- England’s Disgrace?: J.S. Mill and the Irish Question
John Stuart Mill was the nineteenth century’s greatest Anglophone exponent of liberalism. His major works of political and economic theory strikingly correspond to successive conjunctures in Britain between the 1840s and 1860s. The pivotal moments of his own life—his youthful “mental crisis” and break with Benthamite utilitarianism, his partnerships with Harriet Taylor Mill and Helen Taylor, his famous women’s suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867—likewise resonate with Victorian social and cultural movements. But thanks to the recent work of Catherine Hall, Javed Majeed, Uday Singh Mehta, and other scholars, which builds on that of Eric Stokes more than forty years ago, we are beginning to see Mill and his father James in a new light. Servants of the East India Company, both men elaborated their ideas in response to imperial, not simply British or European, developments.
Ireland, it is often said, was England’s first colony. Bruce L. Kinzer’s England’s Disgrace? charts the course of Mill’s thinking about Ireland from the early days of his involvement in radical politics to his last campaigns during W.E. Gladstone’s first Liberal government. Chapter One examines Mill’s intervention in the Catholic question and subsequent interest in the role of the Irish leader Daniel O’Connell in the struggle between British Whigs and Tories in the 1820s and 30s. Chapter Two considers Mill’s response to the Irish Famine in the 1840s, particularly his advocacy of peasant proprietorship as a solution to Ireland’s plight. Chapter Three tracks his reflections on economic change in post-Famine Ireland in various revised editions of the Principles of Political Economy published during the 1850s and 60s. Chapter Four deals with Mill’s stand on the Irish university question, which divided liberals who agreed on ending religious tests in Oxbridge but disagreed on the role of Catholic higher education in an Ireland still dominated by the Anglo-Irish ascendancy in the 1860s. Chapter Five covers Mill’s defense of Fenian prisoners after their failed insurrection and his own efforts to save the union of Britain and Ireland by proposing a sweeping measure of Irish land reform in the late 1860s.
As his title suggests, Kinzer argues that Mill saw Irish problems primarily through English lenses. These problems constituted a recurring test of the quality of British government and public opinion. Indeed, Britain established the civilized and progressive norm and dependent Ireland provided the backward exception that occasionally called for peculiar solutions which diverged from that norm. Kinzer is a cautious historian, and his study is based on research in manuscript as well as printed sources. Sometimes he takes issue with other scholars, particularly with regard to the historiography on Mill and the land question. Kinzer’s very careful reconstruction of Mill’s views also serves usefully to contextualize his ideas and influence vis-à-vis those of his contemporaries. Mill was not alone in his concern about Ireland, nor was he necessarily the most analytically persuasive or politically effective figure on the scene.
Anyone interested in Mill and empire should read Kinzer’s book, which makes an excellent companion to Lynn Zastoupil’s John Stuart Mill and India (1994). Of course, Ireland and the Irish diaspora occupied an ambiguous position in the British imperial state during the nineteenth century. Mill’s ongoing if uneven engagement with “John Bull’s other island” is a reminder of the sometimes blurred and complicated gradients of identity and difference that structured the relationship between metropole and colonies. It is no criticism of Kinzer’s welcome contribution to suggest new directions in the study of liberals, radicals, and empire. Deploying the categories of gender and cultural history as well as those of the history of politics and political thought, Catherine Hall has already shown how multiple and often simultaneous challenges—Canada, Ireland, Jamaica, New Zealand in the 1860s — reshaped the mid-Victorian generation’s understanding of and investment in imperialism. We might look forward to future studies of...