Mill, John Stuart
(1806–1873)
   The preeminent intellectual of Victorian Britain and the central philosopher of nineteenth-century liberalism. Brought up according to the educational theories of his father James Mill, a follower of Jeremy Bentham, and also a prominent philosopher, historian of British India, and political theorist, Mill famously mastered Greek at three and was functioning as his father’s editorial assistant by early adolescence. Mill had a famous mental breakdown, recounted in his Autobiography, occasioned by Macaulay’s Essay on Government of 1829, which led him to question the more dogmatic aspects of his father’s worldview. Mill’s friendships ran across political boundaries and included at one point Carlyle and many other key figures. His political journalism in the 1830s was radical in the sense of being rationalist and opposed to aristocratic privilege. In imperial affairs, he was a fierce opponent of slavery and supported Canadian self-government. Mill’s Principles of Political Economy of 1848 became the standard text of classical political economy, although, in contrast to the dogmatically anti-interventionist beliefs of most mid-Victorian liberals, it allowed a surprisingly wide scope for governmental intervention in the economy.
   Mill’s economic views moved leftwards throughout his career. The posthumously published “Chapters on Socialism” reflected an increasing self-identification as a socialist, although that term indicated more of a disposition to see society whole than a commitment to a specific program. One area in which he early supported government economic intervention was in the encouragement of state-assisted emigration to settler colonies. In 1851, he married Harriet Taylor, widow of a Unitarian businessman. Before their marriage, gossip of an illicit affair between Mill and Taylor led Mill increasingly to isolate himself from society. In 1859, he published what is possibly his most famous work, the small book On Liberty, advancing the radically libertarian principle that society may interfere with a person’s liberty only to prevent harm to others, but then retreating from its more extreme implications by showing the scope of human connections. Mill’s primary work of political philosophy was the Representative Government of 1861; it was an argument for active citizenship and made the case for a franchise that was at once wide and based on active involvement in the community. Mill was briefly member of Parliament for Westminster from 1866 to 1868, but practical politics did not suit him, and he was not reelected in part because of his high-minded refusal to campaign or to incur election expenses.
   During his time in Parliament, he supported the passage of the second reform bill, although his attempt to extend the franchise to women was greeted with laughter; it was a position he later defended in The Subjection of Women of 1869. Mill led the Jamaica committee that protested the violent reaction of Governor Eyre to native disturbances; humanitarian causes were a consistent feature of his career and advocacy; however, Mill’s relationship to imperialism was ambiguous. As chief examiner in the East India Company, in succession to his father, he defended the company’s activities, and he resented its abolition following the Indian mutiny. He could be authoritarian in his attitudes, declaring in the Liberty, that peoples not capable of self-government needed, “an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.” And yet, on specific issues, at least outside India, he almost invariably supported colonial self-government, emancipation, and opposed military intervention, the 1867 Abyssinian expedition being a rare exception to the latter. His primary importance, from the point of view of empire, must remain his anticoercive and rationalist liberalism.
   See also <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Mill, John Stuart. Collected Works. Edited by J. M. Robson et al. 33 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991;
    Ryan, Alan. The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. London: Macmillan, 1970.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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