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.

The chains of prescription have been broken; it is not only the slave who has been freed— the mind of America has been emancipated.

J.S. Mill1

John Stuart Mill's writings on the United States were produced in two bursts of activity, the first sparked by publication of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, the second by the nation's descent into civil war. In his early essays on America, Mill painted a decidedly mixed picture of American society. Although he praised the nation's democratic institutions, Mill was generally pessimistic with respect to prospects for moral and intellectual “progress” in America and worried that the nation would, in time, sink into a “stagnant” or “stationary” condition.2 By the 1860s, however, Mill's tone had changed. In his essays and private correspondence dealing with the Civil War, Mill described the devastating conflict as a “salutary shock” and a “great concussion” that would ultimately check the nation's slide toward “intellectual stagnation.”3 Following the Confederate surrender, Mill considered this prediction vindicated: he noted with satisfaction that the war had “opened” the national “mind” and “regenerated” the American people.4

What are we to make of the sudden regeneration of American society described in Mill's Civil War writings? Why, in other words, did Mill believe that a protracted and bloody conflict would reverse the slide toward intellectual stagnation described in the essays on Tocqueville? The existing literature offers little guidance on this question, in part because Mill's writings on the Civil War have been generally ignored by scholars.5 I shall argue that this neglect is unfortunate. Mill, like many English commentators, recognized America's sectional conflict as a crucial moment in the development of Anglo-American liberalism. In contrast to many of his countrymen, however, Mill believed that the violent subjugation of the slaveholding states could be justified on liberal grounds and, indeed, was essential to the preservation of liberal ideals. This essay will critically examine Mill's view of the Civil War, paying particular attention to the relationship between the Civil War writings and Mill's earlier reviews of Tocqueville.

In the paper's first two sections, I examine Mill's early essays on the United States and argue that existing readings have overlooked a critical feature of Mill's critique of American society. Although scholars have rightly noted Mill's interest in the commercial and democratic aspects of America society, Mill also believed the United States was exceptional for a third reason: it was the only existing nation founded on the basis of “abstract principles”—namely, the principles of liberty and equality. While Mill was an ardent proponent of America's founding principles, he also feared—in keeping with the moral psychology spelled out in his System of Logic—that the meaning or vitality of these principles would fade over time as the experience of the nation's founding passed from living memory. In the paper's third and fourth sections, I argue that America's status as a nation founded on abstract principles lies at the heart of the regeneration depicted in Mill's writings of the 1860s. Specifically, Mill believed that the intellectual and, ultimately, physical struggle to eliminate the illiberal institution of slavery would force the American public to reflect on and rearticulate the nation's founding principles. With the meaning of these principles restored, Mill believed Americans would soon recognize and address other illiberal aspects of American society, including the subordinate status of women.

The Early Essays on America

It is often noted that Mill's early interest in the United States stemmed from his belief that America was a nation in the vanguard of “civilization.”6 In the 1836 essay of the same name, Mill described “civilization” as a term with two distinct meanings. On the one hand, civilization referred to the set of social conditions that served to distinguish “a wealthy and powerful nation from savages or barbarians.”7 These conditions included a broad diffusion of wealth and intelligence, a capacity for collective action, and the rule of law.8 This was “civilization in the narrow sense” or “commercial society.” Yet, the term “civilization” was also used in a second sense—as a synonym for moral development, or “human improvement in general.” Thus, Mill noted that it was customary “to call a country more civilized if we think it more improved; more imminent in the best characteristics of Man and Society; farther advanced in the road to perfection; happier, nobler, wiser.” Mill maintained, moreover, that there was a certain degree of tension between the two senses of the term. For while commercial society or “civilization in the narrow sense” had “been the cause of much good,” there was, nonetheless, “other good, much even of the highest good, which civilization … does not provide for, and some which it has a tendency … to impede.”9 The critical challenge of the age, Mill believed, was to document the full extent of commercial society's impact on the human character. Once these effects were adequately understood, it would then be possible to channel the forces of material progress toward the moral and intellectual “improvement” of individuals and societies.10

Because the United States was a thoroughly commercial nation, Mill believed that careful observation of American society could yield important lessons for the future development of Europe. In his early series “The Spirit of the Age,” for example, Mill contrasted the general contentment of American society with the intellectual upheaval he then perceived in England and on the continent. Influenced by the Saint-Simonian philosophy of history, Mill maintained that European society was passing through a “critical” or “transitional” age in which long-established institutions and doctrines had lost their hold over the public mind.11 Mill attributed the general unrest of the period to the spread of commercial society, coupled with the refusal of the landed aristocracy to relinquish its hold on political and moral authority. In short, “worldly power” and “moral influence” were no longer in the hands of “the fittest persons whom the existing state of society affords.”12 But while the “mind” of Europe was generally unsettled, this was not the case in the United States. Indeed, Mill believed that American society approximated the conditions of an “organic” or “natural” age, in which the public and its leaders are united by a set of mutually acceptable doctrines and social arrangements.13 This positive state of affairs was attributable, in part, to the nation's democratic institutions and the fact that leaders were selected “by the general voice of the whole people.”14

Mill's sanguine view of American society would not survive his reading of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, however. In three essays published between 1835 and 1840—two of which reviewed the two volumes of Democracy—Mill suggested that American society, far from serving as an exemplar of moral progress, was in fact on the brink of intellectual stagnation. Although he continued to praise the institutions of American democracy, Mill now perceived several reasons to fear for America's future. In the existing literature, two such reasons are usually identified. First, Mill, like Tocqueville, believed that the United States was dominated by a “commercial” or “middle” class. Mill feared the growing influence of this class because of its single-minded focus on the art of “money-getting” and its lack of interest in the cultivation of the higher faculties. In his 1836 essay, “State of Society in America,” for example, Mill noted that the state of mind of the middle class was characterized by

a general indifference of those kinds of knowledge and mental culture which cannot be immediately converted into pounds, shillings, and pence; very little perception or enjoyment of the beautiful, either in nature or in the productions of genius, along with great occasional affectation of it; the predominant passion that of money—the passion of those who have no other; indifference to refinements and elegancies for their own sake, but a vehement desire to possess what are accounted such by others.15

Based on this and similar passages, Gertrude Himmelfarb has argued that Mill's early essays on America constitute an indictment of a class that embodied “a bourgeois, commercial spirit, was inimical to a speculative frame of mind, fearful of eccentricity and originality.”16 In a similar vein, Bernard Semmel maintains that the essays on Tocqueville are designed to highlight the problems naturally arising in “a society that prides itself on wealth.” Semmel argues that Mill was primarily concerned with the “mediocrity of intellectual life” in America and feared that the transition to a commercial society would produce similar effects in England.17 More recently, Alan Kahan has used the essays on Tocqueville to make the case that Mill was an “aristocratic liberal.” Kahan notes that Mill, like fellow aristocratic liberals Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt, feared the advance of the “commercial spirit,” or “the set of ideas and values deriving from an unlimited pursuit of material well-being as the highest good.” The primary lesson to be learned from American society, according to Kahan, was that the citizens of a commercial society “had no life but in their work, and no real pleasures. Or if they had pleasures, they were purely of a low, material sort. Given over totally to the desire to grow richer, the majority had allowed all other facets of their humanity to wither.”18

But while Mill was indeed highly critical of the middle class, he also insisted that its “ascendancy … in modern society and politics” was “inevitable, and … ought not to be regarded as an evil.” As other scholars have recently pointed out, Mill's larger fear was, rather, that the “most powerful” class in society would succeed in sweeping away all sources of opposition, thus making itself “all-powerful.”19 Georgios Varouxakis has argued persuasively that Mill's concern with the gradual disappearance of “diversity” predates his reading of Tocqueville, and was in fact greatly influenced by the historical theories of Francois Guizot. In his lectures on world history, Guizot had argued that diversity was the essential spring of progress; an unceasing struggle between various ideologies, religions, and forms of civilization had promoted moral and intellectual development in Europe, whereas the lack of similar “systematic antagonisms” had produced stagnation or “stationariness” in Asia.20 Thus Varouxakis maintains that Mill, in light of Guizot's theory of history, viewed the homogenous condition of society as the most serious threat to moral development in the United States.21 The danger, in other words, was not that a single class would wield the official levers of power in a tyrannical manner, but rather that the ideas, beliefs, and customs of the dominant class would eventually become universal and unchallenged. Evidence for this reading can be found in Mill's endorsement of Tocqueville's claim that the majority had succeeded in establishing a tyranny of “public opinion” in America—a “tyranny not over the body, but over the mind.”22 Summarizing this novel form of despotism in his second review of Democracy, Mill noted that “whenever any variety of human nature becomes preponderant in a community, it imposes upon all the rest of society its own type; forcing all, either to submit to it or to imitate it.”23

Writing in 1840, Mill could envision but one solution to the nation's plight. He urged the cultivation of “a great social support for opinions and sentiments” different from those of the commercial class.24 Curiously, however, he offered virtually no guidance on the question of where such a source of resistance might be found. With respect to English society, Mill's prescription for reconciling commercial society and moral development was relatively straightforward: certain useful vestiges of the nation's feudal past could be preserved and reinforced in order to serve as ballasts against the growing influence of the commercial class. Specifically, Mill pointed to the agricultural, learned, and leisured classes.25 These bastions of opposition, he argued, could counteract the baser tendencies of the “commercial spirit” by giving voice to “an opposite order of sentiments, principles of action, and modes of thought.”26 The establishment of a similar social balance in America was impracticable, however, because the nation lacked “a class educated for leisure”—that “important portion of a people, who are its natural leaders in the higher paths of social improvement.”27 In essence, then, the great challenge facing the American nation was to somehow create and nurture a source of ideological opposition within a thoroughly civilized society.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the essays on Tocqueville, with their emphasis on the “mediocrity” of democratic societies and their plea for deference to a learned or leisured class, are often used to cast Mill as a sort of moral elitist—a thinker who, in the interest of arresting intellectual stagnation, was prepared to sanction significant constraints on human liberty. Himmelfarb, for example, has used the essays on Tocqueville to support her argument that the “true” Mill was not the Mill of On Liberty, but rather the Mill who denied the “absoluteness of liberty” in favor of such values as “justice, virtue, community, tradition, prudence and moderation.”28 In her discussion of the early essays on America, she stresses Mill's fear of “excessive individualism” and his claim that an elite-driven “improvement of public opinion” would be necessary to raise “modern society” from its current state of “unfortunate mediocrity.”29 In a similar vein, Michael Levin reads the essays on Tocqueville as imploring England's intellectuals, as well as its landed aristocracy, to “rise to the challenge” of balancing the increasingly powerful “mass” of society.30 Finally, in what is perhaps the most extreme version of the moral elitist reading, Joseph Hamburger argued that the reviews of Democracy are remarkable for what Mill fails to discuss—namely, Tocqueville's emphasis on religion and custom as supports for liberty. This omission, according to Hamburger, serves as evidence that Mill believed a radical subversion of existing norms and social arrangements would be necessary to check the general slide towards mediocrity.31

Yet these readings, while certainly containing a grain of truth, leave us ill-equipped to understand the regeneration of American society perceived by Mill in the 1860s. Put differently, it is not immediately clear that the traumatic events of the Civil War altered either of the features of American society that are usually identified as central to Mill's analysis. The United States, after all, remained a predominately middle-class nation following the Civil War. And while the war against slavery may have temporarily diverted the Northern public's attention from the art of “money-getting,” Mill seems to have believed that this obsession was an indelible feature of the middle-class character.32 In an effort to reconcile Mill's reviews of Tocqueville with the more positive assessment of American society put forward in the Civil War writings, one might argue, as Himmelfarb does, that the standards by which Mill evaluated societies changed during this period. I shall argue, however, that Mill's account of the regeneration of American society during the Civil War years is entirely consistent with the views put forward in his early essays on the United States. The continuity of Mill's writings on America becomes apparent when they are read in the context of the moral psychology outlined in System of Logic, a work drafted during the same period as the reviews of Tocqueville.

The Decline of Founding Principles

The dominant reading of Mill's early essays on America, while technically accurate, has obscured an important dimension of Mill's critique of American society. Although Mill was indeed troubled by the middle class's obsession with “money-getting” and the larger disappearance of social cleavages, his more fundamental concern involved a precipitous decline in the “living power” of the nation's founding principles.33 Mill often noted that American institutions, in contrast to those of England and other “ancient” peoples, had no “historical basis.” Indeed, the United States was exceptional in that it was the only nation “constructed within the memory of man on the basis of abstract principles.”34 Mill was, of course, an ardent proponent of the American nation's founding principles—principles he identified as “liberty” and “political equality,” or the “equality of all human beings in the eyes of the law and of the constitution.”35 At the same time, however, Mill gathered from his reading of Tocqueville that these founding principles were beginning to take on the characteristics of dogma; the ideals of liberty and equality were everywhere praised, but they had ceased to inform political action.

In his first review of Democracy, for example, Mill remarked that Tocqueville's description of America as a thoroughly democratic society “must … be received with considerable limitations.” In fact, Mill noted, a disturbing gap had opened between America's existing institutions and its professed ideals. A great many Americans, it seemed, suffered from political and social exclusion. These subordinated groups included not only slaves, but also “all free persons having even the slightest admixture of negro blood, who are ruthlessly excluded, in some States by law, and in the remainder by actual bodily fear, from the exercise of [even] the smallest political right.”36 Moving from race to gender, Mill pointed out that “the political equality so much boasted of” in the United States excluded the female “half of the human race.” In “the American democracy,” he concluded, “the aristocracy of skin, and the aristocracy of sex, retain their privileges.”37

Ironically, the unacknowledged “aristocracies” of race and gender were reinforced by Americans' fierce and unreflective pride in their nation's founding principles. On this point, Mill cited Tocqueville's claim that a “courtier-spirit” had pervaded American public life: the public enjoyed its close proximity to political power and was therefore intolerant of the few who dared to question the workings of the nation's institutions. As Tocqueville noted in a passage quoted by Mill, an American may occasionally admit of some fault in the “national character” when speaking to foreigners, but the same individual will use “quite a different language” when addressing his countrymen.38 Indeed, as the persecution of abolitionists in the Northern states had demonstrated, to challenge the sanctity of the nation's institutions was to risk physical intimidation and outright violence.39 Meaningful public debate, it seemed, had been replaced by a form of shallow self-worship. Mill observed that public discourse in America consisted of a never-ending celebration of the nation's democratic institutions and the “wisdom and virtue” of the majority; constantly lauded by the nation's politicians and writers, the American public lived in “perpetual adoration of itself.”40

At first glance, these brief remarks on systematic inequalities and the decline of founding principles may seem an afterthought to Mill's real concerns, including social tyranny and the disappearance of diversity. The comments take on new significance, however, when placed in the context of Mill's moral psychology and his closely related concern with the preservation of meaning. Although a full discussion of Mill's many writings on “the laws of the mind” is beyond the scope of this essay, it is worth noting that Mill devoted a great deal of effort to reformulating empiricism's theory of the moral sentiments—a theory he had inherited from his father and Jeremy Bentham.

In keeping with the basic tenets of empiricism, Mill viewed the moral sentiments as learned responses generated through mental processes of association. Yet in sharp contrast to Bentham, Mill came to believe that our moral and aesthetic feelings are not reducible to the lower motives of attaining pleasure and avoiding pain. On Mill's view, the moral and aesthetic sentiments—the “half of the whole number of mental feelings” Bentham had ignored—are higher-order associations that are ultimately pursued as ends in themselves.41 While these higher pleasures can be analyzed and even traced to particular antecedents, they are generated in a “chemical” rather than a “mechanical” fashion; that is to say, they are complex ideas that are qualitatively distinct from their “genetic antecedents.”42

For present purposes, the most important implication of Mill's psychology is that our moral ideas—which are neither innate nor reducible to the universal motives of attaining pleasure and avoiding pain—will decay if not actively cultivated through a process of moral education. Indeed, Mill frequently argues that a moral doctrine will tend to become “corrupted” over time unless its underlying logic is continuously rearticulated and subjected to critical scrutiny. The most familiar formulation of this point is found in On Liberty, but the argument is first advanced in System of Logic. In a section entitled “Of the Requisites of a Philosophical Language,” Mill notes that when a new religious, ethical or political doctrine emerges, it is “full of meaning and reality” because it is rooted in experience.43 New doctrines gain vitality from the fact that the initial converts are usually few in number and forced to struggle against majority opinion; the intensity of this early struggle ensures that supporters and opponents alike grasp the full ramifications of the ascendant doctrine. But when a doctrine emerges triumphant—when it becomes widely accepted—its meaning is no longer “kept up by the controversies which accompanied [its] first introduction.”44 At this point, the meaning of the doctrine becomes detached from the “verbal formulas” through which it is expressed, and the once vital doctrine degenerates rapidly into lifeless dogma.45 As Mill would later write in On Liberty, “the words which convey” the meaning of widely accepted doctrines soon

cease to suggest ideas, or suggest only a small portion of those they were originally employed to communicate. Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost.46

Mill argues that the natural decline of meaning is worrisome on two levels. For the individual, the danger is that one's values will be learned by rote rather than experience, thereby stifling any opportunity for self-development. Mill notes that a principle may be accepted as true and yet remain unconnected with “the inner life of the human being.”47 A moral or political doctrine, in other words, will not affect “the conduct of life” until its meaning is “really felt, until personal experience has brought it home.”48 Yet the effects of moral decay, while not insignificant in the case of the individual, are even more troubling when extrapolated to an entire society. As Robert Devigne has rightly pointed out, Mill viewed the moral development of societies as the product of a vigorous “social dialectic”—a process in which “polarities clash with one another, link up, and create a new phenomenon in which both currents exist but at a higher level of organization.”49 Thus, it should be stressed that Mill was not interested in the preservation of meaning for its own sake. Rather, he feared that the gradual corruption of words and ideas would weaken the social dialectic and endanger the generation of new, synthetic moralities. In order to combat this danger, Mill famously suggested that where a doctrine was universally accepted, “some contrivance” should be invented for the purpose of generating impassioned debate.50 Yet he worried that the natural process of “corruption” or “forgetfulness” was so strong that “all the efforts of education expressly and skillfully directed to keeping the meaning alive” would be “barely sufficient” to counteract it.51

Read in this light, Mill's reviews of Tocqueville point to the possibility that it was the natural decay of moral ideas—rather than the commercial or democratic nature of society—that was hobbling the mind of antebellum America. The question in the United States, as Mill saw it, was whether liberal principles, divorced from historical context and lacking any serious opposition, would long retain meaning for the public. Mill's basic concern was shared by many American thinkers of the period. In their writings of the 1840s and 1850s, for example, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau remarked upon the increasingly hollow nature of American political discourse. In particular, both thinkers warned that efforts to appease the South on the issue of slavery were slowly draining the nation's founding principles of their initial vitality. The Constitution's toleration of slavery had, of course, always presented a serious problem for those who argued that the nation was founded on the abstract principles of liberty and equality. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, many Northerners resolved this contradiction by adopting the Jeffersonian view of slavery as a necessary evil at odds with the progress of history and destined for rapid extinction.52 This view of the South's “peculiar institution” was seemingly confirmed by a burst of manumissions in the aftermath of the American Revolution and by Congress's elimination of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808. But by the 1830s the claim of a general trend toward abolition had become impossible to sustain. Indeed, around the time Mill was penning his reviews of Tocqueville, the House of Representatives was adopting the notorious “gag rule,” which essentially banned debate on the issue of slavery.53 Reacting to the apparent decline of antislavery sentiment in the North, Emerson pithily observed that “language” had “lost its meaning in the universal cant.” The nation's politicians, Emerson lamented, held the Union together by invoking the increasingly meaningless principles of “freedom” and “democracy,” until “our poor people, led by the nose by these fine words, dance and sing, ring bells and fire cannon, with every new link of the chain which is forged for their limbs by the plotters in the Capitol.”54 In his lecture on “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau invoked similar imagery to describe the irony of attending a boisterous Fourth of July celebration only days after Boston city officials had permitted the return of an escaped slave to his Southern owner:

Now-a-days, men wear a fool's cap, and call it a liberty cap. I do not know but there are some, who, if they were tied to a whipping-post, and could get but one hand free, would use it to ring the bells and fire the cannons, to celebrate their liberty. So some of my townsmen took the liberty to ring and fire; that was the extent of their freedom; and when the sound of the bells died away, their liberty died away also; when the powder was all expended, their liberty went off with the smoke.55

From Mill's perspective, the fundamental problem, as in System of Logic and On Liberty, involved the detachment of language from experience: there was no sense that the “traditional maxims” had any bearing for the “conduct of life,” “no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified.”56 Any criticism of the nation's institutions was viewed as an attack on its founding principles of liberty and equality; the idea that these principles might themselves provide the impetus for the reform of existing institutions was not considered—and, indeed, not tolerated in public discourse. As Mill would later write in a contribution to a Philadelphia newspaper, the greatest danger facing American democracy was that the “national mind” should go “to sleep on the self-satisfied notion that all is right with it.”57

A “Strenuous Antagonism”

From the premises of Mill's moral psychology, it follows that “awakening” the national mind would require the introduction of discordant elements into the nation's homogenous public discourse. This seemed a distant possibility in the 1830s, when Mill believed that the despotism of “public opinion” was thoroughly ensconced. By the 1850s, however, Mill had come to recognize that American society, while comparatively egalitarian, was not monolithic.

In his early essays on America, Mill was careful to note that his analysis of the United States applied only to the Northern states, since including the South in a discussion of democracy would be “a mere perversion of terms.”58 Yet, while separate from his larger critique of American democracy, the economic and social dynamics of Southern society was a subject of great interest to Mill. Specifically, he was perplexed by what he perceived as the rapid decline of the Southern aristocracy. At the time of the nation's founding, Mill believed, America had produced political and intellectual leaders of exceptional quality, the majority of them drawn from a Southern “leisured class.”59 Curiously, however, this elite class had vanished from the American scene, leaving no successors:

The families which gave birth to Washington and Jefferson … belonged to a class of proprietors maintained by the labor of slaves, and enjoying hereditary landed possessions in the then flourishing and opulent state of Virginia. From causes not satisfactorily explained … but which are apparently connected with the vicissitudes of cultivation and markets, the prosperity of that state has greatly declined, and nearly the whole of these families are bankrupt. We are much mistaken if this be not part of the solution of the mystery. The stream has ceased to flow … because its fountain has dried up.60

Writing in 1836, Mill did not speculate on the specific nature of the “vicissitudes of cultivation and markets” that had prompted the decline of the Southern aristocracy. By the time of the Civil War, however, he had formulated a coherent theory which held that Southern society had declined from a “civilized” to a “barbarous” state.

When describing the broad sweep of Western history in works such as “The Subjection of Women,” Mill consistently argued that the evolution of European institutions over time had amounted to a piecemeal dismantling of the “law of force.”61 Mill asserted that in primitive times “the law of superior strength was the rule of life.” The establishment of the ancient republics, however, had “commenced a regeneration of human nature” by transforming the law of force from a universal principle to a rule operating only within the “narrow field” of specific relationships, including that of master and servant. Soon the Stoics were teaching that “men were bound by moral obligations” even when dealing with slaves.62 With the rise of modern European civilization, the rule of force was largely supplanted by the superior principles of liberty and civil equality among males. Yet certain relics of mankind's barbarous past remained nested within Western civilization: wives remained subject to the despotic rule of husbands, chattel slavery persisted in the American South, and in the darker corners of Europe movements of national liberation were ruthlessly suppressed by tyrannical monarchs.63

In light of the general trend towards liberty and equality, the stubborn persistence of slavery in the South called for explanation. How had this relic of barbarism survived in the midst of an otherwise civilized society? Mill answered this question in “The Contest in America” and “The Slave Power,” his two essays on the Civil War. Here, he argued that the economics of cotton production, more than any other factor, had stunted the moral and intellectual development of the American South.64 More specifically, he noted that the “whole productive resources” of the Southern states were concentrated in the production of a crop which required “little besides brute animal force” for its cultivation. This fact had operated to create a highly stratified society in which education was prohibited among slaves and woefully inadequate in the case of poor whites.65 The early plantation owners had thrived—both financially and intellectually—because the virgin soil of Virginia had supported a stable life of leisure for the slaveholding class. But because cotton was a highly destructive crop, depleting “in a moderate number of years all the soils which [are] fit for it,” the descendants of the “Washingtons and Jeffersons” were eventually forced to migrate westward, taking their “peculiar institution” with them and straining the nascent bonds of civilization.66 In the vast areas “surrendered to nature” in the wake of westward migration, a new class—a “white proletariat of the worse kind”—had emerged.67 These “mean whites” existed “in a condition little removed from savage life, eking out a wretched subsistence by hunting, by fishing, by hiring themselves out for occasional jobs, by plunder.”68 Mill thus endorsed the claim of his friend, the economist John Elliot Cairnes, that the Southern economic system was “at once retrograde and aggressive” and gravitated “inevitably towards barbarism.”69

Mill argued, moreover, that the rise of a “barbarous” power in America represented a serious threat to European “civilization.” Indeed, he consistently depicted the Civil War as part of a larger struggle against “barbarism” and “backwardness.”70 As he remarked in his Autobiography, the struggle in America “was destined to be a turning point, for good or evil, of the course of human affairs for an indefinite duration.” Had the Union failed to suppress the rebellion, the result would have been “a victory of the power of evil which would [have] give[en] courage to the enemies of progress and damp[ened] the spirits of its friends all over the civilized world.”71 Moreover, because the destructive nature of cotton production had created an insatiable desire for new territory, Mill warned in his Civil War essays that a victorious Confederacy would likely invade “Spanish America” in order to “propagate [the] national faith at the rifle's mouth through Mexico . . Central America” and the Caribbean.72 Ultimately, he feared that “a general crusade of civilized Europe” would be necessary “to extinguish the mischief which it had allowed … to rise up in the midst of our civilization.”73

Paradoxically, however, Mill also insisted that the project of confronting Southern barbarism would ultimately restore the meaning of the American nation's founding principles. The mind of antebellum America, as we have seen, was hobbled, in Mill's view, by the natural ossification or corruption of moral ideas. The problem, in short, was that the abstract principles of liberty and equality had become detached from public experience and had thus ceased to function as sources of moral and political agency. By the time of Southern secession, Mill had identified a potential solution to the nation's dilemma: if the Northern public could be made to see and confront the relic of barbarism in its midst, the process of ossification might well be reversed. The key to regeneration, Mill asserted, lay in the Northern public's recognition of Southern society as an illiberal element at odds with the nation's founding principles. By the 1850s, Mill saw reason to believe that the moment of recognition was at hand. In “The Negro Question,” for example, he excoriated Thomas Carlyle for throwing the “weight of his reputation” behind the proslavery cause at a time when “the decisive conflict between right and iniquity” seemed about to commence.74

Mill's Manichean depiction of the nation's emerging divide should not be allowed to obscure his underlying optimism at the revival of public discourse in America. Mill was pleased to see that Southern politicians and intellectuals, forced to defend their region's “peculiar institution” in the court of national and world opinion, were resorting to profoundly illiberal arguments and thus revealing the barbarous nature of Southern society. As Mill observed in “The Slave Power,” Southern writers who had once defended slavery as a necessary evil were now praising it as

a moral, civilizing, and every way wholesome institution; the fit condition not only for negroes but for the laboring classes of all countries; nay, as an ordinance of God, and a sacred deposit providentially entrusted to the keeping of the Southern Americans, for preservation and extension.”75

Although Mill viewed the Southern apologists' arguments—including the idea of divinely sanctioned racial hierarchies—as deplorable vestiges of barbarism, he also saw that the challenge of rebutting these arguments would “stir up thought” in the nation's “more cultivated minds.”76 Like Emerson, who described the nation's escalating series of fugitive slave crises as having “the illuminating power of a sheet of lighting at midnight,” Mill believed that Southern belligerence would ultimately force the Northern public to reflect on and rearticulate the nation's founding principles.77 As Mill would write to Cairnes following the outbreak of war in America, the “most hopeful feature” of the conflict was “the strenuous antagonism now springing up in the better American against the tone of mind of the worse.”78

War and Regeneration

The Civil War essays find Mill in the not unfamiliar position of defending a highly unpopular point of view. In his public statements on the conflict, Mill argued both that the Northern cause was just and that the ultimate aim of the war effort should be the abolition of slavery—or, at a minimum, the confinement of the institution to the Deep South where economic forces would ensure its rapid extinction. This view of the conflict put Mill at odds, not only with the many conservative commentators who openly favored the Confederacy, but also with many reform-minded polemicists who abhorred slavery but refused to condone the level of bloodshed required to effect its elimination.

In response to Southern apologists on the right, Mill advanced two lines of argument. First, as discussed above, he attempted to replace the myth of a genteel Southern society with a careful description of a nation founded on “the principles of Attila and Genghis Khan.”79 Second, he argued that the roots of the conflict could be traced, not to the inherent weaknesses of democratic regimes, but rather to the Southern slaveholding class's insatiable lust for territory.80 Perhaps the more serious challenge to Mill's pro-Union and antislavery views, however, came from Mill's erstwhile allies among liberals, including James Fitzjames Stephen. As Thomas Schneider has recently pointed out, many liberals, including Stephen, saw in Mill's characterization of the American conflict a dangerous “moralizing” of liberalism. Writing in 1863, Stephen condemned those pro-Union writers, including Mill, who believed that men should “evangelize each other by war, and not only by war, but by wars of extermination.”81 Although Stephen did not hesitate to condemn the institution of slavery, he argued that the type of abolitionist struggle favored by Mill was problematic for three reasons: First, the human cost of such a war would outweigh the benefits of abolition; second, an antislavery struggle would violate the letter of the Constitution and thus undermine the legitimacy of the Northern cause; and third, any effort to reconstruct Southern society would require the imposition of illiberal forms of rule and the violation of basic legal rights.82

Taken collectively, Stephen's objections constitute a serious critique, not only of Mill's position on the Civil War, but also of his larger effort to reconcile liberalism with the cultivation of the moral sentiments. Indeed, Stephen's basic criticisms are echoed by more recent commentators—including Maurice Cowling, Shirley Letwin, and Joseph Hamburger—who have charged that Mill's belief in progress led him to condone illiberal, and even violent, means of promoting moral development.83 On one level, these critics are certainly correct to note the tension between the Millian values of liberty and moral development.84 But to view the American Civil War as an instance when Mill either ignored this tension or simply chose one value over the other is to miss much of the subtlety of Mill's position. In fact, Mill was well aware that the human cost of abolishing slavery would be terrible and that the larger project of reconstructing Southern society would likely entail a suspension of the legal rights of the slaveholding class. Nonetheless, he argued that the American conflict was mischaracterized when depicted as a choice between toleration of an admitted evil, on the one hand, and unthinkable violence on the other. This view of the nation's sectional divide, according to Mill, drastically underestimated both the costs of a compromise peace and the benefits of abolishing the institution of slavery.

As we have seen, Mill believed that the social costs of tolerating illiberal institutions cannot be measured solely in terms of the misery inflicted upon subjugated individuals. Rather, Mill argues that the morally corrupting aspects of human subjugation inevitably spread beyond the bounds of particular relationships to affect society at large. In fact, the disjunction between existing institutions and professed moral doctrines may produce a kind of miseducation of the moral sentiments. In “The Subjection of Women,” for example, Mill argues that any calculation of the social harms arising from patriarchal marriage must consider the “perverting influence” that an institution (marriage) in conflict with “the first principles of social justice” exerts upon the moral sentiments.85 Perhaps not surprisingly, Mill described the effects of chattel slavery in very similar terms. Writing to an American correspondent in 1865, Mill noted that the institution was a “stain” and “a moral incubus” that had stunted the “moral progress” of the American nation.86 Similarly, in his Autobiography, Mill remarked that the “whole mind of the United States” had been “corrupted” in the antebellum years “by the supposed necessity of apologizing to foreigners for the most flagrant of all possible violations of the free principles of [the] Constitution.”87 It was pure folly, according to Mill, to think that the moral decay associated with the institution of slavery could be confined to the Southern states in the event of a compromise peace.

In his Civil War essays, Mill argued that the case for a peaceful compromise rested on the false hope that the moral aspects of the slavery controversy might be bracketed in the interest of reaching a purely legal or constitutional solution. The institution of slavery, Mill insisted, was incompatible, not only with the American nation's founding principles, but with the rule of law itself. On this point, Mill cited the horrors of lynchings and mob burnings in the South, noting that of the world's “vicious and tyrannical institutions,” only slavery required “to keep it going, that human beings should be burned alive.”88 Slave societies, Mill wrote in “The Slave Power,” contain no “elements of improvement” and thus will never “raise themselves up to the level of free societies.” Rather, such societies “are urged by the most imperious motives to drag down, if possible, free societies to the level of themselves.”89 For this reason, a peace based on a return to the status quo antebellum would not arrest the moral decay of the antebellum years and, indeed, would likely accelerate the process. Not only would the root cause of the conflict remain unaddressed, but the Constitution's rather equivocal embrace of slavery would likely be replaced by a more explicit endorsement of the institution.90 Such a compromise, according to Mill, would sound the death knell for the nation's founding principles and, ultimately, for the nation's moral sentiments.

Although Mill's case for total war rested primarily on the need to eliminate the evil of slavery, he argued further that an antislavery struggle would likely serve as the catalyst for a moral regeneration of the American people. As one might expect, this claim was particularly troubling to those observers, like Stephen, who preferred to view the conflict in legal terms. Indeed, Mill's apparent linking of violent conflict and moral development seems, at first glance, to lend credence to the claims of those who charge Mill with sacrificing the principle of liberty to a progressive view of history. It should be stressed, however, that Mill consistently described moral regeneration as a byproduct of the larger struggle to eliminate the unjust and corrupting institution of slavery. Thus, unlike many American abolitionists, who viewed the violent subjugation of the South as a form of penance for the nation's past toleration of slavery, Mill did not claim any redemptive value for violence qua violence.91 Mill argued, rather, that the act of secession had produced the indirect, but welcome, result of awakening Northern Americans to the monstrous injustice in their midst. The rebellion of the Southern states, Mill wrote in “The Slave Power,” had caused a “heroic impulse” to “pervade the whole country, and descend to the least enlightened classes.” Admittedly, this impulse sprang from a combination of motives, including an instinctual desire to preserve the Union. But underlying these superficial motives, Mill argued, was a nascent recognition of the disjunction between Southern institutions and liberal principles. After all, had Americans desired only to save the Union, they would simply have yielded to the slave states' interpretation of the Constitution. Rather, it “was because they valued something even more highly than the Union, that the Union was ever in a position in which it had to be fought for.”92

But for all his emphasis on the centrality of the slavery issue, Mill occasionally veers close to positing a direct connection between war and moral development. In an 1863 letter to an American politician, for example, Mill predicted that the nation's sectional conflict would “elevate the national character” and combat “intellectual stagnation.”93 And in another letter to an American correspondent, drafted in the same year, Mill declared that “the war and all its circumstances” were “very likely to elevate the national character … in a way that there seemed little hope of before.”94 Such statements may seem strange coming from a thinker who, in other contexts, never hesitated to condemn the “low and groveling” idea that “national glory” was a thing to be attained on the battlefield.95 Mill was careful to note, however, that his descriptions of the American conflict were not to be taken as a blanket endorsement of war as a means to moral regeneration. Rather, Mill's hopes for regeneration in America, as he noted in his Autobiography, were based on the simple observation that “the parties in a protracted civil war almost invariably end by taking more extreme, not to say higher grounds of principle than they began with.”96 Thus, in the case of the northern Americans, Mill believed that the “laws of human nature” would eventually cause a formerly skeptical public to “join [its] banner with that of the noble body of abolitionists.”97 With the moral incubus of slavery removed, America's national mind would then be opened to a more expansive conception of human liberty. For just as a disjunction between existing institutions and prevailing moral doctrines will tend to produce moral decay, the elimination of such a disjunction, Mill believed, will often spark a wider revitalization of the moral sentiments.98 If Americans in the North would only see the struggle through to the finish, the result would be a “great awakening of the public conscience.”99

The most immediate practical effect of this national regeneration would be to highlight a second unacknowledged hierarchy in American society—one Mill had earlier termed the “aristocracy of sex.” In his many letters to American suffragists, Mill often predicted that the cause of gender equality would progress more rapidly in the United States than in Britain because of the fact that American political institutions were grounded on “principles of equal justice” rather than “historical precedent.”100 But Mill also insisted that the cause of women's suffrage would advance only to the extent that the nation's founding principles retained meaning for the American public. Writing to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1869, Mill noted that the war seemed to have revitalized Americans' conception of their founding principles and thus advanced the cause of gender equality. The nation's “late glorious struggle,” Mill wrote, has “shaken old prejudices” and “brought men to the feeling that the principles of your democratic institutions are not mere phrases, but are meant to be believed and acted upon toward all persons.”101 Mill found confirmation of this view in the fact that several American states were considering constitutional amendments granting women the franchise. Writing to supporters of these amendments, Mill reasoned that the American public could no longer ignore “the disabilities of women” because they represented the “only remaining national violation of the principles of your immortal Declaration of Independence.”102 Having recently eliminated one vestige of barbarism, Americans would, Mill believed, insist on continuing the fight against “the ideas of a past age.” And in so doing, the nation would “give a new impulse and improved character to the career of social and moral progress now opening for mankind.”103


In the end, of course, that Mill's vision of a broader transformation of American society was left largely unfulfilled must be pointed out. Observing events from afar, Mill remarked in his final years that his grandest hopes for American society seemed to be “in the course of being progressively realized.”104 But in 1877, only four years after Mill's death, the Northern attempt at reconstructing Southern society was abandoned with the “aristocracy of skin” still firmly in place. And while the suffrage movement would continue to make sporadic gains in the states and territories, universal white suffrage would not come to American women for nearly half a century.105 Yet if Mill was ultimately mistaken about the future course of events in America, he cannot be accused of underestimating the difficulty of the task at hand. The struggle over slavery had enlivened Americans' conception of liberty and thus paved the way for a more expansive morality of the future. But as Mill repeatedly reminded his American correspondents in the aftermath of the war, the window of opportunity would be fleeting. Writing to a Boston lawyer in 1870, Mill noted with satisfaction that the conflict seemed to have produced a “new start” for the “mind of America.” Importantly, however, he also implored his correspondent to be wary of complacency:

I wrote in 1862 … that, if the war lasted long enough, it would regenerate the American people, and I have been seeing more and more clearly since it closed, that to a considerable extent it has really done so, and in particular, that reason and right feeling on any public subject has a better chance of being favorably listened to, and of finding the national mind open to comprehend it, than at any previous time in American history. This great benefit will probably last out the generation which fought the war; and all depends on making the utmost use of it, for good purposes, before the national mind has time to get crusted over with any fresh set of prejudices as nations so quickly do.106

The dominant historical narrative of the postwar years—which centers on political corruption, economic greed, and the revival of the South's racial caste system—may, of course, be taken as evidence that Mill's critics had the clearer view of the American situation. Indeed, Mill's apparent lack of foresight seems to highlight what Fitzjames Stephen identified as a critical flaw in Mill's thought—a tendency to “sacrifice that which living people do actually regard as constituting their happiness to his own notions of what will constitute the happiness of other generations.”107 Yet the course of events in post-Civil War America also serves as a reminder that Mill's concern with historical progress was driven less by visions of future utopias than by a persistent fear of backsliding.108 In fact, it seems unlikely that Mill would have been truly surprised by the apparent moral decline of the Gilded Age; the American nation had, after all, tolerated the entrenchment of chattel slavery in the immediate aftermath of a revolution launched in the name of liberty and equality. In the end, the apparently tenuous nature of moral development, far from undermining Mill's case for subjugating the South, arguably strengthens it. Like his critics, Mill recognized the Civil War as a critical juncture in the development of Anglo-American liberalism. It was certainly true that the human cost of reconstructing Southern society would be terrible and that the task would stretch the American constitutional framework to the breaking point. There was no guarantee, moreover, that the moral regeneration associated with the eradication of slavery would be substantial or enduring. But to accept the alternative, a peaceful compromise tolerating slavery, was to concede defeat in a struggle for the very meaning of liberty.


1 John Stuart Mill, “William Lloyd Garrison,” in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965 ), 28: 201–3. The Collected Works will be cited as CW and by volume and page number. Mill's speech honoring Garrison was delivered on 29 June 1867.

2 “Democracy in America II,” CW, 18: 196–200; also see “Bentham,” CW, 10:108.

3 Letter to Edwin Godkin, 24 May 1865, CW, 16: 1057; Letter to Earl Grey, 13 May 1864, CW, 15: 942; Letter to John Elliot Cairnes, February 1863, CW, 15: 835.

4 See, for example, “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67; Letter to James M. Barnard, 26 January 1870, CW, 17: 1690–91; Letter to Joseph Henry Allen, 9 February 1865, CW, 16: 922–23.

5 The best existing treatments of these writings include Stefan Collini, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850–1930 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 139–44; Bernard Semmel, John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 83–84; and Thomas E. Schneider, “J.S. Mill and Fitzjames Stephen on the American Civil War,” History of Political Thought 28 (2007): 290–304.

6 See, for example, Michael Levin, John Stuart Mill on Civilization and Barbarism (New York: Routledge, 2004), 86–92; Alan Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 44–47; Semmel, Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue, 92–93.

7 “Civilization,” CW, 18: 119.

8 Ibid., 120–22.

9 Ibid., 119.

10 “Spirit of the Age I,” CW, 22: 229–31; “Civilization,” CW 18: 119–20.

11 “Spirit of the Age I,” CW, 22: 230.

12 “Spirit of the Age III,” CW, 22: 252.

13 “Spirit of the Age II,” CW, 22: 244–45; “Spirit of the Age III,” CW, 22: 253–54.

14 “Spirit of the Age III,” CW, 22: 254.

15 “State of Society,” CW, 18: 101.

16 Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 81–82.

17 Semmel, Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue, 92.

18 Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism, 41, 45.

19 “Democracy II,” CW, 18: 200.

20 Ibid., 197; Francois Guizot, “The History of Civilization in Europe,” in Historical Essays and Lectures, ed. Stanley Mellon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972 [1828]). See especially Lecture Two.

21 Georgios Varouxakis, “Guizot's Historical Works and J.S. Mill's Reception of Tocqueville,” History of Political Thought 20 (1999): 292–312. For a similar reading, though one that places less stress on the influence of Guizot, see Levin, Barbarism and Civilization, 86–92.

22 “Democracy II,” CW, 18: 178–79.

23 Ibid., 196.

24 Ibid., 198.

25 Ibid., 198–200.

26 Ibid., 197. As other scholars have noted, Mill's argument was indebted to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's plea for a balance between the forces of “permanence” and “progression.” See Bernard Semmel, “Mill's Coleridgean Neoradicalism,” In Mill and the Moral Character of Liberalism, ed. Eldon Eisenach (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 49–76; Robert Devigne, Reforming Liberalism: J.S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 33–35; 87–93; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, On the Constitution of Church and State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976 [1829]).

27 “State of Society in America,” CW, 18: 99.

28 Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism, xxi–xxii.

29 Ibid., 81–84.

30 Levin, Civilization and Barbarism, 91.

31 Joseph Hamburger, John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 231–34.

32 “State of Society in America,” CW, 18: 101.

33 “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 247.

34 “Democracy II,”CW, 18: 195–96.

35 “Democracy I,” CW, 18: 55; Letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 24 November 1865, CW, 16: 1119; Letter to Lucy Stone, 14 April 1868, CW, 16: 1385; Letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 25 April 1869 CW, 17: 1594.

36 Mill's interest in the plight of excluded groups may seem to be at odds with his assertion, in his second review of Tocqueville, that “tyranny will seldom use the instrument of law” in democratic societies such as the United States because there exists in such societies “no permanent class to be tyrannized over.” In the original version of the essay, however, Mill qualified his discussion of majority tyranny by noting that the absence of permanently subjugated classes was true only “among the white population” of the United States. For reasons that are unclear, Mill removed this caveat when the essay was republished in his Dissertations and Discussions. See “Democracy II,” CW, 18: 177.

37 “Democracy I,” CW, 18: 55. Also see Mill's praise of Gustave de Beaumont's novel, Marie, in “State of Society in America,” CW, 18: 95. Although Mill believed that the novel had painted an overly dark picture of American society, he fully endorsed Beaumont's description of Americans' “inhuman antipathy against the negro race.” Mill agreed with Beaumont that the issue of race represented “a dark spot in the character and destiny of the Americans.”

38 “Democracy I,” CW, 18: 81–83.

39 “Democracy II,” CW, 18: 177.

40 Ibid., 178; “Democracy I,” CW, 18: 82.

41 “Bentham,” CW, 10: 98.

42 On the process of “mental chemistry,” see “Comments on James Mill's Analysis of the Human Mind,” CW, 31: 239; “System of Logic,” CW, 8: 842–43; 849–60. On Mill's moral psychology, generally, see Fred Wilson, Psychological Analysis and the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 224–94; Stefan Collini, “The Idea of ‘Character’ in Victorian Political Thought,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 35 (1985): 29–50; Devigne, Reforming Liberalism, 27–61; Eldon J. Eisenach, “Mill and Liberal Christianity,” in Mill and the Moral Character of Liberalism, 193–204.

43 “System of Logic,” in CW, 8: 681; “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 247. In On Liberty, the phrase appears as “meaning and vitality.”

44 “System of Logic,” in CW, 8: 681.

45 Ibid. For a concrete example of the link between experience and meaning, see Mill's argument that the abolitionist cause drew its initial force from the fact that early converts had witnessed firsthand the evils of slavery. “The Negro Question,” CW, 21: 88; “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67.

46 “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 247.

47 Ibid., 248.

48 “System of Logic,” CW, 8: 681.

49 Devigne, Reforming Liberalism, 86–89. Also see Eisnach, “Mill and Liberal Christianity,” 196–204.

50 “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 251.

51 “System of Logic,” CW, 8: 681.

52 In “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 155–56, Mill contrasts Jefferson's rather negative and apologetic view of slavery with the more belligerent attitude of the current generation of slaveholders.

53 The extent to which the founding generation actually expected or desired the abolition of slavery is, of course, a subject of intense debate among historians. Yet, as Sean Wilentz has recently observed, it is generally acknowledged that the “necessary evil” view of slavery began to decline in the 1810s and 1820s as economic and technological developments combined to increase the profitability of cotton production. See Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 136–37, 219–22, 451–55.

54 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Address to the Citizens of Concord,” in Emerson's Antislavery Writings, ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 113–14.

55 Quoted in Brian Walker, “Thoreau's Alternative Economics: Work, Liberty and Democratic Cultivation,” American Political Science Review 92 (1998): 845–56.

56 “On Liberty,” CW, 18: 249; “System of Logic,” CW, 8: 681.

57 “The Civil War in the United States,” CW, 25: 1205.

58 “State of Society,” CW, 18: 105.

59 Ibid., 100.

60 Ibid., 111.

61 “The Negro Question,” CW, 21: 87; “The Subjection of Women,” CW, 21: 261–68.

62 “The Subjection of Women,” CW, 21: 266.

63 Ibid., 261–68; “The Negro Question,” CW, 21: 87, 94–95; “A Few Words on Non-Intervention,” CW, 21: 122–24.

64 Mill's theory explaining the South's decline was indebted to the work of his friend and frequent correspondent, John Elliot Cairnes. In 1862, Mill aided the publication of Cairnes's book, The Slave Power, and penned a laudatory review of the work in an October issue of the Westminster Review. Cairnes, in turn, dedicated The Slave Power to Mill. J.E. Cairnes, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs (London: Parker, Son and Co., 1862).

65 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 153.

66 “The Contest in America,” CW, 21: 154.

67 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 150.

68 Ibid., quoting Cairnes.

69 Ibid., 146.

70 Although the Civil War essays were designed to sway English public opinion to support of the Union, Mill was careful to demonstrate that his use of the “barbarous” label was not a mere rhetorical device. In fact, Mill's assessment of Southern society took the form of a point-by-point comparison with the definition of barbarism elaborated in the 1836 essay “Civilization.” From his reading of Cairnes and Frederick Law Olmstead, Mill gathered that the South was: (1) a sparsely populated region characterized by a low ratio of land and capital to labor; (2) a society in which wealth and knowledge were highly concentrated; and (3) a society in which the rule of law was tenuous at best (as evidenced by the frequency of lynchings and mob burnings). See “Civilization” CW, 18: 122–24; “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 150–53; “The Contest in America,” CW, 21: 136–41.

71 “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266.

72 “The Contest in America,” CW, 21: 141.

73 Ibid. As Georgios Varouxakis has demonstrated, Mill strived, in his writings on the subject of nationalism, to “reorient the ‘national mind’ to a cosmopolitan outlook” by articulating a concept of patriotism grounded in pride for “what one's nation had done and is doing for the welfare of the whole of humanity.” The Civil War writings offer striking support for this claim, as Mill consistently linked the character-improving effects of the war to the fact that the northern states were fighting on behalf of “humanity” and “civilization” (Georgios Varouxakis, Mill on Nationality [New York: Routledge, 2002], 122–23).

74 “The Negro Question,” CW, 21: 95.

75 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 154. Mill did not name the specific defenders of slavery he had in mind, but the arguments summarized here bear a striking resemblance to those advanced by the prominent Southern apologist (and Carlyle disciple) George Fitzhugh. Fitzhugh argued, for example, that chattel slavery offered a “humane” alternative to the northern system of free labor, in which laborers were allegedly exploited by their employers. Fitzhugh maintained, moreover, that all social hierarchies—from master and servant to husband and wife—were divinely sanctioned, and that the efforts of both abolitionists and suffragists threatened to undermine the natural order. See Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South: Or, the Failure of Free Society (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1854); and Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1857).

76 Letter to James Edwin Thorold Rogers, June 1863, CW, 32: 141.

77 Emerson, “Address to the Citizens of Concord,” in Emerson's Antislavery Writings, 55.

78 Letter of 7 February 1863, CW, 15: 835.

79 Mill, “Contest in America,” CW, 21: 141.

80 Among those Mill sought to refute were the editors of the Times, who viewed the American conflict as confirmation that the “preponderance of popular will without check or limit is at least as likely to hurry a nation into war and debt as the caprice of the most absolute despot or the intrigues of the most selfish of aristocracies.” Quoted in R.J.M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 13–14.

81 Quoted in Schneider, “J.S. Mill and Fitzjames Stephen,” 304.

82 J.F. Stephen, “The Dissolution of the Union,” The Cornhill Magazine 4 (1861): 153–66; “England and America,” Fraser's Magazine 68 (1863): 419–37; also see Schneider, “J.S. Mill and Fitzjames Stephen.”

83 Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 [1963]); Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 249–52, 288–90, 300–311; Joseph Hamburger, Liberty and Control, 21–41. Also see Linda C. Raeder, John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002).

84 For a balanced discussion of this tension, see Mark Tunick, “Tolerant Imperialism: John Stuart Mill's Defense of British Rule in India,” Review of Politics 68 (2006): 586–611.

85 “The Subjection of Women,” CW, 21: 325.

86 Letter to Joseph Henry Allen, 9 February 1865, CW, 16: 922–23 (emphasis added).

87 “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67.

88 “Contest in America,” CW, 21: 136.

89 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 151.

90 As Mill argues in “The Contest in America,” the South was unlikely to accept a peace based on a return to the status quo antebellum unless first defeated on the battlefield. The only way to preserve the Union in the absence of a Northern military victory, then, would be to offer substantial concessions with respect to slavery in the territories. “Contest in America,” CW, 21: 138–40.

91 As Wendell Phillips framed the issue, “The North offers its wealth and blood in glad atonement for the selfishness of seventy years.” Wendell Phillips, “The Proclamation, How to Make it Efficient,” in Agitation for Freedom: The Abolitionist Movement, ed. Donald G. Mathews (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1972), 152.

92 “The Slave Power,” CW, 21: 161.

93 Letter to John Appleton, 24 September 1863, CW, 15: 886.

94 Letter to Edward Thorald Rogers, June 1863, CW, 32: 141.

95 Letter to Tocqueville, 9 August 1842, CW, 13: 536–37.

96 “Contest in America,” CW, 21: 135.

97 “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67.

98 In the “Subjection of Women,” for example, Mill notes that the “perverting effects” of the institutionalized repression of women are so great that it “is hardly possible with our present experience to raise our imaginations to the conception of so great a change for the better as would be made by [their] removal.” “The Subjection of Women,” CW, 21: 325.

99 “The Civil War in the United States,” CW, 25: 1205.

100 Letter to Lucy Stone, 14 April 1868, CW, 25: 1385.

101 Letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 25 April 1869 CW, 17: 1594 (emphasis added).

102 Letter to Parker Pillsbury, 4 July 1867, CW, 16: 1289.

103 Letter to Samuel N. Wood, 2 June 1867, CW, 16: 278.

104 “Autobiography,” CW, 1: 266–67.

105 Also worth noting is that, contrary to Mill's firm convictions, the victims of America's two “aristocracies” did not always view themselves as natural allies. Indeed, many of the leading figures in the women's suffrage movement used racially charged arguments to advance their cause during the Reconstruction period. See, for example, Michele Mitchell, “‘Lower Orders,’ Racial Hierarchies, and Rights Rhetoric: Evolutionary Echoes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Thought During the Late 1860s,” in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Feminist as Thinker, ed. Ellen DuBois and Richard Cándida Smith (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 128–54.

106 Letter to James M. Barnard, 26 January 1870, CW, 17: 1690–91. (emphasis added)

107 Stephen, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1873), 300–301. (Quoted in Schneider, “J.S. Mill and Fitzjames Stephen,” 293.)

108 See, for example, Considerations on Representative Government, where Mill argues that an emphasis on moral development is essential to checking the “incessant and ever-flowing current of human affairs towards the worse.” “Considerations on Representative Government,” CW, 19: 388.