domingo, 14 de abril de 2013

John Stuart Mill on Colonies

Duncan Bell1


Recent scholarship on John Stuart Mill has illuminated his arguments 
about the normative legitimacy of imperial rule. However, it has tended 
to ignore or downplay his extensive writings on settler colonialism: the 
attempt to create permanent “civilized” communities, mainly in North 
America and the South Pacific. Mill defended colonization throughout his 
life, although his arguments about its character and justification shifted 
over time. While initially he regarded it as a solution to the “social 
problem” in Britain, he increasingly came to argue that its legitimacy 
resided in the universal benefits—civilization, peace, and prosperity—it 
generated for humanity. In the final years of his life Mill seemed to lose 
faith in the project. Finally recognizing the prevalence of colonial violence 
and the difficulty of realizing his grand ambitions, yet refusing to give up 
on colonization altogether, his colonial romance gave way to a form of 


John Stuart Mill, colonization, empire, civilization, character

The question of government intervention in the work of Colonization 
involves the future and permanent interests of civilization itself.1

1University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Corresponding Author:

Duncan Bell, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, First 
Floor, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge, CB2 1RX, United Kingdom


Bell 35

I. Introduction

During the last three decades the study of imperialism has moved from 
the periphery to the center of work in the humanities and social sciences. The 
importance of viewing metropolitan and imperial spaces within a “single 
analytic field”—as dynamically connected, interpenetrating, even mutually 
constitutive—has been a key theme in this flourishing scholarship.2 This productive 
insight points historians of political thought in two main directions. 
First, to the value of comparative political theory, encompassing the study of 
nonwestern traditions and the attempt to trace the manifold ways in which 
political ideas circulate across and around different geo-cultural zones. And 
second, in drawing attention to how past thinkers conceptualized the world, 
how they constructed and deployed categories including the domestic, the 
foreign, the imperial, and the colonial.

In this essay I explore some important yet neglected aspects of John Stuart 
Mill’s vision of global order. Mill has played a pivotal role in the recent wave 
of scholarship tracing the entanglement of western political thought and 
imperialism.3 The reasons for this are obvious: he occupies a talismatic position 
in the liberal canon, and his career and writings provide fertile ground 
for analysis and critique. At the age of seventeen he began work at the East 
India Company, where he rose to high rank and left only after the company 
lost its charter in 1858. He continued to defend the British occupation until 
his death in 1873. While this scholarship has illuminated various aspects of 
Mill’s imperial thought, especially his views on India, it has passed over 
other areas in near silence. It has often failed to account for the divergent 
ways in which he imagined and justified different modes of imperial rule. In 
particular, scholars have tended to ignore or downplay his extensive writings 
on (settler) colonization—the establishment, as Mill saw it, of new “civilized” 
communities in North America and the South Pacific.4 (Throughout 
the essay, I use the term colonization to denote settler colonization, not as a 
synonym for imperialism.) Historians of economic thought, meanwhile, have 
probed Mill’s account of the political economy of colonization, but they have 
largely refrained from linking these arguments to other aspects of his social 
and political theory.5

In Victorian Britain it was common to delineate different types of imperial 
territory.6 Mill identified two classes of British “dependencies”: those composed 
of people of a “similar civilization” that were “capable of, and ripe for, 
representative government,” and those, defined in hierarchical opposition, 
that remained “a great distance from that state.”7 The distinction between 
settler colonies and other imperial spaces encodes a problem, for it erases 

36 Political theory 38(1)

some of the key similarities between them. All forms of imperialism involved 
the violent dispossession of and rule over indigenous peoples. All had roots 
deep in the political and intellectual history of Europe. And all generated 
diverse forms of opposition, at home and abroad.8 Unreflexively reproducing 
the categories reinscribes the presumption underlying much nineteenth-
century political thought, namely that the territories settled by Europeans 
were “unoccupied,” devoid of sovereign communities or rational autonomous 
agents.9 Marx was simply following convention when he referred to 
“virgin soils, colonised by free immigrants.”10 Nevertheless, the distinction 
is important for without understanding the uses to which it was put by historical 
agents, it is impossible to map the imaginative geography of empire. 
Despite the similarities between the forms of conquest, there were also key 
differences. Two are especially salient for interpreting Mill: the role of mass 
emigration and the desire to create permanent “civilized” societies on distant 

This essay explores Mill’s defence of colonization. In his mind, Britain 
and its colonies (chiefly in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) formed part 
of a single analytical field: they could not be viewed as discrete, autochthonous 
units. The singularity was itself predetermined by the theoretical 
machinery of utilitarianism and post-Ricardian political economy. He saw 
the world as a space of movement and exchange, the colonies and Britain as 
inextricably bound by flows of capital, labor, and information. This was reinforced 
by his belief that progressive colonies could play a catalytic role in the 
global “improvement” of humanity. Mill’s arguments on the subject require 
reconstruction, drawing together material from books, journalism, official 
reports, and personal correspondence. In what follows, I analyse three key 
thematics in Mill’s colonial writings: his evolving account of the political 
economy of colonization (II); his views on “responsible government” and 
character formation (III); and finally, his elaboration of the role played by 
conceptions of physical space, and of the constitutional structure of the imperial 
system (IV).

I also pursue two subsidiary lines of argument. First, I trace how Mill’s 
justificatory account of colonization shifted over time. We witness a movement 
from the particular to the universal, from arguments justifying 
colonization primarily in terms of the benefits that it generated for the British 
state (and especially the working classes) to arguments that stressed the value 
of colonization (and especially British colonization) for the world as a whole. 
This signalled a subtle but significant change in emphasis, a change that 
sheds light on his interpretation of the trajectory of modern politics. This is 
explained chiefly by his evolving perception of prevailing conditions. His 

account of colonial order—like his political thought as a whole—was structured 
by the dynamic interplay of general principles and interpretations of the 
exigencies of social, economic, and political life. While circumstances did 
not radically transform his core philosophical commitments, they did qualify 
them or identify some political options (or institutional configurations) as 
preferable to others.

The other line of argument focuses on how Mill framed his narrative. 
David Scott has drawn attention to the literary modes of emplotment shaping 
anticolonial nationalist writings and much postcolonial criticism. Both construct 
history, he contends, as a romantic narrative of heroic overcoming and 
redemption.11 Jennifer Pitts, meanwhile, has emphasized the significance of 
“rhetorical practices” in structuring moral discourse about empire, arguing 
that there was a strong correlation between anti-imperialism and the authorial 
use of irony and humor. In Mill’s “imperial liberalism” she identifies a distinct 
“earnestness” that distinguished him from Burke and even Bentham.12 
In the colonial context we see a transition in Mill’s writings from a broadly 
romantic narrative to a position I label melancholic colonialism. Mill’s colonial 
romance charted a story of unfolding enlightenment, in which a vanguard 
of far-sighted “philosophical legislators” transcended a reactionary past, 
opening up new vistas of human possibility. It was an optimistic story, 
untroubled by misgivings or doubt. Melancholic colonialism, in contrast, 
was marked by anxiety, even despondency, about the direction of (colonial) 
history, but it ultimately refused to reject the ideal, suggesting that the worst 
excesses could be mitigated, if not eradicated entirely. The transition occurred 
in the last decade of Mill’s life, and was engendered above all by his increased 
awareness of the pathologies of colonialism, and especially the prevalence of 
settler violence. It signals an important shift in the way in which he conceived 
of the ethico-political potential of colonization.

While Mill regarded Britain and the colonies as part of a single analytic 
field, there were cognitive and theoretical limits to his vision. He always saw 
the colonies as embryonic nations, bound ultimately for independence, their 
sheer physical distance from Britain rendering them indissolubly separate. 
They did not constitute part of a single political field—a field in which the 
colonies and Britain were envisioned not simply as bound together by economic 
flows, shared interests, and webs of communication, but as comprising 
a durable political community grounded in a thick common identity. Mill never 
thought that Britain and its colonies formed (or could form) a single integrated 
polity. Around the time of his death this alternative vision, which underpinned 
a normative defense of the permanence of the colonial connection, came to 
dominate imperial discourse, pushing his position to the sidelines.

II. On Systematic Colonization: From
Domestic to Global

Early nineteenth-century Britain was characterized by “a constant sensation 
of fear—fear of revolution, of the masses, of crime, famine, and poverty, of 
disorder and instability, and for many people even fear of pleasure.”13 Profound 
apprehension shadowed, and helped to motivate, political thought. 
Mill’s political economy of colonization was shaped by two intersecting 
debates. The first concerned the material benefits and burdens of colonization; 
the second concentrated on how best to respond to the social and 
political turmoil that gripped Britain following the defeat of Napoleon in 
1815. Focused inwards on the apparently perilous state of Britain, these concerns 
drove Mill’s earliest forays into colonial advocacy.

Political economists had long disagreed over the value of colonies. Adam 
Smith had derided them as a sink for capital and labor, as had Bentham and 
James Mill.14 Yet during the 1820s and 1830s, an increasing number of thinkers, 
including Nassau Senior, Robert Torrens, and Herman Merivale, came to 
view colonies in a more positive light—as potential sites of economic productivity, 
social amelioration, and civilizational potential.15 At the heart of 
this reorientation stood Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a rogue political economist 
who exerted a profound influence over mid-nineteenth-century colonial 
discourse.16 Marx’s analysis of “The Modern Theory of Colonisation” in Das 
Kapital focused almost solely on Wakefield’s arguments, while Mill regarded 
him as “one of the most vigorous and effective writers of our time.”17 He was 
to play a key role in the development of Mill’s colonial vision.

Writing from a London prison—where he was interned for abducting a 
young heiress—Wakefield published his Letter from Sydney in 1829.18 On 
his release, he founded the National Colonization Society (1830) to promote 
his views. The elderly Jeremy Bentham, a friend of Wakefield’s father, was 
an early convert, as was the young John Stuart.19 In 1830 Mill, then a precocious 
twenty-four, described emigration as a “momentous subject,” constituting 
the “only feasible mode of removing the immediate pressure of pauperism,” 
and throughout the following decade he proselytized on behalf of state-
sponsored “systematic colonization.”20 Above all, he argued, colonization 
could alleviate suffering among the British working classes. In 1834 he 
joined the recently founded South Australian Association, which included 
among its members a number of the other leading philosophic radicals, notably 
George Grote, whose work was soon to refigure the place of democracy 
in British political consciousness, and Sir William Molesworth, the editor of 
Hobbes.21 It campaigned vociferously for the creation of a new colony in 

South Australia, “as like as possible to a country which is perfectly civilized, 
but not over-peopled.”22 While he thought that many aspects of this project 
were novel, the result of innovative theoretical advances in moral philosophy 
and political economy, Mill also suggested that in some respects it resembled 
the noble experiments of the ancient Greeks.

Like the Grecian colonies, which flourished so rapidly and so wonderfully 
as soon to eclipse the mother cities, this settlement will be formed 
by transplanting an entire society, and not a mere fragment of one. 
English colonies have almost always remained in a half-savage state 
for many years from their establishment. This colony will be a civilized 
country from the very commencement.23

The “colonial reformers,” as they came to be known, were the heroes of 
Mill’s colonial romance, battling against tradition and the political establishment. 
And Mill himself was ready to practice what he preached: during the 1830s he 
considered emigrating to Australia.24

Jonathan Riley distinguishes between Mill’s “Ricardian science” and his 
“liberal utilitarian art.” The science “consists of abstract ‘laws’ or theorems 
which presuppose that any person is motivated primarily by a desire for 
wealth,” while recognising that this motive is sometimes constrained by other 
nonmaterial desires (such as the pursuit of leisure). The art, which was shaped 
by but not reducible to the science, takes the “laws” and “converts and 
rearranges them into a system of practical rules, and then applies the rules in 
concrete circumstances to promote the general welfare.”25 The distinction is 
important for understanding Mill’s conception of colonization (although so too 
is recognition of Mill’s deviations from Ricardian orthodoxy).26 The science 
specified the reasons for the economic and social turmoil, while the art identified 
colonization in general—and systematic colonization in particular—as a 
viable solution available to enlightened political leaders, if they were willing 
to grasp its potential. Mill came to regard this willingness as a marker of 
political imagination and maturity.27

According to Wakefield and Mill, the social crisis in Britain was caused 
by a shortage of land and an excess of capital and labor. This produced low 
levels of growth, a stagnant labor market, and increasing unrest. Emigration 
to the underpopulated colonies offered the most effective answer.28 It rendered 
“the vast productive resources of our colonies available for the 
employment and comfortable subsistence of the unemployed poor of our 
country,” and it could provide “material relief” to the “labouring classes 
from the pressure of their own excessive competition.”29 But Mill was wary 

of unregulated flows of people; rational order was necessary to maximize 
utility. Emigration should be neither a piecemeal voluntaristic process nor a 
crude attempt to “shovel out paupers,” but instead part of a coordinated 
state-sponsored scheme of colonization.30 In pushing for the creation of 
further colonies in Australia, Mill waxed lyrical about the “the enlightened 
view of Colonization” and the “honesty and patriotism” that underpinned 
this ambition.31 He emphasized two aspects. First, it would relieve socioeconomic 
pressure at home. And second, it would be financially self-supporting. 
The latter, Mill thought, was unprecedented:

. . . for the first time in the history of overpopulation, emigration will 
now be made to pay its own expenses; and whatever relief it can allow 
to the pressure of population against subsistence in our own country, 
will be clear gain—pure, unalloyed good.32

Indeed he contended that colonization was the most important factor in the 
progressive development of the working classes. It would, he argued in 
1837, “produce a more immediate and obvious benefit to the industrious 
classes generally, and to the labouring class above all, than even the great 
constitutional changes which we are contending for.”33 It was more far-reaching, 
that is, than parliamentary reform. Systematic colonization, combined with 
the repeal of the Corn laws, would unleash the productive potential of the 
British economy and help to emancipate the “labouring class.”34

Mill’s most thorough discussion of systematic colonization can be found 
in the Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848.

The system is grounded on the important principle, that the degree of 
productiveness of land and labour depends on their being in due proportion 
to one another; that if a few persons in a newly-settled country 
attempt to occupy and appropriate a large district, or if each labourer 
becomes too soon an occupier and cultivator of land, there is a loss of 
productive power, and a great retardation of the progress of the colony 
in wealth and civilization.35

Yet despite this obvious problem, the “instinct . . . of appropriation” 
meant that emigrant laborers typically tried to secure as much land as possible, 
aiming to “become at once a proprietor.” Consequently there were too 
few laborers to support the investment of capital. Systematic colonization 
would disrupt this self-defeating process, so that “each labourer is induced 
to work a certain number of years on hire” before assuming a proprietary 

role. This was necessary to create a “perpetual stock” of laborers for the 
provision of public goods—roads, canals, irrigation projects—and the 
development of thriving towns.36 He planned to “check the premature occupation 
of land” and the dangerous “dispersion of people” by instituting a 
strict regime of land pricing. The basic idea was to sell “all unappropriated 
lands at a rather high price, the proceeds of which were to be expended in 
conveying emigrant labourers from the mother country.” The income could 
finance colonial emigration, creating a steady flow of wage-laborers fit to 
service an expanding capitalist economy. Wakefield and Mill added further 
refinements. They insisted on the importance of urbanization for creating 
“civilized” communities.

It is a beneficial check upon the tendency of the population of colonists 
to adopt the tastes and inclinations of savage life, and to disperse so 
widely as to lose all the advantages of commerce, of markets, of separation 
of employments, and combination of labour.37

Metropolitan concentration, not the frontier virtues of agrarian republicanism, 
offered the greatest moral and political promise.38 Bourgeois modernity was 
urban. Likewise, they argued that it was vital to prioritize the emigration of 
young families to normalize social relations and accelerate population growth.39 
In short, they conjoined three different types of argument: a diagnosis of the 
social question, a prescription for solving it, and the identification of specific 
institutional mechanisms to realize their plans.

It is unsurprising that Wakefield’s analysis drew Marx’s attention. For 
Marx, “virgin” colonies offered the potential to serve as free spaces for 
labor. While Wakefield had identified correctly the “anti-capitalist cancer of 
the colonies,” he sought to excise it by privatizing property. Wakefield’s 
“great merit,” Marx proclaimed, was to have

. . . discovered in the Colonies the truth as to the conditions of the capitalist 
production in them. As the system of protection at its origin 
attempted to manufacture capitalists artificially in the mother country, 
so Wakefield’s colonisation theory . . . attempted to effect the manufacture 
of wage workers in the Colonies.40

Note, though, that for Marx the “evils” of British settler colonialism lay 
chiefly in the spread of capitalist social relations rather than in the injustice of 
occupation itself.41 He seemed to think that an uncorrupted form of colonial 
emigration might allow people to escape the relentlessly dehumanizing logic 

of modern capitalism. This pointed to an alternative, noncapitalist form of 
colonial romance.

Mill’s advocacy of systematic colonization was not insulated from his 
wider social and political theory. In the next section I discuss how it related 
to his views on character and nationality. Here, however, it is worth stressing 
that in the Principles the argument was embedded in an account of the legitimate 
role of government, and especially of the justified exceptions to the 
policy of laissez faire. In his analysis of the “functions of government in 
general” in Book V, Mill divided “the province of government” into “necessary” 
and “optional” aspects. The former were those functions that were 
“either inseparable from the idea of government, or are exercised habitually 
and without objection by all governments,” while the latter were those 
“which it has been considered questionable whether governments should 
exercise them or not.” This did not render the optional aspects unimportant, 
it meant only that the “expediency” of the government exercising those functions 
did not amount to necessity.42 Mill was concerned here, as elsewhere, 
with a dual task: defending a version of Ricaridan economic science whilst 
identifying legitimate exceptions to a libertarian interpretation of the functions 
of government. He challenged the view that the state should only 
provide protection against “force and fraud.”

Mill introduced systematic colonization in a discussion of “cases in 
which public intervention may be necessary to give effect to the wishes of 
the persons interested.”43 These cases identify a collective action problem in 
which the uncoordinated (instrumentally) rational actions of individual 
agents resulted in suboptimal outcomes for everyone involved. While individuals 
might benefit in the short term, the colony was damaged by existing 
emigration practices.

However beneficial it might be to the colony in the aggregate, and to 
each individual composing it, that no one can occupy more land than 
he can properly cultivate, nor become a proprietor until there are other 
labourers ready to take his place for hire; it can never be the interest of 
an individual to exercise this forbearance, unless he is assured that 
others will not do so. . . . It is the interest of each to do what is good for 
all, but only if others do likewise.44

The lack of guaranteed reciprocity meant that there was an overriding 
case for government regulation. If colonization was to benefit everybody, the 
enterprise must “from its commencement” be undertaken “with the foresight 
and enlarged views of philosophical legislators.”45 Here we see an instance 

of Mill’s long-standing belief in the role of disinterested expertise. Just as he 
thought that India was best governed by the bureaucracy of the East India 
company, and that representative democracy was best regulated by the 
expertise of the enlightened, so he also thought that colonial development 
needed to be directed by a class of “philosophical legislators” who understood 
the art and the science of political economy, and who recognized the duty 
to seek the improvement of humanity. The need for such legislators only 
increased as the century wore on, as the colonies grew in strength and size, and 
as their institutions increasingly diverged from those in Britain. In a letter 
written in 1870, for example, he argued that because colonial societies were 
“much more democratic than our own” it required imagination to support 
them. “[O]nly very exceptional persons in our higher and middle classes 
could either reconcile themselves to it or have the foresight and & mental 
adaptability required for guiding and organising the formation of such a 
community.”46 By then he had come to realize, much to his dismay, that such 
persons were very rare.

Whereas Mill’s colonial advocacy in the 1830s and early 1840s had principally 
emphasized the domestic benefits of systematic colonization—its 
ability to address the “social problem” in Britain—this began to change in 
the late 1840s. The shift was apparent in the Principles, and became ever 
more pronounced in the following years. In the Principles Mill stressed, in 
a way that he had not done previously, the global economic benefits of 
(British) systematic colonization.

To appreciate the benefits of colonization, it should be considered in its 
relation, not to a single country, but to the collective economical interests 
of the human race. The question is in general treated too exclusively 
as one of distribution; of relieving one labor market and supplying 
another. It is this, but it is also a question of production, and of the most 
efficient employment of the productive resources of the world.47

Laborers in the colonies were more productive than those in Britain, and 
their migration would expand the colonial economies while easing the 
restrictions on domestic growth.48 This in turn would catalyze further 
productivity. Everybody would benefit. While this line of argument had been 
implicit in the logic of Mill’s earlier writings, he had placed little weight on 
it. From the late 1840s onwards it moved to center stage.

This shift in emphasis was the product of a series of changes in British, 
colonial, and global politics. This confluence of events reoriented Mill’s normative 
account of the main purposes—the ultimate aims—of colonization. In 

1846, the Corn Laws were repealed. In 1848, Britain avoided the revolutionary 
tumult that gripped the continent, in part because of the “safety valve” 
provided by the empire.49 The Chartist agitation ended in a damp squib. The 
economy prospered, while the “social question” receded from the forefront 
of political consciousness. The ghost of Malthus was temporarily exiled.50 It 
was also a period during which the colonies were granted self-governing 
status (under the aegis of “responsible government”), and in which their 
populations and economies grew rapidly.51 Mill saw confirmation of his optimistic 
predictions. Writing to an Australian correspondent in 1856, he was 
cheered by the fact that the colonies “seem to be the most prosperous and 
rapidly progressive communities.” This “unexampled growth,” was chiefly 
the result of the “Wakefield system.”52 A glorious new era was unfolding. 
Overcoming obdurate politicians and an indifferent public, outfoxing recalcitrant 
colonial officials and fighting the historical baggage of the pernicious 
“old colonial system,” the once embattled colonial reformers had triumphed. 
This was the apotheosis of colonial romanticism.

As well as triggering a shift in the purposes of colonization, the change 
in empirical conditions also forced Mill to reassess the significance of specific 
elements of Wakefield’s scheme. In the 1865 edition of the Principles, 
for example, he added a new passage to his discussion of the most effective 
ways to relieve pressure on the labor market. The onset of free trade, combined 
with a “new fact of modern history,” had transformed the situation. 
While his argument for systematic colonization remained “true in principle,” 
material conditions had rendered it less urgent.

The extraordinary cheapening of the means of transport . . . and the 
knowledge which nearly all classes of the people have now acquired 
. . . of the condition of the labor market in remote parts of the world, 
have opened up spontaneous emigration from these islands to the new 

The new dispensation, then, had both material and epistemic dimensions. The 
lowering of costs, combined with an increase in wages, meant that more 
people than ever had the economic capacity to emigrate without government 
support. As such, one of the key pillars of the Wakefield system—the self-
financing provision—was less relevant than before.54 But equally important 
was knowledge, and in particular a growing awareness of the opportunities 
available.55 The novel communications technologies that were beginning to 
shrink the world in the imagination of Mill’s contemporaries simultaneously 
aided in the diffusion of information, which made ocean-spanning travel seem 

appealing and feasible. This “new fact” offered further opportunities for 
civilizing the British, and perhaps most of all for educating the workers into 
responsible citizenship. The respite had, he argued, “granted to this overcrowded 
country a temporary breathing time, capable of being employed in accomplishing 
those moral and intellectual improvements in all classes of the people, the very 
poorest included, which would render improbable any relapse into the over-
peopled state.”56 Moreover, the perceived change in conditions meant that 
political priorities had shifted: “our politicians,” he wrote, “have grown more 
afraid of under than of over population.”57 As a result, any impetus to stimulate 
emigration would now have to come from the colonies.

Soon after Mill added this qualifier to the Principles, he was perturbed to 
discover that his arguments for the protection of infant industries were being 
utilized by advocates of protectionism in the United States and the colonies.58 
He engaged in an extensive correspondence on the issue—several of his letters 
were printed in the colonial press—rebutting the suggestion that his 
arguments applied there.59 This led him to rethink aspects of his position. 
Indeed, he indicated in a couple of letters written in 1868 that he no longer 
supported protection, preferring instead the idea of an annual grant from the 
treasury.60 Once again, we witness his prescriptions—aspects of his art—
shifting in light of unforeseen developments.

From the start of his career, then, Mill advocated systematic colonization. 
During the 1830s, when the economic plight of Britain seemed desperate, he 
viewed it chiefly as a means to answer the “social question.” Yet the situation 
was dynamic: the rapid development of the colonies and the stabilization of 
Britain rendered this narrow justification obsolete. His account of the utility 
of colonization therefore shifted along with his interpretation of empirical 
conditions. In particular, we witness two moves. First, his arguments from 
political economy increasingly emphasized the universal benefits of colonization. 
And second, as I explore in the rest of this essay, the political economy 
arguments were increasingly reinforced, if not displaced, by a new range of 
geopolitical and ethical concerns.

III. Colonial Autonomy, Character, and Civilization

While both Mill and Wakefield agreed on the underlying economic causes 
of the crisis afflicting Britain, as well as the best remedy for it, they presented 
contrasting visions of the colonial future, although this was never 
made explicit. Wakefield was motivated by fear of revolution. In England 
and America (1833), the text that had drawn Marx’s ire, he warned of the 
impending dangers:

[F]or a country now situated like England, in which the ruling and the 
subject orders are no longer separated by a middle class, and in which 
the subject order, composing the bulk of the people, are in a state of 
gloomy discontent arising from excessive numbers; for such a country, 
one chief end of colonization is to prevent tumults, to keep the peace, 
to maintain order, to uphold confidence in the security of property, to 
hinder interruptions to the regular course of industry and trade, to avert 
the terrible evils which, in a country like England, could not but follow 
any serious political convulsion.61

His conception of colonization was ultimately more conservative than 
Mill’s. He wanted to transpose hierarchical British social relations onto the 
colonies, recreating the new societies in the image of the old. Mill’s vision 
was dynamic; he viewed the colonies as spaces for innovation and forms of 
progressive self-fashioning. They provided an escape from the parochialism and 
class-bound rigidities of British life, allowing—demanding—experimentation 
in ways of living.

Experimentation was central to Mill’s account of the development of 
“character,” both individual and collective.62 For Mill, character was not a 
biological given, but rather a product of the environment, and throughout his 
writings he stressed the “extraordinary susceptibility of human nature to 
external influences.”63 He saw the colonies, I would argue, as laboratories of 
character development, as vast case studies of his proposed science of ethology.
64 Systematic colonization offered the opportunity to create new 
progressive political communities, populated by industrious, confident, democratic 
people. This points to a significant discrepancy between Mill’s 
account of colonization and his views on India. Uday Singh Mehta suggests 
that liberalism “found the concrete place of its dreams” in empire.65 For Mill, 
though, different elements of the empire spawned different dreams. India was 
a site for the reformist utilitarian project, for the mission to bring civilized 
enlightenment to a “backward” corner of the earth. Imperial governance, on 
this view, was a political technology that aimed to reshape the people who 
already lived there, bringing into being a different form of life, new modes of 
subjectivity, a fresh cultural-political constellation. Settler colonization, on 
the other hand, did not aim to transform the character of indigenous populations, 
or even to radically refashion the emigrants. It sought instead to provide 
an environment in which their existing civilizational potential could be realized. 
Such environments were conducive to the production of virtuous 
individuals and communities. The romance of colonialism was thus premised 
on the ethological opportunities opened up in distant “virgin” lands.

While Mill spent much of the early 1830s focusing on Australia, in the 
second half of the decade his attention was increasingly drawn across the 
Atlantic to Canada, which he had previously regarded as one of the decaying 
“colonies on the old system.”66 The rebellions in Canada in 1837-1838 provided 
a rare chance to refound a corrupt polity. For Mill, the crisis was never 
simply about the status of Upper and Lower Canada. After all, he assumed 
that in the future Canada would achieve full political independence. It was 
important for two other reasons: the legitimacy of imperial rule in general; 
and the fate of British political radicalism. The colonies and the metropole 
were once again figured as part of the same analytic field.

“[I]n an evil hour,” Mill later reflected, the Canada question “crossed the 
path of radicalism.”67 The lightning rod here was the unlikely figure of Lord 
Durham. A vain, sickly, hugely wealthy scion of the Whig aristocracy, 
Durham had managed to alienate his colleagues in government while attaining 
great popularity among liberal and radical thinkers. Mill viewed Durham 
as a potential leader for the Radical party that he was attempting to create. In 
December 1837, news reached Britain that the French Canadians of Lower 
Canada had risen up against the colonial government. The rebellion was 
swiftly extinguished.68 Durham, a man who had previously shown little interest 
in colonial affairs, was appointed Governor-General and instructed to 
resolve the situation. One product of his brief stay in Canada—he resigned in 
October 1838 following government censure of some of his activities—was 
his report on “the affairs of British North America,” which came to be seen 
as one of the key documents in nineteenth century British imperial history.69

The Canadian rebellions threatened an imperial legitimation crisis.70 For 
Mill the moral justification of the settler empire was different from that of the 
Raj. Empire in general could be justified if, and only if, it benefitted those 
subjected to it, but if those subjects lacked sufficient rationality—if they 
failed to pass a (fluid) threshold of civilization—then they could claim little 
control over their own form of government. Unless or until they passed that 
threshold, their destinies were best left to more enlightened peoples. This 
was, of course, how Mill saw India, and it generated a paternalist justification 
of despotism.71 In settler communities, on the other hand, the purportedly 
civilized character of the populations meant that questions of recognition and 
reciprocity were paramount. The colonies were legitimate expressions of 
political power only insofar as this was accepted by those they ruled over. In 
this sense, the relationship was voluntaristic. Colonial rule depended on a 
stable normative order in which everyone knew their assigned place, and 
challenges to this order broke the compact between governments and subjects. 
Mill feared that an inappropriate response to the Canadian rebellion 

would threaten the legitimacy of the colonial empire. Britain, he argued, should 
treat its (settler) colonial populations fairly, on both intrinsic grounds (because 
justice demanded it) and for more instrumental reasons. It was vital that Britain 
maintained—and was seen to maintain—its reputation for “wisdom and foresight, 
for justice, clemency, and magnanimity” in the “eyes of all nations.”72 
Legitimacy was as much a matter of perception as right action.

In line with many of his fellow radicals, Mill argued that the Canadians, 
while imprudent, had a “just cause” for revolting, for they had challenged a 
tyrannical system of government, an oppressive “foreign yoke”: “They are 
styled rebels and traitors. The words are totally inapplicable to them.”73 The 
justice of the rebellion was a product of the illegal and immoral way in which 
the British government had overridden Canadian constitutional arrangements. 
“The people of Canada,” argued Mill, “had against the people of 
England legitimate cause of war. They had the provocation which, on every 
received principle of public law, is a breach of the conditions of allegiance.”74 
He insisted that it was important to “understand” and to address the legitimate 
grievances of the rebels. Refusal to do so undermined the legitimacy of 
British rule. He saw Durham’s mission as an opportunity to transform Canada 
from an unjustly governed polity into a model colony. It was a “tabula rasa,” 
open to Durham to “inscribe what character he pleases.”75

Following what he assumed were the outlines of Durham’s proposal, Mill 
argued for the creation of a broadly federal system uniting Lower and Upper 
Canada.76 This would guarantee political justice to both sides. With skillful 
institutional design, minority protection could be assured. Moreover, in the 
long run it would also help to eliminate one of the residual problems encountered 
in Canada: the problem of nationalities. A positive side effect of 
federation, he claimed, was that it provided the “only legitimate means of 
destroying the so-much-talked-of nationality of the French Canadians,” compelling 
them to see themselves not as a “separate body” but as “an integral 
portion of a larger whole.” Combining the best characteristics of each “race” 
would create a “nationality of country,” a sense of commitment to the state as 
opposed to the particularism of ethnic interests. It would forge them into 
“British Americans.”77 But it was not to be. Following Durham’s humiliating 
resignation, Mill attempted to defend him, suggesting that he had demonstrated 
his fitness to lead the “great reform party of the empire.”78 This 
represented the triumph of hope over reality. By 1840 the plan was dead: 
Durham’s activities had alienated many radicals, and he was not interested in 
the role that Mill envisaged for him.79

The intersection of race, nationality, and colonization can also be witnessed 
in Mill’s analysis of the Irish famine a few years after the Canadian 

turmoil. As Pitts observes, he had a far more sympathetic understanding of 
the travails of the Irish peasantry than he did of the Indians, ascribing to the 
former “a moral dignity and rationality” he never accorded the latter.80 Yet 
the Irish still remained subordinate in Mill’s imperial topography; his sympathy 
did not translate into assigning them civilizational equality. Once again, 
his comments on this issue emerged in relation to a set of ongoing arguments 
about how best to respond to crisis. Did state-sponsored colonization offer an 
apposite solution to the problems of Ireland? In a letter penned to Toqueville’s 
travelling companion, Gustave Beaumont, in October 1839, Mill argued that 
it did.81 Yet by the mid-1840s, as the famine began to wreak its terrible havoc, 
he had changed his mind. While recognizing the very serious problems in 
Ireland, he contended that they could be resolved by enacting a system of 
peasant proprietorship on reclaimed waste lands.82

He offered two reasons why systematic colonization was inappropriate in 
Ireland. First, it was prohibitively expensive: there were simply too many 
people who would need financial support to emigrate. The second reason 
goes to the heart of Mill’s views on race, nationality, and ethology. He did not 
consider the Irish suitable apostles of civilization; their characters were too 
deformed by their blighted environment. This differentiated them from the 
settler populations in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In a newspaper 
article published in October 1846, he argued that “it is not well to select as 
missionaries of civilization a people who, in so great a degree, yet remain to 
be civilized.” Encouraging Irish emigration would retard the progressive 
potential of colonization. “It is a serious question,” he continued, “whether, 
in laying the foundation of new nations beyond the sea, it be right that the 
Irish branch of the human family should be the predominant ingredient.” He 
thought it “desirable” that the Irish should “enter into the admixture,” as the 
Saxon race needed “to be tempered by amalgamation with the more excitable 
and imaginative constitution and the more generous impulses of its 
Celtic kinsfolk,” yet this process had to remain asymmetric, the Irish qualities 
tempering but not displacing the dominant Saxon racial configuration.83 
Mill’s argument centered, once again, on the issue of “character.” The modern 
Irish character was malformed by economic exploitation and religious subservience. 
The Irish, he continued, lack “individual hardihood, resource, and 
self-reliance”; they demanded instead “to be led and governed.” And, moreover, 
they had been “made lawless and disorderly” by centuries of British 
misrule.84 With this common liberal move, Mill simultaneously acknowledged 
an earlier British injustice while employing its results to undermine 
political claims in the present. Not only did the Irish fail to display the moral 
resources necessary for successful colonization, they now exhibited the 

potential to disrupt the colonial order through lack of discipline, even criminal 
excess. Their behavior would give colonization a bad name. Instead, he 
looked elsewhere: “The English and Scotch are the proper stuff for the pioneers 
of the wilderness.”85 Racial difference, figured as civilizational 
capacity, structured Mill’s analytical field, identifying a hierarchy of peoples 
ranked according to their ability to fabricate civilization in wild and distant 

V. Melancholic Colonialism andthe Pathos of Distance

During the last decade and a half of his life we witness a distinct shift in the 
tone of Mill’s colonial writings. The romance faded, to be replaced by something 
more somber, even downcast. We also witness an increasing emphasis 
placed on noneconomic arguments. The most extensive analysis of colonization 
in Mill’s later career is found in chapter 18 of the Considerations on 
Representative Government (1861). The direct economic benefits of colonization 
play only a subsidiary role in his analysis. His earlier concern with the 
urgency of emigration is also absent. Indeed Mill suggested that the material 
costs generated by the colonies offset the benefits. “England derives little 
advantage, except in prestige, from her dependencies; and the little she does 
derive is quite outweighed by the expense they cost her, and the dissemination 
they necessitate of her naval and military force.”86 Not only was it 
expensive to maintain a colonial empire, it was also potentially dangerous, 
leading to extensive global military commitments. Imperial overstretch beckoned. 
“Great Britain,” Mill concluded, “could do perfectly well without her 
colonies.” Despite this, he argued that the colonies were still valuable, for 
they produced a wide range of other benefits, both for Britain and (perhaps 
more importantly) the world.

Mill starts the chapter by noting that only in the “present generation” had 
the British realized the “true principle” of colonial government. Previously 
they had meddled incessantly in colonial affairs. This was a “corollary” of 
the “vicious theory” of colonization that had long guided European policy, 
and which was premised on the view that colonies existed primarily for economic 
exploitation. The habit of meddling had outlasted the mercantile 
system, and it was the “persistence in domineering” that had caused the 
Canadian rebellion. However, out of this disaster had flowed enlightenment, 
for the foresight of Durham, Wakefield, Buller, and Roebuck—and of course 
Mill himself—had led to the abandonment of the “vicious” theory. Durham’s 
report had inaugurated a “new era” in which the colonies were granted “the 

fullest measure of internal self-government.” This system bore little relation 
to previous modes of coercive colonial rule. Indeed if the colonies were to 
remain part of the British imperial system, it had to be on a voluntary basis. 
“[O]n every principle of morality and justice,” he argued, “she [Great Britain] 
ought to consent to their separation, should the time come when, after 
full trial of the best form of union, they deliberately desire to be dissevered.”
87 The lessons of the American Revolution were etched deeply into 
Mill’s political consciousness.

Mill offered three separate reasons for maintaining the colonial empire. 
First, he sketched an argument about what international relations theorists 
refer to as the “security dilemma.” The dilemma arises when two or more 
states coexisting in a condition of anarchy—lacking a global leviathan to 
regulate their interactions—are drawn into a conflictual posture despite 
their (potentially) nonaggressive intent.88 In a condition of uncertainty, 
political leaders are compelled to engage in actions that can inadvertently 
generate further insecurity. The greater the number of sovereign units populating 
the international system, the greater the probability of conflict. Mill 
thought that the colonial empire helped to mitigate this problem. It was, he 
argued, a step “towards universal peace, and general friendly cooperation 
among nations.” He offered two distinct arguments. In the first instance, it 
“renders war impossible among a large number of otherwise independent 
communities.” It dampened the dilemma by reducing the number of units 
in the system. Second, it prevented any of the colonies “from being absorbed 
into a foreign state, and becoming a source of additional aggressive strength 
to some rival power, either more despotic or closer at hand, which might 
not always be so unambitious or so pacific as Great Britain.”89 It restrained 
the growth of potentially aggressive states while maintaining British predominance. 
A stable international system enhanced British security, as did 
the inability of other states to absorb the colonies. The rest of the world 
benefitted, moreover, for despite its faults Britain remained the most progressive 
of nations.

Mill’s second reason for maintaining the colonial system concerned the 
moral and economic exemplarity of Britain’s commitment to free trade. The 
existence of the colonies “keeps the markets of the different countries open 
to one another, and prevents that mutual exclusion by hostile tariffs, which 
none of the great communities of mankind, except England, have yet completely 
outgrown.” Britain could offer an alternative, and superior, model of 
economic organization to the protectionism that was sweeping Europe and 
the United States. Mill’s final argument focused on liberty. The colonial 
empire, he contended,

. . . has the advantage, specially valuable at the present time, of adding 
to the moral influence, and weight in the councils of the world, of the 
Power which, of all in existence, best understands liberty—and whatever 
may have been its errors in the past, has attained to more of 
conscience and moral principle in its dealings with foreigners, than any 
other great nation seems either to conceive as possible, or recognize as 

This conceited picture was a staple of British political thought. The British 
frequently saw themselves—and liked to think that they were seen by 
others—as the avatars of liberty. Consequently, the greater the reach of their 
institutions, the greater the benefits for all. Even Mill, a man deeply critical 
of many aspects of his society, held this as an article of political faith.

As I have suggested already, until the early 1860s Mill presented a remarkably 
optimistic picture of the potential of settler colonialization. This was 
colonization as romance: an uplifting story of progressive forces overcoming 
numerous obstacles, supplanting a “vicious” theory with an “enlightened” 
one, and consequently heralding a bright new dawn for the peoples of Britain 
and the world. Yet in the last decade of his life his optimism faded, to be 
replaced by a more disenchanted, anxious stance. In part this was because 
reality had caught up with the fantasy: as the colonies grew in population 
and power, and as they secured significant political autonomy, Mill realized 
that they were failing to play their allotted roles. There were three main 
problems. First, the colonies were becoming increasingly protectionist, thus 
adopting an economic system that he had spent decades inveighing against. 
Second, the new colonial authorities had failed to deal properly with the 
land question. Finally, and perhaps most devastatingly, the colonists themselves 
seemed to be resorting to barbarism in their treatment of indigenous 
peoples. Granting colonial autonomy had undercut the civilizing potential of 
colonization. When enacted, sound liberal principles came into destructive 

An early hint of Mill’s disquiet can be found in the Considerations. He 
observed that an example of “how liberal a construction has been given to the 
distinction between imperial and colonial questions,” was seen in the “uncontrolled 
disposal” of “unappropriated lands” in the colonies. “[W]ithout 
injustice,” Mill lamented, the land could have been employed “for the greatest 
advantage of future emigrants from all parts of the empire.”91 In his 
correspondence he was adamant that in failing to fully implement systematic 
colonization the new colonies were undermining their own developmental 
potential. The “unoccupied” lands, he complained in 1871, should have been 

“reserved as the property of the empire at large until much greater progress 
had been made in peopling them.”92

During the 1860s, Mill became increasingly critical of the violent behavior 
of the settlers.93 While he had occasionally lamented brutality in the past, 
his earlier work was marked by a notable silence over colonial violence. 
During the 1830s and 1840s, the years of his most intense interest in Australia, 
some of the colonists were perpetrating the genocide of the Tasmanians, 
and engaging in widespread violence against indigenous populations elsewhere.
94 Although this topic was discussed in Britain, Mill failed to address 
it. It would have disrupted his colonial romance. During the final decade of 
his life, however, he returned repeatedly to the topic, though never in print. 
The “common English abroad,” he wrote, were “intensely contemptuous of 
what they consider inferior races” and sought to attain their ends by “bullying 
and blows.”95 This injustice threatened the normative justification of colonization. 
Mill appeared genuinely perturbed, yet he pulled back from arguing 
that colonization was inherently cruel, and thus from abandoning the colonial 
project. (His continued commitment to this project may explain why he 
refrained from publishing his concerns). Instead, he implied that certain categories 
of people—oafish settlers and inexperienced officials among 
them—were more prone to violence than others. With the right policies and 
people the injustices could be corrected. This is an example of what Cheryl 
Welch calls “antiseptic containment,” the attempt to confine colonial violence 
in a quarantined space.96 By locating responsibility in this manner, Mill 
denied the possibility that violence and injustice was systemic. The main 
problem for Mill, and the source of his despondency, was that those best 
placed to control the colonists—the Crown government in London—no 
longer had the political power to do so. Rather than leading to progress, colonial 
autonomy facilitated injustice. This profound tension remained unresolved at 
the time of his death.

One final issue came to the fore in the 1860s, and it again goes to the 
heart of some core issues in Mill’s political thinking. This concerned the 
most appropriate form of political organization suitable for coordinating a 
globe-spanning colonial empire. In the Considerations, Mill argued that it 
already constituted a weak quasi-federal political order. “Their union with 
Great Britain is the slightest kind of federal union; but not a strictly equal 
federation, the mother country retaining to itself the powers of a Federal 
Government, though reduced in practice to their very narrowest limits.” 
This system was defensible, but it meant that the colonists had “no voice” in 
vital areas of foreign policy, above all in questions of war and peace.97 In 
denying that the Irish should be accorded self-government, Mill explained 

that they were actually better off than the semi-autonomous Canadians, for 
through their incorporation in Westminster they “had something to say in the 
affairs of the empire,” whereas Canada “was but a dependency” and consequently 
voiceless. “A union such as this,” he concluded, “can only exist as a 
temporary expedient, between countries which look forward to separation as 
soon as the weaker is able to stand alone, and which care not how soon it 
arrives.”98 Throughout the nineteenth century, various constitutional 
schemes had been proposed to give colonial governments an increased role 
in imperial decision making, thus consolidating the colonial connection. 
Some advocated the representation of the colonies at Westminster, or, more 
radical still, the creation of a new supreme imperial legislature. The latter of 
these options was, Mill observed, a plan to constitute a “perfectly equal 
federation.” But he dismissed further political integration. The idea was 
doomed to fail, he argued, for an equal federation of the colonies and Great 
Britain was “so inconsistent with the rational principles of government” that 
it is “doubtful if they have been seriously accepted as a possibility by any 
reasonable thinker.” Quite simply, “[e]ven for strictly federative purposes, 
the conditions do not exist, which we have seen to be essential to a federation.” 
The main obstacle was physical distance.

Countries separated by half the globe do not present the natural conditions 
for being under one government, or even members of one 
federation. If they had sufficiently the same interests, they have not, and 
never can have, a sufficient habit of taking counsel together. They are 
not part of the same public; they do not discuss and deliberate in the 
same arena, but apart, and have only a most imperfect knowledge of 
what passes in the minds of one another. They neither know each other’s 
objects, nor have confidence in each other’s principles of conduct.

Representatives from Canada and Australia, he continued, “could not know, 
or feel any sufficient concern for, the interests, opinions, or wishes of the 
English, Irish or Scotch”99 The size and spatial extent of the “public” was 
ultimately constrained by the immutability of physical space. Rational 
deliberation, the key to democratic development, was impossible across such 
vast expanses, as was the formation of a substantive political (national) 
identity.100 It was cognitively impossible. Mill defended, then, a variant of 
Edmund Burke’s influential argument from nature against colonial 
representation: “Opposuit natura—I cannot remove the barriers of the 
creation.”101 Similar arguments were adumbrated by Adam Smith, who once 
referred to British colonists living in North America as “strangers,” and by 

Bentham, who asked incredulously of colonists whether it was to their 
“advantage to be governed by a people who never know, nor ever can know, 
either their inclinations or their wants.”102 On this view, which Mill reiterated 
until his death, geography circumscribed the spatial extent of political 
community. “I do not think,” he wrote to a correspondent in 1871, “that the 
federal principle can be worked successfully when the different members of 
the confederacy are scattered all over the world,” and, “I think the English 
people would prefer separation to an equal federation.”103

The importance of physical space—and in particular of what we might 
call the pathos of distance—runs through Mill’s colonial writings. We have 
already seen that Mill (following Wakefield) insisted that spatial dispersion 
undermined the potential of civilization.104 Moreover, he argued that the role 
of distance was vital in shaping British attitudes toward various parts of the 
imperial system. This was one of the reasons why they were less prepared to 
tolerate dissent in Ireland than in Canada. “Canada is a great way off, and 
British rulers can tolerate much in a place from which they are not afraid that 
the contagion may spread to England.”105 Finally, the remoteness of the scattered 
elements of the empire—“at the distance of half the globe” from 
Britain106—had profound psycho-social consequences. One implication of 
Mill’s “associationist” conception of character formation, albeit one that he 
never discussed, was that the colonies would never be suitable for full integration 
into a globe-spanning British colonial polity. While civilization could 
be transplanted, it would invariably assume different and increasingly divergent 
forms across the world, as it adapted to the local environment and 
developed its own constellation of institutions and moeurs. Over time, then, 
the underlying cultural unity necessary for maintaining a healthy political 
community would dissolve.

It was the argument from nature, above all, that marked the difference 
between Mill’s promotion of the colonial empire and the proselytisers of the 
following generation. Mill himself had intimated change in an extraordinary 
letter in 1866:

One of the many causes which make the age in which we are living so 
very important in the life of the human race—almost, indeed, the turning 
point of it—is that so many things combine to make it the era of a 
great change in the conceptions and feelings of mankind as to the world 
of which they form a part. There is now almost no place left on our 
planet which is mysterious to us, and we were brought within sight of 
practical questions which will have to be faced when the multiplied 
human race shall have taken full possession of the earth.107

Blending anxiety and awe, Mill recognized, without quite being able to put 
his finger on it, the profound transformation in political consciousness 
generated by the revolution in communications technology—the (purported) 
elimination of the “mystery.” This revolution meant that the types of 
argument proffered by Burke, Bentham, Smith, and Mill were soon pushed 
aside, although they never disappeared completely. Whereas for Mill nature 
imposed definite limits on the spatial extension of community, many of his 
successors adopted a more radical line. From the early 1870s onwards, it was 
increasingly argued that the colonial empire formed part of a single political 
field, that it constituted a unified community stretching across the globe. As 
a result, it became a commonplace to argue that the federation of the British 
colonial world was feasible, even necessary.108 This new generation of colonial 
advocates saw “the public,” and with it the limits of political community itself, 
as open to reconfiguration by novel technologies. Deliberation across space 
was possible; the interests of Britain and the colonies could be harmonized. 
Likewise, Wakefield’s ideas—the very backbone of Mill’s colonial thought—
fell from favor. While emigration remained an abiding concern for colonial 
advocates, the specificities of Wakefield’s scheme seemed redundant. As the 
author of the 1878 entry on “emigration” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica 
wrote, the “discussion thirty or forty years ago on organized methods of 
colonization have mostly disappeared in these later times. We hear no more 
of Mr Wakefield’s scheme.”109 Mill’s insistence on the political limits 
imposed by geographical space and his adherence to Wakefield’s theoretical 
ideas meant that his arguments looked increasingly obsolete in the years 
following his death.

VI. Conclusions

Recent scholarship on Mill has deepened our understanding of how his political 
thought was shaped by questions of empire, civilization, and progress. 
Yet his evolving visions of global order can only be grasped adequately by 
recognizing the importance that he accorded to settler colonization. This was 
an issue he returned to repeatedly over the course of forty years, although as 
I have argued we can discern various shifts in his thought over time. Above 
all, we see an increased emphasis on the universal benefits of colonization, 
and on geopolitical and moral, as opposed to political-economic, justificatory 
arguments. He always imagined the metropole and the colonies within the 
same analytical field, a field structured but not exhausted by his political 
economy and his utilitarianism, but he never regarded them as part of a single 
political field, as part of the same community of interests, identity, and affect. 

The colonies were, as they had been for Bentham, nascent independent countries, 
distant spaces of hope. Because of their far-flung locations they would 
never constitute an integral element of the British polity. Ideally, and like 
their ancient Greek exemplars, they would remain bound by ties of kinship, 
economic exchange, and the warm glow of a mythopeic past.


Support for research on this essay was generously provided by the Leverhulme Trust. 
I would also like to thank the following for discussing earlier drafts: Casper Sylvest, 
Peter Cain, Katherine Smits, Duncan Kelly, Sarah Fine, Istvan Hont, Mary Dietz, and 
three anonymous referees. All the usual disclaimers apply.


 1. J. S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy (1848), in The Collected Works of 
John Stuart Mill, ed. John Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963-
1991), 3:963 [hereafter CW].

 2. Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper, “Between Metropole and Colony: 
Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire, ed. Cooper and Stoler 
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 4.

 3. See, for example, Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire (Chicago: University 
of Chicago Press, 1999); Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire (Princeton, 
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); J. S. Mill’s Encounter with India, ed. 
M. I. Moir, Douglas Peers, and Lynn Zastoupil (Toronto: University of Toronto 
Press, 1999); Lynn Zastoupil, John Stuart Mill and India (Stanford, CA: Stanford 
University Press, 1994).

 4. Valuable exceptions include: Margaret Kohn and Daniel O’Neill, “A Tale of 
Two Indias: Burke and Mill on Empire and Slavery in the West Indies and 
America,” Political Theory 34 (2006): 192-228; Katherine Smits, “John Stuart 
Mill on the Antipodes: Settler Violence against Indigenous Peoples and the 
Legitimacy of Colonial Rule,” Australian Journal of Politics and History 51 
(2008): 1-15. Both Nicholas Capaldi, John Stuart Mill (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge 
University Press, 2004), and Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill (London: 
Overlook Press, 2007) underemphasize colonization.

 5. Bernard Semmel, The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge 
University Press, 1970); Donald Winch, Classical Political Economy 
and Colonies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965); R. N. Ghosh, 
“John Stuart Mill on Colonies and Colonization” in John Stuart Mill, ed. John 
Cunningham Wood (London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1987), 4:354-67; Samuel Hollander, 
The Economics of John Stuart Mill, 2 vols. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 
1985), 2:753-58.

6. George Cornewall Lewis, An Essay on the Government of Dependencies (London: 
John Murray, 1841); Arthur Mills, Colonial Constitutions (London: John 
Murray, 1856); Henry Jenkyns, British Rule and Jurisdiction Beyond the Seas 
(Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1902), 1-9.

 7. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, CW, 19:562 [hereafter 
Considerations]. He defines a dependency as: “outlying territories of some size 
and population . . . which are subject, more or less, to acts of sovereign power 
on the part of the paramount country” (p. 562). See also Mill, “The East India 
Company’s Charter” (1852), CW, 30:49-50.

 8. See also Robert Hind, “‘We Have No Colonies’: Similarities within the British 
Imperial Experience,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1984): 
3-35. Cf. Bruce Buchan, Empire of Political Thought (London: Pickering & 
Chatto, 2008).

 9. This type of argument is today often characterized in terms of terra nullius—
the occupation of “empty land.” This idea is ancient (as are the practices of 
conquest that can follow from it), but the terminology is a product of the late 
nineteenth-century: Andrew Fitzmaurice, “The Genealogy of Terra Nullius,” 
Australian Historical Studies 129 (2007): 1-15.

 10. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works 
(London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975-), 35:751n.

 11. David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

 12. Pitts, A Turn to Empire, 6. On Tocqueville’s rhetorical moves, see Cheryl 
Welch, “Colonial Violence and the Rhetoric of Evasion: Tocqueville on 
Algeria,” Political Theory 31 (2003): 235-64.

 13. Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? (Oxford, UK: Oxford University 
Press, 2006), 31.

 14. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 
ed. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 
1976 [1776]), 4:556-641; James Mill, “Colony” (1818), in Essays from the 
Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Collected Works (London, 1995 
[1823]), 3-33. J. C. Wood, British Economists and the Empire (London: Croom 
Helm Ltd., 1983), chap. 1.

 15. William Nassau Senior, Remarks on Emigration (London: R. Clay, 1831); William 
Nassau Senior, An Outline of a Science of Political Economy (London: W. 
Clowes & Sons, 1836); Robert Torrens, Colonisation of South Australia (London: 
Longman, 1835); Robert Torrens, Self-Supporting Colonization (London, 
1847); and Herman Merivale, Lectures on Colonisation and Colonies, 2 vols. 
(London: Longman, 1841).

 16. On Wakefield, see Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream, W. Metcalf 
(Ed.) (Wellington: GP Publications, 1997).

17. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chap. 33; J. S. Mill, “Wakefield’s Popular Politics,” Examiner, 
January 29, 1837, CW, 24:788. Mill still professed adherence to Wakefield’s 
views decades later: J. S. Mill, “The Westminster Election of 1865,” [1], 
July, 3, 1865, CW, 28:16; letter to A. M. Francis, May 8, 1869, CW, 17:1599.

 18. It was published initially (and anonymously) in the Morning Chronicle; it 
appeared as a book, edited by Robert Gouger, and entitled A Letter from Sydney, 
the Principal Town in Australasia, Together with the Outline of a System of 
Colonization (London, 1830).

 19. For Bentham on colonies, see Philip Schofield, Utility and Democracy (Oxford, 
UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), chap. 8; Pitts, A Turn to Empire, chap. 4. 
On his conversion, see Richard Mills, The Colonization of Australia (1829-
1842) (London, 1968 [1915]), 152-53; Edward Gibbon Wakefield, England 
and America, A Comparison of the Social and Political State of Both Nations, 
2 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1833), 2:252n.

 20. J. S. Mill, “The Labouring Agriculturalists,” Examiner, December 19, 1830, 
CW, 22:218.

 21. On the aims of the group, see Edward Gibbon Wakefield, The New British Province 
of South Australia (London: C. Knight, 1838). The philosophic radicals 
were divided over Wakefield’s ideas, with Bowring, Perronet Thompson, and 
the Westminster Review, critical; the more influential, including Grote, Molesworth, 
Roebuck, Buller, both Mill’s, and the London Review, supported the plan.

 22. J. S. Mill, “Wakefield’s The New British Province of South Australia,” Examiner, 
July, 20, 1834, CW, 23:739, 742.

 23. Mill, `Wakefield’s The New British Province of South Australia,” 739. On his 
admiration for the “Greek empire” see also Mill, “Grote’s History of Greece,” 
II [1853], CW, 11, esp. 321-4h

 24. Capaldi, John Stuart Mill, 107. He later bought land in New Zealand, although 
he never visited the country: letter to Henry Chapman, November 12, 1845, 
CW, 18:687.

 25. Jonathan Riley, “Mill’s Political Economy: Ricardian Science and Liberal Utilitarian 
Art,” in The Cambridge Companion to Mill, ed. John Skorupski (Cambridge, 
UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 294-95.

 26. Scholars disagree over whether Mill’s support for Wakefield signalled a break 
from Ricardo and Say. Much turns on whether Wakefield’s arguments on economic 
growth were—as he proclaimed—inconsistent with them, or whether 
he had misread Ricardo (as Mill claimed: Principles, 735-36). Donald Winch 
argues that Mill only supported Wakefield’s policy proposals (Winch, Classical 
Political Economy, 139-40), while Samuel Hollander argues that Wakefield and 
Mill consistently extended Ricardian insights (Economics of John Stuart Mill, 
1:166, 475-79). I here follow Hollander.

27. For an example, see Mill, letter to Arthur Helps, March 28, 1870, CW, 

 28. For an early articulation, see Mill, “Wakefield’s The New British Province of 
South Australia,” 740-41. Mill argued that emigration, while vital, remained 
insufficient (Principles, 194).

 29. J. S. Mill, “The Emigration Bill,” Examiner, February 27, 1831, CW, 22:271, 272.

 30. For the debates over the issue, see H. J. M. Johnson, British Emigration Policy, 
1815-1830 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1972).

 31. J. S. Mill, “The New Colony,” [1], Examiner, June, 29, 1834, CW, 23: 733, 734.

 32. J. S. Mill, “The New Colony,” [2], Examiner, July, 6, 1834, CW, 23:737.

 33. J. S. Mill, “The Sale of Colonial Land,” Sun, February, 22, 1837, CW, 24:792.

 34. Mill, Principles, 711. See also J. S. Mill, “Torrens’s Letter to Sir Robert Peel,” 
Spectator, January 28, 1843, CW, 24:841; J. S. Mill, “On the Necessity of 
the Uniting of the Question of Corn Laws with that of the Tithes,” Examiner, 
December 23, 1832, CW, 23:539. On emigration as “palliative,” see J. S. Mill, 
“The Claims of Labour,” Edinburgh Review (1845), CW, 4:387.

 35. Mill, Principles, 958.

 36. Ibid.

 37. Mill, Principles, 958-59, 965-66. See also J. S. Mill, letter to Cairnes, December 
12, 1864, CW, 15:1046.

 38. For the republican view, see Duncan Bell, “Republican Imperialism: J. A. Froude 
and the Virtue of Empire,” History of Political Thought 30 (2009): 166-91.

 39. Wakefield, England and America, 2:215-17; Mill, “The Emigration Bill,” 273. See 
also J. S. Mill, “Female Emigrants,” Examiner, February, 26, 1832, CW, 23:419.

 40. Marx, Capital, 753, 758.

 41. For his views on empire more broadly, see Gareth Stedman Jones, “Radicalism and 
the Extra-European World: The Case of Marx” in Victorian Visions of Global Order, 
ed. Duncan Bell (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 186-215.

 42. Mill, Principles, 800.

 43. Ibid., 965-67. He also discusses hours of labor. On Mill and collective action, 
see Richard Tuck, Free Riding (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 
2008), 133-35.

 44. Mill, Principles, 959.

 45. Ibid., 963. See also Mill’s letter to John Campbell, April 4, 1866, CW, 16:1155.

 46. J. S. Mill, letter to Arthur Helps, March 28, 1870, CW, 17:1710.

 47. Mill, Principles, 963.

 48. Ibid. Mill had long utilized the argument about differential labor productivity: 
Mill, “The Emigration Bill,” 272.

 49. Miles Taylor, “The 1848 Revolutions and the British Empire,” Past & Present 
166 (2000): 146-80.

50. Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People?; Anthony Howe, Free Trade and 
Liberal England, 1846-1946 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1998).

 51. Increasing political independence was accompanied, however, by growing 
economic dependence: P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-
2000, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, 2002), chap. 8.

 52. Letter to Hardy (1856), 511. This was despite the fact, Mill stated, that the plan 
had only ever been properly executed in New Zealand. He wanted to show that 
Australian growth could not be explained by the gold rush in the early 1850s. 
He also claimed that the “opinions” of the Australians were generally “ahead” 
of those in Britain: Letter to Henry Chapman, October 5, 1863, CW, 15:888. 
He also claimed, and that he and Harriet “read every book we can get about the 
Australian colonies always with fresh interest” (Letter to Hardy [1856], 511).

 53. Mill, Principles, 378. Cf. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist 
Manifesto, ed. Gareth Stedman Jones (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 2002 
[1848]), 224.

 54. See also Hollander, The Economics of John Stuart Mill, 2:754-55, 756-57.

 55. See, in general, Robert Grant, Representations of British Emigration, Colonisation 
and Settlement (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

 56. The argument is found in Mill, Principles, vol. 5, chap. 10, sec. 1.

 57. J. S. Mill, letter to W. L. Johns, January 22, 1867, CW, 16:1230. And conversely, 
“the colonies will not allow us to cast our paupers into them”: letter to 
Henry Chapman, January 14, 1870, CW, 17:1685.

 58. The argument is found in Mill, Principles, vol. 5, chap. 10, sec. 1.

 59. See, for example, his letters to Frederick Miles Edge (of the Chicago Tribune), 
February 26, 1866, CW, 16:1150-51; Henry Soden, May 2, 1865, CW, 16:1043-
44; George Kenyon Holden, July 5, 1868, CW, 16:1419-20. He notes in a letter 
to the political economist J. E. Cairnes, on February 4, 1865 (CW, 16:989-90), 
that he had modified various passages in the 6th edition (book 5, 919-21) to 
“give a fuller expression of my meaning.”

 60. J. S. Mill, letter to Archibald Michie, December 7, 1868, CW, 16:1516; letter to 
Edward Stafford, December 11, 1868, CW, 16:1520-21.

 61. Wakefield, England and America, 2:105-6.

 62. Stefan Collini, Public Moralists (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1991), chap. 3; 
Janice Carlisle, John Stuart Mill and the Writing of Character (Athens: University 
of Georgia Press, 1991); Duncan Kelly, The Propriety of Liberty (Princeton, NJ: 
Princeton University Press, 2010); and, on India, Pitts, A Turn to Empire, chap. 5.

 63. J. S. Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869), CW, 21:277; cf. J. S. Mill, System 
of Logic, CW, vol. 8, book 6, 904-05.

 64. On Mill’s writings on women, democratic institutions, and himself, as ethological 
“case studies” see Terence Ball, “The Formation of Character: Mill’s Ethology 
Reconsidered,” Polity 33 (2000): 25-48.

65. Mehta, Liberalism and Empire, 37.

 66. J. S. Mill, “New Australian Colony,” Morning Chronicle, October, 23, 1834, 
CW, 23:750.

 67. Letter to Edward Lytton-Bulwer, March 5, 1838, CW, 13:382. See William 
Thomas, The Philosophic Radicals (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 
1979), chap. 8; Michael Turner, “Radical Agitation and the Canada Question in 
British Politics, 1837-1841,” Historical Research 79 (2006): 90-114.

 68. A smaller uprising followed in Upper Canada in December 1837. See Peter 
Burroughs, The Canadian Crisis and British Colonial Policy, 1828-1841 (London: 
Macmillan, 1972); P. A. Buckner, The Transition to Responsible Government 
(Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1985).

 69. Lord Durham’s Report on the Affairs of British North America, ed. C. P. 
Lucas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912 [1839]). Wakefield played a significant 
role in formulating the report. For a harsh indictment, see Ged Martin, 
The Durham Report and British Policy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 

 70. On imperial legitimacy, see also Randi Kostal, A Jurisprudence of Power 
(Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996).

 71. Pitts, A Turn to Empire, chap. 5; Bell, “Republican Imperialism.”

 72. J. S. Mill, “Lord Durham and his Assailants,” London and Westminster Review 
(1838), CW, 6:448.

 73. J. S. Mill, “Radical Party and Canada: Lord Durham and the Canadians,” London 
and Westminster Review (1838), CW, 6:414. See also J. S. Mill, “Penal 
Code for India,” London and Westminster Review (1838), CW, 30:30.

 74. Mill, “Radical Party and Canada,” 417. “A constitution, once conferred, is 
sacred . . .” (p. 418). The point at issue was a series of punitive resolutions 
passed at Westminster in March 1837 which removed various powers from the 
Lower Canadian assembly, including the power of refusing to grant money for 
local administration, originally enshrined in the 1791 Constitution.

 75. Mill, “Radical Party and Canada,” 429.

 76. Ibid., 433-34. See also Mill’s letter to John Robertson, December 28, 1838, 
CW, 13:393-34. Mill’s article on “Lord Durham and his Assailants” was heavily 
shaped by Charles Buller’s inaccurate account of Durham’s plans: Thomas, 
The Philosophic Radicals, 402-03.

 77. Mill, “Lord Durham and his Assailants,” 458, 459. On Mill’s “heterotic” view 
of national absorption, see Georgios Varouxakis, Mill on Nationality (London: 
Routledge, 2002), esp. 15-19. Cf. Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship 
(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995), 53, where Mill is accused of 
advocating “coercive assimilation.”

 78. Mill, “Lord Durham and his Assailants,” 461. See also J. S. Mill, Autobiography, 
(1873), CW, 1: 164-66, 223.

79. For Mill’s recognition of this, see his letter to Robertson, April 6, 1839, CW, 

 80. Pitts, A Turn to Empire, 148.

 81. Letter to Beaumont, October 18, 1839, CW, 17:1990-92.

 82. See, in general, Bruce Kinzer, England’s Disgrace? (Toronto: University of 
Toronto Press, 2001), esp. chapters 2-3.

 83. J. S. Mill, “The Condition of Ireland,” (11), Morning Chronicle, October, 26, 
1846, CW, 24:915.

 84. Ibid., 973.

 85. J. S. Mill, “The Condition of Ireland,” (25), Morning Chronicle, December 2, 
1846, CW, 24:973. Mill argued that the abject conditions meant that “Ireland is 
once more a tabula rasa, on which we might have inscribed what we pleased.” 
Letter to the Examiner, May 1848, CW, 24:1098.

 86. Mill, Considerations, 565. For his defence of the colonial system, see also his 
letter to Cairnes, November 8, 1864, 964-66.

 87. Mill, Considerations, 562-63, 565.

 88. Ken Booth and Nicholas Wheeler, The Security Dilemma (Basingstoke, UK: 
Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

 89. Mill, Considerations, 565.

 90. Ibid. On the morality of free trade, see Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation 
(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008).

 91. Mill, Considerations, 563-64.

 92. J. S. Mill, letter to Arthur Patchett Martin, October 10, 1871, CW, 32:232. But, 
he argued, “[t]he renunciation of them was by no means a necessary consequence 
of the introduction of responsible government” (p. 232). See also letter 
to Chapman (1870), 1865-66.

 93. As detailed in Smits, “John Stuart Mill on the Antipodes.” Cf. Pitts, A Turn to 
Empire, 159-60. For an argument that there is a general shift in justifications 
of British imperial rule during the closing decades of the century, see Karuna 
Mantena, Alibis of Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

 94. Benjamin Madley, “From Terror to Genocide: Britain’s Tasmanian Penal 
Colony and Australia’s History Wars,” Journal of British Studies 47 (2008): 
77-106. The issue was raised, for example, in Herman Merivale’s Lectures on 
Colonisation and Colonies, 2:150. Mill certainly read the second (1861) edition 
of these lectures: Letter to J. E. Cairnes, November 8, 1864, CW, 15:647-48.

 95. Letter to A. M. Francis (1869), 1599. See also the following letters: to Robert 
Pharazyn, August 21, 1866, CW, 16:1194-96; to Henry Chapman, August 7, 1866, 
CW, 16:1135-36; to Charlotte Manning, January 14, 1870, CW, 17:1685-87.

 96. Welch, “Colonial Violence and the Rhetoric of Evasion,” 251-52.

 97. Mill, Considerations, 564. A similar account of colonial “quasi-federalism” can 
be found in L. T. Hobhouse, Democracy and Reaction, ed. P. F. Clarke (Brighton, 

UK: Harvester Press, 1972 [1904]), 154. Cf. Duncan Bell, “The Victorian Idea of 
a Global State,” 136-59.

 98. J. S. Mill, “England and Ireland,” 4th ed. 1869 [1868], CW, 6:524-25.

 99. Mill, Considerations, 564, 565. Mill thought that a “loose federation” of the 
European states was a future possibility: letter to T. E. Cliffe Leslie, August 18, 
1860, CW, 15:703; letter to M. C. Halstead, January 19, 1871, CW, 17:1800-01.

100. On deliberation, see Nadia Urbinati, Mill on Democracy (Chicago: University 
of Chicago Press, 2002).

101. Edmund Burke, “Speech on Conciliation with America” (March 22, 1775), in 
The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, ed. W. Elofson with John Woods 
(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3:152.

102. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 622; Jeremy Bentham, “Emancipate Your Colonies” 
(1830), in Rights, Representation, and Reform, ed. Philip Schofield, Catherine 
Pease-Watkin, and Cyprian Blamires (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 
2002), 292.

103. Mill, letter to Arthur Patchett Martin (1871), 233. See also, Mill, letter to Henry 
Chapman (1870), 1865.

104. A point also made in Mill, “Civilization,” CW, 18:117-49.

105. Mill, “England and Ireland,” 525.

106. Mill, “Lord Durham and his Assailants,” 460.

107. J. S. Mill, letter to Henry Chapman, August 7, 1866, CW, 16:1137.

108. See, for example, John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England (London: 
Macmillan, 1883). I analyze this debate in Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater 
Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); and Bell, “Imagined 
Spaces: Nation, State, and Territory in the British Colonial Empire, 1860-
1914,” in The Primacy of Foreign Policy in British History, 1660-2000, ed. 
William Mulligan and Brendan Simms (Basingstoke, forthcoming).

109. Robert Somers, “Emigration” (1878), Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed., 
Thomas Spencer Baynes (1875-1889), 8:176. Cf. Alistair MacIntyre, Three 
Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame 
Press, 1990), chap. 1.


Duncan Bell is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at 
the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Christ’s College. He is the author of The 
Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton, 
2007), as well as the editor of a number of books, including Victorian Visions of 
Global Order: Empire and International Relations in Nineteenth-Century Political 
Thought (Cambridge, 2007), and Political Thought and International Relations: Variations 
on a Realist Theme (Oxford, 2008). His most recent project is an edited 
textbook on Ethics and World Politics (Oxford, 2010).