J.S. Mill was convinced he was living in a time when he would experience an explosion of classical liberal reform because “the spirit of the age” had dramatically changed (1831)

John Stuart Mill

In an essay which Mill wrote in 1831 at the age of 26 he confidently announces that “the spirit of the age” in which he lived would bring about revolutionary changes because men had suddenly “insisted on being governed in a new way”:

A change has taken place in the human mind; a change which, being effected by insensible gradations, and without noise, had already proceeded far before it was generally perceived. When the fact disclosed itself, thousands awoke as from a dream. They knew not what processes had been going on in the minds of others, or even in their own, until the change began to invade outward objects; and it became clear that those were indeed new men, who insisted upon being governed in a new way. But mankind are now conscious of their new position. The conviction is already not far from being universal, that the times are pregnant with change; and that the nineteenth century will be known to posterity as the era of one of the greatest revolutions of which history has preserved the remembrance, in the human mind, and in the whole constitution of human society.

The young John Stuart Mill could sense that he was living in a revolutionary age when liberal reforms were in the air (he was writing one year before the First Reform Act of 1832 granted the middle class in England the right to vote). He quite rightly thought these changes would be revolutionary in nature, such as the Anti-Corn Law League’s success in 1846 in repealing the corn laws and ushering in a period of virtual free trade. Richard Cobden was the leader of the free trade movement in England, and his counter part in France was Frédéric Bastiat. Mill himself became of Member of Parliament, the leading philosopher of the classical liberal tradition in the 19th century, and a staunch defender of women’s rights.