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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Mid-February 2006 was the official launch of the University of Toronto Press edition of the works of J.S. Mill which went live to the public on the OLL website. This is significant for a number of reasons:

  1. It is the most authoritative scholarly edition of the works of Mill which is available.
  2. An excellent search engine makes it possible to search across the entire 32 volumes for key words or phrases.
  3. J.S. Mill is a towering figure in the history of political thought.

Mill stood up in Parliament in February 1866 to denounce the right given to the Chief Governor of Ireland to suspend habeas corpus and to order floggings of the unruly Irish. One might recall Thomas Hodgskin’s outrage at the use of flogging in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars which led to his own disciplining and the long intellectual journey he began towards laissez-faire individualism. Mill came to the interesting conclusion that people in positions of authority who resorted to flogging needed to be flogged themselves.

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13 February, 2006

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J.S. Mill in a speech before parliament denounced the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the use of flogging in Ireland, saying that those who ordered this “deserved flogging as much as any of those who were flogged by his orders” (1866)

Read the full quote in context here.

We continue to explore the great treasures which are hidden away in the 33 volume collection of the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. The key to unlocking this treasure is of course our powerful search engine. Here is an example of what one can find. In 1866 Mill gave a speech in the House of Commons denouncing the English mode of governing Ireland. The occasion was a bill granting the Chief Governor of Ireland the power to suspend habeus corpus, that is "to Apprehend and Detain … Such Persons as He or They Shall Suspect of Conspiring against Her Majesty’s Person and Government.":

The occasion was one for deep grief, not for irritation. He agreed with the honourable Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) that this Bill was a cause for shame and humiliation to this country. We were present at the collapsing of a great delusion. England had for a considerable number of years been flattering itself that the Irish people had come to their senses; that they were now sensible that they had got Catholic Emancipation and the Incumbered Estates Bill, which were the only things they could possibly want; and had become aware that a nation could not have anything to complain of when it was under such beneficent rulers as us, who, if we do but little for them, would so gladly do much if we only knew how… But we had fallen into the mistake of thinking that good intentions were enough… He hardly knew to what to compare the position of England towards Ireland, but some illustration of his meaning might be drawn from the practice of flogging. Flogging in some few cases was probably a necessary abomination, because there were some men and boys whom long persistence in evil had so brutalized and perverted that no other punishment had any chance of doing them good. But when any man in authority— whether he was the captain of a ship or the commander of a regiment, or the master of a school, needed the instrument of flogging to maintain his authority—that man deserved flogging as much as any of those who were flogged by his orders.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

  1. Suspension of Habeas Corpus In Ireland

    17 FEBRUARY, 1866

    PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 181, cols. 705-6. Not reported in The Times. Mill’s speech was on Sir George Grey’s motion for leave to bring in "A Bill to Empower the Lord Lieutenant or Other Chief Governor of Ireland to Apprehend and Detain until the First Day of March 1867, Such Persons as He or They Shall Suspect of Conspiring against Her Majesty’s Person and Government," 29 Victoria (16 Feb., 1866), PP. 1866, III, 121-4. Of the speech he says in his Autobiography: "In denouncing, on this occasion, the English mode of governing Ireland, I did no more than the general opinion of England now admits to have been just; but the anger against Feminism then in all its freshness; any attack on what Fenians attacked was looked upon as an apology for them; and I was so unfavourably received House, that more than one of my friends advised me (and my own judgment agreed with the advice ) to wait, before speaking again, for the favourable opportunity would be given by the first great debate on the Reform Bill" (CW, I, 277 ). (For his successful of that opportunity, see No. 16. )

    MR. J. STUART MILL SAID, THAT some asperity had been introduced into this discussion which he should not imitate. The occasion was one for deep grief, not for irritation. He agreed with the honourable Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) that this Bill was a cause for shame and humiliation to this country. We were present at the collapsing of a great delusion. England had for a considerable number of years been flattering itself that the Irish people had come to their senses; that they were now sensible that they had got Catholic Emancipation and the Incumbered Estates Bill, which were the only things they could possibly want; and had become aware that a nation could not have anything to complain of when it was under such beneficent rulers as us, who, if we do but little for them, would so gladly do much if we only knew how. We all knew that in times past England had been unjust to Ireland. Of that national sin this nation had repented; and we were not now conscious of any other feelings towards Ireland than those which were perfectly honest and benevolent, and he did not say this of one party, or of one side of the House only, he said it of all. But we had fallen into the mistake of thinking that good intentions were enough. We had been in the habit of saying pleasant things on this subject in the hearing of foreigners, till, from iteration, foreigners were beginning to believe that Ireland was no longer our weak point—England’s vulnerable spot—the portion of our territory where we might perhaps be successfully assailed, and which, in any case, by neutralizing a great portion of our available force, disabled us from doing anything to resist any iniquity which it might be sought to perpetrate in Europe. This pleasing delusion was now at an end. Every foreigner, every continental writer, would believe for many years to come that Ireland was a country constantly on the brink of revolution, held down by an alien nationality, and kept in subjection by brute force. (No, no!) He did not mean that he shared that opinion; he disclaimed it. He hardly knew to what to compare the position of England towards Ireland, but some illustration of his meaning might be drawn from the practice of flogging. Flogging in some few cases was probably a necessary abomination, because there were some men and boys whom long persistence in evil had so brutalized and perverted that no other punishment had any chance of doing them good. But when any man in authority— whether he was the captain of a ship or the commander of a regiment, or the master of a school, needed the instrument of flogging to maintain his authority—that man deserved flogging as much as any of those who were flogged by his orders. He was not prepared to vote against granting to Her Majesty’s Government the powers which, in the state to which Ireland had been brought, they declared to be absolutely necessary. He was not responsible—they were. They did not bring Ireland into its present state—they found it so, through the misgovernment of centuries and the neglect of half a century. He did not agree with his honourable Friend the Member for Birmingham in thinking that Her Majesty’s Ministers, if they could not devise some remedy for the evils of Ireland, were bound to leave their seats on the Treasury Bench and devote themselves to learning statesmanship. From whom were they to learn it? From the Gentlemen opposite, who would be their successors, and who, if they were to propose anything which his honourable Friend or himself would consider as remedies for Irish evils, would not allow them to pass it? The Government had to deal with things as they were, and not with things as they might wish them to be. He did not believe that the power granted to the Government would be strained beyond the necessity of the case. He would not suggest a suspicion that tyranny and oppression would be practised. He knew there would be nothing of the kind, at least with their cognizance or connivance. He was not afraid that they would make a Jamaica in Ireland; and, to say truth, the fountains of his indignation had been so drained by what had taken place in that unfortunate island that he had none left for so comparatively small a matter as arbitrary imprisonment. When, however, the immediate end had been effected, he hoped that we should not again go to sleep for fifty years, and that we should not continue to meet every proposal for the benefit of Ireland with that eternal "non possumus ” which, translated into English, meant, "We don’t do it in England." If his honourable and learned Friend the Member for Sheffield thought that nothing was now amiss in Ireland except the Irish Church, he would be likely to hear much more on the subject before long, if he would only listen.

    [ The Bill went through all its stages in one day and was finally approved in the Commons by a vote of 354 to 6 (Mill’s name is not listed in either lobby). ]

[More works by John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)]