John Stuart Mill on the French Revolution

John Stuart Mill (1806–73), an English civil servant and philosopher, was a firm believer in the liberal, democratic, and anti–absolutist elements of the legacy of the Revolution and hoped to extend these concepts as widely as possible. Most famous for On Liberty (1859) and The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution.


I am not sure whether it was in this winter or the next that I first read a history of the French Revolution.1 I learnt with astonishment, that the principles of democracy, then apparently in so insignificant and hopeless a minority everywhere in Europe, had borne all before them in France thirty years earlier, and had been the creed of the nation. As may be supposed from this, I had previously a very vague idea of that great commotion. I knew only that the French had thrown off the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV and XV, had put the king and queen to death, guillotined many persons, one of whom was Lavoisier, and had ultimately fallen under the despotism of Bonaparte. From this time, as was natural, the subject took an immense hold of my feelings. It allied itself with all my juvenile aspirations to the character of a democratic champion. . . .

And thus ended my connexion with the original Westminster. The last article which I wrote in it had cost me more labour than any previous; but it was a labour of love, being a defence of the early French Revolutionists against the Tory misrepresentations of Sir Walter Scott, in the introduction to his Life of Napoleon. The number of books which I read for this purpose, making notes and extracts—even the number I had to buy (for in those days there was no public or subscription library from which books of reference could be taken home), far exceeded the worth of the immediate object; but I had at that time a half-formed intention of writing a History of the French Revolution; and though I never executed my collections afterwards were very useful to Carlyle for a similar purpose.2

1Probably François-Emmanuel Toulongeon, Histoire de France, depuis la révolution de 1789, 4 vols. (Paris: Treuttel and Wurtz, 1801–10).

2I.e., Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, 3 vols. (London: Fraser, 1837).

Source: John Stuart Mill, Autobiography and Literary Essays, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), 65, 135.