Radical Son: The Apprenticeship of John Stuart Mill

By Taylor, Quentin | Humanitas, Spring-Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Radical Son: The Apprenticeship of John Stuart Mill


Taylor, Quentin, Humanitas


Few parents raise their children from infancy to assume a specific occupation or role in life. Fewer still raise them to be radical reformers. This, however, is precisely what James Mill did with his first-born child, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). At the time of his son's birth, James Mill was a struggling man of letters who had left his native Scotland for London after stints as a scholar, a preacher, and a tutor. In 1808 he met Jeremy Bentham, the eccentric philosopher and legal reformer, and adopted his doctrines wholesale, while Bentham in turn embraced the radical politics of Mill. The two would join forces in a crusade to transform an aristocratic and semi-feudal England into a modern democracy. Mill, Bentham, and their followers would become known as the "Philosophic Radicals" and were for a time represented by a small, but vocal, contingent of MPs in the House of Commons. Thoroughly convinced of the truth, justice, and practicality of his creed, James Mill nonetheless understood that the battle for reform would require additional talents if the final victory was to be won. His mother had taken great pains to see that he was highly educated, exempting him from all duties save study. The precocious child won a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh where he distinguished himself in a number of fields. Bentham was also a prodigy of learning, perhaps the youngest student ever to graduate from Oxford. Given the ideas and ambitions of these two men, it was no surprise that John Mill would be groomed from an early age in the image of his father.

As told in his famous Autobiography, Mill began learning Greek at the age of three and arithmetic shortly thereafter. By eight he was reading Greek authors and learning Latin. Over the next four years his studies expanded to encompass the entire circle of the liberal arts: history, mathematics, the classics, logic, political economy, and literature. He took notes, made abstracts, compiled tables, and conversed intelligently with his father. He was a petit monstre of learning. As a result of this ambitious "experiment" in home-schooling, John Mill by the age of fourteen possessed "an advantage of a quarter of a century over [his] contemporaries." (1)

In the Autobiography, Mill says almost nothing about his early political education, but there can be little doubt that he imbibed the doctrines of Radicalism as readily as his Greek and Latin. The Mill household was the Radicals' effective headquarters, and young John grew well-acquainted with a number of the group's leading figures. (2) From David Ricardo, a close friend of his father's, he learned the principles of classical political economy--principles he largely retained for the rest of his life. Bentham himself took a special interest in the boy, and agreed to continue the "experiment" if his father should not live to oversee its completion. Pere Mill survived a serious illness and in 1820 arranged for John to stay a half-year with the family of Bentham's brother (himself a man of distinction) in Restoration France. In Paris Mill fils was introduced to a number of liberals, some of whom were correspondents of English Radicals, including the noted economist Jean-Baptiste Say. Settled in southern France, John would continue his rigorous course of study--logic, zoology, chemistry, higher mathematics, and literature. (Religion and theology, as under his father's tutelage, were conspicuously absent from the curriculum.) He also kept a journal, mastered French, attended lectures, explored the countryside, and made his first boyhood friend. So pleasant was his stay that he was permitted to extend his sojourn for an additional six months. He returned to England in July, 1821, a confirmed Francophile.

What occurred shortly thereafter would change his life forever and reveal the higher purpose of his hot-house education. Confident that his "experiment" had been a success, James Mill decided the time was nigh to bring young John into the church of Radicalism. …

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