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Reference group
Philosophic radicals (act. 1830–1841) were a group of radical politicians and journalists who were broadly influenced by the utilitarian doctrines of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill and who mostly had personal contacts with the Mills. The term is often used as a synonym for Benthamites or utilitarians, but it has the advantage of being less sectarian than the former and more historically specific than the latter. It usually denotes the group who were politically active in the 1830s, as opposed to the Benthamite and utilitarian circles around the Westminster Review in the 1820s: a core group belonged to the latter as well as the former, but the political movement was more heterogeneous.

Although the group's detractors—and sometimes its admirers—have been inclined to portray it as a tight-knit band of sectarian ideologues, it was in fact an amorphous group that lacked any kind of formal organization, and modern scholarship has emphasized its ideological diversity rather than cohesion. Indeed the term ‘philosophic radical’—coined by John Stuart Mill in an article of 1837—was little used at the time, and seems to have been popularized by Mill's Autobiography (1873), which advanced a first-hand though in some ways contestable narrative of the movement's ultimate failure. The term was given a renewed lease of life by the French historian Elie Halévy's brilliant study La formation du radicalisme philosophique (1901–4), but Halévy's title was misleading, since his book really dealt with the intellectual roots of Benthamism, and had almost nothing to say about either the parliamentary or the journalistic activities of the philosophic radicals of the 1830s. Almost simultaneously with Halévy, the jurist A. V. Dicey wrote his equally famous Lectures on the Relation between Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century (published in 1905, though based on lectures given at Harvard in 1898). Dicey depicted the philosophic radicals as a doctrinally cohesive group whose sense of purpose reshaped the early Victorian state.

These radicals were in fact by no means uniformly and narrowly Benthamite in their political outlook. James Mill, rather than Bentham, was the key intellectual and personal influence: indeed the group formed in the 1820s at a time when Mill's relations with Bentham had cooled. J. S. Mill wrote in his autobiography: ‘his [James Mill's] opinions … were the principal element which gave its colour and character to the little group of young men who were the first propagators of what was afterwards called “philosophic radicalism”’ (Mill, Autobiography, 58), and this has been endorsed by such modern scholars as Hamburger. Their main parliamentary figures were Charles Buller, Albany Fonblanque, George Grote, Sir William Molesworth, John Arthur Roebuck, Edward Strutt, John Temple Leader, and Henry Warburton, although a looser definition would encompass more prominent radicals like Francis Place and Joseph Parkes. Of these Grote was a long-standing disciple of James Mill, Roebuck was one of the original members of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarian Society (active from 1822 to 1826), and several (Roebuck, Buller, Fonblanque) had been associated with the younger Mill in championing the radical cause in the London Debating Society in the late 1820s.

There was an important network of young Cambridge graduates, most of them contemporaries of Charles Austin, the younger brother of the jurist John Austin. Austin, Buller, and Strutt all served as presidents of the Cambridge Union; so too did Eyton Tooke, a close friend of the younger Mill, who died in 1830, and Charles Villiers, who with his brother Thomas Hyde Villiers was also drawn into the philosophic radicals' ambit. Other Cambridge graduates in this circle included John Romilly, the son of Sir Samuel Romilly. Outside parliament the group was animated (following his father's death in 1836) by John Stuart Mill, proprietor of the London and Westminster Review from 1837 to 1840, and by Fonblanque, who was editor of The Examiner from 1830 and its proprietor from 1832. Mill wrote that under Fonblanque The Examiner was ‘the principal representative, in the newspaper press, of radical opinions’ (Mill, Autobiography, 94), and Mill himself was a leading contributor: it was there, for instance, that he published his famous articles ‘The spirit of the age’ in 1831. At its periphery the movement also embraced reformers such as Edwin Chadwick, who had long-standing connections with the Bentham–Mill circle and was briefly Fonblanque's sub-editor on The Examiner, but his emphasis on administrative reform as opposed to democratic political reform was more Benthamite than philosophic radical.

The younger Mill had a clear purpose in mind in coining the term ‘philosophic radical’, and it was bound up with his broader intellectual agenda in the 1830s, when he was breaking free of the shackles of a narrow and dogmatic Benthamism. He wanted to give parliamentary radicalism a sense of common purpose that it currently lacked and would enable it to stand up to the whig government and force it to commit itself more steadfastly to a reformist agenda. As Mill and other philosophic radicals saw it, whiggism was intellectually incoherent and was destined to disappear, to clear the political battlefield for the fundamental alternatives of radicalism and toryism. Mill hoped that a revamped utilitarianism, shorn of its sectarian Benthamism, could provide the intellectual foundation for a broad radical ‘party’ of this kind. The term ‘philosophic radicals’ was intended to serve as a rallying point for radicals without the doctrinally narrow connotations of Utilitarianism. He wrote in 1837 that a philosophic radical was one who observed in politics the practice of philosophers, ‘who, when they are discussing means, begin by considering the end, and when they desire to produce effects, think of causes’ (Thomas, 2).

Mill himself did not seek to enter parliament—he could not afford to, being (like his father) dependent for his livelihood on his salary as an official of the East India Company—and instead sought to stiffen the resolve of the parliamentary radicalism by means of the higher journalism. In 1826 some of James Mill's allies had set up a short-lived journal entitled Parliamentary History and Review, whose contributors would almost all come to be identified with the philosophic radicals in the 1830s. This initiative failed. But in November 1833 Buller and Roebuck, dissatisfied with the narrowly Benthamite Westminster Review, proposed the foundation of a review, along the lines of the Edinburgh or the Quarterly, to put the radicals on equal terms with the whigs and the tories; they established the London Review in 1834, with Thomas Falconer as nominal editor. Subsequently Sir William Molesworth came up with the funds to put it on a firm footing and to finance its merger with the Westminster. He also insisted that Mill should be the de facto editor.

In the 1820s James Mill's reformist activities, and those of many of his allies, had chiefly focused on education. He was a prime mover in initiatives like the formation of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the establishment of London University, in both of which he acted in concert with such liberal-minded whigs as, notably, Henry Brougham. But the reform crisis and its aftermath focused the group's efforts on political means, and this is what gave them a group identity in the 1830s. In their political activities the philosophic radicals were associated chiefly with the cause of democratic reform of the political system through a further extension of the suffrage and the introduction of the secret ballot—the latter the subject of an annual motion tabled by Grote. They followed James Mill (himself the author of a famous article on the ballot in 1830) in seeing the whigs as an aristocratic faction, not as a progressive movement, and held that whig government was bound in practice to favour the ‘sinister interests’ (Bentham's term) of the aristocracy. Whereas Paineite radicals argued for manhood suffrage on the basis of natural right, and ‘historical radicals’ in the tradition of Cobbett invoked an ‘ancient constitution’, philosophic radicals distinctively demanded suffrage reform as a necessary security for good government.

Political economy was obviously central to utilitarian thinking, and James Mill—a close friend of Ricardo—had published Elements of Political Economy in 1821, the year in which he helped found the Political Economy Club. But he rapidly became disillusioned with that club, which he regarded as too much of a talking shop to be an instrument for the propagation of radical doctrines. In fact economic policy was curiously peripheral to the parliamentary activities of the philosophic radicals in parliament, perhaps because they preferred—for tactical reasons—to emphasize those aspects of their doctrine that separated them most sharply from the whigs. However, several members of the group (J. S. Mill, Buller, Molesworth) were active members of Edward Gibbon Wakefield's National Colonisation Society, which propounded the cause of colonization as a remedy for excess population at home.

As a political movement philosophic radicalism was short-lived and a failure. Radical hopes that the Great Reform Act would be swiftly followed by a further instalment of democratic reform were dashed as the propertied classes regained confidence and the whigs, in the person of Lord John Russell, affirmed the ‘finality’ of the 1832 act. In parliament the philosophic radicals were few in number, and just as individualistic as parliamentary radicals had been in the past; they also lacked a popular base. The group's dispersal was accelerated by divisions over key issues like the Durham report on the government of Canada (1839), which Mill, who somewhat implausibly saw Lord Durham as a potential leader of the philosophic radicals, welcomed in the London and Westminster Review without consulting his parliamentary allies.

The attempt to mould the philosophic radicals into an effective movement was at an end by 1840. Both Grote and Molesworth decided not to stand again in the general election of 1841, and although Roebuck, who had lost his seat at Bath in 1837, regained it in 1841, his own relations with Mill, which had once been very close, never recovered from his attempt to counsel his friend against his liaison with Harriet Taylor. In fact the dispersal of the philosophic radicals was in one sense far more productive than their political activities could ever have been, for their withdrawal from front-rank politics and political journalism made it possible to bring to completion three of the great monuments to the intellectual life of the early Victorian period. J. S. Mill completed his System of Logic (1843), which had been in gestation since about 1831; Molesworth brought out his great edition of Hobbes in eleven volumes between 1839 and 1845, and dedicated it to Grote; and Grote himself, who had been working on his History of Greece since 1823, was freed to bring his first two volumes to print in 1846, and the remaining ten between 1847 and 1856.

Whether utilitarianism more broadly conceived was equally ineffective in early Victorian politics is contestable. In a famous debate of the 1960s a number of historians argued forcibly that Benthamite doctrine was a key driving force behind the ‘nineteenth-century revolution in government’. They stressed the Benthamites' commitment to efficiency and rationality as opposed to their belief in the instrumental importance of democracy. Chadwick's role as architect of the new poor law was a key example. More recent work, however, has suggested that it is implausible to suppose that such a central social institution as the poor law could have been transformed by the agency of a Benthamite clique. Instead historians have highlighted the influence of Christian political economy, which, starting from very different premises from the Benthamite radicals, could in practice reach strikingly similar conclusions. Even so, to depict the philosophic radicals as a band of ineffective doctrinaires hardly does justice to a group whose members can claim much of the credit for the Municipal Corporations Act, the Public Record Office, the establishment of University College, London, and the template for autonomous self-government in the British empire.

H. S. Jones


A.O.J. Cockshut, The autobiography of John Stuart Mill (1992) · E. Halévy, La formation du radicalisme philosophique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1901) · J. Hamburger, Intellectuals in politics: John Stuart Mill and the philosophic radicals (1965) · B. Semmel, ‘The philosophic radicals and colonialism’, Journal of Economic History, 21 (1961), 513–25 · L. Stephen, The English utilitarians, 3 vols. (1900) · W. Thomas, The philosophic radicals: nine studies in theory and practice, 1817–1841 (1979) · W. Thomas, ‘The philosophic radicals’, Pressure from without in early Victorian England, ed. P. Hollis (1974)