Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Petty, William (1623-1687)
PETTY, Sir WILLIAM (1623–1687), political economist, born at Romsey in Hampshire on 26 May 1623, was son of a clothier. As a child he showed a marked taste for mathematics and applied mechanics, ‘his principal amusement,’ according to Aubrey, ‘being to look on the artificers, e.g. smyths, the watchmakers, carpenters, joiners, &c.; and at twelve years old he could have worked at any of these trades’ (Bodleian Letters, ii. 482). He went to sea at an early age; but his precocious talents excited the envy of the seamen, and they deserted him on the coast of France, with a broken leg. Instead of trying to return to England, he raised some money by teaching English and navigation, and entered himself as a student at the Jesuit College at Caen, where he received a good general education, and became an accomplished French linguist. He is next heard of in the royal navy, but on the outbreak of the civil war again retired to the continent. He studied at Utrecht and Amsterdam, and matriculated as a student of medicine at Leyden on 26 May 1644. He subsequently passed to Paris, and joined the coterie which met at the house of Father Mersenne, the mathematician, in the French capital. He there became the friend of Hobbes, whose influence on his subsequent philosophical and political opinions may be clearly traced in his writings. He also carried on a correspondence with Dr. John Pell [q. v.], the mathematician, at Amsterdam, and made the acquaintance of the Marquis of Newcastle and Sir Charles Cavendish, who were refugees at Paris. On his return to England in 1646, he for a time took up his father's business as a clothier, and devoted himself to the study of mechanical improvements in textile processes. He soon gained some reputation by the invention of a manifold letter-writer, and a ‘Tractate on Education;’ in the latter he sketched out the idea of a scientific society on the lines on which the Royal Society was afterwards founded. In order to continue his medical studies, he left Romsey and removed to Oxford. He took the degree of doctor of physic in 1649, and became a member of a scientific and philosophical club which used to meet at his own rooms and those of Dr. Wilkins; this club may be regarded as the parent of the Royal Society, of which Petty lived to be one of the founders.
On the reorganisation of the university by the commissioners of the Commonwealth, Petty was appointed a fellow of Brasenose and deputy to the professor of anatomy, Dr. Clayton, whom he succeeded in 1651, having in the interval obtained a wide reputation by reviving the supposed corpse of one Ann Green [q. v.], who had been hanged for murder and pronounced dead by the sheriff. In the following year he was appointed physician-general to the army in Ireland, and greatly added to his reputation by reorganising the medical services and terminating the waste and confusion which existed. But his combination of mathematical knowledge and organising power designated him for a more important task. The government of the Commonwealth was engaged in the resettlement of Ireland, and contemplated the division of the forfeited estates of the Irish landowners among the numerous creditors of the Commonwealth in payment of their claims. These creditors fell into three classes: (1) the army, which had large arrears of pay due to it; (2) the ‘adventurers,’ who had advanced large sums to equip that army; and (3) a large number of miscellaneous claimants. It was proposed to confiscate the properties of all the native proprietors, whether Irish or Anglo-Irish, whether catholic or protestant, who could not prove what was termed ‘constant good affection’ to the English government during the recent troubles, and to pay all the creditors of the Commonwealth with the confiscated estates. But, in order to carry out this plan, it was first necessary to survey the country, and measure and map out these estates. Petty soon after his arrival impugned the accuracy of the plans of Benjamin Worsley, the surveyor-general, and offered to carry out the necessary operations more quickly, cheaply, and thoroughly. In the dispute which followed Worsley was supported by the fanatical or anabaptist section of the army, while Petty was supported by the party of the Protector, who, at this juncture, sent over Henry Cromwell on a mission of inquiry [see Cromwell, Henry, and Fleetwood, Charles]. Finally, Worsley's plan—known as ‘the Grosse survey’—which had been put into operation in some places, was rejected.
Another survey, known as the ‘Civil Survey,’ was entrusted to a commission in order to ascertain the exact position and extent of the forfeited estates, with a view to their subsequent distribution among the army; and to Petty was entrusted the task of measuring and mapping these estates. Petty's survey came to be known as the ‘Down Survey,’ because it was measured ‘down’ on maps. It was the first attempt at carrying out a survey on a large scale and in a scientific manner, the nearest approach to Petty's methods having been the survey of Tipperary by Strafford, which, with a few corrections, was adopted by Petty for that county. Petty also undertook to make a complete map of the whole of Ireland, by counties and baronies, for which he was to receive a separate salary; this was not specified at the time, and, as a matter of fact, was never afterwards wholly paid. This map was a completely distinct undertaking from the survey and mapping of the forfeited estates, and was not completed till the middle of the reign of Charles II in 1673, and mainly at the expense of Petty himself, to whom the undertaking had fortunately become a labour of love. It was printed at Amsterdam, and was declared by Evelyn the most exact map of the kind which had yet appeared (Evelyn, Diary, ii. 96).
The skilful and rapid manner in which he carried out the measurement and mapping of the army lands caused all the subsequent stages in the completion of the settlement of Ireland to be practically entrusted to his supervision. He mapped and measured the adventurers' lands, and was the practical head of the committees which successively distributed the lands to the army, the adventurers, and the various private grantees. In these transactions his cousin John, who shared his abilities in surveying, and Thomas Taylor were his principal assistants. While the operations were in progress, he was continually exposed to the watchful jealousy of Worsley, whose abilities he had probably underrated. Petty still further exasperated his rival by an imprudent use of mockery and cynical jokes at the expense of the high pretensions of religion, combined with an almost unlimited rapacity, which distinguished him and many of the officers of the army. On the other hand, Petty gained the confidence of Henry Cromwell, who appointed him his private secretary and additional clerk to the privy council, and placed complete reliance on his ability and honesty. It should be borne in mind that Petty never actually held the appointment of surveyor-general of Ireland to the Commonwealth, but was nominally employed either with or under Worsley, who retained the title of surveyor-general throughout the whole of these transactions, until he was superseded by Vincent Gookin [q. v.] a few months before the end of the protectorate.
The rapidity and thoroughness of Petty's work are acknowledged by Clarendon (Life, p. 116). The work of distribution provoked, however, endless animosities and jealousies among the officers; and all who were disappointed made Petty responsible for their disappointments. The principal ground of complaint was that the whole of the army debt had not been paid, and that a large portion of the forfeited estates had been used, owing to the embarrassed condition of the finances of the Commonwealth, in meeting the expenses of the survey, and, among other charges, the salary of Petty himself. The act of parliament, however, under which the survey had been carried out, expressly provided for this, and the decision was that of the privy council and not of Petty. Some lands near Limerick, which had been given to Petty instead of to a Colonel Winkworth, and were reputed among the best in Ireland, formed a special ground of complaint. The mouthpiece of the opposition was Sir Hierome Sankey, a military officer. Aided by Worsley, he pursued Petty with great acrimony, attacking him before the Irish privy council, in the parliament of Richard Cromwell—to which they both had been elected—in the restored Rump (1659), and in the councils of the army officers. Petty, however, defended himself with success; and the attack of Sankey in parliament proved a complete failure. During the complicated events between the death of the Protector and the Restoration—when the grantees of the Commonwealth were everywhere entering on their Irish estates—Petty was frequently employed as the bearer of secret despatches between Henry Cromwell in Ireland and Richard Cromwell, Secretary Thurloe, Lord Fauconberg, General Fleetwood, and others in England. He was therefore naturally involved in the ruin of the Cromwellian party in 1659. Deprived of all his appointments and ejected from Brasenose by the triumphant republicans, he retired to London, and there calmly awaited events in the society of his former Oxford allies, most of whom had removed to London. He was one of the members of the Rota Club which Antony Wood notes as ‘the place of ingenious and smart discourse,’ and one of the chosen companions of Pepys at Will's coffee-house, where all that was most brilliant in English literary and scientific society was in the habit of meeting to discuss the events of the day. The Cromwellian party having fallen, and the animosity of the pure republicans—of whom Sankey was a leader—being only too clear, Petty readily acquiesced in the Restoration. Charles II affected the society of scientific men, and took a special interest in shipbuilding. With his brother the Duke of York, he extended a willing welcome to Petty, whose acquaintance he had probably made as one of the members of a deputation from the Irish parliament, in which Petty sat for Enniscorthy. The king appears to have been charmed with his discourse, and protected him against the attacks of the extreme church and state party, which resented his latitudinarian opinions and viewed with dislike his connection with the Cromwell family, which Petty refused to abandon or disown. On the occasion of the first incorporation of the Royal Society (22 April 1662), of which he was one of the original members, Petty was knighted; and he received assurances of support from the Duke of Ormonde, who had probably not forgotten the efforts of Gookin and Petty on behalf of the ‘ancient protestants,’ of whom the duke was one, at the time of the transplantation. His cousin, John Petty, was at the same time made surveyor-general of Ireland.
Petty contributed several scientific papers, mainly relating to applied mechanics and practical inventions, to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society. He devised a new kind of land carriage; with Sir William Spragge he tried to fix an engine with propelling power in a ship; he invented ‘a wheel to ride upon;’ and constructed a double-keeled vessel which was to be able to cross the Irish Channel and defy wind and tide. This last scheme was his pet child, and he returned to it again and again. It is remarkable that the earlier trials of this class of ship—of which several were built—were more successful than the later. Petty maintained his confidence to the last in the possibility of building such a vessel; and in modern days the success of the Calais-Douvres in crossing the English Channel, though with the assistance of steam-power, has to a great extent justified his views. He sought to interest the Royal Society in very many other topics. ‘A Discourse [made by him] before the Royal Society … concerning the use of duplicate proportion … with a new hypothesis of springing or elastique motions,’ was published as a pamphlet in 1674. An ‘Apparatus to the History of the Common Practices of Dyeing,’ and ‘Of Making Cloth with Sheep's Wool,’ are titles of other communications made to the society (Spratt, Royal Society; Birch, Royal Society, i. 55–65).
The Acts of Settlement and Explanation (14, 15 Car. II, c. 2, 17, and 18 Car. III, c. 2, Irish Statutes), which decided or attempted to decide between those in actual possession of the greater part of the land of Ireland and those who at the Restoration claimed to be reinstated, secured Petty in a considerable portion of his estates. These estates, after the termination of the survey, he had greatly enlarged by prudent investments in land. The ‘Down Survey’ was also declared to be the only authentic record for reference in the case of disputed claims. During the whole of the remainder of his life, however, Petty was involved in a continual struggle with the farmers of the Irish revenue, who set up adverse claims to portions of his estates, and revived dormant claims for quit-rents. These pretensions he resisted with varying success, according as parties in England and Ireland ebbed and flowed. On one occasion in 1676 he involved himself in serious trouble by the freedom with which he spoke of the lord chancellor of England; on another he became the victim of the assaults of one Colonel Vernon, a professional bravo of the school of Blood. He was also challenged to fight a duel by Sir Alan Brodrick; but having the right, as the challenged party, to name place and weapon, he named a dark cellar and an axe, in order to place himself, being short-sighted, on a level with his antagonist. He thereby turned the challenge into ridicule, and the duel never took place. He received a firm support throughout the greater part of these transactions from the king and the Duke of Ormonde, though on at least two occasions he risked the loss of their favour by his firm determination to assert whatever he believed to be his just rights. It is much to the honour of the king and the duke, the latter of whom Petty describes as ‘the first gentleman of Europe’ (Life of Petty, p. 139, letter to Southwell, March 1667), and to whose eldest son, the Earl of Ossory, he was warmly attached, that the independent attitude of Petty never caused more than a temporary estrangement. At the time of the excitement incident to the ‘popish plot,’ Petty kept his head, notwithstanding the hatred of the system of the Roman church of which his writings show abundant evidence. He supported the moderate policy of the Duke of Ormonde on the ground that, even if the Roman catholic population wished to rebel, their means did not permit them to do so. His dislike also of the extreme protestant party led him to suspect the motives of those who exaggerated the danger. He was twice offered and refused a peerage. In the letter containing the refusal of the first offer, he told the bishop of Killaloe, through whom it was made, that he would ‘sooner be a copper farthing of intrinsic value than a brass half-crown, how gaudily soever it be stamped or gilded’ (Life of Petty, p. 155). His ambition was, however, to be a privy councillor with some public employment, an honour which just escaped him during the events of 1679, owing to the failure of Temple's plans for reorganising the privy councils of England and Ireland. He seems to have been especially desirous of being made the head of a statistical office which should enumerate the population correctly, reorganise the valuation of property, and place the collection of the taxes on a sound basis, and should also take measures against the return of the ravages of the plague, and protect the public health. His special hostility was directed against the system of farming the revenue of Ireland, which in 1682 he had the satisfaction of seeing abolished; but his own plans were not accepted. His constant and unceasing efforts at administrative and financial reform raised up a host of enemies, and he never, therefore, could get favour at court beyond the personal good will of the king. He was, however, made judge of admiralty in Ireland, a post in which he achieved a dubious success, and a commissioner of the navy in England, in which character he received commendation from the king ‘as one of the best commissioners he ever had.’ Evelyn draws a brilliant picture of his abilities. ‘There is not a better Latin poet living,’ he says, ‘when he gives himself that diversion; nor is his excellence less in Council and prudent matters of state; but he is so exceeding nice in sifting and examining all possible contingencies that he adventures at nothing which is not demonstration. There were not in the whole world his equal for a superintendent of manufacture and improvement of trade, or to govern a plantation. If I were a Prince I should make him my second Counsellor at least. There is nothing difficult to him … But he never could get favour at Court, because he outwitted all the projectors that came neare him. Having never known such another genius, I cannot but mention those particulars amongst a multitude of others which I could produce’ (Evelyn, Diary, i. 471, ii. 95–7). His friend Sir Robert Southwell, clerk to the privy council, with whom he carried on a constant correspondence, once advised him not to go beyond the limits prescribed by the extent of the royal intelligence (Life, p. 284).
Pepys gives an equally favourable view of the charm of his society. Describing a dinner at the Royal Oak Farm, Lombard Street, in February 1665, he enumerates the brilliant company and describes the excellent fare; but, ‘above all,’ he adds, ‘I do value Sir William Petty,’ who was one of the party. Neither, however, the praises of Pepys or Evelyn, nor the great undertaking he so successfully carried out in Ireland, nor his scientific attainments, considerable as they were, are his chief title to fame. His reputation has principally survived as a political economist; and he may fairly claim to take a leading place among the founders of the science of the origin of wealth, though in his hands what he termed political arithmetic was a practical art, rather than a theoretical science. ‘The art itself is very ancient,’ says Sir William Davenant, ‘but the application of it to the particular objects of trade and revenue is what Sir William Petty first began’ (Davenant, Works, i. 128–129). Petty wrote principally for immediate practical objects, and in order to influence the opinion of his time. To quote his own words, he expressed himself in terms of number, weight, and measure, and used only ‘arguments of sense,’ and such as rested on ‘visible foundations in nature’ (Petty Tracts, published by Boulter Grierson, Dublin, 1769, p. 207).
Early in life Petty had gained the friendship of Captain John Graunt [q. v.], and had co-operated with him in the preparation of a small book entitled ‘Natural and Political Observations … made upon the Bills of Mortality [of the City of London]’ (1662). This, which was followed in 1682 by a similar work on the Dublin bills, may be regarded as the first book on vital statistics ever published. Of its imperfections, owing to the paucity of the materials on which it was founded, nobody was more conscious than the author himself. He never ceased, for this reason, to urge on those in authority the necessity of providing a system and a government department for the collection of trustworthy statistics (cf. Ranke, Hist. of England, iii. 586). In 1662 Petty published ‘A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions’ (anon. and often reprinted). In 1665 he wrote a financial tract entitled ‘Verbum Sapienti,’ and in 1672 ‘The Political Anatomy of Ireland.’ Both were circulated in manuscript, but neither seems to have been printed until 1691. In 1682 was issued a tract on currency, ‘Quantulumcunque concerning Money;’ and in 1683 (London, 8vo), appeared ‘Another Essay in Political Arithmetick concerning the Growth of the City of London: with the Periods, Causes, and Consequences thereof.’ The publisher explains, in the preface to the second edition in 1686, that a preliminary essay ‘On the Growth and Encrease and Multiplication of Mankind’ (to which reference is made) was not to be found; but he prefixes a syllabus or ‘extract’ of the work, as supplied by a correspondent of the author. Distinct from both these essays were ‘Two Essays in Political Arithmetick, concerning the People, Housing, Hospitals, &c., of London and Paris … tending to prove that London hath more people than Paris and Rouen put together,’ which appeared, simultaneously with a French translation, in 1686. Various objections raised to the conclusions here arrived at were answered by Petty, in the following year, in his ‘Five Essays in Political Arithmetick,’ a brief pamphlet, printed in French and English on opposite pages (London, twice 48 pp. 8vo). About the same time appeared ‘Observations upon the Cities of London and Rome’ (London, 1687, 8vo). This group of essays is completed by ‘Political Arithmetick, or a Discourse concerning the extent and value of Lands, People, Buildings; Husbandry, Manufacture, Commerce, Fishery, Artizans, Seamen, Soldiers; Public Revenues, Interest, Taxes …’ (London, 1690, 8vo), dedicated to William III by the author's son ‘Shelborne.’ This work, written by Petty as early as 1676 or 1677, but refused a license as likely to give offence in France, had nevertheless been printed, doubtless without Petty's consent, in 1683. It then appeared in the form of an appendix to J. S.'s ‘Fourth Part of the Present State of England,’ 1683 (a spurious continuation of Chamberlayne), under the separate title ‘England's Guide to Industry; or, Improvement of Trade for the Good of all People in General … by a person of quality’ (The only perfect copy known of this unauthorised edition is in the Bodleian Library.).
All these works may be said to belong to what, in modern days, has been called the inductive school of political economy, though they contain some instances of purely deductive reasoning, e.g. a speculation on ‘a par of land and labour,’ which occurs in the ‘Treatise of Taxes’ (ch. iv.). In the reign of Charles II the whole system of administration and finance was passing through a period of transition. The old ‘prohibitory’ school, the ideas of which were aimed against the export of the precious metals, was dying, and the ‘mercantile’ system was struggling into its place. This system sought to develop trade, but to regulate it with a view to encourage the import of the precious metals into the country. Petty saw clearly the folly of the prohibitory system, and his acute mind having analysed the sources of wealth as being labour and land, and not the mere possession of the precious metals, he went very near to arriving at a correct theory of trade. On the one hand, he had before him the example of Holland, which approached more nearly to being a free port than any other country, levying its taxation by a general excise on all articles of consumption; and, on the other, the example of France, which, under Colbert, was beginning the commercial legislation which was soon to involve Europe in a prolonged war of tariffs. Petty decided in favour of the example of Holland. But he nevertheless still believed that there was some inherent superiority in the precious metals over other articles of wealth, and seems to contemplate that, under possible circumstances, it might be necessary to check the importations exceeding the exportations, in order to prevent the precious metals from leaving the country. On the other hand, he condemned elsewhere attempts ‘to persuade water to rise of itself above the natural spring’ (Treatise on Taxes, ch. vi.; Pol. Arith. ch. i. 224, ii. 235), and many similar expressions condemnatory of interference with the natural course of exchange.
Besides his correct analysis in the ‘Treatise of Taxes’ of the origin of wealth, which is one of Petty's principal titles to fame, passages in his various works show that he had clearly grasped the importance of the division of labour, and of the multiplication of wealth proceeding pari passu with the increase of population; that he understood the folly of laws against usury; the nature of exchange; and the reasons why the precious metals are the best measure of value, though he involved himself in a hopeless attempt to find a ‘par of value’ for the precious metals as well as for other commodities. The ‘Political Anatomy of Ireland’ is an able description of the land and people of the country, and analyses the best means of developing its resources. The hostile commercial policy of the English parliament made Petty a strong partisan of a union between the two countries as the only means of preventing the natural industries of the smaller island being struck down by her jealous and selfish neighbour, and thus confirmed the natural leaning of his mind in the direction of unrestricted trade. He was a strong partisan of religious freedom, and here again found reasons in support of a union, as he believed that only by this means could the Roman catholics of Ireland, if admitted to power, be prevented from persecuting the protestants; while, on the other hand, he thought it desirable to strengthen the Roman catholic interest in England against the bigotry of the extreme protestants.
Petty's concluding years were darkened by the events which succeeded the accession of James II. The king was personally well disposed to him, and listened with attention to his scheme for reorganising the revenue and the administration; while Petty, partly from a general optimism, which, notwithstanding all his struggles and many disappointments, was one of the most pleasing features of his character, partly from his suspicion of both the great contending parties in church and state, was disposed, like Penn, to take a favourable view of the king's intentions. The disappointment, when it came, was, for this reason, probably the more keenly felt. Whether he heard before his death of the attack on the little industrial settlement which he had founded at Kenmare in Kerry, does not exactly appear; but his friend, Lord Weymouth, who dined with him at the Royal Society immediately before his death, attributes the change which he observed in him to distress at the news from Ireland. He died on 16 Dec. 1687 in London, and was buried in the abbey church, Romsey, where a monument was erected to him in the present century. The king appears to have maintained his personal goodwill to Petty to the last, and probably regretted the disastrous effects of his own policy on the fortunes of his friend in Ireland.
Petty married, in 1667, Elizabeth, widow of Sir Maurice Fenton, and daughter of Sir Hardress Waller [q. v.], regicide. She was created Baroness Shelburne by James II on 31 Dec. 1688. By this lady, who died in February 1708, Petty had three surviving children, Charles, Henry, and Anne. The two sons were successively created Lord Shelburne, but both died childless. The Petty estates thereupon passed to John Fitzmaurice, second surviving son of Petty's daughter Anne, who had married Thomas Fitzmaurice, first earl of Kerry, in whose favour the Shelburne title was again revived. Anne Petty appears to have inherited much of her father's mathematical and business faculties, and was declared by William, earl of Shelburne, to have brought into the Fitzmaurice family ‘whatever degree of sense may have appeared in it, or whatever wealth is likely to remain in it’ (Life of Shelburne, i. 3).
Besides the works already mentioned, Petty wrote a ‘History of the Down Survey,’ edited with notes for the Irish Archæological Society in 1851 by Sir Thomas Larcom, and ‘Reflections upon some Persons and Things in Ireland,’ which is a popular account of the same transactions in the shape of letters between himself and an imaginary correspondent (London, 1660); also a ‘Brief of the Proceedings between Sir Hierome Sankey and the Author’ (London, 1659). His will contained a curious and characteristic summary of his life and struggles. It was printed in 1769 as an introduction to the volume of ‘Petty Tracts’ (Dublin); but a more accurate reprint is to be found in the ‘Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy’ (vol. xxiv. ‘Antiquities,’ pt. i.), being given by Mr. Harding, in the appendix to his interesting accounts of the Irish surveys. A succinct catalogue of all his writings was left by Petty among his papers, in which he acknowledges his share in the authorship of the ‘Discourse against the Transplantation into Connaught,’ which had hitherto been attributed exclusively to Vincent Gookin [q. v.] Among his papers he left a set of pithy instructions to his children, which show a curious mixture of worldly wisdom and high feeling.
John Aubrey, one of Petty's friends, left an account of his personal appearance. ‘He is a proper handsome man,’ the antiquary writes, ‘measures six foot high, good head of brown hair, moderately turning up—vide his picture as Dr. of Physick—his eyes are of a kind of goose-grey, but very short-sighted; and as to aspect beautiful, and promise sweetness of nature; and they do not deceive, for he is a marvellous good-natured person, and εὔσπλαγχνος. Eyebrows thick, dark, and straight (horizontal). His head is very large (μακροέφαλος)’ (Bodleian Letters, ii. 487).
Several portraits of Petty exist, the best being that of him as ‘Doctor of Physic’ by Lely, now in the possession of Mr. Charles Monck of Coley Park, Reading. Aubrey alludes to a picture by Logan, which is probably that to be seen on the frontispiece of the maps of Ireland engraved by Sandys; and to another by Samuel Cooper. There is also a portrait by Closterman at Lansdowne House, in the possession of the Marquis of Lansdowne; an engraving of it, by J. Smith, is in the National Gallery, Dublin. In the ‘Bibliotheca Pepysiana’ at Cambridge are two good drawings of the ‘double-bottomed’ ship. A model of this ship, which is stated to have existed at Gresham College, has been lost.