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John Stuart Mill on Race

  • Georgios Varouxakis (a1)


The article examines J. S. Mill's views on the significance of the racial factor in the formation of what he called ‘national character’. Mill's views are placed in the context of his time and are assessed in the light of the theories concerning these issues that were predominant in the nineteenth century. It is shown that Mill – although he did indulge himself in the discourse based on race, geography or climate to a minor extent – made strenuous efforts to discredit the deterministic implications of racial theories and to promote the idea that human effort and education could alter beyond recognition what were supposed to be the racially inherited characteristics of various human groups. Finally, Mill's attitude towards race is used as a case-study through which a contribution can be made to broader debates on how to categorize him.



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1 See Watson, George, The English Ideology: Studies in the Language of Victorian Politics, London, 1973, pp. 198212; Rich, Paul B., ‘Social Darwinism, Anthropology and English Perspectives of the Irish, 1867–1900’, History of European Ideas, xix (1994), 779; Bolt, Christine, Victorian Attitudes to Race, London, 1971, passim. A methodological difficulty that can perplex the examination of discussions on race during the nineteenth century arises from the fact that sometimes race was used in the sense that the term ‘culture’ has today, without, that is, necessarily implying any belief in the doctrine of biological and hereditary transmission of mental and cultural traits (see, for instance, Stocking's remarks on Leslie Stephen's use of ‘race’ in: Stocking, George W. Jr, Victorian Anthropology, New York, 1987, pp. 138–9). For the confusion and imprecision characterising the use of the type of race not just in common discourse, but also among specialists, see Banton, Michael, Racial Theories, Cambridge, 1987, pp. xii–xv, 2932. Here race will be discussed inasmuch as it assumed a biological sense.

2 See Barzun, Jacques, Race: A Study in Superstition, New York, 1965, p. 6, and passim; Seliger, M., ‘Race-thinking during the Restoration’, Journal of the History of Ideas, xix (1958), 273–82. On the question of race in French historiography at this time, cf. Barzun, Jacques, The French Race: Theories of its Origins and their Social and Political Implications, New York, 1932; Crossley, Ceri, French Historians and Romanticism: Thierry, Guizot, the Saint-Simonians, Quinet, Michelet, London and New York, 1993, pp. 56–7, 90–2.

3 See Schleifer, James, The Making of Tocqueville's ‘Democracy in America’, Chapel Hill, 1980, pp. 6272; also Drescher, Seymour, Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization, Pittsburgh, 1968, pp. 274–6.

4 Bentham had mentioned ‘race or lineage’ as one of the many ‘circumstances influencing sensibility’: see Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. Burns, J. H. and Hart, H. L. A., with a new introduction by F. Rosen, Oxford, 1996 (The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham), p. 67. Another of these circumstances was climate: ibid.

5 Steele, E. D., ‘IV. J. S. Mill and the Irish Question: Reform, and the Integrity of the Empire, 1865–1870’, Historical Journal, xiii (1970), 435.

6 Steele's statement quoted above was preceded by the remark that ‘Mill was sometimes critical of the doctrine, common in his day, that certain races or peoples were inferior to others in their aptitude for free and progressive institutions: but only when he thought it was being strained, and used in too deterministic a fashion.’: ibid. It will be shown in the following pages that, both with regard to Mill's reaction to racial theories in general and to their application to the case of the Irish in particular, Steele's concession is an understatement.

7 Mazlish, Bruce, James and John Stuart Mill: Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century, London, 1975, p. 407; the passage quoted is to be found in The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill 1812–1848, ed. Mineka, Francis E., 2 vols., Toronto, 1963 (henceforth Earlier Letters), Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (hereafter CW), xiii. 404.

8 The fact that Mill went on to ascribe to the peoples of the south of Europe (as opposed to those of the north) characteristics similar to those he agreed with d'Eichthal in attributing to the black race (as opposed to the whole of the white race) goes some way towards suggesting that he was not speaking in strictly biological terms.

9 d'Eichthal, Gustave and Urbain, Ismayl, Lettres sur la Race Noire et la Race Blanche, Paris, 1839, pp. 1419.

10 D'Eichthal had adduced the researches of W.-F. Edwards and E. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (ibid, p. 15). Both were well known scientists. Edwards was one of the major exponents of theories asserting the importance of race in history and society: see Banton, pp. xiii, 31.

11 On 25 December 1840, having received one more of d'Eichthal's ethnological works, Mill wrote to him: ‘You are very usefully employed in throwing light on these dark subjects – the whole subject of the races of man, their characteristics and the laws of their fusion is more important than it was ever considered till late and it is now quite a [sic] I'ordre du jour and labour bestowed upon it is therefore not lost even for immediate practical ends.’ Earlier Letters, CW, xiii. 456. By this time d'Eichthal had become a leading member of the Société ethnologique which was presided over by W.-F. Edwards: see Ratdiffe, Barrie M., ‘Gustave d'Eichthal (1802–1886): An Intellectual Portrait’, A French Sociologist Looks at Britain: Gustave d'Eichthal and British Society in 1828, ed. Ratcliffe, Barrie M. and Chaloner, W. H., Manchester, 1977, p. 151.

12 See Mill, J. S., The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill 1848–1873, ed. Mineka, Francis E. and Lindley, Dwight N., 4 vols., Toronto, 1972 (hereafter Later Letters), CW, xv. 691.

13 Mill, J. S., ‘Michelet's History of France’, Essays on French History and Historians, ed. Robson, John M., Toronto, 1985, CW, xx. 235.

14 Cf. Crossley, pp. 205–6.

15 Cf. Guizot's explanation of the peculiarities of English history in terms of the circumstances of the Norman, conquest, translated and endorsed by Mill, in Mill, J. S., ‘Guizot's Essays and Lectures on History’, Essays on French History and Historians, CW, xx. 291–2; see also: Crossley, pp. 91–3; Barzun, Jacques, ‘Romantic Historiography as a Political Force in France’, Journal of the History of Ideas, ii (1941), 318–29.

16 Mill, J. S., ‘Michelet's History of France’, CW, xx. 237.

17 Mill, J. S., letter of 6 april 1860, Later Letters, CW, xv. 691.

18 Mill, J. S., ‘Michelet's History of France’, CW, xx. 237.

18 Ibid., p. 238.

20 In a letter to Dilke, Charles Wentworth, referring to the latter's book Greater Britain: a Record of Travel in English-speaking countries during 1866 and 1867 (1868), Mill's only criticism ‘of a somewhat broader character’ was ‘that (in speaking of the physical and moral characteristics of the populations descended from the English) you sometimes express yourself almost as if there were no sources of national character but race and climate’, while Mill himself believed ‘the good and bad influences of education, legislation, and social circumstances … to be of prodigiously greater efficacy than either race or climate or the two combined’: Mill, J. S., Later Letters, CW, xvii. 1563 (Dilke's book was ‘Very successful’: see Bolt, p. 38; cf. ibid., p. 103). Also, in a letter to Kinnear, John Boyd (referring to Kinnear's Principles of Reform: Political and Legal, London, 1865), Mill stated as one of the chief points on which he differed from the author that the latter ascribed ‘too great influence to differences of race and too little to historical differences and to accidents as causes of the diversities of character and usage existing among mankind’: Mill, J. S., Later Letters, CW, xvi. 1093.

21 Mill, J. S., ‘The Negro Question’, Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, ed. Robson, John M., Toronto, 1984, CW, xxi. 93; first published in Fraser's Magazine, xli (01 1850), 2531.

22 Cf. Mill, J. S., ‘Tocqueville on Democracy in America’, Essays on Politics and Society, ed. Robson, John M., 2 vols., Toronto, 1977, CW, xviii. 196–7; Mill, J. S., ‘Guizot's Essays and Lectures on History’, CW, xx. 269–70.

23 This statement could be a direct retort also to Hume's statement (1748): ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men … to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences’ (emphasis added). Hume, David, ‘Of National Characters’, Political Essays, ed. Haakonssen, Knud, Cambridge, 1994, p. 86n. Cf. Immerwahr, John, ‘Hume's Revised Racism’, Journal of the History of Ideas, liii (1992), 481–6.

24 Mill, J. S., ‘The Negro Question’, CW, xxi. 93.

25 Mill, J. S., Principles of Political Economy, ed. Robson, John M., 2 vols., Toronto, 1965, CW, ii. 319.

26 Cf. Hume, p. 84.

27 Mill, J. S., The Subjection of Women, Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, CW, xxi. 277.

28 Ibid., p. 307.

29 ‘The French, and the Italians, are undoubtedly by nature more nervously excitable than the Teutonic races, and, compared at least with the English, they have a much greater habitual and daily emotional life: but have they been less great in science, in public business, in legal and judicial eminence, or in war? There is abundant evidence that the Greeks were of old, as their descendants and successors still are, one of the most excitable of the races of mankind. It is superfluous to ask, what among the achievements of men they did not excel in. The Romans, probably, as an equally southern people, had the same original temperament: but the stern character of their national discipline, like that of the Spartans, made them an example of the opposite type of national character; the greater strength of their national feelings being chiefly apparent in the intensity which the same original temperament made it possible to give to the artificial.’ Ibid., pp. 309–10.

30 Many instances in Mill's other writings would suggest that he was not always as sanguine as he appears to be here about the prospects of various nations, particularly the French, by the time he wrote The Subjection. But one has to distinguish between the short term prospects of various nations and states and the potentialities that there were theoretically. In addition, of course, the exigencies of the case he wanted to defend in this work may go some way towards accounting for the unequivocal stress on human malleability.

31 Cf. Mill, J. S., A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive, ed. Robson, John M., 2 vols., Toronto, 1973, CW, viii. 856–60 (book VI, ch. iv, sect. 4: ‘Relation of mental facts to physical conditions’).

32 Cf. Les Saint-Simoniens et I'Orient: vers la modernité, ed. Morsy, Magali, Aix-en-Provence, 1990.

33 See Banton, pp. 54–60, and passim; Stocking, pp. 102–9, and passim. Cf. Sternhell, Zeev, ‘Racism’, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought, ed. Miller, David, Coleman, Janet, Connolly, William, Ryan, Alan, Oxford, 1991, p. 413: ‘As a political theory and as the basis for a theory of history, racism became a factor in European history in the second half of the nineteenth century.’

34 See, in particular, Mill's, letter to Comte of 30 October 1843: Earlier Letters, CW, xiii. 604–11. On Mill's disagreement with Comte, cf. Mandelbaum, Maurice, History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought, Baltimore, 1971, pp. 168–9; Mueller, Iris Wessel, John Stuart Mill and French Thought, Urbana, 1956, pp. 107–15. Mill's attitude towards race and its influence on the formation of national character was, in the main, similar to that of Tocqueville. While conceding that physical factors such as race must have some part in the formation of national character, he rejected any practical conclusion that would be based exclusively or even mainly on the influence of race, and sought to discredit any deterministic inferences that could be drawn from observable racial differences. On Tocqueville's attitude to race see Schleifer, pp. 62–72; Richter, Melvin, ‘Debate on Race. Tocqueville-Gobineau Correspondence’, Commentary, xxv (1958), 151–60; Todorov, Tzvetan, On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought (transl. from the French), Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 1993, pp. 126–9; and: de Tocqueville, Alexis, Correspondance d'Alexis de Tocqueville avec Arthur de Gobineau, Oeuvres Complètes (Oeuvres, Papiers et Correspondances d'Alexis de Tocqueville, édition définitive sous la direction de J.-P. Mayer, Paris, 1951–), p. ix.

36 Burrow, John W., Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory, Cambridge, 1968, pp. 118–36 (especially pp. 121, 130). See also Rainger, Ronald, ‘Race, Politics, and Science: The Anthropological Society of London in the 1860s’, Victorian Studies, xxii (1978), 5170; Bolt, pp. 4, 6–7, 15, 18–19; Banton, pp. 59–60.

36 Sternhell, p. 414. See ibid. on Hunt's racism.

37 Burrow, p. 130.

38 Hunt], [James, ‘Race in Legislation and Political Economy’, Anthropological Review, iv (1866), 113–35. Hunt began his article by quoting Mill's forceful statement (in the Principles of Political Economy) about the vulgarity of ‘attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences’: ibid, 113 (Mill, J. S., Principles of Political Economy, CW, ii. 319).

39 See Rainger, 63–4.

40 Ibid., 64.

41 Hunt is not mentioned anywhere in Mill's works or extant correspondence; nor is Knox.

42 See supra. In fact, Mill's almost tedious invocation of a great number of historical examples that seemed to serve his argument in The Subjection of Women may have something to do with the intensification of debates about racial and physical determinism after around 1850.

43 See Rainger, 51–70.

44 Mill, J. S., Later Letters, CW, xv. 840–1.

45 Rainger, 65. According to Rainger: ‘In the British scientific community of the 1860s, Huxley was among the best known for his work in government and political affairs, but, unlike Hunt or others who espoused an applied anthropology, his political beliefs were not rooted in, nor apparently related to, his scientific research.’: ibid. Cf. ibid., 64. Hunt's was what scholars have called ‘the anthropological approach’, while that adopted by scientists like Huxley and the members that remained in the Ethnological Society of London after Hunt's defection (and establishment of the breakaway Anthropological Society) was ‘the ethnological approach’ (see Banton, pp. 30–1).

46 Mill, J. S., Later Letters, CW, xvi. 1057–8. Mill was referring to: [uxley], T. H. H., ‘Emancipation – Black and White’, Reader, v (20 05 1865), 561–2. Huxley did accept a biological basis for differences of character (which is apparently why Mill found his physiology ‘heretical’), but did not want to draw the usual implications from that acceptance. See Mandelbaum, pp. 207, 455 (n.69).

47 On the state of Mill's knowledge about Darwin see Robson, John M., The Improvement of Mankind: The Social and Political Thought of John Stuart Mill, Toronto and London, 1968, pp. 273–5; Mazlish, pp. 423–4.

48 Mill, J. S., Considerations on Representative Government, Essays on Politics and Society, CW, xix. 406.

49 Ibid., p. 408.

50 Ibid., p. 410.

51 Cf. Mill's, ‘Michelet's History of France’, CW, xx. 235: ‘yet the same readiness to submit to the severest discipline …’: Was it a Gaelic characteristic, was it a southern characteristic, or was it a result of despotism? Also: Mill, J. S., Newspaper Writings, ed. Robson, Ann P. and Robson, John M., 4 vols., Toronto, 1986, CW, xxiii. 335: ‘The discussion has been stormy; the natural consequence, among an excitable people, of the arrival of two hundred new deputies unused to the forms of debate, and the violent passions excited by a division of parties so nearly equal as to afford a hope of victory to each and every division.’ What is the cause? The excitability of the people, or their being new to the procedures of constitutionalism along with the equal division of parties? The same confounding of different kinds of causes appears here. Cf. Mill, J. S., Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews, Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, CW, xxi. 254–5.

52 See, for instance, Arnold, Matthew, On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867), ‘which was more an essay in the comparative analysis of national character than about Celtic literature as such’: Collini, Stefan, ‘Arnold’, Victorian Thinkers, ed. Thomas, Keith (series editor), Oxford, 1993, p. 264. See also: Trilling, Lionel, Matthew Arnold, London, 1974 (first published 1939), pp. 232–43; Mandelbaum, pp. 199, 451 (n.32); Faverty, Frederic E., Matthew Arnold the Ethnologist, Evanston, Illinois, 1951, passim; Paul, Diane, ‘“In the Interests of Civilization”: Marxist Views of Race and Culture in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the History of Ideas, xlii (1981), 115–38; Le Quesne, A. L., ‘Carlyle’, Victorian Thinkers, ed. Thomas, Keith (series editor), pp. 83–4; Semmel, Bernard, The Governor Eyre Controversy, London, 1962; Watson, pp. 198212; Houghton, Walter E., The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870, New Haven and London, 1985, pp. 212–13; Francis, Mark and Morrow, John, A History of English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century, London, 1994, pp. 211, 213–18, 219, 229, 231 (n.56); Bagehot, Walter, The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, ed. John-Stevas, Norman St, 15 vols., London, 19651986, iv. 50.

53 See Jones, H. S., ‘John Stuart Mill as Moralist’, Journal of the History of Ideas, liii (1992), 287308; also Skorupski, John, John Stuart Mill, London, 1989.

54 Ibid., p. 5. Cf. Mandelbaum, pp. 198–9, and passim.

55 For a recent version of such a view of Mill see Skorupski, pp. 1–47 and passim.

56 See Collini, Stefan, Winch, Donald, and Burrow, John W., That Noble Science of Politics: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History, Cambridge, 1983, p. 133.

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