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Bruce L. Kinzer. J. S. Mill Revisited: Biographical and Political Explorations.

Bruce L. Kinzer. J. S. Mill Revisited: Biographical and Political Explorations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2007. Pp. x + 248. ISBN 1 4039 8068 3. 45.00 [pounds sterling].

The commemorative John Stuart Mill bicentennial conference held at University College London in June 2006 has generated renewed interest in the life and work of this notable Victorian personality. In this latest offering, Bruce Kinzer, the veteran of several scholarly works focusing on various aspects of Mill's political thought, has presented his latest deliberations in a work that focuses on two important and overlapping subjects: the first group of chapters cover certain familiar biographical themes relating strictly to Mill's formative years while the latter half of the book delves into various facets of Mill's political thought and activities in relation to the ebb and flow of Victorian political life. The overall result is a finely balanced group of essays in which the author, with impressive nuance and lightness of touch, probes into pertinent features of Mill's intellectual biography.

Commentaries on the public and private lives of John Stuart Mill tend to rely heavily upon his Autobiography. Kinzer's latest work is no exception. However, while Mill's Autobiography remains a fountain of indispensable information on the earlier phase of John Stuart Mill's life story, it is not always a reliable source of judgments about these years. As is well known, the Autobiography commences with an account of the rigorous and unconventional childhood education Mill endured under the 'watchful eye' of his authoritarian father, James Mill, a dour, humourless Scot, who emerged during the early nineteenth century as the chief guardian of the 'greatest happiness principle'. Kinzer strikes a convincing note in encapsulating the overriding influence exercised by James Mill in the formation of his son's moral capacities, intellectual abilities and character. In a subtle account, Kinzer broadly endorses the received view, as advanced most recently in the fine biography of J.S. Mill by Nicholas Capaldi (2004), that James Mill 'hampered his son's development of a coherent identity' by imposing an educational regime that favoured analysis and reason over imagination and feeling. As a young man, John Stuart Mill came to the sudden realisation that the education imparted by his imposing father had been deficient in its failure to cultivate those poetic and romantic elements that he considered essential to developing a more rounded, independent and happy personality. This realisation produced, in Stefan Collini's (1991, p. 122) words, 'one of the best known identity-crises in history'. Much has understandably been made of Mill's account of his 'mental crisis' in the Autobiography--the solitary reference to this pivotal episode--and the pervasive part James Mill played in the sudden change in his son's temperament. Kinzer remains consistent and methodical as he evaluates James Mill's faults and virtues as father, thinker and teacher. He persuasively argues that Mill's decision to compose his Autobiography was motivated 'in very considerable part by the need to raise the ghost of his father, James Mill, and lay that ghost to rest' (Kinzer 2007, p. 9). Yet, Kinzer refrains from hypothesising that the relationship between father and son ultimately disintegrated. In fact, John Stuart Mill's own testimony toward his father in the Autobiography remained generous without, of course, ever descending into hagiography.

By the autumn of 1826, John Stuart Mill, now aware that the apprenticeship that he had served under his father had passed its apogee, began to embark upon a new transitional phase in his own intellectual and emotional development. It took time for Mill to chisel out a new course of his own devising. This did not mean that Mill had no further need for his father. For instance, the two continued to work in close concert at the London headquarters of the East India Company in Leadenhall Street. Here James Mill lent his eldest son considerable assistance in relation to the practical day-to-day duties of the Examiner's Office. Likewise, the precocious son proved an invaluable ally in the defence of James Mill's Essay on Government, shoring it up against the withering attack that Thomas Macaulay had launched upon the utilitarian logic of the elder Mill's mode of political reasoning. But, in other more pressing areas of his life, John Stuart Mill no longer fell under the direct jurisdiction of his father. 'The problem faced by the younger Mill in 1826', as Kinzer (2007, p. 40) explains, 'involved what to make of what he had been given, and how to give himself the emotional nourishment his father had failed to supply'. This undertaking, which involved an assertion of independence that produced considerable personal anguish, ultimately led him into the welcoming arms of Mrs Harriet Taylor, but not before he had found solace in the romantic poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, the philosophic ideas of Continental thinkers such as Saint Simon, and the camaraderie of such gifted contemporaries as John Sterling, William Eyton Tooke, Thomas Carlyle and Henry Cole. Contemporaries paint a portrait of Mill as an attractive and likeable young man with an easy-going demeanour and personable nature, a far cry from the tortured soul that had fallen into a chasm of mental despair only a few years earlier. For the first time in his life, Mill was surrounded by a close circle of friends who valued him for his companionship and philosophic predisposition rather than his intellectual pedigree.

The second half of the 1820s heralded the awakening of Mill's poetic voice and Kinzer provides an exhaustive account of Mill's willingness to investigate the fertile intellectual terrain left untrodden by his father. 'Neither the motive nor the content of John Mill's program of internal culture could', he says, 'elicit James Mill's understanding or support. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Sterling, the Saint-Simonians--such men had nothing to say to James Mill, and he had nothing to say to them' (Kinzer 2007, p. 63). Nor was it long before Mill began to extend the scope of his social and intellectual habitat to incorporate other like-minded young radicals, several of whom straddled the Unitarian and Utilitarian movements that were integral to London radicalism. By the early 1830s, Mill found himself wrapped in the impassioned brace of the South Place circle, which was then dominated by the other-worldly figure of William Johnson Fox whose Unitarian congregation included various strains of political radicalism. Fox, a charismatic Unitarian pastor well known for his then unorthodox views on marriage (such as that it should be a union between equals), took it upon himself to introduce the aspiring young intellectual, Mill, to the very chic and very married Harriet Taylor, who was once described as possessing 'a small head, a swan-like throat, and a complexion like a pearl' (quoted in Hayek 1951, p. 25). It is not certain why Fox decided to introduce the two young people to each other. Perhaps he thought that Mill's enjoyable and stimulating company would raise her flagging spirits. Whatever the reason might have been, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill do seem to have taken cultural pleasure in each other's company: what began as a fledging friendship gradually grew into a more intimate relationship that became the object of lurid gossip within London's polite middle-class circles. The speculation caused an irrevocable rift between Mill and several close family members and friends who endeavoured to counsel him, explaining that his ill-judged dalliance had violated the canons of upright conduct. The intensity and complexity of the relationship between Mill and Taylor placed a considerable strain on Harriet and John Taylor's marriage. The resolution contrived by Harriet, known for exerting 'an authoritarian influence over the emotional lives of those with whom she was intimate' (Kinzer 2007, p. 110), was an awkward triangular compact that permitted Mill to visit Harriet at her Regent's Park residence when John Taylor was absent and to be seen in public with her on carefully chosen occasions. Kinzer explains that, despite such seemingly intractable problems, Mill was prepared to tolerate the highly unusual arrangement because he had succumbed to Harriet's 'emotional aggressiveness' (Kinzer 2007, p. 100) in order to cultivate those aesthetic faculties that would permit him to jettison what remained of his father's initial influence. It is unlikely that Harriet found the peculiar domestic situation that she had carefully constructed as intolerable as her young suitor, for she possessed 'a prodigious emotional resilience and a crafty self-fashioning' that carried her 'through the thickets' (Kinzer 2007, p. 110).

There is now a considerable body of scholarship which ascribes a central place to Harriet Taylor in shaping Mill's emotional and intellectual development (see, for example, Hayek 1951 ; Stillinger 1983; Rose 1984; Mendus 1994; Jacobs 2002). Kinzer challenges the veracity of this interpretation. He argues thus: 'Harriet Taylor's influence on his emotional life during the 1830s did not spill over into the intellectual and political spheres' (Kinzer 2007, p. 110). He continues: 'When she [Harriet] declared that she knew things of which he was ignorant, she was making no claim for her superior learnedness or intellectual acuity, but rather for her surpassing insight into matters involving "human feeling and character"' (ibid.). In fact, Mill acknowledged as much in the Autobiography when he wrote: 'The poetic elements of her [Harriet's] character, which were at that time the most ripened, were naturally those which impressed me first, and those years were, in respect of my own development, mainly years of poetic culture' (Mill 1981, p. 198). Although Kinzer's account of Harriet's influence on Mill is limited to the 1830s, it nevertheless leaves the reader with a far better narrative concerning the astonishing drama of Mill's aesthetic development than has hitherto been detailed. Still, it is a shame that Kinzer's account of Harriet's influence over the direction of Mill's intellectual progress, one of the most contested issues in Mill scholarship, deliberately omits any examination of her impact during the 1840s and 1850s when the depth of their intellectual and emotional bond grew stronger.

The second set of chapters in this volume deal with Mill's political leanings from the early 1830s until the late 1860s. The fusion of biographical and political elements throws invaluable light on Mill as political radical, public intellectual and champion of 'advanced liberal' causes, carefully chronicling the role as an outsider, a role in which Mill deliberately cast himself from the outset of his public career.

During the years in which Mill began to absorb the 'poetic culture' of Harriet Taylor, the romantic writers and Continental philosophers, he also made a conscious decision to establish a reputation for himself as a radical political commentator. Mill's preparation of fugitive pieces of political journalism soon won for him a reputation for political activism. His tirades against the political establishment then dominated by the aristocratic landed gentry, whether they be Whig or Tory, were intended to demonstrate the provincialism and poverty of English political life as against the fluidity and fecundity of France's political landscape. Mill excelled at this sort of forensic political narrative but these indulgences seem to have tarnished his posthumous reputation. While his admirers cherished his every syllable, Mill's detractors neither forgot nor forgave him. Kinzer emphasises here that the emergence of Mill as an independent political commentator capable of influencing English public opinion could only be achieved following, first, the decisive intellectual and emotional break from his father and, second, the gradual realisation that he had reached the point in his own intellectual and emotional journey where he was capable of shaping and managing his own thoughts and affairs. The yoking of these two themes allows a more nuanced view of Mill to emerge that lays emphasis upon his capacity for personal and intellectual growth following his much commented upon mental trauma.

An important early example of Mill's distinctive political radicalism was his advocacy of secret voting as an important control mechanism accompanying the passing of the 1832 Reform Act. During the 1830s, Mill believed that the political activities of the two dominant parties--the Whigs and Tories--served landed interests and preserved the political privileges of the aristocracy at the expense of the body politic. Electoral intimidation and bribery, Mill believed, remained widespread and so underpinned the political dominance of aristocratic interests. By the 1850s, however, Mill had become a fervent opponent of the ballot because he believed that the Reform Act had so altered the social and political condition of England in the intervening twenty years that secret voting was neither necessary nor desirable. Kinzer, who published his own views on the matter in an article in Historical Reflections some years ago (see Kinzer 1978), has performed an admirable task in unravelling the shifting contours of Mill's position on the ballot question. Mill's changing position on the ballot underscores that sense of his own intellectual and political independence as well as highlighting the more mature reflections of a political philosopher and public moralist (as opposed to those of a young radical propagandist). As Kinzer (2007, p. 156) remarks: 'Mill owed no debts to any party or group, and the authority he possessed stemmed from his remarkable achievements as a philosopher and political economist'. What is surprising here is that this and related topics have not received anything like close attention from Mill scholars in the intervening period, an indication of the fact that Mill scholarship today is dominated by philosophers rather than historians, economists or political scientists.

In addition to the ballot question, Mill was remarkably well informed about a host of other political issues that impacted upon English (and French) society. Indeed, many advanced liberals and prominent radicals looked to Mill for intellectual and political guidance during the mid-Victorian era. After all, Mill enjoyed the 'ear of England' and never hesitated to bend it in order to influence the direction of national debate on topical issues of the day. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the final fifteen years of his life 'where he revealed himself to be avowedly partisan and, when roused to a pitch of moral outrage, violently polemical' (Collini 1991, p. 121). The sense of independence to which Mill aspired in his personal and professional lives found expression in his strictures on the role of party politics in British political life during the mid-Victorian period. Kinzer (2007, p. 165) carefully explains that Mill eschewed the advances of Whigs and Tories alike because both parties were wedded to the preservation of aristocratic privilege and remained committed to the formation of a genuine radical party 'dedicated to the extinction of aristocratic government and the democratization of British institutions and society'. The evolution of Britain's political institutions coupled with the extension of the political franchise to cover all adult working men and women would, Mill believed, greatly enhance the effectiveness of the electoral system. Yet Mill remained ambivalent as to the ability of a Westminster parliamentary democracy to deliver decisive 'improvements to mankind'. His own personal commitment to the political process spurned narrow party lines, even though he was voted into Parliament in 1865 as one of Westminster's two liberal MPs. He remained supportive of a Liberal Ministry in the House of Commons, although he himself insisted during campaign hustings that his duty was to represent his electorate as an 'independent' liberal candidate. A common refrain in Mill's mature political writings was that the 'existing electoral system, dominated by petty party interests and local political networks, prevented men of ability and independent mind from obtaining seats in the House of Commons' (Kinzer 2007, p. 196). Mill aimed to act in the best interests of his electorate regardless of the pressures that might be exerted from within his own party. His own well-known intransigence on such grave issues as the reform of the Irish land system and the campaign to prosecute Governor Eyre brought him into direct conflict with members on both sides of the House of Commons. Mill, the champion of minority or 'dissentient opinions', nonetheless remained intransigent, steadfastly refusing either to moderate his political template or tone down his rhetoric, even though these were very often self-defeating, exaggerated and intemperate. During his final decade, Mill's conduct both inside and outside the parliamentary arena reinforced his commitment to a new political order that sought to elevate the material and moral condition of the people without, however, sacrificing the higher ideals of character, independence and individual liberty. In his Autobiography Mill wrote: 'The same idea, that the use of my being in Parliament was to do work which others were not able or not willing to do, made me think it my duty to come to the front in defence of advanced Liberalism on occasions when the obloquy to be encountered was such as most of the advanced Liberals in the House, preferred not to incur' (Mill 1981, p. 276).

Overall, Professor Kinzer's thoughtful collection of essays is a timely reminder of the versatility, power and perspicacity of John Stuart Mill's penmanship on a range of 'advanced liberal' topics that defined the Victorian era. Mill's liberal reform agenda remains particularly vital in an age where the voice of the public intellectual has been eclipsed and the centre of public culture remains firmly moored to popular fashions and fetishes, arid journalism, mass marketing and puerile gimmicks, all masquerading as critical commentary on key public policy issues. It can only be hoped that the weightier, more cultivated prose as enunciated by the Saint of Rationalism (as William Gladstone affectionately dubbed Mill) never completely fades away. The fate of public culture depends on it.


Capaldi, N. 2004. John Stuart Mill: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Collini, Stefan. 1991. Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hayek, F.A. 1951. John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Jacobs, J. E. 2002. The Voice of Harriet Taylor. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Kinzer, B.L. 1978. 'J.S. Mill and the Secret Ballot', Historical Reflections, 5, pp. 19-39.

Mendus, S. 1994. 'John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor on Women and Marriage', Utilitas, 6, pp. 287-99.

Mill, J. S. 1981. Autobiography and Literary Essays. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Edited by J. M. Robson and J. Stillinger. Volume 1. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

Rose, P. 1984. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Knopf.

Stillinger, J. 1983. 'Who Wrote J. S. Mill's Autobiography?', Victorian Studies, 27, pp. 7-23.

Mark Donoghue, School of Business, University of Notre Dame, Fremantle WA 6959. Email:
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Author:Donoghue, Mark
Publication:History of Economics Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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