Liberty Matters

John Stuart Mill on Slavery, Humanity, and the War Between the States


It should, perhaps, not be too surprising that as an advocate of equal rights for women[71] and a defender of individual liberty against the tyrannies of either minorities or majorities, John Stuart Mill was, equally, a demander for the end to human slavery and its accompanying attitudes concerning associative relationships.
Demanding Justice Against Unjust Government Acts
Even more so, he insisted on justice and humane treatment for all, regardless of whether they were black or white.[72] Thus, he participated in the famous “Jamaica Committee” of 1866, which demanded that those British political authorities responsible in 1865 for violently suppressing and killing black Jamaicans  (including unarmed men, women and children) who were accused of participation in or sympathy for rebellion against the British crown, be placed on trial for murder. (Such well-known classical liberals of the day as John Bright, Herbert Spencer, and A. V. Dicey, and such other notables as Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley joined him in this demand.)[73]
Mill praised “the great national revolt of the conscience of this country against slavery and the slave-trade,” and those who participated in the antislavery movement in Great Britain, “who determined not to rest until the iniquity was extirpated: who made the destruction of it as much the business and the end of their lives.” In Mill’s opinion, “the persons who formed and executed it deserved to be numbered among those, not numerous in any age, who have led noble lives according to their lights, and laid on mankind a debt of permanent gratitude.”[74]
At the same time, he heaped ridicule and contempt on those who presumed that Africans were inherently inferior to whites in terms of work habits and responsiveness to incentives, thus requiring a special white master and black servant relationship (in the face of the end to formal slavery) to assure that blacks in the British West Indies would be appropriately laboring and “productive.”[75]
Southern Secession and Anti-Slavery Morality
When Mill turned his gaze to the conflict in America between the northern and southern states in two essays in 1862, he showed the same sympathies.[76] The first of the two essays is an appeal to the highest values of a belief in freedom and human dignity among the British people to not allow resentments, angers, and disapproval of various aspects in the American character, plus recent political disputes between the British and Union governments, to result in formal recognition or international support to the southern Confederate government.
At least strict neutrality should be the hallmark of British political policy so as to not tilt the balance in favor of a southern victory. But Mill was strident that morally the attitude should be to wish to see the defeat of the southern rebellion, for that was the only position “which becomes a people who are as sincere enemies of slavery as the English really are, and [who] have made as great sacrifices to put an end to it where they could.”[77]
In Mill’s eyes, the southern secession had little or nothing to do with free trade versus protectionism or the use of tariff revenues collected from southern states for “internal improvements” advancing the development of the northern or western states.[78]
It was pure and simply the preservation of a slave culture and slave society in the South from the loss of access in the “territories” not yet organized as states within the union to slave expansion, and a fear that if new states were admitted to the union over time as “free” states, it would mean the death knoll to slave-state influence and “balance” in the two Houses of Congress over time.
Secession Unjustified When Meant to Enslave Some
Secession,” Mill said, “may be laudable, and so may any other kind of insurrection, but it may also be an enormous crime” when its purpose is the preservation of holding a portion of their population in perpetual bondage. If secession was meant to be an expression of the will of the people, “Have the slaves been consulted? Has their will been counted as any part in the estimate of collective volition? They are are a part of the population. . . . Remember, we consider them to be human beings, entitled to human rights.”[79] And he was greatly pleased when at last “at the expense of the best blood of the Free States, but to their immeasurable elevation in mental and moral worth, the curse of slavery has been cast out from the great American republic. . . .”[80]
For Mill, eliminating the scourge of slavery as a moral blight on humanity, far more than its economic disadvantages in that in general slave labor is less productive than free labor, is what justified his ethical support for the northern cause even when it involved abuses and overreaches beyond the actual powers assigned the Union government under the U.S. Constitution.
Whether such unconstitutional precedents in the name of Union victory might involve longer term consequences in terms of centralization of power at the expense of other liberties and restraints on political power were issues not included in the horizon of Mill’s discussion.[81]
[71.] Editor: I have listed all of Mill's and Taylor's writings on women from the Collected Works at this page </pages/mill-and-taylor-on-women>.
[72.] John Stuart Mill, “Jamaica Committee: Public Documents (1866, 1868)” in in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. XXI (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1984), p. 423:  The Committee’s “aim, besides upholding the obligation of justice and humanity towards all races beneath the Queen's sway, is to vindicate, by an appeal to judicial authority, the great legal and constitutional principles which have been violated in the late proceedings, and deserted by the Government.”
[73.] See the excellent account of this episode by Bernard Semmel, Democracy vs. Empire (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1962).
[74.] John Stuart Mill, “The Negro Questions" [1850] in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. XXI, p. 88.
[75.] Ibid., pp. 89-93; there was no “doctrine more damnable than one” that asserted that “one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind.” A doctrine that tells the Negro: “You will have to be servants . . . to those who are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you – servants to the whites. . . .” If blacks seemed to lack certain social and economic qualities and characteristics observable in British whites, Mill suggested that the reasons are far more due to slavery, denial of education and development of those qualities and characteristics most likely to be developed when men are allowed to be free and responsible individuals, than anything inherent and different in the makeup of the blacks compared to whites.
[76.] John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America” [February 1862] and “The Slave Power” [October 1862] in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. XXI, pp. 127-42 & 145-64. The latter essay was a detailed and highly complimentary review of John E. Cairnes, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career and Probable Designs (New York: Augustus M. Kelley [1862; 2d revised ed., 1863] 1968); Cairnes dedicated the book to John Stuart Mill. See also the concise summary of his own argument in John E. Cairnes, “The Revolution in America” [1862] in Political Essays (New York: Augustus M. Kelley [1873] 1867) pp. 59-108.
[77.] Mill, “The Contest in America,” pp. 128-29.
[78.] Mill, “The Slave Power, “ p. 146.
[79.] Mill, “The Contest in America,” pp. 137-138.
[80.] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (Fairfield, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley, [1909] 1976). Pp. 254-55. Book II: Distribution, Chap. V: Of Slavery </titles/102#lf0223-02_footnote_nt_1020_ref>
[81.] See Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (New York: Open Court, 1996).