Sue Young Histories

Jeremy Bentham 1748 – 1832

June 13, 2010

Jeremy Bentham 1748 –
1832Jeremy Bentham 1748 – 1832 was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer, associated with the foundation of the University of London, specifically University College London,

Jeremy Bentham was a patient of Thomas Southwood Smith (the father of Octavia Hill), who was forced into poverty due to his interest in homeopathy. In 1832, Thomas Southwood Smith was responsible for the arrangements of  Jeremy Bentham’s body after his death, and Thomas Southwood Smith was the original keeper of the auto icon of Jeremy Bentham before it was purchased by University College London in 1850,

Jeremy Bentham was a friend of homeopath Edward Acworth, William Allen, Robert Owen, Francis Place, Edwin Chadwick Rowland Hill,

Jeremy Bentham coined the term ‘hobgoblin argument’ to describe an instrument of deception and a  political device to discredit new ideas that do not fit vested interests,

Jeremy Bentham was born in Spitalfields, London, into a wealthy Tory family. He was reportedly a child prodigy: he was found as a toddler sitting at his father’s desk reading a multi-volume history of England, and began his study of Latin at the age of three.

He attended Westminster School, and in 1760 at the age of 12 was sent by his father to The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he took his Bachelor’s degree in 1763 and his Master’s degree in 1766. He trained as a lawyer and, though he never practised, was called to the bar in

  1. He became deeply frustrated with the complexity of the English legal code, which he termed the “Demon of Chikane”.

When the American colonies published their Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the British government did not issue any official response but instead secretly commissioned London lawyer and pamphleteer John Lind to publish a rebuttal. His 130-page tract was distributed in the colonies and contained an essay titled “Short Review of the Declaration” authored by Bentham, a friend of John Lind’s, which attacked and mocked the Americans’ political philosophy.

Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon. Although it was never built, the idea had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. Twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the Panopticon was paradigmatic of a whole raft of 19th-century ‘disciplinary’ institutions. It is said that Mexican prison “Lecumberri” was designed on the basis of this idea.

Bentham was in correspondence with many influential people. Adam Smith, for example, opposed free interest rates before he was made aware of Bentham’s arguments on the subject.

As a result of his correspondence with Mirabeau and other leaders of the French Revolution, he was declared an honorary citizen of France. Bentham was an outspoken critic of the revolutionary discourse of natural rights and of the violence which arose after the Jacobins took power (1792).

Between 1808 and 1810 he held a personal friendship with Latin American Independence Precursor Francisco de Miranda and paid visits to Francisco de Miranda’s Grafton Way house in London.

In 1823 he co-founded the Westminster Review, with James Mill (the father of John Stuart Mill), as a journal for the “Philosophical Radicals” – a group of younger disciples through whom Bentham exerted considerable influence in British public life.

Bentham is frequently associated with the foundation of the University of London, specifically University College London (UCL), though he was 78 years old when UCL opened in 1826, and played no active part in its establishment. It is likely that without his inspiration, UCL would not have been created when it was.

Bentham strongly believed that education should be more widely available, particularly to those who were not wealthy or who did not belong to the established church, both of which were required of students by Oxford and Cambridge.

As UCL was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed or political belief, it was largely consistent with Bentham’s vision. He oversaw the appointment of one of his pupils, John Austin, as the first professor of Jurisprudence in 1829…

As requested in his will, Bentham’s body was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture. Afterward, the skeleton and head were preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet called the “Auto-icon”, with the skeleton stuffed out with hay and dressed in Bentham’s clothes.

Originally kept by his disciple Thomas Southwood Smith, it was acquired by University College London in 1850. It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the college, but for the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, it was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where it was listed as “present but not voting”.

The Auto-icon has a wax head, as Bentham’s head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.


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