“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”
This is a most interesting quote that deserves closer inspection.
The line itself comes from Mill’s letter to the Conservative MP, Sir John
Pakington (March, 1866). And this letter was a response to Conservative
(Tory) reactions to a passage from Mill’s book “Considerations on
Representative Government”. Here is the passage:
How little the Conservative leaders understand Conservative principles…
Well would it be for England if Conservatives voted consistently for
everything conservative, and Liberals for everything liberal…The
Conservatives, as being by the law of their existence the stupidest party,
have much the greatest sins of this description to answer for: and it is a
melancholy truth, that if any measure were proposed, on any subject, truly,
largely, and far-sightedly conservative, even if Liberals were willing to
vote for it, the great bulk of the Conservative party would rush blindly in
and prevent it from being carried.”
Considerations on Representative Government
JS Mill p. 138
So herein, I would content that “stupid”, means claiming one thing and doing
another…being a hypocrite…holding two contradictory ideas as equally
Now let’s examine the context further:
At this time Mill was serving in the British government. According to his
Autobiography, Mill states that at this time he was most concerned with the
- Promoting “Women’s Suffrage” as a moral and social duty.
-Autobiography and literary essays by John Stuart Mill p. 276
- Personal representation – “that [an] elector… desires to be
represented by the man who has most of his confidence in all things, and
not merely on the single point of fidelity to a party.”
- “It is an essential part of democracy that minorities should be adequately
represented. ” – Considerations on Representative Government JS Mill p. 137
- Defending a working class meeting that was attacked unprovoked by police.
- Calling to account the British Government (i.e. “occupation”) of Ireland.
- Most notably “A disturbance in Jamaica (i.e. colony), provoked in the
first instance by injustice…had been the motive or excuse for taking
hundreds of innocent lives by military violence or by sentence of [military
courts] continuing for weeks after the brief disturbance had been put down;
with many added atrocities of destruction of property, flogging women as well
as men and a great display of brutal recklessness when fire and sword are let
loose. The perpetrators of these deeds were defended and applauded in England
by the same kind of people who had long upheld negro slavery….”
Because of this disturbance, The Jamaica Committee was formed. And eventually
Mill was elected it’s chairperson. According to Mill:
“…The question was, whether the British dependencies and eventually perhaps
Great Britain itself were to be under the government of law or of military
For defending justice, the rule of law and the British system of government,
Mill was verbally abused and threatened with assassination. Those who opposed
Mill on all of these points were self-proclaimed “Conservatives.”
All of these items and facts are listed in Mill’s Autobiography p277-282
So if you think, within this context that
- women don’t need the franchise,
- that those who are elected can treat their constituency with contempt,
- that minorities deserve no consideration in government,
- that the working class has no right to assemble peacefully,
- that a colony can and should be governed through injustice and disdain for law and basic human decency
- and that the perpetrators of such should be defended and applauded,
then I can understand how this quote might be problematic.
This quote seems quite right or rather quite ~correct~ to me…morally, philosophically and intellectually. And in retrospect, those who were “Conservative” in the context of this quote earned the label “Stupid.” And in fact, according to Mill’s Autobiography, the Conservatives wore the label “The Stupid Party” for some time after attacking him over this quote.
Furthermore, given the context, “Stupid” is an extremely polite, cordial, and overly considerate remark.
If someone is going to encroach in action upon my liberty, my country’s system of laws and government and trample all over ethics and morality, then personally I would use words much stronger than “stupid”.
Furthermore, I don’t think those who perpetrate such atrocities have delicate thin skins and sensitive hearts that might feel denigrated by the use of the word “stupid.” Since those encroachers obviously have no consideration whatsoever for “the happiness of all involved,” why should they deserve such consideration in return? I see no problems of the application of Mill’s principles whatsoever…..
And in conclusion, with all due respect to those who may be unaware of all this ,
how people see themselves has nothing to do with anything.
“By their fruits you shall know them.” (Matthew 7:15-7:20)….
Best wishes for a lovely 4th of July weekend and enjoy your independence – whatever you consider that to be.