The Carlyle-Mill
"Negro Question" Debate

Carlyle's target




Main Texts:


Thomas Carlyle's infamous essay, "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question", was published in 1849 in Fraser's Magazine of London. Carlyle revamped this essay and reprinted it in 1853 as a pamphlet entitled Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question.  In response to Carlyle, John Stuart Mill published his own "The Negro Question" in Fraser's Magazine.  Carlyle did not, to our knowledge, respond.   But in 1867, Carlyle published his Shooting Niagara -- And After? in Macmillan's Magazine, where he took aim at the Jamaica Committee, in which Mill was actively involved.  These are the central exchange of blows in the Carlyle-Mill debate on the "Negro" question.  The other essays listed are included for background and context. 

In Carlyle's initial 1849 essay, Dr. Phelin M'Quirk, the purported narrator, is naturally a fiction. "Exeter Hall" refers to the coalition formed in 1830s of liberal dissenting Christians active in the ending of slavery. The "dismal science" is, of course, economics -- in fact, the jeer makes its first appearance here. "Quashee" is a derogatory Caribbean term for a "feisty" black slave.

Historical Background 

A few historical facts may be worthwhile recalling here.  The slave trade to the British colonies was abolished in 1807.  After a vigorous campaign led by the abolitionist leader William Wilberforce, slavery itself was finally abolished in the British Empire in 1833.  This was accomplished  through a deal whereby slave-owners throughout the British Empire would receive some 」20 million in compensation plus they would be allowed to keep their slaves for an unpaid "apprenticeship" period of twelve additional years. 

Exeter Hall banner 
(source Anti-Slavery)

However, reports streaming forth from the British West Indies (Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Antigua, Grenada,  the Bahamas, St. Lucia, Montserrat, etc.) indicated that the plantation-owners were not using this apprenticeship period for transition, but rather were making arrangements to ensure the continued dependency of the ex-slaves.  At an Exeter Hall convention in 1837, a "Central Emancipation Committee (CEC) was formed by Joseph Sturge  to push for a quick end to the sham "apprenticeship" period and proceed to the immediate and full emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire.  In 1838, a deal was arranged where, in exchange for the end of the apprenticeship and immediate liberation, the plantation-owners would, in turn, stay under the protection of a hefty preferential sugar tariff.

In 1839, at another convention in Exeter Hall, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) was formed, this time with an international mandate.   Nevertheless, in spite of its global mission, this second "Exeter Hall" was still involved with affairs in the British colonies throughout the 1840s.  Specifically, BFASS-associated missions were critical in blowing the whistle on attempts by plantation-owners to re-impose dependency on their ex-slaves with arbitrary local laws, high rents, extortionary debt and occasional burnings of black settlements that were "too distant" from the plantations.  When the legal system failed to help, the BFASS began raising large amounts of money to help ex-slaves re-establish themselves in "free villages" away from the vicinity of the plantations and the economic and political  domination of plantation-owners.

The termination of the "apprenticeship" and the BFASS resettlement loans led to a mass exodus of ex-slaves out of the plantations and into their own small farms in the hills of Jamaica and other West Indian islands  (the "pumpkin farms" Carlyle decries).  This created a large and sudden labor shortage, which led to considerable economic difficulties for the sugar plantations. This was only modestly counterbalanced by a step-up in the importation of  Indian "coolie" labor and European indentured servants.

Punch's commentary on the Eyre Debate in Britain

Contemporary Punch cartoon. Caption: 
Little London Arab: "Please 'm, ain't we black enough to be cared for?"
(with Mr. Punch's compliments to Lord Stanley)

The economic plight of the plantation-owners was severely worsened by the gradual repeal, announced in the Sugar Duties Act of 1846, of the preferential tariff protection on sugar in the British colonies.  This measure was promoted by many "free trade" economists (note: this is the same year a the repeal of the Corn Laws). 

The plantation-owners were furious. They felt that the British government had broken the old 1838 deal.  With no cheap labor force and no preferential tariff protection, the plantation-owners in the British West Indies knew that there was no way they could compete with Cuba and Brazil, where sugar was still produced with slave labor.  The rise of European beet-sugar as a cheap alternative did not help either.

For the BFASS, the equalization of the sugar duties was a complicated affair.  The Exeter Hall abolitionists themselves were eager to ensure that the "emancipation experiment" in the West Indies was not the wholesale economic disaster its opponents predicted.  They wanted to use the success of the West Indian economic transition as a showpiece to encourage the rest of the world (the United States of America in particular) to abolish slavery themselves.  Furthermore, existing provisions in the current tariff system were already weighted against foreign slave-produced sugar.   The new free trade policy meant that sugar, regardless of its source, would be treated the same -- whether from British colonies or abroad, whether from cane or from beet, whether from slave plantations or not.  Thus, the equalization of duties would redirect trade towards Cuba and Brazil, which would probably mean the expansion and deepening of slavery there.  That would hardly be in line with the abolitionists' "worldwide" mission.  Consequently, many abolitionists backed the existing preferential sugar tariff as well as increased Indian immigration into the colonies.   

However, anti-tariff sentiment grew in Exeter Hall ranks.  For many abolitionists, sugar and slavery were so interconnected that they felt that any support given to sugar industries anywhere would, one way or another, also promote slavery and servitude directly or indirectly. Furthermore, it was felt that the West Indies should be changing its economic structure, away from the abusive sugar plantations to something else altogether.  But, mainly, there was the question of why Britain, an export of manufacturers, should be giving preferential treatment to a handful of sugar barons in the Caribbean anyway.  

The high officials of the BFASS (based in London) remained staunchly pro-tariff, but in 1843, a rebellious "Provisional Committee" (composed mostly of  BFASS members in British port cities) was formed which pressed for repeal.  In 1844, at another Exeter Hall convention,  the Provisional Committee took control and placed the repeal of the sugar tariff on the platform of the BFASS. 

The 1846 Sugar Duties Act was followed by the repeal of the Navigation Acts in 1849, which removed the old restrictions on colonial trade which had given West Indian sugar a guaranteed market in other British colonies.  The culmination of all this was the Sugar Equalization Duties Act of 1851, which finally put all sugar imports into the empire on par.  Following some heavy lobbying by West Indian plantation-owners, the latter only came in force in 1854.  Full repeal of all sugar tariffs only occurred 1875.  

After this series of blows, the West Indian sugar economy declined precipitously.   British import figures indicate that, indeed, the end of the sugar tariff led to a substantial expansion of sugar imports into Britain from outside the British colonies.  When Carlyle proposes that British gun-boats be sent to end slavery in Brazil and Cuba (and not, we shall note, to other slave-owning places), it is with eliminating this sugar competition in mind.  It is well documented that the Caribbean economy was certainly in dire straits.  It was around this time that Thomas Carlyle published his rabid 1849 Fraser's Magazine essay.  He took up the cause of the West Indian sugar barons and condemned what he thought was a conspiratorial union of Exeter Hall philanthropists and free-trade economists against them.  

Carlyle's Gospel

Why this Scottish man of letters took up this peculiar cause -- and with so much passion and venom -- remains puzzling.  But Carlyle's 1849 essay should not be read merely as a reactionary defense of slavery.  There are subtler veins in the paper, consistent with Carlyle's more youthful  Romanticist philosophy.  Add to this his personally deeply-held racism and the obvious enjoyment he takes at annoying the bourgeoisie and poking at Christian sensitivities, and his strange choice of subject may become clearer.

Carlyle in his study

Carlyle in his study c.1853

To some extent, the West Indian plantation society appealed to Carlyle's sentiments about idealized "feudalist" societies.  Carlyle's vision was best expressed  in his earlier writings, such as Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843). He contended that only in a feudalist society,  where roles were clearly assigned, could the Puritan ethic of work-for-work's sake be possible -- and that, he held, was the whole purpose of living.   

Note that Carlyle never recommended a return to slavery as such but rather a return to something akin to European-style serfdom.  Slaves can be sold and bought by masters and thus, unlike serfs, they are not guaranteed constant "life-time employment", the critical feature of Carlyle's personal gospel.

This feudalist ideal was something he felt Britain had abandoned to its peril when it set off in pursuit of capitalist industrialization.  With capitalism, workers were reduced to nomadism, scavenging and competing for the next shilling in uncertain wages or profits.  And if employment cannot be readily found?  Then pauperism, idleness and starvation.   In Carlyle's view, the world of British industrial capitalism reduced half the population into nomadic Hobbesian beasts, and the other half into idle paupers.  Such an outcome, Carlyle felt, was no better than slavery, and in many ways worse.   

With the emancipation of slavery in the West Indies and the supportive BFASS activities there, Carlyle believed the hitherto peaceful black ex-slave would be condemned to idle pauperism.  The principal image that horrified Carlyle was that of the West Indies being reduced to a "Black Ireland".  To the idle, impoverished "potato people" of Ireland, Carlyle saw the potential counterpart in an idle, impoverished "pumpkin people" in the Caribbean.  Remember that at this time, Ireland was still in the thrall of the Great Famine. Carlyle visited Ireland in 1849 and filled his journal with tirades, referring to Ireland as a "human swinery", a "black howling Babel of superstitious savages".  

Carlyle's sentiments towards the paupers of Ireland (and the ex-slaves of the Caribbean) is not plain brutal racism, but a different, more paternalistic concern.  He does not see their predicament, as many contemporaries did, as being due to the inherent immorality or natural laziness of the "Gael" or the "Negro".  No, Carlyle argued, set a man to work and all those "savage" qualities disappear.  The character of the Irishman (or the West Indian, for that matter) is not inherently corrupt but it has been corrupted from lack of work.

This is not too far from contemporary opinion.  Many British philanthropists, not least Charles Trevelyan, the pious Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of British relief during the Irish famine, the problem of Ireland was a cultural one and thus not irretrievable. They believed that "savage" Gaelic/Negro attitudes could be "fixed" if they were given the right upbringing and incentives.  Irish paupers could be transformed into proper, industrious Englishmen with the discipline of the market-place, moral education, religious piety and the whip of hunger. 

Where Carlyle differs from Trevelyan and other "philanthropists" is that he believes that the culture of pauperism cannot be fixed by the market, because that very culture was created by the market.  The market, he argues, does not create an incentive to work, it gives an incentive to sell -- and, for Carlyle, these are two very different things.   As an axiom, Carlyle refuses to accept that wage payments induce work.  Work comes first, payment afterwards.  Work is done "for the favor of Heaven", not with a view to recompense. As such, wages are an imperfect measure of the worth of labor.  

With the rise of capitalism, the "cash nexus" intervened in the relationship between work and reward.  

"That all useful labor is worthy of recompense, that all honest labour deserves the chance of recompense; that the giving and assuring to each man the recompense that his labour has actually merited, may be said to be the business of all Legislation, Polity, Government and Social arrangement whatsoever among men." (Carlyle, "Petition on Copy-Right", 1831, Examiner


What Carlyle (1839) called the "cash nexus" intervened in the relationship between laborer and master.  Carlyle implicitly draws from the Scottish tradition


Having earlier supported the extension of parliamentary suffrage, he was severely disappointed with the 1832 Parliamentary Reform Bill, believing it to have merely transferred power from the owners of land to the owners of shops, leaving craftsmen and laborers no better off.  He turned even darker later on, mistrusting the multitude and holding ever tighter to his feudalist idea about the interdependence of classes rather than rule of the majority  Democracy, he claimed, "abrogates the old arrangement of things, and leaves zero and vacuity.  It is the consummation of non-government and laissez-faire."

"whoso has sixpence is sovereign (to the length of sixpence) over all men; commands cooks to feed him, philosophers to teach him, kings to mount guard over him,--to the length of sixpence." (Carlyle, 1831, Sartor Resatus, Bk. 1, Ch. 5)

What Carlyle (1839) called the "cash nexus" intervened in the relationship between laborer and master.  Carlyle implicitly draws from the Scottish tradition


 which call forth two very different characters.

 created the social upheavals of the industrial revolution which kept men without a task.

For Carlyle, the only gospel that would "fix" it is the gospel of work -- forced, if need be and, indeed, as it must be.   For Carlyle, compulsion is always an ingredient for his  feudalist ideal.  In Carlyle's mind, there is no difference between a West Indian slave and a British peasant -- the former may be compelled by whips and chains, the latter by tradition and custom, but in either case, there is compulsion to work.  This "compulsion" is in fact a necessary ingredient for Carlyle's system: by removing the freedom to choose between labor and leisure, or choice of work and/or position, the slave/peasant/artisan/nobleman can concentrate on his own task, develop the craftsmanship, and realize the "joyful" elements of creativity in labor.   Carlyle did not stop to wonder whether the West Indian slave society was "joyful"; he merely asserted it.  

In his follow-up act, the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), Carlyle pinned the blame of the predicament of Ireland and the Caribbean squarely on the shoulders of the philanthropists and the economists.  As he writes::

"Between our Black West Indies and our White Ireland, between these two extremes of lazy refusal to work, and of famishing inability to find any work, what a world have we made of it, with our fierce Mammon-worships, and our benevolent philanderings, and idle godless nonsenses of one kind and another! Supply-and-demand, Leave-it-alone, Voluntary Principle, Time will mend it:--till British industrial existence seems fast becoming one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive" ("The Present Time", 1850)

Carlyle sees economists in general as the high priests of industrial capitalism, and the evangelicals as their assistants.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the Irish Famine, where Trevelyan and the British government used the rhetoric of laissez-faire and divine providence to justify their reaction to the horror.  In the West Indian case,  it was precisely the lobbying of economists that led to the repeal of the sugar tariff and set the whole downfall of the Caribbean economic system into motion.  

In his Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) Carlyle also targets democracy (following up on the 1848 Revolutions) and the reform of prisons (another focus of evangelical Christian activity) and lashes out at them with his bitingly sarcastic pen and prophetic admonitions.  It is here, incidentally, that democracy was first described by the phrase "anarchy plus a street-constable".

Carlyle's 1849-1850 writings led to a break with several of his acquaintances, notably his old and dear friend, John Stuart Mill.  Many people know the famous anecdote of how Mill's maid accidentally burnt Carlyle's first (and only) draft of the French Revolution -- and how Carlyle, cheerfully consoled his repentant friend (and then sat down rewrote the entire draft  from memory!).  But John Stuart Mill was involved with the abolitionist movement as well as other contemporary reform movements on the prisons, poor laws, etc.   He supported these "progressive" causes on the basis of his secular utilitarian philosophy, rather than the evangelical Christianity of the Exeter Hall coalition. 

Map of the Caribbean

Map of the Caribbean, c.1774
(source: American Memory)

John Stuart Mill responded to Carlyle's essay with his own "The Negro Question", published in 1850 in Fraser's Magazine as a letter to the editor.  Occasionally, Mill uses Carlyle's own arguments to trip him up, but for the most part, Mill sets out his own position.   This includes, interestingly enough,  the "Afrocentric" thesis of antiquity (i.e. that Ancient Egyptians were racially black) and sets blacks and whites on an equal footing.  But, if anything, Mill's response indicates the chasm that lay between their respective philosophies. For instance, while Mill's utilitarianism implied that "minimization of pain" contributed to happiness, in Carlyle's Romanticist philosophy, only "activity" promoted happiness, regardless of whether or not pain accompanied it.  Thus, for Mill, labor is a necessary evil, while for Carlyle, labor is a virtue in itself.   

In 1853, Carlyle reprinted his 1849 article as a separate pamphlet entitled Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question.  Besides the revealing change in the title, the 1853 pamphlet included some additional discussion, partly in response to Mill.

In the 1860s, events in the Caribbean once again brought Mill and Carlyle to cross swords.  In  the post-emancipation period, there was a temporary respite in the economic plight of white West Indians with a burst of railway construction, but for the most part, the period was a tense one. In early October, 1865, news of a minor scuffle in Morant Bay, Jamaica, were exaggerated into alarmist reports of a fully-fledged "black uprising".  Governor Edward John Eyre of Jamaica declared martial law and sent his troops on a terror spree throughout the island, burning down black settlements, flogging much of the black population and executing some four hundred blacks.  Applauded by whites throughout the Caribbean, Eyre's activities alarmed the British -- not only for his brutality, but also for his disregard for the procedures of law.  Eyre's hanging of  one of his prominent political opponents, George William Gordon, without a fair trial (and outside the area declared under martial law) was a particular case in point. 

Eyre was recalled by the British government in 1866, but the story was not over.  In Britain, a "Jamaica Committee" was set up which included prominent figures such as  John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Bright, Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer.  Their mission was to have Eyre condemned for his excesses in suppressing the insurrection and tried for the murder of Gordon.  Simultaneously, Thomas Carlyle -- with John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson and others -- formed a committee in Eyre's defense -- the "Eyre Testimonial and Defence Fund". In the end, Eyre was acquitted, but the break between Mill and Carlyle had grown almost to full-blown enmity.  Carlyle's reflections on the Eyre controversy are contained in one of his last essays, "Shooting Niagara: And After?" (1867).

Carlyle's 1849-1853 work was not well-received.  Although the Victorian world could entertain some degree of racism, even one as extreme as Carlyle's, it was Carlyle's attacks on the new gospels of the age that offended most.  It was somewhat clear for many contemporaries that neither West Indian blacks nor Irishmen, nor prisoners, were his prime targets, but rather the evangelicals and economists themselves.  Although a mathematician by training, Carlyle despised "systems" of thought and philosophy, particularly those which claimed to have captured the "Truth" and were willing to up-end the given organic, "natural order" of society in pursuit of it.  Moral or scientific absolutism and "collective wisdom" irritated Carlyle, and his very  method of argument -- sweeping assertions, hard-hearted conclusions, twisted appeals to anecdotal evidence, shocking language -- were geared in part against it.  His life-long "mission", if he had one, was to subvert widely-held "systems" of theory and belief, like those of the evangelicals and economists.  "I am not a Tory", he declared, "no, but one of the deepest though perhaps the quietest of Radicals."

However, none of this should detract from the fact that Carlyle was (or certainly can be seen as) a proto-Fascist.  Many of his policy recommendations -- such as compulsory military drilling, the reinstatement of servitude/serfdom for blacks and other "servant" races, etc. -- foreshadowed the policies put into practice by Fascist regimes of the 1920s and 1930s.  Of course, Carlyle's theories were not novel. Like Nietzsche's, they were late industrial age manifestations of earlier 1800s Romanticism.  But Romanticism itself -- at least as expressed by Blake, Goethe, Schiller, Coleridge, Byron, & Co. --  was harmless enough, intended for personal consumption as opposed to social implementation.  Romanticism was perfectly compatible with a relaxed cosmopolitanism. Where Carlyle goes beyond any of the Romanticists, beyond even Nietzsche, was in pushing for a practicable re-organization of society in the "service of great men".   It is in the practical policy arena, in Carlyle's misguided call for his kind of social reform "from above", that he anticipates the Fascist era.  Sadly,  this "moral desperado", as Matthew Arnold called him, might not, in the end, have been inconsequential. 

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Although the Carlyle-Mill debate focused exclusively on the "Negro Question" in the British Empire, it would be impossible for antebellum American writers to ignore them.  The Carlyle and Mill articles were reprinted in full in several American journals of opinion, with with the editors trying to give them their own peculiar slants (as is evident in their introductions and occasional footnotes).   Carlyle's essay in particular was much invoked by pro-slavery writers to counter home-grown abolitionists.  For instance, in an 1850 article, "Centralization", we find the following discussion surrounding large quotations from Carlyle's 1849 essay: 

"That a powerful re-action has taken place in England in regard to the policy to be pursued in relation to the blacks is very apparent, more particularly so in the course of the leading writers and the press, influenced by the Government. Among the boldest and the most remarkable of them is a recent production of Thomas Carlyle, published in Fraser痴 Magazine, and written with the usual picturesque energy of the astute thinker and powerful writer. The subject is the negro question, and he opens as follows: 

" -- My Philantropic friends:..., etc. ...Certainly, in the past history of the human species, it has no parallel; nor, one hopes, will it have in the future."

The utter ruin which has overtaken those Islands is known to all. The writer then argues that the proprietorship is vested in him who can educe from the soil whatever it is best fitted to produce. for the general benefit, and proceeds ・

"The West Indies, it appears, are short of labor..., etc., ...He that will not work shall perish from the earth, and the patience of the gods has limits."

This is certainly a very bold stand in favor of re-enslaving the blacks, who are doubtless rapidly sinking into the state of cannibalism from which white influence raised them, now that they are left to themselves; and it is ominous for the peace of the country when we find the North filled with the flaming denunciations of slavery, and attacks upon the Constitution, by British emissaries and traitors, at the same moment that we find the English mind being thus adroitly prepared to re-embrace the system, more particularly when we keep constantly in mind that the Empire of England exists only upon the cotton raised by slaves."

("Centralization", in United States Magazine and Democratic Review (ed. T.P. Kettell), 1850, p.302-304) 

More 19th Century American journal articles on the "Negro Question" debate are linked below.

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The massive "Making of America" databases at the University of Michigan and Cornell University have on-line versions of numerous 19th Century American journals, both Northern and Southern.  The following links are connected to articles which discuss the "Negro Question" with explicit or implicit reference to Carlyle and his essays:

More texts by and on Carlyle and Mill are available on our Thomas Carlyle webpage and our John Stuart Mill webpage.  The Carlyle-Mill "Negro Question" debate has also been recently examined by David Levy and Sandra Peart in the following online essays 

Further resources on the "Negro Question" and the British West Indies can be found at the following links:


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