Utility, Property, and Political Participation: James Mill on Democratic Reform
Shannon C. Stimson & Murray Milgate
American Political Science Review, vol. 87, no. 4, December 1, 1993

The utility theory forwarded by James Mill states that individuals participate in political activities because their personal wealth is at stake. This means that political participation is necessary to maintain control of one's own property. According to Mill, it is only fair that people be given the chance to vote for leaders who will protect their properties and ensure their well-being. His view clearly implies that he favors a representative government rather than an autocratic one.

While it would be something of an exaggeration to say that a great controversy rages over James Mill's role in the movement for democratic reform in Britain during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, it is certainly true that sharp divisions have existed over exactly how that role is to be cast.(1) According to some, Mill was the spokesman for the political demands of the middle classes, the advocate of a reform of parliament designed to make it representative of the interests of private property.(2) According to others, Mill was more the democrat he often declared himself to be, the advocate of a reform of parliament designed to make it more broadly representative of "the people."(3) Doubtless these divisions persist because so much is at stake. The democratic commitment of those varieties of liberalism that find their basis in utilitarian theory is ultimately in question. Perhaps this is why today as in the past one thing, at least, that seems to be agreed on among most of the commentators on James Mill's politics is that we cannot have it both ways and that we have to locate James Mill's politics squarely in one or other of these putatively opposing encampments.

The possibility that Mill's politics might have embraced both of these opinions has, of course, not been entirely overlooked. But those who have traveled this interpretive path have almost uniformly reached the conclusion that Mill was inconsistent, confused, or both.(4) The appeal of this line of interpretation is that it at least allows one to avoid the intellectual gymnastics that seem so common in those readings which would have us paint Mill's politics in either black or white. For on this alternative reading, one can admit all of what Mill actually had to say on the subject of politics, rather than having to find reasons why one might legitimately put to one side those remarks which do not blend neatly into one's particular representation.

We wish to suggest another interpretive strategy, namely, that James Mill's contributions to the science of politics--"that master science," as he once called it (1818a, 708)--might be more satisfactorily understood if due account were taken of the fact that in unfolding his vision of a reformed polity, Mill found it necessary to provide a mapping from the principles on which representation was made to rest, to the actual conditions of the societies in which those principles were to be applied. The "philosophical Mill" and the "polemical Mill" appear as characters in this drama in essentially the same costumes they have worn in previous renderings of Mill's politics. The difference, however, is that on the reading we propose it is necessary neither to elevate the one over the other nor to see them as appearing as representations of some basic or underlying inconsistency of thought. In what follows, we shall attempt to document how, beginning and ending with a framework of concepts in which utility and knowledge were the desiderata for political participation, Mill was led (for reasons both theoretical and practical) to associate property with the requisite capacity for political judgment.


When James Mill opened the entry on "Government" for Macvey Napier's Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica with the assertion that "the whole science of human nature must be explored, to lay a foundation for the science of politics" (1820a, 3), it was, for him, no recently formed opinion. In a review of Gaetano Filangieri's Science of Legislation for the Literary Journal as far back as September 1806, Mill had already revealed his preference for a maxim he there attributed to Filangieri, namely, "Political laws are ultimately founded on certain fixed principles, derived from the nature of man, . . . |and~ according as laws coincide with these principles they are good, according as they discord with them they are bad" (1806c, 228). Whether or not the "fixed principles" concerning the "nature of man" to which Mill subscribed in 1806 were derived from utilitarian philosophy or from the Scottish moral-sense tradition of Reid and Dugald Stewart,(6) it is clear that by the time of the essay on "Government," the principles of representative government, according to Mill's plan for a new constitution, were to be derived from nothing less than the application of the utilitarian theory of choice and action to politics. Mill spared his readers the journey into the details of that theory in the essay on "Government" itself, remarking only that "to understand what is included in the happiness of the greatest number, we must understand what is included in the happiness of the individuals of whom it is composed" (1820a, 3) and that "the lot of every human being is determined by his pains and pleasures; and that his happiness corresponds with the degree in which his pleasures are great, and his pains are small" (1820a, 4).

Mill's rendition of the utilitarian theory of human nature began with a model of man as an aggressive and domineering pleasure seeker, who, if unchecked, would "as a law of human nature . . . take from others anything which they have and he desires" (1820a, 8). The same figure was implicated in the essay on "Jurisprudence": "As every man desires to have for himself as many good things as possible, and as there is not a sufficiency of good things for all, the strong if left to themselves, would take from the weak every thing, or at least as much as they pleased" (1820b, 4). In this way, it was on the presumption that "there is no limit to the number of men whose actions we desire to have conformable to our will" (1820a, 11) that Mill grounded his arguments for both the actual need for, and the necessary structure of, government. Inevitably, this led him to a conception of civil government in which the state was, at once, a human institution rooted in the individual's need for protection and potential threat to that very security (1820a, 15). Utility thus explained the origin of government and utility mandated that its powers over individuals should be kept limited and small (see 1825b, 196).

According to Mill, all the "difficult questions of Government relate to the means of restraining those, in whose hands are lodged the powers necessary for the protection of all, from making bad use of it. Whatever would be the temptations under which individuals would lie, if there was no Government, to take the objects of desire from others weaker than themselves, under the same temptations the members of the Government lie, to take the objects of desire from the members of the community, if they are not prevented from doing so" (1820a, 5). This conception of a political world in which power must constantly check power led Mill to reject in principle the three "pure forms" of government--democracy (the many), aristocracy (the few), and monarchy (the one)--as well as any theory of a mixed or "balanced" government of all three (see 1825b, 197).(7) No set of powers so aggressively construed could possibly be expected to compromise:

The Democracy or the Community have all possible motives to endeavour to prevent the Monarchy and Aristocracy from exercising power, or obtaining the wealth of the community, for their own advantage: The Monarchy and Aristocracy have all possible motives for endeavouring to obtain unlimited power over the persons and property of the community: The consequence is inevitable; they have all possible motives for combining to obtain that power, and unless the people have power enough to be a match for both, they have no protection" (1820a, 16).

It was on the basis of this demonstration--and the corollary that any interest not congruent with that of the community was "sinister"--that Mill constructed his theory of representative government. In achieving representative government, the "real object to be aimed at in the composition of the legislature," Mill argued, was "to prevent the predominance of the interest of any individual or of any class; because if such interest predominates, . . . it will be promoted at the expense of the community" (1826d, 781; see also Hamburger 1963, 22). The only form of government that would check the tendency of the monarchy or the aristocracy to domineer was one that placed the power of government (identified as the legitimate power to check) in the community (see 1824a, 211, 219; 1825b, 201). However, the people themselves (democracy) could not be entrusted actually to exercise these powers, therefore they must be handed over to a "body of men, called Representatives" (1820a, 18). On the grounds that the entire community would be so large as to be "essentially incapable of business" and that in large assemblies, "so many persons desire to speak, and feelings, by mutual inflammation, become so violent, that calm and effectual deliberation is impossible" (1820a, 6), Mill was led directly to his advocacy of representative government. The question remained, however, as to how these representatives themselves were to be prevented from domineering: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (1835d, 15). Mill's answer was twofold. On the one hand, short but unspecified terms of office would, he claimed, ensure that representatives identified their own interests with those of the community (1820a, 18). On the other hand, Mill argued that it was necessary to limit and shape the character of the electors eligible to choose such representatives to those whose interest could also be ascertained to be identical to that of the community. The mechanisms for this second and more formative political task were the secret ballot and education.

In the Parliamentary Review for the sessions of 1826-27 and 1827-28, Mill contributed an article arguing that the prevailing system of open voting promoted the corruption of politics in at least two ways. First, it obviously enhanced the ability of the wealthy to give a veneer of electoral legitimacy to their own sinister interests by exerting pressure on those beneath them to cast votes in their support: "If the poor man cannot conceal from the rich man how he votes, the rich man knows to a certainty when his price commands his commodity, and he can make sure of it" (1827, 365). Second, the open voting system was necessarily morally corruptive of the poor, since "the voter, whether he be a good man, or a bad man, would, if he followed his own inclination, vote differently from the mode in which influence is exerted to induce him to vote." The consequence for the citizen, Mill argued, was that if "he is a bad man, and disregards a promise, he votes as he pleases, knowing he may do so with impunity; and his promise passes for nothing. If on the contrary we suppose that he is a good man, the good man knows that it is a bad thing to make a bad promise; but a worse thing to keep it" (ibid.).(8) Either way, the virtue of the would-be voter was impuned.

In Mill's hands, the secret ballot became the single most important weapon against rule by the wealthy: "The ballot, and that alone, can enable |the people~ to choose, and render the British constitution in reality what it now is only in pretence" (1830, 13). Elsewhere, with greater rhetorical flourish, Mill wrote: "Make voting secret, and who will pay for a vote which is of no value, when it cannot be known? Make voting secret, and who will incur the expense of bringing distant voters to the poll, who may all vote for the opposite party?" (1827, 362; see also 1825b, 201-2). Mill continued to place faith in the secret ballot, even as late as 1835, as that element of democratic reform most necessary to secure good government.(9) On a theoretical level this is not surprising, since the secret ballot goes well with the fear of corrupted interests so strongly expressed in all of Mill's political writings. Without electors whose choices can be made independently there could be no checking of the influence of "sinister interest" in the constitution. Secrecy, Mill believed, would ensure independence (1825b, 228). Unfortunately, the secret ballot alone could not prevent the rise of another, equally sinister interest--that of the poor. Here Mill's answer was not to "check" it but to educate it.

"The virtue of people, you say, is weak. Unhappily it is so, deplorably weak," Mill wrote in the July number of the Westminster Review for 1830 in an article on the ballot. However, its improvement required more than franchise or electoral reform; an indispensible component to Mill's parliamentary reform proposals was a plan of education. The details of that plan are of less importance to this discussion than is its unambiguous purpose, namely, to create a community of shared (common) interest out of individuals whose interests could neither naturally nor originally be understood as coincident or bound up with those of others. When one turns to the essay on "Government," the paramount necessity of the existence of such a coherent moral and political "community" in order to make his proposal for a reformed government "representative" through the "identity of interests between ruler and ruled" becomes clear (see also James Mill 1825b, 213). Referred to by Mill as an "exposition of the Elements of Political Knowledge," the essay "Government" isolated middle-class morality as the most important component of political knowledge available to the masses. Consonant with his general and rather sketchily crafted argument in the essay on "Education"--that the foundation of mental life is grounded on associations (mental sequences)--it was necessary for political knowledge and effective political participation that the individual develop the correct associations, or "primary habits," of mind (1818b, 71-99, esp. 93-96; see also Mill 1829). The appropriate habits or associations for the laboring classes were to be formed through their assimilation of the moral norms and values of that "virtuous and intelligent rank." The middle rank, which according to Mill "gives to science, to art and to legislation itself, their most distinguished ornaments, . . . advice and example" (1820a, 32),(10) became for him a vanguard in the formation of those opinions identified with the interests of the community.(11)

In the essay on "Government," these norms provided the foundation of the community and enabled its constituents to identify as representatives those individuals whose interests were consonant with it. Here, the discussion of creating a genuine community of interest that could safely select representatives who conveyed its virtues into politics replaced any direct discussion of the more familiar radical proposals for "universality, equality, annuality and secrecy."(12) Despite Mill's allegiance to "the plebian, the democratical" (1830, 6), he would ultimately do little more for the theory of representation in the essay on "Government" than substitute a new virtualism--one based on age, gender, and "identity of interest"--for the old. Within this framework, it was Mill's apparent willingness to view the laboring class as a threat and, at times, to envisage their principal political role as being one that should be exercised outside of government--poised and ready to check the sinister interests of "their Rulers" (1820a, 19)--that led Bentham to characterize Mill's democratical commitments as equivocal. According to Bentham, Mill "argues against oppression less because he loves the oppressed many, than because he hates the oppressing few. He fights for the people--|not~ that he cares for the suffering people, but that he cannot tolerate the suffering-creating rulers" (Bentham 1838, 10:432).(13) In this way, Mill's characterization of the actual political function of even an expanded electorate remained more reminiscent of an eighteenth-century vision of popular protest.

In shifting the focus of achieving "good government" away from the virtue of the representative and placing it instead on that of the community of electors, Mill's theory of government took, at best, a tentative step towards modern representative democracy. It ensured that his approach to expanding the franchise was almost wholly negative--so much so, that when applied it proved to exclude from the franchise all but the "aggregate males" ("all males of sound mind and mature years," as he put it in his famous attack on the opinions of the Edinburgh Reviewers |1825b, 222~) who could meet the "identity of interest" criterion (1820a, 21).(14) In contrast to visions of representation that might have placed a value on bringing into government the existing diversity of interests (especially class interests) present in the community, James Mill's theory continued to stress commonality and uniformity. The question Mill had not yet answered in any satisfactory or modern way, however, was exactly who it was among "the people" that made up this community.

Mill's starting point in the consideration of the extent of the franchise once again bears all the hallmarks of utilitarianism. He set out to determine the capacity for political decision making upon the premise that what was required for good political choice was the full knowledge of one's own interest and the wherewithal to act rationally upon it. Mill then resolved the problem that individuals might entertain mistaken views of interest in a typically utilitarian manner: education was the answer. Maintaining that the "evils which arise from mistake are not incurable" on the grounds that "if parties who act contrary to their interest had a proper knowledge of that interest, they would act well," Mill concluded that all that was necessary was knowledge: "Knowledge, on the part of those whose interests are the same as those of the community, would be an adequate remedy"; for Mill, of course, knowledge was "a thing which is capable of being increased" (1820a, 29; see also 1824b, 466 and 1826c, 268). At issue here is both what type of knowledge is necessary to politics and the relationship between that knowledge and political stability. As to the type of knowledge required beyond the practical instruction to be derived from observing the operation of the "political machine" (1835d, 23), Mill adverts to the customary utilitarian conception of knowledge as individual mental capacity developed through formal education. On this line of argument, education "is the means which may be employed to render the mind . . . an operative cause of happiness" (1818b, 41; emphasis original).

Once more, the utilitarian model of man is placed at the center of Mill's argument. If individuals are seeking to act in ways that promote their own interest (i.e., if utility is their objective), they must possess full information not only of the alternatives available to them but also of the utility they will derive once a particular course of action has been chosen. "Good choice" mandates the full knowledge of possibilities and consequences. In the essay "Liberty of the Press," the case was made in unambiguous terms: "The very foundation of a good choice is knowledge. The fuller and more perfect the knowledge, the better the chance . . . of a good choice" (1821, 19). Years later, in the Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, Mill would return again to the same theme: "For the most perfect performance of acts of prudence, the greatest measure of knowledge is required" (1829, 2:282-83).

As to what it was that this type of knowledge had to contribute to political stability, Mill's answer was as consistent as it was unequivocal: educated individuals would come to see their own interests as being in conformity with those of "the community." Knowledge made things safer; its absence threatened political stability. Moreover, if education failed to suffice to bring an individual's interests into conformity with those of the community, discipline would be required. So much so, in fact, that since "there are some minds with which you cannot be sure of being able in every case to bring evidence, as it were, in contact," it would be necessary to arm magistrates "with a coercive power" (1818a, 717).

Having deduced from the principle of utility the proposition that representative democracy was the basic means of securing good government and having shown that "intellectual aptitude"(15) among the voting public was the only prerequisite to the choice of suitable representatives, Mill turned his attention to the question of the property qualification. The argument ran as follows. A high qualification must be rejected because it would yield just another form of aristocratic or oligarchic government. A low qualification too, must be rejected: "|A~ very low qualification is of no use, as affording no security for a good choice beyond that which would exist if no pecuniary qualification was required" (1820a, 22), since the votes of the propertyless would be so few as not to disturb the interest of the rest of the "community." Interestingly, however, in the essay on "Government" Mill did not quite conclude that therefore no property qualification was necessary.

Instead, Mill posed a rather different question. If one thought that such a qualification was needed, upon what principle might it be determined? On the argument that it was "not easy to find any satisfactory principle to guide us in our researches" (1820a, 23), Mill acquiesced to the property qualification, but with the proviso that it be fixed at a level that ensured the inclusion of "the majority" of the community. It seemed to Mill "hardly necessary" to "carry the analysis of the pecuniary qualification" any further. That said, two features of this argument should be kept in mind. The first is that Mill still maintained the primary principle of his science of politics, namely, that it was "the interests of the community" that had to be conveyed into politics, not the "interests of property." At the same time, however, Mill conceded that a secondary association between the possession of property and the interests of the community might exist. Such an association would allow a subset of the community--the property-owning middle class--to convey the interests of all safely into government. In this sense, property for Mill appears as a proxy for the community interest and not as the dominant vehicle of political exclusion.(16)

This is not to say that Mill did not articulate a principle of exclusion. In casting his philosopher's eye across the list of names of potential electors, Mill constructed an interesting exclusionary criterion. "One thing is pretty clear," he asserted, namely, "that all those whose interests are indisputably included in those of other individuals, may be struck off without inconvenience" (1820a, 21). It was thanks to this particular criterion that women and children (with the age of 40 being Mill's preferred boundary between minority and majority) were struck off Mill's electoral register (ibid., 22).

Several things need to be said about this argument. In the first place (confining ourselves to matters of logic for the moment), Mill's exclusionary rule fits uneasily within the utilitarian calculus. The application of utility theory to any problem of choice requires (among other things) the assumption that agents possess the capacity to choose--that they have full information as to the possibilities and consequences of their actions. Models of rational self-interest, in other words, assume not just rationality but also knowledge. When addressing the problem of who should be excluded from the electoral register, it was therefore logical to check that each of these requirements was met by voters. Thus, in certain parts of the essay on "Government," Mill was led, quite consistently, to advance education as a criterion against which to judge the suitability of electors. However, the associated idea that when one agent's interests were "included" in another's, utility theory mandated the exclusion of one or other of them is false. Under a simple majority-rule voting procedure, in a society that consisted of more than two individuals, even if a woman whose interests were supposedly "included" in those of some other man had identical preferences to that man, political choice would in general fail to satisfy Mill's criterion of the greatest aggregate utility.(17)

The logic that inspired Mill's new virtualism comes out particularly clearly in a short correspondence between David Ricardo and Mill on the publication of Mill's History of British India, where Mill seems to have applied it to determine the mode of government best suited to that colony. Ricardo expressed his doubts to Mill as to whether "the Government and laws of one state of society" were well "adapted for another state of society" (Ricardo 1951-73, 7:22). This, Ricardo correctly noticed, was "one of the great difficulties of the science" (ibid., 229). His doubts arose from an obvious consideration, namely, that the "people of England, who are governors, have an interest opposed to that of the people of India, who are the governed, in the same manner as the interest of despotic sovereign is opposed to that of his people" (ibid., 239).

Furthermore, since the British public's apathy toward the administration of India was taken as a given by Ricardo, he held that even the "outside" check of public opinion at home was not likely to be "very active and will therefore not much tend towards the correction of abuses" (ibid.) in colonial administration. He was led, therefore, to wonder whether the "salutory dread of insurrection" was all that remained to check "misrule and oppression" in that country (ibid., 241). Ricardo, however, then proceeded to put his finger squarely on the problem with the new virtualism of Mill:

Are we to fix our eyes steadily on the end, the happiness of the governed, and pursue it at the expense of those principles which all men are agreed in calling virtuous? If so might not |any~ ruler, disregard all the engagements of his predecessors, and by force of arms compel the submission of all the native powers of India if he could show that there was a great probability of adding to the happiness of the people by the introduction of better instruments of government. (Ibid., 241-42)

The difficulty Ricardo foresaw, then, was precisely a problem at the core of Mill's theory of representation. Furthermore, when that theory was grounded in the theory of utility, the problem took the form of having to determine "how to balance one object of utility against another" (ibid., 242). In short, what Ricardo seems to have been raising here was the whole question of interpersonal comparisons of utility (and this, a good 40 years before the younger Mill came across it in the course of his elaboration of the harm principle in On Liberty).

No reply from Mill to these queries is extant. But the correspondence between the two surrounding Mill's History of British India impinges directly on the questions Ricardo raised, and it aids in clarifying the character of Mill's thinking on these points. In his very first letter praising Mill's performance, the ever modest Ricardo declared that he was now "anxiously disposed to understand" the science of legislation, and that he entertained "sanguine expectations" as to the "practicability of improvements in legislation" (ibid., 228-29). To this, Mill replied that he had no doubt that "we shall now understand one another" on that subject, and he asserted that "the ends are there, in the first place, known--they are clear and definite" and that it remained only "to determine the choice of means" (ibid., 234-35). In saying this, of course, Mill was no more than repeating the method he applied in legitimating representative government in England: it was the necessary means to the greatest happiness. In India, for Mill at least, the means would be different. When Ricardo politely enquired of Mill as to what one should do when exclusive focus on the ends led, as it did in the case of India, to the justification of an imperial despotism, Mill was silent (see, Hutchison, 1953).

It seems clear, however, that if the essay on "Government" is to be taken at its word (recall that it purports to show that only representative government is sanctioned by the principle of utility), then the idea that the government of India could safely be entrusted to the members of the Imperial Parliament at Westminster would contradict his best-known contribution to the science of government. If, on the other hand, we seek to rescue him from contradiction by reminding ourselves that the principle of utility sanctions only a government representative of those capable of knowing what is in their own best interest and acting upon it, and that in nations like India this might be a very few (or none), then it would appear that we might have plunged him into a deeper quagmire. For in that case, the idea of representative government as a government of the "Democracy or Community" would seem to be fatally compromised.(18)

Received opinion seems to be that it was left to John Stuart Mill to attempt to deliver the utilitarian theory of government from this impasse (see D. Thompson, 1976, 25-27). The younger Mill freely abandoned the claim that the principle of utility sanctioned only equal representation (even at home), and, without a second thought, declared that the ignorance of savages rendered enlightened imperial rule superior to a "native despotism" (J.S. Mill 1861, 409). But if James Mill was silent on the relation between utility and self-rule in India in his correspondence with Ricardo, he had not always been so reluctant in expressing the implications of his science of politics when it was to be applied to "underdeveloped" political cultures. In an article on Spanish America in the Edinburgh Review in 1809, the eider Mill was as clear as his son was to be some 60 years later. Proceeding on the familiar premise that the "ignorance and irritability" of "the people" might "be worked upon by men of evil intentions," Mill held that in the project of establishing the conditions for political liberty in Spanish America, "as much as possible should be done for the people,--but nothing by them" (1809, 304-5).

In conformity with his well-established criterion of appropriate aptitude, Mill asserted that there was "one danger in rendering the basis of representation too wide" namely, that "you incur the inconveniences of the ignorant and precipitate passions of the vulgar" (1809, 308). Mill referred his readers to Bentham's Fragment on Government for further enlightenment on the subject. In Mill's hands, then, the task of settling on a stable equilibrium between the level of knowledge attained by the general public and the extent of representation became (and remained) the central problematic of the utilitarian theory of government. In all of his discussions of the principles of representation, James Mill neither abandoned it, compromised it, nor obscured it. However unacceptable his argument might seem to be today or however comforting it might be to endorse some (but not all) of its aspects, it does violence to the historical record to attribute a contemporary disquiet over such matters to some putative problem with Mill's own contribution to the science of politics.


If one considers just how many of "the people" of Britain would have been enfranchised under James Mill's suggested scheme in the essay on "Government," the result turns out to be interesting. Taking the demographic profile for Great Britain and Ireland for 1820, the year Mill's essay appeared, the number of males aged 40 or above was approximately 2.1 million that is, 10% of a total population of about 21 million (see Mitchell 1988, 9-10). Assuming that the then existing electorate numbered approximately five hundred thousand adult males, a little arithmetic yields the conclusion that had all of Mill's 40-year-old men been enfranchised, the scheme would have quadrupled the electoral franchise.

Some appreciation of the adjustment that the practical adoption of Mill's scheme would have entailed can be gauged by recalling that when a bill for parliamentary reform was finally introduced in 1832, Lord John Russell conjectured that if enacted, the measure would add about half a million voters to the electoral rolls of a kingdom of some 24 million inhabitants. Had this estimate been accurate, the First Reform Bill would have roughly doubled the existing electoral franchise. As it turned out, the net addition to the franchise was a little over three hundred thousand (see Halevy, 1913-32, 3:27, n. 5). An actual expansion of the elective franchise on James Mill's scheme would therefore have been seven times greater than that eventually secured under the 1832 Reform Bill.

These exercises, however, reveal only part the distance that separated the Whig and Radical reformers of the day. It has also to be remembered that for most of the Whig reformers the First Reform Bill stood at the end of the road to democracy, while for the radicals it marked only its beginning. Thus, for example, as home secretary in Lord Melbourne's cabinet, Lord John Russell declared at the opening of Parliament after the 1837 general election--in the speech that earned for him in Radical circles, the nickname "Finality Jack" (see Wallas 1925, 366; Walpole 1889, 1:289-90)--that the wide scope of the constitutional readjustment worked by the First Reform Bill was acceded to by his Whig colleagues precisely because it was meant to be final.

As far as James Mill was concerned, the practical reform of the franchise accomplished in 1832, while tending in the right direction, was a mere "crumb of reform" (1835d, 12). In the four years that remained of his life after the First Reform Bill, Mill steadfastly ridiculed the idea that the act of 1832 could be thought of as a final measure. Declaring it to be the work of "half-and-half reformers," Mill continued to play out the central themes of his science of politics against a new backdrop. Nothing had been done to remove the abuses concomitant upon the open voting system (ibid., 14-15; 1835a); the House of Lords remained a seat of aristocratic power with the ability to subvert the wishes of the House of Commons (1836, 297-301); the "injustice and oppression" of sinecures and other forms of political privilege remained in place (ibid., 293-94); the religious establishment remained intact; and even the House of Commons itself still needed to be "chosen by the people, not nominally, as, to a great degree, it is at present, but actually, and in truth" (1835c, 51). In short, the British electoral reform of 1832 provided none of the securities to good government that Mill had long demanded.

Another arena in which Mill's application of his theory of government may be seen in action was found in his reflections on the popular disturbances of the day. Indeed, Mill addressed the events of Peterloo in the essay on "Government" itself. "What signify the irregularities of the mob," he asked, when it was "more than half composed in the greater number of instances, of boys and women?" And then he came to the point:

What signifies the occasional turbulence of a manufacturing district, peculiarly unhappy from a very great deficiency of a middle rank, as there the population almost wholly consists of rich manufacturers and poor workmen; with whose minds no pains are taken by anybody; with whose afflictions there is no virtuous family of the middle rank to sympathize; whose children have no good example of such a family to see and to admire; and who are placed in the highly unfavourable situation of fluctuating between very high wages in one year, and very low wages in another? It is altogether futile with regard to the foundation of good government to say that this or the other portion of the people, may at this, or the other time, depart from the wisdom of the middle rank. (1820a, 32)

While these observations should not be taken to indicate that Mill wished to deny democratic citizenship to the working class, they are indicative of the character of Mill's argument for enfranchising them. For example, consider the remarks about needing to educate men and women to correct opinions and about having them emulate those "virtuous families of the middle rank" that Mill advocated. For Mill, it was essential to show that most of the time, most of the people "continue to be guided by that rank." It is also worth noticing that Mill claimed that these instances of popular unrest should, in fact, be regarded as an "exception" to the "rule" that the people were capable of judging. Indeed, Mill argued that these exceptions actually proved the rule: since there were so few of these protesters (measured against the whole population), "therefore" most must have been guided by those middling ranks of people of good sense. What is of importance here is that the practical locus of reform was tied to the people while the locus of the theoretical argument remained where it always had been, with appropriate knowledge, the interests of the community, and the standard-bearers of those interests.


It is evident, then, that whether in the context of his philosophical or practical discourse, James Mill uniformly advocated a government representative of a political community whose boundaries were to be drawn up according to one and only one criterion: knowledge. In this way, of course, Mill's argument shifted the focus of deciding the question of who should vote from its traditional eighteenth-century domain of inherent personal character with its origins in birth, rank, or breeding.(19) Instead, Mill located it squarely in the domain of the human mind--"the eye of plain reason" (1814, 2). The capacity to judge correctly one's own interest and to act upon it was all that was required. Rationality replaced reputation as the single most important qualification for citizenship.

In introducing this idea, of course, Mill had brought the doctrine of the equality of man into the science of politics in a way not open to the old virtualists among Mill's Whig contemporaries and predecessors. Unlike the virtues of the "great orders," in which eighteenth-century thinkers had placed so much faith, rational thought and action was potentially within the grasp of all. Even so, Mill's argument retained some vestiges of that earlier discourse. There still remained "the community" of shared and common interest, of which government alone was to take heed. However, since Mill's conception of rational action informed his understanding of the nature of such a community, much of what has previously been regarded as either confused or contradictory in Mill's politics fails readily into place. Given Mill's particular characterization of rational action, equality and political liberty came to fit easily with middle-class commitments to capitalist accumulation and their associated elevation of the values of frugality, prudence, and financial foresight (see Ryan 1972, 93). In this way, property should be understood as a "signifier" of appropriate knowledge, not a substitute for it. It was, so to speak, the enabling clause of Mill's science of politics, not its primary principle.

Among the most conspicuous instances of the association Mill drew between appropriate knowledge and middle-class understandings are those one encounters in his contributions to economic debate; and within that particular subset of his work, there are few sources more revealing of the general trend in Mill's argument than his Elements of Political Economy (1966, 203-366). His description of accumulation in the Elements, for example, bears all the hallmarks of his method of drawing out this association.

Proceeding along lines made familiar by Adam Smith, Mill asserted that the "augmentation of capital" was "every where exactly in proportion to the degree of saving" and that "the amount of that augmentation, annually, is the same thing with the amount of the savings, which are made annually" (1826a, 218). With savings behavior "therefore" holding the key to economic growth and prosperity,(20) which, in turn, required individual choices as to the allocation of current income between present and future consumption, Mill saw the whole matter as resolving itself into a simple problem of the felicific calculus--of balancing a present sacrifice (disutility) against a future benefit (utility). But this was a matter, of course, which had always hinged (for the utilitarians) upon individual knowledge. The more thorough the knowledge, so the argument ran, the more likely a time preference favoring the long view over the short. In his economic writings, Mill was fond of calling this the "disposition to accumulate" (see Mill, 1817a, 92-93; 1826d, 262),(21) and its utility to society was paramount. As he put it in his essay "Banks for Savings" for the Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Human happiness is prodigiously improved by reserving for future use a proportion of the command which . . . a man may possess over the means of enjoyment" (2:92). The idea that appropriate knowledge was requisite to inculcating this propensity to save was, in fact, among the oldest of all of Mill's political maxims.(22)

It was when Mill turned his attention to discovering the existing seat of this knowledge that he was led to the middling classes, or (as he called them) the capitalists (1826d, 263). It was at this point that property entered his discussion of democratic reform. Viewed from this perspective, Mill's frequent references to the value to society of "many people of small to middling fortunes," in whom the "disposition to accumulate" was strong, were derivative of his idea that utility and knowledge were central to democratic political participation and not contradictory to it.

While it is easy enough to understand why his working-class Radical detractors should have found in that clause grounds sufficient for their determined opposition, it is imperative that Mill's position not be confounded with that of other middle-class reformers of the day. For Mill, unlike his philosophic-Whig contemporaries (and the authors of the Reform Bill of 1832), the ownership of property itself had nothing to do with establishing what James Mackintosh, in his well-known speech in the debate over the Reform Bill in 1831 called "moral trust" (1853, 2:385). Indeed, how much closer Mill's politics stood to that of his working-class radical detractors (and how distant it was from that of even the most advanced Whigs) may be measured by the fact that many of those theorists articulating the political aspirations of the working class actually took up Mill's principle (appropriate knowledge) and simply deployed it more aggressively to make their case for the inclusion of all adults into the political nation, without the need for a property qualification.

At the theoretical level, then, Mill had begun with a model of man unremittingly utilitarian in constitution. Starting with individual agents, he turned to his account of the science of human nature in his search for a science of politics suitable for the modern world. To make the case for the inclusion of larger numbers into the political nation, on this line of reasoning, all that needed to be established was that individuals had the capacity properly to judge their own interests and that they were unencumbered in their ability to act upon them. But if James Mill was an individualist in this philosophical arena, he was neither automatically nor necessarily a democrat in the political one. On that subject, everything turned on the question of judging when (or whether) individual capacity had reached an acceptable standard. This criterion proved to be sufficiently malleable to allow him to appear either expansive and democratic or narrow and elitist, as the case required. A recognition of this very basic element in the theoretical structure of the utilitarian theory of choice and action, (on which Mill's entire science of politics was grounded) is not without significance if for no other reason than that it appears to render the great debate over whether Mill was or was not a democrat "in principle" largely irrelevant to a clearer assessment of his political thought.


1. For perhaps the most recent and lively debate over the character of Mill's democratic commitments, see the exchange conducted between William Thomas (1969, 1971) and Robert Wendell Carr (1971a, 1971b).

2. For example, Asa Briggs remarked that the "paeans of praise" for the middle ranks of society that arose during that time "were echoed even more eloquently and certainly more permanently by James Mill in his famous Essay on Government" (1956, 68-69). Donald Winch would seem to concur, inasmuch as he claimed in his editorial annotations to Mill's Selected Economic Writings that "for all his talk of 'the people', |Mill's~ view of the working-class movement was basically paternalistic; their best fate was to be guided, and perhaps ultimately assimilated, by their immediate superiors" (1966, 202; see also pp. 13, 196; but cf. Collini, Winch, and Burrow 1983, 101). See also, Grampp; 1948, 728; Gay, 1984, 40. This opinion, of course, did not have to await the advent of James Mill scholarship to gain expression. The charge that Mill was the champion of the interests of the middle classes against those of the working class was regularly brought against him by contemporary working-class Radicals (see N. Thompson 1984, esp. 31-33, 56). For Mill's opinion of one of their number (Thomas Hodgskin), see Mill to Brougham, 3 September 1832, Brougham Papers, Mss. 10765, University College, London (quoted in Robbins 1961, 135).

3. See, e.g., Burrow 1988, 40; Hamburger 1962, 188-190 Alan Ryan argues: |Those~ identifying James Mill as the uninhibited apologist for capitalism that he has retrospectively been claimed to be ought to reflect on the fact that Mill's own view of what had to be avoided at all costs was what he called the unhealthy condition of the large manufacturing districts, where an impoverished work force confronted a harsh, selfish and money-grabbing group of employers. If democracy and property were to be compatible, the distribution of property had to be such that it diffused rather than provoked the class war" (1984, 113).

4. Consider Elie Halevy's Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, in which it is claimed that in the essay "Government," James Mill "was obliged to be careful concerning both the publisher who printed it, and the public to whom it was addressed" and "explicitly adheres in it neither to the principle of utility nor to the democratic idea" (1928, 420). See also Thomas 1969, 1979; he remarks that "a document which affords quotations to support all these interpretations must either be very rich in matter of very confused in argument" and claims that the essay on "Government" does, indeed, contain "two mutually contradictory positions" (1969, 250-51).

5. The editor of the recently published edition of Mill's political writings, Terence Ball, dismisses the charge of inconsistency by claiming that it stems from an "anachronistic" reading of Mill (Mill 1992, xxi). Mill, he claims, never meant "middle class' when he referred to the 'middling rank"; he had in mind, so it is claimed, the older eighteenth-century Scottish notion of "rank." We shall have cause to return to this point later. For the present it is enough to observe that such a rendering of Mill falls squarely into a new tradition of scholarship (see, e.g., De Marchi 1983; Haakonssen 1985) that seeks to anchor early nineteenth-century political discourse in the framework of concepts deployed by its eighteenth-century counterpart--a revisionist enterprise that is, itself, not immune to the charge of being anachronistic.

6. The conventional wisdom holds that James Mill began as a devotee of the Scottish moral-sense view (he had, after all, been at Dugald Stewart's moral philosophy lectures in Edinburgh in the 1790s) and converted to utilitarianism only after his meeting with Bentham in 1808. As Elie Halevy put it, "Bentham gave Mill a doctrine, and Mill gave Bentham a school" (1928, 251; see also pp. 154, 249-50 and Mill 1966, 7). The evidence mustered in support of this story involves comparing three of Mill's articles for the Literary Journal (1806b, d-e) said to be fully conformable to the Scottish tradition of moral sense with his article on Spanish America for the Edinburgh Review and his review of Dugald Stewart's Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind for the British Review (Mill 1809, 1815), both of which are said to embrace the utilitarian position (see Halevy 1928, 257; Mill 1966, 7 and note). It is, however, worth remembering that Filangieri was himself heavily indebted for his argument to the Italian utilitarian Cesare Beccaria and that it is quite possible that the seeds of Mill's later single-minded devotion to utilitarian philosophy might well have been planted thanks to his encounter with Filangieri in 1806.

7. This, too, it should be said, was an old opinion of Mill's; the review of Filangieri in 1806 well illustrates his attachment to it. For example, in one place Mill writes (approvingly) as follows: "Montesquieu said that fear was the principle in a despotic government, honour in a monarchy, and virtue in a republic. Our author shows that these are only modifications of the same principle, the love of power" (1806c, 231). The whole idea is reminiscent of Hume's well-known remark that "political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest" (1752, 42)--which Mill brought to his own defence in the Fragment on Mackintosh (1835b, 279-81).

8. For Mill's expanded discussion of the morally corruptive effects of the open vote system, see 1830, 8-10.

9. Mill 1835a, 203-4; see also 1830, 1. Indeed, some have gone so far as to claim that the utilitarians "put all their eggs in one basket"--and perhaps the wrong basket at that--namely, the secret ballot. See Thomas 1969, 284; see also Carr 1971a.

10. Of course, not all democratic reformers had such sanguine views of the middling rank. Shelley for one, thought that they "poisoned the literature of the age in which they lived by requiring either the antitype of their own mediocrity in books, or such stupid and distorted and inharmonious idealisms as alone have the power to stir their torpid imaginations. Their domestic affections are feeble, and they have no others. They think of any commerce with their species but as a means, never as an end, and as a means to the basest forms of personal advantage" (1965, 7:29).

11. Mill (1826b) took the opportunity of his review of Samuel Bailey's Publication of Opinions to develop this argument (see also 1806a; 1812, 51; 1813; 1826c, 263; 1835d, 23).

12. Indeed, as William Thomas has noted, "At a time when moderate radicals were becoming more hesitant and popular radicals more extreme about the traditional radical demands for universal suffrage, shorter parliaments and the ballot, the Essay managed to evade all three" (1969, 257).

13. Whether Bentham's assessment of Mill's attitude was accurate or not, an important point of comparison emerges. lt should not be too readily assumed that the two thinkers subscribed to the same analysis of either the theoretical or the practical limits of the expanded franchise. While Bentham's commentators, most notably Halevy (1928), have argued that Bentham's practical political reform positions were significantly less a product of any intrinsically democratic political thought than the necessary consequences of a utilitarian theory of action, few have questioned his preference for a virtually universal suffrage (1817 3:533-37). The same may not be said of Mill's argument in "Government." Despite opening the theoretical door to a "majority of the community," Mill never walks through it to universality. Neither an explicit discussion nor even the term universal suffrage appears in the essay. Indeed, even Mill's greatest critic, Macaulay, concludes that he would not have been completely satisfied with it as unambiguously serving the purposes of good government (1829, 409).

14. It is worth noting that while Mill professed a desire to see the interest of the community expressed in politics, for him, the community was one marked by shared, even homogeneous interests, and it existed only as an abstract ideal to be realized (constructed) in the future. This may help to explain the occasional expressions of frustration by John Stuart Mill--who shared his father's hope for the construction of this ideal community of interest--at the slow progress being made toward it during his own lifetime: "In England, it would hardly be believed to what degree all that is morally objectionable in the lowest class of the working people is nourished, if not engendered, by the low state of their understanding. . . . Few have considered how anyone who could instil into these people the commonest worldly wisdom--who could render them capable of even selfish prudential calculations--would improve their conduct in every regulation of life, and clear the soil for the growth of right feelings and worthy propensities" (1845, 511; on this point, see also Coats, 1971, 152-3).

15. We borrow this term from Bentham's Plan of Parliamentary Reform (1962, 3:522)--as did Mill (1829, 2:181-3) somewhat later.

16. This position should be contrasted with that of the Whig reformers of the day; see, e.g., Jeffrey, 1809, 1819; Mackintosh 1818, 1820.

17. William Thomas discussed Mill's argument for the disenfranchisement of women and children on these grounds, but does not discuss the logical difficulty (1979, 128). The same is true of Gregory Claeys (1989, 173). We are, of course, confining ourselves here to the logic of the case. Historically speaking, the utilitarians took up a variety of positions on exclusion (see, e.g., Ball 1980).

18. Having said this, it should be noted that Ricardo seems to have seen this particular matter (which concerns the logic of Mill's argument) rather differently. On reading Mill's essay in the summer of 1820, Ricardo wrote to Mill, saying that he found it "a consistent and clear development of your own views" (Ricardo to Mill, 27 July 1820, in Ricardo 1951-73, 8:211). Two years later, he sent a copy of the essay to Hutches Trower, recommending it as "an excellent article and well reasoned throughout" (Ricardo to Trower, 25 January 1822, in Ricardo 1951-73, 9:154). For a more detailed discussion of Ricardo's politics and its relation to James Mill, see Milgate and Stimson 1991, esp. 3-6, 21-23, 63-65, 69-70, 92-93, 96-99, 121-22.

19. Compare to this the views of Burke on the subject: "Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their own rapacity; in proportion as their own soundness and sobriety of understanding is above vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves" (Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, in Burke 1839, 3:326). For Mill, there was just no need to put "moral chains" upon one's own "appetites" wherever intellectual aptitude was appropriate to informed choice.

20. This assertion, of course, also involves Say's Law: "Whatever is saved from annual produce, in order to be converted into capital, is necessarily consumed" (Mill 1826a, 326; see also p. 325). The point, then, is that capital accumulation actually requires not only that individuals save some portion of their current income but that they also invest those savings. Say's Law, in this domain of its application, conveniently allowed Mill to sidestep the relation between saving and investment.

21. Incidentally, this was a phrase John Stuart Mill would deploy years later in his own Principles of Political Economy in order to make exactly the same argument (see, e.g. 1871, 1.11.1-2).

22. See, e.g., the discussion of "frugality and industry" in Mill's thoughts on educating the laboring poor (1806a, 528-9, 533). See also his discussions of the relation between "prudent" action (which, for him, involved a present sacrifice for a future gain) and knowledge (1829, 2:282-3), the importance of education in fostering "foresight" and "self-command" in "Benefit Societies" (1817b, 263), and the need for designing a system of education to inculcate "temperance," (that is, "the steady habit of resisting a present desire, for the sake of a greater good" (1818b, 104).


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Utilitarian Philosophers :: James Mill :: 'Utility, Property, and Political Participation: James Mill on Democratic Reform', by Shannon C. Stimson & Murray Milgate