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The Emancipation of the American Mind: J.S. Mill on the Civil War


Scholars have generally traced J.S. Mill's interest in the United States to the commercial and democratic aspects of American society. Yet Mill also suggested a third respect in which America was unique: it was the only existing nation founded on the basis of “abstract principles.” This insight provides the key to a fuller understanding of Mill's various writings on America. In his early essays, Mill worried that America's founding principles and institutions were beginning to take on the characteristics of dogma: they were universally accepted, but no longer discussed. Mill responded optimistically to the Civil War because he believed the struggle to extinguish slavery would ultimately restore the meaning or vitality of the founding principles of liberty and equality. With the nation thus “regenerated,” Mill predicted that Americans would soon recognize and address other illiberal aspects of American society, including the subordinate status of women.

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1 John Stuart Mill, “William Lloyd Garrison,” in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965 ), 28: 201–3. The Collected Works will be cited as CW and by volume and page number. Mill's speech honoring Garrison was delivered on 29 June 1867.

2 “Democracy in America II,” CW, 18: 196–200; also see “Bentham,” CW, 10:108.

3 Letter to Edwin Godkin, 24 May 1865, CW, 16: 1057; Letter to Earl Grey, 13 May 1864, CW, 15: 942; Letter to John Elliot Cairnes, February 1863, CW, 15: 835.

4 See, for example, “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67; Letter to James M. Barnard, 26 January 1870, CW, 17: 1690–91; Letter to Joseph Henry Allen, 9 February 1865, CW, 16: 922–23.

5 The best existing treatments of these writings include Stefan Collini, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850–1930 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 139–44; Bernard Semmel, John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 83–84; and Thomas E. Schneider, “J.S. Mill and Fitzjames Stephen on the American Civil War,” History of Political Thought 28 (2007): 290–304.

6 See, for example, Michael Levin, John Stuart Mill on Civilization and Barbarism (New York: Routledge, 2004), 86–92; Alan Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 44–47; Semmel, Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue, 92–93.

7 “Civilization,” CW, 18: 119.

8 Ibid., 120–22.

9 Ibid., 119.

10 “Spirit of the Age I,” CW, 22: 229–31; “Civilization,” CW 18: 119–20.

11 “Spirit of the Age I,” CW, 22: 230.

12 “Spirit of the Age III,” CW, 22: 252.

13 “Spirit of the Age II,” CW, 22: 244–45; “Spirit of the Age III,” CW, 22: 253–54.

14 “Spirit of the Age III,” CW, 22: 254.

15 “State of Society,” CW, 18: 101.

16 Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 81–82.

17 Semmel, Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue, 92.

18 Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism, 41, 45.

19 “Democracy II,” CW, 18: 200.

20 Ibid., 197; Francois Guizot, “The History of Civilization in Europe,” in Historical Essays and Lectures, ed. Stanley Mellon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972 [1828]). See especially Lecture Two.

21 Georgios Varouxakis, “Guizot's Historical Works and J.S. Mill's Reception of Tocqueville,” History of Political Thought 20 (1999): 292–312. For a similar reading, though one that places less stress on the influence of Guizot, see Levin, Barbarism and Civilization, 86–92.

22 “Democracy II,” CW, 18: 178–79.

23 Ibid., 196.

24 Ibid., 198.

25 Ibid., 198–200.

26 Ibid., 197. As other scholars have noted, Mill's argument was indebted to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's plea for a balance between the forces of “permanence” and “progression.” See Bernard Semmel, “Mill's Coleridgean Neoradicalism,” In Mill and the Moral Character of Liberalism, ed. Eldon Eisenach (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 49–76; Robert Devigne, Reforming Liberalism: J.S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 33–35; 87–93; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, On the Constitution of Church and State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976 [1829]).

27 “State of Society in America,” CW, 18: 99.

28 Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism, xxi–xxii.

29 Ibid., 81–84.

30 Levin, Civilization and Barbarism, 91.

31 Joseph Hamburger, John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 231–34.

32 “State of Society in America,” CW, 18: 101.

33 “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 247.

34 “Democracy II,”CW, 18: 195–96.

35 “Democracy I,” CW, 18: 55; Letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 24 November 1865, CW, 16: 1119; Letter to Lucy Stone, 14 April 1868, CW, 16: 1385; Letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 25 April 1869 CW, 17: 1594.

36 Mill's interest in the plight of excluded groups may seem to be at odds with his assertion, in his second review of Tocqueville, that “tyranny will seldom use the instrument of law” in democratic societies such as the United States because there exists in such societies “no permanent class to be tyrannized over.” In the original version of the essay, however, Mill qualified his discussion of majority tyranny by noting that the absence of permanently subjugated classes was true only “among the white population” of the United States. For reasons that are unclear, Mill removed this caveat when the essay was republished in his Dissertations and Discussions. See “Democracy II,” CW, 18: 177.

37 “Democracy I,” CW, 18: 55. Also see Mill's praise of Gustave de Beaumont's novel, Marie, in “State of Society in America,” CW, 18: 95. Although Mill believed that the novel had painted an overly dark picture of American society, he fully endorsed Beaumont's description of Americans' “inhuman antipathy against the negro race.” Mill agreed with Beaumont that the issue of race represented “a dark spot in the character and destiny of the Americans.”

38 “Democracy I,” CW, 18: 81–83.

39 “Democracy II,” CW, 18: 177.

40 Ibid., 178; “Democracy I,” CW, 18: 82.

41 “Bentham,” CW, 10: 98.

42 On the process of “mental chemistry,” see “Comments on James Mill's Analysis of the Human Mind,” CW, 31: 239; “System of Logic,” CW, 8: 842–43; 849–60. On Mill's moral psychology, generally, see Fred Wilson, Psychological Analysis and the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 224–94; Stefan Collini, “The Idea of ‘Character’ in Victorian Political Thought,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 35 (1985): 29–50; Devigne, Reforming Liberalism, 27–61; Eldon J. Eisenach, “Mill and Liberal Christianity,” in Mill and the Moral Character of Liberalism, 193–204.

43 “System of Logic,” in CW, 8: 681; “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 247. In On Liberty, the phrase appears as “meaning and vitality.”

44 “System of Logic,” in CW, 8: 681.

45 Ibid. For a concrete example of the link between experience and meaning, see Mill's argument that the abolitionist cause drew its initial force from the fact that early converts had witnessed firsthand the evils of slavery. “The Negro Question,” CW, 21: 88; “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67.

46 “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 247.

47 Ibid., 248.

48 “System of Logic,” CW, 8: 681.

49 Devigne, Reforming Liberalism, 86–89. Also see Eisnach, “Mill and Liberal Christianity,” 196–204.

50 “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 251.

51 “System of Logic,” CW, 8: 681.

52 In “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 155–56, Mill contrasts Jefferson's rather negative and apologetic view of slavery with the more belligerent attitude of the current generation of slaveholders.

53 The extent to which the founding generation actually expected or desired the abolition of slavery is, of course, a subject of intense debate among historians. Yet, as Sean Wilentz has recently observed, it is generally acknowledged that the “necessary evil” view of slavery began to decline in the 1810s and 1820s as economic and technological developments combined to increase the profitability of cotton production. See Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 136–37, 219–22, 451–55.

54 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Address to the Citizens of Concord,” in Emerson's Antislavery Writings, ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 113–14.

55 Quoted in Brian Walker, “Thoreau's Alternative Economics: Work, Liberty and Democratic Cultivation,” American Political Science Review 92 (1998): 845–56.

56 “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 249; “System of Logic,” CW, 8: 681.

57 “The Civil War in the United States,” CW, 25: 1205.

58 “State of Society,” CW, 18: 105.

59 Ibid., 100.

60 Ibid., 111.

61 “The Negro Question,” CW, 21: 87; “The Subjection of Women,” CW, 21: 261–68.

62 “The Subjection of Women,” CW, 21: 266.

63 Ibid., 261–68; “The Negro Question,” CW, 21: 87, 94–95; “A Few Words on Non-Intervention,” CW, 21: 122–24.

64 Mill's theory explaining the South's decline was indebted to the work of his friend and frequent correspondent, John Elliot Cairnes. In 1862, Mill aided the publication of Cairnes's book, The Slave Power, and penned a laudatory review of the work in an October issue of the Westminster Review. Cairnes, in turn, dedicated The Slave Power to Mill. J.E. Cairnes, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs (London: Parker, Son and Co., 1862).

65 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 153.

66 “The Contest in America,” CW, 21: 154.

67 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 150.

68 Ibid., quoting Cairnes.

69 Ibid., 146.

70 Although the Civil War essays were designed to sway English public opinion to support of the Union, Mill was careful to demonstrate that his use of the “barbarous” label was not a mere rhetorical device. In fact, Mill's assessment of Southern society took the form of a point-by-point comparison with the definition of barbarism elaborated in the 1836 essay “Civilization.” From his reading of Cairnes and Frederick Law Olmstead, Mill gathered that the South was: (1) a sparsely populated region characterized by a low ratio of land and capital to labor; (2) a society in which wealth and knowledge were highly concentrated; and (3) a society in which the rule of law was tenuous at best (as evidenced by the frequency of lynchings and mob burnings). See “Civilization” CW, 18: 122–24; “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 150–53; “The Contest in America,” CW, 21: 136–41.

71 “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266.

72 “The Contest in America,” CW, 21: 141.

73 Ibid. As Georgios Varouxakis has demonstrated, Mill strived, in his writings on the subject of nationalism, to “reorient the ‘national mind’ to a cosmopolitan outlook” by articulating a concept of patriotism grounded in pride for “what one's nation had done and is doing for the welfare of the whole of humanity.” The Civil War writings offer striking support for this claim, as Mill consistently linked the character-improving effects of the war to the fact that the northern states were fighting on behalf of “humanity” and “civilization” (Georgios Varouxakis, Mill on Nationality [New York: Routledge, 2002], 122–23).

74 “The Negro Question,” CW, 21: 95.

75 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 154. Mill did not name the specific defenders of slavery he had in mind, but the arguments summarized here bear a striking resemblance to those advanced by the prominent Southern apologist (and Carlyle disciple) George Fitzhugh. Fitzhugh argued, for example, that chattel slavery offered a “humane” alternative to the northern system of free labor, in which laborers were allegedly exploited by their employers. Fitzhugh maintained, moreover, that all social hierarchies—from master and servant to husband and wife—were divinely sanctioned, and that the efforts of both abolitionists and suffragists threatened to undermine the natural order. See Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South: Or, the Failure of Free Society (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1854); and Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1857).

76 Letter to James Edwin Thorold Rogers, June 1863, CW, 32: 141.

77 Emerson, “Address to the Citizens of Concord,” in Emerson's Antislavery Writings, 55.

78 Letter of 7 February 1863, CW, 15: 835.

79 Mill, “Contest in America,” CW, 21: 141.

80 Among those Mill sought to refute were the editors of the Times, who viewed the American conflict as confirmation that the “preponderance of popular will without check or limit is at least as likely to hurry a nation into war and debt as the caprice of the most absolute despot or the intrigues of the most selfish of aristocracies.” Quoted in R.J.M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 13–14.

81 Quoted in Schneider, “J.S. Mill and Fitzjames Stephen,” 304.

82 J.F. Stephen, “The Dissolution of the Union,” The Cornhill Magazine 4 (1861): 153–66; “England and America,” Fraser's Magazine 68 (1863): 419–37; also see Schneider, “J.S. Mill and Fitzjames Stephen.”

83 Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 [1963]); Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 249–52, 288–90, 300–311; Joseph Hamburger, Liberty and Control, 21–41. Also see Linda C. Raeder, John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002).

84 For a balanced discussion of this tension, see Mark Tunick, “Tolerant Imperialism: John Stuart Mill's Defense of British Rule in India,” Review of Politics 68 (2006): 586–611.

85 “The Subjection of Women,” CW, 21: 325.

86 Letter to Joseph Henry Allen, 9 February 1865, CW, 16: 922–23 (emphasis added).

87 “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67.

88 “Contest in America,” CW, 21: 136.

89 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 151.

90 As Mill argues in “The Contest in America,” the South was unlikely to accept a peace based on a return to the status quo antebellum unless first defeated on the battlefield. The only way to preserve the Union in the absence of a Northern military victory, then, would be to offer substantial concessions with respect to slavery in the territories. “Contest in America,” CW, 21: 138–40.

91 As Wendell Phillips framed the issue, “The North offers its wealth and blood in glad atonement for the selfishness of seventy years.” Wendell Phillips, “The Proclamation, How to Make it Efficient,” in Agitation for Freedom: The Abolitionist Movement, ed. Donald G. Mathews (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1972), 152.

92 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 161.

93 Letter to John Appleton, 24 September 1863, CW, 15: 886.

94 Letter to Edward Thorald Rogers, June 1863, CW, 32: 141.

95 Letter to Tocqueville, 9 August 1842, CW, 13: 536–37.

96 “Contest in America,” CW, 21: 135.

97 “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67.

98 In the “Subjection of Women,” for example, Mill notes that the “perverting effects” of the institutionalized repression of women are so great that it “is hardly possible with our present experience to raise our imaginations to the conception of so great a change for the better as would be made by [their] removal.” “The Subjection of Women,” CW, 21: 325.

99 “The Civil War in the United States,” CW, 25: 1205.

100 Letter to Lucy Stone, 14 April 1868, CW, 25: 1385.

101 Letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 25 April 1869 CW, 17: 1594 (emphasis added).

102 Letter to Parker Pillsbury, 4 July 1867, CW, 16: 1289.

103 Letter to Samuel N. Wood, 2 June 1867, CW, 16: 278.

104 “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67.

105 Also worth noting is that, contrary to Mill's firm convictions, the victims of America's two “aristocracies” did not always view themselves as natural allies. Indeed, many of the leading figures in the women's suffrage movement used racially charged arguments to advance their cause during the Reconstruction period. See, for example, Michele Mitchell, “‘Lower Orders,’ Racial Hierarchies, and Rights Rhetoric: Evolutionary Echoes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Thought During the Late 1860s,” in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Feminist as Thinker, ed. Ellen DuBois and Richard Cándida Smith (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 128–54.

106 Letter to James M. Barnard, 26 January 1870, CW, 17: 1690–91. (emphasis added)

107 Stephen, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1873), 300–301. (Quoted in Schneider, “J.S. Mill and Fitzjames Stephen,” 293.)

108 See, for example, Considerations on Representative Government, where Mill argues that an emphasis on moral development is essential to checking the “incessant and ever-flowing current of human affairs towards the worse.” “Considerations on Representative Government,” CW, 19: 388.

The author would like to thank Kirstie McClure, Andrew Sabl, Brian Walker and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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