1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Leslie, Thomas Edward Cliffe
LESLIE, THOMAS EDWARD CLIFFE (1827–1882), English economist, was born in the county of Wexford in (as is believed) the year 1827. He was the second son of the Rev. Edward Leslie, prebendary of Dromore, and rector of Annahilt, in the county of Down. His family was of Scottish descent, but had been connected with Ireland since the reign of Charles I. Amongst his ancestors were that accomplished prelate, John Leslie (1571–1671), bishop first of Raphoe and afterwards of Clogher, who, when holding the former see, offered so stubborn a resistance to the Cromwellian forces, and the bishop’s son Charles (see above), the nonjuror. Cliffe Leslie received his elementary education from his father, who resided in England, though holding church preferment as well as possessing some landed property in Ireland; by him he was taught Latin, Greek and Hebrew, at an unusually early age; he was afterwards for a short time under the care of a clergyman at Clapham, and was then sent to King William’s College, in the Isle of Man, where he remained until, in 1842, being then only fifteen years of age, he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He was a distinguished student there, obtaining, besides other honours, a classical scholarship in 1845, and a senior moderatorship (gold medal) in mental and moral philosophy at his degree examination in 1846. He became a law student at Lincoln’s Inn, was for two years a pupil in a conveyancer’s chambers in London, and was called to the English bar. But his attention was soon turned from the pursuit of legal practice, for which he seems never to have had much inclination, by his appointment, in 1853, to the professorship of jurisprudence and political economy in Queen’s College, Belfast. The duties of this chair requiring only short visits to Ireland in certain terms of each year, he continued to reside and prosecute his studies in London, and became a frequent writer on economic and social questions in the principal reviews and other periodicals. In 1870 he collected a number of his essays, adding several new ones, into a volume entitled Land Systems and Industrial Economy of Ireland, England and Continental Countries. J. S. Mill gave a full account of the contents of this work in a paper in the Fortnightly Review, in which he pronounced Leslie to be “one of the best living writers on applied political economy.” Mill had sought his acquaintance on reading his first article in Macmillan’s Magazine; he admired his talents and took pleasure in his society, and treated him with a respect and kindness which Leslie always gratefully acknowledged.
In the frequent visits which Leslie made to the continent, especially to Belgium and some of the less-known districts of France and Germany, he occupied himself much in economic and social observation, studying the effects of the institutions and system of life which prevailed in each region, on the material and moral condition of its inhabitants. In this way he gained an extensive and accurate acquaintance with continental rural economy, of which he made excellent use in studying parallel phenomena at home. The accounts he gave of the results of his observations were among his happiest efforts; “no one,” said Mill, “was able to write narratives of foreign visits at once so instructive and so interesting.” In these excursions he made the acquaintance of several distinguished persons, amongst others of M. Léonce de Lavergne and M. Émile de Laveleye. To the memory of the former of these he afterwards paid a graceful tribute in a biographical sketch (Fortnightly Review, February 1881); and to the close of his life there existed between him and M. de Laveleye relations of mutual esteem and cordial intimacy.
Two essays of Leslie’s appeared in volumes published under the auspices of the Cobden Club, one on the “Land System of France” (2nd ed., 1870), containing an earnest defence of la petite culture and still more of la petite propriété; the other on “Financial Reform” (1871), in which he exhibited in detail the impediments to production and commerce arising from indirect taxation. Many other articles were contributed by him to reviews between 1875 and 1879, including several discussions of the history of prices and the movements of wages in Europe, and a sketch of life in Auvergne in his best manner; the most important of them, however, related to the philosophical method of political economy, notably a memorable one which appeared in the Dublin University periodical, Hermathena. In 1879 the provost and senior fellows of Trinity College published for him a volume in which a number of these articles were collected under the title of Essays in Political and Moral Philosophy. These and some later essays, together with the earlier volume on Land Systems, form the essential contribution of Leslie to economic literature. He had long contemplated, and had in part written, a work on English economic and legal history, which would have been his magnum opus—a more substantial fruit of his genius and his labours than anything he has left. But the MS. of this treatise, after much pains had already been spent on it, was unaccountably lost at Nancy in 1872; and, though he hoped to be able speedily to reproduce the missing portion and finish the work, no material was left in a state fit for publication. What the nature of it would have been may be gathered from an essay on the “History and Future of Profit” in the Fortnightly Review for November 1881, which is believed to have been in substance an extract from it.
That he was able to do so much may well be a subject of wonder when it is known that his labours had long been impeded by a painful and depressing malady, from which he suffered severely at intervals, whilst he never felt secure from its recurring attacks. To this disease he in the end succumbed at Belfast, on the 27th of January 1882.
Leslie’s work may be distributed under two heads, that of applied political economy and that of discussion on the philosophical method of the science. The Land Systems belonged principally to the former division. The author perceived the great and growing importance for the social welfare of both Ireland and England of what is called “the land question,” and treated it in this volume at once with breadth of view and with a rich variety of illustrative detail. His general purpose was to show that the territorial systems of both countries were so encumbered with elements of feudal origin as to be altogether unfitted to serve the purposes of a modern industrial society. The policy he recommended is summed up in the following list of requirements, “a simple jurisprudence relating to land, a law of equal intestate succession, a prohibition of entail, a legal security for tenants’ improvements, an open registration of title and transfer and a considerable number of peasant properties.” The volume is full of practical good sense, and exhibits a thorough knowledge of home and foreign agricultural economy; and in the handling of the subject is everywhere shown the special power which its author possessed of making what he wrote interesting as well as instructive. The way in which sagacious observation and shrewd comment are constantly intermingled in the discussion not seldom reminds us of Adam Smith, whose manner was more congenial to Leslie than the abstract and arid style of Ricardo.
But what, more than anything else, marks him as an original thinker and gives him a place apart among contemporary economists, is his exposition and defence of the historical method in political economy. Both at home and abroad there has for some time existed a profound and growing dissatisfaction with the method and many of the doctrines of the hitherto dominant school, which, it is alleged, under a “fictitious completeness, symmetry and exactness” disguises a real hollowness and discordance with fact. It is urged that the attempt to deduce the economic phenomena of a society from the so-called universal principle of “the desire of wealth” is illusory, and that they cannot be fruitfully studied apart from the general social conditions and historic development of which they are the outcome. Of this movement of thought Leslie was the principal representative, if not the originator, in England. There is no doubt, for he has himself placed it on record, that the first influence which impelled him in the direction of the historical method was that of Sir Henry Maine, by whose personal teaching of jurisprudence, as well as by the example of his writings, he was led “to look at the present economic structure and state of society as the result of a long evolution.” The study of those German economists who represent similar tendencies doubtless confirmed him in the new line of thought on which he had entered, though he does not seem to have been further indebted to any of them except, perhaps, in some small degree to Roscher. And the writings of Comte, whose “prodigious genius,” as exhibited in the Philosophie Positive, he admired and proclaimed, though he did not accept his system as a whole, must have powerfully co-operated to form in him the habit of regarding economic science as only a single branch of sociology, which should always be kept in close relation to the others. The earliest writing in which Leslie’s revolt against the so-called “orthodox school” distinctly appears is his Essay on Wages, which was first published in 1868 and was reproduced as an appendix to the volume on Land Tenures. In this, after exposing the inanity of the theory of the wage-fund, and showing the utter want of agreement between its results and the observed phenomena, he concludes by declaring that “political economy must be content to take rank as an inductive, instead of a purely deductive science,” and that, by this change of character, “it will gain in utility, interest and real truth far more than a full compensation for the forfeiture of a fictitious title to mathematical exactness and certainty.” But it is in the essays collected in the volume of 1879 that his attitude in relation to the question of method is most decisively marked. In one of these, on “the political economy of Adam Smith,” he exhibits in a very interesting way the co-existence in the Wealth of Nations of historical-inductive investigation in the manner of Montesquieu with a priori speculation founded on theologico-metaphysical bases, and points out the error of ignoring the former element, which is the really characteristic feature of Smith’s social philosophy, and places him in strong contrast with his soi-disant followers of the school of Ricardo. The essay, however, which contains the most brilliant polemic against the “orthodox school,” as well as the most luminous account and the most powerful vindication of the new direction, was that of which we have above spoken as having first appeared in Hermathena. It may be recommended as supplying the best extant presentation of one of the two contending views of economic method. On this essay mainly rests the claim of Leslie to be regarded as the founder and first head of the English historical school of political economy. Those who share his views on the philosophical constitution of the science regard the work he did, notwithstanding its unsystematic character, as in reality the most important done by any English economists in the latter half of the 19th century. But even the warmest partisans of the older school acknowledge that he did excellent service by insisting on a kind of inquiry, previously too much neglected, which was of the highest interest and value, in whatever relation it might be supposed to stand to the establishment of economic truth. The members of both groups alike recognized his great learning, his patient and conscientious habits of investigation and the large social spirit in which he treated the problems of his science. (J. K. I.)