Mill on Politics & Society: Collected Works vol. XVIII

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Source: Editor's introduction to The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977).

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 ALEXANDER BRADY

john stuart mill’s development as a political and social thinker may be divided into at least three periods, with the first two largely determining the course and character of the third. The first embraces his youthful apprenticeship in and passionate proselytizing for the utilitarianism in which from childhood he had been carefully nurtured by his father and Bentham. His career as a young and orthodox utilitarian extended to his mental crisis in 1826 at the age of twenty. The second period began with his recovery from the crisis (1826-30) and terminated with the dissolution of the Philosophic Radicals as a distinct party towards the end of the 1830s. In this crucial period of his life Mill refashioned his thinking under a variety of intellectual and emotional influences. The final period comprised the remaining thirty-three years of his career (1840-73), when he published his major works, including A System of Logic, Principles of Political Economy, On Liberty, and Considerations on Representative Government.


mill’s own account of his extraordinary education is a classic in the intellectual history of the last century. This is not the place to describe the rigorous pedagogic experiment to which he was subjected, other than to note its apparent effectiveness in making him, as he admitted, a reasoning machine with impressive powers for analysis and a reverence for facts and principles. It was ostensibly designed by his father to enable him to think for himself, although independent thought was not its immediate result. The highly precocious boy who at sixteen (in 1822) founded the Utilitarian Society had already faithfully absorbed in his father’s study and from the writings and tutelage of Bentham a philosophy of ethics and politics wherein utility was the supreme criterion. He related how he felt as a youth after reading Dumont’s translation of Bentham’s treatise on legislation: “When I laid down the last volume of the Traité I had become a different being. . . . I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life.”1

With obvious zealotry Mill was now ambitious to reform the affairs of mankind to conform with utilitarian canons. Fired by the influence of his father and Bentham, he engaged in a crusade to carry the torch of rationalism and utilitarianism into every sector of British life. In devotion he no less than Karl Marx had a sense of historic mission. His obvious instrument was journalism, which in his opinion was to modern Europe what political oratory had been to Athens and Rome. At seventeen he began eagerly dashing off letters and articles to newspapers and periodicals, arguing for the specific changes that utilitarians then sought: civil and criminal law reform, population restriction, a free press, a free economy, destruction of monopoly wherever present, abolition of colonial slavery, parliamentary reform, and a redress of Irish grievances. From the outset he wrote less to earn a living than to fulfil a mission and convert a public. In 1823 his father had secured his appointment as a clerk in the East India Company, where in the next thirty-five years he rose to high office and enjoyed ample freedom and adequate income to study and champion those causes to which he was dedicated. His position in time gave him not merely an invaluable independence but a practical experience in coping with complex human situations in the sub-continent on the other side of the globe.

The empiricist here had a congenial opportunity to reinforce his theories with a special experience of public affairs. In later life he wrote:

the occupation accustomed me to see and hear the difficulties of every course, and the means of obviating them, stated and discussed deliberately, with a view to execution; it gave me opportunities of perceiving when public measures, and other political facts, did not produce the effects which had been expected of them, and from what causes; above all it was valuable to me by making me, in this portion of my activity, merely one wheel in a machine, the whole of which had to work together. . . . 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. . . .2

Two years after Mill founded the Utilitarian Society, Bentham and a few friends launched the Westminster Review as an official organ for utilitarian ideas. In its first four years (1824-28) Mill, despite his youth, was a frequent contributor on a wide range of themes, which he treated in the spirit of utilitarian orthodoxy. He criticized the follies of aristocratic rule in Britain and Ireland, the illusions of chivalry formerly associated with aristocracy, the vested interests of great landowners in corn and game laws, and the ills of a faulty journalism. He strove to liberate the English press from the trammels of an abused and arbitrary law of libel and the burden of press duties.3 Mill like his father and other contemporary Radicals saw in the freedom of the press the essential instrument for mobilizing opinion, breaking down resistance to reform, and creating that degree of popular discontent which would compel the aristocratic government to make substantial concessions. He was naturally inspired by his father’s famous essay on “Liberty of the Press,” first published in 1821 as a supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He accepted his parent’s uncompromising belief that no special laws should exist to hamper the freedom of newspapers to print facts and advance opinions to protect the people against the tyranny of a government.4

In 1826 when Mill was twenty he entered the shadows of a mental crisis, which lasted for months, and has been variously assessed and explained by biographers. It is easy to accept the traditional and simple view that it resulted from prolonged and excessive work. Mill had recently undertaken the prodigious task of editing the five volumes of Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence, contributed to newspapers and journals, debated in the societies with which he was associated, tutored his brothers and sisters at home, and dealt with official duties at India House. Yet there was more involved than heavy work and physical exhaustion. In the Autobiography he blames a faulty education which cultivated his intellect but starved his feelings and aesthetic yearnings. His faith in the efficacy of utilitarian thought was evidently shaken, and it is symptomatic that on this, unlike other occasions, he failed to seek from his father guidance, sympathy, or compassion. He had secretly begun to rebel against certain elements in the philosophy of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham and felt compelled to work out alone an intellectual accommodation with his inheritance. A. W. Levi has advanced a Freudian explanation of the mental crisis and its disappearance.5 Whether we accept this view or not, Mill’s illness marked a milestone in his intellectual development. He awoke to deficiencies in the eighteenth-century utilitarian thought in which he had been indoctrinated, and to repair them sought guidance from other and varied sources, including a constellation of new friends and new mentors. In the fourteen years after 1826 the orthodox utilitarian was transformed into an eclectic liberal who in no sense repudiated all his inheritance but modified and combined it with many fresh ideas and methods of thought demanded in a world gripped by change where truth, as he saw it, must be many-sided.

He found for depression an early antidote in Wordsworth’s tranquil and contemplative poetry, which supplied something which had been lacking in his father’s rigorous educational regime—a cultivation of feeling inspired by natural beauty. Yet the Wordsworthian culture of the feelings was at the time merely one of a medley of influences.6 Even Macaulay’s caustic criticism in the Edinburgh Review of his father’s Essay on Government persuaded Mill that although Macaulay himself was faulty in philosophy, he scored valid points against the narrowness of his father’s political thought and its neglect of significant springs in the conduct of modern man.7

The thinkers, very different from his father and Bentham, who gave him intellectual stimulus in the early 1830s were the Saint-Simonians, Comte, Coleridge, Carlyle, and Tocqueville. He appreciated the fact that these writers emphasized the significance of history and a philosophy of history, and endorsed the idea that each state of society and the human mind tended to produce that which succeeded it, with modifications dictated by circumstances. At the same time, the whirl of change in events and ideas impressed him with the relativity of political institutions; each different stage in human society must have different institutions. Further, as he put it, “government is always either in the hands, or passing into the hands, of whatever is the strongest power in society, and . . . what this power is, does not depend on institutions, but institutions on it. . . .”8

Not the least fascinating circumstance in the shaping of Mill’s thought in the early 1830’s was his coming under different streams of influence and endeavouring to reconcile them or to select from each some element or elements of significance. This process was admirably illustrated in the letter to John Sterling in October 1831.9 He discussed here contemporary Toryism and Liberalism, and distinguished between the contrary types of speculative and practical Toryism, but oddly failed to recognize the significant reformism of men like Huskisson and Peel. “Practical Toryism,” he said, “simply means, being in, and availing yourself of your comfortable position inside the vehicle without minding the poor devils who are freezing outside. . . . Such Toryism is essentially incompatible with any large and generous aspirations. . . .” Yet this is the Toryism that appealed to the privileged classes of his day, who had little faith in human improvement, unlike his friends the speculative Tories—Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey. These wanted an ideal Toryism, an ideal King, Lords, and Commons, the old England as opposed to the new, an England as she might be, not as she is. They represented a reverence for government in the abstract,

sensible that it is good for man to be ruled; to submit both his body & mind to the guidance of a higher intelligence & virtue. It is therefore the direct antithesis of liberalism, which is for making every man his own guide & sovereign master, & letting him think for himself & do exactly as he judges best for himself, giving other men leave to persuade him if they can by evidence, but forbidding him to give way to authority; and still less allowing them to constrain him more than the existence & tolerable security of every man’s person and property renders indispensably necessary. It is difficult to conceive a more thorough ignorance of man’s nature, & of what is necessary for his happiness or what degree of happiness & virtue he is capable of attaining than this system implies.10

These sentiments may seem somewhat uncharacteristic of one renowned as spokesman of British nineteenth-century liberalism. They reflect his thinking at a critical period when he was striving to assess the changing winds of current opinion. At the same time they also reflect an enduring element: his doubts about the average man’s capacity unaided to cope wisely with the complex problems of citizenship.

In combining his earlier utilitarian doctrines with those of new intellectual associates, Mill saw politics as an immensely important part of the structure of society, since only through political activity could men maximize their moral and social potentiality. The institutional contrivances of the state, being interwoven with the main facets of economic and social life, were comprehensible only in the context of the whole. Politics reflected the character of economic and social systems and the ethical values men held. Culture and politics were thus inseparable, political progress and social progress interdependent. Some years later, in a letter to John Chapman, Mill expressed in general terms a view that for him had become axiomatic:

I understand by Sociology not a particular class of subjects included within Politics, but a vast field including it—the whole field of enquiry & speculation respecting human society & its arrangements, of which the forms of government, & the principles of the conduct of governments are but a part. And it seems to me impossible that even the politics of the day can be discussed on principle, or with a view to anything but the exigencies of the moment, unless by setting out from definite opinions respecting social questions more fundamental than what is commonly called politics.11


the varied intellectual stimuli that Mill experienced after his mental crisis helped to shape the mould of his political thought in that turbulent and confused era of the 1830s. However much he strayed from the strict path of his father’s thought, he remained in agreement with the main legal and political reforms sought by James Mill and the Philosophic Radicals. In his journalism he still advocated extensive changes in the laws, the parliamentary system, and the whole system of government to reduce what, in his opinion, was the baneful influence of the aristocracy on the major aspects of British society. He endeavoured to arouse the Radicals in and out of parliament to form a powerful party that either alone or allied with progressive Whigs could shape public policies on reformist lines. In a letter to Edward Lytton Bulwer in March 1838 he summarized his political ambitions in the preceding years:

I have never had any other notion of practical policy, since the radicals were numerous enough to form a party, than that of resting on the whole body of radical opinion, from the whig-radicals at one extreme, to the more reasonable & practical of the working classes, & the Benthamites, on the other. I have been trying ever since the reform bill to stimulate, so far as I had an opportunity, all sections of the parliamentary radicals to organize such a union & such a system of policy. . . .12

Yet despite his genuine zeal, Mill found the task of trying to achieve unity among the Radicals frustrating. They were splintered into stubborn factions, and no parliamentary leader with the requisite qualities emerged to unite them. They constituted a party of many lieutenants without a general. For a short interval Mill pinned his hopes on Lord Durham, who left the Whig ministry, undertook the Canadian mission, surrounded himself with Radical advisers like Charles Buller and Gibbon Wakefield, and produced a report that was a Radical rather than a Whig or Tory document. But Mill’s hopes and designs for Durham’s leadership or indeed for the future of the party were soon shattered by adverse events, including the serious illness and death of Durham and Mill’s own inability to sustain much longer the heavy financial and other burdens of the London and Westminster Review, the organ for radical causes. By 1840 he had virtually ceased to be a leading counsellor to Radical politicians, although his interest in utilitarian reform continued unabated.

Significantly, in the 1830s Mill was not absorbed exclusively in British political ideas and activities. In contrast with his father, who disliked France and the French, he was early influenced by French thinkers and fascinated by the dialectic of French politics. In 1829 he told a Parisian friend that he admired his countrymen because they were open to ideas and more ready than the English to act on them.13 Never perhaps was his Francophile enthusiasm more pronounced than in 1830. On the collapse of the Bourbon monarchy he hurried to Paris, mixed freely with young revolutionaries and Saint-Simonian leaders, shared the excitement and joy of his French friends in what they assumed was the triumph of revolution over aristocratic politics and ultramontane theology, and returned to England with a renewed zest for reforms.14

Mill’s political hopes for France resembled those for Britain: a political regime on utilitarian lines, a widely representative assembly, a liberal franchise, a free press, free associations, popular education, and an enlightened public. However, the revolution of 1830 became a dismal disappointment. The monarchy of Louis Philippe, wedded to narrow commercial and financial groups, was unwilling to jeopardize for the sake of reform its powers and privileges, and at every step opposed major changes. From London Mill closely and anxiously followed events, and between 1830 and 1834 in successive articles in the Examiner poured out his bitterness.15

Mill’s severe disenchantment left an imprint on his political thinking throughout the 1830s and even later. Although he did not lose liberal convictions or a belief in representative government, he now doubted that large electorates could make sound decisions without the positive leadership of enlightened minorities. An extended suffrage, however important in itself, alone could not prevent the continuance of self-interested oligarchies whether of the aristocracy or middle class. His doubts and fears at the time about representative institutions and democracy were evident in numerous articles. Seven of these are included in the present volume, beginning with the review articles on The Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms by George Cornewall Lewis and Rationale of Political Representation by Samuel Bailey.16


Lewis was a man of Mill’s own age, equipped with similar precocious erudition, and of utilitarian sympathies. His book dealt with the relation of logic to politics, a topic in which Mill was then too deeply interested to treat casually. Two years later he confessed to Carlyle that his review was an outgrowth from his own mind and the truest he had ever written—that is, it was no mere product of an orthodox utilitarian schooling.17 He commended Lewis’s attempt to bring a lucid logic into the language of politics, since slovenly thinking and equivocal words were together the bane of political discussion. But he took strong exception to certain points, of which the most important concerned rights. Lewis, following his teacher John Austin, argued that all rights are creations of law and the will of the sovereign. To call anything a right which is not enforceable in the courts is an abuse of language. In contrast Mill emphasized the reality of moral rights. He contended that, in saying that no man has a moral right to think as he pleases, for he ought to inform himself and think justly, Dr. Johnson refers to a right Lewis evidently fails to comprehend. Yet for Mill a right in the Johnsonian sense is no abuse of terms; it is good logic and good English. Rights are the correlatives of obligations and duties, and moral as well as legal rights have a necessary and significant place in the contemporary state. It is a moral right of subjects to be well-governed and a moral duty of the sovereign to govern well. The focus of this criticism is the mischief inherent in unduly simplified and inflexible concepts. Mill reacts here against the rigidity of some utilitarian logicians. His further complaint concerned the apparent and unjustified contempt with which Lewis disposed of Locke and Rousseau for assuming an unhistorical and fictitious state of nature and a social contract. Mill believed that it was inconsequential whether anything like a state of nature existed. The real issue was the extent to which as an hypothesis it shed light on the fact of a morality outside the law to which men could appeal. To Mill as to Locke such morality was important. Independent states in relations with one another remained in a state of nature, without a common superior, but responsive to moral obligations and duties. However unskilfully formulated, the old theories of the social contract and the inalienable rights of man in Mill’s opinion had a rightful place in the evolution of political liberty and justice by indicating a pragmatic limit on the power of the sovereign. He concluded his review of Lewis’s book by emphasizing the necessity of recognizing, despite all the linguistic differences, the close relationship between ideas of different political thinkers, and also the possibility of combining them into a whole.

In reviewing Samuel Bailey’s Rationale of Political Representation, Mill in effect summarized his own ideas on the subject. Sharing the views of the Sheffield Radical, he employed the book to illustrate what for him were the requisites of sound representative government. In his argument he reverted to the cherished utilitarian dogma of his father that in politics it was essential to achieve the closest possible identification of interest between rulers and ruled. But this, he thought, was feasible only if decisions were made, not by the uninstructed multitude, but by a carefully selected body commanding special knowledge and techniques and accountable to the public. Strict accountability would help to ensure that rulers pursued the interests of the people rather than their own. Admittedly the task of overcoming the inbred chicanery and low cunning of politicians was difficult. It could not be accomplished simply by institutional machinery without a massive and prolonged public enlightenment. His fear of a sudden flood of new and ignorant voters made him cautious about any rapid extension of the franchise: “no one is disposed,” he wrote, “to deny that we ought cautiously to feel our way, and watch well the consequences of each extension of the suffrage before venturing upon another” (32). (This and subsequent parenthetical references are to the text of the present edition.) This caution extended even to his favourite cause of women’s enfranchisement. Despite a passionate belief in female suffrage, he thought in 1835 that its public advocacy would serve no practical purpose (29n).

Although wary about changes in the franchise, Mill supported many reforms in political machinery in harmony with orthodox Philosophic Radicalism: the secret ballot, triennial parliaments, publicity for parliamentary proceedings, payment of members and their professionalization, reduction in the size of the House of Commons to render it more efficient, and the creation of strong local government which he assumed would reduce the burdens of the national parliament. He also proposed a radical change in the House of Lords to destroy it as a rigid barrier to reforms fashioned in the Commons. He would abolish its hereditary principle and select its membership from the lower house. By such changes he hoped to transform Britain’s government from an aristocracy into a special kind of democracy led by an enlightened few.18

He said little about the enlightened few beyond emphasizing that they consist of those specially endowed with public spirit and educated to conduct a thoughtful direction of national affairs: the fittest persons whom the existing society could produce. He believed that since 1688 the landed aristocracy had governed England badly: it reflected the attitudes of unimaginative dilettantes incapable of the rigorous intellect that government needed, and it was fettered by its own enormous wealth and special privileges. Anxious to protect its own position, it could do little to bridge the chasm between the social classes, which increasingly endangered a Britain subject to the new powerful pressures of nineteenth-century industrialism. To Mill its strength and effectiveness seemed inferior to those of the aristocracy of Prussia (23-4).

Through his reform programme Mill hoped to create a new and independent ruling class of paid and professional parliamentarians freed from electoral pledges. He believed that unpaid legislators and magistrates sustained the monopoly power of the aristocracy because aristocrats could usually afford to serve without pay (35). Among the Radicals the issue of pledges provoked acrimonious debate. In 1832 Mill had irritated some in arguing that, although in cases of constitutional change pledges might sometimes be justified, they were in general bad. “The sovereignty of the people,” he wrote, “is essentially a delegated sovereignty. Government must be performed by the few, for the benefit of the many. . . .”19 The same view he repeated in the “Rationale of Representation,” contending that electors are obligated to select representatives fully qualified to form sound decisions on public matters. They must not expect that those they elect should act slavishly in parliament according to popular judgment any more than patients expect a physician to cure their ills according to their own chosen ideas of medicine (40). For Mill, pledges conflicted with the essence of representative government. Voters were free to reward or punish, by re-election or rejection, a representative at the end of his term, but to shackle him from the outset with inflexible instructions would cripple his powers of initiative and responsibility.


As a British radical, Mill from youth was profoundly interested in the United States. For him and most of his fellow utilitarians the republic was a unique experiment of a democracy in action, and hence important for all European liberals. Unlike the Tory writers of the Quarterly Review, they looked to America to demonstrate the virtues of democracy, and abundant praise of the United States became their orthodox practice. They admired it for experimenting with new social ideas, rejecting an established church, extending franchise laws, promoting popular education, recognizing a free press, and believing in a free economy. Such was Jeremy Bentham’s enthusiasm for America that to Andrew Jackson he described himself as “more of a United Statesman than an Englishman.” For him and his disciples the republic seemed to apply the principle of utility more assiduously than did Britain.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that between 1835 and 1840 Mill wrote three leading articles on America: two lengthy reviews in 1835 and 1840 on the separate parts of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and in 1836 an essay on the state of American society as depicted in five contemporary volumes. In these essays he endeavoured not merely to illustrate the work of a new and major political thinker, but also to portray the democratic society of the United States compared with the aristocratic regimes of Europe. In doing this under the weighty influence of Tocqueville, he clarified and matured his own thought on the merits and faults of democracy. Hence his two essays on Tocqueville are highly significant in the evolution of his thinking.

Almost the same age, although of different social backgrounds, the two men had much in common. Both were convinced that the new industrial age was destined to affect profoundly society and politics. Both were interested in the shape of things to come, in the trend to equality, and in democracy as almost an inevitable force of nature that must be adjusted to human circumstances and needs. Both believed that it alone could diffuse the spirit of a vigorous citizenship and sense of community throughout the whole national state. Yet they were also deeply concerned about its inherent defects and anxious to remedy them. “Man cannot turn back the rivers to their source,” wrote Mill, “but it rests with himself whether they shall fertilize or lay waste his fields” (158).

Tocqueville’s idea of democracy was more loosely defined than Mill’s. He referred to it less often as a particular form of government than as an equality of social conditions, without elements of aristocracy and privilege, the kind of equality which was best exemplified in the United States. Equality of conditions might exist under an absolute ruler, and Tocqueville feared that in some countries, including his own France, it might emerge solely in that form. Mill, on the other hand, applied the term democracy more consistently to a form of government in which the people constitutionally exercised a dominant sway. He was fully aware, however, that democratic government had wide social implications, and a large measure of social equality was a natural accompaniment.

In his two reviews Mill welcomed Tocqueville’s book as a landmark in the literature of politics, hailing the first part as among “the most remarkable productions of our time” (57). He saw its author, in his wide-ranging thought, as comparable to Montesquieu. His praise for the second part was equally enthusiastic. It was “the first philosophical book ever written on Democracy, as it manifests itself in modern society.”20 The reasons for this laudation are found in the grand sweep of Tocqueville’s sociological description and perception and his penetrating comments on democracy, its mixed properties and tendencies, the dangers it confronted, and the different demands it made on mankind. For Mill method was hardly less important than content. In Tocqueville he saw the new kind of political scientist he was ambitious to be himself, quick to probe the varied social forces that mould man’s political conduct, skilful in combining deduction and induction, and adept in applying comparative methods to the facts of society and government.

In his first essay, especially, Mill employed long quotations to illustrate Tocqueville’s views on American democracy and society and on the operation of its institutions. He acted like a modest chairman, briefly introducing a speaker and giving him abundant time to elaborate his theme, confident in the speaker’s mastery of the subject. But his quotations in both essays indicate his deep interest in certain aspects of Tocqueville’s account, especially the role of a numerical majority and its influences on individual and national life. Anxiously he scrutinized how far in practice Americans respected the principle of true democracy as defined in “The Rationale of Representation.” He was hardly encouraged by his findings. The people often directly governed rather than merely exerting an ultimate control over government. He learned from Tocqueville how widely delegation had replaced representation (74). Electors, however poorly informed, often laid down conditions that their representatives were compelled to respect. The majority was unmistakably dominant, constantly and aggressively asserted its will, shaped the character of opinion, and lived in perpetual adoration of itself. It was little comfort for Mill to read Tocqueville’s verdict that he knew of no country with less independence of mind and less real freedom of discussion than the United States (81). No monarch had such power over opinion as the popular majority. Tocqueville admitted that the majority refrained from attacking the property and material interests of the rich minority, but it otherwise imposed a despotic yoke on public opinion, on independent thought, and hence on individuality of character.

In view of his previous generous admiration for America, Mill doubtless wished that the evidence was different, but could not escape the compelling force of Tocqueville’s critical picture. Yet, although he accepted most of Tocqueville’s strictures on American institutions, he sometimes tried to moderate and excuse them. In the first part of his work Tocqueville concluded that the American electors were disposed to choose mediocrities rather than able candidates, owing partly to their own limited education and understanding and partly to the insatiable envy that most men had for their superiors. Mill feared that this charge, if true, meant that his own belief in a talented élite to guide and instruct the democracy was unlikely to be justified. He thought he found, however, in the facts furnished by Tocqueville a situation less discouraging than had at first appeared. In critical times able Americans assumed a positive leadership. In ordinary times, unfortunately, the range of public activity was too restricted to attract men of ambition and talent. Mill believed that this situation would eventually improve with the advance of education, general enlightenment, and the social needs of America.21 He was much less pessimistic than Tocqueville about democracy’s falling under the control of the mediocre.

In his first review Mill also questioned Tocqueville’s assertion that aristocracy had qualities of prudence and steadiness absent in democracy. The steadiness of an aristocracy, he said, was commonly expressed in a tenacious grip on its own cherished privileges. Its strength of will, as English history illustrated, was shaped by its class interests, and its opinions tended to fluctuate with its immediate impulses and needs (77-9).

Mill’s main criticism in his second essay was well taken: Tocqueville, in failing to define democracy with precision, sometimes confused its effects with those of a commercial civilization in general. As a nation progresses in industry and wealth, its manufactures expand, its capital grows, its class structure changes, and the intermediate group between poor and rich, comprised of artisans and middle class, multiplies. This may seem to make, as Tocqueville believed, a trend to equalization, but it could be merely one of many consequences from augmented industry and wealth, which created a highly complex society without necessarily furthering political freedom and democratic equality. Mill doubted whether in itself a commercial civilization, aside from other influences, necessarily equalized conditions among men. At any rate it failed to do so in Britain. There, he wrote, “The extremes of wealth and poverty are wider apart, and there is a more numerous body of persons at each extreme, than in any other commercial community” (193). Owing to their abundant children, the poor remained poor, while the laws tended to keep large concentrations of capital together, and hence the rich remained rich. Great fortunes were accumulated and seldom distributed. In this respect, Mill thought, Britain stood in contrast to the United States, although in commercial prosperity and industrial growth she was similar.

However ready to accept Tocqueville’s belief in the passion for equality as a dynamic factor in modern industrial nations, Mill in comparing Britain and the United States saw and illustrated other influences. He agreed with Tocqueville that in the two countries the middle classes were remarkably alike in structure and aspirations. Both experienced social instability, the restless drive of individuals to improve their lot, the ceaseless pursuit of wealth, and the enlargement of the middle class through constant recruitment from below. But in one respect they differed. Britain, unlike America, had a governing and landed aristocracy, and also a leisured class and a learned class, larger and more significant in influence than their counterparts in the republic. Such class features produced between the two countries differences in the quality of political life. Mill admitted that in Britain profound changes then occurring narrowed the divergences. The strongholds of aristocratic powers were weakening. The House of Lords, for all its pretensions and authority, failed to defeat the Reform Bill. Peers were now influenced by bourgeois opinion and even taste. The edifice of government might still rest on an impressive aristocratic base, but its transformation had begun, and Mill and the Philosophic Radicals were determined that it must be carried to ultimate success.

It is needless to dwell on differences in opinion between Mill and Tocqueville, since the dissimilarities are less important than what the men shared in common, Mill saw Tocqueville as he saw himself—a leader in the great transition of thought between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a contributor of social insights and ideas to those who desired for Europe a new liberal age. In his Autobiography he described how Tocqueville more effectively than any other contemporary depicted the virtues of democracy as well as its perils. He admitted that his French friend reinforced his own fears about the political tyranny of popular opinion and influenced him in shifting his ideal from that of pure democracy to its modified form later presented in Considerations on Representative Government.22 Both men observed in America harsh forms of popular tyranny, not in laws, but in what Mill called the dispensing power over all law. “The people of Massachusetts,” he remarked, “passed no law prohibiting Roman Catholic schools, or exempting Protestants from the penalties of incendiarism; they contented themselves with burning the Ursuline convent to the ground, aware that no jury would be found to redress the injury” (177). In these cases popular tyranny was expressed not merely in the action of mobs, incited by the passions of religion, party, or race, but by the inability of the administrative and judicial organs to work effectively owing to their direct dependence on popular opinion.

Mill, like Tocqueville, saw in the democratic majority perennial threats to what for both were supreme values: individuality, intellectual variety, effective minority opinions, and the spontaneous initiatives derived from individuals and groups. For Mill these values remained an enduring element in his liberal philosophy and pervaded On Liberty. Their implications for national development were manifest. But no single rule or set of concepts could determine the same development for all nations. Each nation must pursue a course appropriate to the varied interests, circumstances, and temperament of its citizens. Years before Mill had criticized Comte’s folly in assuming a single law of evolution for all nations, a criticism he never retracted.23

Mill no less than Tocqueville was eager to recognize the main political corollaries of these liberal ideas. He emphasized the importance for individuals of fostering and preserving combinations or associations to promote mutual protection and common causes, such as political unions, antislavery societies, and the like. He saw the freedom of combination as intimately joined to that of the press. “The real Political Unions of England,” he wrote, “are the Newspapers. It is these which tell every person what all other persons are feeling, and in what manner they are ready to act.” (165.) He evidently did not foresee that sometimes newspapers might also become the instruments of a democratic despotism.

He likewise agreed with Tocqueville in extolling the value of local government as a means for extending among the people the management of public business, training them in self-rule, and enlarging their scope for political freedom. He here reflected his faith that under democracy politics becomes a form of adult education. He was hardly less confident than Tocqueville that the spirit and habit of local autonomy was a primary source of American freedom and would no less promote freedom in other democracies.

Finally, in his second article on Tocqueville he also expressed the conviction that in a mass democracy, whether in Europe or America, it was essential to bolster influences that countervailed those of the mass. For him the evil was not the preponderance of a democratic class in itself, but of any class, especially when it lacked intellectual cultivation (196). He believed with Tocqueville that the overwhelming dominance of a single class would always predispose it to establish a deadening uniformity in the style and texture of life for the whole society. This would mean an intellectually static community resembling that of China as understood in Europe at the time.

Mill, like Tocqueville, remained apprehensive that in an industrial and commercial age democracy would impoverish the national culture by imposing on it a single and inflexible set of mass values. Although he admitted that public opinion must rule, he speculated that to form

the best public opinion, there should exist somewhere a great social support for opinions and sentiments different from those of the mass. The shape which that support may best assume is a question of time, place, and circumstance; but (in a commercial country, and in an age when, happily for mankind, the military spirit is gone by) there can be no doubt about the elements which must compose it: they are, an agricultural class, a leisured class, and a learned class.


These sentiments, tinged with Coleridgean conservatism, may have seemed strange and unwelcome to some fellow Philosophic Radicals, but by 1840 his associates in the movement had learned that his Benthamite orthodoxy had long since disappeared.

It may be added that Mill did not remain convinced that the existence of a leisured class was of pre-eminent importance. In 1847 he wrote to John Austin:

I have even ceased to think that a leisured class, in the ordinary sense of the term, is an essential constituent of the best form of society. What does seem to me essential is that society at large should not be overworked, nor over-anxious about the means of subsistence, for which we must look to the grand source of improvement, repression of population, combined with laws or customs of inheritance which shall favour the diffusion of property instead of its accumulation in masses.24

At this time Mill was working on his Principles of Political Economy, and the healing virtues of the stationary state were fresh and vivid in his mind.

In his essay on the “State of Society in America” Mill expressed not merely some additional reflections on the American experiment, but also briefly raised questions on how environment determines a nation’s politics, how nations could benefit from one another’s experience through a science of comparative institutions, and how American society was judged by European observers in the doubtful light of their own prejudices, especially hostility to popular rule. He was strongly convinced that the American form of democracy must be directly related to the special character of American society, moulded by a wide variety of forces: abundant natural wealth, a fast growing population, a remarkable opportunity for all classes to raise their standards of living, the absence of aggressive neighbours, the lack of a leisured class except in the southern states, and the inheritance of a language and culture from a parent nation three thousand miles away. Its experiment in politics was scarcely comprehensible apart from the interplay of these numerous influences, all of which, although seldom the product of government, impinged directly on government. They were not all favourable to the success of democracy. To Mill the United States was a classic demonstration of the intimate bonds between social circumstances and political forms.

Characteristic is the sentence: “High wages and universal reading are the two elements of democracy; where they co-exist, all government, except the government of public opinion, is impossible” (99). Mill held that the high premium on labour in North America meant that the common man was not merely well remunerated but also had to be consulted about his government. Likewise the general literacy of the Puritans, originally cherished as a means for reading Holy Writ, had become the invaluable medium for political and forensic debates whereby the Americans established and sustained their freedoms. Thus with the strokes of a broad brush Mill explained to readers in the London Review American democracy in terms of environment, history, and social conditions. He may have provided an unduly simplified version of reality, but it was well calculated to correct the partisan bias of the many itinerant writers who came and went across the Atlantic.


Mill’s long essay, “Civilization,” is closely related to those on America and the ideas of Tocqueville. It reflects the same concern over certain profound changes then occurring or about to occur in society and their significance for the individual and his government.

Alexander Bain thought Mill’s definition of civilization inadequate and much of his article merely a Philosophic Radical’s criticism of contemporary British society.25 Mill explicitly restricted use of the term to institutions and practices different from those of the savage. “Whatever be the characteristics of what we call savage life,” he wrote, “the contrary of these, or the qualities which society puts on as it throws off these, constitute civilization” (120). A modern anthropologist may be even less likely than Bain to feel satisfied with this definition. Yet whatever its deficiency it in no way hampered Mill in discussing that in which he was principally interested—certain aspects of contemporary Britain on which he had strong opinions. He advocated reform in many established institutions, ideas, and prejudices. He recognized that in every country civilization exhibits ill as well as salutary traits, and both he scrutinized.

Civilized men, unlike savages, have clustered in great and fixed concentrations, acted together in large bodies for common purposes, and proceeded from one material achievement to another. They have created populous cities, developed specialized industries, accepted fully the division of labour, expanded channels of trade, improvised techniques of production, and applied science to the cultivation of the soil. Thus they have augmented their material comforts and satisfactions as well as their pleasures in social intercourse. Mill welcomed the general results of this onward thrust of civilization, but was disturbed by some of its features, and especially by the passing of power increasingly from individuals and small groups of individuals to the masses, whose importance grew while that of individuals shrank. The characteristic product of modern material civilization has been a mass society, which Mill no less than Tocqueville feared. “When the masses become powerful,” he wrote, “an individual, or a small band of individuals, can accomplish nothing considerable except by influencing the masses; and to do this becomes daily more difficult, from the constantly increasing number of those who are vying with one another to attract public attention” (126).

Not the least interesting part of his essay is a sketch of the possible strategy whereby the literate and educated elements of the population might guide the masses or create a rival power to them. He believed that an effective civilization is possible only through the capacity of individuals to combine for common ends. Combination, as in trade unions and benefit societies, had already made the workers more powerful. Combination and compromise also could enlarge the influence of the literate middle class, demolish old barriers between all classes, and extend the range of law and justice. English educational institutions were imperfectly organized for their task, and he feared the advent of democracy before the people were sufficiently educated and ready to shoulder their responsibilities. He censured the ancient English universities for failing to make the present rulers grasp what had to be done in reform to avoid the worst features of mass domination. In pursuing narrow sectarian ends, as in the exclusion of Dissenters, the universities were ignoring political realities.26 They must moreover extend their scope to serve a larger proportion of the population, and at the same time sponsor more through research in the manner of the German universities.

In his targets for criticism Mill included the Established Church. For this ancient instrument of national religion and culture he had little reverence, partly because he was not a believer, and partly because its intimate alliance with the aristocracy had bolstered conservative forces hostile to reform. Evident throughout his essay is what Matthew Arnold called Mill’s insensitivity to religion, especially dogmatic religion. On this subject he was explicit: “The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be rooted out” (144). For him the Establishment in particular was too sectarian, too protective of its own institutional monopoly, and too much a prop of the existing social order. With satisfaction he witnessed the shrinkage of its power as other religious bodies secured a greater public freedom. In 1829 he described to Gustave d’Eichthal the immense significance of Catholic emancipation. “It forms an era in civilization. It is one of those great events, which periodically occur, by which the institutions of a country are brought into harmony with the better part of the mind of that country. . . .”27 He was gratified that the Established Church and its ally the aristocracy had suffered a defeat, for he felt the emancipation had dealt a fatal blow in general to exclusion from political rights on grounds of religion. As a sequel to this event, Mill was inclined in the early 1830s to predict an imminent collapse of the power of the Church. Here his perception failed him. He greatly underestimated the Church’s resilience, vitality, and capacity for change and survival, as he also misunderstood the human feelings that helped to sustain it.

In turning from the general aspects of contemporary civilization to its moral effects. Mill generalized freely about the imponderables in individual conduct. He thought that civilization relaxed individual energy and tended to focus it within the narrow sphere of the individual’s money-getting pursuits. He believed that in the civilized milieu the individual received so many elements of security and protection for himself, family, and property, that he depended less on his own unaided initiatives and exertions. This profound change in man’s spirit and temper was illustrated in all phases of society, including literature and the arts, which now tended to lose their older distinct and enduring standards. As literacy spread, good literature diminished. The influence of superior minds over the multitude weakened. “The individual,” wrote Mill, “becomes so lost in the crowd, that though he depends more and more upon opinion, he is apt to depend less and less upon well-grounded opinion; upon the opinion of those who know him. An established character becomes at once more difficult to gain, and more easily to be dispensed with” (132). In Mill’s view it was now only in small communities that the valuable influence of public opinion could be demonstrated.

In discussing the advance of civilization Mill attempted no confident and systematic balance-sheet of gains and losses for mankind. In his own age of transition he evidently felt that his chief task as a utilitarian reformer was to concentrate on augmenting the gains and minimizing the losses in the best way possible. To this end his reformist recommendations were directed.


The one remaining selection in this volume illustrative of Mill’s political ideas in the decade 1830-40 is a brief review of Essays on Government (1840). The author of this slender volume was an anonymous radical who believed in republican government, universal suffrage, the ballot, and rule by a natural aristocracy composed of those with wisdom and virtue whom the community selected in contrast to the existing aristocracy of birth and wealth. Mill found in the book no deep or original thought, but simply some rather naïve current thinking about democracy. The machinery constituted for choosing a natural aristocracy does not necessarily secure one. Unlike the author, Mill was not confident that the people would either know where to find natural aristocrats or select them as rulers when they found them.

Further he saw in the book contradictions between the principal prerequisites for good government. It insisted that the government must conform to the opinion of the governed, and also that the rulers must be the wisest and best persons in the community. Would the wise ones consent to rule in conformity with the opinions of the less wise? Dissatisfied with the book’s ambiguities, Mill summed up his own position:

We think that democracy can govern: it can make its legislators its mere delegates, to carry into effect its preconceived opinions. We do not say that it will do so. Whether it will, appears to us the great question which futurity has to resolve; and on the solution of which it depends whether democracy will be that social regeneration which its partisans expect, or merely a new form of bad government, perhaps somewhat better, perhaps somewhat worse, than those which preceded it.



two related themes dominated Mill’s political thought from 1840 to his death: the invention and maintenance of institutions that would efficiently express the sanction of citizens for what rulers did in their name; and the appropriate role of the state in furthering human betterment in a Britain hurrying deeper into the industrial age. On the first theme his Considerations on Representative Government summarized most of his thinking over many years and became his chief classic in political science, providing a practical and liberal guide to nineteenth-century man searching for stable and competent government. On his second theme, however, Mill produced no equivalent single volume, although of cardinal importance were his On Liberty and his Principles of Political Economy in its successive editions. Illuminating also on this subject are his occasional writings and speeches, especially those on Ireland. In the last century some Englishmen viewed Ireland as a social laboratory where it was necessary to try special experiments not tolerable at home. Mill in particular was ready to enlarge greatly the agenda of government to combat Ireland’s indigenous and lingering poverty.


In the seven years before Considerations on Representative Government appeared, Mill produced some papers that foreshadowed the arguments in his major essay. First in time was the submission, requested by Sir Charles Trevelyan, then Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, which strongly commended the Northcote-Trevelyan Report for advocating the recruitment of civil servants, not by the casual methods of political patronage, but by open competitive examinations. For Mill this genuine reform harmonized with his long-held conviction that representative government could be efficient only if conducted by the country’s best-educated and orderly minds. On reading the report he quickly dispatched a characteristic comment to Harriet: “it is as direct, uncompromising, & to the point, without reservation, as if we had written it.”28 Apart from placing administration under the control of competent and professional officials, he hoped that the new mode of recruitment would strengthen existing political institutions by opening public positions to the competition of all classes and persons, thus diminishing the traditional sway of the aristocracy and privileged classes. This in turn, he thought, would extend intellectual cultivation and encourage talented individuals.

Sir Charles Trevelyan, an unshakably determined man, was not content simply to submit a report. To overcome troublesome opposition he carefully primed the press, solicited the opinions of influential individuals likely to support it (Mill being one), and printed them in a special blue book, Papers on the Reorganisation of the Civil Service. Yet his effort won little immediate success. The proposals were bitterly resisted, and their supporters had to be content with piecemeal reforms until their final triumph under Gladstone in 1870.29


It is evident from Mill’s correspondence that throughout the 1850s he thought frequently about the contentious issue of parliamentary reform. The outcome was a pamphlet and a major article, both published in 1859: Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform and “Recent Writers on Reform.” The first of these was largely written in 1853 with subsequent revisions and additions. In it he argued that since the Reform Bill British opinion had profoundly changed. A new and restless public came to believe that a further improvement in parliamentary representation was a national necessity. An unremitting trial of strength between the progressive and stationary forces confronted all party leaders, who were compelled to recognize that out of the ceaseless dialectic of debate change must come. For them the main issue was its extent and timing.

In the light of this situation, Mill in his pamphlet attempted to formulate his own electoral programme in seven main proposals: grouping of small boroughs into districts, gradual steps to universal male and female suffrage, electioneering reform to free candidates from expenses amounting to a burdensome property qualification, a minimal educational requirement for the franchise, plural voting based on educational attainments, representation of minorities through the cumulative vote, and rejection of the ballot, which had not yet become a part of British electoral law.

Some of these topics naturally figured more prominently in public discussion than others, and it is needless here to examine Mill’s arguments on all of them. His proposal to protect the views of minorities through the cumulative vote became obsolete a month after the publication of Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, with the appearance of Thomas Hare’s Election of Representatives. Hare’s book, discussed below, promptly convinced Mill. In March 1859 he enthusiastically wrote to its author: “You appear to me to have exactly, and for the first time, solved the difficulty of popular representation; and by doing so, to have raised up the cloud of gloom and uncertainty which hung over the futurity of representative government and therefore of civilization.”30 Henceforth he was committed to Hare’s scheme of electoral reform, with its preferential and transferable vote, calculated quota, and transformation of the country into a single constituency. To him it seemed the best protection for minorities that parliament could provide.

Mill’s proposals in Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform had in the preceding years evolved through prolonged discussions with his wife, who then greatly influenced his thinking. His suggested educational qualification for the franchise, and his rejection of the secret ballot provoked much controversy. On the first of these, he argued that a minimal education test must accompany a universal franchise. In view of the high value he consistently placed on a trained intelligence, he found it impossible to accept the equality of educated and uneducated electors.

If it is asserted that all persons ought to be equal in every description of right recognized by society, I answer, not until all are equal in worth as human beings. It is the fact, that one person is not as good as another; and it is reversing all the rules of rational conduct, to attempt to raise a political fabric on a supposition which is at variance with fact Putting aside for the present the consideration of moral worth, . . . a person who cannot read, is not as good, for the purpose of human life, as one who can.


Taking off from a premise that rejected the old radical dogma of “one man one vote,” Mill argued that all adult men and women who passed an education test should be enfranchised, but those with superior training should receive plural or extra voting power, even to the extent of some individuals having three or more votes. In this Mill’s logic may have been impeccable, but the political practicability of his proposal was a different matter. The passion for equality that Tocqueville saw as part and parcel of the democratic movement was unlikely to render possible the kind of voting that Mill described. He himself appeared to have doubts. In the same year he admitted to John Elliot Cairnes that his proposal for plural voting on the basis of intellectual qualification was intended “not as an immediately practical measure but as a standard of theoretical excellence.”31 Yet on the same matter he commented to Alexander Bain: “One must never suppose what is good in itself to be visionary because it may be far off. . . . We must remember too that the numerical majority are not the politically strongest force yet. The point to be decided is, how much power is to be yielded to them; & justice always affords the best basis for a compromise, which even if only temporary may be eminently useful.”32

On the issue of the ballot, Mill in Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform publicly expressed for the first time his volte-face from a position stoutly held in the 1830s. In the earlier period, he, like other Philosophic Radicals, had extolled the ballot as scarcely less important than an extended franchise in overthrowing the ruling oligarchy in Britain. Without it the franchise might mean little. For him and his associates it became virtually a symbol of their radicalism. Secret voting, once established, was expected to demolish the political power of the aristocracy and privileged classes, and hence open the road for the march of the Radical party. It would protect tenants from coercion by landlords, customers from coercion by shopkeepers and vice versa, employees from coercion by employers, and the general public from coercion by miscellaneous and often sinister interests of every kind. It would benefit the people in that comprehensive way so dear to the Radicals. In 1837 Mill told Tocqueville with simplistic assurance that with the ballot “reform will have finally triumphed: the aristocratical principle will be completely annihilated, & we shall enter into a new era of government.”33 He then believed that in the country there was a deep radicalism which without the ballot was repressed. Two years later, in a letter to John M. Kemble, he wrote in more moderate terms, but still considered the ballot essential for the success of the radical cause.34

In defending his change of mind in the 1850s, Mill argued that when earlier he and the Philosophic Radicals had first advocated the ballot they were justified by the circumstances of the time. Many voters were then artfully manipulated by landlords and employers, and unable to declare their real convictions in an open election. Twenty-five years later, however, the conditions were different. No longer were the rich the masters of the country. The middle classes and workers were less subservient to those above them, felt their own strength, and resented attempts by others to coerce them. In the larger electorates the real evil now lay in the selfish partialities of the voter himself, which reduced his concern for the general interest. Open voting, Mill thought, might best correct this egocentric attitude, foster a wholesome sense of public responsibility, and emphasize the vote as a trust for which the voter was accountable to the community.

Social circumstances had unquestionably changed, but for most Liberals the changes had failed to diminish the practical advantages of the ballot as a means for moderating the influences of wealth and power. Mill and his wife thus fell singularly out of step with the main army of reformers, who persistently advocated this change until its final triumph under Gladstone in 1872. Competent studies of the electoral system in this period seem to support the practical utility of the ballot.35

The few remaining active Philosophic Radicals, like George Grote and Francis Place, deplored Mill’s change of view. Place, often critical of Mill, was specially irritated by his pronounced shift of opinion on the ballot. “If James Mill,” he wrote bitterly, “could have anticipated that his son John Stuart should preach so abominable a heresy . . . he would have cracked his skull.”36 Place charged Mill with a shocking inconsistency, but on his part Mill thought mere consistency a minor virtue. Where circumstances change a situation, he would argue, then it is only common sense to alter one’s view of it.

In “Recent Writers on Reform” Mill examined the ideas of three contemporary writers on parliamentary institutions in the 1850s, selected for their distinction and the importance of their ideas: John Austin, James Lorimer, and Thomas Hare. Austin had been one of Mill’s oldest friends, under whom as a youth he had studied law, and whose ability he greatly admired. Yet Austin, although a disciple of Bentham, had in later years become conservative and estranged from Mill, who in particular was disturbed by his vehement criticism of the French revolutionary government of 1848. In his Plea for the Constitution Austin displayed a hostility to further parliamentary reform in the conviction that it was likely to destroy the delicate balance of the existing constitution and the appropriate attitudes of mind which facilitated its operation. The constitution, he believed, combined democratic and aristocratic elements. The electors were a democratic body, while the elected in the main constituted a remarkably skilled, devoted, and aristocratic governing class, who throughout a long span of time had acquired and were still able to apply the arts of ruling a country they understood.

This version of the British system combined with a laudation of the governing aristocracy was something that since the 1820s Mill had consistently condemned. On finding it in the pages of Austin he criticized it afresh, although, evidently out of respect for his old friend, his condemnation was moderate. He was content to show that the aristocratic classes, who had an opportunity to become instructed and trained statesmen, had frittered away their opportunities. Historically, they were less effective than the open aristocracy of Rome or the closed aristocracy of Venice. He noted Austin’s point that parliamentary reform was needless because the existing elected members of the lower house were already fully alert to the requirements of sound legislation and able to draft it. But Mill replied that, aside from law-making, parliament had another role. The House of Commons as the grand council of the entire nation must contain spokesmen to discuss the critical issues that divide the community and reflect the diverse shades of opinion in all classes. The most numerous class in the kingdom, that of the workers, had a moral right to representation to avoid having its affairs disposed of in its absence. He did not believe that recognizing this right of the workers and shopkeepers would produce all the disastrous social consequences that Austin took for granted.

By contrast, Mill had some reason for satisfaction with James Lorimer’s Political Progress Not Necessarily Democratic, for Lorimer was hardly less hostile than himself to the domination of the majority, accepted universal suffrage, but also favoured plural votes for certain citizens, although his criterion for them differed from Mill’s. He thought that a man’s social status, whether that of a peer or a labourer, should determine his voting power. This thesis Mill rejected as a dangerous sophistry, since it assumed that society must bend to forces created by itself, whereas he was conviced that men must intelligently try to mould society into something better, and his proposal for plural votes was intended to help the educated in doing so. In Lorimer’s work he was specially gratified with one feature: the rejection of current demands for the representation of interests. Mill expressed his own characteristic view that whenever interests are not identical with the general interest, the less they are represented the better. “What is wanted is a representation, not of men’s differences of interest, but of the differences in their intellectual points of view. Shipowners are to be desired in Parliament, because they can instruct us about ships, not because they are interested in having protecting duties.” (358.) Mill had no intention of suggesting that ideas can always be divorced from interests. As a reformer of society he knew better. He was trying to emphasize, as he did frequently, the necessity for cultivating an overriding and dispassionate sense of a public interest, which in his opinion was the prime purpose of a representative government.

The most important part of Mill’s article dealt with Thomas Hare’s book and the electoral mechanism it recommended to ensure for minorities a parliamentary voice equal to their strength. Hare appeared to solve a problem in representation that had worried Mill for a quarter of a century: how the domination by an electoral majority could be mitigated and a real image of the nation’s varied groups be expressed. It was only by solving this problem that true rather than false democracy could be achieved. He unhesitantly welcomed Hare’s departure from the principle of strict territorial representation, hitherto dominant in the constitution of the Commons. No longer would it be necessary for a candidate to gain or keep his seat by those “time-serving arts, and sacrifices of his convictions to the local or class prejudices and interests of any given set of electors” (366). Through the transferable vote he could appeal to a wider electorate, while on their part electors could enjoy a larger range in the choice of candidates, and thus achieve, as Mill said, a more personal rather than local representation. He expected that the quality of candidates would greatly improve, the tone of public debate rise, and the inducements of a parliamentary career for talented men increase. He enthusiastically wrote to Hare in December, 1859: “If the Americans would but adopt your plan (which I fear they never will) the bad side of their government and institutions, namely the practical exclusion of all the best minds from political influence, would soon cease. Let us hope that in the old country (thanks to you) democracy will come in this better form.”37

Mill was confident that with the implementation of Hare’s proposals any ill consequences of universal suffrage would be greatly diminished and even the plural voting he had recommended might become unnecessary. He hoped that the system could be accepted without prolonged delay, for reasons he confided to Henry Fawcett in February 1860: “It is an uphill race, and a race against time, for if the American form of democracy overtakes us first, the majority will no more relax their despotism than a single despot would.”38

Mill’s hopes for an early acceptance of the new principles were singularly unrealistic. Yet for the remainder of his life he continued to be an undaunted advocate of the single transferable vote and constantly encouraged and helped his friends like Hare and Fawcett in their efforts. Although women’s suffrage and the Hare system of electoral reform were not the sole practical causes that occupied him in the 1860s, they were pre-eminent in appeal, and when in the House of Commons he strove to further both. Despite his efforts parliament never took the action he wanted, and the reasons are not far to seek. At the time when Mill was advocating a new electoral system, party managers gradually began to remould the organization of the two major parties to render them more disciplined and effective instruments for shaping policies and winning elections. For them the Hare-Mill electoral ideas seemed too revolutionary, too complicated, and their effects on party fortunes too uncertain to be acceptable. Hence, except for some of their members, they showed little interest in proportional representation of the type that Mill supported and were unwilling to incorporate it as an essential element in their political plans. Gladstone, for example, although in some reforms he was evidently influenced by Mill, rejected proportional representation when he considered electoral changes. This is not to say, however, that Mill’s ideas lacked influence. Even into the twentieth century, his basic idea, as stated in Representative Government, continued to incite the interest of many: in a democracy, any and every section must be represented, not disproportionately, but proportionately. A majority of the electors should always have a majority of the representatives; a minority of electors should always have a minority of representatives.


Considerations on Representative Government brings together many of Mill’s views expressed in earlier writings, especially those on the domination of majorities, the proposals of Thomas Hare, the folly of extracting pledges from parliamentarians, the superiority of public voting, the equity of female suffrage, and the desirability of plural votes for the educated.39 But the book is more than a résumé of previous opinions. It contains some of the author’s most effective arguments on political liberalism and it assesses the liabilities no less than the assets of what for Mill was the best form of government. It has usually been rated as one of the most influential appraisals of the subject written in Victorian England, though to a modern political analyst it has some deficiencies. It says little about the social and economic environment in which the institutions are expected to operate, although Mill was well aware of social forces and class struggles. Another work of the same decade, the English Constitution by Walter Bagehot, has perhaps since received more profuse acclaim, especially for elegance of style, but, except on the subject of Crown and parliament, Bagehot’s range was narrower and his probing of problems less profound and original.40

It is not proposed here to examine and evaluate in detail the contents of its eighteen chapters, but merely to comment on salient features. At the outset Mill attempts to distinguish the two contemporary forms of political speculation. The first postulated politics as a practical art, the product of invention and contrivance, concerned with means and ends and the devices for persuading citizens to accept them. It considered government a machine and a matter of rational choice, an opinion congenial to many British utilitarians. The second viewed government as less a machine than a living social organism, evolving like organisms in natural history. Emerging from simple situations, it grows spontaneously under the shaping influences of environment and the habits, instincts, and unconscious wants and desires of mankind This theory was much cherished by Conservatives in Britain.

Mill believes that neither theory alone explains the nature of politics. Each has elements of truth; each in itself can mislead. But both together help to further political comprehension. For him the essential fact is that political institutions, as the work of men, depend on will and thought, and are subject to the errors as well as the wisdom of human judgment. Unlike trees, which once planted grow while men sleep, they are controlled by the constant decisions and participation of individuals, exposed to a host of influences. “It is what men think, that determines how they act” (382). He rejects the idea that any people is capable of operating any type of political system. A bewildering medley of circumstances usually determines the nature and outlook of a country’s government. For a system to be successful, the people must be willing to accept it, do whatever ensures its survival, and strive to fulfil its purposes. Representative government makes heavy demands on the energy and initiative of citizens, requiring in particular self-discipline, moderation, and a spirit of compromise. It can succeed only when, in a favourable environment, the citizens have the qualities requisite to operate it. Mill admits that until relatively recent times a free and popular government was rarely possible outside a city community because physical conditions failed to permit the emergence and propagation of a cohesive public opinion. These views were not new to him in the 1860s. In his Autobiography he relates that some thirty years earlier he had seen representative democracy as a question of time, place, and circumstance.41

Mill viewed government as primarily an instrument to further the improvement of mankind, and to this end representative institutions are ideally the best, although hitherto human progress has often been served by efficient regimes that did not represent the people. An autocracy which successfully curbs a lawless and turbulent populace may for an interval provide an essential prerequisite for the order and progress of civilization: the ingrained habits and spirit of obedience to law. At critical times enlightened despots can achieve concrete social advances that may be less feasible under representative institutions, which permit powerful vested interests to block reform.

Nevertheless, for Mill the most desirable form of government, provided the people are willing and able to fulfil its conditions, is representative, because it offers the maximum opportunity for fostering men’s intelligence, virtue, and happiness. But at the same time he admits that where the people are morally and mentally unfit for this demanding form of rule, it may become an instrument of tyranny, and popular elections less a security against misgovernment than an additional wheel in its machinery (378). Even in the progressive democracies many men are content to be passive in public affairs. Absorbed in private cares and satisfactions, they patiently endure social evils and surrender to the pressure of circumstances. Usually present, however, are an energetic and active few who express thought, advocate innovations, and encourage provocative debate, thus making progress possible. Representative institutions enable these few to thrash out differences and reach workable agreements for the common good. With characteristic sober optimism Mill describes the competitive and restless spirit of liberal society as he perceives it in the nineteenth century: “All intellectual superiority is the fruit of active effort. Enterprise, the desire to keep moving, to be trying and accomplishing new things for our own benefit or that of others, is the parent even of speculative, and much more of practical, talent. . . . The character which improves human life is that which struggles with natural powers and tendencies, not that which gives way to them.” (407.)

Electoral Machinery, Responsibility, and Expertise

In Representative Government, Mill is principally concerned with three institutional features: the electoral machinery, the structure of a responsible national government, and the paramount role of a professional and expert class in administration and law-making.

The first of these themes, which he had earlier explored in articles, emphasizes his distinction between true and false democracy. True democracy represents all, and not merely the majority. In it the different interests, opinions, and grades of intellect are heard, and by weight of character and strength of argument influence the rest.42 This democracy is achieved by reforming the electoral system according to the proposals of Thomas Hare, by ensuring that everyone, male and female alike, has a voice (although not an equal voice) in the voting process, and by fostering education from infancy through life. Mill believes that the expansion of democratic rights in itself exerts a pervasive educational influence. He accepts Tocqueville’s belief that American democracy fostered both a robust patriotism and an active intelligence. “No such wide diffusion of the ideas, tastes, and sentiments of educated minds,” he writes, “has ever been seen elsewhere, or even conceived as attainable” (468). He strongly holds this view, although in earlier essays on the United States he also acknowledged in the American electorate a narrow and intolerant mentality. Although Mill at times fluctuates between trust and distrust of democracy, he always believes in its potentiality to improve men. Active citizenship can usually nourish the qualities that good citizenship demands, draw out human resources otherwise dormant, and advance the lot of mankind.

In discussing the executive in the representative system, Mill is the empiricist and Benthamite, who is eager to accept innovations but clearly places a high value on what has been tested by experience. He sanctions the parliamentary executive, which the British developed through common sense and the accidents of a long history. Indeed, he gives scant attention to any other system except the American, which affords him merely a basis for contrasts. With brevity and acumen he discusses precepts that must govern a responsible and effective executive. “It should be apparent to all the world, who did everything, and through whose default anything was left undone. Responsibility is null when nobody knows who is responsible,” (520.) But it is equally true that in many counsellors there is wisdom. A single individual even in his own business seldom judges right, and still less in that of the public. These and related points, he thinks, are woven into the fabric of British parliamentary practice.

Distinguishing between policy and administration, he is anxious that in the latter highly trained minds should save democracy from errors. He fears that the popular tolerance of mediocrity impairs the competence and quality of the state. In defending the Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the civil service he had advocated the recruitment of officials through competitive examinations from the ablest brains in the country, irrespective of social class. This case he confidently argues afresh in Representative Government (529-33) and defends it for every democratic state. In 1869 he writes to an American correspondent that “the appointments to office, without regard to qualifications, are the worst side of American institutions: the main cause of what is justly complained of in their practical operation, and the principal hindrance to the correction of what is amiss; as well as a cause of ill-repute to democratic institutions all over the world.”43

Even in Britain he saw a too common inclination to ignore in officials the need for special qualifications: “Unless a man is fit for the gallows, he is thought to be about as fit as other people for almost anything” (427). Critical of British complacency and aristocratic casualness, he constantly extols the professional and the expert above the amateur and the dilettante.

His zeal for professional skills extends from administration to lawmaking. In his opinion a large and unwieldy parliament can no more legislate than administer. His Benthamite conscience was hurt by the haphazard and often dilatory manner in which British laws were made, with little concern for whether they fitted logically into the existing legal structure. His remedy was a legislative commission, composed of those who from assiduous study and long experience acquired an expertise in drafting bills which parliament could pass, reject, or return for further consideration (430-2). A legislature in Mill’s opinion should not itself draft law, but merely ensure its competent drafting. He suggests that on their appointment members of the commission should become life peers and thus enlarge the element of expertise in the House of Lords. In his chapter on second chambers, however, he emphasizes that the House of Lords should not be considered the main instrument for tempering the ascendancy of the majority in the lower house, a task better achieved through the electoral reforms that he and Thomas Hare advocated. As a drafting body, Mill’s legislative commission resembled the Parliamentary Counsel to the Treasury established by Gladstone in 1869, but Mill would have given to permanent experts more power than any House of Commons was ever likely to concede. His sympathy always seemed stronger for the men in Whitehall than for those in Westminster, for the officials rather than the politicians.

More than a quarter of Representative Government is devoted to four topics that may seem somewhat marginal to the main subject of the book. But because for Mill they are important and illustrate cardinal features of his liberalism they merit separate discussion.

Local Government

In both On Liberty and Representative Government Mill extols local institutions as essential for the welfare and education of the people. They permit citizens to acquire invaluable experience in working for common ends, introduce them to the skills and ethics of collaboration, and are an indispensable preparatory school for the democratic state. In Britain, moreover, such institutions are a necessary auxiliary to the national parliament itself, which otherwise would become harassed and strained by tasks better left to local bodies, visible and sensitive to local electorates and directly accountable to them. A robust municipal system, Mill believed, would nourish a responsible public spirit and foster among the citizenry the political enlightenment essential for an extended franchise and a viable democracy.

In these views Mill was faithful to the utilitarian and radical tradition, drawing inspiration from Bentham who had emphasized the inherent value of local government and the necessity for its overhaul in England. He shared an early and lifelong friendship with Edwin Chadwick, a zealous and energetic Benthamite and the chief architect of municipal reform in the 1830s and 1840s. In 1833 he saw Chadwick as “one of the most remarkable men of our time in the practical art of Government. . . .”44 He had ample reasons for praising his friend, although Chadwick incurred much unpopularity for an apparently uncompassionate attitude towards the administration of the Poor Law and for centralist prejudices. The two men freely consulted, exchanged general ideas, and usually agreed on policy. Mill supported the major innovations that were deeply indebted to Chadwick’s utilitarian thought and ingenuity; in particular the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Corporations Act of 1835, and the Public Health Act of 1848, each of which was a conspicuous landmark in the evolution of new forms of local administration and service.

When in 1861 Mill came to write his chapter on local government he surveyed a scene of increasing complexity and baffling confusion. The rapid growth of industry and population had created massive urban concentrations of people clamouring for new and varied services. The different municipal bodies launched in the 1830s and 1840s were busily trying to cope with the problems of a social cauldron. The Boards of Poor Law Guardians, the borough councils, and the numerous ad hoc boards and commissions responsible for specific services all attempted to give a new meaning to municipal rule in a changing society. But in the counties the ancient system of appointed justices of the peace meeting in Quarter Sessions still survived. On this institution Mill as a faithful Radical is caustic:

The mode of formation of these bodies is most anomalous, they being neither elected, nor, in any proper sense of the term, nominated, but holding their important functions, like the feudal lords to whom they succeeded, virtually by right of their acres. . . . The institution is the most aristocratic in principle which now remains in England: far more so than the House of Lords, for it grants public money and disposes of important public interests, not in conjunction with a popular assembly, but alone.


He would correct the deficiencies of county government through elected county councils to replace the Quarter Sessions, a reform not achieved until 1888.

Mill also attacks the cluttering proliferation of boards and commissions which needlessly fragmented and confused English civic life. He anticipates the Royal Sanitary Commission’s Report of 1871 and the critical verdict that England suffered from a chaos of local authorities and a chaos of local rates.45 He advocates consolidation of the existing services (such as paving, lighting, water supply, and drainage) under a single elected council rather than leaving them under separate ad hoc commissions. In brief, he recommends for all the local business of a town one body, whose members should be chosen only by ratepayers. He criticizes the subdivision of London into several independent units, each jealously clinging to responsibility for providing the same services, and thus preventing co-operation. Like other of Mill’s ideas in Representative Government, this one played a practical part in his parliamentary career when, a few years later, he introduced the first proposal for a London Corporation.46

Mill had pronounced convictions on the relations of central and local governments, believing that the central authority’s principal task was to give instructions and that of the local authority to apply them. Action must be localized, though knowledge, to be useful to all citizens in the kingdom, should be centralized. In the public interest a close partnership between the two levels of government is imperative. The central government should designate a specific department to act as a responsible guardian, adviser, and critic, scrutinizing everything done in local areas and making its fund of special knowledge available to those who need it. It should in particular supervise those matters of national interest left to local administration, but its power should be limited to compelling local officers to obey the laws enacted for their guidance. His chief example for this type of supervision is that of the Poor Law Board over the Local Guardians.

In their standard work on local government, Josef Redlich and Francis Hirst remark that Bentham’s “idea of centralisation was interpreted, modified, and adapted to English needs by Mill and not till it was adapted by Mill was it fully adopted by England.”47 His influence on local government clearly asserted itself in the years after 1871 with the organization of an efficient central authority for doing what he had long advocated, supervising municipal rule. In these ideas he demonstrates his type of utilitarian thought at its best, especially in taking traditional English institutions and adapting them to the necessities of a new industrial age.


Mill’s discussion of nationality, unlike his discussion of local government, might at the time have seemed of little relevance to Britain’s domestic politics. But in the wider perspective of her relations with continental Europe it was important. The idea of a self-conscious nationality emerged as a revolutionary force in transforming European politics after the French Revolution, and in Mill’s opinion Britain could not elude its wide-ranging effects.

His chapter on the subject is brief, little more than half the length of that on local government, perhaps too brief for him to render full justice to the magnitude and complexity of the theme. In “Coleridge” and A System of Logic he had viewed nationality as an essential condition for a stable political society, but emphasized that he did not mean nationality in the vulgar sense.48 In the interval between these writings and the appearance of Representative Government Mill saw nationality in Europe grow stronger in influence, more militant, and more uncompromising. It was manifested in a people through a powerful sense of community and an anxiety to live under one government. It was fostered by a variety of influences, such as identity of race, a common homeland, common language, common religion, and a common sense of history. “But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents: the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past” (546). This passage has been quoted and requoted. Yet in his brief sketch Mill does not explain precisely how, why, and when the actual unifying sense of a common national history arises, especially in cases like Germany and Italy, where for generations deep political divergences expressed in a plethora of small states seemed more conspicuous than unity.49

Mill took a definite position on the relations of nationality to democracy. “Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a primâ facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart. This is merely saying that the question of government ought to be decided by the governed.” To this remark he adds another no less revealing: “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities” (547). In brief, democracy works best in a uni-national state of like-minded people. He contends that different nationalities, speaking different languages, would hamper the crystallizing of public opinion on which successful representative institutions depend. Social fragmentation and divisiveness would result from the presence of separate leaders of different nationalities. The same books, newspapers, pamphlets, and speeches would fail to circulate throughout all sectors of the society. Each nationality would thus differently assess facts and differently express opinions. Such differences, when sharp enough, would favour despotism rather than freedom. Politicians for their own advantage and power would exploit mutual antipathies.

Mill makes two far-reaching qualifications to his principle that the boundaries of state and nation should coincide. First, circumstances may sometimes render it difficult or impossible to implement: for example, in parts of Europe, notably the Austrian Empire, nationalities were so intricately intermingled as to make separate national states impracticable. In such cases the people affected must make a virtue of necessity and tolerantly accept life together under regimes of equal rights and equal laws. Second, it is often socially advantageous for a small nationality, rather than pursuing political independence, to merge in a larger one. He thinks it preferable for a Breton or Basque to become a part of the richly-endowed French nation than “to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage relic of past times, revolving in his own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world” (549). He believes that this also applies to the Welshman and the Scottish Highlander. Whatever his sympathy for such small nations, he is confident that their members would reap cultural benefits from close association with the larger nation, and in return confer benefits. In this type of situation it is essential for the weaker to receive not only equal justice but equal consideration, and thus help to blend qualities inherent in the different nationalities to the advantage of mankind.

Mill’s qualifications to his main thesis on state and nation are often forgotten while his general thesis is remembered. They are manifest in his treatment of the contentious national problem of Ireland. This Mill discussed in a sparse single paragraph in Representative Government, but in subsequent writings he said much on the subject, and notably in his pamphlet England and Ireland.50

Mill recognizes that the nationality of the Irish had never been absorbed in the larger nationality of Britain, as Bretons and Alsatians had been absorbed in that of France. For this result he gives two reasons: the Irish are numerous enough to constitute in themselves a respectable nationality and had for generations nursed a deep enduring enmity towards England because of its harsh methods of rule. His comments in Representative Government suggest that Mill believed that recent improvements in British policy had reduced Irish hostility, and in the future even more harmonious relations between the two countries might be expected. Hence he omits discussion of whether Ireland’s distinct nationality requires a separate statehood, as his general principle would imply. Seven years later, however, in England and Ireland, he is more pessimistic. In the interval a severe agrarian depression and Irish agitations for land reform had failed to win an adequate response from the British parliament. The consequent rise of a revolutionary Fenian movement committed to tactics of violence to achieve independence worsened and embittered relations between the two countries. Mill now wrote a sombre criticism of British rulers: “What seems to them the causelessness of the Irish repugnance to our rule, is the proof that they have almost let pass the last opportunity they are ever likely to have of setting it right. They have allowed what once was indignation against particular wrongs, to harden into a passionate determination to be no longer ruled on any terms by those to whom they ascribe all their evils. Rebellions are never really unconquerable until they have become rebellions for an idea.”51

Nevertheless, despite the inflamed sense of Irish nationality. Mill desires that the two countries should remain united. Their affairs are intimately intertwined in trade, population movements, and international security. Geography makes it easier for them to exist within one state rather than two. But the imperative condition for doing so successfully is that English rulers radically change their attitude towards Ireland. In making laws for that island they must resolve to recognize Irish circumstances and satisfy Irish interests no less than their own.

In particular, Mill argues, they should introduce sweeping agrarian reforms, leaving Irish peasants in permanent possession of their land, subject to fixed charges. In 1867, he told a correspondent that his guiding principle was: “To declare openly on all suitable occasions that England is bound either to govern Ireland so that Ireland shall be satisfied with her government, or to set Ireland free to govern herself.”52 He still hoped that it would be unnecessary to apply to Ireland the principle of one state for one nation, but, if English rulers failed in their duty, this would be inescapable.

Mill’s association of nationality with the idea of democratic and free government has held a prominent place in the literature of modern nationalism. Koppel S. Pinson asserts that Representative Government, translated into the language of subject nationalities, “had a tremendous influence on the shaping of nationalist ideology.”53 Mill seems to have less fear than Lord Acton that a sense of nationality fosters political forces hostile to democracy, although he did see the danger in multi-national states where anti-liberal governments may play off one nationality against another. In such a state, Mill believes, an army composed of different nationalities could readily be the executioner of liberty (548). For this reason he prefers whenever feasible the uni-national state, confident that it gives richer promise for free government.

Even in a uni-national state, however, a spirit of aggressive nationality may destroy democratic liberties whenever the power and prestige of the nation are threatened. A nationalist is not necessarily a liberal or a democrat. He may support any form of government that satisfies the ambition and interests of his nation. On this matter Mill attempts no direct argument, but from the nature of his general philosophy we can deduce his views. Primarily concerned as he is with individual liberty and human progress, he nowhere suggests that the claims of nationality are superior to those of liberalism.


Mill’s chapter on federal government has been less influential and significant than that on nationality. Federalism he extols as an invaluable instrument to achieve a larger and more fruitful collaboration in defence and social development between communities endowed with many mutual interests, but separately weak and often absorbed in petty rivalries. He discusses with acumen the conditions necessary to render a federation acceptable and feasible, the different modes of organizing it, the institutions such as a supreme court essential to fulfil its purposes, and the broad beneficial consequences flowing from its success. In federal states he sees decisive advantages similar to those conferred by other practical modes of co-operation wherein persuasion replaces command and for certain purposes the weak meet on equal terms with the strong. For him in some degree the federal principle is implicit in every truly free state.

Although most of Mill’s remarks are hardly less relevant today than when he wrote, he was clearly handicapped by the paucity of existing federations from which to draw illustrations, the only two of importance being the United States and Switzerland. This fact partly explains his conclusion that a federal government had inadequate authority to conduct effectively any war except one in self-defence. In the American case he had some evidence to support this opinion, but scarcely sufficient on which to rest a firm and enduring generalisation. Hence, although his principal remarks on federalism reflect shrewd intuitions, he lacked adequate data for the full play of his characteristically empirical thinking. He made no attempt to probe the history of federal ideas in such thinkers as Jean Bodin and the German jurists. His chief inspiration and guidance came directly from the American Federalist Papers and the wealth of American practical experience. He looked to concrete political experiments as a guide. Writing on the eve of the Civil War he thought that American federalism had already achieved something valuable in limiting the tyranny of majorities, protecting territorial groups, and creating a judicial arbiter supreme over all the governments, both state and federal, and able to declare invalid any law made by them in violation of the constitution.

The Government of Dependencies

Mill’s chapter on the rule of dependencies draws on his life-long interest in colonies and empire. As a servant of the East India Company for thirty-five years, he was constantly preoccupied with imperial issues. He also became closely associated with those Philosophic Radicals who in the 1830s advocated colonial reform in general and systematic colonization in particular: notably Charles Buller, William Molesworth, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, and the enigmatic Lord Durham. Wakefield’s seminal if erratic mind fed the group with ideas on the economics of colonial development. Mill freely admitted his debt to Wakefield.54 He turned aside from the anti-imperial concepts of his father and Bentham, expressed in Bentham’s pamphlet Emancipate Your Colonies. For him the old mercantilist empire was near death, and not to be mourned, but a renovated and vigorous empire could be established on the mutual interests of self-governing colonies and the metropolis. This cause made him actively interested in the National Colonization Society, launched by Wakefield and his associates to create a new colonial society on liberal principles, built on British capital and British labour. The new empire was expected to ensure markets and sources of supply for Britain and relieve her population pressures, economic stagnation, and the miseries of an industrial society.55

Mill’s enduring interest in the dependencies, evident in Representative Government, was heavily indebted to his earlier absorption in the imperial issues of the 1830s and especially his part in the discussions provoked by the Canadian Rebellion of 1837-38. He was elated in January 1838 by the appointment of Lord Durham as High Commissioner and Governor General of British North America, because this event provided an unparalleled opportunity for the Philosophic Radicals to prescribe for a critical colonial situation. If Durham succeeded, the Radical party no less than the Empire would immediately benefit. Durham took with him to Canada Buller and Wakefield, both of whom substantially contributed to the contents and character of the famous report, including its recommendation for colonial autonomy. Mill for his part promptly employed the London and Westminster Review to defend Durham and his mission.56 From this action he derived unusual satisfaction, telling a friend in 1840 “that, as far as such things can ever be said, I saved Lord Durham—as he himself, with much feeling, acknowledged to me. . . .”57

In 1861 his praise of Durham’s Report remained confident and forcible. It began, he wrote, “A new era in the colonial policy of nations” and remained an imperishable memorial to its author’s courage, patriotism, and liberality, as well as to the intellect and sagacity of his associates Wakefield and Buller (563). Such a generous assessment was far from acceptable to all the contemporary Radicals, Roebuck in particular was forthright in criticizing Durham, especially for his contemptuous attitude to the French Canadians and their nationality. Although Mill praised Durham’s Report for advocating the general principle of colonial autonomy, he nowhere subjects it to a detailed and public analysis or meets the legitimate criticisms lodged against it at the time, especially those directed against the apparent impracticability of the formal terms for colonial autonomy.58

In the wake of triumphant free trade in Britain and responsible government in Canada certain members in the Liberal camp were openly hostile to colonies and empire. Spokesmen for the Manchester School and a few veteran Benthamites, like Place, wrote of colonies as expensive and needless encumbrances. Since trade was everywhere free or becoming so, the burdens and perils of a permanent colonial connection were unacceptable. The most polished and influential exponent of this view was Goldwin Smith, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, who in The Empire argues that the self-governing colonies contribute nothing to Britain, and threaten to involve her in conflicts with other major powers.59 Mill rejects Smith’s thesis. In Representative Government he contends that Britain and her colonies had so many interests in common that a severance of formal ties would be a mistake (565-6). The empire could survive by consent. For him colonization, despite its numerous problems, is justified by its ultimate and enduring benefits. The imperial society preserves peace among its scattered territories, pursues a civilizing mission, furnishes an opportunity for invaluable co-operation between young communities and the mature metropolis, and helps to keep their markets open to one another, immune from exclusion by hostile tariffs. On the last point Mill reflects a sanguine belief, then current among British Liberals, but soon shattered by events, that the free trade so recently introduced must naturally appeal to the overseas segments of empire.

Mill moreover considered that a continuance of imperial ties augmented the moral stature and influence of Britain in the councils of the world. In a special expression of national pride he lauds Britain as the power that best understands liberty, and that in dealings with foreigners is more responsive to conscience and moral principle than any other great nation (565). Such qualities were consonant with his deep respect for the imperial links. In 1862 he wrote to his friend, John E. Cairnes:

. . . I think it very undesirable that anything should be done which would hasten the separation of our colonies. I believe the preservation of as much connexion as now exists to be a great good to them; and though the direct benefit to England is extremely small, beyond what would exist after a friendly separation, any separation would greatly diminish the prestige of England, which prestige I believe to be, in the present state of the world, a very great advantage to mankind.60

Although he favoured the maintenance of the colonial connection, Mill rejected as unrealistic the idea of a federation of Britain and its colonies, which was then occasionally mooted, especially in the form of direct colonial representation in the parliament at Westminster:

Countries separated by half the globe do not present the natural conditions for being under one government, or even members of one federation. If they had sufficiently the same interests, they have not, and never can have, a sufficient habit of taking counsel together. They are not part of the same public: they do not discuss and deliberate in the same arena, but apart, and have only a most imperfect knowledge of what passes in the minds of one another. They neither know each other’s objects, nor have confidence in each other’s principles of conduct.


The conditions essential for a genuine federation did not exist, and to assume otherwise would be folly. As late as January, 1870, Mill expressed similar views to a friend in New Zealand.61

Mill advocated, however, one proposal designed to consolidate the sense of imperial unity. He would open the public service in all departments and in every part of the empire on equal terms to the inhabitants of the colonies. He commended his old radical friend Sir William Molesworth for setting an excellent example in appointing Francis Hincks, a Canadian politician, to the governorship of a West Indian Island (566).

In the concluding pages of his chapter on dependencies Mill presents his mature opinions on governing India. In his last years as a high official of the East India Company he had taken a significant part in the struggle against the company’s extinction by the British parliament, and in the preparation of several papers, two being of major importance: Report on the Two Bills now Before Parliament Relating to the Government of India and Memorandum on the Improvements in the Administration of India during the Last Thirty Years.62 He saw India as an immense tradition-bound land with many and vast disparities, acute problems, widely conflicting cultures and religions, and hence as unfit for immediate self-rule.63 Nowhere does he suggest a willingness to apply the full teachings of Liberty and Representative Government to the India of his day. Instead he believed that it needed for a prolonged period enlightened governance by those with high administrative competence and a profound grasp of its special difficulties. In his opinion the best available vehicle under the Crown for applying sound utilitarian principles was the East India Company, with its large and unique stock of knowledge and experience. More effectively than any other institution the Company could act as a trustee and guardian for the Indian people.

In 1834 the Company had concluded its role as trader. Henceforth the welfare of subjects, rather than the dividends of shareholders, was its paramount concern. In 1858, however, parliament transferred the Company’s ruling authority directly to the Crown, to be exercised by a Secretary of State, responsible to parliament and advised by a Council of India sitting in London. In Representative Government Mill criticized this fundamental change on the ground that a British politician would usually be ignorant of the country, seldom hold office long enough to acquire an intelligent grasp of the subject, and naturally be more responsive to considerations of party advantage in Britain than of social progress in India (573). Since a Secretary of State must constantly be answerable to the British people, his authority could hardly serve the best interests of Indians, whom he was unable to see, hear, or know, and whose votes he had no need to solicit. The parliament and public to which he was accountable were even less likely than himself to understand Indian affairs. In its ignorance it would be unable to judge whether and to what extent he abused his powers.

Mill admits that any system whereby one people attempts to rule another is defective, for alien rulers usually misjudge and despise subject populations; they do not and cannot feel with the people. But political systems differ in the amount of wrong they commit. He feared that in 1858 Britain had selected the worst possible system (573). So intense were his convictions that he twice refused an invitation to serve on the new Council of India.

A major issue confronting the British in India was to formulate proper policies for education, language, and culture, and at the India House Mill had to deal with these. He witnessed with disapproval the attempt of Lord Bentinck and Thomas Macaulay to downgrade the study of Oriental languages and philosophy and exalt that of English literature, thought, and science. Bentinck and Macaulay desired to impose on India an unmistakable English image, and in particular emphasized the necessity of useful knowledge. On these matters Mill followed a moderate course, free from much of the dogmatism of his father and utilitarian friends. He thought that education for Indians as for Englishmen should foster the self-development and social progress integral to his concept of liberty. Since the state must play a positive part in promoting the country’s material advances, an educated Indian élite must be developed, who would help the English to govern India, interpret western ideas to its many millions, create equality under the law, eradicate racial discrimination, and establish a foundation for the society’s material and intellectual progress. In principle Mill opposed any aggressive cultural imperialism, such as attempts to discard India’s scholarship and ignore its learned class.64 He saw no reason for Indians to jettison their entire cultural tradition and inheritance and doubted that they could be induced to do so. Their vernacular languages must be respected and cultivated as the indispensable means whereby the bulk of the people could assimilate useful ideas from Britain and Europe. He had little sympathy for missionaries who wanted to proselytize India or impose practices repugnant to the religious feelings of its people (570).

Mill was confident that Britain had conferred on India solid benefits, including greater peace, order, and unity under law than the country had ever enjoyed before and than any native despot seemed able to ensure. It had introduced the vitalizing influence of highly trained and competent administrators who furthered social progress and prepared for the time, however remote, when India would rule itself. Although Mill accepted the superiority of British culture, he denied that cultural differences were due to racial differences. A variety of influences, such as education, state enactments, and special social and historical circumstances were more important than race. Nowhere is he more explicit on this subject than in his Principles of Political Economy: “Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.”65 Donald Winch reminds us that Mill shared this view with other members of the liberal and classical school of political economy, who derived it from eighteenth-century thinkers.66 They assumed that human nature was the same wherever found and that it could always be elevated in the scale of civilization by effective government and assiduous education. They also assumed that it was Britain’s inescapable obligation to accomplish this goal in India.


The relations between individual, society, and state is a theme constantly pursued throughout Mill’s writings, a theme which achieves a special and impressive focus in On Liberty, a classic much misunderstood and the most controversial of all his works.67 Mill’s broad aim is to establish the primacy of the individual and the freedom essential for the abundant growth of his inherent powers. This task, as he conceived it, was compelling because of the circumstances in a critical age of transition, which witnessed the emergence of democracy, improved and enlarged media for expressing opinions, the threatened tyranny of the majority, and the active presence of reformers like Auguste Comte hostile to the principle of individual liberty.

In no sense is On Liberty isolated from Mill’s other writings. It selects, refines, and develops certain elements from earlier essays that advocated religious tolerance, free discussion for testing ideas and sifting truth from error, and a free press to promote public enlightenment and responsible government. Early friendships and associations, especially those with Thomas Carlyle, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Saint-Simonians, and notably Harriet Taylor, influenced his conceptions of freedom.68 So pervasive indeed in his own opinion was the intellectual assistance and guidance of his wife that he regarded her as virtually a joint author. Some commentators, most notably Gertrude Himmelfarb, attribute to Harriet’s persuasion certain divergences in Mill’s ideas from those he earlier expressed. In addition, the social environment, Britain’s flexible constitution, and the general moods and attitudes of the country in the middle of the last century exerted on this book a subtle and profound influence. It is easy to agree with Noel Annan that Mill’s On Liberty rests on the unconscious assumption that the British Navy ruled the seas and no fifth column could take root in England, the only major power in Europe where pacifism was then able to flourish.69 It rests also on Mill’s supremely confident faith in man’s rationality.

In the introduction Mill remarks that his object

is to assert one simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, indirectly or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.


This general formula is supplemented by an argument that the independence of an individual in whatever concerns merely himself should be absolute. From the outset the broadness of this formula made it subject to varied interpretations. For Mill it implies an individual utility, since liberty is an unfailing source of personal development, and also a social utility, since ultimately society must benefit from whatever sustains a diverse and rich individual life. Progress for all depends on liberty for each.

The chief terms of Mill’s liberty are inapplicable either to children or to undeveloped societies where free and equal discussion is not feasible. His liberal principle is thus not an absolute ethic, irrespective of time or place, but related to changing circumstances affecting the conduct of man as a progressive being (224). Despotism rather than liberty is a legitimate rule for primitive societies, provided it aids their development to the ultimate stage where they can benefit from liberty. The appropriate domain of liberty comprises that of conscience, thought, opinion, and all the tastes and pursuits of an individual pursuing his own good in his own way and at his own risks. Included also are voluntary combinations of individuals for purposes involving no harm to others.

In Mill’s argument for liberty certain elements merit special emphasis. His initial and main interpretation of the concept is in the British empirical tradition, which equates liberty with an absence of external coercion over an individual’s thought and activity. Men are free when they can act according to their desires (294). Their liberty consists in expressing views they want to express and doing what they want to do without injuring others. To such liberty the principal threat has hitherto come from unresponsible and despotic governments, which to satisfy their own ambitions and interests encroached on the customary areas of individual liberty. Hence the early liberal movement sought to resolve the conflict between authority and liberty by making rulers accountable to the people through constitutions and bills of rights. These endeavours brought to Western Europe a major era of political liberalism and democracy, which people hoped would foster their interests and protect their liberties. At the outset Mill shared their hopes, but, influenced partly by Tocqueville and American experience, he soon perceived in democracy an implicit element of tyranny—that of the majority, or those who accepted themselves as the majority threatening the liberties of individuals and minorities (218-19).

He also saw that increasingly in the democratic age the chief menace to liberty is derived, not from public officials and the penalties of law, but from society itself through the inescapable pressures of social usage, popular prejudice, and public opinion. Society, in exercising power, executes its own mandates and over the individual asserts a pervasive compulsion hardly less relentless and even more capricious than that of law. “In our times.” Mill writes in his third chapter, “from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship” (264). Under such strict public surveillance individuals and families shape their conduct less by what they think it ought to be than by what the circumstances of the society seem to demand. Their inclination is to conform with custom, public opinion, and established norms. They become lost in the crowd: “by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow” (265). In the modern state mass emotions have a larger opportunity for expression and dominance. To Mill this fact undermines the opportunity for variety in man’s nature and originality in his thinking.70 Hitherto the human race had benefitted immensely from men of genius who had rendered progress possible. He feared, however, that the emergence of mass domination would destroy the atmosphere of freedom and tolerance necessary for a lonely genius to develop and exert influence.

The ultimate phase of social tyranny occurs when the majority desert or renounce liberty by failing to make judgments and choices. They thus frankly “do not desire liberty, and would not avail themselves of it” (267). As individuals they lose the capacity to determine their own fate. In his Autobiography Mill saw this as a degeneration of society “into the only despotism of which in the modern world there is real danger—the absolute rule of the head of the executive over a congregation of isolated individuals, all equals but all slaves.”71

Fears about current social tendencies explain the fervour with which Mill formulated a plan to protect men from what seemed to him a dismal fate. Rules of conduct must encourage the individual to explore abundantly the ends and qualities of life to his own advantage and that of mankind. In Chapter ii he extols liberty to exchange ideas as cardinal to other liberal values. It enables a society to know and to reform itself. “Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument” (231). Mill rejects out of hand the claim made in some nations that a government is entitled to interfere with a free press when the public so demands (229). The best government is no more entitled than the worst either to dictate or silence opinion. Although for him freedom of discussion is not a natural right, it is a supreme priority in the life of a progressive society.

This freedom provides, not merely protection against tyrannical and corrupt rulers, but helps also to foster understanding among citizens about themselves and their society, to resolve social conflicts, and to establish truth as the ideal if elusive aim of human inquiry. Mill assumes that the collision of adverse opinions is an instrument of enlightenment. Truth may suffer from silencing a single dissenter. “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right” (231). This hopeful view was not supported by all his contemporary adherents. Leonard Courtney doubted that truth was to be found half-way between two anti-thetical theories. Such a doctrine might be a plausible weapon in combatting dogmatism, but “its value ceases when from a sword of offence and controversy it is beaten into a ploughshare of peace and domestic economy.”72

The opinions Mill confidently expressed on the virtues of free discussion were not those he had hitherto invariably approved. Nor did they contain reservations one might expect him to make. In the 1830s in “The Spirit of the Age,” in “Civilization,” and in “Coleridge,” he confessed fears about unlimited free debate.73 He then doubted that magnifying discussion would necessarily magnify political wisdom or strengthen public judgment, especially when it affected the fundamental principles underlying the authority of the national state. He believed that it was the quality, rather than the quantity, of discussion that counted. In 1833 he told Carlyle: “I have not any great notion of the advantage of what the ‘free discussion’ men, call the ‘collision of opinions,’ it being my creed that Truth is sown and germinates in the mind itself, and is not to be struck out suddenly like fire from a flint by knocking another hard body against it. . . .”74

These reservations are explained by differences in time and circumstances. Mill’s ruling ambition was to be a philosopher-teacher for the British public. Under different circumstances and in different periods he frankly bared his mind on important matters, but what he wrote sometimes failed to coincide with what he said when circumstances and his own thinking were different. This variance is particularly evident in his treatment of free discussion in relation to authority, where he leaves many questions unanswered. Yet there is no ignoring the firmness of his convictions and assurance of his language in Chapter ii of On Liberty. However inconsistent with earlier writings, it clearly reads as his genuine and unamended testament.

In the third chapter Mill argues on lines parallel to those in the second. In one he contends for freedom of discussion to discover social truth and in the other for liberty of action to achieve a vital individuality. In some respects this is the most distinctive part of his essay, because the concept of individuality contributes to his liberalism a more original and more contentious element than the older and long-extolled liberty of speech. His great liberal forbears, like Milton and Locke, never attempted to annex so large and uncertain a territory for the free and autonomous self. Mill’s argument adds a dimension to his view of an open society, and reflects his debt to the German, Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose words form the epigraph to this essay.75 From Humboldt Mill takes the precept that men must direct their efforts to the “individuality of power and development,” including a necessary scope for freedom and variety in human life (261).

When he describes human development as strictly synonymous with the cultivation of individuality he reflects Humboldt’s spirit. The potential aggregate of qualities in the individual must be fostered as an antidote to the ills of a drab social uniformity, whereby people are cast in the same mould. As an innovative force individuality is assumed to express itself in a ready originality, in differences of conduct and practice, in diverse displays of spontaneity and energy, and in distinct styles of living. Indeed, Mill believes that eccentricity in itself is significant in helping to destroy the yoke of mass attitudes and opinions. He assumes that “Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained” (269). The inventor and innovator, he thinks, are likely to be regarded by others as eccentric. In all this Mill fails to admit what Leslie Stephen later recognized, that eccentricity is not invariably a virtue: it may be positively bad when it wastes individual energy and expends itself on trifles.76 A modern critic remarks that Mill “looked to liberty as a means of achieving the highest reaches of the human spirit; he did not take seriously enough the possibility that men would also be free to explore the depths of depravity. He saw individuality as a welcome release of energy and ingenuity, as if individuals cannot be as energetic and ingenious in pursuing ignoble ends as noble ones.”77

Mill, however, makes the reservation that men must never undervalue human tradition and experience: “it would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence, or of conduct, is preferable to another” (262). Yet it was imperative that they should be free to interpret experience in their own way and according to their own circumstances.

In supporting his plea for individuality Mill deplores any set of beliefs, like that of Calvinism, which in his opinion views human nature as corrupt and self-will as a source of evil. Strict Calvinism, by inculcating rigid submission to the will of God, thereby numbs the independence of the individual (265). Mill does not extol obedience over will and self-denial over self-assertion. He finds more attractive the Greek ideal of self-development, which recognizes human nature as suitable for purposes other than merely abnegation. He is particularly disturbed by the tendency of modern creeds to consolidate into a massive uniformity all that is distinctly individual instead of fostering it within bounds set by the rights and interests of others.

For the remainder of this chapter Mill continues to praise the merits of the distinct individual, whose development confers immeasurable benefits on the human race: “whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men” (266). He fears that to its own loss society is getting the better of individuality. More active life in individuals would mean more real life in the mass. Those endowed with originality and genius can help their fellows to reduce the deadening ascendency of mediocrity. Mill evidently here, in contrast to what he says elsewhere, trusts the capacity of the average man to recognize and accept the initiative of the gifted (267).

In the last two chapters of his essay he examines how his libertarian principle may be reasonably interpreted and applied. In limited space he tried to explore a vast subject with wide moral and social ramifications. To make this endeavour manageable he attempts to assign one part of life to individuality and another to society, a venture in logic that creates difficulties and confusions which critics have long stressed. It is not feasible in this introduction to traverse the wide range of the argument. But it may be useful to note some instances where he applies his principle to concrete human situations: to the indulgence of an individual in alcohol, drugs, and gambling; to the provision of education; to economic life; and to the governance of the state.

Mill’s preference is to leave the individual free to exercise autonomy in all matters concerning his personal life, since presumably he knows better than anyone else his own wants and needs. But he admits that to do so poses difficult problems, because no man is isolated from society. An individual, for example, should be free to consume alcoholic beverages according to his inclination, even though he becomes drunk. He should not be punished by society for intoxication in itself, but only if it has ill consequences for others. A soldier or a policeman must certainly be punished for drunkenness on duty, for thus he commits an other-regarding act of positive or potential peril to his fellow citizens. Where others drink to excess and harm themselves and their families, they should at least be subject to moral disapprobation, and in some circumstances to legal penalties. In general, whenever personal vices lead to acts injurious to others, these must be taken from the realm of liberty and made subject either to morality or to law.

Mill comments on the gravity of the issues:

If protection against themselves is confessedly due to children and persons under age, is not society equally bound to afford it to persons of mature years who are equally incapable of self-government? If gambling, or drunkenness, or incontinence, or idleness, or uncleanliness, are as injurious to happiness, and as great a hindrance to improvement, as many or most of the acts prohibited by law, why (it may be asked) should not law, so far as is consistent with practicability and social convenience, endeavour to repress these also? And as a supplement to the unavoidable imperfections of law, ought not opinion at least to organize a powerful police against these vices, and visit rigidly with social penalties those who are known to practise them?


Such measures in no way prevent the flowering of individuality or cramp new and venturesome experiments in personal living. They merely deal with practices long condemned by the judgment of the world. Alcohol also affects another issue on which Mill has strong views: temperance societies sought to reduce the consumption of liquor by prohibiting its sale. Drinking is mainly a private matter, whereas selling is a social act. Any interference with sales would, in Mill’s opinion, violate the liberty of prospective buyers and consumers. But the campaign for prohibition was supported by those who alleged that their social rights were violated by merchants who trafficked in liquor. In the transient victories of American temperance societies Mill, with much indignation, finds a classic example of pressure groups which ignore the liberty of others in using the machinery of democracy to achieve their own ends (287-8). He likewise rejects sabbatarian legislation, which also reflects the religious prejudices of a part of the population who coerce the remainder into its acceptance.

Liberty, Mill remarks, is often granted where it should be withheld, and withheld where it should be granted (301). Education is an example. When he wrote it was still common, in the name of liberty, for a father to have exclusive power to determine the instruction of his children, a practice Mill criticises as unjust. For him it is self-evident that a nation has a major stake in the welfare of its children, whether rich or poor. It must, in particular, ensure that they are all educated up to a prescribed standard, that parents guarantee they reach this, and that the costs for educating the poor are publicly defrayed.

Mill, because of his rationalism, has an extravagant confidence in education as a meliorative force, including it with population control as one of two major remedies for existing social ills. Yet he repudiates the idea that the state should provide instruction. Here he apparently makes a concession to parents who for many reasons, usually religious, hold diverse views on the substance of education and the values it should inculcate. In any case, however, he has his own pronounced reason for rejecting state instruction. He fears it as a ready instrument for moulding citizens to be exactly alike, thus shattering his ambition for the proper cultivation of individuality. A common mould would be created for the convenience and advantage of the dominant power, whether an absolute monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or a majority in a democracy. “An education established and controlled by the State,” he writes, “should only exist, if it exists at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence” (302). To this rule he makes one exception: if the society is so backward and impoverished that citizens cannot afford a proper education, then the government must provide it.

In On Liberty Mill attempts no extensive discussion of liberty in economic life, for he had already treated it at length in his Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848 and revised four times before 1859, when On Liberty appeared. But he makes clear his attachment to the concept of a free market. It was once, Mill observes, the responsibility of governments to fix market prices and regulate manufacturing processes (293). But long experience has demonstrated that the quality, quantity, and cheapness of goods are best achieved by a free market of buyers and sellers, from which society in general benefits even though some individuals suffer. This basic concept of the market as an instrument of liberty he tries to preserve, even in such commodities as alcohol and poisons which can be abused or put to destructive purposes.

He recognizes, however, that no less firmly rooted in experience is the need for the state at times to interfere in the market process to secure among other things a balance of public and private interests, prevention of fraud, exposure of adulteration in food, and protection of workers in dangerous occupations. Mill adheres to the idea of the free market except when the results are obviously bad; then he approves of intervention, permitting expediency to replace liberty. For him it is usually better to leave people alone than to control them, but at times it is imperative to control them in the general interest.

From the late 1840s Mill’s interest in state intervention was greatly strengthened by the compelling influence of events, the impoverished plight of Ireland in the famine years, its continuing and baffling land problem, the critical social issues of industrial Britain, the explosion of Chartism, and above all the French Revolution of 1848 and the emergence of the socialists with proposals for profound changes. The revolution in Paris struck Mill with the same forcible effect as the earlier events of 1830. Less than a week after the proclamation of the French Republic in February 1848 he writes to Henry S. Chapman: “I am hardly yet out of breath from reading and thinking about it. Nothing can possibly exceed the importance of it to the world or the immensity of the interests which are at stake on its success.”78

What most impressed Mill in the revolution was the effectiveness of the socialists in raising the issue of a government’s role in economic and social life, especially in reducing economic inequalities which breed bitter dissension and undermine the stability and security of the state. He was convinced that in both England and France private property was so seriously threatened that ways had to be found to remedy existing abuses. This aspect of his reformist ideas is reflected in successive editions of his Principles of Political Economy, notably the third in 1852. Although he rejects certain elements in the socialist argument he has more sympathy for it than hitherto. In November, 1848, he writes to an American correspondent, John Jay: “I have expressed temperately and argumentatively my objections to the particular plans proposed by Socialists for dispensing with private property, but on many other important points I agree with them, and on none do I feel towards them anything but respect, thinking, on the contrary, that they are the greatest element of improvement in the present state of mankind.”79

Lord Robbins believes that in a part of his mind Mill had sympathy for socialism, and in another part was critical. He concludes that Mill was “unsettled about the fundamental basis of society; in spite of his belief in progress, he was afraid of the future; he did not feel confident that he knew where we were going; what is more he did not feel quite confident that he knew where he wanted us to go.”80 Some may question whether Mill is as uncertain and negative as Lord Robbins suggests but, at any rate, his thinking on the issue of socialism remained in a state of flux. In 1849 he had writen that “Socialism is the modern form of the protest, which has been raised, more or less, in all ages of any mental activity, against the unjust distribution of social advantages.”81 He continues to consider it an invaluable movement of protest, but doubts that conditions in society are yet suitable to make it an acceptable substitute for a system of private property. Considerable moral and educational progress is essential before socialism is practicable. To a German professor in 1852 he complains of “the unprepared state of the labouring classes & their extreme moral unfitness at present for the rights which Socialism would confer & the duties it would impose.”82

Mill’s increased sympathy for socialism is not evident in On Liberty. Since this work is strongly intended to foster individuality, it is perhaps hardly to be expected that it would pay tribute to the collectivist idea. In the last part of the essay he summarizes his principal objections to government intervention, apart from cases where it is intended to protect the liberty of individuals (305-10). He opposes it in matters which can be managed more effectively by private individuals than by the government, because they have a deeper interest in the outcome. He also opposes it when individuals may be less competent than public servants, but can acquire an invaluable public education in providing the service. Thus they strengthen their faculties, their judgment, and their grasp of joint and diverse interests that deeply concern themselves and society. He finds examples of these in jury service, participation in local administration, and conduct of voluntary philanthropic or industrial activities. Without such practical experience and education, no people can be adequately equipped for success in political freedom. It is the role of the central government, not to engage directly in these activities, but to act for them as a central depository, diffusing the diverse experience gathered in the many experiments of civic activity.

For Mill not the least important reason for opposing the undue intervention of the central government is to avoid the evil of excessively augmenting its power. The greater this power, the less scope remains for independent initiative by individuals and groups.

If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration, if the employés of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name


Here certainly is no advocate of a centralized state socialism.

Among the many themes discussed in the final chapter of On Liberty, the last is bureaucracy. As noted earlier, Mill was a devoted advocate of recruiting brilliant talent to the British civil service. Although on this matter he does not alter his views, he argues that in the interest of political liberty no civil service must monopolize all the distinguished brains and skills of the nation. He thinks it essential to ensure outside the service a countervailing intellectual influence, in no degree inferior to that within, in order to prevent bureaucracy from dominating the government and stifling intelligent criticism. He fears for political freedom if the multitude looks exclusively to the bureaucracy for direction and dictation, or if the able and ambitious mainly depend on it for personal advancement. Indeed, its own competence is likely to be undermined unless it is kept, in Mill’s words, under “the watchful criticism of equal ability outside the body” (308). Otherwise it will fall victim to its traditional failings: a slavish attachment to rigid rules and a ready acquiescence in indolent routine. It may also commit errors of a different kind. Leaders of the corps may pursue half-examined and over-sanguine ventures of policy that political chiefs too easily accept and an innocent public too patiently tolerates.

Mill’s argument throughout is shrewd, but couched in general terms. His dicta on bureaucratic traits appear to have been derived mainly from what he had learned from the history and experience of European states. He attributes no specific abuses to the bureaucratic power in either the United States or Britain. Indeed, his lavish praise for the New England system of local government and his glowing admiration for American civic capacity suggest that he is not complaining of bureaucratic ills in the republic. His obvious intention is to offer a solemn warning that bureaucracy can imperil the liberty of individuals whenever two necessary safeguards are absent or neglected: the presence of an alert and critical public that keeps it under a constant and intelligent scrutiny; and a wide diffusion of political power throughout the nation, which enables individuals and groups to be effective elements in the body politic. For Mill the ills of bureaucracy and centralism are intertwined and inseparable. The best protection against both is to ensure the maximum amount of local government consistent with national unity.


Mill carries the themes of centralisation and bureaucracy from On Liberty into his essay on centralisation which, under the guise of reviewing the ideas of two French writers, presents an acute comparison of French and English political thought and institutions. The first of the authors, M. Odilon Barrot, has opinions readily defined and in harmony with Mill’s own. A severe critic of the current centralism of France under Napoleon III, he condemns its confusion of spiritual and temporal powers, its petty interferences with the privacy of individuals, and its restrictions on the rights of communes to manage their local affairs and appoint their local officials. He complains that the central authority, with an insatiable appetite for power, forbids the communes to convene their councils without its permission, prescribes their annual estimates, and compels them at their expense to employ its own engineers and architects.

Mill readily accepts Odilon Barrot’s criticism of despotic structures and policies in the Second Empire. To him the elaborate citadel of centralized power in Paris is repellant. In his review, however, he deals principally with the wide-ranging discussions of Dupont-White on individual, state, and centralism.

Writing in a France torn by class warfare and ideological conflict, Dupont-White assumes that with the evolution of society the selfishness of individuals and classes becomes sharper and more pervasive, and that a powerful centralized government is needed to control the manifestations of friction and conflict. Without it, society is likely to be dismembered by bitter hatreds. The state, as the chief instrument of stability and progress, is obligated to protect the weak from the strong, a task that grows ever larger and more complex with an expanding industrial society. State interference in economic life, far from being an evil, is an unavoidable result of social progress and a requisite for continued progress.

These speculations greatly interest Mill, and with many of the conclusions he has sympathy. But, as might be expected, he rejects Dupont-White’s pronounced bias for centralism and his easy faith that it can always accomplish great things, including a reduction in the natural inequalities among men. For him the French writer’s convictions serve to illustrate a sharp contrast between France’s political culture and that of England and the United States. Frenchmen cling to centralism as a splendid achievement of the Revolution and a continuing necessity for the greatness of their country. Those in active politics invariably have a vested interest in the centralist regime, even when critical of it. Tocqueville once remarked: “Most of those people in France who speak against centralisation do not really wish to see it abolished, some because they hold power, others because they expect to hold it.”83 They ignore Tocqueville’s testimony, based on studies of England and America, that decentralized government is an invaluable school of freedom.

Mill’s view of what centralism means for France is clear: it fails to give adequate scope to the practical enterprise and public spirit of individuals and groups throughout the nation (582, 601). Private initiative, compared with that in England, is shackled and weakened by the excessive interference of government. Mill says of Dupont-White.

Our author, having pointed out many needful things which would never be done by the mere self-interest of individuals, does not seem to be aware that anything can be expected from their public spirit: apparently because public spirit in this form is almost entirely stifled in the countries with which he is most familiar, by the centralisation which he applauds. But in our uncentralised country, even such a public want as that of life-boats is supplied by private liberality, through the agency of a voluntary association.


Among the principal faults of the centralist system in Mill’s opinion is the massive patronage it creates and the major power that the bureaucracy constantly exercises at the expense of popular liberty. A centralized executive, equipped to give or withhold many favours, dominates the elections and controls the legislature. It turns the electorate into a vast tribe of place hunters (608-9). Hence its management of public affairs is difficult to challenge successfully, except in times of crisis, and then, as in 1830 and 1848, the result is likely to be revolutionary violence. Indeed, an overcentralized regime may be amenable to no effective check short of revolution.

Disturbing to Mill is the manner whereby the system fosters a supine attitude towards officials. French citizens almost universally appear to tremble before every petty bureaucrat, a circumstance which Mill thinks makes them incapable of much liberty. “How should they not be slavish, when everyone wearing a Government uniform . . . can domineer at will over all the rest . . . ?” (587.) To him it seems evident that hitherto no French government, whatever its liberal professions, has been able to divest itself of the exclusive right to be a judge in its own cause.

In drawing a contrast with French practice Mill comments on the greater degree of genuine decentralization in the institutions and procedures of the English state, beginning with the parish vestries at the bottom. Not merely have the local authorities in England provided a training ground for political skill and initiative, they have also tempered any tendencies to despotism at either level of government. Local bodies have considerable independence, but can operate only within the areas prescribed for them by parliament. Through experience they have generally learned to conduct themselves with reasonable competence. Their vitality adds to that of the state in general, whereas in France the local units are too numerous and too weak to contribute a valuable balance.

Mill is provoked to discuss the special character of British empirical collectivism by Dupont-White’s confident case for state interventionism in France. Englishmen, he asserts, naturally distrust government and any extension of its powers (609). They employ it only when other means, especially the free market, fail to achieve what in general the community wants. National grants for education were adopted only after private associations for many years had tried their hand and demonstrated how little they could accomplish. Government regulation of emigrant ships came only when its absence had created sordid conditions that became a public scandal. In this instance the free market had allowed the shipowners to profit from the poverty, ignorance, and recklessness of emigrants (592). The Poor Law Board was established after the old laws created a situation no longer tolerable to the public.

In citing these and other cases Mill on the whole defends the English conservative temper and attitudes of mind that they reflect. He appears to believe that a voluntary instrument should usually be tried before government action is attempted. Yet he also agrees with Dupont-White that the state is obligated to regulate or supervise whenever large and complicated enterprises are run by individuals or private corporations. Railways can be built and operated by private companies, but the state may usefully limit fares, impose safety rules, protect commercial interests, and insure shareholders against reckless or fraudulent managers (593). The steady growth of business directed by individuals and corporations must necessarily enlarge rather than diminish the regulating activity of modern government.

Mill shares with Dupont-White the conviction that a growing social conscience, responding to the ethical requirements of mankind, significantly augments the activity of government, making it at times the unpaid agent of the poor and underprivileged. Partly under this influence the British parliament had regulated the hours of labour, prohibited the employment of children under a certain age, prevented employment of women and children in mines, and compelled manufacturers to maintain in factories those conditions that reduce accidents and lessen hazards to health. Thus in England a network of practical arrangements and compromises were fashioned between state and individual, between state and corporation, and between central and local authority, with what Mill regarded as salutary consequences for the body politic and for the kind of liberty he extolled.

It is conspicuous how little formal ideology, least of all an egalitarian ideology, figured in these developments of the Victorian age. A year before the publication of On Liberty Mill gave to Giuseppe Mazzini impressions of his countrymen:

The English, of all ranks and classes, are at bottom, in all their feelings, aristocrats. They have some conception of liberty, & set some value on it, but the very idea of equality is strange & offensive to them. They do not dislike to have many people above them as long as they have some below them. And therefore they have never sympathized & in their present state of mind never will sympathize with any really democratic or republican party in other countries. They keep what sympathy they have for those whom they look upon as imitators of English institutions—Continental Whigs who desire to introduce constitutional forms & some securities against personal oppression—leaving in other respects the old order of things with all its inequalities & social injustices and any people who are not willing to content themselves with this, are thought unfit for liberty.84


mill’s writings in the present volume illustrate the wide range of his political thoughts and insights. He touched on most aspects of political speculation important in his age, although his principal interest was the emergence of representative and democratic government and its implications for the individual. Never simply a dispassionate analyst, he was constantly engaged in a reform polemic in harmony with the liberalism that he himself fashioned out of the ideas of Bentham and his father. His reform proposals were mainly a concrete product of a conscious effort to revise and interpret Benthamism in the interests of a broader humanity.

From the perspective of a century it is not difficult to cite the more salient ideas of Mill’s political thinking. Along with his theory of liberty he is deeply anxious to elicit and develop in every phase of government man’s rational faculty. This endeavour is a consistent strand in his discussions on representative institutions. He wants to see men governed by reasoned purpose to a far greater extent than they have ever been in the past, and to this end institutions must be designed. The paradox in Mill’s position is clear enough. He believes that a majority should rule, but thinks that only a minority is likely to have the requisite wisdom. As a reluctant democrat he seeks to select for public service those few with a cultivated and eminent intelligence. All his discussions on representation and the franchise are intended to protect individual and minority interests and ensure the maximum recognition for educated minds. He assumes that respect for intellectual distinction is unnatural to the democratic spirit, but in the interest of democracy everything possible must quickly be done to cultivate it. The act of voting should be emphasized as a rational decision made by people determined that reason has to prevail.

No less cardinal in his thought is a related concern for achieving a balance amongst the powerful and contending interests in the modern state. To him industrial society appears to be a fierce struggle of classes and groups for diverse ends. In view of this struggle, democracy can only provide the best form of government when it is “so organized that no class, not even the most numerous, shall be able to reduce all but itself to political insignificance . . .” (467). It must operate in such a way as to sustain a workable plurality of interests that prevent the domination of any one over all the others. Much of what he says about political machinery concerns instruments, often complicated, that are intended to protect society from the monopoly of power by a single interest. To the end of his days he remained convinced that the presence of countervailing interests is essential for the survival of political liberty.

Less precise and much harder to summarize is Mill’s view of the economic roles of the contemporary state. On this theme his thinking after 1848 underwent pronounced changes in response to transformations in society and the currents of European opinion. It was the ethos of his philosophy to further the full and free development of every human individual. He doubted, however, whether the existing industrial society offered the best environment for such development, since sometimes it failed to permit even the most harsh and exhausting labour to earn the bare necessaries of life. It fostered inequalities between groups, gave advantages to some, and imposed impediments on others. He believed that in existing society remedies for man’s plight must be sought through a variety of institutions: co-operative industrial associations might replace the wage system, reformed proprietorship might replace land monopoly, and restrictions on the right of inheritance might reduce the general extent of inequality. Many new and untried instruments of economic control are possible and must be employed under the direct or indirect initiative of the state.

These and other related ideas put Mill on the road leading to a liberal and co-operative form of socialism like that championed by the early Fabians, who indeed built on his thought and were glad to admit their indebtedness.85 Like him they saw in socialism the economic side of the democratic ideal and justified it only if it remained democratic. Yet the extent to which Mill travelled or hoped to travel the road of socialism remains wrapped in some doubt because he still continued to believe that in contemporary society private property and the competitive principle were necessary for effective production and indispensable for material progress.

It is more accurate to think of him as an empirical collectivist rather than a socialist, and as such he moved in harmony with the currents of the time and his own country. For him the new industrial society demanded extensions in the agenda of government. But he never ceased to emphasize that in any country the role of government must depend on the peculiar necessities of its economy and society. Some countries require more government than others, especially when poor, underdeveloped, and lacking in the special attitudes and institutions that nourish private enterprise. Mill abundently illustrated this point in his discussions on Ireland and India. The major problem of Ireland, for example, was poverty, the result of bad government over generations, harsh class domination, and the gross mismanagement of its land. The remedy must be drastic action by the government to ensure a peasant proprietorship, which in Mill’s opinion was best able to protect the soil and foster in the cultivators forethought, frugality, self-restraint, and the other solid qualities needed for their material progress and welfare. There was no other stimulus comparable to the ownership of the land by those who tilled it. The necessary steps proposed by Mill to ensure this end startled and annoyed the contemporary upholders of the rights of property because they involved something alien to English custom, the control of rents by law rather than by market forces. But for Mill Ireland was not England, and a free market was not an inflexible dogma. He rejected the idea that English practice should be a norm for Irish policy. Irish circumstances and the land situation were such that only state action could remedy them, and bring to the country order and prosperity.

Mill’s continuing interest in future social change made him aware of the continental exponents of revolutionary socialism, who dramatically appeared in 1848 and became enemies of both capitalism and liberalism. He did not sympathize with either their theories or their methods. The concept of a dictatorship of the proletariat with the physical force to assert its claims would obviously conflict with all his long-cherished principles. He told William R. Cremer, a trade unionist and a one-time secretary of the British section of the International Working Men’s Association, that only two situations justified violent revolution: acute personal oppression and suffering; and a system of government which does not permit the redress of grievances by peaceful and legal means. In his opinion neither existed in England,86 nor, we may infer, in other European countries under genuine constitutional regimes. On this aspect of his thought there is no equivocation and no uncertainty.

Five years after his comment to Cremer, Mill told Thomas Smith. Secretary of the International Working Men’s Association of Nottingham, how much he welcomed the general principles of the Association, especially its acceptance of goals that he himself had long sought, such as equal rights for women and protection of minorities.87 But he strongly cautioned against use of the term “Revolution” in the French style. For him revolution meant solely a change of government effected by force. He regretted that the Association relied on the vague French political language that dealt in abstractions. “It proceeds from an infirmity of the French mind which has been one main cause of the miscarriages of the French nation in its pursuit of liberty & progress; that of being led away by phrases & treating abstractions as if they were realities. . . .” He feared that these verbal practices and French ideas would have adverse effects: confuse issues, foster misunderstanding, and range men under different banners as friends or enemies of “the Revolution,” without reference to the real worth of specific measures advantageous to all and accepted by all. In these views Mill was the liberal empiricist, protesting against an attempt to establish a revolutionary ideology among British workers. His appeal at the time would doubtless command a ready response from the bulk of British labour leaders.88 The political ferment and social convulsions of the 1830s and 1840s were past. By 1867 the British skilled craftsmen had acquired the franchise and at the same time were busily engaged in the sober task of creating trade unions to become powerful pressure groups, furthering the material interests of their members. They also helped to build and sustain in the Liberal party a political bridge between the workers and the middle class. During the remainder of the century the Liberal-labour alliance, deeply influenced by evangelical religion, was to dominate union spokesmen, and to them Mill’s form of utilitarianism was unquestionably more appealing than the revolutionary rhetoric and intricate strategies of class warfare sponsored by Marx and Engels.

Mill’s ideas in time won an impressive position. It is a common and acceptable verdict that in Victorian England his was the most influential voice of liberalism. No one else produced so many substantial and readable texts, running through successive editions, and supplemented by scores of articles in periodicals and newspapers setting forth the proper principles of economics and politics in harmony with liberal philosophy. By the 1860s his authority reached its peak.89 His writings then appealed to a wide range of readers’ parliamentarians, a new and growing generation of students in the universities, middle-class elements in the towns interested in practical reform, and leaders and spokesmen among the workers. He was not the sole liberal prophet, and many who read him disagreed with him. On Liberty, for example, produced a chorus of criticism as well as of praise. Yet for all its controversial features, it reformulated boldly the problem of freedom in the environment of the nineteenth century and thus contributed richly to the contemporary ferment of liberal thinking. It was a distinguished liberal of the period who wrote that On Liberty “belongs to the rare books that after hostile criticism has done its best are still found to have somehow added a cubit to man’s stature.”90

This was the tribute of a devoted disciple, whose thinking was shaped by Mill. Yet many twentieth-century readers would still endorse it. They have continued to find enduring value in the tenets of On Liberty. They cherish almost as much as did John Morley a book that protests against the infallibility of public opinion and the arrogance of majorities. They accept Mill’s distrust of centralised power and admire his ideals of individual liberty and a free state, although they may admit the increased difficulties in achieving them. They welcome his admonition that liberty and intellectual progress, insecure and fragile things, demand constant cultivation. But they would also emphasize that Mill had other valuable thoughts to express outside the pages of On Liberty. His writings and discussions as a whole must be considered in any genuine assessment of his worth as a social thinker. In them one view was conspicuous. He believed that political ideas and structures must change with a changing society. For him all institutional arrangements are provisional. If we imagined him living into the present century, we can conceive him still busily engaged in revising his liberal thought, in response to altered circumstances and fresh currents of opinion. He would still be feverishly absorbed in trying to reach the most reliable balance between his individualist and collectivist convictions. He would of course remain the rationalist, confident that social change could be effected by the art of persuasion and by the simple fact that men would learn from bitter experiences.

[1 ]Autobiography, ed. Jack Stillinger (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 42.

[2 ]Ibid., 52-3.

[3 ]See for his characteristic ideas at the time: “The Game Laws,” Westminster Review, V (Jan., 1826), 1-22: “Law of Libel and Liberty of the Press,” Westminster Review, III (April, 1825), 285-381.

[4 ]Joseph Hamburger in James Mill and the Art of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 27-33, discusses James Mill’s ideas on the necessity of a free press to effect reform.

[5 ]A. W. Levi, “The Mental Crisis of John Stuart Mill,” The Psychoanalytic Review, XXXII (1946), 84-101.

[6 ]See his long letter to John Sterling, 20-22 October, 1831, in Earlier Letters, ed. F. E. Mineka, Collected Works, XII (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963), 74-88 (hereafter cited as EL, CW, with volume and page numbers).

[7 ]See Textual Introduction, System of Logic, CW, VII, liv-lv.

[8 ]Autobiography, 97.

[9 ]EL, CW, XII, 74-88.

[10 ]Ibid., 84.

[11 ]Later Letters, ed. F. E. Mineka and D. N. Lindley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), XIV, 68 (hereafter cited as LL, CW, with volume and page numbers).

[12 ]EL, CW, XIII, 380. Much information on this theme is contained in Joseph Hamburger, Intellectual in Politics John Stuart Mill and the Philosophic Radicals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).

[13 ]EL, CW, XII, 32.

[14 ]See letters to his father from Paris, ibid., 54-67.

[15 ]Iris W. Mueller examines the content of these articles in John Stuart Mill and French Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956), Chapter ii.

[16 ]Three other notable writings of this decade, not included in the present volume, also shed illuminating light on his political ideas: “The Spirit of the Age” (1831), “Bentham” (1838), and “Coleridge” (1840).

[17 ]EL, CW, XII, 205.

[18 ]See J. S. Mill, “The House of Lords,” Globe, 16 October, 1836, 2; and “The Close of the Session,” London Review, II (October, 1835), 271-2.

[19 ]Examiner, 1 July, 1832, 417. See also a similar argument two years earlier in “Prospects of France,” Examiner, 10 October, 1830, 642.

[20 ]De Tocqueville on Democracy in America [II],” 156. See also Mill’s laudatory remarks in a letter to the author after he had read the second part, EL, CW, XIII, 433-5 (referred to in the Textual Introduction, lxxvi-lxxvii below).

[21 ]“De Tocqueville on Democracy in America [I],” 76-7. In 1840 he told Macvey Napier that he did not differ strongly from Tocqueville on this issue (EL, CW, XIII, 444).

[22 ]Autobiography, 115-16.

[23 ]Letter to Gustave d’Eichthal, EL, CW, XII, 37 (8/10/29).

[24 ]EL, CW, XIII, 713.

[25 ]Alexander Bain, John Stuart Mill A Criticism with Personal Recollections (London: Longmans, 1882), 48.

[26 ]In 1859 Mill added a footnote to his original article admitting that his criticisms were now less justified because of recent university reforms.

[27 ]EL, CW, XII, 27.

[28 ]LL, CW, XIV, 175.

[29 ]See Edward Hughes. “Sir Charles Trevelyan and Civil Service Reform 1853-55.” English Historical Review, LXIV (1949), 64 A comprehensive and lucid review of the controversy concerning the Northcote-Trevelyan Report is contained in J. B. Conachet. The Aberdeen Coalition, 1852-1855 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 312-32.

[30 ]LL, CW, XV, 598-9.

[31 ]Ibid., 596.

[32 ]Ibid., 606.

[33 ]EL, CW, XII, 317.

[34 ]EL, CW, XIII, 410.

[35 ]See H. J. Hanham, Elections and Party Management Politics in the Time of Disraeli and Gladstone (London: Longmans, 1959); Charles Seymour, Electoral Reform in England and Wales: The Development and Operation of the Parliamentary Franchise, 1832-1885 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1915), 432. In Ireland the ballot had its greatest effect, because intimidation was more common there.

[36 ]Quoted from the Chadwick Papers by Hamburger, Intellectuals in Politics, 274.

[37 ]LL, CW, XV, 654.

[38 ]Ibid., 672.

[39 ]Though On Liberty was written and published before Considerations on Representative Government, the latter is here discussed first, because it provides a fuller treatment of the views of Mill just outlined.

[40 ]For an argument that Bagehot was heavily indebted to Mill, see T. H. Ford, “Bagehot and Mill as Theorists of Comparative Politics,” Comparative Politics, II (January, 1970), 309-24. A. H. Birch lauds Considerations on Representative Government as “the most systematic attempt ever made in Britain to set out a theory of the purpose and proper organization of representative institutions” (Representative and Responsible Government [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964], 57).

[41 ]Autobiography, 102.

[42 ]P. 467. In the year after publishing Considerations on Representative Government Mill wrote to Henry S. Chapman that Australian democracy, as described by Chapman, confirmed his fears about false democracy (LL, CW, XV, 764-5). See also R. S. Neale, “John Stuart Mill on Australia: A Note,” Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand, XIII (April, 1968), 242-4.

[43 ]LL, CW, XVII, 1572.

[44 ]EL, CW, XII, 211. See also LL, CW, XVI, 1431-2. For an account of the abilities and weaknesses of this exceptional man, see S. F. Finer. The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (London: Methuen, 1952).

[45 ]Harold J. Laski, et al., A Century of Municipal Progress, 1835-1935 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935), 48.

[46 ]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. 3rd ser., CXCI, cols. 1859-63 (5 May, 1868). See also LL, CW, XVI, 1501-2, and XVII, 1555-6.

[47 ]Josef Redlich and Francis Hirst. Local Government in England (London: Macmillan, 1903), I, 180.

[48 ]“Coleridge,” Collected Works, X (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 135-6, 504-8 (henceforth cited as CW, X): and A System of Logic, Collected Works, VIII (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), 923 (henceforth cited as CW, VII or VIII as appropriate).

[49 ]See a criticism of Mill’s view in Boyd C. Shafer, Nationalism: Myth and Reality (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1955), 53.

[50 ]John Stuart Mill, England and Ireland (London: Longmans, 1868). See also his Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question (London: Longmans, 1870).

[51 ]England and Ireland, 7.

[52 ]LL, CW, XVI, 1328.

[53 ]Koppel S. Pinson, Bibliographical Introduction to Nationalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), 13.

[54 ]See, e.g., EL, CW, XIII, 642, 660, 687, and 737.

[55 ]The founding of South Australia benefited from the zealous efforts of the National Colonization Society and other groups which received Mill’s blessing. See Douglas Pike, The Paradise of Dissent (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1957), and Donald Winch, Classical Political Economy and Colonies (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1965), especially Chapter vi. Mill extolled the plans for establishing South Australia in Examiner, 20 July, 1834, 453-4.

[56 ]Consult in particular London and Westminster Review, XXVIII (January, 1838), 502-33; ibid., XXIV (August, 1838), 507-12 (2nd ed., only), and ibid., XXXII (December, 1838), 241-60.

[57 ]EL, CW, XIII, 426.

[58 ]The issues involved here have been critically examined by Ged Martin, The Durham Report and British Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 42-74.

[59 ]Goldwin Smith, The Empire (Oxford and London: Parker, 1863). Consult also R. S. Neale, “Roebuck’s Constitution and the Durham Proposals,” Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand, XV (1971), 579-90.

[60 ]LL, CW, XV, 784; cf. 965.

[61 ]LL, CW, XVII, 1685.

[62 ]These papers were published for the East India Company by Cox and Wyman, London, 1858.

[63 ]See George D. Bearce, “John Stuart Mill and India,” Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Astatic Society, XXVII (December, 1954), 67-80. A useful general study is Eric Stokes. The English Utilitarians and India (Oxford, 1959).

[64 ]Abram L. Harris, “John Stuart Mill: Servant of the East India Company,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, XXX (May, 1964), 196. See also Gerald Sirkin and Natalie Robinson Sirkin, “Mill in India House, A Little Bureaucratic Tale in Two Letters,” Mill News Letter, IX (Summer, 1974), 3-7. This article contains references to other relevant articles by Gerald Sirkin and Natalie Robinson Sirkin.

[65 ]Principles of Political Economy Collected Works, II (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), 319.

[66 ]Donald Winch. Classical Political Economy and Colonies, 168.

[67 ]From the outset the book provoked controversy. J. S. Rees, Mill and His Early Critics (Leicester: Leicester University College, 1956), discusses certain reviews of it between 1859 and Mill’s death in 1873 which were critical, among other things, of its individualistic assumptions and concept of liberty. A modern writer, Gertrude Himmelfarb, examines Mill’s main argument in On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1974) and contends that it runs counter to his position in other writings Carl J. Friedrich, ed., Nomos IV Liberty (New York: Atherton Press, 1966), collects a series of reflective studies commemorating the centennial of Mill’s work, and useful in this connection is one by David Spitz. “Freedom and Individuality: Mill’s Liberty in Retrospect.” Richard B. Friedman examines Mill’s argument afresh in “A New Exploration of Mill’s Essay on Liberty,” Political Studies, XIV (October, 1966), 281-304. Maurice Cowling in Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963) presents a novel and telentless criticism of Mill as an authoritarian bent on establishing a new religion of humanity on the basis of social science. The book and the reaction to it among scholars illustrate the wide range of controversial opinion that On Liberty can still provoke. For a selection of other interesting commentaries see Peter Radcliff ed. Limits of Liberty: Studies of Mill’s On Liberty (Belmont, California: Wodsworth Publishing Company, 1966). A British jurist’s views on Mill and morals are reflected in Patrick Devlin. The Enforcement of Morals (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), Chap. vi.

[68 ]J. C. Rees attempts to assess these influences in “A Phase in the Development of Mill’s Ideas on Liberty,” Political Studies, VI (February, 1958), 33-44.

[69 ]Noel Annan, The Curious Strength of Positivism in English Political Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 16.

[70 ]David Riesman, Reuel Denney, and Nathan Glazer in The Lonely Crowd (New Haven Yale University Press, 1950), 301, pay tribute to Mill for foreshadowing the arguments of modern sociologists on social conformity and the subtle effects of public opinion in a democracy. See also Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision (Boston Little: Brown and Company, 1960), 349-50.

[71 ]Autobiography, 116.

[72 ]W. L. Courtney, Life and Writings of John Stuart Mill (London: Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1889), 126-7. Courtney also quotes Caroline Fox on “that terrible book of John Mill’s on Liberty, clear and calm and cold, he lays it on as a tremendous duty to get oneself well contradicted and admit always a devils advocate into the presence of your dearest most sacred truths” (ibid., 125).

[73 ]Gertrude Himmelfarb in On Liberty and Liberalism, 36-56, discusses some of Mill’s contradictions.

[74 ]EL, CW, XII, 153.

[75 ]Mill read von Humboldt’s work. The Sphere and Duties of Government, after its appearance in an English translation in 1854.

[76 ]Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarias (London: Duckworth and Co., 1900), III, 269.

[77 ]Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism, 321.

[78 ]EL, CW, XIII, 731. See Mill’s extensive defence of the revolution in the Westminster Review, LI (April, 1849), republished in Dissertations and Discussions, II, 335-410.

[79 ]EL, CW, XIII, 740-1.

[80 ]Lionel Robbins, The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy (London: Macmillan, 1952), 143.

[81 ]Dissertations and Discussions, II, 388.

[82 ]LL, CW, XIV, 85. See also his views in another letter of the same year, ibid., 87.

[83 ]Quoted in J. P. Mayer, Prophet of the Mass Age (London: Dent, 1939), 20.

[84 ]LL, CW, XV, 553.

[85 ]There are many references to Mill in Bernard Shaw, ed., Fabian Essays in Socialism (London: Walter Scott, 1899). In this book Sidney Webb pays a special tribute to Mill (on page 58). There are also many references to Mill in Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Industrial Democracy, 2nd ed (London: Longmans, 1898).

[86 ]LL, CW, XVI, 1248. See also a letter to Georg Brandes on 4 March, 1872, in LL, CW, XVII, 1874-5, which discusses the First International.

[87 ]LL, CW, XVII, 1910-12 (4/10/72).

[88 ]Henry Collins and Chimen Abramsky. Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement Years of the First International (London: Macmillan, 1965), 269 cite references on the response to Mill’s letter. See also Lewis S. Feuer “John Stuart Mill and Marxian Socialism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, X (1949), 297-303.

[89 ]A modern assessment is that by John Vincent, The Formation of the Liberal Party, 1857-1868 (London: Constable, 1966). For the marked influence of Mill on John Morley and other leading liberals of the time see Frances Wentworth Knickerbocker. Free Minds, John Morley and His Friends (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1943).

[90 ]John Morley, Recollections (Toronto: Macmillan, 1971), I, 61.