John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873

John Stuart Mill, philosopher, economist, journalist, political writer, social reformer, and, briefly, Liberal MP, is one of the most famous figures in the pantheon of Liberal theorists, and the greatest of the Victorian Liberal thinkers. Yet his relevance is not restricted to the nineteenth century; as L. T. Hobhouse wrote in 1911, in his single person he spans the interval between the old and the new liberalism.

The eldest son of the Scottish utilitarian philosopher James Mill, John Stuart was educated at home by his father. A precocious pupil, he soon became the rising hope of Philosophical Radicalism. Still a teenager, he wrote for newspapers like the Morning Chronicle before becoming editor of the most prestigious radical periodical of the time, the Westminster Review. At the age of seventeen he became his father’s assistant at India House, and in due course succeeded him as Head of the Examiners Office of the East India Company, a position roughly equivalent to that of a Secretary of State.

In 1826-27, following an illness, Mill entered into what he described as his mental crisis – a romantic period during which he moved away from Benthamite utilitarianism. Under the influence of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Carlyle and the French Saint-Simonians, Mill came to accept many of the legacies of Kantian and post-Kantian German philosophy. An important aspect of his new political thought was his concern to combine the democratic requirements of government accountability with a role for an elite of cultivated persons – independent intellectuals and public moralists like himself. Thus in his reflections on M. De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1840) Mill discussed the United States as a consumer democracy, and tried to separate the phenomena of a mass society, of which he disapproved, from the institutions of political democracy, which he wished to encourage.

In 1843 he published his first major treatise, A System of Logic (1843), which combined deduction and induction in a revised approach to empiricist philosophy. In 1848, while Europe was being shaken by democratic and national revolutions, Mill published his Principles of Political Economy, which remained the standard university textbook in the English-speaking world for the next thirty years. Mill rejected Ricardo’s assumption that fixed and rigid laws regulated not only the production of wealth, but also its distribution, arguing that the latter constituted a legitimate sphere for experiments in social reform. In this context he supported the creation of a class of small peasant farmers as a remedy for famine-stricken Ireland. In industrial England he placed his hopes in the development of the cooperative movement and the formation of strong trade unions as means whereby a more equal distribution of wealth could gradually be achieved.

A romantic in political and economic thought, Mill showed even stronger romantic proclivities in his private life. His long love affair with Harriet Taylor (1807-58) became a source of great intellectual stimulus and powerful inspiration for the rest of his life. When the two first met in 1830 she was married to a successful London merchant, John Taylor, but growing bored with the lifestyle of the Victorian middle-class woman. A formidable character, she was a nonconformist by both faith (as a Unitarian) and temperament. After twenty-one years of friendship and intimacy, Mill and Harriet were married in 1851, one year after Taylor’s death.

The areas of Mill’s thought in which Harriet’s personality was most strongly felt were those concerning issues of civil liberty and women’s emancipation, which Mill came to see as reciprocally interdependent. His masterpiece On Liberty (1859) emphatically vindicated individual moral autonomy, and celebrated the importance of originality and dissent. Though generations of socialist critics have identified Mill’s defence of individual freedom against the tyranny of the majority as an expression of bourgeois prejudice against the working classes, the truth of the matter is that Mill was afraid not of some theoretical dictatorship of the proletariat but of middle-class conformism, which he had studied in its contemporary manifestations in the USA, seen at work in Britain in the ostracism of pacifists like Richard Cobden and John Bright during the Crimean and Opium wars, and was soon to experience personally. Thus his target was, in a sense, the political correctness of his own day, which stultified opposition and a critical cast of mind in the name of an orthodoxy admitting of neither discussion nor criticism. In Considerations on Representative Government (1861) Mill expounded his doctrine of democracy. In a systematic attempt to combine participation with competence, Mill emphasised the importance of local government and recommended that intellectuals should be given a plurality of votes within an electoral system based on universal suffrage and proportional representation.

In these years Mill became actively involved in current politics, and in 1865 successfully stood as a parliamentary candidate for the borough of Westminster. As an MP Mill took an active part in the debate on the Second Reform Bill (1866-67), advocating proportional representation as well as the extension of the suffrage to women householders. Taking an active interest in Irish affairs, he strongly opposed the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and maintained that social reform, rather than repression, was the cure for civil unrest in Ireland. Mill was also involved in several civil rights campaigns, defending prostitutes against arbitrary arrest and medical examination under the Contagious Diseases Acts, and opposing the 1867 Extradition Bill, which would have drastically limited the right of foreigners to seek asylum in Britain.

Moreover, he was a leading figure in the campaign for the impeachment of the Governor of Jamaica, Eyre, who had brutally repressed a series of riots by the extensive use of courts martial. This campaign involved issues of civil rights and racial equality in a colony where blacks outnumbered whites by thirty to one. Mill denounced the repression as wholesale murder by crown officials, but was himself violently attacked for sentimentalising over a pack of black brutes. In the face of that very sort of tyranny of public opinion against which he had warned in On Liberty, Mill continued to campaign until July 1868, when the case against Eyre was finally dismissed by the Queen’s Bench. At the ensuing general election, in November 1868, public opinion took its revenge: Mill lost his seat to the Conservative W. H. Smith, of stationery fame. It was fitting for an age of increasing consumerism that people preferred the man who sold books to the one who wrote them.

A further reason for Mill’s defeat at the 1868 parliamentary election was his strong commitment to women’s emancipation. In 1867 he had been one of the founders of the first women’s suffrage society, which later developed into the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Undeterred by violent criticism and insults, in 1869 Mill published The Subjection of Women, a classical statement of the case for women’s rights which immediately became influential among politicised women, both in Britain and abroad. After leaving Parliament in 1868 Mill continued to be politically active. His last initiative was the organisation of the Land Tenure Reform Association. The imposition of heavy taxes on the unearned increment of land values and the promotion of cooperative agriculture were the most striking features of his programme, which was to inspire later generations of Liberals until the days of Lloyd George. This campaign was in full swing when Mill died suddenly at Avignon on 8 May 1873. He had no children.

All of Mill’s major works are still in print, as is his Autobiography (1873), which gives a persuasive picture of his career and opinions, although in places is primarily a work of propaganda. Other relevant works include: Alexander Bain (a friend of Mill’s), John Stuart Mill (1882); M. St.J. Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (Secker & Warburg, 1954); J. M. Robson and M. Laine (eds), James and John Stuart Mill (1976); B. L. Kinzer, A Moralist in and out of Parliament: John Stuart Mill at Westminster 1865-78 (1992); A. Ryan, The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (1998); and J. Skorupski, The Cambridge Companion to Mill (1998).