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James Mill (1773-1836)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1894

James MillJames Mill , utilitarian philosopher, born 6 April 1773 at Northwater Bridge, in the parish of Logie Pert, Forfarshire, was the son of James Mill, a country shoemaker, by his wife Isabel Fenton, daughter of a farmer in the Kirriemuir district. The father occupied a cottage under a farmer named Barclay, whose family were afterwards friends of the son. The Fentons were supposed to have descended from a higher social position. The neighbours thought that Mrs. Mill gave herself airs on the strength of her origin, and health or temperament made her rather fastidious. She resolved to bring up her eldest son as a gentleman. He had probably shown early promise, and was certainly allowed to devote himself to study instead of following his father's trade. He was sent to the parish school, and was then and afterwards befriended by Mr. Peters, the minister of Logie Pert. He attended the Montrose academy, boarding in the town for 2s. 6d. a week. He there made friends with his schoolfellow, Joseph Hume (1777-1855), afterwards his political ally. He became known to Sir John Stuart (previously Belsches) of Fettercairn. Sir John, with his wife, Lady Jane (Leslie) daughter of the Earl of Leven and Melville, passed their summers at Fettercairn House, five miles from Northwater Bridge, and their winters at Edinburgh. Lady Jane Stuart was charitable, and is said to have started a fund for educating poor young men for the ministry. James Mill was recommended for the purpose by Peters. He also (the dates are uncertain) acted as tutor to Wilhelmina (b. October 1776), the Stuarts' only child, afterwards the object of Scott's early passion, and subsequently wife of Sir William Forbes and mother of James David Forbes.

Mill, in one capacity or other, spent much time at Fettercairn House, where both Sir James and Lady Jane Stuart became strongly attached to him, and their daughter spoke of him affectionately with ‘her last breath.’ The patronage of the Stuarts enabled him to study at Edinburgh instead of Aberdeen, for which his father had intended him. He entered the university of Edinburgh in 1790, at the then unusually late age of seventeen. He joined in his first session the senior classes in Greek and Latin. He heard the lectures of Dugald Stewart, and long afterwards he told Macvey Napier that neither Pitt nor Fox approached Stewart in eloquence. In 1794 he began his studies in divinity, which lasted through four winters. The library records show that he was interested in philosophy: studying Plato in addition to the ordinary Scottish authorities, and showing some knowledge of French by reading Massillon and Rousseau. He became so good a Greek scholar that in 1818 there was some talk of his standing for the Greek chair in Glasgow, and he was always a keen student of Plato. He made few friends, and did not, like most of his many contemporaries who afterwards distinguished themselves, belong to the Speculative Society. He formed, however, a close intimacy with Thomas Thomson, the distinguished chemist, and his brother. He was licensed to preach on 4 October 1798; and delivered some sermons in his own district, not, it would seem, with much success. He lived partly at home, where a corner of a room was curtained off as his study and bedroom, and held some tutorships.

He appears to have been tutor in the family of a Mr. Burnet in Aberdeen; and also in the family of the Marquis of Tweeddale. There is a vague story that he gave up this position in consequence of a slight received at the dinner-table, and resolved to seek his fortunes in London. Another rumour is that he left Scotland in consequence of disappointment at not being appointed minister of Craig. At any rate he went to London in the beginning of 1802 in search of literary employment. He accompanied Sir John Stuart, who was going to attend parliament as member for Kincardineshire. Stuart procured him frequent admission to the gallery of the House of Commons, where he listened to some great debates and became an ardent politician. His friend Thomson wrote a testimonial on his behalf to be shown to John Gifford, then editing the ‘Anti-Jacobin Review.’ Gifford gave him some work, and he gradually found other employment. He undertook to co-operate with Dr. Henry Hunter in rewriting a work called ‘Nature Delineated.’ One of the publishers interested in this book was Baldwin, who after Hunter's death in October 1802 changed the scheme for a periodical called the ‘Literary Journal,’ of which Mill became editor. He obtained the co-operation of Thomson and other friends, and the first number appeared at the beginning of 1803. It lasted for three years as a shilling weekly, and through another year a ‘second series’ appeared as a monthly. During 1805 and for two or three years subsequently Mill also edited the ‘St. James's Chronicle.’ In 1804 he published a pamphlet upon the bounties on the exportation of grain, and in 1805 a translation of Villers's ‘Spirit and Influence of the Reformation of Luther.’ He was thus managing to make a living, and writes at the beginning of 1804 that he has been a volunteer for six months, and spent at least twenty-one or twenty-two guineas in consequence. Professor Bain estimates his income during the double editorship at over £500 a year. He therefore thought himself justified in marrying. In 1804 he became engaged to Harriet Burrow, daughter of a widow who managed a lunatic asylum, started by her husband, in Hoxton. They were married on 5 June 1805, and settled in 12 Rodney Terrace, Pentonville, in a house bought by his mother-in-law, for which he paid her £50 a year.

Like many energetic young Scots, Mill managed to keep out of debt by rigid frugality; but the struggle was for a long time a severe one. The loss of his editorships left him no resource except writing articles. He was determined to write a work which might give him a more permanent position. About the end of 1806 he began with this view the composition of a history of India, and the task was far more laborious than he had anticipated. Three years spread into ten. His family was increasing, and he ultimately became the father of nine children, an oversight for which his eldest son apologises. Meanwhile, his relatives in Scotland were distressed. The mother died before his departure to England. His father was paralysed and became bankrupt through imprudence in giving security for a friend. The other son, William, died soon afterwards. The father continued to live in his house with his only other child, May, who married one of his journeymen named Greig, and carried on the business. The father died in 1808, and the Greigs were for a long time very poor, although their two sons ultimately succeeding in establishing a business. Mrs. Greig died in 1837. Her family had an impression that James Mill had not been a good brother, and that the expenses of his education had caused an unjust diminution of his sister's means. They probably exaggerated the prosperity of the brother, who was rising to a good position in English society. Letters to his friends the Barclays, given by Professor Bain, show that Mill did in fact clear off the father's debts, and contributed to his support, besides offering to help the sister's family. Considering his own great difficulties, there seems to be no ground for complaint, and Greig probably made himself disagreeable from the first. Mill was not a man to neglect his duties, but neither was he a man to confer benefits gracefully. The contributions to periodicals, by which he must have supported himself at the time, cannot be identified. He is said to have written in the ‘British’ and ‘Monthly’ reviews, and especially in the ‘Eclectic,’ then an organ of evangelical dissent. Brougham, who may have known him at Edinburgh, helped him in obtaining admission to the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ for which he wrote some articles from 1808 to 1813. About the same time he formed an important connection with Bentham. The acquaintance had begun in 1808. Mill used to walk from Pentonville to dine with Bentham in Westminster. He soon became Bentham's warmest disciple. Dumont was already known as the promulgator of Benthamism abroad; but Mill was soon his trusted lieutenant for carrying on the propaganda in England. He revised Bentham's writings and took an active part in the radical agitation of which the Benthamites formed the philosophical core. Bentham desired to have his best disciple constantly at hand.

In 1810 Mill occupied the house formerly belonging to Milton and afterwards to Hazlitt, which belonged to Bentham and looked upon his garden. It proved to be unhealthy, and was abandoned after a few months. Mill could not find a house nearer than Newington Green, whence he continued his regular pilgrimages to Westminster; but in 1814 Bentham let him another house, 1 Queen Square (changed to 40 Queen Anne's Gate), for £50 a year, afterwards raised to £100 when Mill was able to pay the full value. Here they were immediate neighbours, and met constantly for many years. In the summer of 1809 and later years Mill spent two or three months with his family at Barrow Green House, near Oxted, Surrey, which Bentham had taken for a time; and from 1814 to 1818 the Mills stayed with Bentham at Ford Abbey, near Chard, Somerset, spending there as much as nine or ten months together. The residence with Bentham was of great importance to Mill, and probably was of some pecuniary advantage. A remarkable letter written by Mill to Bentham in 1814 speaks of some difference arising from one of Bentham's fanciful humours. Mill says that he has been proud to receive obligations from Bentham, although it has been ‘one of the great purposes of his life to avoid pecuniary obligations,’ and he has consequently lived in ‘penury.’ He has been a gainer by Bentham's hospitality and by the low rent of his house, though not otherwise. He proposes, however, that they should hereafter avoid the danger of too close a connection. By thus preserving their friendship Bentham will have a disciple able and anxious to devote his whole life ‘to the propagation of the system.’ A reconciliation must have followed; and Mill amply fulfilled his promise to spread the true faith. According to J. S. Mill, James Mill during this period supported his family by writing, while at the same time pursuing the ‘History’ and being the sole teacher of his children. Some unpublished correspondence with Francis Place, whose acquaintance Mill made in 1812, illustrates this period. Place was proposing in 1814 to raise £3,000 for Mill's benefit without his knowledge. The scheme fell through, partly because it was felt that Mill's independence of spirit would prevent his acceptance of the offer. Mill was clearly in great need of money; and Place seems to have made some advances on the expected profits of the ‘History.’ In December 1814 he was working at it from 5 a.m to 11 p.m., as he tells Place, a statement slightly exaggerated by Mrs. Mill. His ordinary day's work at Ford Abbey lasted with few interruptions from 6 a.m. till 11 p.m.; three hours, from 10 to 1, being devoted to teaching, and a couple of short walks his only relaxation. Mill's early religious opinions appear to have been finally abandoned after his acquaintance with Bentham. In previous writings he had occasionally used the language of at least a qualified belief in Christianity. He now abandoned all theology. According to J. S. Mill, the ‘turning-point of his mind was reading Butler's “Analogy”’. A report given by Professor Bain attributes the final change to his friendship with General Miranda, the South American patriot, who was in England in 1808-10, and was an ardent disciple of Bentham. Although the Bentham circle disbelieved in Christianity, its members observed a studied reticence in their writings.

Mill's scepticism did not interfere with an alliance which he formed with the quaker William Allen (1770-1843). Mill wrote articles for the ‘Philanthropist,’ published by Allen from 1811 to 1817, in which he had an opportunity of expounding Bentham's principles of law reform; supported the anti-slavery movement, and especially took an active part in the great Bell and Lancaster controversy. The utilitarians agreed with the dissenters in supporting the Lancasterian institution, which developed into the British and Foreign School Society. It was also taken up by the whigs and the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ Mill's last article (February 1813) in the ‘Edinburgh’ was in defence of the system. The National Society was started in November 1811, to educate the poor ‘in the principles of the established church,’ supported by the tories and the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and a bitter controversy raged for some time. Mill, with the approval of Bentham (whose ‘Church of Englandism’ contains a long assault on the National Society), and supported by Allen, Place, and others, resolved in 1813 to start a ‘West London Lancasterian Institution’ to educate all the children west of Temple Bar on unsectarian principles. A public meeting was held in August 1813 to start the scheme, and about the same time appeared anonymously Mill's ‘Schools for all in preference to Schools for Churchmen only.’ Many difficulties occurred; but in February 1814 an association was formed to set up a ‘Chrestomathic’ school for superior education on the same lines. Place thought of Mill for the mastership. Bentham offered part of his garden, and wrote his treatise, the ‘Chrestomathia,’ to expound the principles. Mill was very active in the affair, and was supported by Romilly, Brougham, and Mackintosh; but, after many troubles, it finally dropped in 1820. The chief outcome of this movement was the foundation of the London University. It had been suggested by Thomas Campbell, the poet, to Place, who discussed the plan with Mill in 1825. Mill was a member of the first council, appointed in December 1825; and, with the support of Brougham, Joseph Hume, and Grote, was active in carrying the scheme into effect. He tried to get his friend Thomson for the chair of chemistry; John Austin and ICulloch, both sound adherents of the school, were the first professors of jurisprudence and political economy. For the chair of philosophy he consented to the election of John Hoppus, who, though a dissenting clergyman, believed in Hartley.

Place, Mill's colleague in this agitation, and the great manager on the radical side in Westminster, became very intimate with Mill, and constantly consulted him in political affairs. Mill himself was an active member of the committee which brought forward Burdett and Kinnaird against Romilly in June 1818. Romilly, although a personal friend of Bentham's, was regarded as too moderate. Mill was much affected by Romilly's death on 2 November following and went to Worthing to offer his help to the family. He took no part in the consequent election, in which Hobhouse, the radical candidate, was defeated by George Lamb.

Mill had meanwhile completed his ‘History of India,’ which appeared about the beginning of 1818. The purpose with which he had started was fully achieved. His affairs now became prosperous. The ‘History’ succeeded at once, and has become a standard work. Mill unfortunately left his share of the profits in the hands of the publisher, Baldwin, and though he received the interest during his life, the capital was afterwards lost to his family by Baldwin's bankruptcy. The book, though dry and severe in tone, supplied a want, and contained many interesting reflections upon social questions. He has been accused of unfairness, and his prejudices were undoubtedly strong. His merits, however, met with an unexpected recognition. Although he had condemned the shortcomings of the East India Company, and was known as a radical politician, he was appointed in 1819 to a place in the India House. The knowledge of India displayed in his book was a strong recommendation, and his friends Ricardo and Joseph Hume used all their influence on his behalf. Canning, then president of the board of control, is said to have been in his favour. He was appointed on 12 May 1819 ‘assistant to the examiner of India correspondence,’ with a salary of £800 a year; on 10 April 1821 ‘second assistant to the examiner,’ with £1,000 a year, Edward Strachey being first assistant; on 9 April 1823 ‘assistant examiner,’ with £1,200 a year, passing over Strachey; on 1 December 1830 ‘examiner,’ with £1,900 a year, being thus at the head of the office, and on 17 February 1836 his salary was raised to £2,000 a year. Mill had to spend the hours from ten to four at his office, though, as business came irregularly, he had often time to spare for other employments. His son tells us, as may well be believed, that he had great influence with his superiors, and was able to get many of his opinions upon Indian policy adopted in practice.

During the inquiries which preceded the renewal of the charter in 1833, Mill was examined at great length before committees of the House of Commons, his evidence upon the revenue system occupying eight days in August 1831, while in the beginning of 1832 he was examined upon the whole administrative and judicial systems. Mill also wrote the despatches in which the company stated its case in the final correspondence with the government. In spite of his dogmatic radicalism in home politics, Mill showed in this discussion that he was not prepared to apply his à priori method to India. His official experience had convinced him that the natives were totally unfit for self-government, and that even free trade would not produce a miraculous improvement. He showed remarkable knowledge and power in arguing the case. Mill's situation did not exclude him from continuing to take a very important though not a conspicuous share in political movements. His master, Bentham, was a recluse, difficult of access, growing old, and little acquainted with practical business. Mill therefore became the recognised head of the party. His dearest friend was David Ricardo, first known to him in 1811. Bentham said: ‘I was the spiritual father of Mill, and Mill the spiritual father of Ricardo.’ It was by Mill's encouragement that Ricardo was induced to publish his ‘Political Economy,’ and to enter parliament, and Ricardo's sudden death in 1823 affected Mill to a degree which astonished those who had only recognised his sternness. Brougham was also a warm friend of Mill; and though J. S. Mill, who regarded Brougham as a humbug, says that his father kept up the friendship on account of Brougham's powers of carrying out utilitarian principles in practice, it seems that Brougham was really able to fascinate the elder Mill. Mill certainly wrote to Brougham in terms of the warmest admiration, and declares in 1833, ‘the progress of mankind would lose a century by the loss of you.’

The Political Economy Club, founded in 1820, arose from some meetings of Mill and others at Ricardo's house for economic discussions. Mill drafted the rules, and was conspicuous from the first in the debates. In the same year he published the ‘Elements of Political Economy,’ which was the substance of verbal instructions given to his son John. A younger generation was now rising, which looked up to Mill as a leader. Henry Bickersteth, afterwards Lord Langdale, was already an intimate. George Grote, John Austin and his brother Charles, William Ellis (1800-1881), Walter Coulson, and others were friends of the younger Mill, who sat at the feet of the father, and were sufficiently pugnacious and dogmatic expounders of utilitarian principles. John Black, editor of the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ and Albany Fonblanque of the ‘Examiner’ represented the party in the press. The ‘Morning Chronicle’ was for some ten years after 1817 their recognised organ. Fonblanque contributed to it under Black, and afterwards gave a general support to the same side in the ‘Examiner.’ Mill had been invited by Macvey Napier in 1814 to contribute to the supplement to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ and between 1816 and 1823 wrote a number of articles which expounded utilitarianism in the most uncompromising fashion. The most remarkable of these articles, that upon ‘Government,’ appeared in 1820, and is substantially a terse statement of the radical creed of the time as based upon Benthamite principles. It was regarded, says John Mill, as a ‘masterpiece of political wisdom’ by the so-called ‘philosophical radicals.’ The essays had been twice reprinted in 1825, when Mill says that they had ‘become text-books of the young men of the Union at Cambridge’. They were reprinted again in 1828. In 1829 the essay upon ‘Government’ was attacked by Macaulay in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ Mill took no part in the controversy which followed, although his line of reply is given in his ‘Fragment on Mackintosh’. He bore no grudge to Macaulay, whose appointment to the Indian council he supported, and they had friendly relations, which induced Macaulay not to reprint the articles during his life.

The starting of the ‘Westminster Review’ in the beginning of 1824 provided the party with an organ of their own. Mill had long discussed the plan of such a publication with Bentham, and it appears that Bentham was to have provided the funds at starting. Mill's official position prevented him from accepting the editorship, which was divided between Bowring and Southern. The first number contained an article upon the ‘Edinburgh Review’ by James Mill. It caused the Longmans to decline publishing the new periodical, which was undertaken by Baldwin, and it made a considerable sensation, which secured an encouraging start for the review. It was a vigorous attack upon the Edinburgh reviewers as mere trimmers, courting the favour of the aristocracy, being in fact a radical indictment of the whigs. The attack was carried on by John Mill in the second number, and the ‘Quarterly Review’ was assailed by James Mill in the fourth. Mill continued to write energetic articles, attacking Southey's ‘Book of the Church’ in January 1825, denouncing church establishments in April 1826, and in the following October discussing the ‘State of the Nation’ as an illustration of the incapacity of the governing classes. The review had never paid its way, and Bowring was not in favour with the Mills. Though a Benthamite, he disapproved of the religious part of the creed, and his personal attentions led to his partly superseding Mill in Bentham's favour. The review was increasingly unsatisfactory to the Mills, and James Mill did not write after 1826, except that in July 1830 he was persuaded to contribute a defence of the ballot. In 1828 the review passed into the hands of Colonel Perronet Thompson. In 1827 Mill contributed an article on parliamentary reform to the ‘Parliamentary History and Review,’ set up by Mr. Marshall of Leeds.

In 1822 Mill took a house at Dorking, where his family spent six months for several successive summers, while he joined them for his six weeks' holiday, and stayed from Friday to Monday. In the first of these holidays he began his ‘Analysis of the Human Mind,’ which was continued during successive holidays, and finally published in 1829. In 1830 Mill moved from Queen Square to a house in Vicarage Place, Church Street, Kensington. He had moved his summer residence from Dorking to Mickleham. His friends visited him there, and accompanied him on long Sunday walks. Bickersteth took a house at Mickleham, to be near him, and Brougham when chancellor drove down to see him on Sundays, and kept up an affectionate correspondence. J. S. Mill and some of his friends from the India House often joined him, and he continued to be consulted in political matters, especially during the crisis of the Reform Bill, by Place and others. His health was growing weaker, and he suffered much from gout, to which he had long been subject. He was less able to write, although after 1830 he composed the ‘Fragment on Mackintosh,’ the publication of which was delayed till 1835 on account of Mackintosh's death. His last writings were articles in the ‘London Review,’ founded by Sir William Molesworth, a recruit gained by the philosophical radicals in 1833, and virtually edited by J. S. Mill. Four articles by James Mill appeared in 1835, the most remarkable of which (in the July number) is a plan of church reform, proposing in substance the abolition of dogmas and ceremonies, and the transformation of the clergy into a body of officials paid by results, and preaching morality and natural theism. The curiously unpractical line of argument shows Mill's entire ignorance of the religious movements outside his own circle. His last writings were an article upon ‘The Aristocracy’ and a dialogue upon the utility of political economy in the same review for January 1836.

Mill had begun to suffer from disease of the lungs, aggravated, it was thought, by the dusty three-hour journeys on the coach-top to Mickleham. In August 1835 he was seized with a haemorrhage from the lungs, and in the following June he was attacked by bronchitis, and died peacefully 23 June 1836, retaining his faculties and spirits to the last. He was buried in Kensington Church. Mill had nine children, who all survived him: (1) John Stuart, born in 1806; (2) Wilhelmina Forbes, named after Sir John Stuart's daughter, d. 1861; (3) Clara; (4) Harriet; (5) James Bentham, who entered the Indian civil service in 1835, and died 1862; (6) Jane, named after Lady Stuart; (7) Henry, a young man of great promise, called by John the ‘noblest and worthiest of us all,’ who died of consumption at Falmouth in 1840; (8) Mary; and (9) George Grote, who entered the India House, showed much ability, and died of consumption in 1853. Four of the daughters were married, and three of them, but none of the sons, left children.

Mill was of middle height, of well-knit figure, and nervous temperament. He had a massive forehead, projecting eyes, and an expressive and mobile face. A portrait from a drawing in possession of Mrs. Grote is prefixed to Professor Bain's ‘Life.’ He had a strong voice, and was singularly animated and impressive in conversation. To this power was partly due the remarkable influence which he exercised upon all who came in contact with him. His force of character is sufficiently apparent from the struggles by which he achieved independence in spite of many difficulties, and from the ardent devotion of his whole abilities to the propagation of his doctrines. His powerful though rigid and unimaginative intellect was applied to the support and extension of the positions which he shared with Bentham. In jurisprudence he did not go beyond applying the theories already taught by Bentham. His political views were equally those of his master, but his far greater powers of dealing with men enabled him to exert a more potent, direct influence upon the operations of the party, and he cast the theories into a form more immediately applicable. He was more original in the psychological inquiries, to which Bentham had contributed little, although the essential principles are taken for granted in Bentham's ethical speculations. Mill's ‘Analysis’ is a book of singular merit, from the terse and lucid exposition of a one-sided point of view. He was greatly influenced by Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and by the French writers, such as Condillac, Helvetius, and Cabanis; but his chief master was Hartley, whose theory of association he applied and extended. The book marks a distinct stage in the development of the empirical school, and many of J. S. Mill's logical and ethical doctrines are evidently suggested by the attempt to solve problems to which his father's answers appeared unsatisfactory. The ‘Fragment on Mackintosh’ is one of the most characteristic expressions of utilitarian morals.

In James Mill utilitarianism showed all its most characteristic qualities. The resolution to keep to solid facts, and not to be misled by words; the attempt to treat all problems by a scientific method, the blindness to opposite schemes of metaphysical thought, and the contempt for the mystical and the sentimental apparent in all Mill's writings, explain both the attractions of the doctrine for some temperaments and the repulsion which it aroused in others. In domestic life Mill was a curious example of a man who, while resolutely discharging every duty, somehow made even his virtues unamiable. He seems to have despised his wife, and to have allowed his contempt to appear in his conversation, though in his letters he always refers to her respectfully. He spared no labour in the attempt to teach his children thoroughly, though his habitual repression of his feelings and his constitutional irritability made the task trying on both sides, and the children, though not unhappy, were never at ease in his presence. His son observes that he was, ‘in the ancient sense of the words,’ a stoic in his personal qualities, an epicurean as regarded his standard of morals, and a cynic in that he set little value upon pleasures, and thought that human life was ‘a poor thing at best,’ after the freshness of early years had decayed.

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