The Wilson Quarterly

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. Mostly supported by the labor of slaves, these exceptional men had tolerated slavery in the Constitution. Mill, like Thomas Jefferson, had expected it to wither away, and was encouraged by a spate of manumissions following the Revolutionary War and by the American ban on the importation of African slaves in ­1808.

Mill blamed the survival of slavery on economics: Cotton production required little but brute animal force for its production, depleted the soil, and fueled an insatiable desire for new territory. If the North had com­pro­mised with the secessionist states, he wrote, the South’s peculiar institution would have been pushed by the barrel of a gun into Mexico and Central America as cotton growers acquired the virgin land necessary for further production. Slavery would have been somewhat legitimized and would ultimately have required a crusade by civilized Europe to ­eliminate.

Mill had become concerned that America forgot its principles in the pursuit of prosperity in the early years of the 19th century. A “courtier spirit” pervaded American life, and people had little stomach for those who questioned established institutions. America lived in “perpetual adoration of itself,” Mill wrote, and the greatest danger it faced was that the national mind would be dulled by the self-satisfied notion that all was ­right.

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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. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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