Blood for Liberty

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Blood for Liberty


THE SOURCE: "The Emancipation of the American Mind: J. S. Mill on the Civil War" by John W. Compton, in The Review of Politics, Spring 2008.

UNLIKE MANY OF HIS ENGLISH contemporaries, philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73) applauded the American Civil War. In only a few decades, he argued, the fledgling United States had slid backward from the highest principles of liberty and equality to "intellectual stagnation" and a fixation on "money-getting." The war would provide a "salutary shock" to the national conscience. The horrifying butchery required to eradicate slavery was well worth the cost, not only for the emancipated victims but for society as a whole, he believed.

Mill's now-little-studied views were highly unpopular in Britain, where traditionalists openly supported the Confederacy and many reformers loathed slavery but balked at the expected carnage, writes John W. Compton, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles. Mill thought the elimination of slavery essential to the preservation of liberal ideals. Because the United States was at the time the only nation founded on "abstract principles" that could fade over time, a struggle to eliminate a "stain" on the national character might force a re-articulation of principles, leading Americans to tackle other wrongs, such as the failure to allow women to vote.

America had been blessed with founders of political and intellectual genius, according to Mill. …

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