Hayek on Mill’s early letters: Collected Works vol. XII

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Source: Editor's introduction to The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XII - The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill 1812-1848 Part I, ed. Francis E. Mineka, Introduction by F.A. Hayek (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).

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Introduction by F. A. Hayek

john stuart mill has not been altogether fortunate in the manner in which his memory was served by those most concerned and best authorized to honour it. It is true that his stepdaughter, heir, and literary executor, Helen Taylor, promptly published the Autobiography, which chiefly determined the picture posterity formed of Mill, and that the only other manuscript ready for publication was also rapidly printed. But during the next forty years, while Mill’s fame persisted undiminished, little was done either to make his literary work more readily accessible or his other activities better known. There are few figures of comparable standing whose works have had to wait nearly a hundred years for a collected edition in English to be published. Nor, while his reputation was at its height, did any significant information become available that would have enabled another hand to round off the somewhat angular and fragmentary picture Mill had given of himself. He had been quite aware that his more public activities would be of interest to later generations and had begun to mark some of the copies of his letters which he had kept as suitable for publication. But Helen Taylor appears increasingly to have been more concerned to prevent others from encroaching upon her proprietary rights than to push on with her own plans for publication. It was only when the material so jealously guarded by her finally passed to one of Mrs. Mill’s granddaughters, Mary Taylor, that an outsider was called in to publish some of the more readily accessible correspondence. Again, however, Mary Taylor reserved to herself part of the task which she was hardly qualified to carry out and in fact did not bring to completion. When at last after her death the papers in her possession became generally accessible, interest in Mill seems to have been at a low point and those papers were allowed to be widely dispersed. Nothing illustrates better the temporary eclipse of his fame than that some of the institutions which then acquired important parts of these papers did not trouble to catalogue them for another fifteen years.

It would seem that at least in his native country, during the period between the two great wars, Mill was regarded as one of those outmoded figures of the recent past whose ideas have ceased to be interesting because they have become commonplace. Most of the battles he fought had been won and to many of those who knew his name he probably appeared as a somewhat dim figure whose On Liberty they had been made to read at school but whose “Victorian” outlook had lost most of its appeal. There was, perhaps, also some suspicion that his reputation had been somewhat exaggerated and that he had not been a great original genius but rather an honest, hardworking, and lucid expositor of ideas that other and greater minds had originated. He even came to be regarded, very unjustly, as the last of the “orthodox” tradition in economics and politics. In fact, however, few men have done more to create the intellectual climate in which most of what he stood for was finally taken for granted.

The gradual but steady revival of the interest in John Stuart Mill in the course of the last twenty years is based on a truer understanding of the significance of his work.1 Though nothing could be more misleading than to represent him as a “typical” Victorian or a “typical” Englishman (he certainly was neither), he was one of the most representative figures of the changes of thought that were germinating during his lifetime. During the forty years after his death he governed liberal thought as did no other man, and as late as 1914 he was still the chief source of inspiration of the progressive part of the intellectuals of the West—of the men whose dream of an indefinitely peaceful progress and expansion of Western civilization was shattered by the cataclysms of war and revolution. But even to that development Mill had unquestionably contributed by his sympathies for the rising aspirations of national self-determination and of socialism. His reputation declined with the confidence in the steady advance of civilization in which he had believed, and for a time the kind of minds who had believed in him were attracted by more revolutionary thinkers.

It must probably still be admitted that it is not so much for the originality of his thinking as for its influence on a world now past that Mill is chiefly of importance today. We may still discover that he is a better guide to many of our present problems than is generally appreciated. But there can be no question that his influence is such that to the historian of thought all information we have about Mill’s activities, his contacts, and about the channels through which ideas reached him and through which he acted upon others is nearly as important as his published work. This is particularly true of a man like Mill who strove to keep his mind open to new ideas but upon whom accident and personal idiosyncrasies nevertheless acted to decide in some measure what would and what would not enter his system of thought.

The present volume contains some of the most important sources of information we have on all the different spheres of Mill’s activities. The work on the collection of these letters started about the same time as the new interest in Mill began to make itself felt but for reasons presently to be explained, publication has been long delayed. Some of the early results of these efforts have however already been used in various contributions to our knowledge of Mill which have appeared during this period, particularly in Mr. Michael Packe’s vivid Life of John Stuart Mill (1954). The following brief account of the circumstances which led to the present edition may be found useful.

Although more than fifty years ago there were published two volumes of Letters of John Stuart Mill, edited by Hugh S. R. Elliot, these were in the main confined to the last twenty-five years of Mill’s life. Of the earlier and most productive period the edition contained only three series of letters which happened to have been returned to Mill or his heirs. Many more belonging to this period have been published in some thirty different places, while an even larger number of unpublished letters was found to be dispersed among many private and public collections.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs, of which every student of nineteenth-century ideas must soon become aware, induced me nearly twenty years ago to attempt to bring together the main body of Mill’s early correspondence as a supplement to the existing collection. This soon proved a much bigger task than I had anticipated and a task, moreover, which in one sense I had started too late and in another sense too early. Eighteen or even thirteen years earlier I should still have found together all or at least part of Mill’s own papers which in the meantime had been dispersed; and as it soon appeared, much important information had been destroyed by fire during the bombing of London only a few months before I started my work. On the other hand, wartime conditions in England made inaccessible for the next five years some of the material that had to be examined. In the circumstances I carried the task of collection as far as was then possible, but had in the late forties to postpone its completion, first temporarily and then, consequent upon my move from London to Chicago, indefinitely. By then I had completed the editing of one rather special set of Mill’s letters which, for reasons explained in the Introduction to the edition published in 1951 (John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage [London and Chicago, 1951]) seemed to demand separate treatment. That experience taught me that if I was not for years to abandon all my other work I could not adequately perform the same task for the complete collection. I was therefore only too grateful when not long after, an expert in the field, Professor Francis E. Mineka of Cornell University, agreed to assume responsibility for that arduous task. The editing of the present volume is entirely his and in the course of this work he has also been able to add to the collection of transcripts I had assembled over sixty additional hitherto unpublished letters by Mill.

It may be useful if, before commenting on the character of the present volumes, I give a brief account of the fate of the books and papers which were in Mill’s possession at the time of his death, so far as this became known in the course of the search for his letters. Mill died on May 7, 1873, at Avignon, where for the preceding fifteen years he had spent much of his time in the house he had bought to be near his wife’s grave.2 His stepdaughter and sole heir, Helen Taylor, continued to live there most of the time for another thirty years, jealously guarding her exclusive rights to all of Mill’s literary remains and steadfastly refusing requests for permission to publish any of his letters. The draft of a letter of hers written not long after Mill’s death (on the back of a letter addressed to her, dated July 30, 1873) shows that she was then contemplating publication of some of his letters:

I have all my dear stepfather’s letters, preserved, looked through from time to time by himself, arranged in order by myself, and left by him in my hands with directions, verbal and written, to deal with them according to my judgement. When the more pressing task of the publication of his MSS. is completed, I shall, if I live, occupy myself with his correspondence, if I do not live it will be for my literary Executors to decide what to do with it.3

It seems that by “all [her] dear stepfather’s letters” she meant no more than the drafts he had begun to keep from about 1848 or 1849. But she did make some efforts to recover from the heirs of his correspondents sets of earlier letters in exchange for those written to him and it was probably in this manner that the letters to Sterling and Bulwer included in the Elliot edition came to be among the Mill papers.

Nothing came of Helen Taylor’s plans for publication and the Mill papers rested at the Avignon cottage until 1904, when Helen Taylor’s niece Mary Taylor (the younger daughter of Mrs. Mill’s son Algernon) succeeded in persuading the old lady, who at seventy-three appears to have been somewhat peculiar and senile, to return to England. Early in 1905 a friend of Mary Taylor’s (Mary Ann Trimble, who earlier had spent some time at Avignon with Mary Taylor) returned to Avignon and, with the assistance of a married couple who had accompanied her from England (according to a diary Mary Taylor kept at the time) did there “the work of three months in three weeks. Half a ton of letters to be sorted, all manner of rubbish to be separated from useful things, books to be dusted and selected from, arrangements to be made for sale, and 18 boxes to be packed.”4

A considerable part of Mill’s library and at least some of his papers were disposed of at a sale held at Avignon from May 21 to 28, 1905.5 Some of the manuscripts were acquired by a local bookseller, Romanille, from whom at least one bound volume was bought by an American scholar,6 while a London clergyman bought a manuscript entitled “On Social Freedom” which he published (reputedly with the consent of Helen Taylor, who had died a few months before it appeared) as a posthumous work of Mill in the Oxford and Cambridge Review of June, 1907, and which was republished in book form under Mill’s name as late as 1941, though it now appears that it was not a work by Mill but a manuscript sent to Mill for his opinion by one of his admirers.7

On their return to England Helen Taylor had been taken by her niece to Devon, where she died at Torquay on January 29, 1907. As she appears, in the words of the younger woman, long before that time to have “lost her memory to a great extent,” all business, even the signing of legal documents, was conducted on her behalf by Mary Taylor. One of the first steps taken by the latter soon after the return to England was, on the advice of John Morley, to give that part of Mill’s and Helen Taylor’s library which had been stored in London to Somerville College (one of the women’s colleges at Oxford). Miss Taylor retained a few books and Somerville College was to be entitled to dispose of what it did not want and in the course of 1906 actually sold some of the books.8

It seems that shortly after Helen Taylor’s death Mary Taylor placed the collection of Mill’s correspondence in the hand of Mr. Hugh S. R. Elliot. Little is known about him or the authority he was given and the fragments of information we have about the proceedings are somewhat puzzling. There is extant an account by Mr. Elliot of his relations to Mary Taylor9 from which the following passages may be quoted:

As to the private letters of Mill to his wife & daughter, we hesitated for a very long time about them; but Miss Taylor, who is a lady of very peculiar ideas and habits, did not wish them to be published. She has it in her mind to bring out another volume in a few years’ time, consisting exclusively of Mill’s letters to his wife, daughter, and sisters; but wants to delay this until the last of Mill’s sisters10 is dead. Whether it will ever be done I cannot say. She guards the letters very jealously; and it was only after much pressure and persuasion that I was allowed to see them at all.

As to her published introduction, following mine in the book, it was entirely an afterthought. In the study of the private letters, I formed a very unfavourable opinion both of Mrs. Mill and of Miss Helen Taylor. It appeared to me that they were both selfish and somewhat conceited women, and that Mill (who must have been a very poor judge of character) was largely deceived with regard to them. Of course I could not state my views openly in a book which is published by Miss Mary Taylor at her own expense. But in my original introduction, I found it impossible to allude to the women without unconsciously conveying into my language some suggestion of what I thought. To this Miss Mary Taylor took the strongest possible exception. I reconsidered the whole matter, but found myself unable to speak any more favourably of them than I had done. For some days Miss Taylor declined even to see me, and we were completely at a deadlock; but at last it was agreed that I should omit all mention of Mill’s private life and that Miss Taylor should herself write a second introduction (for which I took no responsibility) and say what she liked. I did not greatly care for her contribution, but it was a necessary compromise. Myself, however, I entertain no sort of doubt that Miss Taylor is right in her main belief that there was no “guilty” intrigue. . . .

There is, on the other hand, an account which the late Sir Frederick R. Chapman gave twenty-five years ago in a letter to an American scholar:

Miss Mary [Taylor] mentioned another fact that seemed very strange to me. She had placed the whole of the copies of Mr. Mill’s correspondence at the disposal of Mr. Elliot when assisting him in the preparation of the published letters. When he had made his selection he induced her to destroy the rest save only what she termed the “intimate letters” which she intended to embody in another book. I understand that the book has never appeared.

Assuming that she has told me the actual facts I should say that her weakness is as remarkable as Mr. Elliot’s meaningless advice or request to destroy the balance of the letters which must have been very numerous.11

Though Sir Frederick’s recollection was no doubt correct, there is every reason to doubt Miss Taylor’s account of the events and it is by no means certain that any destruction of letters did take place at that time (whatever may have happened at Avignon in 1905). Not only most of the letters which Mr. Elliot published but so many others are known to have been preserved that I am on the whole inclined to think that nothing was destroyed then.

Mary Taylor appears to have proceeded with her plan of preparing a further volume of family letters and it seems that by the beginning of 1918 she had, with the assistance of Miss Elizabeth Lee (sister of Sir Sidney Lee and author of the article on Helen Taylor in the Dictionary of National Biography), completed a typescript and was negotiating through a literary agent (Mr. A. P. Watts) with Messrs. Longmans, Green & Co. concerning publication. Since the files of all parties involved (the literary agent, the publishers, Miss Mary Taylor’s solicitors and, at least in part, her literary executors) were destoyed by fire during the London “Blitz” in December, 1940, it is now impossible to say with certainty why it was not published. But some letters of Mary Taylor together with the recollections of one of the partners of the literary agents (Mr. C. A. Watts, who in his old age still distinctly remembered the “irresponsible Miss Mary Taylor”) show that after a period of irresolution Miss Taylor suffered a “nervous breakdown,” accompanied by insomnia and illusions. After certification she was in March, 1918, taken to an institution in London where she died on November 6, 1918.

In her will Mary Taylor had left all copyrights and letters and correspondence referring to John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor to the National Provincial Bank Ltd. as residuary legatees and literary executors who were to be free to use this material in any way they saw fit. An inventory of her possessions mentions among the contents of “a gunpowder proof safe,” a collection of “Public Letters to and from J. S. Mill A to Z,” and a packet of private letters. The former together with various other manuscript material the Bank decided, on the report of a Mr. P. W. Sergeant who had been asked to value them, to sell by auction, while it was thought that “the intimate letters relating to the family quarrel . . . could not be offered for sale publicly.”

A first sale was accordingly held at Sotheby’s of London on March 29, 1922, which produced a gross amount of £276.19.-. Of this, however, £200 were paid on behalf of the Trustees of the Carlyle House Memorial Trust for a set of seventy-seven letters by Thomas Carlyle to Mill (which in the following year were published by Mr. Alexander Carlyle in Letters of Thomas Carlyle to John Stuart Mill, John Sterling and Robert Browning [London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1923]). The twenty-one lots of Mill manuscripts proper seem all to have been bought by various London booksellers and altogether to have fetched no more than £76.19.-. They appear to have contained numerous notebooks, mostly botanical, and miscellaneous correspondence. Most of the Mill manuscripts now in various American libraries derive from this sale.12 Quantitatively the largest part (although much of it of a kind not readily salable otherwise) was in 1926 sold by one of the booksellers to the Library of the London School of Economics, where it constitutes the nucleus of the Mill-Taylor Collection, since much enriched by many additions.

Because of the loss of part of the relevant files of the National Provincial Bank, we do not know why the sale of a large part of the papers was postponed for five years. But on June 27, 1927, Sotheby’s sold another fourteen lots described as “The Property of Miss Mary Taylor, dec.,” containing mostly letters to Mill, but also one lot containing “upwards of 132 autograph letters to his wife on literary work and travel.” It seems that both the material now at Yale University Library and that acquired by Lord Keynes and now at King’s College, Cambridge, derive from this sale. The National Provincial Bank apparently retained only the small collection of correspondence exchanged between Mill and his brothers and sisters and a few family documents and portraits, all of which were in 1943 presented by the Bank to the London School of Economics for inclusion in the Mill-Taylor Collection.

Although it seemed appropriate to use this occasion to give an account of what happened to Mill’s own books and papers, the material deriving from them could in fact make little contribution to the present edition. This is intended to cover the period up to 1849, which, because Mill did not then keep copies of his letters, is so little represented in Elliot’s edition of his letters, which was based on his papers. In so far as the present collection was to go beyond bringing together the considerable number of earlier letters that had been published in a great variety of places and a few unpublished ones known to be preserved in libraries, the main effort had to be directed towards tracing descendants of Mill’s correspondents in the hope that some of their papers might be preserved. This indeed absorbed the greater part of the time I was able to devote to the project, yet the results were not great. Even in England, where in general family papers are preserved perhaps longer than anywhere else, two wars have led to the destruction of much of the extraordinary quantity of manuscript material which had accumulated by 1914. It was not so much destruction by enemy action as the appeal for old paper for salvage and the insistence of air-raid wardens that lofts should be cleared of all inflammable matter which caused most of the loss. In more than one instance it seemed at least likely that what I was searching for had only a short while before left the place where it had rested undisturbed for two or three generations. I should add that wherever I succeeded in tracing descendants of Mill’s correspondents, my inquiries were invariably met with the greatest courtesy and helpfulness. I can of course not claim that I have exhausted even all the likely leads and no doubt in the course of time further letters by Mill will turn up by accident. But while I do not feel that further systematic search in England would be likely to produce much, there may well be such opportunities on the Continent and particularly in France which, during the greater part of the time I was engaged on this work, was inaccessible to me. If, for instance, good fortune had somewhere preserved the letters which for some years after his visit to France as a boy Mill wrote to his “first friend” Antoine Jérôme Balard,13 later a distinguished chemist, these would probably tell us more about his early development than any document which might still be found in England.

There are various obligations I have incurred in the work on the material now published in this volume and which I wish to acknowledge in this place. All the work I did on the collection was done while I held a professorship at the London School of Economics and Political Science and I have received all sorts of assistance from the Economic Research Division of that institution, including the provision of assistance and of some funds for various incidental expenditures. Dr. Ruth Borchardt and Miss Dorothy Salter (now Mrs. F. H. Hahn) in succession helped me for long periods of the work. I must also especially mention the Library of the London School of Economics, or the British Library of Political and Economic Science as it is officially called, which as custodian of the Mill-Taylor Collection not only has provided much of the material of this book but also has often helped by buying at my suggestion documents to which I otherwise might not have obtained access. It was in these circumstances very generous of the authorities of the School to give first to me and then to Professor Mineka permission to use the material collected in any way we thought best. Of the many others who in various ways have helped I ought to single out the National Provincial Bank Ltd. which, after so many years conscientiously watching over the interests of Mill’s heirs, finally decided to hand over to the uses of scholarship what the bombs had spared of the papers of the late Mary Taylor.

The chief credit for the appearance of this edition, however, belongs of course to the editor. Only those who have tried their hands at this kind of task at least on a small scale will appreciate the amount of painstaking care and ingenuity that has to be devoted to an edition of the size of the present one before the reader can use it with the implicit trust and ease which a good editor’s work assures. I am the more indebted to Professor Mineka because he was prepared to take over the more burdensome part of the task I had half-playfully commenced. The tracing of unpublished manuscripts is the kind of detective work which most people will enjoy doing as a recreation in their spare time. But while the pleasure of the hunt was largely mine, the solid hard work to which the reader owes this edition is entirely Professor Mineka’s.


  • University of Chicago

January, 1962

[1. ]This new interest is by no means confined to the Western world. A bibliography of John Stuart Mill, published in Keizai Ronshu, The Economic Review of Kansai University (Osaka), VI, no. 7 (Nov., 1956), lists, in addition to about 350 works about Mill in European languages, over 180 in the Japanese language alone!

[2. ]As I am revising this Introduction for publication (January, 1962) I learn that last autumn this house, visited by so many admirers of John Stuart Mill, was torn down, the operations actually beginning while a committee formed to assure its preservation and conversion into a museum was holding its first meeting!

[3. ]The Mill-Taylor Collection, British Library of Political and Economic Science (London School of Economics), vol. 53.

[4. ]Ibid., vol. 58.

[5. ]The manuscripts mentioned in the two following notes which are known to derive from this sale bear a printed label inside the front cover which states “De la bibliothèque de / John Stuart Mill / Vendue à Avignon / les 21, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28 Mai 1905.” Some at least of the books are reported to have been bought by the poet Paul Mariéton and to have been left by him to the library at Avignon (see Jules Véran, “Le Souvenir de Stuart Mill à Avignon,” Revue des deux mondes, septembre 1937), but attempts by several persons to find them there have failed.

[6. ]This volume of manuscripts of various minor published works by Mill was bought by Professor George Herbert Palmer of Harvard University and given by him to the library of his University where it is now preserved in the Houghton Library, classed as “MS Eng 1105.”

[7. ]See the article by Jules Véran cited in note 5 above, and, for the evidence showing that the manuscript is not by Mill, J. C. Rees, Mill and His Early Critics (Leicester: University College, 1956).

[8. ]There was also a story current in London twenty years ago that some of Mill’s books had been given at some time to Morley College (a workingmen’s college in the South of London); but though the library of that institution escaped when the main building was destroyed by bombs, no such books can be traced now, and unless they were among a quantity of books stored in the destroyed main building the story is probably incorrect. On the whole it seems that all the books, except “a box” returned to Mary Taylor, stored in the Pantechnicon in 1905, were given to Somerville College, which still has the original list.

[9. ]In a letter by Hugh Elliot to Lord Courtney, dated May 8, 1910. MS at London School of Economics.

[10. ]Mrs. Mary Colman, who died on January 15, 1913.

[11. ]A letter by Sir Frederick R. Chapman to Professor J. M. McCrimmon, now of the University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, dated July 26, 1935. I wish to thank Professor McCrimmon for letting me have the text of this letter and permitting me to reprint it. The episode is briefly discussed on p. vi of Professor McCrimmon’s doctoral dissertation in Northwestern University Library.

[12. ]See the annotated catalogues of this and the second sale in the British Museum Library.

[13. ]Cf. the reference to Balard in Mill’s letter to Auguste Comte dated August 12, 1842—Letter 367 in the present collection.