James Mill Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: A utilitarian propagandist and theorist, Mill shattered neat boundaries of modern special scholarship with his intellectual and practical interests.

Early Life

James Mill was born April 6, 1773, in the parish of Logie Pert, Forfarshire, in Scotland. His father, James, was a poor shoemaker, and his mother, Isabel Fenton, was the daughter of an originally wealthy farmer. Both parents were stern Puritans, but James’s mother was ambitious and tried to bring up her son to be a gentleman and a minister. He was educated at Montrose Academy, after which he met Sir James and Lady Jane Stuart, who made it possible for him to attend Edinburgh University. Mill entered there in 1790 and stayed for seven years, living with the Stuarts and tutoring their only child, Wilhelmina.

At Edinburgh, Mill became interested in Greek thought, particularly Plato and the Socratic method he would later use on his own son John. Dugald Steward, a professor of moral philosophy, gave James a taste for studies and a moral consciousness that were to stay with him for life. Here he also met Henry Peter Brougham and Francis Jeffrey—later literary associates—and Thomas Thomson, a fine scientist who became Mill’s lifelong friend.

Mill was licensed to preach in 1798, but his sermons were unsuccessful and he received no parish call. In 1802, he accompanied Sir John Stuart to London and the Parliament, where he observed the House of Commons and developed his interest in politics. Probably because of later opposition to religion and the aristocracy, Mill chose to forget his early days, and even though he later became an advocate of the free press, he maintained one’s young life was not for public knowledge.

In the early 1800’s, Mill began to write for journals, the Anti-Jacobin Review, the Literary Journal, which he helped establish with his Scottish friends, and the St. James Chronicle. In this new setting, he wrote two essays that signaled his future thought, one on the corn trade (1804), in which he defended landholders who profited from the export of grain, and the other a translation of Charles François Dominique de Villers’ Essay on the Spirit and Influence of the Reformation (1805) wherein, with the help of Thomson, he championed the progress of the human mind following an age of religious faith.

In 1805, Mill married Harriet Burrow and settled in Pentonville. Contrary to the thinking of Malthus, whom Mill would eventually support, he fathered nine children, educating the oldest, John Stuart, in his own philosophy to eventually became the spokesman of utilitarianism. After his literary jobs failed, Mill struggled to survive economically, adding to his own debts those of his bankrupt father. Hoping to free himself financially, Mill began work on his History of British India, but that was to take twelve years until it was published in 1817. In the meantime, in 1808, he met Jeremy Bentham, a man who was to determine the tone and character of the rest of his life.

Life’s Work

Almost immediately, Mill became the devoted disciple of Bentham, whose philosophy of utilitarianism—promoting the greatest good for the greatest number—needed practical application. Bentham wanted Mill close at hand, so he provided housing at Queen’s Square and supported him financially. Unlike the fanciful Bentham, Mill was stern and rigid, but the two conversed almost daily and, with the exception of a major quarrel in 1814, agreed that they needed each other if their thinking was to have a lasting effect.

Able from his family training and schooling to speak and write clearly and forcefully, Mill began to use the press and the public forum to further Bentham’s goals. By 1810, he had dropped his theology and became an open critic of the established church. He began to write for the Edinburgh Review, and though Brougham’s and Jeffrey’s editing concealed Mill’s connections to Bentham, Mill still was able to externalize utilitarian views in many areas—emancipation, foreign affairs, economics, and penal reform. In his article “Commerce Defended” he reversed his earlier defense of wealthy landowners to become an overt opponent of the aristocracy.

Mill was also interested in education. John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography (1873) speaks of how his father brought him up to be a rigorous rationalist at the expense of both feeling and sentiment. In the 1810’s, Mill championed the Lancasterian theory of education (teaching the poor to read and write, and having students help each other learn), as opposed to the church schools, which dwelt on the study of the catechism. He later espoused Bentham’s chrestomathic method (adult education in utilitarian tendencies), but generally his efforts to promote a lasting method failed.

Mill was more fortunate in the area of governmental reform. Supporting the Radicals, he was instrumental in increasing their representation in Parliament and promoted the consequent changes in government policy. Mill was able to work with men...

(The entire section is 2107 words.)