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Source: Editor's introduction to The Collected Works
of John Stuart Mill, Volume VI - Essays on England, Ireland, and the Empire, ed. John M. Robson,
Introduction by Joseph Hamburger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).
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Introduction by JOSEPH HAMBURGER
mill the philosopher, the economist, the general essayist and critic appears here in yet another capacity—as a radical journalist and party politician. Most of the articles in this volume were written to define the purpose of, and give direction to, the Radical party in Parliament during the 1830s; and even the articles on Ireland and the early articles on other subjects provide evidence of Mill’s radical inclinations at other times, though, of course, Mill’s discussion of Ireland is also important in the history of English controversy about that island. Most of these essays were written for journals that Mill helped to establish: the Westminster Review, the Parliamentary History and Review, the London Review, and the London and Westminster Review. The only exceptions were the independently published pamphlet England and Ireland, and his contributions to the Monthly Repository, which was edited by his friend, the Radical and Unitarian, William Johnson Fox. His successive contributions to each of these journals is closely related to the history of Benthamite radicalism; and, especially when combined with his correspondence, they show that Mill’s radicalism during the 1820s and 1830s defined a distinct and important episode in his life, and that he participated in events significant in parliamentary history. This introduction, except for the last part on Ireland, describes Mill’s radicalism during this early period, including his rationale for a Radical party, and his activities on behalf of that party during the 1830s. It also, in describing the relation of the mental crisis to his radicalism, shows that his resolution of the crisis allowed him to continue working and writing for the radical cause despite the changes in outlook and political philosophy that accompanied it.
Since most of the articles in this volume deal with party programmes and tactics, they emphatically belong in the realm of practice, and they are markedly different from the theoretical writings on politics that we usually associate with Mill. Practically oriented as these articles were, however, they also had a theoretical dimension, for he promoted a political enterprise with arguments that originated in Benthamite political philosophy. Mill’s radicalism, as an extension of the Benthamite position, is readily distinguished from other radical doctrines. Its principled basis allowed him to claim that it was uniquely philosophic, and thus it justified his invention and use of the phrase “Philosophic Radicalism.”
A RADICAL EDUCATION
mill’s career as a radical reformer began with his early education. When he was only six his father thought of him as the one to carry on the work begun by Bentham and himself. James Mill, during a period of illness, told Bentham of his hope that, in the event of his own death, his son would be brought up to be “a successor worthy of both of us.” James Mill, however, lived to carry out his educational mission himself, and he accomplished it with great effectiveness. John Stuart Mill later recalls having had “juvenile aspirations to the character of a democratic champion”; and, he continues, “the most transcendant glory I was capable of conceiving, was that of figuring, successful or unsuccessful, as a Girondist in an English Convention.”
Mill’s wish to be a reformer was given additional impetus in 1821 (at age fifteen) when he read Traités de législation, Dumont’s redaction of Bentham. His education up to this time “had been, in a certain sense, already a course of Benthamism”: but the impact of this book was dramatic—it was “an epoch in my life; one of the turning points in my mental history.” All he had previously learned seemed to fall into place; Mill now felt he had direction and purpose as a reformer. Bentham’s book opened “a clearer and broader conception of what human opinions and institutions ought to be, how they might be made what they ought to be, and how far removed from it they now are.” Consequently Mill “now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life.” This new understanding was the initiation of Mill into radical politics, for he now had a “vista of improvement” which lit up his life and gave “a definite shape” to his aspirations.
Mill’s early assimilation of radicalism was evident in “Brodie’s History of the British Empire” (3-58 below), an article written at age eighteen. He used Bentham’s ideas to analyze seventeenth-century constitutional conflicts and to criticize Hume’s defence of Charles I. Hume wrote a “romance,” Mill said, which generally “allies itself with the sinister interests of the few” while being indifferent to the “sufferings of the many,” and he failed to consider “the only true end of morality, the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (3-4). Mill savagely criticized Hume as a defender of Stuart despotism, a dissembler, a perjuror (49), who involved himself in a “labyrinth of falsehood” (43). Indulgent to Stuart persecution (17), Hume became “the open and avowed advocate of despotism” (16). When Mill turned his attention to the parliamentary opposition, he tried to cast the Independents as seventeenth-century versions of nineteenth-century Radicals. They were republicans who upheld “the religion of the enlightened, and the enlightened are necessarily enemies to aristocracy” (47).
Bentham’s views on sinister and universal interests and the need for democratic reforms, and his belief that the most important conflict was between the aristocracy (represented by Whigs and Tories) and the people (represented by Radicals), were passed from Bentham to James Mill and subsequently to John Stuart Mill and the Philosophic Radicals. Bentham was critical of all institutions sanctioned by traditional authority, especially the common law and the British constitution. He regarded all law-making and administration of public affairs as disfigured by the aristocratic (and monarchical) monopoly of power. This monopoly created sinister interests which had many undesirable consequences, including unnecessary wars and unjustifiable empire building, but Bentham especially emphasized domestic corruption. The monarch and the aristocracy obtained benefits, such as sinecures and pensions, denied to others. The government, supposedly acting as trustees for the people, instead adopted the principle that “the substance of the people was a fund, out of which . . . fortunes . . . ought to be—made.” Such predatory activity and the improper distribution of “power, money, [and] factitious dignity” were made possible by “separate, and consequently with reference to the public service, . . . sinister interests.” This concept of sinister interests was central to Bentham’s radical political analysis.
Bentham’s remedy was “democratic ascendancy.” Under it, office-holders would be restrained from seeking corrupt benefits. Universal suffrage, secret ballot, and annual parliaments would subject office-holders to scrutiny by those who stood to lose from the existence of sinister interests; thus these democratic practices would promote “the universal interest . . . of the whole people.” Democratic ascendancy was recommended as the best means to the desired goal, the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Any persons or groups, whatever their social class or economic condition, could, according to Bentham, have sinister interests, but in the circumstances of the early nineteenth century the aristocracy was the most obvious and compelling example of a class that enjoyed such corrupt interests. His analysis pointed to fundamental conflict, under existing constitutional arrangements, between the aristocracy and the remainder of the populace. In this dispute the aristocracy was represented by the Whigs and the Tories, and the populace by Radicals, whom he also called “People’s-men.” This conflict superseded the contest of parties familiar to most observers, and although it was invisible to many, to Bentham it was the more significant contest. Whigs and Tories, far from being enemies, were not significantly different. “Both parties . . . acting under the dominion of the same seductive and corruptive influence—will be seen to possess the same separate and sinister interest:—an interest completely and unchangeably opposite to that of the whole uncorrupt portion of the people.” Despite their superficial quarrels, the two aristocratic parties shared a class interest: “That which the Tories have in possession . . . the Whigs have before them in prospect and expectancy.”
Bentham laid the foundation of the Mills’ radicalism, but James Mill generated most of the argument and rhetoric that John Stuart Mill adopted in his early years. Young Mill read his father’s works, usually if not always in manuscript, conversed about them at length with him, and proof-read some as well. Among these works was the History of British India, which, James Mill said, “will make no bad introduction to the study of civil society in general. The subject afforded an opportunity of laying open the principles and laws of the social order. . . .” There were also James Mill’s Encyclopaedia Britannica articles, which diagnosed problems and outlined remedies on such matters as government, colonies, education, law, the press, prisons, and poor relief. And a few years later there were his articles in the Westminster Review on the main Whig and Tory quarterlies and the parties they represented.
Parliamentary reform was regarded by Bentham and James Mill as supremely important, for they assumed that all other reforms, those of tariffs, education, and law, for example, would be achieved without difficulty once the popular or universal interest was represented in Parliament. An early statement of James Mill’s arguments for radical reform of Parliament may be found in his essay “Government,” although John Stuart Mill probably was familiar with them from his father’s unpublished dialogue on government composed on the Platonic model. Written in an austere style for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Government” in fact was a polemical statement, as both Ricardo and John Stuart Mill recognized.
The essay, far more extreme than was apparent, was influential in shaping the political thought of Philosophic Radicalism. Frequently it has been suggested that because it was a defence of the middle class, it was not an argument for complete democracy. This interpretation, however, ignores the fact that it was in its main features consistent with Bentham’s Plan of Parliamentary Reform, a fully democratic work. Certainly John Stuart Mill regarded his father as a democrat. James Mill, he said, “thought that when the legislature no longer represented a class interest, it would aim at the general interest,” and therefore “a democratic suffrage [was] the principal article of his political creed.” James Mill’s severest and most discerning critic, Thomas Babington Macaulay, also recognized that Mill was “in favour of pure democracy.”
James Mill’s rationale for a democratic suffrage was an important link between Bentham’s advocacy of universal suffrage and John Stuart Mill’s radicalism during the 1830s. “Government,” which was more widely read than any of his other political writings, had a powerful impact on the young Radicals, becoming “almost a text-book to many of those who may be termed the Philosophic Radicals.” James Mill’s influence was greatly reinforced by his conversation with the notable, even if not large, group of disciples that gathered around him during the 1820s and early 1830s, including some that John Stuart Mill brought into the fold: Charles Austin, Edward Strutt, John Romilly, William Ellis, and John Arthur Roebuck. James Mill’s impact was enhanced by the distance between these disciples and the aging Bentham (now in his seventies), who at this time was more interested in law reform and codification than in parliamentary politics. Bentham’s distance from the Radicals close to the Mills was accentuated by his intimacy with John Bowring, who was disliked and distrusted by James Mill. In 1825 some of these tensions surfaced when the Mills and their followers reduced their contributions to the Westminster Review and began publication of the Parliamentary History and Review, a journal in which they proclaimed Bentham’s principles without Bowring’s editorial interference.
Many, in addition to his son, have testified to James Mill’s strengths as a political teacher. George Grote, who began his parliamentary career as a Radical in 1833, recalled James Mill’s “powerful intellectual ascendency over younger minds.” Roebuck, despite an early quarrel with James Mill, called him his political and philosophical teacher and said, “To him I owe greater obligations than to any other man. If I know any thing, from him I learned it.” Another of John Stuart Mill’s young friends, William Ellis, said of his early encounter with James Mill, “‘he worked a complete change in me. He taught me how to think and what to live for.’” Indeed, Mill supplied him “with all those emotions and impulses which deserve the name of religious.” Harriet Grote, the historian’s wife, also observed that under James Mill’s influence “the young disciples, becoming fired with patriotic ardour on the one hand and with bitter antipathies on the other, respectively braced themselves up, prepared to wage battle when the day should come, in behalf of ‘the true faith,’ according to Mill’s ‘programme’ and preaching.” Such strong influence allowed John Stuart Mill to say that his father “was quite as much the head and leader of the intellectual radicals in England, as Voltaire was of the philosophes of France.”
This comparison with the philosophes, made by John Stuart Mill more than once, identifies the spirit in which he and the other Philosophic Radicals approached politics. His father’s opinions, he said,
were seized on with youthful fanaticism by the little knot of young men of whom I was one: and we put into them a sectarian spirit, from which, in intention at least, my father was wholly free. What we (or rather a phantom substituted in the place of us) were sometimes, by a ridiculous exaggeration, called by others, namely a “school,” some of us for a time really hoped and aspired to be. The French philosophes of the eighteenth century were the example we sought to imitate, and we hoped to accomplish no less results.
The Philosophic Radicals’ sectarian spirit was evident in their use of a distinctive jargon irritating to others. John Stuart Mill’s adopting the utilitarian label as a “sectarian appellation,” for example, led Macaulay to ridicule “the project of mending a bad world by teaching people to give new names to old things.” The utilitarians, Macaulay added, invented “a new sleight of tongue.” Mill also confessed that “to outrer whatever was by anybody considered offensive in the doctrines and maxims of Benthamism, became at one time the badge of a small coterie of youths.”
Mill and others in his coterie displayed this sectarian spirit in the London Debating Society where they preferred to engage in political debate with ideological opposites whose principles were as clear and explicit as their own. Mill’s group, not the liberal moderates or trimming Whigs (such as Macaulay), provided the opposition to the Tories in the Society, and almost every debate, Mill recalled, “was a bataille rangée between the ‘philosophic radicals’ and the Tory lawyers.” The debates, he said, were unusual for being philosophically extreme, so that the opponents were “thrown often into close and serré confutations of one another.” In noting that the Society was the only arena in which such conflict was to be found, Mill was making an allusion to the defects of Parliament itself as well as giving a hint of the worldly ambitions which were linked to his and the other Philosophic Radicals’ political speculations.
Their conduct and opinions did not go uncriticized. Henry Taylor, an official in the Colonial Office and later author of The Statesman, regarded John Stuart Mill’s views in the 1820s as being “at heart something in the nature of political fanaticism,” and in the London Debating Society Taylor spoke against the same facet of radicalism that provoked Macaulay’s famous critique of James Mill. William Empson also complained about “the most peremptory and proselytizing seminary of ipse dixitists, (to use one of their own beautiful words,) which has ever existed.” The Benthamite Radicals reminded Empson of “those abstract and dogmatical times when men were principally distinguished by the theory of morals that they might happen to profess.” Macaulay, at this time a prolific publicist but not yet in the House of Commons, suggested that the disciples of James Mill (whom he called a “zealot of a sect”) were potentially dangerous.
Even now , it is impossible to disguise, that there is arising in the bosom of [the middle class] a Republican sect, as audacious, as paradoxical, as little inclined to respect antiquity, as enthusiastically attached to its ends, as unscrupulous in the choice of its means, as the French Jacobins themselves,—but far superior to the French Jacobins in acuteness and information—in caution, in patience, and in resolution. They are men whose minds have been put into training for violent exertion. . . . They profess to derive their opinions from demonstrations alone. . . . Metaphysical and political science engage their whole attention. Philosophical pride has done for them what spiritual pride did for the Puritans in a former age; it has generated in them an aversion for the fine arts, for elegant literature, and for the sentiments of chivalry. It has made them arrogant, intolerant, and impatient of all superiority. These qualities will, in spite of their real claims to respect, render them unpopular, as long as the people are satisfied with their rulers. But under an ignorant and tyrannical ministry, obstinately opposed to the most moderate and judicious innovations, their principles would spread as rapidly as those of the Puritans formerly spread, in spite of their offensive peculiarities. The public, disgusted with the blind adherence of its rulers to ancient abuses, would be reconciled to the most startling novelties. A strong democratic party would be formed in the educated class.
Such criticism was not likely to undermine the confidence of John Stuart Mill and his fellow enthusiasts. The Philosophic Radicals were distinguished, Mill said, for writing with an “air of strong conviction . . . when scarcely any one else seemed to have an equally strong faith in as definite a creed. . . .” Thus the public eye was attracted by “the regular appearance in controversy of what seemed a new school of writers, claiming to be the legislators and theorists of this new [reformist] tendency.”
RADICALISM INTERRUPTED: THE MENTAL CRISIS
during the middle and late 1820s John Stuart Mill might have felt confidence in his future as a leading member of an influential coterie, but his commitment to radicalism was shaken by his mental crisis and related events, particularly, at the end of the decade, by Macaulay’s critique of James Mill’s “Government,” John Austin’s arguments in his course of lectures on jurisprudence at the University of London in 1829-30, and the early writings of Auguste Comte and the St. Simonians.
The mental crisis, which beset him in the autumn of 1826, made Mill indifferent to reform. Having been converted, as he reported, to a political creed with religious dimensions, and having seen himself as “a reformer of the world,” he now asked himself if the complete reform of the world would bring him happiness and, realizing it would not, he felt that the foundations of his life had collapsed. “I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; . . . ambition seemed to have dried up within me. . . .” Mill for a time lost his political calling.
This crisis was responsible, as Mill acknowledged, for an “important transformation” in his “opinions and character.” So far as opinions were concerned, the change came, not directly from the crisis, but from certain subsequent events. These events occurred after the period of his greatest dejection had ended but before his recovery of purpose and confidence. In fact, by undermining his old beliefs, the crisis opened the way for a commitment to new ideas. Part of the process was the undercurrent of negative feelings about James Mill that are evident in his record of the crisis.
The first of these events, the publication in 1829 of Macaulay’s critiques of James Mill’s “Government,” did much to shake John Mill’s beliefs. Macaulay charged James Mill with using a priori reasoning inappropriate to political analysis, and argued that Mill compounded this error by making deductions from inadequate premises. James Mill’s democratic prescription, Macaulay argued, would not necessarily promote policies reflecting the universal interest. This attack, John Stuart Mill confessed, “gave me much to think about.” Though, he says,
the tone was unbecoming . . . there was truth in several of his strictures on my father’s treatment of the subject; that my father’s premises were really too narrow, and included but a small number of the general truths, on which, in politics, the important consequences depend. Identity of interest between the governing body and the community at large, is not, in any practical sense which can be attached to it, the only thing on which good government depends; neither can this identity of interest be secured by the mere conditions of election. I was not at all satisfied with the mode in which my father met the criticisms of Macaulay.
Mill now thought there was something “fundamentally erroneous” in his father’s “conception of philosophical Method.”
Also contributing to the change in Mill’s beliefs were John Austin’s lectures (which Mill attended during the session that began in November, 1829) and his exposure to St. Simonianism. Whereas Macaulay’s attack undermined his confidence in the soundness of “Government,” and by extension much else, without providing anything to put in its place, John Austin and the St. Simonians suggested to Mill political principles that were alternatives to his old radicalism and that, at least to their authors, seemed incompatible with Benthamite radicalism. Mill’s adoption of several ideas from Austin and the St. Simonians for a while prevented him from resuming his former role as a champion of the older radicalism. Only after an intellectual struggle was he able to accommodate the new ideas to the old.
The most important of these new ideas concerned political authority. In 1829 he began to develop the view that it ought to be exercised by those with special knowledge of public matters, and began speaking about the “authority of the instructed.” Since this notion circumscribed the political role of ordinary citizens, he also advocated the multitude’s deference to knowledgeable authority. These opinions, markedly alien to Benthamite radicalism and his father’s political principles, had their origin in writings of the St. Simonians and in John Austin’s lectures on jurisprudence (which is not to say that Austin’s political thought and St. Simonianism were the same).
Austin’s advocacy of vesting authority in those with knowledge was closely tied to his complete confidence that the method of science could be applied to most fields of knowledge. He was so impressed by the achievements of natural science and the progress of political economy that he looked forward to a parallel emergence of political and moral science. By using the principle of utility, these sciences would discover the sources of improvement, and the result would be a science of ethics, including the sciences of law, morality, and political science. Since such scientific knowledge was accessible only to comparatively few, however, authority could be properly exercised only by them, and most persons were expected to accept their conclusions “on authority, testimony, or trust.”
These ideas made Austin anything but a radical. He had been an orthodox Benthamite until, in 1827, he began a year-and-a-half stay in Germany, but his new attitudes to authority and trust were incompatible with the democratic arrangements proposed by Bentham. Austin unmistakably rejected radicalism in his denying that “the power of the sovereign flows from the people, or [that] the people is the fountain of sovereign power.” He also complained about “the stupid and infuriate majority,” and condemned Radical leaders, saying that “the guides of the multitude [were] moved by sinister interests, or by prejudices which are the offspring of such interests.” John Mill noted Austin’s move away from radicalism, reporting that in Germany Austin “acquired an indifference, bordering on contempt, for the progress of popular institutions. . . .” Austin’s relations with Bentham became somewhat strained at this time, and Sarah Austin (whose views were very close to her husband’s) said she “excite[d] horror among [her] Radical friends for not believing that all salvation comes of certain organic forms of government.”
Another alternative to Benthamism was St. Simonianism. Mill became acquainted with the sect in 1829 and 1830, and he claimed to have read everything they wrote, though, of course, he did not share all their beliefs. Among other things, he found in St. Simonian writings a theory of history that asserted that society progressed through alternating stages, called organic and critical. Organic epochs are characterized by widely shared beliefs and clearly defined, shared goals. In such periods society is arranged hierarchically, with the truly superior having the power to direct moral, scientific, and industrial activity. Although there is gross inequality, there is no discontent and no conflict. For the St. Simonians, organic eras existed when Greek and Roman polytheism were in full vigour (ending, respectively, with Pericles and Augustus), and when Catholicism and feudalism were at their height. Critical epochs, in contrast, are characterized by deep scepticism about the values and beliefs of the preceding organic era and finally by rejection of them. All forces join to destroy the values and institutions of the preceding era, and when this destruction is accomplished, one finds irreligion, lack of morality, and egoism, as particular interests prevail over the general interest. In the resultant anarchy, there is conflict between ruler and ruled, and men of ability are ignored. The St. Simonians found examples in the periods between polytheism and Christianity and from Luther to the present.
St. Simonian ideas, like Austin’s, were far removed from Benthamite radicalism, implying, as they did, that organic were superior to critical periods, and approving cultural and religious unity and hierarchy. All that Benthamite radicalism aimed to achieve assumed the continued existence of a critical epoch, and radicalism’s highest achievement would have involved the most extreme development of the distinguishing characteristics of critical eras. The Radicals’ blindness to the necessary supercession of critical periods by organic ones was, for the St. Simonians, a disqualifying limitation.
These ideas—both Austin’s and the St. Simonians’—had a powerful impact on Mill. He came to believe that those most instructed in moral and political subjects might “carry the multitude with them by their united authority.” His assumption that most persons “must and do believe on authority” was an implicit rejection of Benthamite views on the role of a sceptical electorate always alert to the operation of sinister interests. The full extent of his commitment to these new ideas was evident in his “The Spirit of the Age,” which appeared in 1831, but even earlier his changed ideas were reflected in changed activities. Unlike his father, Mill for a few years thought there was little point in stimulating public opinion; he dropped out of the London Debating Society in 1829 and wrote little for publication. Although he claimed to have “entered warmly” into the political discussions of the time when he returned from Paris in September, 1830, his manuscript bibliography records few publications on domestic politics during the reform period, and during the height of the Reform Bill agitation he was “often surprised, how little” he really cared about extra-parliamentary politics. “The time is not yet come,” he wrote, “when a calm and impartial person can intermeddle with advantage in the questions and contests of the day.”
Mill recovered his sense of calling as a reformer and his radical beliefs, but only after he accommodated his new ideas about the authority of the instructed to Benthamite radicalism. He felt compelled to make the accommodation:
I found the fabric of my old and taught opinions giving way in many fresh places, and I never allowed it to fall to pieces, but was incessantly occupied in weaving it anew. I never, in the course of my transition, was content to remain, for ever so short a time, confused and unsettled. When I had taken in any new idea, I could not rest till I had adjusted its relation to my old opinions, and ascertained exactly how far its effect ought to extend in modifying or superseding them.
The process of weaving anew, which involved influences coming from Coleridge, Carlyle, and Harriet Taylor, as well as from John Austin and the St. Simonians, continued for much of his life, but it was a major occupation for him during the 1830s.
If Mill’s metaphor of weaving suggests a harmonious intertwining, it is somewhat misleading, for initially his old and new ideas were not so much woven together as simply combined. Rather than choose between them, Mill now regarded both the old ideas, which emphasized popular control, and the new, which emphasized instructed leadership, as equally necessary: “the grand difficulty in politics will for a long time be, how best to conciliate the two great elements on which good government depends; to combine the greatest amount of the advantage derived from the independent judgment of a specially instructed Few, with the greatest degree of the security for rectitude of pupose derived from rendering those Few responsible to the Many.” This combination was necessary because each of its main ingredients was by itself insufficient. Benthamite radicalism provided a popular check on authority but made no provision for instructed authority. By attempting to combine these two approaches, Mill was hoping to provide for “the two great elements on which good government depends.”
This wish to combine two diverse outlooks led Mill to use the language of eclecticism. He described the truth as “many sided,” and advocated “a catholic spirit in philosophy.” Trying to combine fragments of the truth and to reconcile persons who represented different “half truths,” he sought “practical eclecticism,” and he tried to keep “as firm hold of one side of the truth as [he] took of the other.”
At this time Mill thought of his political speculations as taking place on a higher plane than they had occupied earlier. Whereas previously he (like Bentham and his father) had regarded certain model institutions as the end result of speculation, now, without rejecting his old conclusions about model (i.e., democratic) institutions, he went further. In his words, “If I am asked what system of political philosophy I substituted for that which, as a philosophy, I had abandoned, I answer, no system: only a conviction, that the true system was something much more complex and many sided than I had previously had any idea of, and that its office was to supply, not a set of model institutions, but principles from which the institutions suitable to any given circumstances might be deduced.” Of course, viewed from this higher plane, James Mill’s contribution to political philosophy was greatly diminished. Thus John Mill became “aware of many things which [his father’s] doctrine, professing to be a theory of government in general, ought to have made room for, and did not.” He no longer accepted “Government” as embodying scientific theory, and thought his father should have answered Macaulay by acknowledging that the essay was not a scientific treatise but only a tract in support of parliamentary reform. Although he did not use the phrase in reference to his father, clearly he thought James Mill had grasped only a “half-truth.”
Mill’s search for ways of combining the diverse understandings of Bentham and his father, on the one hand, and of Austin and the St. Simonians, on the other, was revealed most clearly in his articles on Bailey, Tocqueville, Bentham, and Coleridge (and much later, of course, in Considerations on Representative Government). Whereas he castigated as false democracy the simple majoritarianism which he associated with the recommendations of Bentham and James Mill, he saw true or rational democracy as the kind that, in allowing for representation of minorities, including the minority of the educated, facilitated leadership by the instructed few in combination with a democratic suffrage that provided popular control. This line of thinking was also evident in his belief that the main thrust of eighteenth-century political philosophy, represented by the philosophes on the Continent and in England by Bentham (and, by implication, his father), had to be combined with the main theme of nineteenth-century thought as represented by the German romantics and in England by Coleridge. Whereas Bentham taught the need for popular control, Coleridge, with his notion of a clerisy, promoted the idea of enlightened authority that commanded deference from the populace. “Whoever could master the premises and combine the methods of both [Bentham and Coleridge], would possess the entire English philosophy of their age,” Mill said, and described his wish to synthesize Bentham and Coleridge as a “scheme of conciliation between the old and the new ‘philosophic radicalism.’”
In combining the new ideas with the old radicalism, Mill was greatly helped by a theory of history that allowed him to visualize the progressive development of society. He was exposed to such a theory in St. Simonianism, which provided him with a “connected view . . . of the natural order of human progress.” This permitted him to assume that the combination of enlightened leadership and democratic control would be viable; that is, true democracy as he understood it could come to exist.
After Mill had persuaded himself that the old radicalism was reconcilable with his new ideas, he could co-operate with the other Radicals in practical politics. While he had some goals that were not theirs, he shared their wish for an extended suffrage, shorter parliaments, and the secret ballot. The “change in the premises of my political philosophy,” he says, “did not alter my practical political creed as to the requirements of my own time and country. I was as much as ever a radical and democrat, for Europe, and especially for England.” Democracy, however, would have put into practice only some of Mill’s political principles, whereas for the other Radicals it would have been closer to complete fulfilment of their hopes.
In the absence of complete agreement, relations between Mill and the other Philosophic Radicals were somewhat strained. Since they were willing to apply only some of his political principles, he regarded them as narrow. They saw “clearly what they did see, though it was but little.” As they were narrow, he regarded them as incomplete, “half-men.” All the same, he was “able to cooperate with them in their own field of usefulness, though perhaps they would not always join [him] in [his].” Mill also subjected his father to two standards of judgment, approving his ideas at one level but not the other. There was oblique criticism of him in an appendix to Edward Lytton Bulwer’s England and the English (London, 1833) and in references to spokesmen for the philosophy of the eighteenth century in the essay on Bentham; also in the Autobiography Mill confessed to feeling quite distant from James Mill’s “tone of thought and feeling,” and said his father probably considered him “a deserter from his standard,” although at the same time “we were almost always in strong agreement on the political questions of the day.”
Although Mill was willing to co-operate with the other Philosophic Radicals, their feelings about him were affected by suspicions that his new ideas undermined his status as a Radical. Roebuck complained about Mill’s belief “in the advantages to be derived from an Aristocracy of intellect.” Mrs. Grote referred to that “wayward intellectual deity John Mill,” and after the publication of the article on Bentham, Francis Place expressed the view “that [since] John Mill has made great progress in becoming a German Metaphysical Mystic, excentricity [sic] and absurdity must occasionally be the result.”
During the 1830s Mill advocated both parts of his political philosophy. On some occasions he explained the need for allowing the “instructed few” a large measure of authority; at other times he emphasized the more restricted vision of Benthamite radicalism, and sought to be the guide and tactician for the parliamentary Radicals. In the latter mood, he looked for fairly quick results, whereas in the former he was trying to prepare the ground for the acceptance of new principles to be realized in the more distant future. Although his explanations of the new ideas mainly appeared in essays published in other volumes of the Collected Works, occasionally these ideas are found in articles in this volume. A notable example is his anticipation of his proposal in Considerations on Representative Government (1861) for a Legislative Commission in an article of 1834 in the Monthly Repository (160).
THE RATIONALE FOR A RADICAL PARTY
mill became a political journalist to implement his radical creed. He often wished to be in Parliament with other Philosophic Radicals, and only his official position at India House prevented his going to the hustings. Consequently he turned to journalism with the belief—or the hope—that “words are deeds, and the cause of deeds.” He looked enviously at France where “editors of daily journals may be considered as individually the head, or at lowest the right hand, of a political party.” There was the example of Armand Carrel, who “made himself, without a seat in the legislature or any public station beyond the editorship of his journal, the most powerful political leader of his age and country” (380). With ambition to play such a role, Mill, in co-operation with his father and Sir William Molesworth, set up a new quarterly journal in 1835 (initially the London Review and, after a merger in 1836, the London and Westminster). It was to be “a periodical organ of philosophic radicalism, to take the place which the Westminster Review had been intended to fill.” One of its principal purposes “was to stir up the educated Radicals, in and out of Parliament, to exertion, and induce them to make themselves, what I thought by using the proper means they might become—a powerful party capable of taking the government of the country, or at least of dictating the terms on which they should share it with the Whigs.” Mill was the real though not the nominal editor, and after Molesworth withdrew in 1837 he became the proprietor as well.
Mill in his journalism frequently discussed Radical party goals, explaining that constitutional change, that is, organic reform, was essential, but that it was only a means to the real end, improvement. Thus he said that Radicals wanted codification of the laws, cheap legal procedures, access to the courts for the poor, abolition of the corn laws and of restrictions on industry, elimination of useless expenditures, improvement of conditions in Ireland, and a rational administration (348, 397). Thinking the Reform Act of 1832 “wholly insufficient” (186), he did not expect much improvement from the post-Reform Bill parliaments, and therefore advocated organic reform, that is, a more democratic constitution. Of course, if improvements could have been achieved without such fundamental changes, Mill would have been satisfied, but he assumed that the aristocratic classes were unwilling to make more than trivial concessions to liberal opinion. Thus, although constitutional changes were only the means to general improvement, Mill said, “necessary means we believe them to be” (348). Consequently, the demand for organic reforms became the hallmark of Philosophic Radicalism.
Although Radicals might differ about how far to go in shifting power away from the aristocracy, they agreed about the kind of change required: “it must be by diminishing the power of those who are unjustly favoured, and giving more to those who are unjustly depressed: it must be by adding weight in the scale to the two elements of Numbers and Intelligence, and taking it from that of Privilege” (479). The traditional Radical programme for achieving this change emphasized universal suffrage, secret ballot, and frequent elections. Mill said little about annual parliaments but appears to have wanted shorter, perhaps triennial, ones. He was outspoken in calling for the ballot, not only because it would reduce bribery and intimidation of electors, but because it would help shift the balance of power: once it became a cabinet measure, “reform will have finally triumphed: the aristocratical principle will be completely annihilated, and we shall enter into a new era of government.” As to the franchise, he wanted to see it greatly extended at this time, but he did not press for universal suffrage, although he regarded it as ultimately necessary and desirable. By arguing that it could be put off for a time, he was not doubting its importance and value but was recognizing that it was unlikely that a broadly based radical movement could be formed if extremists within it insisted on universal suffrage. He therefore called for its gradual introduction and was evidently pleased when its not being a pressing issue allowed him to avoid an unequivocal statement of his opinion (482, 488-9). When he could not avoid stating his view, however, Mill, although hesitantly, showed his hand, as when he said of the parliamentary Radicals:
They are the only party who do not in their hearts condemn the whole of their operative fellow-citizens to perpetual helotage, to a state of exclusion from all direct influence on national affairs. . . . They look forward to a time, most of them think it is not yet come, when the whole adult population shall be qualified to give an equal voice in the election of members of Parliament. Others believe this and tremble; they believe it, and rejoice; and instead of wishing to retard, they anxiously desire . . . to hasten this progress. (397.)
Of course, this description of the parliamentary Radicals was a description of Mill himself.
Mill’s wish to promote a Radical party with a programme of organic reform rested on the assumption that a fundamental conflict was taking place between the aristocratic and non-aristocratic classes over control of government. This notion was adopted from Bentham and his father, but the language Mill used to describe the conflict was more varied than theirs: the Disqualified vs. the Privileged; Natural Radicals vs. Natural Opponents of Radicalism; Numbers and Intelligence vs. Privilege; the Aggrieved vs. the Satisfied; the Many vs. the Few. Whatever the labels, Mill, like Bentham and his father, had in mind a conflict between Radicals, as spokesmen for the universal or general interest and representing the “People,” and Conservatives, as spokesmen for particular or sinister interests and representing the Aristocracy. Mill’s analysis was evident in much of what he wrote during the 1830s, but it was presented most elaborately in the remarkable essay, “Reorganization of the Reform Party,” where he described the conflict as arising out of social structure. Political views, he explained, were a matter of social position, interest, and class (465-95 passim, esp. 469).
Mill’s view of the aristocratic classes was not very different from his father’s. They were, generally, the landed and monied classes, especially the former, and they controlled the legislature, the House of Commons as well as the House of Lords (101-2 and 184). They made laws in their own interest, most notably the monopolistic Corn Laws which made bread unnecessarily expensive for the poor (170, 470), and also in defence of their amusements, as Mill explained in his early article on the Game Laws, which had important consequences for a great part of the agricultural population (101-3, 107). They also biassed justice by administering the laws in their own class interest (471, 483). Furthermore, they administered the Poor Laws; and the army, navy, and civil patronage belonged to them exclusively (170). Altogether the government was “a selfish oligarchy, carried on for the personal benefit of the ruling classes” (479). The Church, too, was but a branch of the aristocracy (471). In short, the aristocracy had vast unjust power; it was exploitive, selfish, and indifferent to the interests of others. Clearly its members, the bulwark of what Mill called the Privileged, Conservative, Satisfied Classes, exploited their sinister interest at the expense of the people (469-70).
In opposition to the aristocratic classes, Mill portrayed the combination of groups that made up the Numbers and Intelligence and who, in their struggle against Privilege, became “natural Radicals” (468, 470). All who suffered deprivation as a result of aristocratic exclusions—whether through legislation or custom—were the Disqualified, and therefore by definition opposed to the Privileged.
All who feel oppressed, or unjustly dealt with, by any of the institutions of the country; who are taxed more heavily than other people, or for other people’s benefit; who have, or consider themselves to have, the field of employment for their pecuniary means or their bodily or mental faculties unjustly narrowed; who are denied the importance in society, or the influence in public affairs, which they consider due to them as a class, or who feel debarred as individuals from a fair chance of rising in the world; especially if others, in whom they do not recognize any superiority of merit, are artificially exalted above their heads: these compose the natural Radicals; to whom must be added a large proportion of those who, from whatever cause, are habitually ill at ease in their pecuniary circumstances; the sufferers from low wages, low profits, or want of employment. . . . (470.)
Such was Mill’s attempt to define the comprehensive coalition of the discontented.
Turning to the sources of such discontents, Mill looked to amount of property and to occupational and financial circumstances—in other words, to class. First, there were the middle classes, the majority of whom, including the bulk of the manufacturing and mercantile classes (except those in protected trades), were on the side of change. In addition, there were the ten-pound electors in the towns, who belonged to the “uneasy classes,” for they lived a life of struggle and had no sense of fellow feeling with the aristocracy (476). In part these were Dissenters, who had their own grievances against the Church to supplement those they experienced as members of the middle class. “Between them and the aristocracy, there is a deeper gulph fixed than can be said of any other portion of the middle class; and when men’s consciences, and their interests, draw in the same direction, no wonder that they are irresistible” (476).
There was another aspect of middle-class discontent about which Mill was perceptive, perhaps because he personally experienced it. It arose less from inequities leading to material deprivation than from resentments about social status, and it was experienced by “the men of active and aspiring talent” who had skilled employments “which require talent and education but confer no rank,—what may be called the non-aristocratic professions. . . . ” Such persons were natural Radicals, for, Mill asked, “what is Radicalism, but the claim of pre-eminence for personal qualities above conventional or accidental advantages” (477)? As examples Mill mentioned stewards and attorneys, but one recalls his claims for “the most virtuous and best-instructed” in “The Spirit of the Age,” and his observation that journalists and editors, who were influential but regarded as ungentlemanly, did not enjoy public recognition of their real power (163-4). All such persons together might be called the intelligentsia. Of course, the word was not used in England in Mill’s time, but there can be little doubt that he had in mind the phenomenon to which it refers when he discussed the political outlook of such persons.
There is a class, now greatly multiplying in this country, and generally overlooked by politicians in their calculations; those men of talent and instruction, who are just below the rank in society which would of itself entitle them to associate with gentlemen. Persons of this class have the activity and energy which the higher classes in our state of civilization and education almost universally want. . . . They are, as it is natural they should be, Radicals to a man, and Radicals generally of a deep shade. They are the natural enemies of an order of things in which they are not in their proper place. (402-3.)
In this statement, which suggests his resentment at exclusion from a deserved political station in society, Mill (despite his position in the East India Company) identified with the class of which he said, “We are felt to be the growing power . . . ” (403). His identification with such persons may explain the bitterness that is evident in some of his observations about the aristocracy (162).
Mill gave equal prominence to the working class as the other main constituent part of the opposition to the aristocracy. This was not only a matter of taking note of Chartism during the late 1830s, for before then Mill complained about the injuries done to “the people of no property, viz. those whose principal property consists in their bodily faculties.” Like the middle class and those with small property, “the most numerous and poorest class has also an interest in reducing the exorbitant power which is conferred by large property” (218, 219). So Mill included in the large, naturally radical body “the whole effective political strength of the working classes: classes deeply and increasingly discontented, and whose discontent now  speaks out in a voice which will not be unheard” (478).
In discussing both middle and working classes as the opposition to the aristocracy, Mill was not unaware of conflicts of interest that divided the working from the middle classes. He took note of disagreements about universal suffrage; of quarrels between supporters of the Church and Dissenters; and above all, of “an opposition of interest, which gives birth, it would seem, to the most deep-rooted distrusts and aversions which exist in society—the opposition between capitalists and labourers” (479). When the Chartists were providing evidence of class conflict between proletariat and bourgeoisie, Mill proposed that such antagonism be subordinated to the other kind of class conflict—between the aristocracy and the non-aristocratic classes—that was required by his political position. He appealed to the middle and working classes to co-operate in taking the next step, which was opposition to the aristocracy by a parliamentary Radical party (480-1). Since many middle-class radicals would not agree to universal suffrage, such co-operation required postponement of that demand, which was what the Chartists most wanted. The wish to postpone universal suffrage was also supported by Mill’s belief that education ought to precede full democracy. Meanwhile it was necessary to redress the practical grievances of the working classes without yet allowing them full participation. “The motto of a Radical politician should be, Government by means of the middle for the working classes” (483). Despite this concession to middle-class fear of the working class, Mill went far in asking that there should be “some members returned chiefly by the working classes. We think it of importance that Mr. Lovett and Mr. Vincent [both Chartists] should make themselves heard in St. Stephen’s as well as in Palace yard [i.e., in the House of Commons as well as in public meetings], and that the legislature should not have to learn the sentiments of the working classes at second-hand.” (489.)
Mill’s supportive words for the middle class, like his father’s, were not intended to promote the interest of that class to the exclusion of the working class, nor was he particularly sympathetic to the middle class. He criticized the shopocracy (162) and, in urging that the working classes have some representation, said, “We would give [them] power, but not all power. We wish them to be strong enough to keep the middle classes in that salutary awe, without which, no doubt, those classes would be just like any other oligarchy. . . . ” (489.) It is evident that Mill was far from being comfortable with middle-class rule:
The people of property are the stronger now, and will be for many years. All the danger of injustice lies from them, and not towards them. Nothing but the progressive increase of the power of the working classes, and a progressive conviction of that increase on the part of their superiors, can be a sufficient inducement to the proprietary class to cultivate a good understanding with the working people; to take them more and more into their councils; to treat them more and more as people who deserve to be listened to, whose condition and feelings must be considered, and are best learned from their own mouths; finally, to fit them for a share in their own government, by accustoming them to be governed, not like brute animals, but beings capable of rationality, and accessible to social feelings. (219-20.)
Mill’s view of party politics during the 1830s was shaped by his belief that party conflict ought to reflect the class conflict between the aristocracy and its opponents. A Radical party should represent the anti-aristocratic interest of the diverse groups which Bentham and James Mill called the numerous classes or the People. Their party was to rest “on the whole body of radical opinion, from the whig-radicals at one extreme, to the more reasonable and practical of the working classes, and the Benthamites, on the other.” Far from excluding the working classes, Mill said, “A Radical party which does not rest upon the masses, is no better than a nonentity” (396). The labels he used for this party varied—it was the Radical party, popular party, Reform party, liberal party, Movement party—but whatever the label, “the small knot of philosophic radicals,” as he called them, to whom Mill offered guidance throughout the decade, was to be the most advanced part of it, and he hoped it would provide the party with leadership.
On the other side of the great conflict Mill looked for an aristocratic party made up of both Whigs and Tories. The Whigs were included despite their use of a liberal and reformist rhetoric that superficially distinguished them from the Tories. They were attached to the existing distribution of power as much as the Tories and were equally “terrified at the remedies” (297). In response to popular pressure the Whigs occasionally made concessions, and at these times Mill allowed a place for the most liberal of them in a comprehensively defined Radical or Reform party, but his wish and expectation was that they would combine with the Tories in an aristocratic party. This would be the party of “the English oligarchy, Whig and Tory,” and its organ (Mill said in 1834) was Lord Grey (262).
Since Radicals and Conservatives had clearly defined views on the large issue of democracy and aristocracy, they deserved to survive, but the Whigs, because of their half-hearted equivocations, did not. Thus he regarded the Whigs as “a coterie, not a party” (342), and rather optimistically noted that Conservatives and Radicals were gaining strength “at the expense not of each other, but of the Indifferents and the juste milieu,” and, he added, “there will soon be no middle party, as indeed what seemed such had long been rather an appearance than a reality” (341). The realignment of parties Mill wanted would remove the equivocating Whigs and make political conflict an accurate representation of the underlying class conflict. He did not use the word “realignment,” but the phenomenon to which it refers was in his mind, as it was in Bentham’s and James Mill’s. Forcing the Whigs (other than the most liberal of them) to acknowledge their shared aristocratic interest with the Tories would create a place for a Radical party that was not a subordinate partner in an uneasy alliance with the Whigs. The proper alignment would come, he said, “when the present equivocal position of parties is ended, and the question is distinctly put between Radicalism and Conservatism” (477).
Mill’s view on party realignment illuminates his use of the phrase “Philosophic Radical.” His fairly precise notion of the meaning of the term—which he himself coined—sharply contrasts with the loose usage among historians, for whom it has referred to such things as Benthamism, utilitarianism, liberalism, laissez-faire doctrine, and radicalism so loosely defined as to include the mixture of economic and political ideas of Adam Smith, Bentham, the Mills, Nassau Senior, and Cobden. Mill invented the phrase to identify a small group among the many radicals who existed during the 1820s and 1830s. This group was deeply influenced by James Mill and most had associated with John Stuart Mill in the London Debating Society and in the production of the Parliamentary History and Review. Among them were George Grote, who later distinguished himself as an historian of Greece and of Greek philosophy; John Roebuck, who had a long and prominent career as a member of Parliament; and Charles Austin, who had a dazzling success at the bar. Older than most of the others, Joseph Parkes, a successful attorney and political agent, played a part in their deliberations; although less an enthusiast than the others, he shared some of their convictions. Francis Place, the legendary Radical tailor, must be included, although his age and his participation in the Radical movement from the 1790s gave him a special position. It also would be difficult to exclude Harriet Grote, whose lively political interests and aggressive temperament made her an active participant. Others became associated with the Philosophic Radicals during the 1830s—Henry Warburton, Charles Buller, and Sir William Molesworth being most noteworthy. What characterized the group was their association with the Mills and a belief—held by some with greater enthusiasm than by others—that by means of party realignment the Radicals could replace the Whigs. This belief was promoted by several of these Philosophic Radicals in their journalism and their parliamentary careers.
Mill used the adjective “philosophic” in describing the Radicals with whom he felt a close affinity because they took a principled—a philosophic—position on politics. Mill’s political philosophy—or perhaps one should say half of it, the part derived from Bentham and James Mill—was mainly occupied with justifying democracy against aristocratic government. He contrasted the Philosophic Radicals with historical Radicals who demanded popular institutions as an inheritance from the distant past; with metaphysical Radicals whose belief in democracy was based on a notion of abstract natural rights; with Radicals marked by irritation with a particular policy of government; and with “radicals of position, who are radicals . . . because they are not lords” (353). Mill’s favoured Radicals deserved to be called philosophic because they traced practical evils back to their cause, which was the aristocratic principle. Thus their motto was “enmity to the Aristocratical principle” (353).
This justification for the adjective “philosophic” makes the label appropriate not only for Radicals, for there was an opposing position which was also philosophic. There was a type of Tory “who gives to Toryism (what can be given to it, though not to Whiggism) something like a philosophic basis; who finds for [his] opinions the soundest, the most ingenious, or the most moral arguments by which they can be supported” (335). This was “speculative Toryism,” such as Coleridge’s:
As whatever is noble or disinterested in Toryism is founded upon a recognition of the moral duty of submission to rightful authority, so the moral basis of Radicalism is the refusal to pay that submission to an authority which is usurped, or to which the accidents of birth or fortune are the only title. The Tory acknowledges, along with the right to obedience, a correlative obligation to govern for the good of the ruled. . . . (478-9.)
In the House of Commons, however, Toryism was quite different; it acted on behalf of the aristocratic “selfish oligarchy” (479); it was the Toryism for which Sir John Walsh “gets up and vents . . . shattered and worn-out absurdities,” including a defence of Tory policy in Ireland (335). Even Peel was disdained by Mill (403-4). Yet because Toryism could address the large question of aristocracy and democracy it was capable of having philosophic status. The Whigs, in contrast, although “a portion of the privileged class,” and “hostile to any thorough reform,” pretended to favour reform on behalf of the people, and consequently could be seen to be unprincipled. “Since the questions arising out of the Hanoverian succession had been set at rest, the term Whig had never been the symbol of any principles” (342).
A consequence of Mill’s “philosophic” approach to politics was a preference for conflict between extreme parties, a preference which placed the highest priority on the issue of aristocracy versus democracy. Mill, in describing how the Philosophic Radicals and the Tories gained domination of the London Debating Society, said, “our doctrines were fairly pitted against their opposites,” and with evident pride he reported that these debates “habitually consisted of the strongest arguments and most philosophic principles which either side was able to produce.” Later he encouraged such conflict in the House of Commons because it would be a contest “between the representatives of the two great principles,—not between two men whose policies differ from one another only by the shadow of a shade” (495). In such a contest the Whigs would be set aside and “the question [would be] distinctly put between Radicalism and Conservatism” (477).
Mill’s confidence that the Whigs could be set aside, to be replaced by a Radical party led by the Philosophic Radicals, may seem surprising in retrospect. Yet he clearly believed that if the Philosophic Radicals played their cards correctly, that is, aggressively, the Radicals would become an independent party and might ultimately gain office. As unrealistic as this view appeared to many contemporaries, it did not seem impossible to Mill (or to his father or to the other Philosophic Radicals). That he seriously entertained this possibility is an indication of his doctrinairism and his high political ambition during the 1830s. Sophisticated and careful as Mill was, his words show that he thought the Philosophic Radicals eligible for the highest offices. There were Radicals in and out of Parliament, he said, with the talent and energy which in time would qualify them to play a distinguished part in either a government or an opposition (386). He also spoke about the prospective party of moderate radicals as “our party,” and discussed what would happen “the moment a Ministry of Moderate Radicals comes into power.” “All things,” he said, “are ripe for it,” and its leader “is sure of everything, to the Premiership inclusive” (494, 495). A similar speculation in the Spectator did not exclude Mill; in describing a possible Radical cabinet, in addition to Durham (as Prime Minister), Grote (Exchequer), Hume (Home Secretary), Buller (Colonies), Warburton (Board of Trade), Molesworth (Board of Control), John Romilly (Solicitor General), it mentioned, without suggesting offices, Roebuck, Charles Austin, and Mr. John Mill.
Since Mill denied the Whigs their usual position as a major party, they regarded his views on parliamentary politics as doctrinaire. His arguments indeed had many doctrinaire features (which were present despite his reaction against his own early Benthamite sectarianism): he looked for large-scale change, and he depreciated reforms that did not contribute to the redistribution of power; he was uncomfortable with compromise, and he criticized compromisers and trimmers as unprincipled; he assumed that considerable changes could be achieved easily; and, as mentioned, he regarded conflict with an ideological opposite as the worthiest kind, and so was critical of moderates who stood for gradual change. This last feature of the Philosophic Radicals’ approach was identified by the Whig publicist Francis Jeffrey as early as 1826, when he responded to James Mill’s castigation of Whigs as insincere reformers and moderates: “The real reason of the animosity with which we [Whigs] are honoured by the more eager of the two extreme parties, is, that we . . . impede the assault they are impatient mutually to make on each other, and take away from them the means of that direct onset, by which the sanguine in both hosts imagine they might at once achieve a decisive victory.” Although other moderate critics of the Philosophic Radicals did not match Jeffrey’s incisive rhetoric, they recognized the doctrinairism. Fonblanque, once a Radical himself, late in the 1830s called them (and especially John Mill) Ultras, fanatical Radicals, pseudo-Liberals, Detrimentals, Wrongheads, and, since their tactics would have led to a Tory government, Tory Radicals.
Mill was aware of the “philosophic” origin of the ambition he entertained for radicalism. And he was also aware of British uneasiness with anything theoretical. “There is no passion in England for forms of government, considered in themselves. Nothing could be more inconsistent with the exclusively practical spirit of the English people.” (339.) Indeed, England was “a nation practical even to ridiculousness; . . . a nation given to distrust and dislike all that there is in principles . . ., and whose first movement would be to fight against, rather than for, any one who has nothing but a principle to hold out” (392-3). In this uncongenial environment, Mill tried—though hardly with success—to conceal the theoretical aspect of his political enterprise. He used the phrase “Philosophic(al) Radical” rather infrequently (165, 191, 212, 353), and he tried to divert attention from the “philosophic” side of his radicalism by using equivalent phrases, these too used sparingly. They included “thorough Reformers” (292, 322, 378, 380), “complete reformers” (301, 307), “enlightened” Radicals (378), “decided Radicals” (389), “real reformers” (326), and “more vigorous Reformers” (322). Mill explained that “because this designation [Philosophic Radicals] too often repeated gave a coterie air which it was felt to be objectionable, the phrase was varied.” Despite such attempts to evade criticism, the Philosophic Radicals, including Mill as their self-appointed spokesman, attracted increasing attention as the size of the Whig majority in Parliament diminished and Radical votes became more important.
RADICAL PARTY TACTICS
since mill wished to promote Radical leadership of the reform party in Parliament, the tactics he recommended to the other Philosophic Radicals focused on their relations with the Whigs. Much of what he suggested depended on his estimate of Whig policy on reform. Those in the Whig government, like their supporters, varied greatly in their reformist zeal, but they were sufficiently favourable to reform for Lord Grey’s government to cultivate a liberal image by calling itself the Reform Ministry.
This image, when combined with pressures for additional reform from the press and the liberal wing of their own party, created a dilemma for the Whig leadership, according to Mill. In the face of demand for reform, the Whigs had to choose either to make concessions and become more reformist than Whig, or they could refuse concessions and become hardly distinguishable from the Tories. They “must either join with the Tories in resisting, or with the Radicals in carrying, improvements of a more fundamental kind than any but the latter have yet ventured to identify themselves with” (326). Whichever choice they made, the reform cause would be promoted. If they chose concession, considerable improvements would be made: “there is hardly any limit to what may now be carried through the Ministry” (192). On the other hand, if the Whigs resisted and were forced to coalesce with the Tories, much good would result even if the government was then openly opposed to additional reform. For then the Radical party would be invigorated and the country would be “delivered from the anomalous state, in which we have neither the benefits of a liberal government, nor those of a liberal opposition; in which we can carry nothing through the two Houses, but what would be given by a Tory ministry, and yet are not able to make that vigorous appeal to the people out of doors, which under the Tories could be made and would be eagerly responded to” (385). If this situation occurred, of course, the realignment strategy would have been implemented; that is, the Radicals would have ceased to be a mere appendage to the Whigs and the Radical party would have achieved independent existence.
The Whigs may have faced a dilemma, but Mill was not without one of his own, for he wanted both additional reform and the establishment of an independent Radical party, and Whig policy that promoted one of these goals made the other harder to attain. If the Whigs made concessions to the pressures for additional reform, Radicals, even extreme Radicals, became more generous in the support of the government, and thus the achievement of independence for the Radical party became more difficult. On the other hand, the gaining of such independence would be facilitated by Whig resistance to further reform. For Mill’s former goal to be achieved, the Whig leadership would have had to move to the left; for the latter, they would have had to move to the right. Since Mill wanted both results, he was inevitably dissatisfied, no matter what the Whigs did. His response to the dilemma changed as the decade unfolded. During the first four years or so following the Reform Bill, Mill thought the Whigs could be persuaded to make concessions, and therefore he recommended conditional support of their governments. Increasingly during these years, however, he became disappointed with them, despite the abolition of slavery and the passing of the New Poor Law. A turning-point came later in the decade when the Whigs’ unequivocal refusal to consider reform of the constitution put an end to Mill’s expectations that Radicals and Whigs might co-operate. Thereafter he urged the Philosophic Radicals to adopt a more independent line of conduct, and he experienced exhilaration at the prospect of a separate Radical party. Yet, even in this mood, he complained about the lack of movement towards the implementation of the Radical programme.
Either of Mill’s goals, however, could be promoted by pressure on the Whig government, and therefore throughout the decade he called on the Philosophic Radicals to “attempt much” (395). They were supposed to “put forward, on every fitting occasion, with boldness and perseverance, the best political ideas which the country affords” (191). Despite their small numbers, the strong public support for radicalism would allow a few to accomplish great things: “there is a vitality in the principles, there is that in them both of absolute truth and of adaptation to the particular wants of the time, which will not suffer that in Parliament two or three shall be gathered together in their name, proclaiming the purpose to stand or fall by them, and to go to what lengths soever they may lead, and that those two or three shall not soon wield a force before which ministries and aristocracies shall quail” (397-8). Despite what Mill saw as their great opportunity, however, some of the Philosophic Radicals were unaggressive. Grote, from whom so much was expected, deeply disappointed Mill. “Why does not Mr. Grote exert himself” (314n)? The Radicals, Mill said, were without policy, a leader, or organization, and therefore they failed to call forth their strength in the country (467). Mill sometimes called them torpid (327) and ciphers (165) and accused them of lacking courage (212), though there were exceptions, notably Roebuck, whom Mill generally praised.
Putting pressure on the Whig government should have been easy, Mill thought, for he assumed that the great burst of reform agitation that forced aristocratic acceptance of the Reform Act manifested a fundamental change, making public opinion permanently favourable to further reform. Therefore he thought opinion would support either a Whig-led reform party or a genuine Radical party in opposition to both Whigs and Tories. The events of 1831-32 revealed a public angry and outspoken enough to be capable of intimidating the governing classes (430). These events changed the understanding of the constitution, “which [since the Reform Bill] enables the people to carry all before them when driven by any violent excitement” (299). Mill thought the governing classes knew it could happen again: “where the public voice is strong and unanimous, the Ministry must now go along with it” (317). Although public opinion became much less agitated after the Reform Bill passed into law, Mill assumed that “there [was] a great deal of passive radicalism in the electoral body,” and he confidently announced that “England is moderate Radical” (389). He also thought this latent opinion could be reawakened at any time, and therefore that the “progress of reform appears . . . certain” (292).
The period immediately following the Reform Bill understandably began with high Radical hopes. The aristocracy apparently had suffered a severe defeat, and the Whigs, despite their sponsorship of the Reform Bill and their hopes for party advantage from it, were worried about its long-term consequences. In May 1832 Mill thought there was “nothing definite and determinate in politics except radicalism; and we shall have nothing but radicals and whigs for a long time to come.” It is not known what Mill thought when his Radical friends in Parliament sat on the opposition benches, but it should have gratified him, for it set them off from the Whigs as the nucleus of a new party. He also must have been pleased by Grote’s motion on the ballot, which was supported by 106 votes and threw Whigs and Tories together to defeat it by a majority of 105. After his initial enthusiasm, however, the first session of the Reform Parliament was, on the whole, disappointing to Mill. Although the Whigs adopted the reform label and introduced some measures of reform, he depreciated most of the proposed legislation because it was so far removed from the organic reform sought by genuine Radicals. Slavery was abolished; the Bank Charter was renewed; and free competition in the China tea trade was established as part of the renewed East India Company charter. Mill was not opposed to these things, but they fell far short of what he wanted. When the government defended its record in the first session with its pamphlet The Reform Ministry and the Reformed Parliament, Mill, in his review of it, complained that it “passes over three-fourths of the essentials of the case.” The Whigs must be judged, he wrote, not only by what they had done, but by considering “what they have opposed, and so prevented from being done.”
In these circumstances—the Whigs were the only agency through which reform could be achieved, yet they proposed only changes that Mill regarded as insufficient—it was difficult to withhold support, and yet it was also difficult to be enthusiastic. So Mill acceded to the Philosophic Radicals’ voting in support of the government, but he called on them to be demanding, and he held out the threat of renewed agitation of public opinion and a return to the nervous days prior to the Reform Bill.
Three events in 1834 reduced Mill’s uneasiness about Philosophic Radical support of the Whig government. First, the resignation of Stanley and Graham in May signalled a reduction of conservatism in the cabinet (252, 285). Next, the government sponsored the Poor Law Amendment Act. Although not an organic reform, it was far-reaching and dear to all whose views on administration and poor relief had been shaped by Bentham and the political economists. This was the one achievement of the session, Mill said; he had not expected such a development, especially as there was no public clamour for it; consequently “we give them [the Whigs] due honour” (285). Finally, Lord Grey retired and was replaced by Melbourne. The retirement of Grey, a man of the 1790s, would allow the Whigs to be more responsive to the needs of a new age (263-5). As this period of Whig-Radical relations ended, Mill thought that the Whigs might regain the popularity they enjoyed in 1832, and that their errors of omission would be forgiven. “From us, and we believe from all the enlightened reformers, they may expect, until they shall have had a fair trial, not only no hostility, but the most friendly encouragement and support. They must now throw themselves upon the people.” (243.)
Such a trial had to be postponed, for in November, 1834, the Whigs were turned out and replaced by a Tory government under Peel. Mill and the Philosophic Radicals were jubilant, for they correctly assumed that this would be a brief interlude, and they were delighted to witness the Whigs in defeat. The Whigs now joined the Philosophic Radicals on the opposition benches, and the Radicals—about seventy of them—co-operated with the Whigs to expel Peel from office. When the Whigs under Melbourne returned to the government benches in April, 1835, the Philosophic Radicals’ old problem—of defining their relation to the Whigs—returned in an acute form, for they had to adopt a position that took into account both their recent co-operation with the Whigs in opposition and their long-standing enmity to them.
Mill now offered guidance to the Philosophic Radicals from the pages of the London Review, which began publication just as the change in government took place (297). In a brief comment which was a postscript to his father’s political article, Mill said he did “not call upon the thorough Reformers to declare enmity against [the Whig Ministry], or to seek their downfall, because their measures will be half-measures . . . nor even because they will join with the Tories in crying down all complete reforms . . .” (292). At the same time, Mill suggested that the Philosophic Radicals refuse any offers of office. This he called “qualified and distrustful” support, and in the next issue he warned that such co-operation might not last very long (297). In keeping with this advice, the Philosophic Radicals sat on the government side, to indicate their support of the Whig Ministry, but below the gangway, to demonstrate their distance and independence from it.
A crisis in this arrangement occurred as the Municipal Corporations Bill passed through Parliament, for this legislation and the way it was amended raised fundamental questions for the Radicals. The Bill provided for the elimination of the “little oligarchies,” as the Webbs later called them, that ruled in towns, and replaced them with town councils elected by household suffrage. Although not fully democratic, the Bill went rather far in that direction. It pleased the Radicals, even delighted some of them, including Mill, who said “the destructive part . . . is of signal excellence,” and he acknowledged that, despite deficiencies in its constructive part, there was much merit, particularly the extension of the suffrage to householders, for which the Ministers were “entitled to great praise” (303). Overall, Mill said, it was “one of the greatest steps in improvement ever made by peaceable legislation in the internal government of a country” (308). The features of the Bill that elicited such praise were not altered by several amendments made in the House of Lords.
Yet the Philosophic Radicals were so eager to assert their fundamental principles that several of them, including Mill, responded angrily to the Lords’ amendments. It was the Lords’ tampering that caused the difficulty, because the Radicals, recalling the submission by the House of Lords in 1832, interpreted the post-Reform Act constitution as tolerating an upper house only so long as it remained quiescent. The suggestion that the House of Lords had a veto indicated that the Lords, as Roebuck said, “have not yet acquiesced in this arrangement,” as they did not comprehend their “real position.” For Mill the Bill was “a challenge of the House of Lords to mortal combat” (302); and to allow the Lords’ amendments to stand would be “to abandon all the ends to which the Reform Bill was intended as a means” (343). Roebuck, Place, Molesworth, and even Grote were extremely angered, even more, it seems, than Mill. Their anger was so great that they criticized the House of Lords as a second chamber, and in the end, Mill joined them. “An entire change in its constitution is cried out for from the remotest corner of the three kingdoms; and few would be satisfied with any change short of abolishing the hereditary principle” (313). He proposed an upper house chosen by the lower. The choice was to be made from the existing peerage supplemented with qualified persons not in the Commons who were to be given peerages. This was not the best design he could make, but only the result of his attempt to “remodel” the existing House of Lords. Its purpose was a second chamber “unlikely to set itself in opposition to what is good in the acts and purposes of the First.” As well as attacks on the Lords, this episode produced complaints about the “truckling” by the Whig government and its moderate radical supporters (317).
Mill continued, however, to recommend cautious and selective support of the government, despite his disapproval of its yielding to the Lords on the Municipal Corporations Bill. Although he complained about the appearance of a tacit compromise between the government and the thorough reformers, he said, in October, 1835: “We do not wish the Radicals to attack the Ministry; we are anxious that they should co-operate with them. But we think they might co-operate without yoking themselves to the ministerial car, abdicating all independent action, and leaving nothing to distinguish them from the mere Whig coterie. . . .” (316.) In April, 1836, Mill continued to argue that the Whigs deserved support from the thorough reformers, for they introduced or at least promised a marriage bill that removed certain grievances of dissenters; a bill for the registration of births and deaths; a bill to consolidate turnpike trusts; an Irish Corporation reform bill; and a measure of church reform (322-5). A far cry from organic reform, these proposals were yet enough to justify his call for support of the government. Despite his distrust of Whigs, he was reluctant to call for an attempt to turn out the government (344). At the same time, however, he asserted Radical independence and looked forward to the realignment of parties (326-7).
Mill’s mixed view reflected certain difficulties which he and the other Philosophic Radicals faced. Their principles made co-operation with the Whigs disagreeable and directed them to an independent course of action. The political situation in 1836 also might have encouraged them to adopt aggressive tactics, for Melbourne’s majority, including Irish and moderate radicals, was perhaps fifty or sixty, and Mill thought Melbourne dependent on the small group of Philosophic Radicals for support. Other circumstances, however, called for restraint, for it became evident that the large number of moderate radicals, whose support was required for the implementation of the Philosophic Radicals’ realignment strategy, might not go along with an attempt to turn out the Whig government. These so-called “200 ballot men,” the “nominal” Whigs, supported Grote’s ballot motion and were more reformist than the Whig leadership, but probably would keep the Whigs in office rather than risk a Tory government.
Among the small group of Philosophic Radicals there was disagreement. Aggressive, anti-Whig tactics were advocated by Molesworth and Roebuck, strongly supported by Francis Place and Harriet Grote. Molesworth’s “Terms of Alliance between Radicals and Whigs” (January, 1837) was a clear and forthright statement of their position. Others were more cautious, though not without sympathy for the extremists; these included Grote, Buller, Warburton, and Hume. Both Joseph Parkes and Fonblanque were vigorously opposed. The issue was hotly debated (as Harriet Grote put it) “as to the true play of the Rads.”
Mill, like the Philosophic Radical group as a whole, was of two minds. He took note of “the plan which [Molesworth] and several other of the radical members have formed and are executing. I think them quite right.” He also said, “As for me I am with the extreme party; though I would not always go so far as Roebuck, I entirely agree with those who say that the whole conduct of the Whigs tends to amortir l’esprit public, and that it would be a good thing for invigorati[ng] and consolidating the reform party if the Tories were to come in.” In this spirit he lamented Fonblanque’s desertion, evident in his effective criticism of the Philosophic Radicals and in his appeal to moderate radicals for support of the Melbourne government. Mill said it was only Fonblanque’s “past reputation for radicalism which prevents him from being mistaken for a ministerialist with radical inclinations” (380). He also complained that since 1835 Fonblanque had “acted as if his first object was to support and glorify the ministers, and the assertion of his own political doctrines only the second” (379). Yet in the same letter in which he identified himself with the extreme party, Mill also noted, “the country does not go with us in [the extreme tactics] and therefore it will not do for the radicals to aid in turning out the ministry; by doing so they would create so much hostility in their own party, that there would be no hope of a real united reform party with the country at its back, for many years. So we must linger on. . . .” Doctrine called for one line of conduct; circumstances pointed to another: as Mill said, they were in a “false position.”
In late 1837 Mill suddenly broke loose from the “false position” by declaring open hostility to the Whig government. He was provoked to do so by Lord John Russell’s “Finality” speech, and he was joined in this move by other Philosophic Radicals, who recently had been deeply disappointed by the thinning of their ranks in the elections of August, 1837. In response to Radical amendments to the Address urging consideration of an extended suffrage, ballot, and shorter parliaments, Russell said the amendments would repeal the Reform Act, whereas he regarded that Act as a final measure and not one he was willing to repeal or reconstruct. Not only did Russell declare his opposition to further constitutional reform, but he carried with him a majority of the moderate radicals, who refused to vote for the Radical amendments. Most of the Philosophic Radicals, both in and out of Parliament, were depressed by this development, but Mill was angry. He attended a meeting at Molesworth’s house in order to rouse the others. He argued that “the time is come when all temporizing—all delicacy towards the Whigs—all fear of disuniting Reformers or of embarrassing Ministers by pressing forward reforms, must be at an end.” Now outspoken in advocating complete separation from the Whigs, he urged the Philosophic Radicals to “assume the precise position towards Lord Melbourne which they occupied in the first Reformed Parliament towards Lord Grey. Let them separate from the Ministry and go into declared opposition.” (412.)
Events arising out of the Canadian rebellion of 1837-38 were to be the occasion for Mill’s last call for the organization of a Radical party in opposition to Whigs and Tories. Initially, Canadian events clouded his hopes for renewed Radical activity, for the Philosophic Radicals’ response contributed to their isolation from the moderate radicals. When in January, 1838, the government proposed the suspension of the Canadian constitution for four years and the creation of a high commissioner, the Philosophic Radicals were opposed, but failed to gain support from liberal reformers and moderate radicals. Edward Lytton Bulwer taunted them about their disagreements with other reformers:
Those who were called philosophical Radicals, . . . were . . . the same small and isolated knot of Gentlemen, who, on the first day of this session declared so much contempt of the Reform Bill, and so much hostility to the Government [in response to Russell’s Finality speech], who now differed also from the whole people of England in their sympathy for a guilty and absurd revolt. Whether those Gentlemen called themselves Radicals or not, the great body of Liberal politicians neither agreed with them in their policy for Canada nor their principles for England.
The small size of the Philosophic Radical vote (six to thirty-nine at this juncture) demonstrated their isolation.
Mill defended the Philosophic Radicals in the London and Westminster for January, 1838, but Fonblanque in the Examiner, like Bulwer in the House of Commons, criticized the “Grote conclave” for sympathizing with colonial rebellion. “The London Reviewer,” he wrote, “asserts that the alliance between the Ministry and the Radicals is at an end; but how many members out of the Radical minority of little less than 200 have spoken or acted as if the alliance was at an end, or as if they desired it to be at an end. . . ?” Fonblanque’s observations must have had a ring of truth, for Mill was acutely aware of the cleavage between the Philosophic Radicals and the other, more moderate radicals in the House of Commons. He had already complained that the Canadian question “suspends all united action among Radicals, . . . sets one portion of the friends of popular institutions at variance with another, and . . . interrupts for the time all movements and all discussions tending to the great objects of domestic policy” (408). He was so dismayed by this development that the next two numbers of the London and Westminster Review appeared without his usual political article (though he did publish the essays on Vigny and Bentham, as well as shorter articles), and the number for October, 1838, did not appear at all. Mill could well say that the Canadian question “in an evil hour crossed the path of radicalism.”
Mill’s outlook changed suddenly in October, 1838, when he learned of Durham’s resignation as Governor General in Canada, consequent on the Whig government’s failure to sanction the ordinances by which he granted amnesty to most of the captured rebels but transported a few of their leaders to Bermuda. In view of Durham’s anger towards the Melbourne Ministry, Mill thought Durham might be prepared to lead the liberal reformers and moderate radicals in a challenge to the Whig government, especially as he had always been much more a reformer than his Whig colleagues—indeed, so much so, that in 1834 he had called for the ballot, triennial parliaments, and household suffrage. The opportunity to turn this event to Radical party advantage was greatly facilitated by the presence of Buller and Wakefield on Durham’s staff in Canada. They sent Mill information about Durham’s outlook and tried to direct Durham’s attention to the possibility of turning the Canadian affair to domestic political advantage. Wakefield reported to Molesworth that Durham “is mortally but coolly and immovably offended at everything Whig,” and Buller, having read Mill’s recent political articles, wrote, “You will see what attitude the Radicals ought to assume with respect to his returning now at open defiance with Whigs and Tories. . . . Circumstances seem to be approaching, in which it will be perfectly possible for us to force him into power. The cue of all Radicals then is to receive him not as having failed, but as having done great things. . . . But you know best what is to be done.” Durham was to be cast as the popular leader who could bring together the coalition of moderate radicals, liberal reformers, and Philosophic Radicals that Mill wished to establish as the party of the “natural Radicals.”
Mill’s depressed mood now quickly evaporated. Durham’s resignation, he said, “has awakened me out of a period of torpor about politics.” With obvious enthusiasm he wrote to Molesworth: “The present turn in Canada affairs brings Lord Durham home, incensed to the utmost (as Buller writes to me) with both Whigs and Tories—Whigs especially, and in the best possible mood for setting up for himself; and if so, the formation of an efficient party of moderate Radicals, of which our Review will be the organ, is certain—the Whigs will be kicked out never more to rise, and Lord D. will be head of the Liberal party, and ultimately Prime Minister.” Even in his Autobiography, years later, Mill observed that “any one who had the most elementary notions of party tactics, must have attempted to make something of such an opportunity.”
Durham sailed for England on November 1st and was due to arrive a month later. Mill thought there was “a great game” to play in the next session of Parliament. He realized Durham’s course of action was uncertain, but he believed the result “will wholly depend upon whether Wakefield, we ourselves, and probably Buller and his own resentment,” on the one hand, “or Bulwer, Fonblanque, Edward Ellice, the herd of professing Liberals, and the indecision and cowardice indigenous to English noblemen,” on the other, “have the greatest influence in his councils.” Mill added, “Give us access to him early and I will be d....d if we do not make a hard fight for it.”
Mill’s article “Lord Durham’s Return” (December, 1838)—quickly published in an unscheduled issue of the London and Westminster—carefully followed Buller’s advice to show Durham not as having failed, but as having done great things. Although most of the article was a defence of Durham’s conduct and policy in Canada, Mill carefully combined with the Canadian matter an account of the significance of Durham’s resignation for domestic politics. When he told Molesworth that Durham was returning prepared to set up for himself, Mill explained that “for the purpose of acting at once upon him and upon the country in that sens I have written an elaborate defence of him.” Durham’s mission to Canada, he wrote, could become “the turning point of English politics for years to come,” because it involved “the prospects of the popular cause in England . . . [and] the possibility of an effective popular party” (447). He held out the hope that this could become a major party and “break the power of the aristocratic faction” (448). Here he saw an opportunity finally to achieve the party realignment to which his Philosophic Radical doctrine was directed.
A meeting was held to co-ordinate the efforts of those working with Mill. Rintoul, editor of the Spectator, agreed to publish extracts of Mill’s article before it could appear in the London and Westminster Review. Wakefield, who returned from Canada ahead of Durham, went with Molesworth to Plymouth to meet Durham, apparently in hope of persuading him to act on his resentment and of stage-managing an enthusiastic popular reception. On the Whig side, Edward Ellice, a former Whig whip and owner of vast tracts of land in Canada, tried to blunt Radical efforts. To his son, who had accompanied Durham as a private secretary, Ellice wrote that the public “are not prepared for a Durham, Wakefield, and Buller Cabinet, and mark my words, that if they come home with that expectation, they will be laughed at.” He warned Durham against the “recommendations of the writer in the Westmr. Review!” He also saw danger in Buller, who, though “an intelligent, handy, and most amiable fellow . . . has neither experience, or prudence, and is in the hands of the younger Mill (I wish it were the elder one) a person very much of his own character—with considerable learning, and critical talent—but also a ‘denisen of Utopia.’”
Mill’s efforts went for nought. Durham refused to play the part for which he was cast by Mill. Although he felt personal animosity towards his former colleagues and remained moderately radical in opinion, he was unwilling to attempt a party rebellion, especially in view of the disagreements among reformers. He also was reported to have called the Radicals “great fools.” Mill at last recognized that his goals for a Radical party were impracticable. Durham’s conduct, he said,
cannot lead to the organization of a radical party, or the placing of the radicals at the head of the movement,—it leaves them as they are already, a mere appendage of the Whigs; and if there is to be no radical party there need be no Westminster Review, for there is no position for it to take, distinguishing it from the Edinburgh. . . . In short, it is one thing to support Lord Durham in forming a party; another to follow him when he is only joining one, and that one which I have so long been crying out against.
He also said, “if the time is come when a radical review should support the Whigs, the time is come when I should withdraw from politics.” And this he now proceeded to do.
DEMISE OF THE PHILOSOPHIC RADICAL PARTY
when his article “Reorganization of the Reform Party,” which had been planned for publication in January, 1838, finally appeared in April, 1839, it could serve only as an epitaph to Radical hopes, and Mill regretted its appearance “in a posture of affairs so unsuitable to it.” He published two more numbers and then ended his connection with the review, deciding that it was “no part” of his “vocation to be a party leader.”
Now in 1839, little more than a decade after the dream of establishing a powerful parliamentary party first took shape, John Stuart Mill began to share a sense of failure with the other Philosophic Radicals. The moderate reformers continued to oppose the aggressive tactics designed to force the Whigs to coalesce with their “natural” aristocratic allies, the Tories. The Melbourne government’s existence became increasingly tenuous, and moderate reformers and Whigs alike became more and more critical of those on their left who threatened it. The Edinburgh Review described the extreme Radicals as “a small, conceited, and headstrong party” that should be called “the sect of the Impracticables.” The cleavage between the Radicals and the moderate reformers remained, and the expected merger of Whigs and Tories into an aristocratic party did not take place. On the contrary, the Whigs continued to look upon the Tories as their strongest opponents, whereas the Philosophic Radicals were regarded as merely an annoying faction. Both in public opinion and in electoral organization, the Tories throughout the decade increased their strength. In 1839, far from having merged into an aristocratic party, the Whigs and Tories were poised against one another in a fairly even struggle; the aristocratic factions that Mill had been opposing for more than a decade continued to dominate the political scene.
The Philosophic Radicals were too disheartened by 1839 to celebrate their part in provoking the resignation of the Whig government, an event which two years earlier would have brought them to a high pitch of excitement. Nor were they much moved by the increase in conversions to the ballot. When the Whig Macaulay defended Grote’s motion in 1839, Mill said the ballot “is passing from a radical doctrine into a Whig one.” As Chartism rose to prominence the Philosophic Radicals also lost their sense of leadership in the democratic movement. Although they might have welcomed it—after all, the Philosophic Radicals could agree in principle with the six points of the Charter—they were made uneasy by some of the violent Chartist rhetoric and by the Chartists’ criticism of private property and opposition to repeal of the Corn Laws. They also disapproved of the Chartists’ use of the language of class, which rested on assumptions that challenged Philosophic Radical doctrine about universal and sinister interests. The Philosophic Radicals were also depressed by the attrition of reform sentiment after the passing of the Reform Bill; as Mill said, “Their lot was cast in the ten years of inevitable reaction, when the Reform excitement being over . . . the public mind desired rest.”
Mill and his associates recognized that they had so dwindled as to become insignificant. They could no longer regard themselves as the nucleus from which a great party would soon grow. Macaulay said in 1839 that the Radical party was reduced to Grote and his wife; and Grote himself was depressed by the diminution, saying he “felt indisposed to remain as one of so very small a number as now constituted the Radical cluster.” Mill was poignantly aware that hopes for the party, both as it existed and as he had imagined it, had dissolved. “Even I,” he said, “who have been for some years attempting it must be owned with very little success, to induce the Radicals to maintain an independent position, am compelled to acknowledge that there is not room for a fourth political party in this country—reckoning the Conservatives, the Whig-Radicals, and the Chartists as the other three.” As Mill put it in his Autobiography, “the instructed Radicals sank into a mere côté gauche of the Whig party.”
The bitterness turned several of the Philosophic Radicals against active politics. Harriet Grote, for example, confessed feeling “sick and weary of the name of politics”; at times, she said, “I sigh over those ten years of infructuous devotion to the public service; unrequited even by [Grote’s] constituents . . . and only compensated by the esteem and admiration of some dozen high-minded men.” Mill’s feelings, as Caroline Fox reported, were similar: “‘No one,’ he said with deep feeling, ‘should attempt anything intended to benefit his age, without at first making a stern resolution to take up his cross and to bear it. If he does not begin by counting the cost, all his schemes must end in disappointment.’” He also confessed being “out of heart about public affairs—as much as I ever suffer myself to be,” and soon he had “almost given up thinking on the subject.”
Of course the Philosophic Radicals did not cease to have political opinions, but now that they acknowledged the disappointment of their ambition for radicalism, their attitude to the Whigs softened considerably. Mill, Buller, and even Roebuck began contributing to the Edinburgh Review, and Mill appears to have been the intermediary between Napier, the editor, and some of the former contributors to the London and Westminster. Harriet Grote made peace with the Whigs by accepting an invitation to Holland House, and George Grote, who ten years earlier avoided aristocratic company as a matter of principle, now accompanied her “without any twinges of conscience.” Mill’s views had altered sufficiently for him to tell Fonblanque in 1841 that “there is nothing of any importance in practical politics on which we now differ for I am quite as warm a supporter of the present [Whig] government as you are.”
Since parliamentary politics ceased to be a preoccupation, several of the Philosophic Radicals turned to authorship. Molesworth worked on his edition of Hobbes, and Grote on his History of Greece. Even Place and Roebuck took to writing history. And Mill too began his series of essays on French historians, though his main preoccupation was with his System of Logic, on which he had been working at intervals throughout the previous decade. Now that his plan for a parliamentary party devoted to fundamental constitutional changes had failed, his interest in politics, with its emphasis on institutions, diminished, and he turned to the realm of thought. Having been disappointed as a politician, he downgraded political activity and looked to philosophy for improvement. He consoled himself with the belief that he was entering an era when “the progress of liberal opinions will again, as formerly, depend upon what is said and written, and no longer upon what is done. . . .”
that mill’s disillusionment, which put an end to his hopes for a Radical party, did not conclude his radicalism, is nowhere so evident as in what he said and wrote about Ireland. In his journalism just after the famine, the Principles of Political Economy (1848), and speeches, mainly in the House of Commons from 1866 to 1868, he poured forth a powerful condemnation of the social system and economy in Ireland and of the way that country was governed by England. His essay on Irish affairs in the Parliamentary History and Review perhaps is partially an exception, for it focusses mainly on Ireland as an issue in British domestic politics. The 1848 speech and the pamphlet England and Ireland (1868), however, demonstrate Mill’s radical rejection of old ways and his search for far-reaching remedies.
The extent of Mill’s radicalism was evident in his sympathetic understanding of Irish rebelliousness. He even suggested a moral basis for outrages against the landlord; the Whiteboys and Rockites, he said, “fought for, not against, the sacredness of what was property in their eyes; for it is not the right of the rent-receiver, but the right of the cultivator, with which the idea of property is connected in the Irish popular mind” (513). Mill also claimed that the more a person emphasizes obstacles to reform, “the further he goes towards excusing, at least as to intention, the Irish revolutionary party” (503). Moreover, there was the example of the French Revolution. Before 1789 the peasantry in France was more destitute and miserable than Irish cottiers, but the revolution led to a great shift in peasant ownership: “the result was the greatest change for the better in their condition, both physical and moral, of which, within a single generation, there is any record.” Who was to say, Mill asked, that Irish anticipations of similar benefits from an Irish revolution were wrong? (503.)
Mill’s sympathetic understanding was not directed only to material circumstances in Ireland, for he was also sensitive to the stirrings of Irish nationalism. He knew that conditions had improved since the famine, especially because of emigration, and that many old grievances had been removed. Yet to be complacent—for gentlemen “to soothe themselves with statistics” —was to bask in a fool’s paradise and to misunderstand Fenianism, which was “a rebellion for an idea—the idea of nationality” (510). The rulers of Ireland “have allowed what once was indignation against particular wrongs, to harden into a passionate determination to be no longer ruled on any terms by those to whom they ascribe all their evils. Rebellions are never really unconquerable,” Mill added, “until they have become rebellions for an idea.” (510.)
Disaffection was so great that only a remedy of revolutionary proportions would have a chance of relieving it. Thus in 1868 Mill asserted that “revolutionary measures are the thing now required,” and he added, “In the completeness of the revolution will lie its safety” (518-19). He also said, “Great and obstinate evils require great remedies.”
Mill’s analysis in this case emphasized economic considerations, both in the identification of abuses and in the prescription of remedies, but since he focussed on the conflict of interest between landlord and tenant, it is reminiscent of his Philosophic Radical assumption that the class conflict between aristocracy and the people took precedence over all other issues. His analysis in 1868, which is similar to what he wrote about Ireland in his Principles of Political Economy, recognized a variety of causes for Irish rebelliousness, but the land question, he said, outweighed all others. Irish wretchedness was the result of “a radically wrong state of the most important social relation which exists in the country, that between the cultivators of the soil and the owners of it” (502). Against the background of overpopulation and underemployment (84-5), the specific problem was vulnerability to arbitrary eviction and arbitrary increases of rent of tenants who worked the land (516-17). Consequently, the bulk of the population “cannot look forward with confidence to a single year’s occupation of [the land]: while the sole outlet for the dispossessed cultivators, or for those whose competition raises the rents against the cultivators, is expatriation” (515). As a result, improvements were not made, and poverty was added to insecurity: “these farm-labourers are entirely without a permanent interest in the soil” (514).
Mill’s remedy was to alter the system of land tenure by changing the relationship between landlord and tenant. He proposed making “every farm not farmed by the proprietor . . . the permanent holding of the existing tenant” (527). The rent would be fixed by an official tribunal; the state would guarantee that the landlord received the rent and that rents were not arbitrarily increased. In this way Mill proposed to eliminate exploitation by landlords and, by making tenants secure, give them incentives to make improvements.
The genuinely radical character of this proposal arose from its implications for the doctrine of private property. Mill argued, as he had already done in the Principles of Political Economy, that land has characteristics that distinguish it from property created by labour and skill. In contrast, land is “a thing which no man made, which exists in limited quantity, which was the original inheritance of all mankind, and which whoever appropriates, keeps others out of its possession. Such appropriation,” he goes on, “when there is not enough left for all, is at the first aspect, an usurpation on the rights of other people.” (512.) Using ideas and language from Locke’s famous chapter on property, Mill changed Locke’s argument as it applied to land, asserting that the idea of “absolute property in land,” especially when the land is “engrossed by a comparatively small number of families,” is an obstacle to justice and tranquillity (512). Vicious conditions in Ireland were “protected and perpetuated by a wrong and superstitious English notion of property in land” (502). Indeed, there was a contradiction between English law and Irish moral feelings (512-13).
The pamphlet England and Ireland, in which, as Mill said, he spoke his “whole mind,” was written late in 1867 against the background of intense Fenian activity in England as well as in Ireland, marked by the killing of a policeman during the rescue of captured Fenians in Manchester and the trial and execution of the rescuers. Mill’s pamphlet, which was “probably the most influential single contribution to the extended debate on Irish land problems which was carried on in England between 1865 and 1870,” caused a great furore, largely because it aggravated fears about the security of property in England where landlords were apprehensive that radical Liberals and spokesmen for the working classes would use Mill’s observations about property in Ireland as authority for an attack on the landed classes generally. There were many who were surprised that Mill cast doubts on the doctrine of private property, among them former Philosophic Radicals such as Joseph Hume and John Arthur Roebuck. Mill explained that he put forth extreme views to startle his readers and prepare them at least to accept other measures. He subsequently said his proposals “had the effect of making other proposals, up to that time considered extreme, be considered comparatively moderate and practicable.”
Radical as Mill’s views were on land tenure and landed property in Ireland, he rejected the most radical political solution, that of separation. He understood that the Fenians wanted independence and that, regardless of concessions, it might be impossible to divert them from this nationalist goal. Yet he had recently written in Representative Government that the Irish and Anglo-Saxon races were “perhaps the most fitted of any two in the world to be the completing counterpart of one another.” When in 1868 he considered the relation between the two countries, he concluded that Irish independence would be bad for Ireland and dishonourable to England (520-1, 523-4, 526). Therefore he ended the pamphlet with a statement of hope that reconciliation was still possible (531-2).
In his discussions of Ireland Mill revealed an intense moral concern as an aspect of his radicalism that was much less evident in what he wrote as a Philosophic Radical, where he generally argued on grounds of consequences and utility. That Ireland engaged his moral feelings is evident in his eloquent statements of sympathy for the Irish—they were the “poorest and the most oppressed people in Europe” (66)—and in his outrage with the causes of this condition: “The social condition of Ireland . . . cannot be tolerated; it is an abomination in the sight of mankind” (503). Mill made it clear that within the rationalist and utilitarian there was indignation, sympathy, and moral passion.