restricted access 2. The Forbearance of the State: John Stuart Mill and the Promise of Irish Property
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chapter two The Forbearance of the State John Stuart Mill and the Promise of Irish Property Outside of a shared interest in thinking about property relations in Ireland, John Stuart Mill bears at least one other resemblance to Maria Edgeworth. Like Edgeworth he voiced doubts about the extent to which he might be seen as having produced his own writing. In his Autobiography (1873), Mill emphasizes the exceptional nature of his intellectual development, which leaves him unsure of the degree to which he really might take credit for subsequent accomplishments. His father started teaching him Greek at age three, moved his son through the classics normally reserved for an Oxbridge education by his fourteenth birthday , and added to that a rigorous training in classical logic and classical economics. The result left Mill with the feeling that his own education, as his father had told him, could not be ascribed to any effort on his own part but rather to “the very unusual advantage which had fallen to my lot” (22). Mill expressed similar reservations about the extent to which he might take credit for his accomplishments after he met Harriet Taylor, the woman who was to become his wife. He wrote that, given the extent to which the couple held “their thoughts and speculations completely in common,” it would be fruitless to claim anything but that “all my published writings were as much her work as mine” (145). 56 The Dispossessed State Despite his unwillingness to claim the entire property of his own work, Mill also stands accused, like Edgeworth, of representing an imperialist sense of entitlement.1 A champion of individual liberty for British subjects, Mill attracts this criticism because of his belief that cultural limits should be placed on such liberty. Arguing for the value of individual development, he famously cautioned that “we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage.” He implies that in cases such as these, entire races might be considered mere children, and despotism would be justified on the same grounds that justify parental authority (On Liberty 14). Like Edgeworth, Mill defended colonizing projects in the name of improvement. He argued that outsiders might have the authority to interfere with indigenous populations so long as their intention was to leave the populations better off than before. Despite their common faith in the improving endeavors of a civilized people, there remains an enormous difference in social position between the two writers. Edgeworth aligned herself with the long tradition of British landholding as stewardship. In her novels she depended on the length of the tradition to depict landlord and tenants as hopelessly enmeshed in a history of ownership and dispossession . Mill, however, made his name jousting at the traditional ascendancy of landed property. The two writers differed entirely as to how property even originates. Edgeworth’s Burkean conception of landownership assumes that land handed down over countless generations is a transmission that ensures the safe transmission of national heritage itself. Even at its most ironic, Edgeworth’s vision of the landlord still holds the landed estates as a basic building block of the nation, and thus a social arrangement that precedes the establishment of any state. Mill disdained this vision of a national character preserved in the vast estates of the aristocracy, a class whose outdated political and economic privileges he felt blocked England’s much-needed legal and social reform. However, in his 1840 essays on Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mill is careful not to dismiss as useless the national heritage which such traditional property was supposed to preserve. Bentham’s shortcoming, Mill notes, lay in his failure to understand the importance of national character. In seeking to dismantle outdated traditions, Mill suggests, Bentham underestimated the irreducible specificity of the group of people who had held them. Mill praises Coleridge’s grasp on the importance of national character but suggests that Coleridge’s sense that landed property serves as vessel to this national disposi- The Forbearance of the State 57 tion necessarily compromises the idea that an owner of land can be considered autonomous. If national heritage is guarded by the landed estate as Coleridge says it is, Mill argues, then the state always has cause to interfere in landed property. From Coleridge’s writing he draws the conclusion that if the state fails to ensure that the cultivation and distribution of land promotes the happiness of the greatest number...


Subject Headings

  • Property in literature.
  • Land tenure -- Government policy -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Land tenure -- Government policy -- Ireland -- History -- 19th century.
  • English fiction -- Irish authors -- History and criticism.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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