Jeremy Bentham

Introduction
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Introduction

Jeremy Bentham was born in London in 1748 and died in 1832. He devised the doctrine of utilitarianism, arguing that the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number is the only right and proper end of government’. He was a major thinker in the fields of legal philosophy and representative democracy, and originated modern ideas of surveillance through his scheme for a panopticon prison. He supported the idea of equal opportunity in education and his ideas contributed to the foundation of University College London in 1826, the first institution in England to admit students of any race, class or religion and the first to welcome women on equal terms with men.


Bentham’s Circle

Bentham had many associates and acolytes. He was invited to Bowood, the house of William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne and 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, where he met Samuel Romilly and Étienne Dumont. He was friends with Henry Brougham, George Grote, David Ricardo and the radical artisan Francis Place. Perhaps his most significant relationship was with James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, both of whom were profoundly influenced by, and helped to edit, Bentham’s works. James Mill met Bentham around 1808 and spent summers with Bentham and his circle at Forde Abbey, Bentham’s country house in Somerset. The Mills lived in a house owned by Bentham on Queen Square (now Queen Anne’s Gate).  Bentham’s ideas inspired James Mill’s Essay on Government (1820) and the work of John Stuart Mill including On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1863). In his will Bentham left mourning rings to John Stuart Mill, Francis Place and his other friends. These rings show an image of Bentham and contain a snippet of his hair.

Bentham’s ideas have tremendous relevance to contemporary society; engaging with his thinking helps us to understand better the world we live in today.

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1748 Bentham is born in London

1755 Attends Westminster School

1760 Starts at Queen’s College, Oxford

1763 Admitted to Lincoln’s Inn

1769 Called to the bar

1776 A Fragment on Government

US Declaration of Independence

1785-88 Stays with Samuel Bentham in Russia and is introduced to Samuel’s panopticon scheme

1787 First US Constitution

1789 An Introduction to the Principles of  Morals and Legislation

Declaration of Rights of  Man in France

1788-90 Political Tactics

Nonsense Upon Stilts

1791 Plans for the panopticon distributed to French National Assembly

Bill of Rights proposed by James Madison

1792 Bentham is made an honourary citizen of France

Louis XVI overthrown in France

1796-7 Writes on poor relief

1802 Traités de Législation Civile et Pénale – the first of Étienne Dumont’s recensions published

1811-16 Corresponds with James Madison

Venezuala, Paraguay, Mexico, Argentina and Chile declare independence

1817 Plan of Parliamentary Reform

1819 Radical Reform Bill

Simón Bolívar declares Republic of Gran Colombia

1820 Rid yourselves of Ultramaria

Revolution in Spain

Begins correspondence with  Simón Bolívar

Constitutional government in Portugal

1821 Offers to codify penal, civil and constitutional law for Portugal

Greek War of Independence

Dumont’s Traités translated into Spanish

1822 Bentham offers to codify laws of any nation and Portuguese accept

King Pedro declares Brazil independent

First Greek Constitution

Begins Constitutional Code

Simón Bolívar liberates Ecuador

1823 Writes commentary on Greek constitution

Fall of liberal regime in  Spain and Portugal

Leading Principles of a Constitutional  Code for any State

US Monroe Doctrine

Founds Westminster Review

1828 Bolívar bans Bentham’s works from universities in Colombia

Bolívar assumes dictatorial powers

Constitutional Code

UCL opens

1830 Emancipate your Colonies! (1793)

Venezuala and Ecuador declare independence from  Columbia

Bolívar resigns

1832 Bentham dies

Great Reform Act in Britain

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1834 Poor Law Amendment Act

1838-43 John Bowring publishes incomplete Works of Jeremy Bentham

1850 Auto-Icon donated to UCL

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In his will Bentham left his body to medical science. He also requested that his body be preserved and this ‘auto-icon’, as Bentham called it, was gifted to University College London in 1850 by Bentham’s surgeon, Thomas Southwood Smith. Today Bentham sits in UCL’s South Cloisters dressed in his own clothes and sitting in his chair.

Bentham in the South Cloisters of UCL

You can visit the auto-icon from 07.30 – 18.00 on Monday to Friday. If you are unable to visit UCL, you can view the new Virtual Auto-Icon to see Bentham in fine detail.

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