Research Spotlight

Research Spotlight: Cheng Li

Studying: PhD in History (full-time)
Supervisor: Professor Miles Taylor
Thesis Title: Pursuing a noble dream of legal codification: Jeremy Bentham’s law reform strategies, 1808-1832
Research Interest: British politics and reforms in the eighteenth century and nineteenth century; utilitarianism; Bentham studies; intellectual biography studies; the Age of Reform.

Thesis Overview

My thesis explores the strategies made by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) to mobilise three individual reformers, one voluntary pressure group, and one newspaper to promote law reform in Britain between 1808 and 1832. Bentham’s numerous letters contain detailed accounts of the various schemes he proposed and made attempts in practice during his last twenty-four years. He died at age 84. My research examines how Bentham as an active policy proposer or “Legislator” in his own term, contributed to the formation of a solid rational political culture in the early-nineteenth-century Britain. This project will revise the traditional picture of Bentham’s life that portraited him as an isolated, odd and mechanical character who heavily relied on others in touching the real world outside his ‘ideal-republic’ by presenting a new intellectual biography that reveals Bentham’s incredible energy and unbeatable optimism. As a political writer, Bentham might have not been as popular as Edmund Burke, but he was shrewd enough to attract some most influential politicians at the time. 

What are you currently working on?

Since May 2019 I have been writing my third case study of Bentham’s strategies to mobilise individual reformers, his communication with the Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell. Through the generous assistance of the Bentham Project at the University College London during my visit in March 2018, I collected forty-nine letters exchanged between Bentham and Daniel O’Connell from 1828 to 1831 over a series of topics, including law reform, parliamentary reform and the merits of individual reformers. These letters shed new light on Bentham’s strategies to exert influence on the politics of reform behind the scenes. For example, in relation to law reform, these letters were accompanied by Bentham’s seven works which were themed from legal codification theory, judicial evidence theory, observations of Robert Peel’s law reform, and a specific suggestion to improve the efficiency of equity courts. Among them, O’Connell particularly interested in Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence (1827) and exchanged views with Bentham. These works may have influenced his jurisprudence and between June 1829 and February 1830, O’Connell was actively shaping a public opinion for law reform in Ireland when he was in assizes. He avowed himself as a Benthamite in public meetings and collected signatures for Bentham’s Justice and Codification Petitions (1829). He even built a library of Bentham’s works and boasted it to others. O’Connell’s responses encouraged Bentham’s writing. He made use of O’Connell’s name in the advertisement of the Justice and Codification Petitions: “A Petition, in the terms here seen, having been honoured by the approbation of Mr O’Connell, has by that gentleman, as a letter of his informs the author of these papers, been put into the hands of the Catholic Association for the purpose of its being circulated for signatures”.[1] It was a clear strategy to promote public impact by allying a much more influential pressure group. In order to smooth this alliance, Bentham worked out some common ground between his utilitarian jurisprudence and O’Connell’s liberalism. 


The extracts of Bentham-O’Connell’s Correspondence (John Bowring, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. xi, 1843)

When Bentham received O’Connell’s approval on parliamentary reform, law reform and legal codification, he immediately sent a cargo of seven books in the end of August 1828: Draught of a code for the organisation of the judicial establishment in France (1790); Bentham’s Radical Reform Bill (1819); Codification proposal (1822); Leading principles of a constitutional code, for any state (1823); Observations on Mr. Secretary Peel’s House of Commons…introducing his Police Magistrates’ Salary Raising Bill (1825); Rationale of judicial evidence (5 vols., 1827); the first volume of the Constitutional code (printed 1827, published 1830). Then between September 1828 and February 1829, Bentham sent several copies of different versions of a “Petition for Justice” and a “Petition for Codification” (later in 1829 they were put together published in the title of Justice and Codification Petitions). In May 1829 Bentham sent a “Supplement to the Petition for Justice” (still unpublished today) and an Equity Dispatch Court Proposal (published in 1830). These were all of Bentham’s writings that sent to O’Connell I have traced by far. Bentham did things with practical purposes. As a strategist, he sent the first cargo of books to give O’Connell a general idea. Then with the development of their communication he wrote petitions for law reform and a specific proposal aiming towards the court of chancery. Apparently, he viewed the petitions and proposal more urgent writings to stress O’Connell’s attention. He asked O’Connell to get signatures for the petitions and then to present them to Parliament. In terms of the proposal, he asked O’Connell to bring it to the House of Commons. More interestingly, these petitions and proposal in some degree were the product of their communication. O’Connell’s positive responses encouraged Bentham to think to utilise O’Connell’s incredible rising political influence for law reform. On 29 September 1828, O’Connell wrote to Bentham, “Shall I apologise to you for setting you to work on the petitions”.[2] This sentence suggests that it was O’Connell’s encouragement or even idea that directly stimulated Bentham’s petitions writing. Then on 11 October Bentham’s letter suggested that he had sent a petition for legal codification and O’Connell should have received before 6 October.[3] In the letter of 18 November, Bentham assumed that O’Connell had agreed their alliance and was confidently describing the merits of his petitions.[4]

The first cargo of books served the purpose to impress O’Connell. By comparison to earlier letters, O’Connell wrote on 29 September in the warmest phrases: “I read with great rapidity and have already read much of the books you sent me. I am not a stranger to your works by any means—nor was I before you sent them”.[5] Among these books, O’Connell interested the Rationale of Judicial Evidence most. Influenced by Bentham’s ideas in that book, O’Connell discussed judicial procedure and judicial payment. Also, he expressed his reading preference: “I however read more of them than I digested. I took only the landmarks for the purposes of practical utility”.[6]

My focus is Bentham’s personal effort to advertise his writings. For example, when introducing the Codification proposal (1822), Bentham emphasised the effect of codification on law language: “my object is to render it possible to ‘lay gents.’ to pay obedience to all rules which they are made punishable, and every day punished, for not obeying”.[7] Bentham arguably was the first in the history of law to make a deliberate attempt(codification) to reform the language of law. In the 1820, the problem of common law language was widely recognised and practical reformer like O’Connell, who was very successful professional lawyer, could easily give an example in agitation: “no man…knows how to defend himself, unless he comes to one of us conjurers, and we then have, by means of an Index, to go through five thousand five hundred and fifty-five cases before we can find something there, something resembling what is something like the present case before us”.[8] O’Connell also shared Bentham’s radicalism that lawyers deliberately invented a confusing language. He dismissively called the language “the shuffling ingenuity of artificial talent”.[9] Bentham responded O’Connell’s description of the “Index” in his advertisement of codification: “I for codification in contradistinction to consolidation. In the few drops of really existing law, floating here and there in the cloud of imaginary law, made on each occasion, by each man for his own use, under the name of common-law, his object is to lighten the labour employed by learned gentlemen in making use of the index you speak of”.[10]

These 49 letters exchanged between Bentham and O’Connell provide me with valuable insights into Bentham’s activities and strategies as one of the most energetic reformers at the height of Romanticism. More generally, they have made me more aware of the value of private letters as a source for historical research, and how to discover their rich meanings. For instance, Linking Bentham’s letter of 15 July 1828 with the news of O’Connell’s speech in the Morning Herald, enabled me to gain a better understanding of Bentham’s responsive strategy to ally other reformers.

With thanks to the China Scholarship Council, who enabled me to go on this PhD research in York.


[1] Jeremy Bentham, Justice and Codification Petitions (London: Robert Heward, 1829), ix-x.
[2] O’Connell to Bentham, 29 Sep. 1828, The Correspondence of Daniel O’Connell, ed. M.R. O’Connell, viii. 201–2.
[3] Bentham to O’Connell, 11 Oct. 1828, The Irish Monthly, XI (1883), 511–2. 
[4] Bentham to O’Connell, 18 Nov. 1828, The Irish Monthly, vol. xi (1883), 512-5.
[5] O’Connell to Bentham, 29 Sep. 1828, The Correspondence of Daniel O’Connell, ed. M.R. O’Connell, viii. 201–2.
[6] Ibid. 
[7] Bentham to O’Connell, 15 Jul. 1828, Bowring, x. 594–6.
[8] Morning Herald, 15 Jul. 1828.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bentham to O’Connell, 15 Jul. 1828, Bowring, x. 594–6.

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