Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
James Mill

MILL, JAMES.—.This talented writer, who distinguished himself as a historian, philosopher, and political economist, was born in the parish of Logie Pert, Forfarshire, on the 6th of April, 1773. Like a great majority of his countrymen who have risen to eminence, he was of humble origin, his father being a small farmer upon the estate of Sir John Stuart, Bart., of Fettercairn. After a course of preliminary education at the grammar-school of Montrose, young James, who was originally destined for the church, was sent, through the patronage of his father’s landlord, to the university of Edinburgh, where he underwent the usual course of study prescribed to candidates for the ministry. His progress in general literature, although unnoticed at the time, was afterwards well attested by the character of his various writings. Of all the ancient philosophers, Plato seems chiefly to have attracted his attention—a proof, by the way, that his proficiency in the classical languages was greater than that of the generality of our Scottish students; and the impression produced upon his mind by the works of this most eloquent and persuasive of all the philosophers of antiquity, he often afterwards affectionately remembered.

After the usual course of study, Mr. Mill was licensed as a preacher in the Church of Scotland, and had fair hopes, both from patronage and his attainments, to occupy that most comfortable of earthly situations—the situation of a Scottish country minister. But somehow it happened that even this was insufficient to allure him. It may be that his Platonism, and the peculiarity of some of his ideas both in theology and ethics, may have disinclined him to Calvin’s Institutes; or he may have felt that his intellectual aptitudes required a different field of action than that of a secluded country minister. In his capacity of tutor to the family of Sir John Stuart, he accompanied them to London in 1800; but instead of returning with them to Scotland, he resolved to devote himself to a literary life in the metropolis. London, therefore, became, thenceforth, his home, where he betook himself to authorship as a profession, and patiently endured all its precariousness, until his talents had secured for him that honourable and independent position to which he was so well entitled. The first writings of Mr. Mill, in this character, were such as to obtain admittance among the most distinguished periodicals of the day; and among these, the "Edinburgh Review," the "British, the Eclectic, and Monthly Reviews," may particularly be mentioned. He also edited, for some time, the "Literary Journal," and was a frequent contributor to a periodical established by the Quakers, called the "Philanthropist."

All this labour, however, was but means to an end, for, at an early period of his career, Mr. Mill had devoted himself to the collection of materials for a history of British India; and while his researches for this most difficult, but necessary undertaking, were continued with unflinching perseverance, his other literary occupations were conducted as the means of present subsistence. It is amidst such pressure that intellectual activity is often best nerved for its greatest and most important task; and amidst the many distinguished productions by which the literature of every age is most impressed, the common wonder is, that the author, amidst his other avocations, should have found time to accomplish it. The history of British India was commenced in 1806, and published in the winter of 1817-18. At first it appeared in three volumes quarto, and afterwards in five volumes octavo; and the narrative, which is comprised in six books, commences with the first intercourse of our nation with India, and terminates with the conclusion of the Mahratta war, in 1805.

Among the literary productions of the present day, we have histories of India in abundance, while the labour of writing them, on account of the copious supply of materials, has become a comparatively easy task. But far different was it when Mill commenced his celebrated work, and opened up the way for his talented successors. At that time, nothing could be more vague than the commonly received ideas at home respecting our growing eastern empire, and the nations of which it was composed. Every sultan or rajah was thought to be a Xerxes or Giamshid, and every region was flooded with gold, which only waited the lifting; while an Englishman had nothing to do but to enter, and sit down as undisputed possessor, amidst a crowd of worshipping and salaaming natives. To bring down these monarchs to their real dimensions, and states to their native poverty—to show how starvation and taxes prevailed more abundantly there than even among ourselves—and, above all, to show how our East India Company, notwithstanding its crores and lacs of rupees, was continually hampered upon the beggarly financial question of "ways and means," with bankruptcy in perspective; all this was not only a difficult, but a most ungracious task for the historian: he was the African magician, who filched from us our Aladdin’s lamp, by giving us a mere common one in exchange. When he passed from these popular delusions to the authenticated records, in order to construct a veritable history instead of an eastern romance, his materials were the most impracticable that can well imagined—parliamentary speeches and documents, masses of examinations and trials, pamphlets for and against every form of Indian administration, mixed with political intrigues and warlike campaigns to which the general current of history could afford no parallel. To wade through this seemingly boundless ocean—to reduce this chaos into form and order—was an attempt at which the most enthusiastic historian might well have paused. And then, too, the usual aids that might have helped to counterbalance such a difficulty, were wanting in the case of Mr. Mill. It is true, indeed, that in England there were scores of adventurers who had spent years in India, and returned enriched with its spoils; but, in most cases, they knew as little of Hindoo character, and the formation of our Indian empire, as if they had remained at home: all they could tell was that they had fought or traded under the banner of British supremacy, and found cent, per cent. accumulating in the enterprise. In the absence of better information than these, some personal knowledge was necessary, especially to the first recorder of our wonderful Anglo-Indian empire; but Mill had never been in India, and was little, if at all, acquainted with the languages of the East.

All these obstacles it is necessary to take into account, if we would understand the nature of that Herculean task which he undertook and accomplished. Under these difficulties, he proposed:—

1. To describe the circumstances in which the intercourse of this nation with India commenced, and the particulars of its early progress, till the era when it could first be regarded as placed on a firm and durable basis.

2. To exhibit as accurate a view as possible of the people with whom our countrymen had then begun to transact; of their character, history, manners, religion, arts, literature, and laws, as well as the physical circumstances of climate, soil, and production, in which they were placed.

3. To deduce to the present times a history of the British transactions in relation to India, &c.

The history of British India which Mr. Mill produced, under these circumstances, and upon such a plan, in spite of subsequent histories written under more favourable auspices, will ever remain a distinguishing monument of his high talents, research, and perseverance. Much, of course, had to be written that militated not only against national prejudices but individual interests; and therefore the work, at its first appearance, encountered no small amount of rancorous criticism. It was also faulty in point of style, being frequently marked by carelessness, and sometimes, though not often, disfigured by obscurity. But the immense body of information he had collected, the skill of its arrangement, and vigorous style in which it was embodied, made these defects of little account. On the one hand, the nature and character of the British proceedings in India, and especially the administrations of Hastings and Lord Wellesley, were given with clearness and dispassionate fairness; while, on the other, the account of the condition and character of the Hindoos, and their state of civilization, was illustrated by an amount of learning and depth of investigation such as history has very seldom exhibited. The effects of his labours were soon apparent. Not only was a greater interest excited at home upon Indian affairs, of which the public had hitherto remained in contented ignorance, but more enlarged and practical views in the legislation, government, and political economy of India, were suggested to our countrymen there, by whom our eastern empire was extended and consolidated.

While Mill had been thus generously devoting himself for years to a labour from which no adequate return, in the way of profit, could be expected, and while the expenses of a growing family were increasing upon him, his literary by-labours appear never to have yielded him above 300 per annum—a small amount for the support of a respectable household in the British capital, and small compared with what his talents and industry might have procured him, had he consented to become a mere trader in literature. But his was a contentedness of mind that could be satisfied with little, as well as a dignity and independence that would not stoop to solicitation for either place or patronage. But he who could not seek was now to be sought. His "History of India" had well shown what he was worth; and the East India Company was not long in discovering that one so well acquainted with their interests could not be dispensed with. Accordingly, soon after the publication of his history (in 1819) he was appointed, by the East India Court of Directors, to the second situation in the examiner’s office; and, on the retirement of Mr. William M’Culloch, he was raised to the place of chief examiner. His important duties, for which he was so thoroughly qualified, consisted in preparing the despatches and other state papers connected with our Indian government, and to correspond with it in the management of the revenue; in fact, he might be considered as chief minister for Indian affairs to that most extensive and powerful of all senates, the East India Company.

Notwithstanding the onerous duties with which he was now invested, Mr. Mill did not throw aside his pen, or confine himself exclusively to his office. He wrote several valuable articles in the "Edinburgh Review," upon Education and Jurisprudence, and was a frequent and distinguished contributor to the Westminster and London Reviews. Some of the best essays, also, which appeared in the Supplement of the "Encyclopedia Britannica," and were afterwards published in a separate form, were of his production, comprising the important subjects of Government, Education, Jurisprudence, Law of Nations, Liberty of the Press, Colonies, and Prison Discipline. In 1821-2, he published his "Elements of Political Economy," which professed to be nothing more than a handbook of that Science; and in 1829, his "Analysis of the Human Mind," a work on which he had bestowed long and careful reflection. These productions gave him a high standing both as a metaphysician and political economist, and added no trivial contribution to these growing and improving sciences in which there is still so much to be accomplished.

In this way, the years of Mr. Mill were spent in a life of silent and unostentatious, but honourable and useful industry; and while he enjoyed the intercourse of such leading minds as Bentham, Brougham, Romilly, Ricardo, and others of a similar stamp, his society was eagerly sought, and highly relished by young men preparing for a public career in literature, who were enlightened by his experience, and charmed with his enthusiasm, as well as directed in their subsequent course by his watchful, affectionate superintendence. He thus lived, not only in his own writings, which had a powerful influence upon the opinions of the day, but in the minds which he thus trained for the guidance of a succeeding generation. As the political opinions of such a man were of no trivial importance, we may add that he belonged to the Radical party, and adhered to its principles with uncompromising integrity, at a time when they were least valued or regarded. It was a natural consequence of that love of Greek literature and philosophy which he retained to the end of his life. His last five years were spent at Kensington, where he died of consumption, on the 23d of June, 1838, in the sixty-fourth year of his age, leaving behind him a widow and nine children, of whom five had attained to manhood.

James Mill
A Biography by Alexander Bain, LL.D., Professor of Logic in the University of Aberdeen (1882) (pdf)

Return to our Significant Scots page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus