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Who were the Carlisle Commissioners? Part two: Jeremy Bentham

By Daniel Parker


Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was something of an enigma. At the age of three, he started studying Latin and, allegedly, finished reading a multi-volume history of England by the age of four. He is known as the founder of Utilitarianism, a leading theorist in the Anglo-American philosophy of law, and the spiritual founder of University College London. He also advocated freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, abolition of slavery, the abolition of the death penalty, the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children, and the decriminalising of homosexual acts almost two centuries before it became fashionable to do any of these things.

However, Electronic Enlightenment has published digitally for the first time correspondence written by Jeremy Bentham that illustrates that he also wanted to become a Carlisle Peace Commissioner but his application was wilfully ignored by Governor Johnstone. As aforementioned in yesterday’s blog post, the Carlisle Peace Commissioners set out to the United States in 1778, three years into the American Revolutionary War, to negotiate a peace treaty. Jeremy Bentham himself (self-promoting legal expert that he was), highly expected that he would be one of the Carlisle Peace Commissioners.

Writing to a correspondent in Russia, the Reverend John Forster (1697–1781), Bentham outlines his proposal to become a Carlisle Commissioner by speaking to Governor Johnstone about why he merited a place on the voyage:

I thought myself within an ace t’other day of being of his party to America. Governor Johnstone, who is another of the Commissioners, I had heard was very fond of the Fragment, and used to carry it about with him in his pocket. A few days before they set out I happened to hear of his having written to Professor Ferguson of Edinburgh, author of the Essay on Civil Society, to ask him to go with him on that expedition, not I believe in the official capacity of a Secretary, but as a friend, for the sake of company and advice. Storer, who is in Parliament I heard at the same time was to go on the same footing with Lord Carlisle. The warning was so short, that it appeared probable that Ferguson might not have time enough before him to enable him to accept the offer. It occurred to me in the instant that if he should not, it might not be impossible that the Governor as he seemed to have taken such a liking to my writings (indeed I should have told you he had asked a friend of mine to make him acquainted with me) might be willing to take me. The company I thought would be agreable, the sea voyage would be of service to my health, and the object of the expedition might give me a little practise in public business. I therefore went immediately to a friend of mine who is intimate with Johnstone, to whom he proposed it without loss of time.

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham

The initial response from the Governor massaged Bentham’s considerable ego but, crucially, did not commit to accepting Bentham on the voyage, as he goes on to explain:

Johnstone’s answer was so flattering to me, (though I have never heard him spoken of as a man of compliments) that were it not for what follow’d, it would hardly be decent for me to mention it. He said if he could but get me, he should think he had got a treasure: thanked my friend for mentioning it, but chid him for not mentioning it before: regretted he had sent for Ferguson, and that it was too late to countermand him: but said that he was to have two gentlemen with him, the other a Barrister of our Inn who had been recommended to him by his Brother Pulteney (Pulteney you know was originally a Johnstone, and took his name for the Bath estate) that he would take me in either of two events: If Ferguson did not come at the time expected, or if Mr. Pulteney could be prevailed on to let him off with respect to the other gentleman: observed that he (Johnstone) was under great obligations to his brother, that he was dependent on him, and therefore that if he should peremptorily refuse to let him off there was no remedy. For he was so circumstanced that it was necessary for him not to quarrel with his brother. “rompre en visière” was the expression: for being so remarkable an one, I put it again and again to my friend to tell me whether it was really the one he used. He concluded with saying that he would go and talk with his brother that instant, and would immediately acquaint my friend with the result.

As the letter then goes on to show, Bentham waited and waited to hear back from Governor Johnstone, expecting that he would at the very least hear back from the Governor who had said: “if he could but get me, he should think he had got a treasure”. But no response ever arrived:

This was on the Friday: the Commissioners set off for Portsmouth the Tuesday after. Would not you have imagined that some sort of apology or at least some answer would have been made to me? Not a syllable have my friend or I heard from Johnstone to this hour. My friend was highly exasperated, while as yet there was nothing to complain of but delay; He wrote him a note in pretty peremptory language which was sent, but, as it proved, too late to reach him. To love mankind, says Helvetius, one should expect but little of them. I do expect but little of them, and am therefore seldom disappointed, and never vehemently.

Sadly, rejection became a recurring motif in Bentham’s life; he also spent sixteen years developing and designing ideas for a new British national penitentiary building only for his plans to be ignored by the British government. The Panopticon penitentiary design has since had a significant impact on 20th century philosophers, particularly Michel Foucault. Sadly, Bentham died before he could see the impact he had on modern philosophy — just like he never set sail to meet with the US Congress as a Carlisle Peace Commissioner.

Daniel Parker is Publicity Assistant for Electronic Enlightenment and numerous other online products at OUP.

Electronic Enlightenment is a scholarly research project of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, and is available exclusively from Oxford University Press. It is the most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period, linking people across Europe, the Americas, and Asia from the early 17th to the mid-19th century — reconstructing one of the world’s great historical “conversations”.

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Image credit: Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill via Wikimedia Commons.

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