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Source: Editor's introduction to The Collected Works
of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part
I November 1850 - November 1868, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer (Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
Copyright Statement: The online edition of the Collected
Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Introduction by BRUCE L. KINZER
were it not for his Westminster years (1865–68), there would be very little to do in the way of editing or introducing John Stuart Mill’s post-London Debating Society speeches. Mill had an impressive facility for putting thoughts into words, written or spoken, but he recognized that he could usually accomplish much more with his pen than with his tongue. He also understood that formal prose was the only medium capable of doing complete justice to the ideas and arguments he wished to convey to his audience. It can be assumed that Mill felt more comfortable at his desk than on the platform or in the House of Commons. The psychological security offered by his study, however, is not responsible for the marked preference he showed for the written word. Mill’s sense of public duty was such that there would have been a great deal more labour for the editors of these volumes had he been persuaded that his goals could be better advanced through speeches than through essays.
Mill delivered very few public speeches before 1865. Those that he did give were of modest length and ambition; they did not attract much notice at the time and they do not call for special analysis now. From his defeat at the 1868 general election until his death in 1873, Mill was certainly a much more active and prominent speech-maker than he had been prior to the 1865 Westminster campaign. The content and context of that activity constitute a distinctive phase in his life-long experience of political engagement. Even so, the intervening parliamentary career, which established Mill as a highly visible figure in the political world of mid-Victorian England, goes far towards explaining the disparity in quantity and dimensions between the pre-1865 and post-1868 public speeches. Of paramount concern are the origin, character, and significance of that career.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND THE WESTMINSTER YEARS
the temptation exists to dismiss J.S. Mill’s three years in the House of Commons as a relatively insignificant episode in a life distinguished by extraordinarily influential writings on virtually every subject central to the intellectual discourse of his age. Whereas the Autobiography has induced a literature of impressive proportions on Mill’s education, his mental crisis, and his association with Harriet Taylor, nothing like commensurate attention has been paid to the section of this peculiar work that discusses his years in the House of Commons. Such neglect is not the result of the brevity of the treatment he provides. The account of the 1865 to 1868 period of his life, an account that concentrates heavily on his experiences as a candidate and Member of Parliament, constitutes over a tenth of the entire Autobiography (eighteen printed pages are given to these four years—approximately two-thirds of the space allocated to the preceding quarter-century). It is not how much Mill says but what he says and how he says it that has made scholars generally indifferent to Mill’s portrayal of his parliamentary career. Although a conception of purpose with regard to his political objectives imparts a focus and a measure of unity to the parliamentary paragraphs, their content lacks the personal dimension so singularly displayed in the early chapters. The cumulative effect of the self-satisfied detachment with which Mill describes his support of parliamentary reform and purity of election, women’s suffrage and personal representation, justice for Ireland and no less for Jamaica, can produce mild irritation, unrelieved by anything twentieth-century readers are disposed to find absorbing or provocative.
The formality and flatness of tone characteristic of Mill’s consideration of these years cannot be attributed to temporal distance. Written less than two years after his defeat at the November 1868 general election, the exposition of the Westminster period drew upon eminently fresh recollections. The distance is rather psychological and rhetorical, serving an argumentative function that is not without paradox. The final portion of the Autobiography embraces an explanation and justification of his political conduct between 1865 and 1868. If the need to explain and justify is responsible for the disproportionate length of the account, that need itself is a consequence of his failure to secure re-election in 1868. Mill patiently builds up his case, making it abundantly clear, if only by implication, that while he lost nothing of substance at the 1868 general election, the electors of Westminster denied themselves the opportunity of being represented by one whose integrity, intellectual weight, and moral authority did honour to his constituents and his country.
An intellectual and moralist in politics? So much can be taken for granted. But the real interest of his parliamentary career lies in its illumination of Mill as politician. The ultimate objectives invariably involved a commitment to the “improvement” or “regeneration” of mankind. His head might be in the air, but Mill always saw himself as a man whose feet were firmly planted on the ground. The successful moralist had to be an able tactician. Mill’s labours, whether in or out of the House of Commons, always assumed a form consistent with his understanding of the obligation to marry theory and practice. His grasp of political realities may have sometimes been deficient; his sense of politics as “the art of the possible” remained a constant.
Whatever doubts Mill had respecting the advisability of his entering the House of Commons, they did not spring from an apprehension of personal unfitness. A passage in the Autobiography remote from the parliamentary section makes explicit Mill’s supreme confidence in his capacities as a practical man of business. Evaluating the benefits he gained from his long service in the East India Company, Mill observes:
as a Secretary conducting political correspondence, I could not issue an order or express an opinion, without satisfying various persons very unlike myself, that the thing was fit to be done. I was thus in a good position for finding out by practice the mode of putting a thought which gives it easiest admittance into minds not prepared for it by habit; while I became practically conversant with the difficulties of moving bodies of men, the necessities of compromise, the art of sacrificing the non-essential to preserve the essential. I learnt how to obtain the best I could, when I could not obtain everything; instead of being indignant or dispirited because I could not have entirely my own way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have the smallest part of it; and when even that could not be, to bear with complete equanimity the being overruled altogether. I have found, through life, these acquisitions to be of the greatest possible importance for personal happiness, and they are also a very necessary condition for enabling any one, either as theorist or as practical man, to effect the greatest amount of good compatible with his opportunities.
A disadvantage of his position at India House, however, was that it excluded him “from Parliament, and public life,” an exclusion to which he “was not indifferent.”
Mill never questioned his ability to function effectively in the House of Commons. Although there are very good reasons for viewing the nineteenth-century House as a unique institution with distinctive traditions, conventions, and assumptions that had to be learned and understood before a member could feel at home there, Mill in 1865 never considered the possibility that his full acceptance and recognition would require a period of apprenticeship. He not only entered the House as an established public figure; he also, as his remarks indicate, had a consciousness of himself as a mature and experienced politician. Servant of the East India Company from 1823 until its demise as an agency of government in 1858; erstwhile active member of the London Debating Society; political journalist and editor of the Westminster Review in the 1830s; political theorist habitually aware of the need to comprehend contemporary developments and relate them to his analytical objectives—the Mill of the mid-1860s thought he possessed the credentials and qualities necessary to demonstrate what a member of Parliament should be (as opposed to what most members generally were).
MILL’S 1865 CANDIDACY
in march of 1865 Mill received a request from James Beal, representing a Committee organized to serve the Radical interest in Westminster, to allow his name to be put forward as a possible candidate for the general election expected to occur before the year was out. Beal’s association with Mill was not personal. He believed Mill’s name could carry Westminster and sought to use Mill’s presence in the House to advertise the programme of the Metropolitan Municipal Reform Association, founded by Beal in this same year. In Representative Government Mill had criticized both the Corporation of the City of London (“that union of modern jobbery and antiquated foppery”) and the Metropolitan Board of Works, the primary targets of Beal’s reform campaign. Assuming he could be elected, Mill’s sponsorship of the Association’s proposals in the House would boost the visibility of the issue and the organization that worked to publicize it.
In response to Beal’s approach, Mill indicated that he would be willing to stand should a majority of Liberal electors so wish. But he told Beal in no uncertain terms that his would be no ordinary candidacy. Having implied that they were not doing him a favour in offering him the prospect of a seat in Parliament—“All private considerations are against my accepting it”—Mill said that, if elected, he would not undertake to look after the constituency’s “local business” in the House of Commons. He went on to observe that a seat in the House interested him only as a vehicle for the promotion of his opinions. The electors were entitled to know the nature of those opinions but they should have no expectation that he would modify them to conform with their own. At this time, however, Mill probably thought more about the contribution he could make as a candidate than as an M.P. If he did not win the opportunity to exemplify the correct modus operandi of a parliamentarian, he might at least draw attention not only to his substantive views on major questions but also to his prescriptive conception of the electoral process. Mill intimated that because it was not quite right for an individual to “want” to be in Parliament, he would do nothing to assist any committee formed to secure his return.
It is the interest of the constituencies to be served by men who are not aiming at personal objects, either pecuniary, official, or social, but consenting to undertake gratuitously an onerous duty to the public. That such persons should be made to pay for permission to do hard & difficult work for the general advantage, is neither worthy of a free people, nor is it the way to induce the best men to come forward. In my own case, I must even decline to offer myself to the electors in any manner; because, proud as I should be of their suffrages, & though I would endeavour to fulfil to the best of my ability the duty to which they might think fit to elect me, yet I have no wish to quit my present occupations for the H. of C. unless called upon to do so by my fellow-citizens.
Elections should involve the qualifications of the candidates—their principles, opinions, and capabilities. They should not be decided by the longest purse.
Mill was deeply disturbed by what he perceived as the growing influence of money at elections. He informed Beal of his conviction “that there can be no Parliamentary Reform worthy of the name, so long as a seat in Parliament is only attainable by rich men, or by those who have rich men at their back.” A man whose Liberal credentials Mill held suspect, and whose financial resources were considerable, had already entered the field in Westminster. Captain Robert Wellesley Grosvenor, a nephew of the Marquess of Westminster, had declared his intention of seeking to represent the constituency. An inexperienced Liberal barely more than thirty years of age, Grosvenor had little to recommend him but his name and flush connections (usually sufficient recommendations at mid-Victorian elections). That Mill felt a special affinity for the Radical tradition of Westminster can be accepted as a given; that Grosvenor would do less than justice to that tradition few of advanced persuasion could doubt. If Westminster wished to reclaim its status as the fulcrum of English Radicalism, Mill was inclined to assist if asked.
By mid-April the decision had been made—Beal’s electoral Committee wanted Mill to be their candidate. Even before the invitation was issued, Mill had sensed the momentum building in his favour. On 6 April he sanguinely reported to J.E. Cairnes on recent developments:
there is something very encouraging in the enthusiasm which has been excited, both in Westminster and elsewhere, not simply for me, but for the opinion respecting the proper position of a candidate, which I expressed in my letter [to Beal]. . . . The greatest pleasure which public life could give me would be if it enabled me to shew that more can be accomplished by supposing that there is reason and good feeling in the mass of mankind than by proceeding on the ordinary assumption that they are fools and rogues.
Mill could scarcely have been in a more satisfactory position. He had no intention of allowing the campaign to interfere with his Avignon spring. Beal’s Committee had promoted his candidacy and they could now get on with the task of helping Westminster electors prove themselves something other than “fools and rogues.” As a matter of principle Mill would do nothing to help himself. He could best instruct the voters of England in the value of purity of election by refusing to allow the Westminster contest to distract him from his work in Avignon. He planned to return to London in early July to await the judgment of the electorate—a judgment less on his qualifications as a candidate than on the wisdom of the Committee that nominated him and the virtue of the electors to whom that Committee made their appeal.
By the end of April there were three candidates in the field—Grosvenor, Mill, and W.H. Smith. Smith, the son of Victorian England’s most innovative bookseller and now the effective head of the firm, offered himself to the electors as a “Liberal-Conservative.” Tories did not win seats in Westminster, and Smith, while he hoped to win Tory votes, did not come forward as a follower of Lord Derby. He claimed to be “unconnected with either of the great political parties”; he desired to act “as an independent member at liberty to vote for measures rather than for men”; he declared that he would “not be a party to any factious attempt to drive Lord Palmerston from power.” Smith’s aim was to combine the votes of the Conservative minority in Westminster with those of Palmerstonian moderates in sufficient number to outdistance Mill. If the Tories had a candidate in this contest, Smith was it.
What did Mill think of his chances as he passed the month of May in Avignon? He does not seem to have taken Smith very seriously. On 11 May he wrote Edwin Chadwick: “I do not think the Tories expect their man to come in, otherwise some more considerable person would have started in that interest.” Yet at the end of the month he informed Max Kyllman that he thought “it hardly possible” his own candidacy “should succeed,” a view echoed by Helen Taylor two days later in a letter to Kate Amberley. With two seats open and only three candidates, one of whom Mill two weeks earlier had lightly dismissed, it is not easy to see how such pessimism could be justified.
A letter from Chadwick in late May could account for it. Chadwick reported that Mill’s Committee wanted him to return to London to meet with them and the electors. Inasmuch as Mill had given clear indication of his unwillingness to play the part of candidate, the approach through Chadwick did not augur well. Mill, nonetheless, held his ground.
If I were now to attend meetings and make speeches to the electors in the usual . . . manner, it would seem as if there had been no truth in my declaration that I did not personally seek to be in Parliament; as if I had merely been finessing to get myself elected without trouble and expense, and having found more difficulty than I expected, had at last shewn myself in my true colours.
Shortly thereafter Mill’s Committee became increasingly uneasy about the charges of atheism being levelled against Mill by elements of the metropolitan press. The controversy stemmed from a passage in the recently published Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy. Attacking H.L. Mansel’s theology, Mill had stated that he could not worship a God whose goodness could not be comprehended in relation to human morality: “I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.” In the late spring and early summer of 1865 perhaps no passage in print received more attention. Charles Westerton, a prominent member of Mill’s Committee, suggested that he return to England to answer the allegations of irreligion being hurled at him. On 21 June Mill told Westerton that a candidate’s private religious opinions were no business of the electors. As for his published work, he would not disavow anything he had written, but added that the refusal to worship any God “but a good God” did not make him an atheist. He indignantly declined to dignify the charges brought against him by the likes of the Record and Morning Advertiser by issuing a response.
Less than a week later, however, Mill agreed to return early to meet with his Committee and to address the electors of Westminster. He explained to Chadwick that an urgent letter had arrived from Westerton that left him little choice: “it is due to those who have taken so much trouble about me that I should not give them the impression that for my own convenience I expose them to the probable frustration of all their endeavours.” Mill’s Committee had evidently persuaded him that he could win, but not without helping himself. Smith’s candidacy jeopardized Mill’s election because of the strained relations prevailing between the Committees of Grosvenor and Mill. Few doubted that Grosvenor would top the poll when the day was done, and Mill’s Committee feared that in the absence of cooperation between the two Liberal candidates many Whiggish Westminster electors would split their two votes between Grosvenor and Smith, leaving Mill odd man out. The Committee therefore wanted Mill to take up the fight against Smith, and to sanction negotiations with Grosvenor’s Committee.
On 30 June Mill, now back at Blackheath Park, told Westerton that he would not meet with either Grosvenor or Grosvenor’s Committee. But if he would not support cooperation between the two Committees, neither would he forbid it. He insisted that the campaign was theirs, not his, and it was for them to decide how to conduct it. Before the first week of July was out, an arrangement with Grosvenor’s Committee had been concluded. Mill tersely disclosed to Chadwick: “there was nothing for me to do but acquiesce in it.”
Mill’s “acquiescence” in the deal that was cut by the Committees was the product of the same forces that had moved him to become an “active” candidate. His Committee believed that such a course of action was indispensable to the success of their cause. And now that he was in the thick of it, Mill realized that he too wanted that cause to succeed. He felt most comfortable on the high ground, surveying the battle from an elevated vantage point. But a detachment born of disinterest could not be effectively maintained once the struggle had reached a decisive stage. The role of observer had to be abandoned for that of participant, and Mill descended warily into the contested zone. Having done so, he would not veto the negotiations considered necessary to ensure his return to the House of Commons.
THE ELECTION SPEECHES OF 1865
there are several noteworthy features about Mill’s election speeches in July 1865. Not at all surprising is the element of defensiveness in his explanation to his audience of why he had come among them after declaring emphatically that he would not be a candidate in the usual sense. “I was told by those who had good means of judging that many of you desired to know more of me than you have been able to collect from what I have written. Such a statement as that left me no option, for you have a right to know my opinions and to have an opportunity of judging for yourself what man you are to select.” (21.) Mill would not admit to his listeners or to himself that he harboured any ambition to sit in the House of Commons. There is more self-deception than fine calculation or hypocrisy in the way he makes bedfellows of disinterestedness and self-advertisement.
When I stated in my letter [to Beal] that for my own sake I should not desire to sit in Parliament, I meant what I said. I have no personal objects to be promoted by it. It is a great sacrifice of my personal tastes and pursuits, and of that liberty which I value the more because I have only recently acquired it after a life spent in the restraints and confinements of a public office; for, as you may not perhaps know it, and as many people think that a writer of books, like myself, cannot possibly have any practical knowledge of business, it is a fact that I have passed many hours of every day for thirty-five years in the actual business of government.
Characteristically, the interpretation Mill offers of the contest at hand focuses on issues of principle and morality, not personality. If Grosvenor figures in this interpretation at all, it is only by implication. The arrangement made by their respective Committees notwithstanding, Mill could not at this stage recommend Grosvenor to the electors of Westminster. After what had transpired, however, neither could he condemn him. The best Mill could do was ignore Grosvenor and behave as though the choice before the voters was between Smith and himself, each representing diametrically opposed versions of what the electoral process was about. If Westminster’s virtue was for sale, Mill suggested, Smith could meet the price. Emphasizing the symbolic importance of the decision Westminster had to make, Mill urged her electors in flattering terms to demonstrate that they could not be bought, by supporting the candidate who preferred the public to the private interest.
It is no exaggeration to say that all eyes are upon you. Every friend of freedom and purity of election in the country is looking to you with anxious feelings. . . . If you elect me and I should turn out a failure . . . you would have nothing to be ashamed of. You would have acted an honest part and done that which at the time seemed to be best for the public good. Can the same thing be said if you return the candidate of a party against which for a century past Westminster has in the most emphatic manner protested, for his money? If this great constituency should so degrade itself it will not only be the deepest mortification to all who put faith in popular institutions, but Westminster will have fallen from her glory, and she can never hold her head as high as she has done, because the progress of popular institutions, which cannot possibly be stopped, will have to go on in future without her.
Mill repeatedly hammered away in his election speeches at the unwholesome influence of money in the British political system. His rhetoric was often quite unlike that he adopted later in the House of Commons. Although he certainly did not hesitate to express his views frankly and forcefully in parliamentary debates, he for the most part phrased his thoughts with a judiciousness frequently absent from his extra-parliamentary speeches. He may have sometimes misjudged his audiences but he invariably sought to manifest a sensitivity to their character and expectations. On 8 July Mill asked his hearers whether they thought it a good thing that the House of Commons should be the preserve of the rich or (an oblique reference to Grosvenor?) “men with rich connections?” Admitting that the rich showed a paternalistic concern for the poor, Mill nonetheless insisted that their fundamental sympathies lay with their own kind. In language that some would probably have considered inflammatory, inciting bad feeling between the poor and their betters, Mill revealed his capacity for platform oratory. The rich
had almost universally a kind of patronising and protective sympathy for the poor, such as shepherds had for their flocks—only that was conditional upon the flock always behaving like sheep. But if the sheep tried to have a voice in their own affairs, he was afraid that a good many shepherds would be willing to call in the wolves.
That Mill had a certain relish for polemical combat had been evident long before his candidature; but he had no time for polemic for the sake of polemic. Moral purpose always informed his engagement in controversy. He might have welcomed the opportunity to pitch his message at a level somewhat beneath that he thought suitable for the printed page or the House of Commons, but for all that, the moral intent of the message was not blunted. Mill felt very strongly that purity of election was essential to a healthy political order. Something nobler than money should determine the outcome of elections. As he saw it, his candidacy was undertaken to promote the integrity of the electoral process, and he would have been derelict had he not drawn attention to this aspect of his campaign.
Mill did not eschew the philosophical in these election speeches, setting forth with clarity and directness the method of his politics and offering his prospective constituents a line of vision that looked beyond the pressures, constraints, and opportunities of the moment. He would readily confess that good will and altruistic motives in themselves did not make the ideal politician—a realistic grasp of immediate difficulties, limitations, and contingencies was essential to working a representative political system to progressive advantage. In effect Mill argued that the best politician was one who used the possibilities inherent in a particular political context to further ultimate objectives favourable to the public interest.
In the nature of things, however, many could not see what the future required of the present. Even well-intentioned and liberal-minded politicians could all too easily succumb to the demands, details, and routines of day-to-day political life, and conclude that acting upon principle was a luxury they could ill afford. Progress could not result from subordinating principle to practice, but from seeking the maximum good in each specific set of circumstances. Mill laid out the essence of his political method to the electors of Westminster on 5 July in St. James’s Hall.
Believing as I do that society and political institutions are, or ought to be, in a state of progressive advance; that it is the very nature of progress to lead us to recognise as truths what we do not as yet see to be truths; believing also that . . . it is possible to see a certain distance before us, and to be able to distinguish beforehand some of these truths of the future, and to assist others to see them—I certainly think there are truths which the time has now arrived for proclaiming, although the time may not yet have arrived for carrying them into effect. That is what I mean by advanced Liberalism. But does it follow that, because a man sees something of the future, he is incapable of judging of the past? . . . I venture to reverse the proposition. The only persons who can judge for the present . . . are those who include to-morrow in their deliberations. We can see the direction in which things are tending, and which of those tendencies we are to encourage and which to resist. . . . But while I would refuse to suppress one iota of the opinions I consider best, I confess I would not object to accept any reasonable compromise which would give me even a little of that of which I hope in time to obtain the whole.
One could compromise one’s principles or one could compromise in the interest of one’s principles. While in the House of Commons Mill would strive to avoid the former and pursue willingly the latter, which he deemed both honourable and wise.
Of course the impact of Mill’s appearances on the results of the Westminster contest cannot be known. It is safe to say they did him no harm. On polling day, 12 July, only nine votes separated Mill and Grosvenor (the latter headed the poll with 4,534 votes), while Smith trailed by seven hundred. In his speech following the declaration of the poll, Mill retroactively gave his imprimatur to the compact that encouraged Liberal electors to support both Mill and Grosvenor rather than plump for either or split their votes between Grosvenor and Smith. Mill approvingly observed that the electors of Westminster had “shown that whatever differences of opinion may exist amongst the several shades of Liberals, whatever severe criticisms they may occasionally make on each other, they are ready to help and co-operate with one another when the time of need arrives” (45). Part of the politician’s art is to make a virtue of necessity.
Yet it may be that cooperation with Grosvenor was not vital to Mill’s victory. It had been some time since Westminster had had an opportunity to put its mark on a general election. It did so in 1865 by electing Mill; it did so in 1868 by defeating him. A month before polling day in the first election Lord Russell had written to Amberley: “I expect Mill to come in for Westminster, & tho’ I am far from agreeing with him, I think he is too distinguished a man to be rejected.” Mill’s triumph did not reflect any deep personal commitment to him among the mass of Westminster electors. Bagehot remarked on Mill’s success in The English Constitution: “what did the electors of Westminster know of Mr. Mill? What fraction of his mind could be imagined by any percentage of their minds? They meant to do homage to mental ability, but it was the worship of an unknown god—if ever there was such a thing in the world.”
MILL AND PARTY
the mill elected by Westminster in 1865 represented no identifiable group, interest, or party in England. He could fairly be described as a Radical or advanced Liberal, but he occupied an unequivocally independent and highly personal position within the spectrum of left-wing liberalism. The weight of his established intellectual and moral authority had been employed to promote certain principles and propositions, not to further the political interests or ambitions of a particular set of men who defined their aims in relation to institutional party objectives: Mill did not lack the rudimentary elements of a theory of party, nor was he opposed to organized cooperation among men pursuing common goals (his chairmanship of the Jamaica Committee and, later, of the Land Tenure Reform Association come immediately to mind). Although he generally preferred Liberals to Tories, Mill did not find much to choose between Palmerston and Derby, and the divisions within Radical ranks were such as to render impossible an affiliation with any specific segment of advanced opinion.
The peculiar character of Mill’s radicalism was highlighted by Bagehot in the latter’s Economist article of 29 April, 1865. Mill’s letter of 17 April to Beal, outlining his position on some of the major issues of the day, was intended for publication (it appeared in the Daily News, Morning Advertiser, and The Times on 21 April). This letter served as Mill’s election address, which Bagehot considered “one of the most remarkable . . . ever delivered by any candidate to any constituency,—especially in respect to the qualities of honesty, simplicity, and courage.” According to Bagehot, Mill’s radicalism, grounded in “a thorough logical capacity, unflinching integrity of purpose, and a profound knowledge of the facts and principles involved,” amounted to a shattering indictment of the creed of the advanced wing of the Liberal party. Bagehot proceeded to cite the opinions expressed by Mill in his letter to Beal and to contrast them with the views of the “Radicals” on the subjects concerned. He observed that the Radicals want the ballot whereas Mill does not; the Radicals want government revenues to be drawn exclusively from direct taxation whereas Mill prefers a mixture of direct and indirect taxes; the Radicals stand for a foreign policy based on the principle of non-intervention whereas Mill asserts that there are circumstances in which English intervention on behalf of freedom abroad may be justified; the Radicals recommend drastic reductions in military expenditure whereas Mill favours only those economies that will in no respect weaken England’s capacity to defend her national interests in the face of aggressive and potentially hostile European despotisms; the Radicals urge abolition of purchase in the army whereas Mill cautions that thought must be given to ensure that the cure for the disease not be more damaging than the disease itself; the Radicals call for the complete abolition of flogging whereas Mill thinks it an appropriate punishment for certain crimes; the Radicals strongly oppose whereas Mill ardently supports the representation of minorities.
Bagehot is using Mill to slam the radicalism of Bright and the Manchester School. In doing so he occasionally distorts the content of Mill’s letter. Mill’s preference for a combination of direct and indirect taxation is qualified by his assertion that taxes should not be placed on “the necessaries of life.” From Bagehot’s discussion of Mill’s views on purchase in the army one would not infer Mill’s confidence that a satisfactory means could be devised for terminating “the monopoly by certain classes of the posts of emolument.” To flogging Mill is “entirely opposed . . . except for crimes of brutality.” Yet Mill would have no wish to deny Bagehot’s basic contention: his radicalism was not Bright’s. Apart from their differences on specific issues, there is evidence to show that Mill regarded Bright as a demagogue who represented an inferior brand of radicalism from which Mill desired to distance himself.
How can this depiction of Mill as an independent agent in 1865, a depiction that in the Autobiography he by implication extends to his entire parliamentary career, be squared with John Vincent’s treatment of Mill as “a good party man in Parliament”? By “a good party man” Vincent means an admirer and supporter of Gladstone. When Mill took his seat in February of 1866 the House of Commons was led not by Palmerston, who had died the previous autumn, but by Gladstone, who together with Russell headed a Liberal government pledged to introduce a reform bill. In Palmerston’s hand had lain the key to both the stability and sterility of the politics of the early 1860s, and he held it firmly in his grasp to the very end, knowing there was no one to whom he could safely pass it on. Gladstone and Palmerston had been at odds before and after the former accepted the Chancellorship of the Exchequer in the Liberal administration formed in 1859. By comparison with Palmerston, Gladstone, notwithstanding his Tory antecedents and instincts, represented the politics of movement. Palmerston’s departure dramatically transformed the political context within which Mill found himself. Many whose liberalism was so moderate as to verge on the nominal had comfortably followed Palmerston. These could not help but be uneasy at the prospect of a government subject to the pre-eminent influence of a man thought by more than a few to be constitutionally (in both senses of the word) unsound. The Conservatives, relegated to minority status since the split over the Corn Laws, would now prepare to exploit the fissures opening in Liberal ranks. Their animus against Gladstone was vehement. That Mill should be drawn to a politician of Gladstone’s intellectual stature and great abilities with enemies such as these is no great mystery. The vulnerability of the Russell-Gladstone government led Mill to limit his independence. For much of the eighteen months following the resignation of Russell and Gladstone in June 1866, the latter’s leadership of the party was not secure. On those issues Gladstone chose to stake his authority on, Mill circumspectly avoided action that might weaken Gladstone’s position.
Vincent therefore is not wrong to see Mill as “a good party man,” but he may be misleading. Mill could back Gladstone and yet retain a good deal of independence. On a whole range of subjects upon which Mill felt strongly—Jamaica, women’s suffrage, proportional representation, metropolitan government—he could not look to Gladstone to take the lead. But because these were not “party” questions, in striking an independent line on them Mill in no way jeopardized Gladstone’s leadership. The character of the House of Commons and the party system of the 1860s gave Mill scope to exercise a marked degree of autonomy. The initiatives he took, many of which had no chance of attracting Gladstone’s endorsement, were often on subjects that fell outside the sphere of party questions as defined by the political world Mill had entered in February of 1866.
Mill has various things to say about his mission in the House of Commons. In the Autobiography he emphasizes an independent strategy based on the premise that he should concentrate on doing what others would not or could not do so well. He was less interested in parliamentary influence for himself than in gaining exposure for views that would remain unexpressed were it not for his presence. An element of isolation was inherent in his approach. He often found himself taking up subjects “on which the bulk of the Liberal party, even the advanced portion of it, either were of a different opinion from mine, or were comparatively indifferent.” Mill suggests that he chose a role that required more courage than most of his Radical colleagues could muster. His duty was “to come to the front in defence of advanced Liberalism on occasions when the obloquy to be encountered was such as most of the advanced Liberals in the House, preferred not to incur.”
Associated with this role was a larger ambition: the construction of an advanced Liberal party, which, he told Theodor Gomperz, could not be done “except in the House of Commons.” Mill had to use his opportunity to show Liberals in the House and in the country that his brand of liberalism could practically contribute to the formation of a Gladstone-led party built on a foundation of sound Radical doctrine. In essence, Mill saw himself as a shaper of future public and party opinion. He explained to a correspondent, in language rather more grandiose than he employed in the Autobiography: “I look upon the House of Commons not as a place where important practical improvements can be effected by anything I can do there, but as an elevated Tribune or Chair from which to preach larger ideas than can at present be realised.” Hence Mill’s objectives in the House were much like those in his political writings. They were educative in nature. He had moved into a new forum in the hope that he could reach more people more effectively than he had hitherto.
There is no reason to question the sincerity of Mill’s statements about purpose. Yet they convey a conception of his part in the parliamentary history of these years that is altogether too static and abstract. No politician in this Parliament functioned within a fixed political context. The major players—Russell, Gladstone, Derby, Disraeli, Bright—had a good deal to do with what Parliament would or would not do, but even they could not control the ebb and flow of political currents that swept through the House of Commons in 1866–67. On many important questions Mill became enmeshed in a web not of his own making. He might be able to affect the web’s configuration but he could not alter its constitution in any fundamental way. He could exercise no influence whatsoever if he pretended that the web had nothing to do with him. His handling of the overwhelmingly dominant issue of parliamentary reform reveals him working those strands that seemed to him most promising.
mill had an agenda of reform but it was not his agenda that counted. He might want adult suffrage limited only by a literacy qualification, and a redistribution modelled at least in part on Thomas Hare’s scheme of personal representation. But only a government bill could pass through Parliament and Mill would not be one of its draughtsmen.
The 1866 Bill of record would be the work of Russell and Gladstone. Mill cared much about the content of a reform measure but in 1866 he cared more about supporting Gladstone. In February of 1865, five months before his triumph at Westminster and eight months before Palmerston’s death, Mill told Max Kyllman, “no Reform Bill which we are likely to see for some time to come, will be worth moving hand or foot for.” By the end of the year he had come to view the matter rather differently, admitting to Chadwick,
The whole of our laws of election from top to bottom require to be reconstructed on new principles: but to get those principles into people’s heads is work for many years, and they will not wait that time for the next step in reform. . . . And perhaps some measure of reform is as likely to promote as to delay other improvements in the representative system.
Mill had not changed his ideas concerning what should go into a reform bill. Nor did he expect that any bill emerging from the deliberations of the Liberal government would remotely resemble what he wanted. But Mill was now member for Westminster; Palmerston was dead; Russell and Gladstone had left no doubt that parliamentary reform would be the centrepiece of their 1866 legislative programme. Where Gladstone led on this critical party question, Mill would follow.
A comparison of a letter Mill wrote to Hare in January of 1866 with his response to Gladstone’s Reform Bill shows the extent to which he had chained himself to Gladstone’s slow-moving chariot. To Hare Mill expatiated on the dangers a bill confined to franchise extension presented to their position. The proposal and passage of such a bill, Mill argued, would exclude the subject of personal representation from the sphere of parliamentary discussion. Once a reform bill had been enacted “the whole subject of changes in the representation will be tabooed for years to come.” (Chadwick, after receiving Mill’s letter of December 1865, would presumably not have attributed such an opinion to his friend.) Mill did not expect the Liberal government to offer a measure that incorporated the views he and Hare held, but he did hope the bill would be sufficiently broad in scope to justify raising the issues that he wanted to air in the House of Commons.
The Bill Gladstone introduced on 12 March provided for a reduction in the borough household qualification from £10 to £7 and for a county occupation franchise of £14. It was a franchise bill and nothing more. Had it passed, working-class voters would have constituted approximately a quarter of the total electorate of England and Wales (a doubling of working-class electoral weight). The Tories were not inclined to mount a frontal assault on the measure. They were more than happy to let Robert Lowe and the band of Liberal renegades hostile to parliamentary reform, whom Bright referred to as the “Adullamites,” make the running. Although the bulk of Mill’s fine 13 April speech (No. 16) focused on the need for working-class enfranchisement, the occasion for it was a motion tabled by Lord Grosvenor (an Adullamite) and seconded by Lord Stanley (a Conservative for whom Mill had considerable regard) that called for postponement of the Bill’s second reading until a redistribution package had been presented. Mill, knowing that the Adullamites and their Tory sympathizers wanted to wreck the Bill, apprehended that from such a wreckage Gladstone would not emerge without serious injury. That Mill must have agreed with the substance of Grosvenor’s motion did not move him to support it. The preface to his elegant argument on behalf of parliamentary reform was devoted to a defence of the ministry’s exclusive concentration on the franchise. Mill insisted that the Bill, though “far more moderate than is desired by the majority of reformers,” significantly enlarged working-class electoral power and was therefore “not only a valuable part of a scheme of Parliamentary Reform, but highly valuable even if nothing else were to follow” (60–1).
The government and its Bill survived for another two months. On 18 June Lord Dunkellin’s amendment to substitute a rating for a rental franchise in the boroughs was carried against the ministry by a vote of 315 to 304. A week later the Russell-Gladstone government resigned. Throughout their difficulties over the reform question, Mill had steadfastly adhered to the Gladstonian line.
Mill’s behaviour should not be attributed to servility. He knew what he was doing and why he was doing it. He admired Gladstone and cast him as the future leader of a radicalized Liberal party. That radicalization could occur only in conjunction with a marked increase of working-class political power. Mill had grave misgivings about class power of any sort and did not advocate working-class political ascendancy. The enormous appeal Hare’s scheme had for Mill lay partly in its capacity to promote both democratic political participation and meritocratic, government. Aristocratic and middle-class prejudices retarded social and political improvement. A sizeable injection of working-class influence was required to achieve the accelerated rate of progress Mill wished to foster. He sensed the growth of working-class activism, as manifested in the Reform League, and put this together with Gladstonian leadership and franchise extension to come up with a new and better political order. In January of 1866 he told H.S. Chapman,
English statesmanship will have to assume a new character, and to look in a more direct way than before to the interests of posterity. We are now . . . standing on the very boundary line between this new statesmanship and the old; and the next generation will be accustomed to a very different set of political arguments and topics from those of the present and past.
In 1866 and 1867 Mill was prepared to serve as a bridge between Gladstonian parliamentary Liberalism and working-class political agitation. There were other bridges (Bright was unquestionably the most important). But Mill’s conduct inside and outside the House of Commons in relation to both Gladstone’s position and the aspirations of the politically conscious members of the working classes resonates with an acute sensitivity to new forces at work and their potential for constructive political engagement.
The resignation of Russell and Gladstone was followed by the formation of a minority Conservative government under Derby and Disraeli. The public agitation for parliamentary reform, led by the Manchester based middle-class dominated Reform Union and the metropolitan based artisan dominated Reform League, heated up in response. The Reform League, eager to impress upon the new government the earnestness of the working classes on the question of the franchise, announced their sponsorship of a mass public demonstration to be held in Hyde Park on 23 July. The right to hold public meetings had been one of the issues galvanizing those reponsible for organizing the Reform League. The view of the Derby ministry, one supported by Sir George Grey, Home Secretary in previous Liberal administrations, was that Royal Parks were not appropriate locations for public meetings, and that such gatherings were prohibited by law. The Tory Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, authorized Sir Richard Mayne, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, to issue an order forbidding the meeting. At about 6 p.m. on 23 July the Leaguers, led by their President, Edmond Beales, arrived at the locked gates of Hyde Park and were confronted by a police barricade. Beales did not mind the government’s thinking he carried the match that could ignite an agitation of truly dangerous proportions, but he had no intention of striking that match. On being informed that the demonstrators would not be admitted to the Park, Beales led his forces off to Trafalgar Square. The confusion arising from the shift, aggravated by the turbulence of a crowd that apparently included more than a few ruffians out for a bit of fun, resulted in the felling of the Park railings. Three days of commotion in Hyde Park ensued. Damage to the grounds was fairly extensive and some two hundred people were injured.
In his speech of 24 July, given while the tumult was still in progress, Mill laid responsibility at the government’s door. In attempting to enforce an exclusion for which there could be no justification, the ministry had precipitated the disturbance and heightened bad feeling between the governing classes and the masses. “Noble Lords and right honourable Gentlemen opposite may be congratulated on having done a job of work last night which will require wiser men than they are, many years to efface the consequences of” (100).
Under the circumstances, Mill’s speech, delivered in a House many of whose members felt they had good cause to be alarmed at the recent turn of events, was remarkably bold. Disraeli, cognizant that Mill’s opinions on this matter were shared by few M.P.s on either side of the House, rose when Mill resumed his seat, and opened with an observation designed to accentuate Mill’s isolation: “I take it for granted . . . that the speech we have just heard is one of those intended to be delivered in Hyde Park, and if I may judge from it as a sample, we can gather a very good idea of the rhetoric which will prevail at those periodical meetings we are promised.” In a masterful brief speech calculated to highlight the contrast between the responsible conduct of ministers of the crown and the irresponsible language of the member for Westminster, Disraeli rejected Mill’s imputations. He denied that the government was opposed to working-class political meetings, but declared that these should be held “at the proper time and place.” The 23rd of July at Hyde Park, Disraeli implied, was neither, as the “riot, tumult, and disturbance” unleashed by the League’s initiative unhappily demonstrated.
Mill devotes more than a page of the Autobiography to the curious and rather enigmatic aftermath of the Hyde Park riots. A trace of bitterness enters into his account of the part he played in dissuading the League from endeavouring to hold a meeting in Hyde Park on 31 July in defiance of the government. Mill thought it highly probable that serious violence would erupt from such a confrontation and that nothing good could come of it. Having successfully made his case, he agreed to address a League meeting at the Agricultural Hall on the 30th (No. 32). He believed that he had been “the means of preventing much mischief.” His bitterness was directed not against the League but against certain elements of the metropolitan press that had accused him of being “intemperate and passionate.” “I do not know,” he said, “what they expected from me; but they had reason to be thankful to me if they knew from what I had in all probability preserved them. And I do not believe it could have been done, at that particular juncture, by any one else.”
The object of reviewing this well-known episode is not to assess the accuracy of Mill’s claims. Evelyn L. Pugh, after a searching and sympathetic enquiry into Mill’s connection with the Hyde Park affair, concedes that there is no evidence to corroborate Mill’s assessment of his effectiveness. What Mill reported no doubt did occur, but his interpretation perhaps assigns too much weight to his intervention. Whatever the practical import of Mill’s involvement with the League in late July of 1866, the whole business usefully illuminates the purposeful intent that fashioned his response to the reform crisis of 1866–67.
The political coin minted by Mill in answer to the franchise question had Gladstone on one side and the working classes on the other. Through Gladstone the working classes could be integrated into the political process. The mode of achieving this objective could also contribute to a transformation of the Liberal party into an effective instrument of social and political reform. But for Gladstone to keep in the air a sufficient number of balls to secure his ascendancy over other ambitious jugglers, he had to put a respectable distance between himself and the radicalism of the Reform League. To some degree both Bright and Mill consciously acted as Gladstone’s surrogates.
Not too much should be made of Mill’s refusal to join the Reform League. Considering the strong exception he took to its programme of manhood (rather than adult) suffrage and the ballot, his identification with its struggle is impressive. In declining the invitation to join the League, Mill observed that “the general promotion of the Reform cause is the main point at present, and . . . advanced reformers, without suppressing their opinions on the points on which they may still differ, should act together as one man in the common cause.” Not only did Mill defend the League in the Commons on the Hyde Park question, but he sent a £5 donation to assist those arrested by the police on 23 July. In February of 1867 he participated in a deputation whose purpose was to persuade Walpole to appoint a working man to the Royal Commission on Trades Unions. In the summer of 1867 Mill subscribed to a Reform League fund established to organize the newly enfranchised electors on behalf of advanced Liberalism. The League also had cause to appreciate Mill’s role in the successful fight to stop the 1867 Parks Bill from getting through the House of Commons.
In late July of 1866, in urging caution on the League, Mill had drawn on some of the moral and political capital he had invested in the working-class movement. He had done what he could to prevent violence and to ease the war of nerves between the authorities and the agitators. Mill asserted himself not merely for the sake of peace. Indeed, he had no desire to moderate the conflict between the government and the League; rather, he sought to enclose the League’s expression of that conflict within bounds prescribed by the need to build and sustain an unofficial and necessarily unacknowledged alliance between Gladstone and the working-class reform movement.
The same concern prompted Mill to call upon the League to exercise self-restraint in early 1867. At a League-organized conference of late February, delegates representing the League and the trades unions passed a resolution threatening that, in the event of governmental resistance to working-class enfranchisement, it would “be necessary to consider the propriety of those classes adopting a universal cessation from labour until their political rights are conceded.” The Morning Star reported that the speeches given at the meeting were demagogic. On reading this report Mill wrote to William Randal Cremer, a leading figure in trades union and radical political circles, protesting against the extreme rhetoric employed on the occasion. Mill argued that any reform bill acceptable to Parliament would in the nature of things have to be a compromise. Violent language hinting at “revolutionary expedients” should not be indulged in by those leading the agitation. The conditions that might justify revolution, Mill unequivocally stated, did not exist in England. He did not deny that League members had been given “ample provocation and abundant excuse” for their “feelings of irritation.” To allow such irritation to rob them of their sense of proportion, however, was likely to harm the cause of reform. Especially arousing Mill’s displeasure was the message carried in the speeches of “a determined rejection beforehand of all compromise on the Reform question, even if proposed by the public men in whose sincerity & zeal as reformers you have repeatedly expressed the fullest confidence.” Mill feared that the rather tenuous line joining Gladstone to the working-class reform movement was beginning to fragment. The course pursued by Derby and Disraeli in 1867 further jeopardized the enterprise to which Mill had committed himself.
The parliamentary struggle over the details of the Conservative Reform Bill centred on the borough householders and their payment of rates. Derby and Disraeli offered borough household suffrage, subject to the stipulation that only householders who paid their rates directly should be eligible for the franchise. In 171 boroughs the composition of rates, whereby the local authorities compounded with the landlords for the payment of the occupier’s rates, had proved a highly convenient mechanism. These compound householders, whose names did not appear on the rating book, would be excluded from the vote under clause 3 of the Tory Bill. Disraeli would show himself to be infinitely flexible in committee but he rigidly maintained that on the principle of ratepaying the Bill would stand or fall.
Gladstone was appalled by what he took to be the dishonest and fraudulent character of the Bill. Early in the debate on clause 3 he moved to eliminate for electoral purposes the distinction between direct ratepayers and compounders. Gladstone held no brief for household suffrage “pure and simple.” His humiliating setback of the previous session doubtless very much with him, Gladstone was now ready to put his strength to the test in opposition to the aspect of the Tory Bill that he thought most unacceptable. The outcome he looked for was a defeat of the government and settlement of the question on terms that satisfied his own preferences. But his reach exceeded his grasp. In the division of 12 April forty-seven Liberals, a number of Radicals among them, rejected Gladstone’s leadership and the amendment went down by a vote of 310 to 289. Suspecting that, although he would do no business with Gladstone, Disraeli would find it necessary to do business with them, these Radicals put the survival of the Bill before a parliamentary victory for Gladstone. In his diary Gladstone recorded: “A smash perhaps without example.” Mill voted with the minority.
Mill’s sole major speech on the ratepaying issue was delivered in the debate that saw Gladstone empty his barrels in a final attempt to wound the measure fatally. On 6 May Disraeli informed the House that the government could not accept the amendment of J.T. Hibbert, Radical M.P. for Oldham, that would allow compounders who wished to opt out of composition to pay a reduced rate. Instead, he indicated, the government would offer an amendment providing that the full rate would have to be paid by those opting out of composition, but that amount could be deducted from the rent received by their landlords. If defeated on the amendment, Disraeli announced, the government would dissolve. Gladstone took up the challenge and advised the House to reject Disraeli’s amendment. That advice was not heeded by fifty-eight Liberals who voted with the government, which sailed through the division with a majority of sixty-six.
A correct deciphering of Mill’s speech of 9 May hinges on an understanding of what was at stake in this debate. The Tory Bill had sent tremors through Liberal ranks, as Derby and Disraeli had intended that it should. Mill vehemently criticized Disraeli for politicizing the ratepaying issue and sponsoring an amendment calculated to increase electoral corruption. But Mill’s words were directed less at the government than at the Radicals. “I hope that honourable Gentlemen on this side of the House, who, loving household suffrage not wisely but too well, have brought matters to this state, intend to come down handsomely to the registration societies in their own neighbourhoods; for the registration societies are destined henceforth to be one of the great institutions of the country” (147). Shortly thereafter Mill warned those Radicals who had shown a tendency to act on the supposition that more of what they wanted could be had from Disraeli than from Gladstone that they would pay a heavy price at the polls (monetarily and politically) for their determination “to outwit the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and make his Bill bring forth pure and simple household suffrage, contrary to the intentions of everybody except themselves who will vote for it” (147).
These sentiments did not originate in a conviction that household suffrage was a bad idea. Mill wanted his free-wheeling Radical colleagues to realize they were gambling on getting a form of household suffrage they could live with. More importantly, he wanted them to understand that purchasing any bill of goods from Disraeli at Gladstone’s political expense could severely damage the prospects for the formation of an effective advanced Liberal party.
Disraeli had managed to put Gladstone on the defensive. The stepped-up pace of the agitation out of doors may for a time have had a similar effect. In 1866 the leaders of the League might have thought a £7 franchise bill from Gladstone preferable to anything the Tories were likely to offer. By April of 1867 they could not be so sure. Frances Gillespie notes that in this month the League “utterly denounced” Gladstone’s proposal of a £5 rating franchise. On 6 May the League defied the government and held a demonstration in Hyde Park. Feelings were running high inside and outside the House. Gladstone could make no overt move towards the League. Mill had to take up ground distinct from that occupied by the League while doing everything possible to convince its supporters that Gladstone was the man to whom they must turn for leadership.
Gladstone made that task somewhat easier after the defeat of 9 May. His “reaction to this second defeat,” Cowling observes, “was to abandon the £5 rating line altogether . . . and to deliver a sarcastic address to the Reform Union on 11 May in which he attacked the Adullamite Whigs for the first time in public . . . and went as near as a responsible politician could to committing himself as soon as he returned to office to reject the personal payment principle.”
On 17 May Disraeli made his stunning announcement to the House that the government intended to accept the principle of Grosvenor Hodgkinson’s amendment for the abolition of compounding. The amendment was not incompatible with Disraeli’s insistence on retaining the ratepaying principle, but its acceptance swept away the restrictive effects of the Bill’s distinction between direct ratepayers and compounders. The fuss that ensued, in which Mill took part (see Nos. 54, 58, 59), focused on the procedure by which the abolition of compounding was to be implemented.
Disraeli’s bravura performance on 17 May obviated Radical obstruction and ensured the passage of the Bill. Once again he had caught Gladstone off guard and made it appear that the House could carry on very well without Gladstone’s assistance. In his speech to a London meeting of the Reform Union on 25 May, Mill tried to counteract this impression by emphasizing who had done what for whom in 1866 and 1867. He complained of the government’s unfair treatment of the compounder and suggested that Disraeli had been consistent only in his unwillingness to play straight.
This is very like all that has been going on ever since the beginning of these reform discussions. It has been a succession—I will not say of tricks, because I do not like to use hard words, especially when I cannot prove them, but of what is called in the vernacular, trying it on. The object is just to see what you will bear, and anything that you will bear you shall have to bear, but if you show that you will not bear it, then perhaps it may not be required of you.
No better could perhaps be expected of Disraeli; but Mill thought it vital that he not be rewarded for a technique designed to conceal the identity of the real author of reform. Reformers should have no patience for the leader of the House of Commons
when he gibes at those to whom we really owe all this, when he . . . talks of their “blundering hands,” and gives it to be understood that they have not been able to carry reform and he can, and that it is not their measure. He is quite satisfied if he can say to Mr. Gladstone, “You did not do it.” But Mr. Gladstone did do it. He could not carry his measure last year because Mr. Disraeli and his friends opposed it; Mr. Disraeli can carry his Reform Bill because Mr. Gladstone will not oppose anything but that which is not real reform, and will support to the utmost that which is. I have no objection to thank everybody for their part in it when once we have got it, but I will always thank most those to whom we really owe it. The people of England know that but for the late government this government would have gone one hundred miles out of their way before they would have brought in any Reform Bill at all. And every good thing we have got in this bill, even that which seems to be more than Mr. Gladstone was prepared to give, has only been given for the purpose of outbidding Mr. Gladstone.
Ideas and ideals were central to Mill’s liberalism, but politics was an indispensable medium for their having practical effect. The Liberal party was important to Mill for what it could become. Its development in a direction consonant with his objectives required, he believed, both a leadership dominated by Gladstone and an active influential rank and file with a strong working-class contingent. His response to the reform crisis of 1866–67 followed from this conviction.
Mill, disappointed by the fortunes of radicalism at the 1868 general election, gave scant indication in the Autobiography of the motives that governed his general political disposition in 1867. There he writes not of party political purposes but of independent advocacy of fundamental principles concerning women’s suffrage and the representation of minorities. “In the general debates on Mr. Disraeli’s Reform Bill, my participation was limited to the one speech [on 9 May] already mentioned; but I made the Bill an occasion for bringing the two greatest improvements which remain to be made in representative government formally before the House and the nation.” Mill invariably stressed the non-party character of these initiatives, but the “occasion” for bringing them forward was coloured by party considerations. On 7 June 1866, he presented to the House a women’s suffrage petition signed by 1521 women. He also gave notice of a motion for a return of the number of women who met the existing property qualifications but were barred from the vote by reason of their sex. Mill had no intention of pressing the issue beyond this point in the 1866 session, explaining to a fellow M.P. (C.D. Griffith) that “there is no chance that we can succeed in getting a clause for admitting women to the suffrage introduced with the present Reform Bill.” The object was “merely to open the subject this year, without taking up the time of the House and increasing the accusation of obstructiveness by forcing on a discussion which cannot lead to a practical result.” Had the Reform Bill of 1866 carried it is possible that Mill would never have proposed the enfranchisement of women in the House of Commons (“perhaps the only really important public service I performed in the capacity of a Member of Parliament”). Much the same can be said of the personal representation amendment. In November of 1866 Mill wrote to Hare:
There will, in all probability, be a Tory Reform Bill, and whatever may be its quality, no moving of amendments or raising of new points will in the case of a Tory bill be regarded by Liberals as obstructiveness, or as damaging to the cause. Then will be the very time to bring forward and get discussed, everything which we think ought to be put into a good Reform Bill.
JAMAICA AND IRELAND
no one was obliged to treat seriously Mill’s views on women’s suffrage and personal representation. Those who disliked such opinions could regard their propagation as foolish but not as dangerous. For the trouble he took on these matters he may have attracted the admiration of some, the derision of others. Few politicians would care to have the measure of their power taken by reference to either the esteem they inspire or the ridicule they provoke. Whatever political power Mill commanded was inseparable from the intellectual and moral authority he could bring to bear on issues that the governing classes could not easily shrug off. Jamaica and Ireland were such issues, and the high moral line Mill adopted on both is well known. But his course of action on these questions too was not unaffected by his sensitivity to party and personal struggles, and to their possible implications for the future of Gladstone and the Liberal party.
On no subject that he addressed during his Westminster years did Mill feel more strongly than that of the conduct of Governor Eyre and the Jamaican authorities in October of 1865, following the uprising at Morant Bay. The intensity of Mill’s reaction to the reports from Jamaica and his assumption that consideration of Eyre’s behaviour did not lie beyond the parliamentary pale were evident as early as December, when he wrote to a correspondent: “There seems likely to be enough doing in Parliament, this session, to occupy all one’s thoughts. There is no part of it all, not even the Reform Bill, more important than the duty of dealing justly with the abominations committed in Jamaica.”
When Mill took his seat in February the Royal Commission appointed to investigate the Jamaica troubles had not completed its work. The ministry, preoccupied with the Reform Bill, hoped that all parties, including the anti-Eyre Jamaica Committee, of which Mill was a prominent member, would hold their fire until the Commission had reported. It is perhaps not surprising that Mill kept himself in check while the Commission took evidence and deliberated, even though he seems to have already made up his mind that Eyre was responsible for the terrible things that had been done and that the rule of law demanded he be punished accordingly. When the Report reached London on 30 April, its content did nothing to soften Mill’s view of Eyre. His self-imposed silence on the subject for nearly three months after the Report became public was probably dictated by his resolution that Gladstone’s friends should refrain from aggravating in any way their leader’s formidable difficulties in the House of Commons.
With the defeat of the Reform Bill and the fall of Russell and Gladstone, Mill’s role in the anti-Eyre movement was transformed. At the end of June Charles Buxton resigned as Chairman of the Jamaica Committee, having vainly argued that the Committee should not attempt to prosecute Eyre for murder. The burden of Buxton’s case was that conviction was highly improbable and, if obtained, would be followed by a royal pardon. While prosecution could produce but meagre results, it would alienate public opinion, which would come to see Eyre as a dutiful servant of the crown, hounded by a vindictive group who failed to appreciate the heavy responsibility borne by the governor of an island whose predominantly black population could present a grave threat to the life and property of the white minority. The Jamaica Committee, Buxton urged, would best serve the interests of the victims and the cause of justice by working to secure an official condemnation of Eyre and those who had used the declaration and continuance of martial law to inflict unwarrantable and cruel suffering on thousands of British subjects. That condemnation could form the basis of a campaign to win financial compensation for the victims and their families.
Mill and Bright (also a member of the executive committee) held that the course Buxton saw as impolitic offered the only means by which the principles of law, morality, and justice could be vindicated. Eyre’s removal from the governorship (he had been temporarily superseded in January of 1866 and his successor would be commissioned in July) fell far short of what was required. Compensation for victims should be sought, but such compensation could not restore the moral authority of British imperial government. If the government refused to prosecute, then the Committee must, as was explained to the public in a document issued by the Committee not long after Buxton’s resignation as Chairman.
In undertaking to discharge this duty, so far as circumstances and the means at their disposal may permit, the Committee are not . . . activated by vindictive feelings towards those whom they believe to have violated the law. Their aim, besides upholding the obligation of justice and humanity towards all races beneath the Queen’s sway, is to vindicate, by an appeal to judicial authority, the great legal and constitutional principles which have been violated in the late proceedings, and deserted by the Government.
Mill and Bright carried the executive with them on 26 June. On 9 July Mill was elected to replace Buxton. Ten days later Mill put his Jamaica questions to the government in the House of Commons. On 31 July he delivered his single major speech (No. 33) on the subject in the debate occasioned by the introduction of four resolutions by Buxton.
Mill could hardly have acted as he did on the Jamaica question in July had the fragile Russell-Gladstone government still been in office. Certainly the object in pressing the issue was to rescue England’s moral reputation, not to irritate the Conservative ministry. The fact remains that however strongly Mill felt about the matter, he abstained during the first half of the year from venting his feelings in the House of Commons. Had a perfectly secure Liberal government been in office he surely would not have held back. The spectacle of a vulnerable Gladstone harassed by anti-reform forces persuaded Mill that the assertion of principles dear to him had to be subordinated, at least momentarily, to political exigencies.
The Eyre question never acquired a significant parliamentary status. Irish subjects, especially the land question, had such a status and Mill came to think that he had an important role to play in making England aware of the remedies appropriate to Irish problems.
Very soon after first taking his seat in the House of Commons Mill spoke on the suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland (February 1866). He did not offer remedies on this occasion; instead he made very plain his belief that England had abysmally failed to reconcile Ireland to British rule. Mill’s words did not sit well with the House. His general condemnation of English government in Ireland, however, did not translate into a criticism of the particular Liberal ministry then in office. That suspension of habeas corpus should be necessary pointed up the inadequacy of what had hitherto been done for Ireland, but Mill did not question the necessity. A notable feature of the speech is his separation of Russell and Gladstone from the causes that had brought Ireland to the edge of rebellion.
He was not prepared to vote against granting to Her Majesty’s Government the powers which, in the state to which Ireland had been brought, they declared to be absolutely necessary. . . . They did not bring Ireland into its present state—they found it so, through the misgovernment of centuries and the neglect of half a century. [Such words gave Gladstone more cover than they did Russell.] He did not agree with his honourable Friend the Member for Birmingham [Bright] in thinking that Her Majesty’s Ministers, if they could not devise some remedy for the evils of Ireland, were bound to leave their seats on the Treasury Bench and devote themselves to learning statesmanship. From whom were they to learn it? From the Gentlemen opposite, who would be their successors, and who, if they were to propose anything which his honourable Friend or himself would consider as remedies for Irish evils, would not allow them to pass it?
If Mill’s tolerance stretched so far as to accommodate Jamaica during the first half of 1866, it would not snap over Ireland.
Mill’s solicitude for the beleaguered Russell-Gladstone ministry is evident in his speech on the government’s 1866 Irish Land Bill. Introduced on 30 April by Chichester Fortescue, Irish Chief Secretary, this “extremely mild measure” proposed to invest Irish tenants with a legal claim to compensation for improvements in those cases where there existed no written contract between landlord and tenant denying the latter’s right to such compensation. On the second reading of the Bill Mill “delivered one of [his] most careful speeches . . . in a manner calculated less to stimulate friends, than to conciliate and convince opponents.”
Mill’s opponents could be forgiven for wondering what it was he was trying to convince them of in this speech of 17 May. He began with an assertion that may have inadvertently done Gladstone and Fortescue more harm than good. “I venture to express the opinion that nothing which any Government has yet done, or which any Government has yet attempted to do, for Ireland . . . has shown so true a comprehension of Ireland’s real needs, or has aimed so straight at the very heart of Ireland’s discontent and of Ireland’s misery” (75). Such an endorsement from Mill of an Irish land scheme in a House of Commons that had its full complement of landlords was something the Liberal government might have preferred to manage without. Nonetheless, Mill meant to do well by the government and that intention gave rise to a very curious speech on a Bill whose place in the history of the Irish land question is deservedly obscure.
Two themes uneasily cohabit in Mill’s speech. The first concerns the need for English legislators to think seriously about whether Ireland could be best governed according to English principles. Mill argued that Irish conditions resembled those on the Continent and that English assumptions concerning the ordering of agricultural society were unorthodox. “Irish circumstances and Irish ideas as to social and agricultural economy are the general ideas and circumstances of the human race; it is English circumstances and English ideas that are peculiar” (76). Continental experience had shown that where the tenant was also the cultivator of the soil his welfare depended on his having “the protection of some sort of fixed usage. The custom of the country has determined more or less precisely the rent which he should pay, and guaranteed the permanence of his tenure as long as he paid it.” (77.) But if Mill seemed to be saying that Irish tenants should be given fixity of tenure, that is not what he proceeded to advocate. Instead, and here emerges the second theme, Mill defended the ministerial measure on the premise that it would contribute to achieving the aim supported by the English governing class: the promotion of the English system of agriculture in Ireland. Such a goal, whose wisdom Mill openly questioned, entailed making prosperous farmers of the most capable of the Irish tenantry. Indispensable to this process was the provision of compensation for improvements, without which tenants would lack the incentive to act the part of Anglicized tenant farmers.
Mill knew the House of Commons would not sanction fixity of tenure and he had to admit that he knew it. He could not remain silent when the opportunity arose to tell the House that Ireland needed fixity of tenure. He would not, however, use the occasion to criticize the government’s feeble proposal. On the contrary he would bestow extravagant praise upon its authors. His admission that fixity of tenure would not fly in the House served to justify a course of action consistent with an allegiance to political ends that could not be dissociated from the fate of Gladstone.
Towards the end of 1867 Mill concluded that the time for pulling his punches had passed. The Fenian outbursts in Ireland and England in 1867 convinced him that England could not and should not keep Ireland unless she could furnish a satisfactory settlement of the land question. In his pamphlet England and Ireland, published in early 1868, Mill eloquently and trenchantly pleaded the case for fixity of tenure. Dr. Steele has documented the hostile reception given this pamphlet and has argued that Mill, realizing that he had gone too far, retreated from his exposed position on 12 March in his speech on the state of Ireland.
Mill’s speech reads differently from his pamphlet but the difference does not come from his having had second thoughts about fixity of tenure for Irish tenants. Rather it arises from the distinct roles Mill assigned the pamphlet and the speech in his campaign. The scheme he proposed in England and Ireland was deliberately presented simply, boldly, directly. Mill wanted to get people’s attention.—the fleshing out of details belonged to a later stage. The primary function of the speech was to answer the criticisms and misapprehensions the pamphlet had incited, and to emphasize the flexible application to which its principle was subject. The relation of the pamphlet to the speech was plainly laid out by Mill in a letter to Cairnes, written only hours before the opening of the debate on Ireland. “The object [of England and Ireland] was to strike hard, and compel people to listen to the largest possible proposal. This has been accomplished, and now the time is come for discussing in detail the manner in which the plan, if adopted, would work.” The generally conciliatory tone of the speech does not represent any backtracking on Mill’s part. He did not hesitate to announce to the House that “Great and obstinate evils require great remedies” (249), nor did he decline the opportunity to reiterate his defence of peasant proprietorship (259–61).
Before March of 1868 Gladstone’s political star, apparently on the descent during the Reform Bill struggle, had begun to regain altitude in a climb that by December would carry him to the premiership with a large majority at his back. At Christmas 1867 Lord Russell resigned the leadership of the party, and Gladstone succeeded to a position that conferred on him an authority he had hitherto been denied. The dissension caused by the controversy over reform had largely dissipated and the prospect of a general election provided ample incentive for the party to put its house in order and unite behind a strong leader. Gladstone was ready to provide that leadership. In February of 1868 he introduced his Bill for the abolition of compulsory church rates, which would not long thereafter become law. Four days after Mill spoke on Irish land, Gladstone committed himself in the House to Irish Church disestablishment, which he made the subject of the resolutions he proposed on 23 March. His grip on the party, so unsure in 1866 and 1867, had tightened noticeably. Mill no longer had to tread softly for Gladstone’s sake. Indeed, Mill’s shift into high gear on the Irish land question reflected his understanding that Gladstone’s growing strength had opened up a fast lane to the leader’s left.
In the drive towards a Liberalism more programmatic than anything yet seen, Mill attempted to set a pace that he hoped would keep him within Gladstone’s sight while helping the latter gain acceptance for measures that would have horrified Palmerston. Mill’s lunge on Irish land did something to make the question ripe for serious legislation and also enlarged the framework of debate. That Gladstone got as much as he did on Irish land in 1870 (he did not get all that he wanted) owed a little (maybe more) to England and Ireland. Mill may have had less reason than Gladstone to applaud the legislation of 1870, but he had known better than to entertain expectations incapable of immediate fulfilment. As he told Cairnes in March of 1868: “I do not share your hopes that anything much short of what I have proposed, would give peace or prosperity to Ireland in union with England: but if there is any intermediate course which would do so, its adoption is likely to be very much promoted by frightening the Government and the landlords with something more revolutionary.”
the irish land question, however important to Mill in 1868, was overshadowed by his immersion in the issue of corrupt electoral practices. Disraeli had promised a bill on the subject for 1868. The depth of Mill’s detailed involvement with this measure exceeded that of any other he encountered during his years in Parliament. Believing that a number of advanced Liberals shared his interest, he was disposed to assume responsibility for directing and coordinating their strategy and tactics. In November of 1867 he wrote to Chadwick:
The great question of next session will be the promised bill against electoral corruption. The advanced Liberals must have their rival bill, and I am anxious that all who have thought on the subject . . . should put down, as heads of a bill, all that has occurred to them as desirable on this subject. When all suggestions have been got together, the most feasible may be selected, and the best radicals in and out of the House may be urged to combine in forcing them on the government.
Later that month Mill was in touch with W.D. Christie, whom he considered the leading authority on the subject. He asked Christie to draw up a measure that could serve as an instrument of discussion for advanced Liberals, who might meet on the reassembling of Parliament “and produce an outline of a Bill which might be circulated among the Liberal party. It might be possible to prevail on Mr. Gladstone to introduce it: but . . . the bill will only be a rallying point: the fight will . . . be . . . on the attempt to engraft its provisions on the bill of the Tory Government.”
In late December Mill, having heard from Christie, clearly felt the time had come to talk about details. The major points Christie wished to press concerned the inclusion of municipal elections within the bill’s purview and the desirability of conducting a post-election enquiry into all contests regardless of whether or not a complaint had been lodged. Mill agreed that corruption at parliamentary elections often fed off the unsavoury techniques used at the municipal level and that any bill that did not apply to both would be highly unsatisfactory. As for a uniform and comprehensive enquiry process, Mill admitted the idea was new to him. “One can at once see many reasons in its favour, but it will be a difficult thing to get carried, owing to the habitual objection to ‘fishing’ enquiries, and to enquiries when there is no complaint. It is, however, evident that the absence of complaint is, in such a case, no evidence of the absence of mischief.” Mill also raised other questions with Christie at this time: what punishment should be imposed on the convicted briber? should all money spent by candidates and their agents at elections “pass through a public officer, so that the mere fact of incurring expenditure in which he is passed over should be legal proof of an unlawful purpose?”
At the beginning of the new year Mill received and read Christie’s pamphlet Election Corruption and Its Remedies (1867), whose recommendations he considered “excellent.” Of these Mill deemed Christie’s proposal for the appointment of an official in each constituency to supervise all aspects of the local electoral process to be of central importance. On 17 January Christie learned of Mill’s preference for his plan “of an investigation after every election, parliamentary or municipal, by a special officer, with the addition of an appeal from that officer to one of the Judges.”
Disraeli, unlike Mill, did not look to Christie for instruction on this matter. The key question addressed by the government’s Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Bill concerned jurisdiction over controverted elections. The measure proposed to transfer jurisdiction from Election Committees of the House of Commons to a judicial tribunal. What little opposition there was to the principle of the Bill was not party motivated. Gladstone accepted the need for such a change and did not take a leading part in the debates. Mill himself endorsed the measure, declaring that “though it does in reality only one thing, that thing is a vigorous one, and shows an adequate sense of the emergency” (262). Mill had no wish to see the Bill defeated; rather, he sought to expand its scope so that it could be made into a powerful weapon in the fight against the corrupt influence of money at elections.
The campaign organized by Mill secured none of its objectives. Nothing could be done to establish the enquiry mechanism urged by Christie. The Act of 1868 did not prohibit paid canvassers or limit each candidate to one paid agent; it did not apply to municipal elections; it did not transfer official election expenses from the candidates to the rates, an alteration advocated by Mill in Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform and in Representative Government.
The account of this episode in the Autobiography, no doubt coloured by Mill’s experience of the general election of 1868, carries the full weight of his disappointment. Referring to the “fight kept up by a body of advanced Liberals,” he blames the Liberal party for the futility to which that fight was condemned.
The Liberal party in the House was greatly dishonoured by the conduct of many of its members in giving no help whatever to this attempt to secure the necessary conditions of an honest representation of the people. With their large majority in the House they could have carried all the amendments, or better ones if they had better to propose. But it was late in the Session; members were eager to set about their preparations for the impending General Election: and while some . . . honourably remained at their post . . . a much greater number placed their electioneering interests before their public duty. . . . From these causes our fight . . . was wholly unsuccessful, and the practices which we sought to render more difficult, prevailed more widely than ever in the first General Election held under the new electoral law.
Implicit in the passage is a criticism of Gladstone’s leadership, the quality of which Mill would do nothing to impugn during 1868.
That Mill should seek to strike a blow for purity of election can surprise no one; that he should identify the cause so exclusively with a group of advanced Liberals reveals something of his underlying hopes for political realignment. A less narrow identification could have been made. Radicals may have been the most aggressive advocates of a systematic attack on corrupt practices but such advocacy was not confined to them. Beresford-Hope, a Tory, proposed an amendment to forbid the use of public houses as committee rooms. The Saturday Review, not known to sympathize with advanced Liberalism, expressed regret that the Bill did not go further. “The truth is that the Government Bill is only a half-measure. The whole of our election system requires overhauling. It is better to do what is proposed than to do nothing, but far more will yet have to be done before we have exhausted all reasonable legal efforts to put down or to detect bribery.”The Times, not one of Mill’s favourite newspapers, could write that “the great increase in the number of the moneyed class is as threatening a spring of danger as the adoption of Household Suffrage.” There could be an aristocratic as well as a democratic bias against money at elections.
Mill’s was emphatically of the latter sort. In Considerations on Representative Government he had written:
There has never yet been, among political men, any real and serious attempt to prevent bribery, because there has been no real desire that elections should not be costly. Their costliness is an advantage to those who can afford the expense, by excluding a multitude of competitors; and anything, however noxious, is cherished as having a conservative tendency, if it limits the access to Parliament to rich men. . . . They care comparatively little who votes, as long as they feel assured that none but persons of their own class can be voted for.
Mill’s objection to the Palmerstonian ascendancy was that it seemed impervious to politics as he understood the term. Palmerston’s House of Commons was a club of complacent comfortable gentlemen who felt strongly only about preserving an order of things that they found highly congenial. The broad appeal of the Palmerstonian Liberal party emanated from its standing for an ill-defined “progress” in general and nothing very much in particular. Politics without principles might serve nicely the interests of the rich but could not foster the social and moral improvement that Mill prized.
The transformation of the Liberal party into a vehicle of radical reform was vital to the creation of a politics of principle. The entry into the political arena of men of intelligence wedded to ideas and ideals had to be encouraged. Working-class participation in an advanced Liberal party purged of Palmerstonians was also requisite. If these objectives could be secured, the Liberal party would become something different from and far better than the loose combination of individuals who had followed Palmerston. Indispensable to this achievement, however, was a dramatic reduction in the cost of contesting elections, the end to which each of the amendments put forward by Mill and his associates was directed. The substitution of plutocracy for aristocracy could not make English government or English society what it should be; indeed, Mill was inclined to think that plutocracy aggravated the worst tendencies of aristocracy while introducing new ones to which aristocracy was not normally prone. “They desired to diminish the number of men in this House, who came in, not for the purpose of maintaining any political opinions whatever, but solely for the purpose, by a lavish expenditure, of acquiring the social position which attended a seat in this House, and which, perhaps, was not otherwise to be attained by them” (280).
THE 1868 WESTMINSTER ELECTION
the impact (if not the existence) of corrupt practices in the Westminster election of 1868 remains open to doubt. W.H. Smith’s great wealth contributed to his success in 1868, but its failure to obtain the desired result in 1865 suggests that other factors were at work in Mill’s second Westminster contest.
Parliament was prorogued on 31 July and formally dissolved on 11 November. The prorogation accelerated an election campaign that had indeed already begun, and lasted over three months. Mill left London for Avignon at the beginning of August and did not return to England until early November, two and a half weeks before polling day. His absence handicapped his Committee, which had just cause for irritation at Mill’s posture. His removal from the scene of action suggested an aloofness from the proceedings that probably did his cause no good. It did not, however, prevent him from making seemingly desultory thrusts into the electoral terrain—without consulting those who were working to secure his re-election—that his Committee understandably considered ill-advised.
In late, August Mill sent a ten-pound contribution to Charles Bradlaugh’s Northampton election fund. Not only was Bradlaugh a notorious atheist, Malthusian, and Radical, but his candidacy in a constituency already represented by two well-established Liberals (Charles Gilpin and Lord Henley) would inevitably provoke discord in local Liberal ranks. Prudence dictated that a candidate standing in the Gladstonian interest should refrain from promoting challenges to Liberal incumbents, especially when the challenger was Charles Bradlaugh. Mill either failed to see the potentially destructive ramifications of his identification with Bradlaugh or he was indifferent to the consequences. A Bradlaugh victory could only be had at the expense of one of the sitting Liberals, and Gilpin (a member of the Jamaica Committee executive), an advanced Liberal himself though certainly not in Bradlaugh’s league, respectfully expressed his unease to Mill in a letter of 7 September. In response, Mill assured Gilpin that Bradlaugh wanted Henley’s seat and assumed, along with Mill, that Gilpin’s position at Northampton was unassailable. He went on to say that Bradlaugh was a man of ability with distinctive opinions that should be heard in the House of Commons, adding that though “it is most important to uphold honest & honourable men, faithful supporters of our own party, like Lord Henley against Tories & lukewarm Liberals, [he did] not think that their claims ought to be allowed to prevail against the claims of exceptional men.”
By late September Mill had learned from his Committee that the subscription for Bradlaugh had provoked considerable fuss in Westminster and created difficulties for his supporters. Mill, “exceedingly sorry” that there should have been “trouble or annoyance,” was not penitent. Had he not been a candidate he would have assisted Bradlaugh and he could not allow his own candidacy at Westminster to interfere with a course of action he thought right. It would be wrong for people to infer, Mill maintained, that his sympathy for Bradlaugh had any connection with the latter’s religious opinions. What Mill admired in Bradlaugh was his thoughtfulness, his “ardour,” his independence of mind. He was a “strenuous supporter of representation of minorities” and an “earnest” Malthusian. “If the capability of taking & the courage of maintaining such views as these is not a recommendation, to impartial persons, of an extreme radical politician, what is?” Admitting that the first priority should be the return of supporters of Gladstone, Mill observed that opponents of Gladstone were not contesting Northampton and that it was necessary to look beyond “the immediate struggle.” He expressed the hope that the House of Commons elected in 1868 would embark on “a general revision of our institutions” and begin to act “against the many remediable evils which infest the existing state of society.”
Already the too exclusive attention to one great question [the Irish Church] has caused it to be generally remarked, by friends & enemies, that there will be very little new blood in the future Parlt, that the new H. of C. will be entirely composed of the same men, or the same kind of men, as the old one. Now I do not hesitate to say that this is not what ought to happen. We want, in the first place, representatives of the classes, now first admitted to the representation. And in the next place we want men of understanding whose minds can admit ideas not included in the conventional creed of Liberals or of Radicals, & men also of ardent zeal.
In a letter of 1 October Mill again turned to the need for a real representation of working-class “opinions and feelings,” which he was not at all sure the result of the 1868 general election would secure. It would be the responsibility of the new House to pass legislation that would improve the quality of life for the masses. “This cannot be expected unless the suffering as well as the prosperous classes are represented.”
That Bradlaugh, if elected, would do useful work in the House of Commons, Mill did not doubt; Edwin Chadwick’s services there, Mill believed, would be invaluable. Their longstanding friendship made him keenly conscious both of Chadwick’s ambition to sit in the House and of England’s shabby treatment of a man who had done much for the betterment of his society. Mill encouraged Chadwick to stand for Kilmarnock against E.P. Bouverie, an Adullamite, and Mill’s intervention in this contest would give rise to nearly as much unfavourable comment as did his support of Bradlaugh.
Chadwick took with him to Kilmarnock a glowing letter of recommendation from Mill. On 16 and 22 October The Times published the exchange of correspondence that ensued between Bouverie and Mill. In his letter of 25 September the former conveyed his surprise and chagrin that Mill should instigate a division among the Liberals at Kilmarnock, who had supported Bouverie as their member for more than two decades. Acknowledging that he and Mill had their political differences, he observed that these had not prevented him, as an elector in Westminster, from endorsing Mill’s candidacy. “Toleration for minor differences, union for common public objects, such, at least, is the doctrine I entertain with regard to party action, and without a practical adhesion to it, I believe the Liberals will be powerless for good.”
In his response of 4 October Mill did not say what he thought of Bouverie’s notion of party. Instead, he concentrated on Chadwick’s special claims as an “exceptional man,” asserting that “I would very gladly put him in my place if I saw a probability of success.” Chadwick’s qualities were such that considerations of party were, in his case, of secondary importance. Mill implied, however, that he could, if pressed, defend his intervention on party grounds.
Bouverie did press him. On 13 October he accused Mill of setting himself up as an authority competent to determine the best interests of the electors of Kilmarnock. “If I were to act on your advice [by withdrawing], the result would be a substitution of your individual opinion for the free choice of the constituency.” As the electors of Westminster, presumably, did not want Chadwick as their representative, there might be good reason to suppose that he would be no more acceptable to Kilmarnock. In effect, Bouverie charged Mill with an arrogant presumption that threatened to harm the Liberal interest, affirming that “the best hope of our common political adversaries lies in the Liberal constituencies being exposed to a contest among Liberals.”
Mill issued a very lengthy rejoinder on 19 October, in which he projected a conception of the Liberal party from which he knew Bouverie must dissent. He laid bare the significance he attached to the general election, placing personal considerations well into the background, and announcing that “we are not now in ordinary times.” There were new electors and “new questions to be decided.” Parliament required men who understood “the wants of the country” and the remedies for “the most pressing existing evils.” The challenge to the Palmerstonians was unmistakable. If the “recognised candidates of the party” did not include “a reasonable number of men of advanced opinions, or possessing the confidence of the working classes,” then they should not be surprised to face competition from unrecognized candidates. The Adullamites had wounded the Liberal party in the preceding Parliament and “if a similar result should befall it in the next there will be cause for bitter regret that the liberal party did not fight out its battles at the polling booths rather than in the lobby of the H. of C.” Mill’s strident conclusion stated as bluntly as could be stated under the circumstances his view that the Liberal party could well afford to do without Bouverie and those who sympathized with his politics.
We do not want men who cast reluctant looks back to the old order of things, nor men whose liberalism consists chiefly in a warm adherence to all the liberal measures already passed, but men whose heart & soul are in the cause of progress, & who are animated by that ardour which in politics as in war kindles the commander to his highest achievements & makes the army at his command worth twice its numbers; men whose zeal will encourage their leader to attempt what their fidelity will give him strength to do. It would be poor statesmanship to gain a seeming victory at the poll by returning a majority numerically large but composed of the same incompatible elements as the last.
Mill hoped that the general election would initiate a Radical take-over of the Liberal party.
He may have felt fairly confident of his own success during the months in Avignon. By late October, however, the concern of Liberal organizers over the effort being mounted by W.H. Smith led to Mill’s being summoned to London for the final fortnight of the campaign. Only upon his return did he comprehend the seriousness of his predicament. The tone and content of his election speeches suggest that leading figures on the Liberal Committee, believing that Mill had put himself in a dangerously exposed position and desiring to undo some of the damage that had been done, counselled moderation, restraint, and discretion. That such advice should be proffered is entirely understandable; that Mill should have taken it to heart is perhaps a little baffling.
The most striking characteristic of Mill’s November election speeches is that they are indistinguishable in message from what orthodox Liberal candidates were saying up and down the country. They are highly conventional partisan speeches. Praise for Gladstone, cuts for the Tories, the obligatory reference to the Irish Church, vague allusions to Irish land and social reform—these are the staple of Mill’s election addresses. He had little to say about Jamaica, women’s suffrage, personal representation, or the radicalization of the Liberal party. Something approaching defensiveness crept into both the speeches and the letters he wrote for publication at this time. In reiterating his hostility to the ballot, Mill expressed regret that he should find himself “conscientiously opposed to many of the Liberal party, though not in principle, upon the ballot question.” (Mill stood on principle in rejecting the ballot; where this left the multitude of Liberals who favoured secret voting—from whom he pointedly declined to separate himself “in principle”—it is not easy to know.) His audience, in any case, need not worry about his position on the issue: “If he was wrong, he would be beaten in the end; so they could afford to let him have his way” (344). More revealing yet is Mill’s letter of 9 November on the Bradlaugh connection that appeared two days later in The Times, Daily News, and Morning Star. Written in response to the fuss over the matter being kicked up by the Tories, it says much for his state of mind a week before polling day.
I suppose the persons who call me an Atheist are the same who are impudently asserting that Mr. Gladstone is a Roman Catholic. . . . An attempt was made to raise the same cry against me at my first election, & the defence which I did not choose to make for myself was made for me by several eminent dignitaries of the C[hurch] of England. . . . If any one again tells you that I am an atheist, I would advise you to ask him, how he knows and in what page of my numerous writings he finds anything to bear out the assertion.
Helen Taylor, on discovering that Mill had penned such a letter for publication, was not a little indignant. “I cannot tell you how ashamed I feel. . . . Do not disgrace yourself as an open and truthful man; do not shut the door to all future power of usefulness on religious liberty by such mean & wretched subterfuges as this letter.”
Helen Taylor did not walk in Mill’s shoes (though she may have tied them for him). In early November Mill had become acutely aware of the difficulties that in the preceding months had not penetrated his Avignon refuge. He held his cards close to his chest in the fortnight before the election because he lacked faith in the hand he had dealt himself. It was by no means a hand to be ashamed of—the pursuit of Eyre, fixity of tenure for Irish tenants, the contribution to Bradlaugh’s campaign, and the endorsement of Chadwick—and Mill was not ashamed of it. He feared, however, that it might be a losing hand. Mill wanted to win in 1868 in order to be part of a new Liberal dispensation to which he felt he had much to offer.
Neither Mill nor perhaps anyone else could have known in early November that W.H. Smith was not beatable. In the interval between the 1865 and 1868 elections Smith and his people had been assiduously nursing Westminster. His commitment and money, the latter drawn from a purse so deep as to approximate bottomlessness, generated the foundation of the London and Westminster Constitutional Association and fuelled the high level of activity it sustained in the lead-up to and during the 1868 election. Excluding the money spent on this effort prior to the summer of 1868 and the money spent by the London and Westminster Constitutional Association on behalf of Smith’s candidacy while the election was in progress, expenditure directly attributable to Smith at the contest came to £9000, more than four times what the Liberal Committee spent for Grosvenor and Mill.
The Liberals got many more votes for their money than did Smith, but they were not enough to carry Mill: Smith, 7648; Grosvenor, 6584; Mill, 6284. Smith’s victory marked the beginning of a trend that would establish Westminster as a virtually invincible Tory stronghold in the late nineteenth century. Two Tories would be returned at the 1874 election, Smith on this occasion polling 9371 votes, nearly 5000 more than the stronger of the two Liberal candidates. When viewed from this perspective, a perspective unavailable in 1868 to Westminster Liberals disappointed with their showing, it can be seen that Mill did not do at all badly. Might he have won had he known that Grosvenor and not Smith was the man to beat and acted accordingly?
Mill did not run against Grosvenor in 1868 nor could he have done so. In 1865 animosity between their respective Committees had been overcome shortly before polling day in the interest of mutual assistance, from which Mill stood to benefit more than Grosvenor. In 1868 there was a single Liberal Committee sponsoring both candidates. It could not be said that Grosvenor had distinguished himself in the House of Commons, but then no one had expected him to. Unlike his kinsman, the future Duke of Westminster, Captain Grosvenor had kept his distance from the Adullamite camp and done nothing to give offence to either Gladstone or advanced Liberals. In July of 1868 the leader of the Liberal party, aware that Grosvenor intended to stand again, sent a letter to the Chairman of the Westminster Liberal Committee recommending Grosvenor to the electors of the constituency. A unilateral decision by Mill to take on Grosvenor would have created havoc in Liberal ranks and probably harmed Mill more than Grosvenor, who might have attracted more Tory votes than he did if Mill had gone after him. Most Conservatives clearly plumped for Smith, but those who did not would be far more likely to split their votes between Smith and Grosvenor than between Smith and Mill. If Liberals of whatever stripe could find little to complain of in Grosvenor’s conduct, he was inconsequential enough to generate much less hostility among Tories than did his Liberal associate. Mill, in short, had almost no room for manoeuvre in November of 1868; that he finished only three hundred votes behind Grosvenor was in itself a triumph of sorts.
Although Mill was the most eminent of the Radicals denied admission to the Gladstonian host elected in 1868, he had plenty of worthy company. Bradlaugh and Chadwick were defeated. George Odger, in whose candidacy Mill had taken a special interest, retired from the field in Chelsea to prevent a Conservative victory there. Edmond Beales, George Howell, and W.R. Cremer—leading figures (as was Odger) in the political world of working-class activists—failed to win their contests. The university Liberals—G.C. Brodrick, E.A. Freeman, Auberon Herbert, George Young, Godfrey Lushington, Charles Roundell—were also unsuccessful. None of this was lost on Mill, who found little to celebrate in the results. In a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, Mill remarked on “the defeat of the radical party throughout the country.”
A Liberal party, even one led by Gladstone, that did not include a substantial battalion of Radicals in the House of Commons (working-class representatives among them) was of limited use to Mill. The experience of 1868 compelled him to recognize that Liberal constituency organizations, largely dominated by men of means, would resist the changes in personnel and policy that he wished to promote. He also believed that such short-sightedness would ultimately alienate the working-class electorate and enfeeble the Liberal party. In early November he asserted to John Plummer that the “Liberal party will have cause to repent of not having adopted the best leaders of the working men and helped them to seats.” Mill urged working-class political organizations to use their influence to insist on representation equal to that of the higher classes within the party. “Where a place returns two members, one of these should be a candidate specially acceptable to the working classes: where there is but one, he shd be selected in concert by both sections of Liberals.” Mill’s loyalty to a Gladstonian Liberal party that refused to give the working classes their due did not extend very far. By February of 1870 he was ready to sanction tactics that emphasized his complete detachment from the Liberal establishment. Writing to George Odger, Mill declared: “It is plain that the Whigs intend to monopolise political power as long as they can without coalescing in any degree with the Radicals. The working men are quite right in allowing Tories to get into the House to defeat this exclusive feeling of the Whigs, and may do it without sacrificing any principle.”
When Mill came to write the concluding section of the Autobiography he had been disabused of the notion that the 1867 Reform Act and a Gladstonian ascendancy would usher in a new political era responsive to his sense of priorities. He conceived of the years immediately following his defeat as the beginning of a transitional period, the outcome of which could not be confidently predicted. Mill’s post-election uncertainty manifestly distorted the account he gave of his parliamentary career by refracting it through a lens that elevated the independent aspects of his conduct at the expense of the pattern of action moulded from his interpretation of the ongoing party struggle and its possible implications. Such a pattern did exist, and its source resided in Mill’s view of himself as a progressive politician functioning within a system that seemed to offer unprecedented opportunities for a fundamental reshaping of the Liberal party.
In retrospect it may appear that Mill should have known better than to think that things could have turned out other than they did in 1868. His hopes and illusions, it might be supposed, were those of an amateur lacking a sound grasp of the English political world and the social forces that shaped it. Such condescension would be misplaced. The mid-Victorian equilibrium and the reassurance it gave the governing classes concerning the stability of English society made the granting of borough household suffrage a conceivable option in 1867. But those who conceded so much were by no means sure that nothing untoward would flow from it. Mill’s perhaps unreasonable hopes were matched by equally unreasonable fears on the part of some whose miscalculations could not be ascribed to political naïveté. Lord Derby meant what he said when he spoke of “a leap in the dark.” Mill was looking for a leap into the light, and from 1866 through 1868 he had done what he thought best to help prepare the way for it.
THE LATE PUBLIC SPEECHES
released from parliamentary constraints and responsibilities, Mill redirected his political activism in the last five years of his life to focus on several abiding passions: women’s suffrage, education, and land reform. As assessment of Mill’s parliamentary career shows in its abundant variety those elements that defined its essential unity, so analysis of the late public speeches reveals features common to the core of Mill’s radicalism. Hitherto, the fundamental question has been: What do the Westminster years demonstrate about the character of Mill’s political objectives in the second half of the 1860s and the means by which he sought to give them effect? Emphasis has been placed on Mill’s conception of the party struggle and its relation to his ultimate purposes. The claim is not that the meaning of each and every speech he gave in the House of Commons can be uncovered only through a penetration of the political layers within which the words were often embedded, but that on those critical issues determining the rise and fall of party fortunes Mill acted as a politician in pursuit of fairly precise political aims. Even though the parliamentary context is not especially germane to most of the late public speeches, when viewed as a group they can be seen to encapsulate themes basic to what Mill had been doing from 1865 through 1868.
The speeches on women’s suffrage, education, and land reform manifest Mill’s commitment to a politics of inclusion. The exclusion of women from the franchise “is a last remnant of the old bad state of society—the regimen of privileges and disabilities” (407). Mill wants a sound elementary education made available to all children. He stoutly rejects the claims of religious sectarianism to rate-money designated for educational ends. The exclusionist tendencies of sectarianism were anathema to Mill. The existing distribution of landed property in England, buttressed by such artificial contrivances as primogeniture, entail, and strict settlement, unjustly excluded the vast majority of people from what should be accessible to all. Mill, speaking on behalf of the Land Tenure Reform Association, denounced such contrivances. The Association’s programme, in the drawing up of which Mill had been instrumental, also called for preservation of the commons, government supervision of the waste lands in the interest of the public and the agricultural labourers (to whom allotments on favourable terms should be offered), and—most radical of all—a tax on the unearned increment of rent. Landed property must no longer be treated “as if it existed for the power and dignity of the proprietary class and not for the general good” (417).
Unquestionably, a strain of old anti-establishment radicalism lingered in Mill. Privileges, monopolies, exclusiveness—in his mind, these were linked inextricably to the pernicious consequences of aristocratic government. Mill, however, was more interested in elucidating the advantages of progressive change than he was in savaging what remained (quite a lot) of the establishment.
Mill’s politics of inclusion sprang from a profoundly democratic civic consciousness. Participation was integral to political education. An educated citizenry was vital to the creation and perpetuation of a healthy body politic. The expansive ideal of citizenship inculcated by Mill put a premium on a widely diffused energy, virtue, and intelligence. The achievement of a higher politics required, among other things, opportunities for personal growth, which entailed bringing more and better schooling, more civic participation, more material benefits, and more beauty within the reach of more and more people. Thus Mill ardently supported working-class enfranchisement and women’s suffrage; universal elementary education, which should be in no way inferior to the best primary education bought by the rich; the election of women and working men to school boards; generous allotments for agricultural labourers; public access to parks and commons; and, indeed, a citizen army (“Henceforth our army should be our whole people trained and disciplined”) (413). Political development, personal growth, and an increase in the total sum of human happiness were to advance together.
Mill appreciated that very practical considerations respecting political power had to be attacked by a reformer with an agenda such as this. Abraham Hayward, in his obituary on Mill for The Times, observed that “of late years Mill has not come before the world with advantage. When he appeared in public it was to advocate the fanciful rights of women, or to propound some impracticable reform or revolutionary change in the laws relating to land.” It should be borne in mind that Hayward and The Times would have cheered the resurrection of Palmerston. The picture of the later Mill as a crotchety philosopher promoting hare-brained schemes comforted those who wanted no part of his radicalism. That radicalism deliberately cultivated a hard-headedness that Hayward’s shallow dismissal cannot obscure. Mill persistently grappled with issues of power: political, intellectual, and economic. A state that withheld the franchise from women, quality elementary education from the masses, and land reform from the agricultural labourers of England and the tenant farmers of Ireland illegitimately denied to these groups the power needed for self-protection. The liberal state advocated by Mill would confer that power upon the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Mill’s political speeches, no less than his political writings, evince a readiness to tackle the problem of power. “Safety does not lie in excluding some, but in admitting all, that contrary errors and excesses may neutralise one another” (390–1). With the suffrage, women “cannot long be denied any just right, or excluded from any fair advantage: without it, their interests and feelings will always be a secondary consideration, and it will be thought of little consequence how much their sphere is circumscribed, or how many modes of using their faculties are denied to them” (380). Mill is encouraged by signs of an awakening agricultural labouring class, the “most neglected, and, as it has hitherto seemed, most helpless portion of the labouring population.” They had at last “found a voice, which can, and which will, make itself heard by the makers of our laws” (430). There is plenty of room for disagreement among commentators concerning how successfully Mill assayed the problem of power; it cannot be persuasively argued that he overlooked or evaded it.
The theoretical and practical tenability of a politics of inclusion partly hinged upon its enlistment of a valid principle and process of authority. The final authority for public policy must reside in the will of the democracy. The exercise of that will in the public interest, however, necessitated the acceptance by the demos of a conspicuous role for individuals with superior abilities, knowledge, and experience.
Different people had very different ideas of popular government; they thought that it meant that public men should fling down all the great subjects among the people, let every one who liked have his word about them, and trust that out of the chaos there would form itself something called public opinion, which they would have nothing to do but to carry into effect. That was not his idea of popular government, and he did not believe that popular government thus understood and carried on would come to good. His idea of popular government was, a government in which statesmen, and thinking and instructed people generally pressed forward with their best thoughts and plans, and strove with all their might to impress them on the public mind. What constituted the government a free and popular one was, not that the initiative was left to the general mass, but that statesmen and thinkers were obliged to carry the mind and will of the mass along with them; they could not impose these ideas by compulsion as despots could.
In Parliament and out, Mill strove with all his might.