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Mill, James (1773-1836)

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Source: Editor's Introduction to James Mill, Selected Economic Writings, ed. Donald Winch (Edinburgh: Oliver Boyd for the Scottish Economic Society, 1966).

Copyright information: This book is published online with the kind permission of the copyright holders, The Scottish Economic Society.


James Mill was the consummate utilitarian propagandist and theorist; his numerous intellectual interests and practical pursuits shatter the neat boundaries of modern specialist scholarship. This volume is dedicated to one aspect of Mill's life and thought, namely that revealed in the economic writings which are introduced separately below. The following biographical sketch does not attempt to give a full and balanced account of Mill's life. It concentrates on the earlier, formative period rather than on the better-known Benthamite period, and deals mainly with those issues which it seems necessary to stress as background to the understanding of Mill's contribution to classical political economy.1

James Mill was born in 1773 in a small village near Montrose where his father combined the trade of cobbler with a smallholding. Though his parents were poor, he was favoured by an ambitious mother and given every encouragement to advance himself. After attending the local parish school and Montrose Academy, he came under the patronage of Sir John and Lady Jane Stuart who, in 1790, made it possible for him to go to Edinburgh University instead of to the nearby, less expensive, University of Aberdeen. For the seven years that he was at the University, Mill appears to have lived mainly with the Stuarts, virtually as a member of the family, though acting also as tutor to the daughter of the house. The intention was that he should prepare for the Church, a traditional means of advancement at the time for a talented but needy Scot: one which did not necessarily imply any strong sense of vocation. Before embarking on his divinity studies he attended the courses for the M.A. degree, and it was at this time that he came under the influence of Dugald Stewart, Professor of Moral Philosophy.2 Of Stewart, Mill later wrote, that ‘the taste for the studies which have formed my favourite pursuits and which will be so till the end of my life, I owe to him’.3 It was during this period too that his lifelong interest in Greek was first allowed to blossom; he considered Plato to have contributed more to his ‘mental culture’ than any other writer. This accounts perhaps for his eagerness to initiate his son so early into the mysteries of Greek, and for the fact that the Socratic method of Plato's dialogues became the model for John's education.4 In 1797 he left the University with a licence to preach, but after an unsuccessful spell as an itinerant preacher he was forced to turn to giving private tuition. In 1802, after several years of this and at the ripe age of twenty-nine with no career fixed, he accepted an opportunity to travel with Sir John Stuart to London to begin a new life.

Mill seems to have been reticent about the Scottish period of his life with all except his closest friends. Like most Scots making their way in the English literary world he probably set out to purge Scotticisms from his writings.5 The reaction went further than this, however, for in a letter to Francis Place furnishing details of his connection with the Stuart family, he made it clear that he did not wish them to be talked about.6 In the light of his later criticisms of organised religion and his strictures on aristocratic influence, he may have found certain aspects of his early life embarrassing. It may also be significant that although he championed freedom of the press, he thought it proper to protect individuals from exposure to public ridicule on account of their humble origins or religious beliefs.7 In any event, by temperament he seems to have preferred to remain in the background, content to bask in the appreciation of a small circle of friends and followers.

Upon arrival in London Mill contacted a number of Scottish émigrés connected with publishing, with a view to supporting himself by journalism. In 1803, after some free-lance work, he obtained more permanent employment as editor of the Literary Journal, which, together with Baldwin the publisher and a number of Scottish friends, he founded. According to the prospectus which he wrote, the journal was to be dedicated to the ‘dissemination of liberal and useful knowledge’; as a more realistic guarantee of success, it was also to be the cheapest monthly review available in London. For the next few years Mill was very active. In addition to the Literary Journal he was editing another Baldwin publication, the St Jame's Chronicle. He also found time to write the essay on the corn trade which is reprinted in this volume, and to bring out a translation of Villers's Essay on the Reformation. By 1805 he had every right to consider his move to London to be a success. Bain estimates that he was earning over £500 per annum at this time; it was certainly enough for him to undertake marriage, a step which proved to be a mistake in more ways than one. In 1806 the Literary Journal folded when he had already given up his other regular sources of income to concentrate on the History of British India, a work by which he hoped to make his name and which he estimated would take only three or four years to complete. In fact the History took twelve years, and throughout this marathon he was forced to rely on what he described as ‘job-work’; a task made difficult by the fact that his views on many subjects were by no means popular. As can be seen even from the incomplete bibliography appended to this volume, his output during this period was prodigious.

Mill paid little heed in his own life to the Malthusian warnings which he preached in his writings: nine ‘brats’ (as he preferred to call his children) were born to the marriage. This large family was a drain on Mill's pocket in the early period of his life, and, since he educated the eldest son John himself with monumental thoroughness, on his time and patience too. It was not a happy home. John's account of having been brought up in ‘the absence of love and in the presence of fear’ is well-known: the picture is confirmed by the description given by his sister Harriet.

Here was an instance of two persons, a husband and wife, living as far apart under the same roof, as the north pole from the south; from no ‘fault’ of my poor mother certainly; but how was a woman with a growing family and a very small means (as in the early years of the marriage) to be anything but a German Hausfrau? how could she intellectually become a companion for such a mind as my father? His great want was ‘temper’, though I quite believe circumstances had made it what it was in our childhood, both because of the warm affection of his early friends, and because in the latter years of his life he became much softened and treated the younger children differently. What would be thought now if the fate of our childhood were known?8

Mill's writings in the period between 1803 and 1808 have received relatively little attention, yet it is during this early phase that we see the first fruits of his Scottish education and the beginnings of many of his later interests. His main sources at this time are those Scottish authors who made up his intellectual diet as a student; the questions which occupy his attention are those connected with the branches of the science of man most developed in Scottish Universities towards the end of the eighteenth century. It is worth stressing the Scottish influence on Mill's work because it provides a framework into which he fitted ideas acquired later from Bentham and Ricardo; it not only survived the infusion of these later doctrines but gave them an extra dimension which was unique to Mill. John Stuart Mill wrote of his father that ‘as Brutus was called the last of the Romans, so was he the last of the eighteenth century’.9 He made the same point more specifically in a letter to Comte, where, after commending the ‘positivism’ of such Scottish philosophers as Hume, Smith, Kames, Ferguson, Millar, Brown and Reid, he described his father as le dernier survivant de cette grande école.10

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Edinburgh and Glasgow were the centres of a revival of interest in the scientific study of human nature and social behaviour. In their search for internal coherence in man's affairs the Scottish thinkers favoured an historical approach; they believed that history as written by the philosopher could be made to yield the necessary empirical materials for the construction of a Newtonian science of man. The term ‘conjectural history’ was coined by Dugald Stewart to describe this method of procedure11 ; it was based on the teleological premise that it was possible for the philosopher acquainted with the springs of human action to establish natural laws of progress by tracing the development of social, political, legal and economic institutions from their crude origins to later sophistication. Conjectural history also provided a means by which certain practical lessons could be pressed home as to the effect of various institutions or policies on man's progress.

Mill's translation of Villers's Essay on the Reformation was undertaken entirely in the spirit of this type of history. He believed that Villers had made an important contribution to philosophical history by attempting to show the liberalising influence of the Reformation along the lines already mapped out by historians of the break-up of the feudal power of the barons.12 Mill's notes to his translation gave him an opportunity to express his belief in the idea of progress; to defend the doctrine of human perfectibility from those who considered it to be subversive; and to air certain liberal sentiments concerning the importance of religious toleration and freedom of expression to man's improvement.13

The roseate doctrine of perfectibility does not feature in any of Mill's later writings, but he never retreated from the idea of progress as interpreted by the Scottish philosophers of the eighteenth century; it remained an integral part of his attitude to the development of society. And since the tournure of his mind was didactic, it provided him, as it did the philosophes, with a valuable propaganda weapon. We see it in the Elements of Political Economy as a form of sociology14 ; and the whole structure of the History of British India rests upon it.15 Mill's belief in the idea of progress helps to explain his taste for sweeping generalisation and, to a certain extent, his dogmatism. He was constantly fortified in his pronouncements by the notion that history was on his side: the side of tolerance, freedom, reform, and above all, reason.

The notes to the translation of Villers's Essay furnish some clues as to Mill's early position on religion and the ‘science of the mind’. At this time he was still favourably inclined towards religion, as his description of Gibbon and Hume as ‘infidels’ who were ‘intoxicated with the vanity of imitating Frenchmen’ indicates.16 By 1808 he was still able to defend religious sentiments as ‘benificent’17 ; and as late as 1809 he referred approvingly to the deist idea that Providence brings ‘good out of evil’.18 It could not have been long after this that he abandoned religion, with the help, possibly, of Bentham and General Miranda.19 When he did so, it was with great conviction. This can be seen in a letter to Ricardo in which Mill sympathises with ‘poor Malthus’ for his religious beliefs.

What a misfortune–what a cruel misfortune, it is, for a man to be obliged to believe a certain set of opinions, whether they be fit, or not, to be believed! I too was educated to be a priest–but I shall never cease feeling gratitude to my own resolution, for having decreed to be a poor man, rather than be dishonest, either to my own mind, by smothering my convictions, or to my fellow creatures by using language at variance with my convictions.20

The same letter confirms John Stuart Mill's diagnosis that his father ‘found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness’.21 James Mill considered all forms of organised religion, from ‘Juggism’ (the Church of England) to Hinduism to be morally degrading.

We also find evidence of Mill's early views on psychology and ethics in his translation of Villers's Essay. He speaks of Thomas Reid as being responsible for the introduction of ‘the true method of philosophising into the science of the mind, and for some of the noblest discoveries which have been made by any man in any science’.22 This view reflects the teaching of Dugald Stewart. It is a little ironic to note that the first known article by Mill took the form of an attack on associationist psychology and utilitarian ethics as put forward by Thomas Belsham, a follower of Hartley.23 Up to his meeting with Bentham in 1808 Mill continued to defend the Scottish philosophy of moral or common sense, and to oppose deterministic, utilitarian doctrines.24 After this he reversed his position to adopt the views that were so crucial to his later opinions on ethics and education.25

Among the more enduring Scottish influences on Mill's thinking was the work of John Millar. In a review of Millar's Origin of Ranks for the Literary Journal, Mill expressed the view that Millar's lectures as Professor of Law at Glasgow must have been ‘among the most instructive things ever offered to the attention of youth’.26 Millar's Historical View of the English Government was among the first works which James Mill placed in his son's hands27 ; he also strongly recommended it to Ricardo later when he took up Ricardo's political education.28 Mill was attracted to the works of Millar by their comprehensive and philosophical treatment of history, and by their liberal outlook. As he wrote later, ‘the world is indebted [to Mr Millar] for almost the first lessons which it received, in tracing the facts of history up to the general laws of the human mind’.29

It seems likely that Millar's sociological history of the development of law and government was important in forming Mill's early political views. Millar had carried on the tradition of Smith in attempting to analyse political change in terms of the underlying economic and property relationships in society.30 In his Historical View, Millar had dealt with the economic and social changes since 1688 which had contributed to the growth of liberal feelings and institutions. The progress of commerce and agriculture had reduced the grosser forms of inequality and had produced ‘a state of property highly favourable to liberty’. By enhancing ‘popular independence’, it had strengthened the element of popular control over executive political action. Unfortunately, the benefits of these natural developments had been somewhat nullified by the increase in the patronage under the control of the Crown. The main practical purpose of Millar's work was to draw attention to the dangers of this increase in royal ‘influence’. It was from this kind of background that Mill's early political sentiments emerged; and some of the features of his mature political position can also be traced back to arguments put forward by the Smith-Millar sociological tradition.

Many years later, when Mill was attempting to convince Ricardo of the universal tendency for the public interest to be sacrificed to the selfish interests of those who controlled Parliament, he said that he had arrived at this opinion slowly and unwillingly; that he was aware of the premises before allowing himself to draw the conclusions.31 This would seem to be the case from the evidence of this period. From the moment of his arrival in London Mill took a keen interest in the political situation, attending House of Commons debates regularly. His letters home at this time tell us little except that the admired Fox, and found the general level of oratory to be beneath that of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.32 His sympathies were obviously on the ‘liberal’ side of the issues of the day, but before 1807 there is little to suggest that he had any serious misgivings about the composition and behaviour of Parliament. This cannot be accounted for in terms of the necessity for a young man making his living by writing to modify his views at a time when criticism of the constitution was apt to be confused with treason. In 1804 he was confident that: ‘The British Parliament wants only the due information to be laid before it, in such a manner as to bear down the influence of ignorance and private interest. On its integrity and patriotism as a body, the public relies, as it has every reason to rely, with the most perfect confidence.’33 At the time he was attacking the bounty on the export of corn, a measure which he believed would ‘put money into the pockets of the proprietors of land by taking it out of the pockets of all the other classes of the people’. This conclusion had obvious political implications which Mill was unwilling to draw; his views in 1804 present a sharp contrast with his later radicalism on the same question. The land-owners, he held, were not to be blamed for attempting to influence legislation in their favour; others had ‘been far more industrious in this respect than they’. He even thought that the land-owners would be prepared to act magnanimously and abolish the bounty if shown that it was contrary to the nation's long term interests.34

By 1807, when he wrote Commerce Defended, this tolerant view of the land-owners’ regard for the public interest had completely disappeared. This pamphlet was as much a political tract as a contribution to economic debate. Cobbett is praised for his defection from the Tory camp and his espousal of the popular cause; and marked sympathy is expressed for the situation of the poor under war conditions of rising food prices and taxes. The pamphlet ends with a strong plea for the discontinuation of the war. Smith's general strictures on ‘public prodigality’ are transformed into the doctrine that ‘all governments constantly spend as much as ever the people will allow them’.35 This doctrine, with its implication that inadequate control of government expenditure and disregard of ‘the people’ was a major cause of misgovernment, was to become a radical rallying cry in the ensuing years.

But perhaps the most significant political feature of Commerce Defended is Mill's attack on the idea that the economic interests of the nation can be identified with those of the land-owning classes. Here, as on other more technical questions, Mill anticipates the ideological issues which underlie Ricardo's controversy with Malthus over the Corn Laws and general over-production.36 In direct contradiction of his earlier statements he dismisses sympathy for the land-owners: ‘By their superior influence on the legislature, they have taken care to repay themselves, as far as their personal interests were concerned, by throwing the burthen of the taxes upon the growing produce of commerce, while the increasing value of land stood exempt.’37 In a manner that both Smith and Millar would have approved of, he argues that commerce is favourable to liberty, acting as a curb on the ‘forces of regal and aristocratical power’. ‘The situation of the merchant and manufacturing classes brings them into contact with the lower orders upon rather more liberal terms than the situation of the mere landed proprietor’; they are consequently less well-disposed towards ‘coercive and arbitrary measures of government’.38

In 1808 Mill met Bentham, and their close collaboration began soon after. This meeting marked a turning point in both men's careers. Bentham provided Mill with a comprehensive doctrine which he adopted avidly. Mill became Bentham's first British disciple, and acted, especially in the early years of their partnership, as editor and collator of Bentham's disorderly writings. More significantly, Mill was the propagator of the master's gospel, the intermediary between the scholarly recluse and the world of action which Bentham so much wished to influence. As both John Stuart Mill and Halévy have made clear, without James Mill's vigorous, yet self-effacing, single-mindedness, Bentham's doctrines would have stood little chance of becoming well-known in his own country, and philosophical radicalism might never have become an active political force.

Mill seems to have acted as a catalyst in the development of Bentham's political views. According to Halévy, ‘the intrusion into [Bentham's] life of James Mill was needed to make him a democrat’.39 This has been disputed by Bentham's most recent biographer, Professor Mack, who points out that Bentham had already written on the subject of parliamentary reform in the 1790's.40 But Professor Mack underestimates the extent of Bentham's revulsion from democratic ideas in the intervening period before his meeting with Mill. Mill's career as a propagandist for the radical cause began in 1807 with Commerce Defended. Soon after the meeting with Bentham he was practically in full stride, introducing into his articles for the Edinburgh Review arguments for strengthening the safeguards of ‘the people’ against the depredations inherent in all aristocratic forms of government. In Oct. 1808, for example, he wrote: ‘The great problem of government is to find a countervailing force, equally steady and regular in its operation, to prevent those gradual changes in favour of aristocracy which the common state of things has so strong a tendency to produce.’41 He looked to an ‘improvement in the science of government’ as the means by which the conflict between the interests of the many and the few could be resolved. In a subsquent article he was more explicit, though still favouring a gradualist approach. It might not be wise to trust the people to form a new constitution, but the administration of the constitution required their full participation:

Here there is something which must be done by the people; or it is ridiculous to talk of doing anything for them. Whenever the interests of two sets of people are combined together in one concern, if the entire management be left to one, it is perfectly clear that this managing set will draw, by degrees, all the advantages to their own side, and thus all the disadvantages to the other.42

These articles contain the essence, if not the later display of logical rigour, of Mill's Essay on Government (1820); and they were published before Bentham began work in 1810 on his Plan of Parliamentary Reform. Mill and Bentham approached radicalism from different directions. Both went through a period of believing that change could be brought about through existing aristocratic institutions; both became disillusioned. The difference was simply that Bentham was a disillusioned Tory while Mill was a disillusioned Whig.

It appears then that Bain was wrong in suggesting that prior to the Essay on Government, ‘Mill had little or no opportunity for explaining his view of the theory of government’ because ‘Jeffrey would not trust the subject to him in the Edinburgh’.43 But Bain was quite right to believe that Jeffrey had considerable misgivings about Mill's views and thought it necessary to edit his contributions severely. This fact emerges from a letter which Jeffrey wrote to Brougham in 1809 defending himself from what was obviously a strongly-worded attack on Mill's articles by the latter; the letter also gives some idea of the opposition aroused by Mill's relatively mild views on reform at this time. Jeffrey claimed that it was difficult to fill the review with first class material so that he was not always in a position to refuse Mill's contributions. He promised to cut them down to size in future and went on to say: ‘I think him a clumsy verbose and rash writer, rather vulgar minded and not a little presumptuous, and for all these reasons more safely employed in drudgery than high speculation.’ In his next letter Jeffrey said that he saw clearly ‘the necessity of keeping [Mill] to lower ground, for there is a vulgarity in his arrogance and his Jacobinism that not only does us discredit but puts one out of humour with decidedness and love of liberty’.44 Mill had ample revenge later for the indignities which he suffered at Jeffrey's hands; he wrote a withering denunciation of the timidity of the Edinburgh Review in matters of reform for the first number of the Westminster Review.

Mill continued to write for the Edinburgh Review for a number of years, but in 1816 he found a better platform for expounding the utilitarian creed in the Supplement to the 4th, 5th and 6th editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The articles which he wrote for the Supplement over the period up to 1823 eventually covered the whole range of utilitarian interests45 ; they were among Mill's most effective pieces of propaganda, and several of the most important of them were widely circulated when separately reprinted. The best-known of these articles was Mill's Essay on Government, which laid down succinctly, though not unequivocally, the utilitarian theory of government. In this essay he put forward a case for democratic forms of government, based not on natural rights, but on the view that only under democracy could the selfish interests of rulers be made to coincide with those of the community at large.

One controversial feature of this essay, which deserves mention here because it has a bearing on Mill's economic ideas, is the eulogy of the middle-classes with which the essay closes. Although Mill did not wish to exclude the working-classes from the suffrage, he clearly believed that they would and should be guided in their social and political habits by the example of a numerous, enlightened middle-class.46 Mill's stress on the importance of middle-class virtues as a political bulwark was not simply part of an attempt to curry favour with this growing section of society. He was in fact quite critical of existing middle-class attitudes; and it seems likely that the English middle-classes would have had considerable misgivings about accepting Mill as their spokesman. Mill's ideal society or polity appears to have been one in which an educated bourgeoisie, untainted by excessive wealth or poverty, predominated.47 This view, which does not seem to have been a part of Bentham's way of thinking, is Mill's inheritance from the Scottish sociological tradition. Mill followed Millar, Smith and Hume in believing that a wider distribution of property was favourable to liberal political institutions and economic progress. A society in which wealth (and consequently power) was concentrated in a few hands was inimical to the development of intellectual virtues, prudence and thrift. The only consistent ‘countervailing force’ against the constant tendency towards aristocratic encroachment and a ‘dependent’ society lay in the middle-classes. Mill's views on this question were well-defined by as early as 1811:

A middling class is itself…a creation of civilisation. It had no existence in the rude state of society; and it increases as the benefits of civilisation increase. It has always been our faith and trust, that in this class, and the circumstances connected with it, a power is really provided sufficient to prevent the passive or active principles of despotism in other classes from finally consummating their deplorable consequences…48

These elements, quite as much as the principle of utility, went into the making of Mill's case for political reform.

The reform of political institutions, chiefly through a widening of the suffrage and the introduction of the ballot, was only one plank in the utilitarian programme for the reorganisation of society on rational and just lines. Bentham had started out as a legal reformer, anxious to climinate the uncertainties and illogicalities of the English legal system; and it was this which originally brought Bentham and Mill together. When Mill first arrived in London he entertained the idea of giving classes in law and even of entering for the Bar.49 It was this early interest in law and jurisprudence that led Mill to read Bentham's works.50 Most of the early projects undertaken by Mill in Bentham's service concern legal reform; in the course of their long collaboration Mill edited many of the master's writings on these subjects, and wrote a good deal himself on prisons, penal law, codification and the laws of evidence.

On one topic, namely the law relating to freedom of the press, Mill with his practical experience as a journalist had much to offer Bentham. As a lifelong propagandist who placed great faith in the power of reason and the written word, the freedom of the press was of particular interest to Mill. He believed that a free press was an essential adjunct to a working democracy, for by this means public men could be brought under the constant pressure of public approval or disapproval. It follows from this attitude that in his eyes the worst crime a man could commit was that of misleading the public. He constantly sought new ‘means of obtaining access to the public mind’, new channels through which the ‘truth’ could be put before a large audience.

As any reader of his son's Autobiography must be aware, James Mill held strong views on education. He was the schoolmaster par excellence. To a large extent his fame rests on his rôle as teacher and guide to a whole generation of utilitarians, of whom, his son, Ricardo, Place and Grote were only most notable. He was also discreetly involved in many of the early nineteenth-century schemes for making education available to those who by virtue of poverty or religion were excluded from the existing system. He entered into the Lancaster-Bell controversy in opposition to Bell's Anglican supporters who wished to keep popular education in the hands of the established Church51 ; he helped to found the West London Lancasterian Association in 1813; and was probably responsible for stimulating Bentham's interest in establishing a Chrestomathic School. Most of these early efforts, however, were unsuccessful.

Mill's financial burdens were lightened to some extent by his association with Bentham. In 1814, after an abortive earlier attempt, Bentham succeeded in settling Mill's family in a house near his own. Bentham leased a house in Queen's Square which Mill rented, initially at least, at half-price. From 1809 until 1818 it was customary for the Mill family to accompany Bentham for part of the year to his country residence, Barrow Green, and later, Ford Abbey. Here Bentham could call on Mill's company and assistance, while Mill was free to work on his History of British India.52 This situation of close intimacy and partial dependence was not without friction. In 1814 an incident occurred which nearly led to complete separation: Bentham took umbrage because Mill went riding with Joseph Hume instead of walking with him. Mill's restrained and dignified letter to Bentham after the event does him great credit. He proposed that they should cease to live so closely in the future; but was most anxious that, for the good of the ‘grand cause’ in which they served as master and ‘faithful and fervent disciple’, they should conceal their personal differences from the outside world. He entertained the idea of leaving the house which he rented from Bentham to take up residence in France, where he believed that he could live more cheaply.53 Mill's insecurity and money worries at this time were a source of anxiety to his friends. Francis Place proposed to raise £3,000 by subscription and to have it secretly deposited to Mill's account. The scheme came to nothing, probably as a result of fears of offending Mill's pride.54 Nevertheless, it seems likely that Place, who managed Mill's financial affairs, lent him money during this period.

The break with Bentham did not take place in 1814, but the situation was never completely satisfactory after this. Bentham continued to find Mill indispensable, while Mill for his part felt a sense of obligation to his ageing and irascible master. The nature of their relationship can be illustrated by the following letter which Mill wrote to Place when Bentham decided to undertake expensive repairs to Mill's house.

Ought I to permit so much expense to be incurred on my account when it may not be in my power to fulfil the expectations grounded upon it–this I do indeed feel to be a mighty consideration, but on the other hand there are considerations too–if this [outlay?] has a reference to my abode it stresses he thinks my being near him a thing of no small importance to his happiness and though I have no doubt he would soon learn to do without me, yet I could not forgive myself if I did anything to impair his happiness for any part of his now contracted time. [Bentham lived a further thirteen years] Another thing is, it is really a source of happiness to myself to be near him, and [though?] there are no small incompatibilities between us I could not part from him without a good deal of emotion. The union in intellectuals, which is perfect, with the first man for intellectuals in his age, cannot fail to be a source of pleasure, and in the morals and sympathies with a good many clashings between him and me, there is also much in his character to love, his sincerity and simplicity of character it would not be easy to match and there is nothing which goes so far as these two qualities in laying the foundation of attachment.55

Towards the end of 1817 Mill completed his History of British India. Not long after its publication in Jan. 1818 the possibility that Mill might get a job with the East India Company was mentioned56 ; and in the following year he was appointed Assistant Examiner at a salary of £800 per annum. Influence may have been exerted in Mill's favour by Joseph Hume, Ricardo and Grote, but the History was undoubtedly the main factor making for success.57 Mill was aware that Canning, the President of the Board of Control, was favourably impressed by his book, but felt, quite naturally, that his radical opinions on domestic political issues would make him unacceptable to the Company. But the Company needed able men at this time to accomplish the reform of their legal and administrative machinery. The Evangelical group rising to power within the Company did not accept Mill's political and religious ideas, but they were in basic agreement with the view which Mill stressed throughout his History, namely that India should be governed according to British rather than ‘native’ standards.58

Mill's appointment placed him in a position of power for the first time; he now had a unique opportunity to put into practice the legal, administrative and economic ideas of philosophical radicalism. His pleasure at finding himself in this position emerges plainly from the following letter which he wrote to Dumont explaining his duties:

The time of attendance is from 10 till 4, six hours; and the business though laborious enough, is to me highly interesting. It is the very essence of the internal government of 60 millions of people with which I have to deal: and as you know that the government of India is carried on by Correspondence, and that I am the only man whose business it is, or who has the time, to make himself master of the facts scattered in a most voluminous correspondence, on which a just decision must rest, you will conceive to what an extent the real decision on matters belonging to my department rests with the man in my situation.59

A further result of Mill's appointment was that he became financially independent. When his salary rose to £1,000 per annum in 1821 he informed Dumont that ‘with my humble habits, large as my family is, I now think myself rich’.60 Although he continued to live close to Bentham in Queen's Square until 1830, his increasing absorption in Indian affairs meant that the two men saw less of each other; and while in all intellectual matters they remained allies, their personal relations gradually became less friendly and more diplomatic.61

In the 1820's, under the fatherly eye of James Mill and with the aid of the enthusiasm of the younger utilitarians led by John, the philosophical radical movement gained in strength and confidence. The most obvious external sign of this was the foundation of the Westminster Review in 1824. Mill's duties at India House made it impossible for him to accept the post of editor for which he was eminently qualified. But despite his dislike of Bentham's choice as editor, John Bowring, Mill made ample use of the opportunity to express his views in a radical journal, freed from the interference of a Jeffrey, and the restraint required when writing for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Apart from the thunderous articles which he wrote for the Westminster Review, Mill also found time from his official duties to write two major works during this period: the Elements of Political Economy (1821) and the Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829).

By 1830 Mill had reached the zenith of his career and influence. He was by this time in a position to adopt a comfortable style of life, with a new house in Kensington and a cottage in the country at Mickleham. Added to this was the satisfaction of seeing many of the causes for which he had worked so long, reaching fruition. University College, an outgrowth of earlier education schemes, had been launched; and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge had begun its series of publications in an effort to acquaint the adult working classes with the reasons and appropriate remedies for their condition. Together with Brougham, Mill had played an important part in both of these projects. At India House he was now Chief Examiner, and his importance to the Company was made plain by the dominant part which he played in explaining and defending the Company's policy before the Select Committee in 1831-2.62 In 1834 he felt able to claim that ‘India will be the first country on earth to boast a system of law and judicature as near perfection as the circumstances of the people would admit’.63 On the domestic political front the reform movement was gradually achieving success. After the Reform Bill had been passed, Mill found himself in the flattering position of elder statesman and adviser to Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, and to the radical group which was then represented in Parliament. Moreover, when he died in 1836, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he left behind him in John Stuart Mill a ‘worthy successor’.

James Mill was the most uncompromising exponent of the utilitarian point of view in the early nineteenth century; he contributed to every aspect of its theory—legal, political, ethical and psychological—and was involved in most of the schemes to put these principles into practice. There were no loose ends in Mill's make-up; precept and practice were united; the man, his life, personality and writings were one. For this reason it is impossible to avoid making some reference to his character. It must be admitted that the picture which emerges from Mill's writings is not a very engaging one. He seems to personify many of the worst characteristics of ‘steam intellect’ utilitarianism. The list of charges against him is formidable: he has been described as pedantic, dogmatic, pontifical, narrow, austere and authoritarian. Readers of his son's Autobiography will not be able to avoid the impression of a stern, humourless disciplinarian, antipathetic to spontaneity and feeling. When so much has been said against Mill, it can hardly do much harm to remember a few of the things to be said in his favour.

For many, the most telling evidence of Mill's shortcomings as a person is to be found in the manner and aim of his son's education.64 It may be worth recording that Mill was not entirely unaware of his faults in this respect. In advising Francis Place on the education of his son, Mill gave the following warning:

Neither expect nor exact too great things from him—that is the fault of all of us whose notions of perfection are high and aspirations after it keen. You will find him all that you are entitled to expect and more, after that you must be prepared with a proper stock of allowance. This is a doctrine you have full as much need to preach to me as I to you.65

There was obviously more to Mill than can be gleaned simply from his writings, otherwise it is difficult to explain his wide circle of friends and the influence which he exerted on contemporaries who were at least his equal in intellect. We know that he made a special study of rhetoric, and all those who met him testify to the impressiveness of his conversational powers. One did not have to be a small boy to be swayed and dominated by Mill's powerful personality. A good example of this can be found in Mrs Grote's biography of her husband. When they first met George Grote recorded of Mill that ‘his mind, has indeed, all that cynicism and asperity which belong to the Benthamian school, and what I chiefly dislike in him, is the readiness and seeming preference with which he dwells on the faults and defects of others—even of the greatest men!’ This view did not last long.

Before many months, ascendancy of James Mill's powerful mind over his younger companion made itself apparent. George Grote began by admiring the wisdom, the acuteness, the depths of Mill's character. Presently he found himself enthralled in the circle of Mill's speculations, and after a year or two of intimate commerce there existed but little difference, in point of opinion between master and pupil…

Although his own nature was of a gentle, charitable, humane quality, his fine intellect was worked upon by the inexorable teacher with so much persuasive power, that Grote found himself inoculated, as it were, with the conclusions of the former, almost without a choice; since the subtle reasoning of Mr Mill appeared to his logical mind to admit of no refutation…

This able dogmatist exercised considerable influence over other young men of that day, as well as over Grote. He was, indeed, a propagandist of a high order, equally master of the pen and of speech. Moreover, he possessed the faculty of kindling in his audience the generous impulses towards the popular side, both in politics and social theories; leading them, at the same time, to regard the cultivation of individual affections and sympathies as destructive of lofty aims, and indubitably hurtful to the mental character.

So attractive came to be the conceptions of duty towards mankind at large, as embodied in James Mill's eloquent discourse, that the young disciples, becoming fired with patriotic ardour on the one hand and with bitter antipathies on the other, respectively braced themselves up, prepared to wage battle when the day should come, in behalf of ‘the true faith’, according to Mill's ‘programme’ and preaching.66

Mill was equally capable of winning the respect of his opponents. Thomas Macaulay, for example, had attacked the utilitarian point of view, as expressed in Mill's Essay on Government, root and branch. Yet Mill, acting in an entirely non-partisan spirit, recommended Macaulay for a post in the government of India which Mill had specifically advised should go to a man capable of taking a philosophic view of politics. As a result of this the two men met and became friends. Even though Macaulay's political views were unchanged, he omitted from the collected edition of his writings the articles in which he attacked Mill, because he felt that they did not do justice to his opponent's talents.

Mill's virtues were considerable, but they tended to be public rather than private virtues. As his close friend and admirer Francis Place put it: ‘He could help the mass, but he could not help the individual, not even himself, or his own.’67 He was diligent, scrupulous and dedicated in the service of what he believed would be for the good of the greatest number. The moral intensity of his religious upbringing was transferred to his faith in the ‘march of the mind’. In spite of a personal belief that human life was ‘a poor thing at best, after the freshness of youth and of unsatisfied curiosity had gone by’, his confidence in the power of reason, education and good government to improve the lives of the mass of society made him an impatient optimist, anxious to force the pace of change. And when one remembers the abuses and the nature of the opposition to change at the time, it is easy to understand his impatience.

So far as Mill's writings are concerned, it must be said that he never claimed originality, merely certainty. He would have been the first to admit that most of his works were expositions or elaborations of systems of thought which others had initiated. Despite the philosophic or ‘scientific’ tone of many of Mill's writings, they were, for the most part, written with a limited propaganda target in view. This is the source both of their weakness as enduring or subtle contributions to social and political theory, and of their interest to the historian. His son, who felt the full weight of his father's personality, has left us with what is still the best epitaph for James Mill: ‘He did injustice to his own opinions by the unconscious exaggeration of an intellect emphatically polemical.’

[1]The only complete biography is still that of Alexander Bain (James Mill: A Biography, London, 1882) which provides the backbone of the account given here, though some attempt has been made to supplement Bain where new material was available.

[2]Bain's account of Mill's studies (op. cit., pp. 13-17) can be supplemented by a memorandum on the normal curriculum for an Edinburgh student drawn up by Mill for guidance in setting up Bentham's Chrestomathic school. ‘The days of study are five in the week, and the months in the year rather less than six. First Year—Latin two hours a day, Greek two hours a day, mathematics two hours a day. Second Year—Latin one hour, mathematics one hour, Greek two hours, logic one hour. Third Year—Moral Philosophy one hour with a repetition of the second mathematical and Greek classes as often as the student chuses. Fourth Year—Natural Philosophy, or rather mechanical philosophy, one hour, with a repetition of any of the preceding classes the student chuses. This is the regular course of preparatory discipline for the two professions of Law and Divinity—after which they ascend to the classes appropriate to the teaching of Law and Divinity.’ Bentham MSS., University College, London, Box 165, f.2. I am indebted to Professor J. M. Robson for drawing my attention to this item.

[3]Letter to Macvey Napier, cited in Bain, op. cit., p. 16.

[4]John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, Columbia University Press, New York, 1924, p. 15.

[5]In a review of Jamieson's Dictionary of the Scottish Language for the Monthly Review, Sep. 1810, vol. LXIII, pp. 11-31, he speaks of the ‘natural disposition of every man who writes to accommodate himself to the understanding and taste of the greatest possible number of readers’.

[6]See G. Wallas, Life of Francis Place, London, 1898, pp. 70-71n. Bentham knew some of the facts, see The Works of Jeremy Bentham (ed. J. Bowring), Edinburgh, 1843, vol. X, p. 483; but John Stuart Mill was forced to write to Scottish friends of his father for the basic facts of his father's early life. See Bain, op. cit., p. IIn.

[7]See Liberty of the Press in the Supplement to the 4th, 5th and 6th editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, London, 1824. Ricardo found these exceptions inconsistent with Mill's general position, see The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo (ed. P. Sraffa), Cambridge University Press, 1952, vol. IX, p. 103. (Hereafter referred to as works.)

[8]Letter to J. Crompton, 26 Oct. 1873, reprinted in F. A. Hayek's John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1951, p. 286.

[9]Autobiography, p. 143.

[10]See The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill: 1812-1848 (ed. F. E. Mineka), University of Toronto Press, Toronto, vol. II, p. 566 and also pp. 638-9.

[11]Collected Works (ed. Sir W. Hamilton), Edinburgh, 1885, vol. X, p. 34.

[12]See his review of Villers in the Literary Journal, Jan. 1805, vol. V, pp. 80-88; his translation is advertised on p. II0.

[13]An Essay on the Spirit and Influence of the Reformation of Luther by C. Villers, Translated and Illustrated with Copious Notes by James Mill, London, 1805. See particularly his long quotations from Dugald Stewart, pp. 25-33. The other notes are also taken from Scottish sources; W. Robertson (pp. 73-77; 147-55); Reid (pp. 317-18); Millar (pp. 232-7).

[14]See below, p. 195.

[15]See below, pp. 383-5.

[16]Essay on the Reformation, pp. 99-100. He is particularly harsh on Hume who stood condemned both for his toryism and his atheism. ‘Hume, who through the whole course of his history, lies in wait for an opportunity of throwing discredit upon the cause both of religion and liberty, who possessed a rooted enmity against all the best interests of mankind, and whose actions admit more of deliberate misanthropy than those of any other man perhaps that ever lived…’, p. 108.

[17]See below, p. 153.

[18]Edinburgh Review, Jan. 1809, vol XIII, p. 280.

[19]Bain, op. cit., pp. 88-91.

[20]Letter to Ricardo, 3 Dec. 1817, in Ricardo's Works, vol. VII, pp. 212-13. It is not unfair perhaps to point out that this letter implies that he abandoned religious belief immediately upon leaving the priesthood: outright conversion to agnosticism did not come until several years later.

[21]Autobiography, p. 28.

[22]Op. cit., p. 318.

[23]Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, May 1802, vol. XII, pp. 1-13.

[24]See Literary Journal, Jan. 1806, pp. 1ff; Mar. 1806, p. 235 and Jun. 1806.

[25]Mill renounced his former beliefs in a mildly critical review of Dugald Stewart's Elements of the Philosophy of the Mind for the British Review, Aug. 1815, vol. VII, pp. 170-200. On this subject see E. Halévy, Growth of Philosophical Radicalism, Macmillan, London, 1928, pp. 437ff.

[26]Op. cit., Jun. 1806, pp. 624-9.

[27]Autobiography, p. 6.

[28]Ricardo's Works, vol. VII, p. 197; see also below, p. 187.

[29]’Castes’ in the Supplement to the 4th, 5th and 6th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Edinburgh, 1824, vol. II, pp. 648.

[30]On this, see R. L. Meek, ‘The Scottish Contribution to Marxist Sociology’, Democracy and the Labour Movement (ed. J. Saville), London, 1954; and D. Forbes, ‘scientific Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Millar’, Cambridge Journal, Aug. 1954, vol. VII, pp. 643-70.

[31]Ricardo's Works, vol. VI, p. 307.

[32]See Bain, op. cit., pp. 38-44.

[33]See Essay on Impolicy, pp. 71-72 below (italics supplied); see also Villers's Essay, p. 186

[34]See below, pp. 81-82. Adam Smith had also believed that the landlords had been more backward than the merchants and manufacturers in pressing their interests. Mill's view may simply reflect the influence of Smith on his work at this time; see below, pp. 23-24 for comment on this.

[35]See below, p.157.

[36]The ideological content of these debates is brought out in R. L. Meek's ‘Early Theories of Under-Consumption’ as reprinted in his Economics of Physiocracy, Allen and Unwin, London, 1962, pp. 313-44.

[37]See below, p. 96.

[38]See below, pp. 154-5.

[39]Growth of Philosophical Radicalism, p. 255.

[40]M. P. Mack, Jeremy Bentham; 1748-1792, Heinemann, London, 1962, pp. 438-41.

[41]‘Leckie's Foreign Policy’, Edinburgh Review, Oct. 1808, vol. XIII, p. 197.

[42]‘Emancipation of Spanish America’, Edinburgh Review, Jan. 1809, vol, XIII, p. 305. See also p. 308 where he says that if the basis of representation is made too wide ‘you incur the inconvenience of the ignorant and precipitate passions of the vulgar. In rendering it too narrow, you incur what is still worse, the mischief of bribery and corruption.’

[43]Op. cit., pp. 216-17.

[44]Letters to Brougham, 19 Oct. 1809 and 25 Nov. 1809, Brougham MSS., University College, London. The second letter was written after Mill's article ‘Bexon's Code’ had appeared in the review (Oct. 1809, vol. XV).

[45]For a full list see the bibliography appended to this volume.

[46]For an interesting discussion of this point see J. D. Hamburger, ‘James Mill on Universal Suffrage and the Middle Class’, The Journal of Politics, 1962, vol. 24, pp. 167-90.

[47]or further discussion of this in relation to Mill's economic writings see below, pp. 195-6.

[48]'sur la Souveraineté’, Edinburgh Review, Feb. 1811, vol. XVII, p. 417.

[49]Bain, op. cit., p. 38.

[50]He claimed to be acquainted with Bentham's writings before they actually met. In his notes to Villers's Essay Mill speaks of the Prussian Code with apparent authority and adopts the Benthamite position in criticising those legal systems ‘which consist of vast unmanageable accumulations of cases and precedents’ (op. cit., p. 187).

[51]See his pamphlet Schools for All, London, 1812.

[52]In 1817, the year the History was published, ten months were spent in the comparative solitude of Ford Abbey.

[53]See Bain, op. cit., pp. 136-40; and letter from F. Place to E. Wakefield, Dec. 1814, B.M. Add. MSS., 3512, f. 116.

[54]The tone of the proceedings can be guaged by a letter from F. Place to E. Wakefield, 7 Oct. 1814. (B.M. Add. MSS., 35142, f.89 and reply, f.100.) Place writes: ‘I was convinced that he was struggling with poverty, and that it was a disgrace to his friends to permit him to remain in such a situation… Shall such a man be left to the chance of sickness to reduce him to absolute want, shall he be destroyed by anxiety and corroding cares, which the firmest mind cannot always repel when no prospect of better days presents itself… I will put down £250, Lamb I cannot doubt will do the same, Mr Bentham should put down £500—then there is Mr Allen, Ricardo, Brougham, Romilly, Wedgewood, etc.’

[55]Letter to Place, 13 Sep. 1818. B.M. Add. MSS., 35153, f. 50. See also Letter to Ricardo, 24 Aug. 1817, Ricardo's Works, vol. VII, p. 182.

[56]See letter from Mill to W. Thompson, 22 Feb. 1818, in Bain, op. cit., p. 167.

[57]Place's account in a letter to T. Hodgskin, 8 Sep. 1819 (B.M. Add. MSS., 3513), makes this clear.

[58]On this see below, pp. 385-91. The Evangelical and utilitarian contributions to the change which took place after 1818 in the British attitude to Indian government are discussed by P. Spear, ‘Bentinck and Education’, Cambridge Historical Journal, 1938, vol. X, pp. 78-101. The two doctrines are compared and contrasted in E. Stokes, The English Utilitarians and India, Oxford University Press, London, 1959, pp. 54-58. Before his appointment, Mill gave assurances to one of the leaders of the Evangelicals, Zachary Macaulay, that he would fall in with Charles Grant's views or resign if he could not agree. See letter to Macaulay, 13 Apr. 1819 reprinted in Lady Knutsford's Life and Letters of Zachary Macaulay, London, 1880, pp. 341-8.

[59]Letter to Dumont, 13 Dec. 1918. Dumont MSS., Bibliothéque Publique de Genève.

[60]Letter to Dumont, 8 Jun. 1821, ibid.

[61]In 1827 they quarrelled once more, this time over books borrowed by Mill. They were removed from Mill's house (together with some of Mill's own books) by Bentham's nephew. In the Bentham MSS. at University College, London, there is a very curt, sarcastic note from Mill congratulating Bentham on the ‘handsome manner’ in which his nephew had acted. (Box 10, f. 187.) Bentham passed on to Bowring a number of sharp criticisms of Mill's character, which drew an indignant defence from John Stuart Mill when they were repeated by a reviewer of Bowring's edition of Bentham's Works.

[62]For more on this see below, p. 393.

[63]Letter to Brougham, 27 Aug. 1834 in Bain, op. cit., pp. 374-5.

[64]For a recent defence of Mill's methods, however, see H. O. Pappé's review of The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (ed. J. Stillinger) in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Jul. 1962, vol. LXI, pp. 657-9. Dr Pappé concludes that ‘James Mill was a remarkable educator for a pupil such as his son, and that John gained more than he lost from the mode of his education’.

[65]Letter to Place, 27 Oct. 1816. B.M. Add. MSS., 3512, f. 227

[66]The Personal Life of George Grote, London, 1873, pp. 22-24.

[67]G. Wallas, op. cit., p. 79.

Last modified April 13, 2016