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In his essay on the “State of Society in America” Mill expressed not merely some additional reflections on the American experiment, but also briefly raised questions on how environment determines a nation’s politics, how nations could benefit from one another’s experience through a science of comparative institutions, and how American society was judged by European observers in the doubtful light of their own prejudices, especially hostility to popular rule. He was strongly convinced that the American form of democracy must be directly related to the special character of American society, moulded by a wide variety of forces: abundant natural wealth, a fast growing population, a remarkable opportunity for all classes to raise their standards of living, the absence of aggressive neighbours, the lack of a leisured class except in the southern states, and the inheritance of a language and culture from a parent nation three thousand miles away. Its experiment in politics was scarcely comprehensible apart from the interplay of these numerous influences, all of which, although seldom the product of government, impinged directly on government. They were not all favourable to the success of democracy. To Mill the United States was a classic demonstration of the intimate bonds between social circumstances and political forms.

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Mill’s main criticism in his second essay was well taken: Tocqueville, in failing to define democracy with precision, sometimes confused its effects with those of a commercial civilization in general. As a nation progresses in industry and wealth, its manufactures expand, its capital grows, its class structure changes, and the intermediate group between poor and rich, comprised of artisans and middle class, multiplies. This may seem to make, as Tocqueville believed, a trend to equalization, but it could be merely one of many consequences from augmented industry and wealth, which created a highly complex society without necessarily furthering political freedom and democratic equality. Mill doubted whether in itself a commercial civilization, aside from other influences, necessarily equalized conditions among men. At any rate it failed to do so in Britain. There, he wrote, “The extremes of wealth and poverty are wider apart, and there is a more numerous body of persons at each extreme, than in any other commercial community” (193). Owing to their abundant children, the poor remained poor, while the laws tended to keep large concentrations of capital together, and hence the rich remained rich. Great fortunes were accumulated and seldom distributed. In this respect, Mill thought, Britain stood in contrast to the United States, although in commercial prosperity and industrial growth she was similar.

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However ready to accept Tocqueville’s belief in the passion for equality as a dynamic factor in modern industrial nations, Mill in comparing Britain and the United States saw and illustrated other influences. He agreed with Tocqueville that in the two countries the middle classes were remarkably alike in structure and aspirations. Both experienced social instability, the restless drive of individuals to improve their lot, the ceaseless pursuit of wealth, and the enlargement of the middle class through constant recruitment from below. But in one respect they differed. Britain, unlike America, had a governing and landed aristocracy, and also a leisured class and a learned class, larger and more significant in influence than their counterparts in the republic. Such class features produced between the two countries differences in the quality of political life. Mill admitted that in Britain profound changes then occurring narrowed the divergences. The strongholds of aristocratic powers were weakening. The House of Lords, for all its pretensions and authority, failed to defeat the Reform Bill. Peers were now influenced by bourgeois opinion and even taste. The edifice of government might still rest on an impressive aristocratic base, but its transformation had begun, and Mill and the Philosophic Radicals were determined that it must be carried to ultimate success.

Throughout my life, I have worked as long and as hard as I possibly can to effect beneficial changes in both school and society.
—. “Queer Relations.” Essays in Medieval Studies: Proceedings of the Illinois Medieval Association 16 (1999): 79-99.

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The devotion to literary—or to speak more generally—intellectual power, that prevails in this country, is, in fact, one of the remarkable traits in the national character, and is much more deep and fervent,—whatever our author may think of it,—than that which is paid to wealth. Mere wealth commands in this country,—as it must, and when tolerably well administered, ought to command every where,—consideration and respect, but creates no feeling of interest in its owner. Intellectual eminence, especially when accompanied by high moral qualities, seems to operate like a charm upon the hearts of the whole community. This effect is much more perceptible here than in Europe, where the intellectual men are overshadowed by an hereditary privileged class, who regard them every where as inferior, and in some countries refuse to associate with them at all. The highest professional or literary distinction gives no admission to most of the courts of Europe, and only on a very unequal footing to the fashionable circles. A lawyer or a clergyman of talent is occasionally allowed a seat at the foot of a nobleman’s table, but to aspire to the hand of his daughter would be the height of presumption. At the close of a long life of labour he takes his seat, too late to receive any great satisfaction from his new position, in the House of Lords, as Chancellor, Chief-Justice, or Bishop. Through the whole active period of his life he has moved, as a matter of course, in a secondary sphere. With us, on the contrary, great wealth, the only accidental circumstance that confers distinction, is commonly the result of a life of labour. The intellectual men assume at once, and maintain through life, a commanding position among their contemporaries,—give the tone in the first social circles,—and, at the maturity of their powers and influence, receive from their fellow-citizens demonstrations of attachment and respect, which have rarely, if ever, been shown before to the eminent men of any other country. The Presidentships and the Governorships, the places in the cabinet, and on the bench of justice, in Congress and in the State Legislatures,—the commissions in the Army and Navy,—the foreign embassies,—elsewhere the monopoly of a few privileged families,—are here the rewards of intellectual preeminence. Lord Brougham, though certainly in every way one of the most illustrious and truly deserving public characters that have appeared in England in modern times, has never received from his countrymen any proof of approbation half so flattering, as the sort of civic triumph with which Mr. Clay and Mr. Webster were lately welcomed on their respective visits to the East and the West Mr. Irving, since his late return from Europe, has been the object of more attention of a public kind, than was shown through the whole course of his life to Sir Walter Scott, undoubtedly the most popular British writer of the last century.

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In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity. Unless opinions favourable to democracy and to aristocracy, to property and to equality, to co-operation and to competition, to luxury and to abstinence, to sociality and individuality, to liberty and discipline, and all the other standing antagonisms of practical life, are expressed with equal freedom, and enforced and defended with equal talent and energy, there is no chance of both elements obtaining their due; one scale is sure to go up, and the other down. Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners. On any of the great open questions just enumerated, if either of the two opinions has a better claim than the other, not merely to be tolerated, but to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in a minority. That is the opinion which, for the time being, represents the neglected interests, the side of human well-being which is in danger of obtaining less than its share. I am aware that there is not, in this country, any intolerance of differences of opinion on most of these topics. They are adduced to show, by admitted and multiplied examples, the universality of the fact, that only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth. When there are persons to be found, who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.

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It is in this last element, the power of combined action, that the progress of the Democracy has been the most gigantic. What combination can do has been shown by an experiment, of now many years duration, among a people the most backward in civilization (thanks to English misgovernment) between the Vistula and the Pyrenees. Even on this side of the Irish Channel we have seen something of what could be done by Political Unions, Anti-Slavery Societies, and the like; to say nothing of the less advanced, but already powerful organization of the working classes, the progress of which has been suspended only by the temporary failure arising from the manifest impracticability of its present objects. And these various associations are not the machinery of democratic combination, but the occasional weapons which that spirit forges as it needs them. The real Political Unions of England are the Newspapers. It is these which tell every person what all other persons are feeling, and in what manner they are ready to act: it is by these that the people learn, it may truly be said, their own wishes, and through these that they declare them. The newspapers and the railroads are solving the problem of bringing the democracy of England to vote, like that of Athens, simultaneously in one and the same agencies are rapidly effacing those local distinctions which rendered one part of our population strangers to another; and are making us more than ever (what is the first condition of a powerful public opinion) a homogeneous people. If America has been said to prove that in an extensive country a popular government may exist, England seems destined to afford the proof that after a certain stage in civilization it must; for as soon as the numerically stronger have the same advantages, in means of combination and celerity of movement, as the smaller number, they are the masters; and, except by their permission, no government can any longer exist.