1902 Encyclopedia > James Mill

James Mill
Scottish philosopher and political economist

JAMES MILL (1773-1836), historian and political and mental philosopher, was born 6th April 1773, in the little village called Northwater Bridge (Bridge of North Esk), in the parish of Logie-Pert, in the country of Fortar. His father, James Mill, was a shoemaker; his mother, Isabel Fenton, belonged to a race of respectable farmers. The father was industrious, good-natured, and pious, but not known as specially intelligent. The mother was of a proud disposition, and resolved to educate James, her eldest son, for a superior destiny. He began his education at the parish school, and went on to the Montrose Academy, where he remained till the unusual age of seventeen and a half, when he went to the college of Edinburgh (1790). According to the usage of the time and neighbourhood, he ought to have been sent about thirteen or fourteen to Marischal College, Aberdeen. His remaining so long at the Montrose Academy, and his going to Edinburgh for his university course, must be connected with his being taken up by Sir John and Lady Jane Stuart of Fettercairn, who engaged him to be tutor to their only daughter, known for having inspired the affection of Sir Water Scott, and for being the mother of Principal James David Forbes. Sir John and Lady Jane Stuart contracted a warm attachment for Mill, which lasted throughout their lives. At Edinburgh University Mill was distinguished as a Greek scholar. But he received his greatest impulse from Dugald Stewart, for whom he always expressed unbounded admiration. In October 1789 he was licensed as a preacher, but seems to have preached very seldom. His years from 1790 to 1802, besides being occupied with incessant studies extending into history and moral and political philosophy, were devoted to various tutorships.

Failing to find a career to his mind in Scotland, in 1802 he went to London in company with Sir John Stuart, then member of parliament for Kincardineshire. He soon obtained literary occupation, to which he applied himself with untiring energy. His first important venture was to start a periodical on a new plan, entitled The Literary Journal, which began to appear in January 1803, and continued under his editorship till the end of 1806. it was the most comprehensive in its aims of any periodical hitherto in existence, being a summary view of all the leading departments of human knowledge. Thomas Thomson, the chemist, took charge of science; and many other men of ability co-operated. Mill himself wrote largely in biography, history, political philosophy, political economy, and also in theology, on which his views at the time were broad without sceptical. The publisher of the journal was Baldwin, who was also the proprietor of the St James’s Chronicle, a Conservative paper appearing three times a week. For two or three years, from 1805 onwards, Mill was editor, but at last gave it up, partly on conscientious grounds, although in conducting it he never lent himself to the expression of any illiberal views, but often made it the vehicle of the opposite.

In 1804 he wrote a pamphlet on the Corn Trade, advocating the impolicy of a bounty on the exportation of grain. This was the beginning of his career as a political economist. In 1805 he published a translation of Villers’s work on the Reformation, an unsparing exposure of the vices of the papal system. He added notes and quotations by way of confirmation of the author’s views. On this subject also he continued to hold strong opinions all through life, and often recurred to it in his articles in the reviews. In 1805 he married Harriet Burrow, whose mother, a widow, kept an establishment for lunatics in Hoxton. He then took a house in Rondey Street, Pentonville, where his eldest son, John Stuart, was born in 1806. It was about the end of 1806 that he entered upon the composition of the History of India, which he expected to finish in three or four years. He was actually engaged upon it for twelve, giving, forever, a considerable portion of his time to other writing for the support of his family. The strain upon his energies for those years was enormous.

He became acquainted with Jeremy Bentham is 1808, and was for many years Bentham’s chief companion and ally. In 1810 Bentham, to have Mill nearer him, gave him Milton’s house, which adjoined his own, and was his property. After a few months’ trial Mill had to give up this house on account of his wife’s health, and went to live in Newington Green; but in 1814 Bentham leased the house No. 1 Queen’s Square, now 40 Queen Anne’s Gate, close to his own garden, and gave it to Mill at a reduced rent; here he remained till 1831. The military with Bentham was rendered still closer. For four years, from 1814 to 1817, Bentham was at Ford Abbey, near Chard, in Somersetshire, and there Mill and his family were domesticated with him nine or ten months each year,æin which retirement it is probable that Mill was able to accelerate the completion of his history.

In the twelve years between 1806 and 1818 he wrote a great many articles for various periodicals. Among these were the Anti-Jacobin Review, the British Review, and the Electric Review; but there is no means of tracing his contributions. In 1808 he began to write for the Edinburgh Review, and contributed steadily till 1813, most of his articles being known. In the Annual Review for 1808 two articles of his are traced -- a "Review of Fox’s History," and an article on "Bentham’s Law Reforms," probably his first published notice of Bentham. The first known article in the Edinburgh was on "Money and Exchange" (October 1808). In 1809 (January and July) he wrote at great length on Spanish America and General Miranda, with whom he was on terms of intimate friendship. In the July number he also wrote on China. In 1810 (April) he made a severe attack on the East India Company. He also wrote on the liberty of the press and on the Church of England in connexion with the Lancasterian schools. He was an active member of the committee for promoting education on Lancaster’s plan. In 1811 a periodical named the Philanthropist was started by William Allen, and published in quarterly numbers till 1817. Mill co-operated with Allen both in the writing and in the management. He contributed largely to every number,æ his principal topics education, freedom of the press, and prison discipline (under which he expounded Bentham’s "Panopticon"). He made powerful onslaughts on the church in connexion with the Bell and Lancaster controversy. In 1814 Macvey Napier engaged him to contribute to the supplement to the fifth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Many of the articles became notable. The list included "Government," "Jurisprudence," "Liberty of the Press," "Prisons and Prison Discipline," "Colony," "Law of Nations," "Education," "Beggar," "Benefit Societies," "Banks for Savings." In "Jurisprudence" and "Prisons" he was largely indebted to Bentham; in most of the others he was either altogether or in great part original. The article on "Government" will occupy a permanent position in English history.

In 1818 was published the History of India, which had a great and speedy success. In was the means of changing the author’s future position. The year following he was appointed an official in the India House, in the important department of the examiner of Indian correspondence. He gradually rose in the rank till he was appointed, in 1830, head of the office. He introduced his eldest son into the same department in 1823.

In 1824 Bentham the Westminster Review, and Mill was a principal writer for three years. Some of his most vigorous writings are included among those contributions. The first was an elaborate criticism of the Edinburgh Review as a whole; it was followed by an onslaught on the Quarterly. Other articles dealt with English history and with ecclesiastical establishments, which he severely impugned. To a periodical of short duration, The Parliamentary History and Review, he contributed an elaborate political retrospect of the parliament of 1820-26. In 1829 appeared the Analysis of the Human Mind. From 1831 to 1833 he was largely occupied in the defence of the East India Company during the controversy attending the renewal of its charter, he being in virtue of his office the spokesman of the court of directors. In 1834 Sir William Molesworth projected the London Review, and Mill contributed to it during the last two years of his life. His most notable article was one entitled "The Church and its Reform," which was much too sceptical for the time, and injured the Review. His last published book was the Fragment on Mackintosh, which appeared in 1835. he died on the 23d June 1836.

A considerable space would be required to do justice to Mill’s characteræintellectual and moralæas shown both in his writings and in his intensely active and influential career. He was an excellent scholar, in the sense of knowing the Greek and Roman classics. His other accomplishments included genera history, the philosophy of politics in the most comprehensive acceptation, logic, ethics, and mental philosophy. The type of his intellect was logical in the highest degree; he was, above all things, clear and precise, an enemy of every form of looseness of reasoning, and a crusher of prevailing fallacies. This is the most notable feature in his writings throughout. His was also an original mind. Except in a few subjects, which had been so well elaborated by Bentham that he was content to be little more than an expounder of Bentham’s views, he gave a fresh turn to whatever topic he took up. At a time when social subjects were subjected almost exclusively to an empirical handling, he insisted on bringing first principles to bear at every point; in this lay both his strength and his weakness.

His greatest literally monument is the History of India. The materials for narrating the acquisition by England of its Indian empire were put into space for the first time; a vast body of political theory was brought to bear on the delineation of the Hindu civilization; and the conduct of the actors in the successive stages of the conquest and administration of India was subjected to a severe criticism. The work itself, and the author’s official connexion with India for the last seventeen years of his life, effected a complete change in the whole system of governing the country.

Mill played a great part as a politician and political philosopher in English affairs as well. He was, more than any other man, the founder of what was called philosophical radicalism. His writings on government and his personal influence among the Liberal politicians of his time determined the change of view from the French Revolution theories of the rights of man and the absolute equality of men to the claiming of securities for good government throughout a great extension of the electoral suffrage. Under his banner it was the Reform Bill was fought and won.

His work on Political Economy was intended as a text-book of the subject, and shows all the author’s precision and lucidity. It followed up the views of Ricardo, with whom Mill was in habitual intimacy. It urged strongly the modern application of the principle of population, and started the doctrine of taxing land for the unearned increment of value.

By this Analysis of the Mind and his Fragment on Mackintosh. Mill acquired a position in the history of psychology and ethics. Attached to the a posteriori school, he vindicated its claims with conspicuous ability. He took up the problems of mind very much after the fashion of the Scotch school, as then represented by Reid, Stewart, and Brown, but made a new start, due in part of Harley, and still more to his own independent thinking. He carried out the principle of association into the analysis of the complex emotional states, as the affections, the æsthetic emotions, and the moral sentiment, all which the endeavoured to resolve into pleasurable and painful sensations. But the salient merit of the Analysis is the constant endeavour after precise definition of terms and clear statement of doctrines. The Fragment on Mackintosh is a severe exposure of the flimsiness and misrepresentation of Mackintosh’s famous dissertation of ethical philosophy. It discusses, in a very thorough way, the foundation of ethics from the author’s point of view of utility.

Mill’s influence on the young men of his time by his conversation has been especially celebrated. Among those that came under this influence were some of the greatest names in the generation that succeeded him. He had himself a very high ideal of public virtue, which he carried out, at the risk of sacrificing all his chances of worldly advancement, and he impressed this ideal on those that surrounded himæmost of all on his own son, who has since eclipsed his father in fame, if not in genius.

See J. S. Mill’s Autobiography, Bain’s Life of James Mill, G. S. Bower’s Hartley and James Mill. (A. B.*)

Related Articles:

The above article was written by: Alexander Bain, LL.D., author of The Emotions and the Will.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries