What's Not in on Liberty: The Pacific Theory of Freedom of Discussion in the Early Nineteenth Century

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It is often assumed that John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) is representative of the major lines of thought on the freedoms of discussion and the press in the period. In fact, however, Mill's treatise was selective about the kinds of reasons it admitted in support of these liberties. This essay depicts one set of arguments that Mill omitted and that has subsequently been overlooked in the history of political thought. An important element of liberal thought in early nineteenth-century Britain was that the liberty of the press made indispensable contributions to domestic peace and stability. These pacific arguments were elaborated in a wide variety of forms by a number of authors. More specifically, the view that unrestricted liberty of discussion was necessary for peace and political stability drew on an older tradition of thinking about religious toleration as well as newer ideas about the functioning of economic markets and the place of public opinion in the politics of modern societies. In the hands of its proponents, the view assumed psychological, historical, sociological, or metaphysical dimensions. Even though prominent thinkers, including his own father, were associated with this pacific outlook on the liberty of the press, John Stuart Mill rejected it both as an empirically dubious proposition and as an insufficient moral basis on which to build an enduring commitment to open public discussion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-75
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of British Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History


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