Carlyle and Mill on the “Negro Question”

This week, we will look at Thomas Carlyle’s essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” and John Stuart Mill’s response. The Broadview Anthology includes excerpts from both essays, but I would absolutely appreciate it if you could find the time to read the full essays, which you can access in the links above.

The debate appeared originally in the pages of Fraser’s Magazine in 1849 and 1850. One thing I would especially urge you to consider is its political seriousness. There is more going on in Carlyle’s and Mill’s respective differences of opinion than a mere debate about whether or not British culture should support slavery as an economic strategy. Certainly, Carlyle’s essay is thoroughly racist from our standards today. We don’t want to dismiss it outright, however. Instead, I’m hoping we can read it through its own anxieties — and especially its incredibly over-determined reliance on pumpkins and the other’s mouth (paging Dr. Freud). Mill’s reply is definitely preferable because of its big-picture thinking about the cause of justice against tyranny, but it too has its problems. Looking forward to a great discussion in class this week!


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