John Stuart Mill's On Liberty is one of the most enduring documents in the intellectual history of the English language. It is not merely debated by each subsequent generation of political theorists, but brought to bear in political struggles as a "spokes-text" of social groups in order to frame their visions of historical change. In part, this timelessness is by design: Mill purged the text of almost all direct references to contemporary individuals, organizations, and institutions. And this intentional abstraction of political philosophy from contemporary events has served him well for posterity. An immense body of secondary literature happily meets him on his own ground, discussing the (in)validity of distinctions between self- and other-regarding action, the meaningfulness of his "one very simple principle" (or whether it is actually very simple), and so on. And the text's basic arguments have proven adaptable to the long span of history's changing institutional settings and lines of conflict--institutions and conflicts often unimaginable from the book's mid-nineteenth-century, British context.
On Liberty was not, however, written for posterity. It was drafted as an intervention in a dramatic public furor over the politics of the Crimean War, a conflict whose apogee during 1855 and 1856 was the ferment out of which Mill first conceived and began to pen On Liberty, along with the initial drafts of many of his subsequent publications. In February 1855, Mill wrote in a letter to his wife:
The more I think of the plan of a volume on Liberty, the more
likely it seems to me that it will be read & make a sensation.
The title itself with any known name to it would sell an edition.
We must cram into it as much as possible of what we wish not
to leave unsaid. (1)
What was happening in the Britain, even the world, of 1855 that there appeared to be such a public hunger for treatises on the subject of liberty that they would be devoured almost regardless of their content or author? What pressing questions hung in the air of Mill's England, to which a volume on liberty could offer answers? What events raised such questions? And what was the "sensation" that Mill expected? That it would it be trumpeted or reviled? By whom?
The dominant paradigm of Mill scholarship is poorly equipped to answer questions like these. With some late exceptions, (2) virtually all Mill research can be categorized as "classical intellectual history"--contextualizing Mill's thought more against the background of leading intellectuals of the day and their published writings, than in relation to social events and thinkers' embeddedness in politically and economically engaged social groups. While histories of ideas have almost disappeared from the landscape of mainstream historiography, historians of political thought have only slowly, and in rare instances, turned to social history. (3)
A look to the historical record offers answers to these questions, and provides us with a new understanding of On Liberty and its meaning: a meaning no less relevant to subsequent generations for having been plucked from the ether of abstraction.
On Liberty addressed itself to two major themes: the first was the threat to a population from its own government, through coercion from above and the erosion of citizens' rights to act and speak freely; the second was the more subtle danger--often not even recognized as a threat--that individuals might be led by their fellow citizens into uninformed, undeliberated, and enslaving beliefs through social pressure. This second theme was, in essence, a response to the role of public opinion in setting the course of historical change, and a critique of the process through which public opinion was often formed.
Mill was not the first to raise either of these questions, for they were the two primary questions kicked up by the Crimean War, fleshed out in debates over specific public policies, administrative actions, and a sequence of two serious ministerial crises. …