Liberty Matters

Two James Mill Myths, Part II


A second Mill myth was, strange to say, aided and abetted by James Mill’s eldest son. In his Autobiography John Stuart Mill, in the course of discussing Macaulay’s “famous attack” on his father’s essay “Government” in the 1829 Edinburgh Review, wrote that
I was not at all satisfied with the mode in which my father met the criticisms of Macaulay. He did not, as I thought he ought to have done, justify himself by saying, “I was not writing a scientific treatise on politics. I was writing an article for parliamentary reform”. He treated Macaulay’s argument as simply irrational; an attack upon the reasoning faculty; and example of the saying of Hobbes, that when reason is against a man, a man will be against reason.
The younger Mill leaves the impression that even though his father was displeased by a number of paltry replies to Macaulay in the Westminster Review, he never replied to Macaulay. This, as we shall see, is simply false.
Before going on to say how and why the younger Mill is mistaken on this score we need to ask why James Mill did not reply to Macaulay in the pages of the Westminster Review. The answer is that he had had a falling out with the editors of the Review, with whom he was no longer on speaking terms. He did, however, try – without success -- to persuade his friend and fellow Utilitarian Etienne Dumont to reply to “the curly-headed coxcomb, who only abuses what he does not understand.”[87] Torn between his haughty wounded pride and his wish to get back at Macaulay and give him the thrashing that Mill believed he so richly deserved, Mill sought some means other than the now-despised Westminster Review. Lo and behold there fortuitously appeared Sir James Mackintosh’s large and ponderous (and posthumous) Dissertation on Ethical Philosophy (1830). An old Whig warhorse, Mackintosh, like Macaulay, was keen to take on the Philosophic Radicals, and Mill most particularly.
The manner and method of Mackintosh’s critique of Mill’s “Government” was, as he readily acknowledged, borrowed from “the writer of a late criticism on Mr. Mill’s Essay. – See Edinburgh Review, No. 97, March 1829.” For Mill this was like manna from heaven, and his excitement is evident. “This,” he writes in his Fragment on Mackintosh, “is convenient; because the answer, which does for Sir James, will answer the same purpose with the Edinburgh Review.”[88] Thus the elder Mill did reply to Macaulay, not directly, but in the thin guise of criticizing Mackintosh. Indeed, I have often wondered whether Mill wrote his last big book for just that purpose.
In any event, Mill’s reply is disappointing. It is little more than a splenetic reiteration of the argument advanced in his “Government,” and I am sorry to say that Mill does not acquit himself well, or at all.
[87.] James Mill to Etienne Dumont, July13, 1829, MSS Dumont,  Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva, fol. 31.
[88.] James Mackintosh's "Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy' can be found in The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871). </titles/2266#lf1446_head_012>. James Mill, Fragment on Mackintosh (London: Baldwin and Craddock, 1835), excerpted in James Mill: Political Writings, ed. Terence Ball (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 304-14, at 305.