almost at once, and by the next summer Mill was evidently handing over the Revolution: “. . . I am rather fitted to be a logical expounder than an artist. You I look upon as an artist, and perhaps the only genuine one now living in this country: the highest destiny of all, lies in that direction; for it is the artist alone in whose hands Truth becomes impressive, and a living principle of action.” With the same forthrightness with which he approved Mill’s high opinion of and attachment to him, Carlyle took full advantage of Mill’s generosity in sending him books for the history he now thought of writing. In a way, Mill was a collaborator from the outset.
For more than four years they discussed the work, Mill advising and then responding to the steady importuning, Carlyle communicating something of the gestation throes foretelling the strange and awful work he found welling up in him. “What it is to be I cannot yet tell: my doors of utterance are so wonderful, one knows not how to shape thoughts such as to pass thro’.” His head “buzzing,” he read on and speculated about the literary event “the right History (that impossible thing I mean by History) of the French Revolution” would prove to be. Whoever should write “the truth” about this “grand Poem of our Time” would be “worth all other writers and singers.” Hence the conclusion: “If I were spared alive myself, and had means, why might not I too prepare the way for such a thing?” So Mill continued to oblige with books, Carlyle proclaimed his gratitude, the work took shape. “The French business grows darker and darker upon me: dark as chaos. Ach Gott!” Above all, it should not be like other histories, “which are so many ‘dead thistles for Pedant chaffinches to peck at and fill their crops with.’ ” By February 1835 the first volume was written and Mill was given it to read. On March 6 Mill brought the terrible news of its accidental burning. Carlyle’s reaction was superb, his consideration of the distracted Mill paternal, his acceptance of the offer of financial compensation spontaneous.
One must imagine the intensity of Mill’s commitment to the work after what Carlyle called this “miserablest accident (as we name such things) of my whole life.” Seeing it as “purely the hand of Providence,” he admitted that the manuscript had “pleased me better than anything I had ever done,” acknowledged that “That first volume” could not be reproduced, and bravely hoped to produce another that would be “if not better or equal, all that I can.” But to Mill he wrote courageously: “The thing must be made better than it was, or we shall never be able, not to forget it, but to laugh victorious in remembering it.” He refused the £200 Mill pressed on him, accepting only £100, the amount he said he had spent, and continued to ask and to receive from Mill “brave cargoes of Books.” His recovery was swift, his optimism marked: “I do really believe the Book will be the better for it, and we shall all be the better.” If the labour was heavy, the composition was rapid, though by the spring of 1836 the mere thought of the day when “this fatal History” would no longer weigh on him was like “a prophecy of resurrection.” Mill again read the manuscript and sent off his annotations and suggestions, removing “anything merely quaint in the mode of expression,” and saying, “The only general remark I have to make on stile is that I think it would often tell better on the reader if what is said in an abrupt, exclamatory & interjectional manner were said in the ordinary grammatical mode of nominative & verb. . . .” Mill’s manner was tentative and deferential, Carlyle’s response appreciative and slightly mocking: “No Surgeon can touch sore places with a softer hand than you do.” His “quarrel with the Nominative-and-verb” caused him “great sorrow,” but it was “not a quarrel of my seeking. I mean, that the common English mode of writing has to do with what I call hearsays of things; and the great business for me, in which alone I feel any comfort, is recording the presence, bodily concrete coloured presence of things;—for which the Nominative-and-verb, as I find it Here and Now, refuses to stand me in due stead.” But he would comply “more and more as I grow wiser.”
Mill was anxious to publish a review before the book appeared. He had discovered from responses to Carlyle’s article on Mirabeau in the Westminster Review for January 1837 that some of his friends did not care for the style. Sarah Austin reported that her husband and George Lewis were “clamorous against poor Carlyle’s article & say you will ruin the review if you admit any more. I am afraid this is a very general opinion, though I grieve it should be so.” Mill told her the Mirabeau had been “the most popular article we ever had in the review,” that the only people he met who disliked it were John Arthur Roebuck, George Grote, and William Nassau Senior, “& those three dislike everything, the style of which is not humdrum.” As for Carlyle’s “usual peculiarities,” they had in that case fallen “greatly short of the average degree of them.” Thus riding the criticism off, he took the warning and determined to pre-empt opinion on the History. The book and the review appeared in July 1837.
He took the offensive from high ground: the book was unprecedented and must be judged accordingly. Both history and poetry, with a “peculiar” style “unlike the jog-trot characterless uniformity which distinguishes the English style,” it had, he admitted, some “mere mannerisms,” German “transcendentalisms” that obscured meaning, but as literature was surpassed “only by the great masters of epic poetry.” The narrative was “strictly true”; based on “irrefragable authority,” it presented “human beings,” rather than the “stuffed figures” other historians served up (134, 135). Hume and Gibbon compared unfavourably with Carlyle in this regard. Mill quoted large extracts to illustrate the poetry and power of the narrative. He judged the theory informing the History sound: crown, aristocracy, and clergy had failed in their commissions and so were “hurled . . . into chaos.” As for the Revolution’s “melancholy turn,” “the horrors,” “the iron despotism by which it was forced to wind itself up” and the comparative “smallness of its positive results,” Mill endorsed Carlyle’s opinion that “the French people” were unprepared for the event, did not know what they wished, how they should be governed, in whom they should have faith (159, 160).
His criticisms were gently put: Carlyle was too light on theory. “Without a hypothesis to commence with, we do not even know what end to begin at, what points to enquire into.” Mill “fancied” Carlyle undervalued “general principles” and “set too low a value on what constitutions and forms of government can do” (162). But more he did not challenge in this “perfectly true picture of a great historical event, as it actually happened” (158). Aware of the problem of access, he did not fault Carlyle for failing to push his research into Croker’s large collection of contemporary pamphlets; but neither did he fault him for the relatively slight bibliography he had worked from, for accepting legends, for being apparently fixated on the surface drama and neglecting the context, for failing to discuss the origins (Mill said only that the introductory chapters were “the least interesting part of the book” ) and the outcome of the Revolution. Indeed, beyond the fundamental agreement between them on the decrepitude of the old order and the virtue of the early Revolutionaries, it is difficult to see what Mill and Carlyle had in common.
Mill, of course, had been fully warned of what Carlyle had had in mind, and had wholeheartedly abetted the enterprise. If the Girondins were less than favourably treated, there was enough philosophy rumbling beneath the vibrant surface of events to redeem such a lapse. Carlyle had broken the political mould completely, “delivered,” as Acton was to say, “our fathers from thraldom to Burke.” He had asked new questions, written a new history. Moreover, he had done what Mill was convinced he himself could not do: he had created a work of art. Still, a reader may come away from Mill’s review, with its curious Carlylean capitalizations, believing that the most rigorous standards he had applied to Scott, and to some extent to Alison, if not Mignet, are absent there. Partly, it is that by 1837 Mill’s conception of history and his interest in the Revolution had changed; partly that Mill was now receptive to the imaginative attempt Carlyle had made to portray and understand the Revolution from within, to see it, as historians in the twentieth century would say, from below.
Afterwards, Mill prided himself on three reviewing achievements in the London and Westminster: preparing the way for acceptance of Lord Durham’s Report, accelerating the success of Carlyle’s French Revolution, and establishing in England Guizot’s reputation as an historian. In the Autobiography he spoke of pre-empting “the commonplace critics” by hailing Carlyle’s book as “one of those productions of genius which are above all rules, and are a law to themselves.” He did not think his review had been well executed, but looked on it as “an honest attempt to do immediate service” to a deserving man and his work. He had said much the same thing in a more aggressive manner to R.B. Fox: the article had “greatly accelerated” Carlyle’s success, for whether “so strange & incomprehensible” a book would “succeed or fail seemed to depend upon the turn of a die—but I got the first word, blew the trumpet before it at its first coming out & by claiming for it the honours of the highest genius frightened the small fry of critics from pronouncing a hasty condemnation, got fair play for it & then its success was sure.” At the time, he had told Carlyle that the review was having “a good effect,” though the oral and written opinions on the article itself were “mostly unfavourable.” This was not mysterious: whatever the personal commitments that made him champion Carlyle’s Revolution, he had not applied to it the standards of criticism by which he judged other works. Three years later, alluding to the period of “my Carlylism, a vice of style which I have since carefully striven to correct,” he told a correspondent whom he was admonishing for the same affectation, “I think Carlyle’s costume should be left to Carlyle whom alone it becomes & in whom it would soon become unpleasant if it were made common. . . .”
MILL AND THE REVOLUTION OF 1830
carlyle’sFrench Revolution and Mill’s review of it were written in the wake of another Revolution that, from Mill’s point of view, had burst gloriously on the scene and subsided ingloriously within a matter of weeks or months. The political void Carlyle envisioned at the centre of the 1789 experience Mill detected in the July Days, as the aftermath revealed the incapacity or self-interest of those who superseded the Bourbon monarchy. He had been excited by the lively press wars of the late 1820s. If the duc de Berry’s murder in February 1820 brought a temporary crack-down on the press, the running battle of the opposition parties with the governments of Louis XVIII and Charles X saw at least as many victories as defeats for the liberal press, its proprietors, and its journalists. Neither direct censorship nor regulatory measures weakened its independence. French journals were numerous, variegated, and vigorous. Under the moderate ministry of the vicomte de Martignac in 1828-29, the press régime was relaxed, and although he was replaced by the ultra-royalist prince de Polignac in August 1829 it was the latitude of the laws Martignac had permitted that goaded the government into its final assault on the press in July 1830, and so precipitated the Revolution.
How much Mill knew of the close manoeuvring in this long contest that had gone on from the time of his first visit to France can only be surmised. But with the installation of Polignac, both King and minister were daily vilified in the opposition sheets. Mill, who followed the press, was approving. “In France,” he wrote d’Eichthal, “the best thinkers & writers of the nation, write in the journals & direct public opinion: but our daily & weekly writers are the lowest hacks of literature. . . .” On the eve of the outbreak, he condemned The Times for siding with Polignac, reeled off the despotic acts of Charles X’s reign (the notorious Law of Sacrilege, 1826, “worthy of the days of Calas and La Barre,” had “persuaded the civilized world that the reign of despotism was assured for another century, and that France was relapsing into the servitude and superstition of the middle ages”), and proposed that in the “most unlikely” event the government did suppress demonstrations, a calamity would ensue for France and Europe. He did not apprehend imminent revolt. One week later the five July Ordinances were published, the journalists reacted fiercely, and the confused and complex politics and violence began which sent the King on his journey into exile and some days later installed Louis Philippe d’Orléans on the throne as King of the French.
Early in August, Mill, with his friends George Graham and John Arthur Roebuck, went off to Paris. He stayed a month. For him it was both a fulfilment and the beginning of a long disenchantment. Years later, Charles Eliot Norton noticed “the sentimental part of [Mill’s] intelligence, which is of immense force, and has only been kept in due subjection by his respect for his own reason.” It was on view in 1830. Mill expected too much. He carried with him an idealized vision of revolution founded on his reading of 1789, too limited a knowledge of the persons and forces in play in France, and a strong sense of his personal goals at the time. He was unprepared for the sharp political game that replaced one monarch with another and brought about a large-scale administrative shuffle, but produced no serious social change. By the laws of March and April 1831, power remained securely with the landowning and professional class, a small pays légal attached to the state through the offices it offered them. If the ultra-royalists went home to their estates, the popular element brought into the streets to make the revolution also subsided. The new régime was defensive from the start.
At the time, Mill barely sensed what was happening. Though “the cowardice and imbecility of the existing generation of public men, with scarcely a single exception,” promised little, he took hope from “the spirit and intelligence of the young men and of the people, the immense influence of the journals, and the strength of the public voice.” Believing, mistakenly, that “there has been an excellent revolution without leaders,” he hoped naively that “leaders will not be required in order to establish a good government.” Roebuck’s story was that he, Mill, and their friends had almost forced the audience at the Opéra (including Louis Philippe) by their shouts of “Debout! debout!” to stand for the Marseillaise. If so, they were only playing games while the tough-minded men who had engineered the new monarchy were establishing themselves in power. Mill’s remarks on the goodness of “the common people” were romantic and sentimental: “The inconceivable purity and singleness of purpose, almost amounting to naiveté, which they all shew in speaking of these events, has given me a greater love for them than I thought myself capable of feeling for so large a collection of human beings, and the more exhilarating views which it opens of human nature will have a beneficial effect on the whole of my future life.” From the beginning, he pictured a Manichean situation: the good people versus the wicked monied classes, the virtuous poor versus the scoundrel placehunters. Such a reading could have no happy confirmation.
Until 1834 he contributed observations on the French scene to the Examiner, arguing his expertise from “a tolerably familiar acquaintance with the history of France for the last forty years” and his experience in Paris in August-September 1830. Of the revolution outside the capital, of ongoing disturbances among the peasantry, of the struggle for traditional rights in the collision between rural capitalism and the community, Mill made almost no mention. His angle of vision remained political. Early on, he began to see that France had exchanged “a feeble despotism for a strong and durable oligarchy,” that the parallel drawn with 1688 was too close. At least the Bourbons (that “stupid race”) had been denied the cunning to ally themselves with “the monied class.” England showed how the monied aristocracy worked: 150 years after the Glorious Revolution, Englishmen were still fruitlessly demanding parliamentary reform. He expressed hope nevertheless that “the young men who now head the popular party” and “the patriots of more established character and more mature years” would create a liberal régime against the “jobbing oligarchy”; he continued to believe that “the educated classes in France, on all questions of social improvement to which their attention has been directed, are in advance of the majority of the same classes in England”; he attacked the British press, particularly The Times, for its “crazy outcries” and the “fund of stupidity and vulgar prejudice in our principal journalists” on the subject of France; he greeted the modest extension of the suffrage as “poor enough” and criticized “M. Guizot and his friends” for their “bigotted and coxcombical devotion to their own ways and their own disciples.” He watched, in short, as his romantic enthusiasm for a popular revolution ostensibly led by an intellectual élite of historian journalists (in so far as it had any leaders) was dissipated by the realities of the situations acquises and everyday politics. By February 1831, he openly hoped for the fall of Louis Philippe. The Revolution, he said that spring, had “brought forth none but bitter fruits”: unemployment, fear of war, political dissension, and oppression.
Mill’s intermittent chronicle did not much depart from its constant themes of jobbery, persecution of the press, and the hollowness of the parliamentary process. When the Lyon silkweavers rose in revolt on 21-22 November, 1831, however, he was sympathetic. “It is melancholy,” he noted, “to see, that an event so pregnant with meaning as the late insurrection of Lyon, should have made no deeper impression upon the men by whom France is now governed, than is indicated by all they do, and by all they fail to do, day after day, and month after month.” He accurately assessed the importance of an event that would one day be seen to mark the origin of the modern labour movement. But it was the struggle for free speech that most concerned him, and he was optimistic on grounds that thus far the press had been “more than a match for every government which has defied it to a contest.” Parliament gave him less hope, pained as he was to see former liberals, like Casimir Périer who had helped to overthrow the Villèle ministry in 1828, becoming agents of repression. A bloody clash on 5-6 June, 1832, occurred between the army and opponents of the régime on the occasion of the funeral of the opposition deputy. General Lamarque, a Bonapartist and friend of La Fayette, the capital was placed in a state of siege. “The government of the barricades,” Mill commented, “has done what Charles X was not permitted to do. It has assumed the power of dispensing with the laws and the courts of justice.” What he called “the forty years war” that momentarily had seemed to end in 1830 had now “broken out afresh.” Optimism gave way to Cassandra-like intimations of disaster. Of Marshal Soult’s ministry of all talents (October 1832-July 1834), Mill remarked that with such men as Thiers, Guizot, and the duc de Broglie, no other government had had such brilliance, “yet none ever was more certain of mis-governing France, and coming to a speedy and disgraceful end.” Though Louis Philippe was undeniably the target for repeated attempts on his life, Mill judged the one of 19 November, 1832, likely to be “one of the low tricks with which the French police has long familiarised us.”
French events were “paltry,” the Revolution of 1830 had turned sour; Mill grew tired: “. . . I am so thoroughly sick of the wretched aspect of affairs [in France],” he commented in March 1833, “that I have written little about them in the Examiner for a long time.” Only the Saint-Simonians had made good the promise of 1830, and they had “run wild.” Apart from them, he told Carlyle, “the excessive avidity & barrenness of the French mind has never been so strikingly displayed: there are such numbers of talkers & writers so full of noise and fury, keeping it up for years and years, and not one new thought, new to them I mean, has been struck out by all the collisions since I first began attending to these matters.” Guizot’s legislation on primary education caught his interest. He thought the question of the unrepresentative character of the Chamber of Deputies was beginning to interest the nation. But the savage crushing of renewed strike activity and the ensuing insurrection in Lyon, followed by the notorious massacre of April 1834 in Paris, led him to conclude that the ministerial record was poor save in the field of repression.
THE MONSTER TRIAL
Mill’s autumnal note was struck in the aftermath of strong blows to the opposition. The most formidable force Louis Philippe had to face was the amorphous republican movement, a bewildering variety of men and ideas, each with historical antecedents, loosely grouped around the notion of popular sovereignty and universal suffrage, but divided on means. Legislation against unauthorized associations struck at their organizations, but they grouped and regrouped to escape its severities. The sympathetic press and its journalists endured incessant prosecutions for their attacks on the ministry and vilification of the crown. In the spring of 1834 matters came to a head with the government’s decision to strike at the newly formed republican Société des Droits de l’Homme which aimed at political and social revolution. When juries failed to uphold the state in eighty percent of the cases brought against a single newspaper, the Tribune of Armand Marrast, the chambers voted for a law that would bring such prosecutions before correctional tribunals.
The Lyon silk workers had struck in February; on 9-12 April there took place the terrible street battle between them and the army for control of the city, in which some three hundred soldiers and workers were killed. This gave the signal to the republicans of the Société des Droits de l’Homme to raise barricades in the Marais district of Paris on 13 April. Though the arrest of 150 leaders led to attempts to abort the rising, a clash took place and the insurgents were crushed by the army in a barbarous exercise of brutality and mutilation, the most celebrated episode of which was the horrifying slaughter of the inhabitants of a house at 12 rue Transnonain. The deputies quickly agreed to increase the size of the army, some 2000 suspects were rounded up, and an ordinance provided for bringing insurgents from both cities to trial before the Chamber of Peers. This was the procès monstre, staged at the Luxembourg Palace, May 1835-January 1836, with hundreds of witnesses called, thousands of pages of documents in submission, and 164 leaders on trial. It was designed to destroy the republican and insurrectional movements, and its size underlined the apparent magnitude of the opposition from the left. Its proceedings were marked by tumult, citation of some of the defence lawyers for contempt of court, and the escape of twenty-eight of the principal accused.
Mill’s article appeared while the trial was still in progress. It was a frank defence of the Société des Droits de l’Homme, particularly against the charge that it was hostile to private property. He seized the occasion to deliver still another lesson to Whigs and Tories on the meaning of the great events from 1789 to the fall of Robespierre, and to clear the Revolution (save for the Babeuf episode) of this same charge. The trial itself he saw as an attempt to create panic and strike at the opposition, to confuse matters by trying both “the pretended authors of the pretended republican conspiracy of Paris” and “the presumed authors of the real trades’ union revolt at Lyon” before the tame placemen in the Chamber of Peers. Full of contempt for this upper chamber, for “the imbecility” of its composition, he predicted that the trial would be “its last throw for political importance” (129).
In fact the prison break-out and flight to England of such important leaders among the accused as Godefroy Cavaignac and Armand Marrast demoralized those remaining in Sainte-Pélagie prison. Moreover, the failed assassination attempt on the King on 22 July by Giuseppe Fieschi, a self-proclaimed republican with two accomplices from the Société des Droits de l’Homme, damaged their cause still more. Public sympathy fell away. By the time the Cour des Pairs pronounced its last sentence of deportation or imprisonment in January 1836, the internal prospects of the régime were much improved. The Société was destroyed, the opposition had divided into a small underground revolutionary movement and a weakened republican group seeking now to elect deputies to the Chamber of Deputies and to survive the new press laws. Mill was appalled by the legislation, which seemed likely to touch even English newspapers critical of the régime. Six years before he had remarked that the Houses of Parliament could not show a single member “who approaches within twenty degrees of M. de Broglie.” The duc de Broglie now presided over the government that had brought these things about. “I should much like to know,” Mill wrote to Carlyle, “what old Sieyes thinks of the present state of France. . . . What a curious page all this is in the history of the French revolution. France seems to be désenchanté for a long time to come—& as the natural consequence of political disenchantment—profoundly demoralized. All the educated youth are becoming mere venal commodities.”
Some months later, in January 1837, Mill remarked to Tocqueville that French politics appeared to be “in the same torpid state.” Tocqueville said he did not know anyone who could grasp French affairs: “Nous sommes dans cet état douteux de demi-sommeil et de demi-réveil qui échappe à l’analyse.” But he thought the nation had survived the threat of revolutionary violence and anarchy, and was returning to its liberal and democratic instincts: “mais que Dieu nous garde des émeutes! elles semblent menacer le gouvernement et par le fait elles ne nuisent qu’à la liberté.” Mill would have accepted the conclusion, but not the presumption on which it was based. He abhorred violence, too, but his sympathies were with those who had challenged the small pays légal and their “shop-keeper king,” and who seemed to have failed.
Soon after the great trial, Mill’s despondency deepened with the sudden death of the journalist he admired more than any other. Armand Carrel, with Thiers and Mignet, had founded the National in January 1830, intending to destroy not only the Polignac ministry but the Bourbon monarchy as well. Being historians, they developed the parallel between their France and England on the eve of 1688. Sovereignty was located in the people, and they called in the final crisis for the “république, déguisée sous la monarchie, au moyen du gouvernement représentatif.” In some sense the July Monarchy was their creation. Thiers had promptly moved into politics; Mignet retired to scholarship and the archives, leaving Carrel, the most effervescent and brilliant of them, at the National.
Carrel had given proof of unorthodoxy in 1821 when, though an army officer, he had rashly associated with Carbonari conspirators. He had resigned his commission in 1823 to join a foreign legion helping the Spanish rebels against Ferdinand VII, and thus soon found himself in a war on the opposite side from the French army that had been sent down to put the King back on his throne. For this he was three times court-martialled, escaping with his life only on a legal technicality. A student of history, he thereafter helped Augustin Thierry assemble the materials for his history of the Norman Conquest and began the work which led to his own Histoire de la contre-révolution en Angleterre. He was, however, a political journalist, and he was independent. He refused a préfecture under the July régime; he joked about what he might have done had he been offered an army division. And he served notice that he was still a democrat. By early 1832, Carrel was moving toward the republican position, though he did not overtly ally himself with the Société des Droits de l’Homme. He attacked the authorities and was repeatedly prosecuted. Juries would not convict him. The government was determined to drive the opposition press out of existence by police harassment, arrests, trials, imprisonments, and fines. Concentrating on Marrast’s Tribune, they brought it to collapse in May 1835, but Carrel, more nuancé, they did not bring down.
Mill was aware of Carrel’s intensely nationalist stance in the diplomatic crisis of 1830-31, of his certain Bonapartist sympathy, and of his contempt for Louis Philippe’s refusal to launch French forces on the road to the liberation of the Poles and the Belgians. (Scornful of a policy of “la paix à tout prix,” Carrel said, “Il y avait plus de fierté sous le jupon de la Pompadour.”) It seemed not to disturb him. He was quick to notice Carrel’s toast to the Reform Bill at a patriotic banquet, offering France’s sympathy and congratulations, despite lingering anti-English feeling in the National. When the newspaper attacked English journals for their treatment of France, Mill agreed, saying Carrel should know that “the popular party” thought as ill of Marshal Soult’s government as Carrel did himself. Despite Carrel’s somewhat turbulent disposition, or perhaps because of it, he had appeal for Mill, who believed he was a wise man, just the same. Carrel could be cautious; he showed this after the disastrous rioting attending Lamarque’s funeral. And in the autumn of 1833, on a visit to France, Mill was introduced to Carrel. He communicated the immensely favourable impression he got to Carlyle, and was to incorporate his immediate reactions in his article four years later (201). Carrel’s mind struck him as much more refined than that of Godefroy Cavaignac, President of the Société des Droits de l’Homme. He was heartened by the meeting and by the prospect of correspondence: “with Carrel I am to establish an exchange of articles; Carrel is to send some to the Examiner and I am to send some to the National, with liberty to publish them here.”
Mill followed the running battle with the régime, in which Carrel, sustaining prosecutions and fines, sought to evade the Cour Royale de Paris and the Cour de Cassation, tirelessly printed court proceedings, hounded the King mercilessly, and predicted “un gouvernement sans rois et sans nobles.” He was delighted when Carrel was acquitted by a jury in the Cour d’Assises de la Seine-Inférieure, having argued that if Louis Philippe wished to be his own minister he must expect to be treated like other ministers. But the net tightened. After Fieschi’s attempt, the press law of September 1835 limited room for manoeuvre. With the Tribune already closed down, and François Raspail’s Réformateur fallen victim to the new law, the National was the last important defender of republicanism. Carrel had accepted republicanism, but he was a moderate, no revolutionist; he had no use for utopian activists. “Des fous! des brouillons! des envieux! des impuissants!” he had said in 1831. “Que de temps il faudra avant que le pays soit mûr pour la République!” Though he had moved to republicanism, he still favoured manoeuvre. Entering Sainte-Pélagie prison, he had written Chateaubriand, wondering how long it would be before men would sensibly work out their “inévitables transactions” by negotiation rather than death and exhaustion. The prison experience was sinister and embittering, he was personally threatened, and he had no affinity for the rough sort of man. All the same, he recognized the demands of the working class: one must “posséder assez d’intelligence pour le comprendre, assez de coeur pour ne pas s’en effrayer.” Sainte-Beuve reckoned him too sensitive, too obstinate, too little able to strike the popular note, though a great and principled journalist. What attracted Mill to Carrel is easy to see.
Carrel was cut off early by misadventure in a duel. The journalist Emile de Girardin brought out a cheap daily, La Presse, which he hoped to sustain by advertising on English lines. Carrel, welcoming the possibility of lower cost to the public through increased circulation, doubted Girardin’s democratic motives Saying so, he brought upon himself the riposte that republican editors afforded their comfortable situation at the expense of their readers. When Girardin threatened to back this up with proofs. Carrel believed he was being threatened with revelations about his private life. The quarrel could not be resolved and Carrel issued his challenge, which led to a fatal encounter in the Bois de Vincennes on 22 July, 1836.
Mill took the news hard and sent word to Carlyle, who replied that Godefroy Cavaignac had told him of “la mort funeste de Carrel.” He supposed that “such as he was, there is not his like left in France. And to die as a fool dieth!—It seems to me, as I tell you always, that France has pitiful destinies lying before it. . . .” Mill expressed his sense of loss to Tocqueville when he told him that though he had many friends in France, he and Carrel were the two for whom he felt “une véritable admiration.” It was a curious confession; it is unlikely that Tocqueville could have appreciated Carrel in the same way. Mill had not known Carrel well, but he had made him a symbol of democratic uprightness and tenacity in the face of oligarchical evil—“the unapproachable Armand Carrel,” as he would say, a man with neither legislative nor any other public office, merely the editorship of a newspaper, who had made himself “the most powerful political leader of his age and country.” In this there was some extravagance; it showed that, at thirty, Mill was still capable of responding to the romantic excitement that had taken him to Paris in August 1830 and which had been rekindled in Carrel’s presence three years later.
The long commemorative article appeared fifteen months after Carrel’s death, drawing on studies by Désiré Nisard and Emile Littré. Mill’s interpretation continued to be heightened: “The man whom not only his friends but his enemies, and all France, would have proclaimed President or Prime Minister with one voice. . . . Ripened by years and favoured by opportunity, he might have been the Mirabeau or the Washington of his age, or both in one.” (169, 170.) For this there really was no evidence, and others saw him more clearly. Carrel seemed to Mill unusually practical for a Frenchman. His history of the English counter-revolution was judged superior to the works of Guizot and François Mazure. Again, in this article, Mill castigated the betrayers of 1830, the oligarchy who had fallen on public office “like tigers upon their prey” (192), against whom Carrel showed so well. Possessing the gifts of Mirabeau, “he could make men of all sorts, even foreigners, feel that they could have been loyal to him—that they could have served and followed him in life and death” (203). Mill pictured him as a moderate, pacific, single-minded republican who toward the end of his life sensibly came round to “demanding an extension of the suffrage; that vital point, the all-importance of which France has been so slow to recognise, and which it is so much to be regretted that he had not chosen from the first, instead of republicanism, to be the immediate aim of his political life” (209). Thus he was “a martyr to the morality and dignity of public discussion,” and a victim of “that low state of our civilisation” that makes a man defend his reputation “sword in hand, as in the barbarous ages” (212-13). His memory, Mill said, would live on with that of the events of 1830, but “the star of hope for France in any new convulsions, was extinguished when Carrel died” (211).
As review and commentary, the article was unusually emotional and lyrical. Mill told Molesworth: “I have written con amore & those who have seen it think it the best thing I have yet done. I never admired any man as I did Carrel; he was to my mind the type of a philosophic radical man of action in this epoch.” The intense personal reaction he had to Carrel enabled him to set aside or rationalize much in his nature and his life that he might well have disapproved in another man. He made of Carrel everything that a young liberal should be, even to coming round at the end to reflect a touch of the English radical. He had almost produced an example of that croisement des races he believed would be to the benefit of both peoples.
TWO “GREAT HISTORICAL MINDS”
Carrel had been secretary to Augustin Thierry in the mid-1820s, and it was Thierry who had called for a “historiography of French liberty,” documenting the thesis that liberty was old and that the middle class had been the bearer of the nation’s interest. What Carrel might have done as historian of this theme, had he returned to his studies as he sometimes suggested he might, remains an open question. Another historian, for whom Thierry also paved the way, showed how uncertainly focused this romantic impulse was. Like Thierry, Jules Michelet wrote history to shape the present and future. As Thierry put it in 1817, “We are constantly being told to model ourselves on our forefathers. Why don’t we follow this advice! Our forefathers were the artisans who established the communes of the Middle Ages and who first conceived freedom as we understand it today.” For Thierry and Carrel, writing history was a political act. But it is not sure that this was so for Michelet. If he shared Thierry’s passion for erudition and critical imagination, Michelet developed a history that was far more personal than the history of his contemporaries. He was to become the greatest of the philosophical and romantic historians. His origins and his trajectory were almost entirely different from theirs.
He had read enormously in literature and philosophy, the classics and contemporary authors, French, English, and German. He read Herder, he ever after claimed Vico as his master. Like the Saint-Simonians, he was in search of a system that would explain the meaning of human experience, and his chosen field finally was history. Between 1825 and 1831, he published three short summaries of European history for secondary instruction, an abridged translation of Vico’s Scienza nuova with his own commentary, an introduction to “universal history,” and a history of the Roman Republic. He was a professor at the Collège Sainte-Barbe from 1822 to 1827, a maître de conférences at the Ecole Normale from 1827 to 1837. Indeed, he had taught his budding normaliens at 6:30 in the mornings in order to be at the Tuileries by 8 o’clock to instruct the princesse Louise, daughter of the duchesse de Berry, in history. After the July Days he was similarly chosen to tutor Louis Philippe’s fifth child, the princesse Clémentine. A rising star after 1831, he lectured for Guizot (Minister of Public Education) at the Sorbonne from 1834 to 1836, and took up the chaire d’histoire et de morale at the Collège de France on 23 April, 1837. The most important post he held was as chef de la section historique in the Archives du Royaume (later Archives Nationales) from the autumn of 1830 until 1852. Though he had also written earlier on the history of France, from then on his broad concerns in history were narrowed down to the history of his own country. The result was the first six volumes of his Histoire de France, from the beginnings to the end of the Middle Ages, published between 1833 and 1844. He believed that a great age of historiography was opening up; he was at the very centre of the collective historical enterprise sponsored by Guizot and supported by the state. Increasingly he came to regard France as the heart of the European experience and himself as the chosen historian of her past.
Unlike his contemporaries, Michelet could not have claimed 1830 as his Revolution. While they were helping to topple the Bourbon monarchy, he was giving his courses. But reflection on the July Days led him to accept the legend of a spontaneous uprising with only one collective, nameless hero: the people. The theme of his Introduction à l’histoire universelle, published the following year, was the history of the world as the struggle and triumph of liberty. If the Trois Glorieuses later assumed in his mind an importance and an impact they had not had at the time, still reflection on them helped him to see the underlying theme of the national history he determined to write, the materials for which surrounded him at the Archives. In all this, he was initially the admirer and the protégé of Guizot. But he grew increasingly outspoken and radical, attacking the Church and the Jesuit Order, celebrating le peuple and eventually the French Revolution in a way that was uncongenial to the régime. Thus it was not surprising that, in the growing tension of the winter of 1847-48, Michelet should have been seen as a prophet of some great popular disturbance. In January 1848, his lectures at the Collège de France were suspended.
Mill was well aware of him. Had the London and Westminster Review continued, he said, he would have written “more than one article on Michelet, a writer of great & original views, very little known among us.” Through d’Eichthal he received a letter from Michelet in April 1840, accompanied by two volumes of the Histoire de France, and he thanked him by the same route for his “admirable” work, with which he was “intimately acquainted” and for which he had “long felt the warmest admiration.” He hoped to review both these volumes and the earlier Histoire de la république romaine. He then received the message that as Volume V of the Histoire de France was “si peu favorable aux Anglais,” Michelet was hoping that “la haute impartialité” of Mill would assure the volume a good reception in England. To this end he wished Mill to know that (a) where Joan of Arc and other matters were concerned, he had rigorously rejected the chronicles and based himself on the documents, and (b) though reputed to be “un homme d’imagination,” he was in fact “dominé par la passion de la vérité.” How well Mill was acquainted with Michelet’s personal opinions of England, save as they appeared in his work, and whether he knew Michelet had visited England in the summer of 1834 and found it as little attractive as he might have expected from his studies, one may wonder. But he noted ironically of a letter from Michelet that it “proves to me by the extravagance of its compliments upon the letter I wrote to him, that if one gives a man exactly the sort of praise he wants to receive, one is sure of getting into his good graces.” All the same, Michelet judged well in approaching Mill for an impartial review of a work that showed little appreciation of England other than as the anti-France that galvanized the disunited French into closing ranks and becoming one people.
Mill was about to do four things: to make a familiar declaration about “the French school” of history; to proclaim a new star in the field of history; to emphasize again the shared French and English past of the Middle Ages; and to make a personal statement about his view of the past. He promised that his review would cause some of Napier’s readers to “stare,” but there was little to surprise them. His opening salvo against the stagnation of historical studies in England (Carlyle’s “signal example” apart) was familiar (219). Distinguishing the French as superior even to the Germans, Mill named Thierry, Guizot, and Michelet as “the three great historical minds of France, in our time” (221). All of them avoided “the first stage” of historical inquiry, i.e., judging the past by the standards of the present (222). All of them met the criteria of poetry and imagination characterizing “the second stage,” i.e., producing a true “historical romance.” Indeed, only the French “school of writers” (Carlyle and Niebuhr apart) passed this test (224, 225). And only Guizot had made “frequent and long incursions” into the “third, and the highest stage of historical investigation,” i.e., the construction of “a science of history” to determine the fundamental law of cause and effect (228, 225). What little had been done toward “this greatest achievement” was mostly his contribution (225). Michelet’s distinction, then, was something else: he was “the poet” of the “internal life” of the French people. He knew how to reveal “the spirit of an age,” distilling it from the documents “by the chemistry of the writer’s own mind” (233). He had done this for Rome, where Niebuhr had been silent. He did it for the Middle Ages, not without committing errors, but safeguarded by his “deep erudition, and extensive research” (233). Entranced by his emphasis on geography and his sketches of the French provinces, Mill criticized Michelet only for taking Thierry’s rediscovery of the “race of Gaels” and carrying the influence of race in history too far (235, 236).
Mill admitted that he was more concerned to publicize Michelet than to criticize him (254). Anthony Panizzi had given him a critical review the previous year. Mill had written Michelet to ask whether there was anything he would care to have communicated to the British public, but there appears to have been no reply. The object was to have him read in England, to warn readers of the difficulties he presented and the unfamiliar conceits, “the personification of abstractions, to an almost startling extent” (255). Mill saw his great strengths and at least suspected his weakness.
After this review in 1844, Mill wrote nothing further of Michelet. On the later volumes of the Histoire de France he made no comment, and of the Histoire de la révolution française, written 1846-53, he said nothing. With its extreme nationalist fervour, almost religious celebration of “the people,” and personification of revolution, it could hardly have appealed to him. By then, Michelet had left “the second stage” for some subjective realm of history outside Mill’s scheme of things. Mill was by no means unique in not foreseeing the direction Michelet’s history was to take. Sponsored by Guizot, approved by Carrel, Michelet had seemed early on to be in sympathy with their views. His purposes, however, became increasingly nationalist, his vision narrowed, his mystic sense of himself embodying the past dithyrambic. What preoccupied him had little to do with the progress of civilization that concerned Mill.
Toward the end of his life, Mill noted that the French made too free with the phrase “the principles of the Revolution.” It was the result of “an infirmity of the French mind which has been one main cause of the miscarriage of the French nation in its pursuit of liberty & progess, that of being led by phrases & treating abstractions as if they were realities which have a will & exert active power.” Almost certainly he thought Michelet a casualty of this defect. The originality and talent that he had recognized thirty years before in this review were clear. But there was in Michelet and his work a cast of mind profoundly antipathetical to Mill.
Michelet owed much to Guizot: his position as royal tutor, his post at the Archives, his early opportunities at the Sorbonne, if not at the Collège de France. It was Guizot who suspended Michelet’s lectures in 1847. Not remarkably, the protégé’s estimate of his benefactor varied from one period to another: he both admired Guizot’s work and dismissed it as grey. They could hardly have been more different. Though they had in common their commitment to written history as having a social purpose, their purposes were diametrically opposed. Despite his clear reservations about the later work, Mill placed Michelet in the triumvirate with Augustin Thierry and Guizot, but he was clear that Guizot was the great historian of the age, “the one best adapted to this country.” What raised him to the summit was the grasp he showed for “the main outline of history” (227, 228). Mill thought the framework he had established, showing the interplay of ideas and institutions, weighing the influence of Roman, Germanic, and Christian factors in European civilization, would endure. If history still had no Newton, Guizot was its “Kepler, and something more” (228). He accounted it one of his successes to “have dinned into people’s ears that Guizot is a great thinker & writer,” and so have been responsible for having him read in England. Mill had not quite taken his measure at first. He seems to have discovered the historian, as distinct from the politician, about 1832. The first discussion of him was so infused with political comment that the exceptional historian Mill was shortly to proclaim was not easily recognized. Granting him “no ordinary knowledge of history” and “no ordinary powers of philosophizing” to analyse and explain, Mill criticized his understanding of the English constitution as “deficient.” He had not even troubled to cross the Channel to inform himself. He was bracketed with the doctrinaire “speculators” who made 1688 their “beau idéal,” purporting “to found their political wisdom principally on history, instead of looking to history merely for suggestions, to be brought to the test of a larger and surer experience.”
Guizot’s political reputation with Mill rose and fell several times. Perceived on the eve of 1830 as a champion of liberty, he fell from grace in the first weeks of the new régime. In Mill’s view, the brave workmen of Paris had driven Charles X out, only to see him replaced by the jobbers, including Guizot, “a favourer of the new Aristocracy.” Among the new men providing for themselves and their friends was the Minister of the Interior; none “had so numerous a coterie as Monsieur and Madame Guizot.” Out of office for two years after 2 November, Guizot and his friends were denounced as trimmers, seeking a middle way between reaction and progress. As Minister of Public Education in Soult’s cabinet, Guizot struck Mill as dogmatic, offensive, professorial, and “probably at the moment the most unpopular man in France.” Mill did not comment on his education law, but he was aware of the important historical and archival work he had set afoot. His politics then appeared to be less of an issue. Through the later 1830s Mill transferred much of his former disapproval of Guizot to his fellow historian and political rival, Thiers.
When Guizot left Paris to become Ambassador in London in February 1840 (and bide his time until Louis Philippe should summon him back to replace Thiers as Prime Minister), Mill was delighted. If Guizot knew of his caustic commentaries, he chose to overlook them. Visiting him, Mill found his conversation rewarding, up to his expectations, and his being in London “a real événement, for it makes our stupid incurious people read his books.” He thought one could see the difference between France and England by comparing their respective. “Conservative party” leaders, Guizot and Peel. Mill’s direct contact was short-lived. The diplomatic crisis with Great Britain that was to destroy Thiers’s government ended Guizot’s embassy in October 1840; he soon became the dominant figure in Soult’s second cabinet until in 1847 he formed his own government that lasted until the Revolution of February 1848. Mill became deeply impressed, judging Guizot to be “the greatest public man living,” and he recanted his past opinions. “I cannot think without humiliation,” he wrote in 1840,
of some things I have written years ago of such a man as this, when I thought him a dishonest politician. I confounded the prudence of a wise man who lets some of his maxims go to sleep while the time is unpropitious for asserting them, with the laxity of principle which resigns them for personal advancement. Thank God I did not wait to know him personally in order to do him justice, for in 1838 & 1839 I saw that he had reasserted all his old principles at the first time at which he could do so with success & without compromising what in his view were more important principles still, I ought to have known better than to have imputed dishonourable inconsistency to a man whom I now see to have been consistent beyond any statesman of our time & altogether a model of the consistency of a statesman as distinguished from that of a fanatic.
This extraordinary disavowal of his previous observations was not to be the last word. Even under the spell of immediate contact, Mill said, that though he honoured and venerated him above all contemporary statesmen, “I differ from many of his opinions.” Some time later when Comte registered his complaints of mistreatment at the minister’s hands, Mill expressed his “impression pénible” that a great scholar should show “l’esprit de secte” toward a blameless philosopher. A renewed reserve showed, whether because of the Comte affair or the unyielding domestic policies of the Soult-Guizot government. Explaining his inability to provide an introduction to Guizot for John Austin, he said his acquaintance with the minister was “so very slight,” and received Sarah Austin’s report of his “elevated moral character” coolly. Four years after the enthusiastic recognition of Guizot’s true distinction, Mill remarked evenly, “A man in such a position as his, acts under so many difficulties, and is mixed up in so many questionable transactions that one’s favourable opinion is continually liable to receive shocks, and I have for many years been oscillating in Guizot’s case between great esteem and considerable misgivings.” Still, he was ready to take the largest view, admitting, “If he was an angel he would be sure to be misunderstood in the place he is in. I do not know whether to wish or to deprecate [the possibility of] his being thrown out of it. . . .”
That same year, 1845, Mill published his lengthy review of Guizot’s essays and lectures. Ten years before he had commissioned the Rev. Joseph Blanco White to review the lectures. He had found White’s paper “still wanting to give a complete notion of the nature & value of Guizot’s historical speculations,” and had himself added several pages at the beginning and the end. In these pages Mill had condemned “the profoundly immoral, as well as despotic régime which France is now enduring.” Calling the July Monarchy “an imitation” of the Empire, he had accused it of seducing France’s distinguished men by office. He had had harsh words for Guizot:
In the capacity of a tool of this system, though we believe him to be greatly more sincere than most of the other tools, we have nothing to say for M. Guizot. But in the more honourable character which he had earned for himself as a professor and as a literary man, before practical politics assailed him with their temptations and their corrupting influences, he deserves to be regarded with very different feelings.
The puzzle was that, though deeply attached to his principles, he supported institutions that repressed them; he knew the dangers of power, but did nothing to save himself from them. “Alas! we must say of M. Guizot, what he so feelingly and truly has declared of Italy—‘Il lui manque la foi, la foi dans la vérité!’ ” (392.)
Such had been Mill’s sentiment at the beginning of 1836. Not quite a decade later, his long essay was free of censure of the politician. Rather, he cleared away the past with a reference to Guizot’s work as Foreign Minister in resolving the Anglo-French crisis after 1840: the statesman “to whom perhaps more than to any other it is owing that Europe is now at peace” (259). Mill could then get on with the business of publicizing Guizot as the most significant historian of the age. It was high time: the printed lectures being discussed were first delivered almost a generation before.
After the ritual comparison of the state of historical studies in France, Germany, and England (even “insular England” was, thanks to Coleridge and “the Oxford school of theologians,” stirring in the right direction ), Mill proposed that Guizot’s chief quality was that he asked the right questions. Thus he had been able in the early essays to tell more about the fall of Rome than had Gibbon. The laws, not the chronicles, contained the clue, when despotism destroyed the middle-class curiales, it extinguished the Empire’s vitality. Seeking the dynamic of civilization, Guizot found it in the “systematic antagonism” of ideas and institutions (269). The mark of Europe had always been complexity and competition. The spirit of liberty emerged not from the ancient world but from the barbarian invaders and was borne through the centuries by the struggles of the middle class. Mill accepted Guizot’s organization of European history into “the period of confusion, the feudal period, and the modern period” (274), which became a received view in the nineteenth century. He followed his argument without serious disagreement, save for the explanation of feudalism’s fall. This he thought unconvincing; he probably disliked its political implications. The feudal system succumbed, in Mill’s view, not because unequal claims and unequal power led to unequal rights and so to the acceptance of royal authority, but because pressure was exerted from the monarch above and the freemen below, and because feudalism “contained within itself a sufficient mixture of authority and liberty, afforded sufficient protection to industry, and encouragement and scope to the development of the human faculties, to enable the natural causes of social improvement to resume their course” (289).
“Writing the history of France,” Fustel de Coulanges was to say, “was a way of working for a party and fighting an adversary.” If Mill observed as much, he did not comment on it. He could not know that Guizot told Charles de Rémusat that his lectures at the Sorbonne (in 1820) were designed to “multiply ‘doctrinaires’ under the very fire of the enemy.” “On vient de suspendre mon cours,” Guizot wrote Barante, after the axe fell two years later. “Je regrette un peu cette petite tribune d’où j’exerçais encore quelque action directe sur des hommes qui se mêleront de l’avenir.” Mill appears not to have discerned any narrow political or social purpose in Guizot’s interpretation of the contradictions of the past working themselves out: national reconciliation on the terms of those who had borne liberty through the centuries and were best qualified to assure it. Guizot had affected an impartiality of tone unknown in Thierry, let alone Michelet. The essays and lectures appeared to be dispassionate, founded on immense reading, an explanation to a middle-class generation asking in the aftermath of an unprecedented cultural and political upheaval who they were and where they came from. Guizot saw himself engaged in the task of philosophical history, investigating not its “anatomy,” or its “physiognomy,” but its “physiology.” He was showing the interrelatedness of the events that made up the history of civilization. “Au commencement de ce cours,” he told the audience that attended his lectures on Saturday mornings, 1828-30:
je n’ai cherché que les résultats généraux, l’enchaînement des causes et des effets, le progrès de la civilisation, caché sous les scènes extérieures de l’histoire; quant aux scènes mêmes, j’ai supposé que vous les connaissiez. . . . L’histoire proprement dite enveloppe et couvre l’histoire de la civilisation. Celle-ci ne vous sera pas claire si l’autre ne vous est pas présente; je ne puis vous raconter les événemens et vous avez besoin de les savoir. . . .
Mill noted certain exaggerations; he put them down to the necessities of the lecture. The breadth of Guizot’s generalizations seemed to place them above particular pleading. With Guizot’s argument that French civilization exemplified better than any other the very essence of civilization (“C’est la plus complète, la plus vraie, la plus civilisée, pour ainsi dire”) Mill was in agreement. He did not so much question Guizot’s assumptions as share them. He, too, believed that history had a rational structure and so would yield to rational inquiry. He, too, believed that the history of Europe was the history of universal principles working their way through a variety of circumstances. Both of them believed in the phenomenon of the great man who affects the course of history in the service of the tendency of his time, who embodies the dominant principles of the age.
Guizot, however, was a Calvinist: he assumed the existence of God without claiming to know his motives or his precise effect on men’s actions. In opposition, deprived of his teaching post by the University, he had been inclined to minimize the latitude left to individuals. No other time, he said somewhat extravagantly, had been so marked by “l’empreinte de la fatalité.” Events seemed to happen by themselves: “jamais la conduite des choses humaines n’a plus complètement échappé aux hommes. . . . Ils ne sont aujourd’hui que de vieilles marionnettes effacées, absolument étrangères aux scènes que la Providence leur fait jouer.” In office, however, the specific purposes of the Almighty appeared rather more clear. “La mission des gouvernements,” Guizot told the Chamber on 3 May, 1837, “n’est pas laissée à leur choix, elle est réglée en haut. C’est la Providence qui détermine dans quelle étendue se passent les affaires d’un grand peuple.” And on the eve of assuming the powers of Prime Minister, in the eastern crisis of 1840, with war and peace in the balance, he reflected: “Nous sommes des instruments entre les mains d’une Puissance supérieure qui nous emploie, selon ou contre notre goût, à l’usage pour lequel elle nous a faits. . . .” But Providence was remote, men were responsible, they made their own history. All they had to bear in mind were the natural limits to their presumptions: “La bonne politique consiste à reconnaître d’avance ces nécessités naturelles qui, méconnues, deviendraient plus tard des leçons divines, et à y conformer de bonne grâce sa conduite.” Mill would not have put it that way, of course, but Guizot’s faith did not obviously intrude on his history. Despite the philosophy informing his conception of the past, he wrote something approaching what in the next century would be called “technical history.”
Mill’s disappointment with Guizot’s intransigent conservatism may have followed from unwillingness to recognize the implication of the historian’s philosophy of history. The Germans, it has been said, conceived of history as “une lutte entre des principes opposées” without necessarily leading to the impasse of the July Monarchy. That may be so, but undeniably there was a spaciousness and a cosmopolitanism in Guizot, an austere parade of certainty and equanimity in this early work that appealed to Mill. He discerned consistency, comprehensiveness, maturity, the “entire absence of haste or crudity” as the hallmark of “a connected body of thought, speculations which, even in their unfinished state, may be ranked with the most valuable contributions yet made to universal history” (259). Possibly the fact that the lectures were incomplete, that the treacherous passages of modern history were not negotiated, averted more serious disagreement between Mill and Guizot. “The rapid sketch which occupies the concluding lectures of the first volume,” Mill noted, “does little towards resolving any of the problems in which there is real difficulty” (290).
The “manière ‘fataliste’ d’envisager l’histoire” that the pre-1830 liberals shared exercised an immense attraction for Mill partly because, to a point, he and they were bound on the same road, partly because they spoke so well and with such assurance. Guizot, as Sainte-Beuve said, put himself “insensiblement en lieu et place de la Providence.” A moralist, like Mill, he also saw the social destination in terms of political and constitutional arrangements. What Mill was evidently reluctant to concede—and how could it be proved true?—was the possibility that, in Emile Faguet’s formula,
Il est bien rare que pour un homme politique l’histoire soit autre chose que de la politique rétrospective. Elle lui sert d’argument, de point de départ pour sa déduction, et de preuve à l’appui de ce qu’il veut lui faire dire. Elle est, à ses yeux, destinée à le justifier, à l’expliquer et à le préparer. Il est bien difficile que pour M. Guizot l’histoire universelle, ou au moins l’histoire moderne, ne soit pas une introduction au gouvernement de M. Guizot.
In Mill, the reformer and the amateur of history were sometimes at odds. Guizot felt no such tension: the nineteenth century was the heir of a long struggle; the juste milieu must hold firm against careless new men and upstart ideologies. “L’histoire,” he remarked, “abât les prétentions impatientes et soutient les longues espérances.” This appeal to something like a moyenne if not a longue durée was Guizot’s principal attraction for Mill. The immediate political and social implications of it for his own time posed a problem. Thus Mill wished always to separate the politician from the historian, save for the moment around 1840 when, suppressing his previous criticisms, he achieved an unstable rationalization of his doubts about the man. In this way he kept his clear and generous view of the historian. Comparing him with Thierry, Mignet, Thiers, even with Vico, Herder and Condorcet, he considered Guizot to be “a man of a greater range of ideas and greater historical impartiality than most of these.” For his “immortal Essays and Lectures” posterity would “forgive him the grave faults of his political career” (185, 186). Mill had many contradictory thoughts about Guizot, but there is no reason to think he ever went back on that.
MILL AND THE END OF THE JULY MONARCHY
coming to terms with guizot, as he seemed to do from the late 1830s, Mill was trying to come to terms with the July Monarchy. As the years passed and his health became indifferent, it was more difficult to sustain the same concern. The young liberals of the Bourbon restoration had dispersed variously to university chairs, archives, the ministerial bench. Saint-Simonism, imaginative and farsighted, so clear about what had actually happened in 1830, had quickly burnt itself out in sectarianism and scattered, part of it to pursue bizarre eccentricities, part of it powerfully to influence the national economy. Comte, like the Saint-Simonians, had revealed a strong anti-libertarian streak and been dropped. Carrel was dead. With Tocqueville relations were more distant. The press remained vigorous and combative. Though Marrast had grown more moderate after his period of exile in England, new opposition papers sprang up. The King and his ministers were harried without cease. Still, history was not repeating itself. Mill observed the scene more remotely. He maintained contact with a few friends in France, but he had little to say.
Three years older than Mill, Duveyrier had come into his life with Gustave d’Eichthal as co-leader of the first mission sent by Père Enfantin to bring about the conversion of England. The Saint-Simonians believed that amidst the Reform Bill agitation England was about to pull down the last bastions of feudal power and so offer herself to the new teaching. Without having encouraged their embassy, Mill had been helpful once they arrived and handed them on to people he supposed might hear them out. He had made it plain he was unlikely to become a convert, though he read Le Globe, considered them “decidedly à la tête de la civilisation,” and thought their organization would one day be “the final and permanent condition of the human race.” He admired them and wished them well, but he kept his distance; their doctrine was “only one among a variety of interesting and important features in the time we live in.” Their optimistic reports to Enfantin were belied; England was not ripe. Mill did not make good his promise of articles on them for the Morning Chronicle. In the scandal of their prosecution, Duveyrier was specifically charged with outrage for the article “De la femme” he published in Le Globe in 1832 shortly before it ceased publication. Mill was cool, perhaps sensing the oddly regimented and ritualistic social arrangements in the barracks at Ménilmontant (lights out at 9:30 p.m., reveille at 4:30 a.m.). Nearly everything about the dispensation at Ménilmontant must have seemed alien to Mill, not merely the flamboyant dress and liturgy of the sect, but also the untoward scenes its exercises provoked when thousands of Parisians flocked out to observe the public rites of its priesthood.
In the trial, which took place on 27 and 28 August, 1832, Duveyrier had a prominent role. The son of the premier président of the Cour Royale at Montpellier, he had studied the Christian mystics and, in observance of the Saint-Simonian rule that each member proclaim his acceptance of responsibility before God and man by bearing his name on his breast, had affected the inscription “Charles, poète de Dieu.” At one moment during the proceedings, he caused a sensation by pointing to a group of lawyers in the visitors’ section of the courtroom and shouting, “I told them when I came in that I am being charged with saying that everyone was living in a state of prostitution and adultery, but you are in fact all living in that state. Well, have the courage to say so out loud. That is the only way you can defend us.” Like Enfantin and Michel Chevalier, Duveyrier was sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of 1000 francs. The organization was ordered dissolved. Duveyrier, however, obtained a pardon through his family, probably, as Mill supposed, by renouncing allegiance to Enfantin. With d’Eichthal, he went off to Naples for a time before returning to Paris and a career in journalism and writing for the theatre. He assured Mill that although he had not changed “a single opinion,” he had changed “his whole line of conduct.” Mill, however, appeared to be more surprised than pleased by the news of Duveyrier’s apparent defection. The report that some of the faithful had set out for the Bosphorus “pour chercher la femme libre suggested greater madness than I had imputed to them.”
Mill’s correspondence contains no further reference to him, but he evidently kept up with Duveyrier’s activity. Two books appeared, the first in 1842 and the second in 1843. In the spring of 1844, Mill began his article on the second of them, Lettres politiques, a collection of Duveyrier’s pamphlets. He told Napier, “It is the last I mean to write, for the present on any French topic—& its subject is, not French history or literature, but present French politics, introducing, however, remarks & speculations of a more general character.” This was one more mirror held up to view the reflection of representative government and its dilemmas in the aftermath of the Revolution and in the presence of democracy.
France remained instructive because it had swept away all the institutions other nations were then only dismantling and had a “passion for equality almost as strong” as that of the United States (297). Disapproving Duveyrier’s flattery of the crown and the government, Mill was more open to his acceptance of the existing constitution and his insistence that the question was how to make the system work efficiently, how to free electors, ministers, and people from the burden of corruption. Everywhere, including England, “Sincere Democrats are beginning to doubt whether the desideratum is so much an increased influence of popular opinion, as a more enlightened use of the power which it already possesses.” But he condemned the narrow suffrage in France, the repressive legislation, “the disgraceful manner” in which the system worked (300). He was receptive to Duveyrier’s suggestion that the landed proprietors should be encouraged back into public life alongside the bourgeoisie; that trained functionaries be guaranteed “fixity,” responsibility, and adequate salaries; and that the electoral process be permitted to operate absolutely without official meddling. He remarked that this vision of a society presided over by a neo-Saint-Simonian élite was “a favourable specimen” of French thought applied to the practical problems of government (313).
To Duveyrier’s parallel argument that, since the old foreign policies were as defunct as the old régimes, France must abandon territorial ambitions and the revanchism dating from 1815 and join with the other great powers to bring about political and economic peace through arbitration and mediation, Mill was not receptive. He thought such interventionism unwise, though superior to war. He gave no hint of anticipating the trend of international co-operation that was to gather strength through the second half of the century. Nor did he show confidence in Duveyrier’s suggestions that government arbitrate labour-management disputes, though he approved the programme of “justice and compromise.” The tone here was quiet, interested, but faintly disabused. Mill neither accepted the political quiescence of Duveyrier nor suggested the need for drastic change. He believed that the problems of representation were similar in England and France, but more sharply defined and more clearly observed in the French context. Neither Duveyrier nor Mill gave the least hint of an upheaval soon to come. Duveyrier argued specifically against the utility of another such event. It would be more than a dozen years before Mill conceded, not just for England with its tradition of compromise and its history of successful opposition to monarchical absolutism, but for every nation, the rightness of working for improvement within the prevailing arrangements. But it was less Charles Duveyrier, or John Austin, than the events of 1848 that convinced him.
MILL AND THE REVOLUTION OF 1848
ten months before Louis Philippe was forced to abdicate, Mill remarked to Austin that while doubtless he, living in France, was “much impressed with the unfavourable side” of France after a number of revolutions, with vulgar lower-class ambition and other “disgusting” manners, he (Mill) often thought England’s “torpid mind” would profit from “the general shake-up” of revolution. He gave no hint of thinking that France would profit from a renewal of the experience. In April 1847, the overall prospect there struck him as fair: the people were generally free of tyranny, justice was “easily accessible,” and there were “the strongest inducements to personal prudence & forethought.” Not even a well-intentioned government, but only revolution (that is, 1830) could have achieved as much. He seemed to be reassessing the July Monarchy again. The remarks were puzzling. Mill made no allusion to the serious depression of 1845-47: an immense fall in French production, large-scale unemployment, a substantial part of the swollen population in the capital on relief, great rural distress and unrest. In three months the first of the electoral reform banquets, devised to circumvent the restrictive law on political associations, was held on 9 July at the Château-Rouge, the famous dancehall in Montmartre, with 1200 constituents and eighty-five deputies in attendance; almost seventy banquets took place outside Paris before the end of the year. Mill of course was by no means exceptional in apprehending no general crisis; others closer to the scene than he were hardly less unaware. But his observations were indicative of the concentration of his thought on the political process. He had never looked very far past the political scene in the capital. Thus he missed the profound movement that was taking place in the country. He followed the press to some extent, a steady diet of scandal and complaint, an endless skirmishing between the government and the opposition. There is no evidence that he noted the near-unity of the varieties of opposition in the banquet campaign as a possible signal that a trial of strength was at hand.
The explosion took him by surprise. Guizot was dismissed on 23 February; the King abdicated next day. “I am hardly yet out of breath from reading and thinking about it,” Mill reported on 29 February. “Nothing can possibly exceed the importance of it to the world or the immensity of the interests which are at stake on its success.” He saw the Revolution in political terms: the King and his ministers had provoked “the people” by forbidding the Paris banquet; the republicans had triumphed “because at last they had the good sense to raise the standard not of a republic but of something in which the middle classes could join, viz., electoral reform.” Should they succeed in creating “reasonable republican government, all the rest of Europe, except England and Russia, will be republicanised in ten years, and England itself probably before we die.” But he saw three problems ahead: the possibility of war, the matter of socialism, the question of leadership. First, Lamartine might be propelled into war with Austria as the result of popular pressure to help the Milanese expel the Habsburg occupant from Lombardy. Second, “Communism,” by which he evidently meant everything from Fourierism to Proudhonism, had taken “deep root” in the country and in the republican ranks. How, despite the vague announcement that the Provisional Government would establish ateliers nationaux, would the new men make good their promise to provide “work and good wages to the whole labouring class”? Third, Marrast and even the former Orleanist Lamartine (“who would ever have thought it—Lamartine!”) were well enough as ministers, but something was missing: “In my meditations and feelings on the whole matter, every second thought has been of Carrel—he who perhaps alone in Europe was qualified to direct such a movement. . . . Without Carrel, or, I fear, any one comparable to him, the futurity of France and of Europe is most doubtful.” His words suggested again the excitement of 1830, but muted, infused with only a limited awareness of the enormous social problems, qualified by doubt about the middle-aged men of the Provisional Government. “There never was a time,” Mill thought, “when so great a drama was being played out in one generation.”
After Lamartine had moved to assure Europe that France would not abet a war of Italian liberation, Mill was satisfied the government would act wisely. If there was to be “a good deal of experimental legislation, some of it not very prudent,” he noted unenthusiastically, “there cannot be a better place to try such experiments in than France.” He was sure that the “regulation of industry in behalf of the labourers” would fail as it had “in behalf of the capitalist,” or at least be trimmed to “its proper limits.” But he was greatly confident that what would be tried “relating to labour & wages” would “end in good.” In early March he made a public defence of the government’s action in the Spectator. But through the stormy spring of demonstrations, attempted coups, intense debate on the social question, national elections with universal male suffrage, and rising discontent among the swiftly growing army of the urban unemployed, he made no further comment.
As it happened, the drama of the Revolution was reaching its climax with the elections to a National Assembly. The broad tide of rural conservatism that came in was in protest against neglect of the interests of the countryside by an urban leadership. Mill’s reaction is not recorded. To judge from Harriet Taylor’s remarks, however, he may well have approved of, first, the moderate course pursued against radical opinion, and, second, the conservative Executive Commission selected by the Assembly to replace the Provisional Government. In his view, Lamartine, now out of office, had done no more than repeat the Girondist strategy of calling in provincial France to hold the line against the revolutionary political clubs of Paris. In fact, the Revolution was now bound on a course leading to destruction of the Republic.
Mill followed events distantly. He knew that Marrast was no longer at the National, had left the Government, and was Mayor of Paris (he was also the real leader of the majority in the Executive Commission). Mill nevertheless sent him a copy of his Principles of Political Economy, published on 25 April, saying he knew Marrast might not have time to read it but might perhaps have others do so, and asked if he could use his influence to have the National take his articles, as “lettres d’un Anglais,” which would be done in the newspaper’s style. The moment was as ill-chosen as Mill’s expression of his “sympathie profonde” for “l’oeuvre de régénération sociale qui se poursuit maintenant en France” was inappropriate to the reaction then under way in the country, the Assembly, and the Government, and to which Marrast was no stranger. The Mayor was up to his neck in politics and the situation in Paris was extremely volatile. Within a few days, on 15 May, an abortive left-wing coup d’état occurred: the Assembly was invaded by a mob and some of the crowd went on to the Hôtel de Ville. There the security chief, an old friend of one of the leaders, Armand Barbès, admitted this rag-tag band. Marrast was evidently not very upset; he temporized, summoned military assistance, and at length sent word through his secretary that the invaders should leave: “Que Barbès fasse au plus tôt cesser cette comédie, il va être arrêté d’un moment à l’autre.” It was farce, but it was indicative of what was on Marrast’s mind.
Mill could have no knowledge of the extraordinary political manoeuvrings in Paris. When he assured Marrast of his “sympathie profonde,” he could not have understood that the tide had turned. Alarmed by the numbers of unemployed men in the city, the government announced its intention of closing the ateliers nationaux. With that, a spontaneous working-class insurrection was mounted against it, on 23-26 June. The pitched battles that took place made it the bloodiest fratricidal rising the capital had known. The government was legitimately defending itself, but the repression was severe and the social fears unleashed were exaggerated. A confusion of motives and hostilities were at the origin of this disastrous collision, in the course of which the Executive Commission retired, leaving General Eugène Cavaignac chief of the executive power, for all practical purposes dictator, with a new ministry round him. Mill made no comment, but in August he lashed out publicly against the English enemies of the Republic and the misrepresentation of events. Alluding to the régime’s “first difficulties” and the dangers of “an indefinite succession of disorders, repressed only by a succession of illegal violences on the part of the government,” he denied (mistakenly) tales of “horrible barbarity” having taken place in the June Days. He had confidence in the “mildness and moderation of the sincere republican party,” and in Cavaignac. But he saw the possibility that such troubles would result in the French permitting their Republic “to be filched from them by artifice . . . under the ascendancy of some popular chief, or under the panic caused by insurrection.”
Within days, this rough prophecy began to be borne out. Mill was particularly sensitive to the attack on the press, asking whether in such circumstances Socialists and Monarchists could “be reproached for using their arms.” His sympathies lay with Lamartine (whose Histoire des Girondins he had been reading with approval), the former Provisional Government, “and many of the party who adhere to them.” He was favourable also to the Jacobin-Socialist Louis Blanc, a member of the February ministry, author of the droit au travail decree (“Le Gouvernement provisoire de la République française s’engage à garantir l’existence de l’ouvrier par le travail . . .”) that had been forced on the moderate ministers on 25 February by fear of the street crowds to whom Blanc owed his ministerial post. As President of the ill-starred Commission du Luxembourg that sought unsuccessfully to grapple with unemployment and the whole range of industrial relations until it and the ateliers nationaux (more akin, in the event, to ateliers de charité) could be shut down in June, Blanc found himself falsely accused of aiding and abetting Armand Barbès and those on the extreme left who had staged the futile coup d’état manqué of 15 May. In the immediate aftermath of the June Days, Marrast led the attack on him: he was indicted in the prevailing reaction that had developed steadily following the conservative results of the general election for a Constituent Assembly on 23 April. On 26 August, the Assembly voted to lift Blanc’s parliamentary immunity so that he could be tried on charges of having conspired with the crowd that invaded the Assembly on 15 May. Whether or not the confused events of that day were a trap sprung by the right (among the noisy demonstrators was the police-spy Aloysius Huber), Blanc, despite the appeals made to him to join the émeutiers, neither instigated nor encouraged the invasion of the Palais Bourbon and was not even present at the Hôtel de Ville. Rather than stand trial in the unpromising climate of opinion, he slipped away and was permitted to take the train to Ghent; he was arrested there briefly, and then at once crossed over to England.
Blanc’s was a singular case: since the publication of his L’organisation du travail (1840), he had been peculiarly marked out for retribution by those who feared and hated his proposals for social reform, the popular forces that put him into the Provisional Government in February, and the implications, at least, of the Luxembourg Commission and the workshops. Mill, without the possibility of knowing in detail what had happened during the months since February, considered Blanc and the other former ministers to be exemplary tribunes. But it was too late for them. In the election for the presidency of the Republic that December, Lamartine was swept aside, the radical candidates trailed distantly, and even Cavaignac was handily defeated by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The great mass of the electorate, peasants, voted against the republicans they blamed for disregarding their grievances and increasing their taxes; they voted for a legendary name, as did much of the urban population and a majority of the political notables. “It is a great deal,” Guizot observed, “to be simultaneously a national glory, a revolutionary guarantee, and a principle of authority.”
In this situation, Mill’s energies were given to defending the defunct February régime against its Tory critics; it was one more skirmish on behalf of reform. Outdistanced by events in France, won over by what he called the “legitimate Socialism” of Louis Blanc, he attacked Brougham’s version of the Revolution: Brougham’s assessment of the Provisional Government was a caricature, and his estimate of Guizot’s ministry exaggeratedly favourable; and thus the outbreak of revolution in his account was virtually inexplicable. In Mill’s view, the spirit of compromise and justice Duveyrier had proposed France must accept had not been realized; the Republic had come too soon, preceded by too little education for it and too great a fear of 1793. The Lamartine government had done the best they could in the situation with which they had been confronted. His analysis was political; he showed no strong sense of the social dimensions of the upheaval. “Their great task,” he said, “was to republicanize the public mind” (335). If there were errors, they were committed less by the government than by the political clubs. If Lamartine had served notice that the treaties of 1814-15 must be revised and that suppressed nationalities had the right to seek military assistance for their liberation, still the government’s foreign policy had been peaceful.
Mill met criticism of the droit au travail decree by arguing that such a right was absolute, though practicable only where men gave up the other right “of propagating the species at their own discretion” (350). He asserted the justice of socialism and the need for the state to create “industrial communities on the Socialist principle” (352), if only as an educational experience. Mill knew little of the intrigues about the ateliers nationaux, which he defended, as he cleared Blanc of responsibility for their closing. Once again, his point was that the experiment had been made before adequate preparation could take place. It had divided republicans and terrified the bourgeoisie: “These things are lamentable; but the fatality of circumstances, more than the misconduct of individuals is responsible for them” (354). Finally, he took issue with Brougham’s insular view that sound political institutions cannot be legislated into existence. His answer was that, ready or not for the Republic, France had to attempt the experiment. He did not regret the Assembly’s decision to abandon a second chamber in the new constitution adopted in November 1848. He thought universal suffrage had, if anything, returned too conservative a majority. Far from blindly following Paris, the provinces had too much curbed the city, “almost the sole element of progress which exists, politically speaking, in France” (360). Though he accepted Brougham’s view that no legislature should try to exercise executive power, he opposed popular election of the chief of government as being unlikely to select an eminent politician. This, of course, Louis Napoleon had not been. And he predicted accurately that “the appointment of a President by the direct suffrages of the community, will prove to be the most serious mistake which the framers of the French Constitution have made” (362).
Within the limits of what could then be known, Mill’s discussion was fair enough. But he perceived the great rural and urban problems dimly; his concern was with representative government. Continental socialism had thrust itself on his attention late in the day: he had been ambivalent about Fourier and hostile to Proudhon, he knew little of Cabet and Blanc until 1848. His vision of the Provisional Government was simplistic; he saw Lamartine somewhat through the haze of his highly coloured Histoire des Girondins; he made no comment on Marrast’s evolution from radical journalism to the defence of law and order at the Hôtel de Ville. His implied point of reference seemed to be 1789-91, modified by the appearance of “legitimate Socialism.” Disappointment was inevitable. He nonetheless discerned warning signs, and was confirmed sooner than he anticipated by Louis Napoleon’s progress to dictatorship. Carrel had been tempted by Bonapartism; Mill never was. Louis Napoleon he branded “a stupid, ignorant adventurer who has thrown himself entirely into the hands of the reactionary party, &, but that he is too great a fool, would have some chance by these means of making himself emperor.” There, of course, he was wrong. He did not guess that this man could calmly, with little artifice and no panic, “filch” the Republic. He was wrong in imagining that Victor Considérant and the Fourierists (among socialists “much the most sensible and enlightened both in the destructive, & in the constructive parts of their system”) could seriously weigh upon the proceedings in the Assembly.
Not least, Mill did not see that the tremendous power of the liberal press, durable and resilient, had almost come to an end. He did not understand what it meant that the National had become the unofficial newspaper of the Provisional Government: that men like Marrast had become part of the new establishment. He was disturbed by the repression of the opposition journals, but did not fully grasp that universal suffrage had swept the petite and moyenne bourgeoisies aside. He did not see what it meant that Bonaparte had been elected President against the majority of the press, that the extraordinary force it had been ever since 1814 was finished. Perhaps the surface indications were misleading. The constitution of 4 November, 1848, was the most democratic France had ever had, with universal manhood suffrage, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of petition. Even the droit au travail was alluded to in the preamble. A revolution had taken place. But Cavaignac, for one, doubted that the country was republican, and the election of Louis Napoleon suggested he was right. Pressed to pre-empt the election results by coup d’état, Cavaignac refused: the Republic might succumb, he said, but it would rise again, “whereas the republic would be lost forever if the one who represented it should give the example of revolt against the will of the country.” It was left to Mill’s friend, Marrast, President of the Assembly, to proclaim Bonaparte President of the Republic. “Tocqueville,” the British Ambassador, Lord Normanby, noted in his diary the next day, “rather quaintly, said to me yesterday, ‘There only remains now one question, whether it is the Republicans or the Republic itself which the country cannot abide.”’
By the summer of 1851, Mill was “for the first time downhearted about French affairs.” When, some time later, Louis Napoleon made himself dictator, then Emperor, and finally the ally of England, he was pained. The Revolution of 1848 faded into the past. The only point of its being recalled in Normanby’s memoirs, with their “calomnies ridicules et atroces,” Mill wrote, was that they offered Louis Blanc an opportunity to set the record straight. The new Girondins, Lamartine and his colleagues, had tried the experiment; France had not been ready for it. So tyranny once more settled on the country. And if the government of England had progressed so little as barely to restrain itself from co-operating in running Napoleon’s enemies to the ground, “such is the state of the world ten years after 1848 that even this must be felt as a great victory.”
for more than twenty years, Mill had observed and commented on the politics of contemporary France, had studied and sought to explain to Englishmen the constructive nature of the great Revolution in whose name much of the social and political struggle of the nineteenth century was taking place. The young French historians who boldly celebrated the Revolution as prologue to the apparent triumph of liberalism forty or so years later, or who explained the present as the outcome of the liberal impulse working its way through the centuries, he acclaimed as the best of the time. The French scene was animated, creative, disputatious, sometimes explosive, but always instructive. It was his self-imposed task to try to make Englishmen see through the haze of their insularities and prejudices the essential lessons that France offered to all who shared in the common civilization. Some part of his special certainty about the relevance of France to English society flowed from his own peculiar acquaintance with the land and the people and their thought; some part was surely no more than the intelligent appraisal of intrinsic fact. But time carried away both the observer and the observed. As the mid-century approached, it was apparent to him that the Revolution was more complex and its meaning more ambiguous than he had thought; it was clear that the young philosophical historians had begun to take their place in the historiographical museum, that their works were after all pièces d’occasion; it was evident that the imminent triumph of liberalism had again been delayed and that other struggles must one day be fought; it was obvious that Mill’s own interest in history had shifted onto quite another plane of regularities and laws and predictive capacity, leaving the Revolution and its portents not so much diminished as more spaciously situated in a vast ongoing historical process.
Despite his didactic purpose and immediate political and social concerns, Mill was too good a student of the past to permit disappointments and setbacks to break his commitment to France as the touchstone of Europe. He was far from being uncritical, he was by no means unprejudiced, he had his blind-spots. But he never went back on his conviction that, whatever the aberration of the moment, France and its destiny were central to civilization. By 1849, many hopes had foundered, and he felt it keenly that men had failed or been removed prematurely from the scene. He knew that the immense expectations of 1830 would never come again, that the social and political process was infinitely more complex and its desired outcome infinitely less assured in the foreseeable future than he and his young friends had imagined in the excitements of Paris that summer nearly twenty years before. He remained watchful but publicly silent, his former impulse to interpret the news from France now quite gone. For Mill at the mid-century, great swings of hopefulness and despair concerning France and democracy lay ahead, but for the moment that was all.