From Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949). Added by Marjie Bloy, Ph. D. Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore.
Jeremy Bentham, a writer on jurisprudence, was born in Red Lion Street, Houndsditch, on 15 February 1747-8. His great grandfather was a prosperous pawnbroker in the city of London, and there his grandfather and father practised as attorneys. His mother, Alicia Grove, was the daughter of a shopkeeper at Andover. A grand uncle on the mother's side, named Woodward, was the publisher of Tindal's Christianity as old as the Creation. Bentham's father had no large practice, but he made a considerable fortune by the purchase and sale of land. He was, according to one description of him, ‘authoritative, restless, aspiring, and shabby’ (Empson in Edinburgh Review). He believed that ‘pushing was the one thing needful’ in life, and he much regretted that his clever son would not act on this maxim. He was fond in a dilettante fashion of literature, and proud of owning Milton's house, chiefly, perhaps, because a friend happened to own Cowley's.
Young Bentham was remarkably precocious, and his father delighted to show off his acquirements. In his fourth year he had begun to study Latin. ‘I remember,’ says Dr. Bowring, ‘that he mentioned to me that he learned the Latin grammar and the Greek alphabet on his father's knee.’ Even as a child he was fond of books, and at the age of five he was known as ‘the philosopher.’ There is a story that when in petticoats he was found seated at a reading-desk, a lighted candle on each side, absorbed in the study of a folio copy of Rapin's History of England. Much of his youth was spent with his two grandmothers at Browning Hill near Reading, and at a country house at Barking. To the end of his life he retained recollections of the pleasant days passed far away from the city. ‘At Browning Hill everybody and everything had a charm; even the old rusty sword in the granary which we used to brandish against the rats was an historical and sacred sword, for one of my ancestors had used it at Oxford against the parliamentary forces.’ At six or seven he began to learn French. Telemachus was an unending delight to him; in old age he had a vivid recollection of the feelings with which he read that tale, especially the description of the election by competition to the throne of Crete. ‘That romance may be regarded as the foundation of my whole character; the starting-point from whence my career of life commenced.’ His father and mother sought to keep from him all amusing books; but his reading was discursive, including grave and gay. Among the books which he read were Burnet's Theory of the Earth, Cave's Lives of the Apostles, Stow's Chronicles, Rapin's History,Gil Blas, Plutarch's Lives, Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, and Clarissa Harlowe. In 1755 he was sent to Westminster School. Sensitive, delicate, of dwarfish stature, and with no aptitude or liking for boys' games, he was out of place at a public school. He made, however, progress in Greek and Latin, and acquired a reputation for proficiency in Latin verse.
On 28 June 1760 he was admitted at Queen's College, Oxford. He has described the reluctance with which he signed the Thirty-nine Articles; he and some who shared his doubts were induced to sign by one of the fellows who reproved their presumption in showing hesitation. The impression made upon him was painful and lasting. From Oxford Bentham carried away few pleasant recollections; he found little in the studies or amusements of the university to interest him, and his references to it in after years were tipped with acrimony. ‘Mendacity and insincerity -- in these I found the effects -- the sure and only sure effects of an English university education’ (Church of Englandism, xxi). An indifferent Latin ode written by him on the death of George II and the accession of George III was pronounced wonderful as the composition of a boy of thirteen years of age; and Dr. Johnson was pleased to say ‘it is a very pretty performance of a young man.’ Bentham's own account of it in later years was unfavourable: ‘it was a mediocre performance on a trumpery subject, written by a miserable child.’ In 1763, at the age of sixteen, Bentham took his degree of B.A., and in the same year he began to eat his terms at Lincoln's Inn. In 1764 he and his father made a short visit to France. In 1765 we have a glimpse of the future jurist, in a pea-green coat and green silk breeches, ‘bitterly tight,’ making a walk from Oxford to Farringdon. In 1766 he took his master's degree, and in 1767 he left Oxford. He was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn, and became a member of that society in 1817.
Much to the disappointment of his father and of his friends who knew his talents, he did not succeed in his profession, and he did not even care to do so. He never spoke in court except to say a few formal words. The first brief he got was from a friend of his father, Mr. Chamberlain Clarke. It was in a suit in equity on which £50 depended. The advice which he gave was that the suit would be better put an end to, and the money which would be wasted in the contest saved. His own account of his brief professional career is this: ‘On my being called to the bar I found a cause or two at nurse for me. My first thought was how to put them to death, and the endeavours were not, I believe, altogether without success. Not long after a case was brought to me for my opinion. I ransacked all the codes. My opinion was right according to the codes, but it was wrong according to a manuscript unseen by me, and inaccessible to me; a manuscript containing the report of I know not what opinion, said to have been delivered before I was born, and locked up, as usual, for the purpose of being kept back or produced according as occasion served.’ Bentham did not take measures to insure success in the law. He read and thought about matters which had no bearing upon the service of his jealous mistress. He bought phials, and dabbled in chemistry, a science to which he was drawn by his friend Dr. Fordyce, and in 1783 he translated an essay by Bergman on the usefulness of chemistry. He studied physical science instead of conveyancing, and he began to pursue those speculations on politics and jurisprudence which became the occupation of his life. The extracts which Dr. Bowring gives from his common-place book in 1773-6 relate to such subjects as vulgar errors -- political: punishment of -- origin of the vindictive principle: Digest of the law premature before Locke and Helvetius: ‘Fictions of law:’ ‘Terms falsely supposed to be understood.’ His reflections show that his mind was then pursuing the trains of thought which in later life he followed up. Under the head of ‘Education’ he writes: ‘Inspire a general habit of applauding or condemning actions according to their general utility.’ ‘Barristers,’ it is observed in one note, ‘are so called (a man of spleen might say) from barring against reforms the extremes of the law.’ ‘It is as impossible for a lawyer to wish men out of litigation, as for a physician to wish them in health.’
Bentham assisted his friend John Lind, a clergyman who was London agent for the king of Poland, in preparing a work on the colonies; but his first published compositions were two letters to the Gazeteer newspaper in defence of Lord Mansfield, who was then the god of his idolatry. He also translated a volume of one of Marmontel's tales. As early as 1776 he was busy upon a work which he at first intended to entitle The Critical Elements of Jurisprudence. It was printed in 1780, but it was not given to the world until 1789, when it was published as Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, perhaps the greatest and most distinctive work by Bentham. In 1776 he published anonymously his Fragment on Government, or a Comment on the Commentaries; being an Examination of what is delivered on the subject of Government in general in the Introduction to Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries; with a Preface, in which is given a critique on the work at large. The design of the book was to point out some capital blemishes in the Commentaries, ‘particularly this grand and fundamental one, the antipathy to reform,’ and to expose ‘the universal inaccuracy and confusion which seemed to my apprehension to pervade the whole.’ Bentham's acute criticisms are coloured by intense antipathy to Blackstone, whose lectures he had attended at Oxford in 1763, and whose fallacies about natural rights he, lad though he was, had detected. He had, too, no admiration for the character of one who was, he thought, always ‘eager to hold the cup of flattery to the lips of high station.’ Admirably written, free from the diffuseness and pronounced mannerisms of his later productions, the book is a model of controversial literature. Bentham's observations went far beyond the text upon which he proposed to comment. They were destructive of the theories in jurisprudence and political philosophy which were then prevalent, and ‘were the first publication by which men at large were invited to break loose from the trammels of authority and ancestor wisdom on the field of law.’ The Fragment on Government was a new point of departure in jurisprudence. Criticisms so masterly could come, it was felt, from no ordinary writer, and the Fragment was variously attributed to Lord Mansfield and Lord Camden. Some features of the style induced Dr. Johnson to assign it to Dunning.
About this time Bentham was engaged in investigations respecting punishment, the results of which were eventually embodied in his Rationale of Punishments and Rewards. Like many of his works, this did not see the light until long after it was composed. Dumont first published it at Paris in 1811, under the title of Théorie des Peines et des Récompenses. ‘The manuscripts from which I have extracted La Théorie des Peines,’ he writes, ‘were written in 1775. Those which have supplied me with La Théorie des Récompenses are a little later; they were not thrown aside as useless, but laid aside as rough-hewn materials which might at a future day be published and form part of a general system of legislation, or as studies which the author had made for his own use.’ Not until 1825 was this work brought before the world in an English form, though as early as 1778 Bentham had published, in a pamphlet entitled View of the Hard Labour Bill, some of his views on punishment.
Not the least important result of the Fragment on Government was the opening to Bentham of a society wholly different from that in which he had hitherto moved. So much was Lord Shelburne impressed by the work that he called on Bentham at his chambers, and told him that he wished to make his acquaintance. This led to a visit to Shelburne House, and also one of some weeks to Bowood. He became a frequent visitor there, and his influence over Lord Shelburne was great. In many ways this intimacy benefited Bentham. It restored his good humour and his spirits, which had been not a little damped by his failure at the bar. ‘Lord Shelburne,’ said Bentham once in his emphatic way, ‘raised me from the bottomless pit of humiliation -- he made me feel that I was something.’ While at Bowood he was engaged in completing his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; but he also took part in the amusement of the house. He played the violin to the ladies' accompaniment on the harpsichord. His letters from Bowood are bright, witty, cheerful, full of politics and gossip, with pointed sketches of Camden, Pitt, Dunning, Barré, and other illustrious guests. These were pleasant days to Bentham. ‘I do what I please, and have what I please. I ride and read with the son, walk with the dog, stroke the leopard, drive little Henry out in his coach, and play at chess and billiards with the ladies.’ These days were, too, tinted with romance. Bentham lost his heart to one of the ladies who graced that bright and distinguished household. His suit terminated unhappily for him. To the same lady he appears to have made years afterwards, in 1805, an offer of marriage. Her answer, dignified and affectionate, refusing his offer did not drive the memory of her from his thoughts. In a letter written in 1827, a few years before his death, he says: ‘I am alive, more than two months advanced in my eightieth year, more lively than when you presented me in ceremony with a flower in Green Lane. Since that day not a single one has passed, not to speak of nights, in which you have not engrossed more of my thoughts than I could have wished... Embrace -- , though it is for me, as it is by you, she will not be severe, nor refuse her lips to me as she did her hand, at a time, perhaps, not yet forgotten by her, any more than by me.’ Lord Shelburne, it may be mentioned, was desirous that Bentham should marry Lady Ashburton, and he pressed Bentham's suit on the ground that he would be an excellent guardian of her son. ‘My surprise,’ says Bentham, ‘was considerable: gratitude not inferior. But,’ he complacently adds, ‘the offer was of the sort of those which may be received in any number, while at most only one at a time can be profited by.’
While at Bowood Bentham was engaged in the preparation of his work The Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation. It is in some respects his greatest work, the clearest exposition of the principle of utility, the most concise statement of his chief principles. Bentham defines the principle of utility as ‘that property in any object whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.’ ‘Nature has placed,’ he says at the outset, ‘mankind under the government of two sovereign motives, gain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we should do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong; on the other, the chains of causes and effects are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think, and the principle of utility recognises this subjection.’ To advance this should be the object of the moralist and the legislator, and Bentham assails with force and wit the principles adverse to that of utility, and in particular those of asceticism, sympathy, and antipathy. The four sanctions or sources of pleasure and pain -- physical, political, moral or popular, and religious -- are defined. It is shown that ‘the value of a lot of pleasure or pain’ is to be measured according to its intensity, its duration, its certainty, its propinquity or remoteness, its fecundity or chance of being followed by sensations of the same sort, its purity or chance of not being followed by sensations of the opposite sort, and its extent or the number of persons affected by it. Pleasures and pains are classified. The reasons for treating certain actions as crimes are considered. Starting from the principle that the object of all laws is the total happiness of the community, Bentham observes: ‘All punishment is mischief; all punishment in itself is evil. Upon the principle of utility, if it ought at all to be admitted, it ought only to be admitted so far as it promises to exclude some greater evil.’ To apply this to law, to distinguish cases unmeet for punishment, to preserve a proportion between punishment and offences, to classify the latter, to determine the fields of ethics and jurisprudence, is the object of the rest of this treatise.
Aerial view of Pentonville prison: an example of Bentham's 'panopticon'
In August 1785 Bentham quitted England in order to visit his brother Samuel, who was then labouring to carry out Prince Potemkin's projects for transplanting English industries to White Russia. Bentham lived at Zadobras, near Crichoff, with his younger brother Samuel who was in the service of the Russian government. He carried on his studies in jurisprudence, and he sent home, in the form of letters to a friend, Mr. Wilson, his celebrated Defence of Usury, in which he established the principle, then novel, that no man of ripe years, of sound mind, acting freely and with his eyes open, ought to be hindered, with a view to his advantage, from making such bargain in the way of obtaining money as he thinks fit. He also sent to England a series of letters on an inspection house or ‘Panopticon,’ which his brother had planned for the supervision of industry, and which Bentham thought would be of priceless value if employed in prison discipline. About the panopticon Bentham wrote volumes. It was for years his greatest concern. He corresponded with many of the statesmen of his time on the subject, and sought to interest all his friends in its success. It led him to investigate the whole subject of prison discipline and management, to which Howard's labours had first directed general attention. In his many letters and tracts on the subject and in his Principles of Penal Law will be found the germs of most modern reforms in regard to the treatment of criminals. Bentham, who was very sanguine as to the good effects of the panopticon, thus begins one of his tracts on the subject: ‘Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened, economy seated as it were upon a rock, the Gordian knot of the poor laws not cut but untied, all by a simple idea in architecture.’ The building which was to work these wonders was to be circular, with cells on every story of the circumference. In the centre there was a lodge for the inspector, who would be able to see all the prisoners without being himself seen, and who could give directions without being obliged to quit his post. A contractor was to undertake the keep of the prisoners at a certain sum per head, reserving to himself all profits derived from their labour. The manager was to be bound to insure the lives of all who were entrusted to him; that is, he was to be obliged to pay a sum for every one beyond a certain average lost to the prison by death or by escaping. The scheme met with considerable favour. The 34 of George III c. 84 provided for the acquiring of sites of penitentiary houses; and land at Millbank was conveyed to Bentham as trustee for the purposes of the act. £2,000 were granted to him to enable him to make the necessary preparations for taking charge of a large number of convicts. The scheme did not in the main prosper, and its failure was a source of bitter disappointment to him. It failed, as Bentham believed, mainly by reason of the king's dislike to him. The contract with Bentham was broken off, and in 1813 £23,000 were awarded to Bentham as compensation for expenses which he had incurred (52 Geo. III, c. 44). In defence of his scheme Bentham wrote a volume, only part of which has been printed, entitled History of the War between Jeremy Bentham and George the Third, by one of the belligerents. Though the panopticon never realised Bentham's hopes, he must always be regarded as one of the great reformers of prisons, and an eminent successor to Howard.
In 1792 his father died, and he came into a considerable fortune. In that year he wrote Truth v. Ashhurst, an incisive criticism of the constitutional doctrines which Mr. Justice Ashhurst had laid down to the grand jury of Middlesex, and which were intended to set them on their guard against the French revolution. The pamphlet was, for reasons of prudence, not published at a time when it was dangerous to speak of reforms; and it did not see the light until 1822. In 1795 were published two remarkable pamphlets: A Protest against Law Taxes, showing the peculiar mischievousness of all imposts which aggravate the expense of appeals to justice; and Supply without Burden, or Escheat vice Taxation, being a proposal for a saving of taxes by an extension of the law of escheat, including strictures on the taxes on collateral succession comprised in the budget of 7 Dec. 1795. No better example of the thoroughness of Bentham's mode of discussing political problems, of his ingenuity and his clearness, could be named than the latter pamphlet. Though extending to only a few pages, the two pamphlets were the results of much labour and thought. In the Bentham MSS., preserved at University College, is a vast mass of unpublished materials, including a draft letter to Mirabeau with respect to escheat and the best mode of collecting this new source of supply.
Bentham was at one time desirous of entering parliament, and Dr. Bowring publishes extracts from sketches of imaginary addresses to electors which the former, with his usual forethought, had prepared. There is also extant a curious letter, written in August 1790, in which Bentham, with much ingenuity and at enormous length, takes Lord Shelburne to task for not fulfilling expectations which he had raised of nominating Bentham for a pocket borough, Calne or Wycombe. Lord Shelburne answered Bentham with much good temper, and told him that he had never made such an offer nor intended to make it. Few men would have written in the querulous, haughty strain of Bentham's first letter; still fewer would have written his reply. His anger had died out; he saw the absurdity of his conduct, and he began his apology, written almost in a tone of buffoonery, in these words: ‘My dear, dear lord, since you will neither be subdued nor terrified, will you be embraced? -- It was using me very ill, that it was, to get upon stilts as you did, and resolve not to get angry with me after all the pains I had taken to make you so. You have been angry, let me tell you, with people as little worth it before now.’ Availing himself of his privileges as a French citizen, a title conferred upon him on the motion of his friend Brissot in 1792 by the National Assembly, he addressed in 1793 to the National Convention a pamphlet entitled Emancipate your Colonies. This expressed one of Bentham's deepest convictions. He was persuaded that colonies were of little or no utility to their mother country (see Manual of Political Economy and Panopticon of New South Wales).
It is difficult to follow in exact chronological order Bentham's labours, owing
to his habit of carrying on at the same time several undertakings, and of not
publishing his works until long after they were written. It is, however, clear,
that from 1790 to 1800 was one of the most fruitful periods of his life; between
these dates were composed many of the works by which he is best known. In 1797-8
he turned his attention to the defects of the poor laws, which were then in
so lamentable a condition that they seemed likely to involve the country in
ruin. Foolish, ill-advised schemes were in
favour; even responsible statesmen proposed to mend matters by leavening the
existing law with fresh absurdities. In a bill submitted to parliament Pitt
had actually proposed that respectable paupers should be supplied with cows.
Bentham was almost alone in seeing clearly what were the chief evils, and he
anticipated many of the principles which were embodied in the poor
law of 1834. He desired the rigid application of the labour
test, and he strove to do away with the wasteful anomalies of the settlement
system. Though many of the details of his scheme -- and Bentham as usual descended
to details, even deciding of what material the paupers' beds were to be made
-- must be pronounced impracticable, his ideas as to the treatment of paupers
are marvellous, considering the time when they were propounded, and the dangerous
nonsense which was in fashion among his contemporaries. Poor-law reform was
by no means the only subject which occupied him at this period. About 1798 he
was busy scheming and writing on a multitude of other topics -- e.g. a project
for the issue of government annuity notes, as to which he had much correspondence
with Sir George Rose and Mr. Vansittart.
Two important events may here be mentioned. At Bowood Bentham became acquainted with Dumont, an able, enlightened citizen of Geneva, whence political troubles had driven him. Romilly had sent some of Bentham's manuscripts to Dumont. Greatly impressed by their originality, Dumont offered to edit them. The offer was accepted. The same service was rendered, with patience and intelligence, in regard to other manuscripts, and for many years he acted as a sort of official interpreter between the great jurist and the world at large. Dumont was much more than an editor or populariser; he placed other gifts at Bentham's disposal besides a clear style and a turn for happy illustration. Out of the chaos of manuscript confided to him -- parts of the subject wholly omitted, parts defectively treated, others expounded with embarrassing redundancy -- he composed a lucid narrative. Above Dumont's literary gifts, though great, was his enthusiasm for Bentham, who was to him a law. This submission of a really superior mind had scarcely any bounds; his approval of the teaching of others was expressed in the saying: ‘C'est convainquant, c'est la vérité même, c'est presque benthamique’ (Notice nécrologique sur Dumont, by Sismondi). Bentham was assisted in a similar manner by a number of able auxiliaries. One of his best known and most brilliant works, that on fallacies, was edited by a ‘friend.’ The same service was rendered in regard to his papers on judicial procedure. This was a topic to which Bentham was in the habit of recurring for more than thirty years. ‘The consequence,’ writes the editor, Mr. Doane, ‘was, an immense mass of manuscript on this subject, extending to several thousands of pages, was found at his decease. Very many of the chapters were written over and over again, each of them varying in some particulars, and all of them were in a more or less unfinished state.’ His voluminous papers on logic were handed over to his nephew, George Bentham, to be reduced to order and to be amplified. One of J. S. Mill's earliest literary undertakings was the editing, that is, to a large extent the re-writing, of Bentham's papers on judicial evidence, which had been composed at various times from 1808 to 1812. Mr. Mill has described in his Autobiography (4th edit. p. 113) the nature of his task. He had to take liberties with the manuscript far in excess of those which an editor permits himself. ‘Mr. Bentham had begun this treatise three times at considerable intervals, each time in a different manner, and each time without reference to the preceding: two of the three times he had given over nearly the whole subject. These three masses of manuscript it was my duty to condense into a single treatise; adopting the one last written as the groundwork, and incorporating with it as much of the two others as it had not completely superseded. I had also to unroll such of Mr. Bentham's involved and parenthetical sentences as seemed to overpass by their complexity the measure of what readers were likely to take the pains to understand.’ Mr. Mill also filled up gaps. He commented on a few of the objectionable points of the English rules of evidence which had escaped Bentham's attention, he replied to the reviewers of Dumont's book, and he added remarks on the theory of improbability.
Those who desire to know the latitude which Bentham permitted his disciples in manipulating the materials committed to them, would do well to compare the manuscript handed to Mr. Grote of a work on natural religion with the printed book (Beauchamp, Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion, &c.), and to study Bentham's letter of instructions, containing directions as to the treatment of the manuscript ‘in case of dotage, symptoms of which, if found,’ he observes, ‘you will not fail to inform me of, that upon the first opportunity I may grow younger and enter a new lease for my life’ (British Museum, Add. MS. 29806).
It is not surprising that the exact share which Bentham had in some of the works passing under his name is not clear. Having not a particle of literary vanity, he put no restraint on the editors of his manuscripts, and they did not hesitate to use this liberty. ‘The materials,’ writes Sir John Bowring in the preface to the second volume of Deontology, ‘out of which this volume has been put together, are, for the most part, disjointed fragments, written on small scraps of paper on the spur of the moment, at times removed from one another, and delivered into my hands without an arrangement of any sort.’ The rhapsodical inaccurate style of the work and the loose character of the reasoning are grounds for doubting whether the Deontology always correctly states Bentham's meaning In 1807 Bentham was led to study the subject of Scotch reform by a bill for amending the constitution of the Scotch court of session, which Lord Eldon had laid on the table of the House of Lords. In his letters which are addressed to Lord Grenville he criticised the shortcomings of the project, and he also developed his own views as to the best legal procedure, setting out for the first time clearly the advantages of what he termed the natural system of justice as against the artificial ‘fee-getting system.’ His conception of a proper system of procedure was one under which suitors should be brought without delay into the presence of a judge free to dispose of the matters in difference without a jury. In 1809 he completed a criticism on the working of the English libel law, which was always the object of his aversion, and which more than once stood in the way of the free publication of his opinions. Its injustice had recently been made manifest in a series of prosecutions for libelling the Duke of York. The book, which was entitled On the Art of Packing Special Juries, contained many bitter reflections on the judges, and Romilly, who had read it in manuscript, warned him that Sir Vicary Gibbs, the attorney-general, would be sure to prosecute the author and the publisher. Bentham took his friend's advice, and did not publish the pamphlet. Though printed, it was not openly sold for many years.
In 1808 Bentham seems to have seriously contemplated going for the sake of his health to Mexico. On the table-land of that country he thought that he would escape an English winter, and find the climate which best suited him. Taking up this project with his usual ardour, he wrote at great length about it to Lord Holland, his cousin Mulford, and Francis Horner. With characteristic thoroughness he investigated the death-rate of the country, and considered what were to be the contents of his library, and whether it should comprise Comyns's Digest and Bacon's Abridgment. He did not go to Mexico, but he moved in 1814 from London to Ford Abbey, near Chard -- a beautiful stately mansion, built in the reign of Stephen, and once occupied by Prideaux, attorney-general of the Commonwealth. Romilly, who in 1817 visited Bentham there, describes his friend as living en grand seigneur. ‘We found him,’ Romilly adds, ‘passing his time, as he has always been passing it since I have known him, which is now more than thirty years, closely applying himself for six or eight hours a day in writing upon laws and legislation, and in composing his civil and criminal codes, and spending the remaining hours of every day in reading or taking exercise by way of fitting himself for his labours, or, to use his own strangely invented phraseology, taking his ante-jentacular and post-prandial walks to prepare himself for his task of codification.’ Much more than codification occupied him at Ford Abbey. There he wrote his Chrestomathia, a collection of papers in which the principles of the Bell and Lancastrian systems of education are applied to the higher branches of learning. Bentham hoped much from these systems. He put a piece of his garden at the disposal of Mr. Francis Place and other promoters of a school for this object, and he generously assisted it with his purse and by his pen. Perhaps the most novel feature of the Chrestomathia was the prominence which it gave to science in education, and the novel daring with which the claims of Greek and Latin to the supreme place then assigned to them were attacked. At Ford Abbey, Bentham also wrote The Church of England and its Catechism, which was not published till 1817, and Not Paul but Christ. Doubts have, indeed, been expressed whether Bentham wrote the latter, and in a copy of the work belonging to Mr. Richard Garnett is a note by Mr. Francis Place claiming it as his production. But the style can leave little room for doubt that if Place assisted Bentham, as is not improbable, the work was inspired, and in the main written, by the latter. It is the object of Not Paul but Christ, which, by its dialectical acuteness and its method, reminds one of ‘Horae Paulinae,’ to prove that St. Paul had distorted the primitive Christianity of Christ. In a copy of the Church of England Catechism in the British Museum is preserved a correspondence with respect to its publication. Bentham's friends, particularly Romilly, strongly dissuaded him from publishing it. Romilly sent for him, and said: ‘Bentham, I am as sure as I am of my existence that if you publish this you will be prosecuted, and I am as sure as I am of my existence that if you are prosecuted you will be convicted; there is scarce a sacrifice that I will not make rather than that you should publish.’ For a time the book was sold privately. Subsequently it was advertised as by an ‘Oxford graduate;’ and no prosecution having been instituted, it was published with Bentham's name.
In the following year appeared a pamphlet, Swear not at all, which is an exposure of the needlessness and mischievousness, as well an anti-christian character, of the ceremony of an oath. Bentham exposed the immorality of oaths as used in ‘the two Church of England universities, more especially in the University of Oxford.’ This was one of those great strokes which Bentham from time to time struck at abuses; a whole system of rubbish toppled over and fell to the ground under his blows.
When young, Bentham was not a radical in politics. He had come of a Tory family, and when at Oxford he was accustomed, he tells us, to speak of Charles I as ‘the Royal Martyr.’ But his ideas underwent a great change. He became convinced that under a democratic government ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ was likely to be most advanced. As early as 1809 he had written a tract entitled A Catechism of Parliamentary Reform, or Outline of a Plan of Parliamentary Reform in the form of Question and Answer, recommending the exclusion from the House of Commons of place men, annual elections, uniform electoral districts, the granting of the suffrage to all who paid a certain amount of taxes, and secret voting (vol. iii. 539). It was not published until 1817; in fact, not a little of the manuscript has never been printed. Impressed by the dangers to the security of English liberties, he then issued it with an introduction, in which he pointed out that the sole remedy was democratic ascendency, and to bring about this parliamentary reform -- that is, the establishment of virtual universal suffrage and vote by ballot -- was necessary. At the instance of Sir Francis Burdett he drafted a series of resolutions on the subject, which were moved in the House of Commons in 1818. James Mill, Burdett, Cartwright, and many others co-operated with Bentham in this work; but several of the leading articles in the creed of philosophical radicalism are distinctly his original work. He gave a great impetus to radicalism by aiding in the establishment of the Westminster Review in 1823. According to Sir John Bowring, who was its first editor, the funds for this undertaking were contributed by Bentham. He himself did not write much for its pages; apparently his sole contribution was an article, or rather commentary, on Mr. Humphrey's Real Property Code, which appeared in 1826. But he greatly influenced prominent contributors, such as James and John Mill, Bowring, and Colonel Perronet Thompson. In 1823 he went abroad to recruit his health, and visited Paris, where he was well known by the French editions of his works, and by reason of his former visits. He was received by his many friends with enthusiasm. ‘On casually visiting one of the supreme courts, the whole body of advocates rose and paid him the highest marks of respect, and the court invited him to the seat of honour’ (Annual Biography and Obituary, 1833, p. 329).
It becomes increasingly difficult as we approach the close of Bentham's life to state the order of his labours. It was his habit to carry on simultaneously several occupations, and to resume from time to time work which had been abandoned. His correspondence was immense, and it was carried on with the foremost of his contemporaries. He corresponded with Bolivar, the Emperor Alexander, Lord Sidmouth, the Duke of Wellington, and Quincy Adams about his favourite subject, codification. He sent circulars to the governors of the various states of the union as to public education. He wrote often to O'Connell and Brougham, his disciples, letters beginning ‘My dearest best boy,’ or ‘Dan, dear child,’ about law reform. He was untiring and ingenious in seeking to spread his principles whenever an opening presented itself. He endeavoured to enlist the Duke of Wellington in his scheme of law reform, promising him a name greater than Cromwell's if only he obeyed his directions, and attacked the English judicature and procedure systems. And he laboured without care or thought of reward; when the Emperor Alexander sent him a gracious letter with a packet containing a ring, he sent it back with the imperial seal unbroken (Parton's Life of Burr, 389). As an example of his readiness to avail himself of all openings for the entrance of his principles may be cited a still more remarkable letter, hitherto unpublished, which was addressed by him in 1828 to Mehemet Ali. It begins: ‘Vous êtes au nombre des ornements les plus brillants du siècle présent, reste à couvrir de la splendeur de votre nom les siècles futurs. Ecoutez: je vais vous présenter les moyens d'établir cette permanence, et les seuls moyens.’ He urges Mehemet Ali to give Egypt a constitution, and to declare himself independent of the Porte. He offers to educate in his own house Mehemet Ali's intended successor, and he makes some suggestions as to his education, mental and moral, which scarcely bear being printed (Burton Collection MSS., British Museum).
In 1829 appeared his Petition for Justice, written in his most vigorous style. In 1830 he published letters on the sale of public offices, a practice which, for very insufficient reasons, he thought likely to be advantageous. He was then, as may be seen from his letters, busy with the subject of the codification of international law; but on this, though one of the permanent objects and interests of his life, he left no finished treatise. In 1831 he was engaged in speculations as to the art of framing laws which are preserved in his Pannomial Fragments. He was also active in forming a parliamentary candidate society, and in furthering the return to parliament of Rammohun Roy, a Hindoo. The acceptance of the Cortes of Portugal of an offer to prepare a code encouraged him to print his Codification Proposal addressed to all nations. In 1823 appeared his Leading Principles of a Constitutional Code for any State (ii. 267); and in 1827 was printed the first volume of his Constitutional Code, in some respects the most striking of his works. Another volume was printed in 1830, and he was engaged upon this work only a few days before his death. To the last he was indefatigable in his labours and parsimonious of his time, suffering few persons to visit him, rarely dining out, making it a point to compose so much a day, and ordering his life as if conscious that he owed it to humanity to do as much as he could before he died. He hated idle intruders. In a letter to O'Connell written in 1828, which describes his life at the Hermitage at Queen Square, he states that he never saw any one except at seven o'clock dinner. In his old age one guest only was admitted, but in other years the dinners at the Hermitage were brilliant. Mr. Rush, the American minister, describes a dinner-party at which James Mill, Brougham, Dumont, and Romilly were present, and adds: ‘Mr. Bentham did not talk much. He had a benevolence of manner suited to the philanthropy of his mind. He seemed to be thinking only of the convenience and pleasure of his guests’ (Residence at the Court of London, 209). All who knew him well felt affection for him; his failings were obvious and unimportant. One of his amanuenses, Mr. Colls, has indeed left, under the title of Utilitarianism Unmasked, a picture drawn by no friendly hand. Yet the most serious blemishes are the sage's love of praise, his preference for home-brewed ale to wine, and his custom of having of a morning on the table of his workshop a canister of hot spiced ginger nuts and a cup of strong coffee. His features in old age, which are rendered familiar by Pickersgill's excellent portrait, bespoke serenity, benevolence, and conscious power; and Aaron Burr, who knew him in 1818, expressed only a common impression when he said, ‘It was impossible to conceive a physiognomy more strongly marked with ingenuousness and philanthropy’ (Parton's Life, 171). A sketch of him as he appeared in old age will serve to complete the picture: ‘His apparel hung loosely about him, and consisted chiefly of a grey coat, light breeches, and white woollen stockings, hanging loosely about his legs; whilst his venerable locks, which floated over the collar and down his back, were surmounted by a straw hat of most grotesque and indescribable shape, communicating to his appearance a strong contrast to the quietude and sobriety of his general aspect. He wended round the walks of his garden at a pace somewhat faster than a walk, but not so quick as a trot’ (Annual Biography and Obituary, 1833, p. 363).
Though weakly and dwarfish in boyhood, Bentham was healthy and robust in manhood and old age. He possessed an unfailing flow of high spirits; he was, as Mr. John Stuart Mill remarks, ‘a boy to the last.’ At the age of eighty-two he wrote to his friend Admiral Mordoinoff: ‘I am alive; though turned of eighty, still in good health and spirits, codifying like any dragon.’ There is a story that during his last illness he asked his doctor to tell him if there was any prospect of recovery. On being informed that there was none, he replied serenely, ‘Very well, be it so; then minimise pain.’ He died on 6 June 1832. He left his body to be dissected. This was done; clothed in Bentham's usual attire, his skeleton is kept in University College. All this was not the result of a passing freak or affectation of singularity. He had meditated much on the uses of the dead to the living; and on coming of age he had disposed of his body by will that it might be dissected for the benefit of mankind. In the British Museum there is a copy of an unpublished work of which only twenty or thirty copies were printed. It is entitled, Auto-Icon, or the Uses of the Dead to the Living. A fragment from the MSS. of Jeremy Bentham. He arranged the materials in December 1831, but he added passages as late as May 1832. Its object was to show how, if embalmed, every man might be his own statue. A sample of this extravaganza will suffice. ‘If a country gentleman have rows of trees leading to his dwelling, the auto-icons of his family might alternate with the trees; copal varnish would protect the face from the effects of rain -- caoutchouc the habiliments.’
The books and pamphlets which have been mentioned are evidence of a singularly active and laborious life. Yet they are but a small part of his published works. The edition of his works edited by Sir John Bowring is contained in eleven volumes, and yet several works are omitted from this collection. His correspondence -- much of which is unpublished -- would run to many volumes, and a vast amount of manuscripts, chiefly drafts of the same work, each new draft composed without reference to the last, have never seen the light. Owing to the almost insuperable difficulties in deciphering Bentham's handwriting in later years, much of it has perhaps never been read. In the library of University College are preserved very many of his manuscripts. More than eighty small wooden boxes, neatly lettered, and many portfolios are full of manuscripts closely written in his handwriting or that of his amanuenses; there are laid away thousands of pages never printed. Many of them are unfinished drafts, the substance of which appears in his published works. A partial examination leads to the belief that no small part of it as much merits publication as that given to the world. A study of the manuscripts fills one with amazement at the laborious and exhaustive nature of his investigations. One box, for instance, contains a mass of manuscripts supplementary to the Reform Catechism, and, among other manuscripts, an answer, dated 19 May 1817, to ‘an intimation from Brougham through Mill that in his opinion democracy had a tendency to unjust war.’ Another box is filled with elaborate materials as to escheat.
The subjects treated by Bentham are very varied. He sought to compass the whole field of ethics, jurisprudence, logic, and political economy, and to deal with points of detail as well as principles. To the last science his contributions are of small account. He did little more than apply, in his strictures on the usury laws, with courage and with happy illustrations, the principles of free trade which had been expounded by Adam Smith. His speculations on banking and currency illustrate the power these subjects have to lead astray even a singularly acute mind. To logic, though the subject of his inquiry for many years, he made no very valuable contributions; his ideas on that subject, which relate chiefly to exposition and method, will be found in his nephew's work on logic, Outlines of a New System of Logic. His Book on Fallacies is a clever and brilliant refutation of popular political errors.
His great work was in the field of jurisprudence and ethics, and his influence on these sciences can scarcely be over estimated. His most original and most durable works relate to law. When he wrote his Fragment on Government, all legal and political literature in England was leavened with the theory of the social contract. Jurisprudence was another name for platitudes, fallacious apologies for legal fictions, and an uncritical repetition of the commonplaces of Roman lawyers about the Jus Gentium. To take an illustration from the literature on the subject of the law of succession, it was customary to justify the English law by reference to vague analogies about the tendency of heavy bodies to fall; Bentham constructed the principles of a rational law on considerations of what human affection and the good of society demanded (Principles of the Civil Code, part ii. c. 3). The germs of all that Bentham subsequently did in this field lie in the Fragment. He never ceased to follow out the train of thought there begun, to hunt down fictions, to carry on a war against vague phraseology, to apply to all institutions -- to law, education, and morals -- the test of utility. As a law reformer he was singularly successful. ‘He found,’ it has been said, ‘the philosophy of law a chaos, he left it a science’ (Mill's Dissertations). And his services did not consist merely in introducing into jurisprudence methods which have yielded remarkable results in physical science. To him are due large practical reforms. The amendments made since his time in the administration of justice are, to a surprising extent, applications of the principles expounded in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In truth every law book, every statute, the course of every action bear testimony to his influence. With reference to Bentham's legal writings, Sir James Stephen says that they ‘have had a degree of practical influence upon the legislation of his own and various other countries comparable only to those of Adam Smith and his successors upon commerce’ (History of the Criminal Law of England, ii. 216). In an introduction to his works written in 1837, John Hill Burton gives a long list of reforms first advanced by Bentham and adopted by the legislature. Some of his favourite proposals, such as vote by ballot, have been approved by parliament since that year; and others, such as the establishment of a proper system of public prosecutors and a general registration of transfers of real property, may yet be adopted. To Bentham more than any other law reformer we owe the simplification of the forms of statutes, the impulse given to the work of codification, and the abolition of arbitrary rules excluding from the cognisance of juries facts material for them to know. In a series of statutes, one of which (3 & 4 Will. IV, s. 42) was passed a year after Bentham's death, the legislature approached step by step towards his principle that no class of witnesses should be incompetent and no species of evidence excluded, but that every fact relevant to the inquiry should be admitted for what it is worth. The criminal law in particular bears many traces of his influence. It was his good fortune to be aided by zealous disciples of great ability. Brougham, Romilly, Horner, and Mackintosh were assistants in the work of legal reform; but the originating spirit was Bentham's.
One of his characteristics as a reformer may be noted. His suggestions did not consist of the enunciating of abstract principles. He was rarely satisfied with solving a problem in general terms; he delighted to follow out exhaustively all the details. His work on parliamentary tactics, for example, descends to such minutiæ as the manner in which motions are to be made in the House of Commons. In his remarks on pauper management he insists that beds shall be made with straw, and that bookkeeping by double entry shall not be used, almost as emphatically as on any of the great principles of his scheme.
In the history of ethics Bentham stands out as one of the ablest champions of utilitarianism. He was not the first to propound this as the test of morality. Paley's work was written before Bentham's Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, and he admits that he derived the idea of utility as the touchstone of morality from Helvetius and Hume's essays. But he is original so far as he expounded this theory apart from theological accessories, and drew boldly all the consequences of his theory, declaring that increase of happiness should be the sole object in view of the legislator and the moralist; that quantity and intensity being equal, one pleasure was as good as another; and that, pleasure for pleasure, ‘push pin was worth as much as poetry.’ Utilitarianism might not be presented to-day in the fashion in which Bentham described it; never has it perhaps been stated more logically.
His style was at first terse, clear, and even brilliant. Some of his earlier pages might rank with the masterpieces of Swift and Addison. But about 1810 there came a deterioration. He coined new words, often with entire disregard of the genius of the language. Some of those which he minted are useful and have got into currency; for example, ‘international,’ ‘codify,’ ‘minimise.’ Others were much too harsh and barbarous to be ever adopted. The diffuseness of his later writings is in sharp contrast with the conciseness of his style in Escheat versus Taxation. He spares the reader nothing; every pamphlet, no matter what the subject, is preceded by a résumé of his principles as to everything. Originally simple and pure, his sentences became complex; parenthetical matter was inserted anyhow; and he who had satirised so keenly the laboured, technical style of lawyers and legislators, as kept up for purposes of corruption, lived to exemplify the very same faults. The style of a particularly unwieldy statute of the time of George III is perhaps the nearest thing in literature to Bentham's latest manner. A graver fault is discernible. He acquired a habit of using violent language in stereotyped conventional fashion. Through many pages of his later writings on law reform runs the fallacy that legal fictions are lies and those who use them little better than liars; that a bad system must be worked by wicked men; and that law fees must be imposed with the design of extortion. He greatly exaggerated the ease of codifying, and the specimens which we have of his own style of drafting (e.g. parts of the Constitutional Code) do not bear out his theory. He railed at English judges, such as Mansfield, for making law, when in truth their fault was that they made it too timidly. He was dogmatic, and apt to be intolerant of opinions which were remote from his own, and which he had not taken the trouble to understand; those who differed from him were classed as corruptionists, dupes, and knaves. He was, especially in later years, not sufficiently alive to the limitations of the efficacy of laws. In his works is an essay on The Influence of Time and Place on Legislation, written in 1782; but in practice he reasoned too often as if a constitution good for Spain might, with a little change, be exported as suitable for China. In the peculiarities of the laws or customs of societies remote from those of our own time he had little interest. The Mirror of Justice was to him not a valuable historical document, but merely ‘one of the most trumpery books that ever was written;’ and though he gave much thought to the affairs of India, there is nothing to show any curiosity as to its indigenous laws and customs. The shortcomings of Bentham do not veil his transcendent services. He loved truth. He was single-minded in seeking it. He put abroad a questioning spirit which has conferred immense benefits on mankind, and the wisdom in his works is not yet fully utilised. Perhaps the final estimate of him will not be different from that which Mr. J. S. Mill has expressed: ‘There is hardly anything in Bentham's philosophy which is not true. The bad part of his writings is his resolute denial of all that he does not see, of all truths but those which he recognises’ (Dissertations, i. 356).
Last modified 7 November 2002