Introduction to the Study of the Works of Jeremy Bentham, by John Hill Burton


The writer of the following pages, believing that he possesses a more intimate knowledge than belongs to the majority of general readers, of the nature of Bentham’s Works, and of the subjects discussed in them, is desirous of presenting the reader with such a cursory view of their more prominent features as may afford a general idea of their scope and character. In the performance of such a task, he will not be expected to support those opinions which coincide with his own, or to controvert those with which he may differ. In wishing his remarks, however, to be considered as of a purely expository nature, he cannot but expect that the very manner of his exposition will, in many cases, betray the partisan. He professes no claim to an impartiality which, in matters coming so closely in contact with the most important interests of the human race, would be justly ranked as an attempt to conceal thoughtlessness and indifference under the mask of candour. The subjects which will have to be mentioned are those on which almost every man has formed an opinion, and on which few can speak without exhibiting a bias. Many opinions will have to be described which, though but coldly received on their first appearance, gained gradual ground in the minds of thinking men, and are now received with so near an approach to unanimity, that it would be affectation to allude to them otherwise than as doctrines which have received the verdict of society in their favour. Even those who may dispute Bentham’s first principles and general theory cannot deny to him the supremacy of the practically operating minds of his age; and in speaking of projects which have passed through the stringent ordeal of being practically adopted by those who were at first opposed to them,* the same sceptical tone of exposition cannot be expected to be employed, which would be applicable to new and untried suggestions. The writer has no intention of attempting to reduce the various subjects treated of by Bentham into a scientific logical arrangement. Part of the space will be occupied with an explanation of the manner in which he treated his subjects — part with a general view of the conclusions which he arrived at. There will be no specific separation of these two departments; and the writer will have succeeded in his object, if it be admitted that he has afforded his readers a few useful, though loose hints, of the nature of the subjects which chiefly occupied Bentham’s attention, and of the manner in which he treated them.

* Among the various practical reforms suggested by Bentham, the following are instances in which his views have been partially, or wholly adopted by the Legislature:— Reform in the Representative system. Municipal Reform in the abolition of Exclusive privileges. Mitigation of the Criminal Code. The abolition of Transportation, and the adoption of a system of Prison discipline adapted to reformation, example, and economy. Removal of defects in the Jury system. Abolition of Arrest in Mesne process. Substitution of an effectual means of appropriating and realizing a Debtor’s property, to the practice of Imprisonment. Abolition of the Usury Laws. Abolition of Oaths. Abolition of Law Taxes, and Fees in Courts of Justice. Removal of the exclusionary Rules in Evidence. Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, the Catholic Disabilities Acts, and other laws creating religious inequalities. Abolition or reduction of the Taxes on knowledge. A uniform system of Poor Laws under central administration, with machinery for the eradication of mendicancy and idleness. A system of training Pauper children, calculated to raise them from dependent to productive members of society. Savings Banks and Friendly Societies on a uniform and secure system. Postage cheap, and without a view to revenue. Post-office Money Orders. A complete and uniform Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. A Register of Merchant seamen, and a Code of Laws for their protection. Population Returns, periodical, and on a uniform system, with the names, professions, &c., of individuals. The circulation of Parliamentary Papers as a means of diffusing the information contained in them. Protection to Inventions without the cumbrous machinery of the Patent Laws.

The following are among those of his proposed Reforms, which have received only a very partial, or no legislative sanction, but which have, each, a considerable and respectable class of supporters:— Free Trade. National Education. The Ballot. Equal Election Districts. Local Courts. A uniform and scientific method of drawing Acts of Parliament. Public Prosecutors. A general Register of Real Property, and of Deeds and Transactions. Sanatory Regulations for the protection of the public health, under the administration of competent and responsible officers. The circulation of Laws referring to particular classes of society among the persons who are specially subject to their operation.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31