John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher and economist. He wrote one of his most famous essays, On Liberty, in 1859. Mill was raised by his father, James Mill, to be a strict Utilitarian. Mill's childhood was rigid, and he suffered a nervous breakdown at twenty-one when he began to question some of his beliefs. Mill later struggled with his sense that Utilitarianism was too unemotional and that it failed to capture or understand the "higher" pleasures. On Liberty can be understood as an attempt to broaden the meaning of utility and show that Utilitarianism can provide a strong protection of rights. The essay also reflects Mill's passionate belief that individuality is something that should be protected and nurtured. As such, the essay illustrates his disgust at how he believed society squelches nonconformity. On Liberty is just one example of the social and political writings of Mill. Other works of his include, Considerations on Representative Government, On the Subjection of Women and The Principles of Political Economy.
On Liberty should at least partly be understood as a product of and response to the Victorian period of England during which it was written. This period was characterized by a particular set of social values (often called Victorian values) that emphasized hard work, thrift and "respectable" comportment and behavior. While there was some criticism of these values at the time, they enjoyed wide-spread appeal. The Victorian period was also characterized by a series of reform movements, such as the temperance movement. These movements often reflected a desire to promote Victorian values throughout society. Mill found these social institutions to be restrictive, however, and saw their all-consuming nature as a profound problem for mankind.