The Review of Politics

Research Article

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

John W. Compton


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.


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.