Petty's Place in the History of Economic Theory/1

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William Petty was born May 26, 1623, at Romsey, in Hampshire, where his father was a poor clothier. Like many another English refugee during the Civil War, he made his way, by various shifts, to Utrecht and Leyden. There, as well as in Amsterdam and Paris, he studied languages, chemistry, and medicine. In 1648 the Parliamentary party, bent upon reorganizing Royalist Oxford, made him Fellow of Brasenose College, and soon afterwards Professor of Anatomy. Two years later he was further advanced to be physician for the army in Ireland, and soon became a confidant of Henry Cromwell, whom he served as clerk of the council at Dublin until shortly before the Restoration. While there he executed with great success the famous "Down Survey"[1] of the forfeited lands of the rebellious Irish. Incidentally he speculated in land debentures and laid the foundations of his large fortune. In 1661 he was knighted by Charles II.; and, finding a little leisure for the first time in a decade, he turned his attention once more to science. He helped to organize the Royal Society, in whose prenatal activities he had participated at Oxford. He read several papers before it. He experimented at length with a "double bottom boat," which seems to have been a sort of catamaran. In 1666 he resumed his residence in Ireland. There lawsuits about his lands and the demands of the flourishing "industrial colony of Protestants" which he had established at Kenmare in Kerry took most of his time for the ensuing twenty years. He was able, however, to make repeated and prolonged visits to London, and to agitate with vigor for fiscal reforms in Ireland. But the exchequer of Charles II. could ill afford to reject any proposal, however harmful to that island, which promised ready cash at Whitehall; and Petty's arguments in favor of the direct collection of taxes and of establishing a statistical office fell upon deaf ears. The accession of James II., who as Duke of York and Lord High Admiral had taken an interest in Petty's shipbuilding experiments, greatly raised his hopes of ultimate success; and he put forth a dozen essays to prove his case. But he was destined to renewed disappointment, and died December 16, 1687, his public aims unachieved.[2]

Of Petty's abilities his friends held an exalted opinion. Evelyn, for example, declared him so exceedingly nice in sifting and examining all possible contingencies that he ventured at nothing which was not demonstration. There was not in the whole world his equal for a superintendent of manufactures 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.... He never could get favor at court because he outwitted all the projectors who came near him. Having never known such another genius, I cannot but mention these particulars among a multitude of others that I could produce."[3]

The following are the titles of Petty's economic writings, with the probable years of their composition and the dates of their first publication. It will be noted that several of the most important were not printed until after his death.

A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions. Written and printed in 1662.

Verbum Sapienti, or an Account of the Wealth and Expences of England, and the Method of raising Taxes in the most Equal Manner. Written in 1665, printed 1691.

The Political Anatomy of Ireland. Written in 1671-72, printed 1691.

Political Arithmetick, or a Discourse concerning the Extent and Value of Lands, People, Buildings, ... etc. As the same relates ... to the Territories of ... Great Britain, ... Holland, Zealand, and France. Written 1672-76, printed 1690 (and surreptitiously by a "pirate" of those days in 1683).

Quantulumcunque concerning Money. Written 1682, printed 1695 (and perhaps in 1682. Writings, ii. 438, 639).

Another Essay in Political Arithmetick concerning the Growth of the City of London. Written 1682, printed 1683. (The first essay is lost.)

Observations (and further Observation) upon the Dublin Bills of Mortality. Written and printed 1683 and 1686.

Two Essays in Political Arithmetick concerning London and Paris. 1687.

Observations upon the Cities of London and Rome. 1687.

Five Essays in Political Arithmetick. 1687.

A Treatise of Ireland. Written 1687, printed 1899.

The list is divisible into three chronological groups, each corresponding to a distinct period in Petty's life, and containing books that have a common provocation and common characteristics. The first group was produced in London after Petty had given up his arduous positions as physician to the army, surveyor of Ireland, and clerk of the Irish privy council, and before he was obliged to return to that island in order to defend the title of his lands in the Court of Claims. The two pamphlets of this group are directly due, respectively, to the fiscal discussions ensuing upon the Restoration and to the expensiveness of Charles II.'s first Dutch war. Their characteristic subject, accordingly, is taxation. But they contain such digressions to other topics as constitute them, for the student of economic theory, the most interesting of all Petty's writings.

The second group contains his best-known pamphlets, The Political Anatomy of Ireland and the Political Arithmetick. They were written in Ireland after his affairs there had settled into a satisfactory prosperity and he once more had leisure to exercise his mind upon those topics that he especially loved. The direct impulse to their writing came from Dr. Edward Chamberlayne's Present State of England, published in 1669,—a book, by the way, which seldom receives nowadays the attention that it deserves. In January, 1671, when a new edition of Chamberlayne's work was in prospect, Sir Joseph Williamson, later principal secretary of state, suggested to its author the addition of some matter regarding Ireland. Chamberlayne appealed for assistance to Petty, who chanced to be in London at the time; and Petty appears to have been so pleased with the idea that he decided to carry it out himself. Soon thereafter he began another pamphlet treating of England. To this he gave the title Political Arithmetick, which his work has made famous. This title, too, has the advantage of characterizing for us the entire output of his second period of activity as an economic writer. The Political Anatomy and the Political Arithmetick are the forerunners, if not the direct ancestors, of eighteenth-century "statistics," the Staatenkunde of Achenwall and Schlözer.

The more numerous but briefer pamphlets of the third group were written, with one exception,[4] during such visits as he made to London, after 1682, to work for reforms in Ireland, and incidentally to enjoy the company of his friends in the Royal Society. Their external provocation is to be found in the relation existing between the Courts of Versailles and Whitehall, and especially in the dispute whether London were a larger city than Paris. Their character is due to their lineal descent from Graunt's Observations upon the Bills of Mortality of London. It may best be described by saying that they are not merely the forerunners, but the direct ancestors, of Süssmilch and of modern vital statistics.

The Natural and Political Observations made upon the Bills of Mortality, by Captain John Graunt, citizen of London, 1662, bear so intimate a relation to this third group of Petty's writings, and they are themselves of such importance in the history of statistics, that, if they were really written by Petty, as some assert, he should not be deprived of the credit which their author unquestionably deserves. There is not space here to discuss the disputed question as to their authorship. After a survey of the evidence on both sides, which I tried to make comprehensive,[5] the conclusion was reached that Graunt alone was the real author of the book. Petty probably assisted him with a medical comment here and there. He procured from Romsey some important figures for Graunt's use; and he may have revised or even have written the "Conclusion" of the Observations and their curious dedicatory epistle addressed to Sir Robert Murray, president of the Royal Society. But the chief credit of the Observations he must yield to his friend Graunt. Assuming, then, that the London Observations were written by Graunt, we may note that a fifth edition, issued in 1676, three years after his death, was prepared for the press by Petty. Petty was thus reminded of his own investigations of the Dublin bills, made shortly after the first publication of Graunt's book, and upon them and the later bills of London and Paris he soon based the eleven Essays in Political Arithmetick which form the third group of his writings. They are all descended, in this way, from Graunt's Observations; and at the beginning of the first of them Petty himself acknowledges their paternity. "The Observations upon the London Bills of Mortality," he says, "have been a new Light to the World; and the like Observation upon those of Dublin may serve as Snuffers to make the same Candle burn clearer."[6]


  1. So called because "set down upon maps."
  2. On the biographies of Petty see note in Economic Writings, i. xiii.
  3. Evelyn's Diary, March 22, 1675.
  4. The Quantulumcunque concerning Money, which probably belongs, as to provocation, subject, and characteristics, in a class by itself.
  5. See the discussion of the disputed authorship in Petty's Writings, i. xxxix-liv, or in Political Science Quarterly, xi. 105-132. In Literature, 11 November, 1899, p. 458, it is suggested that the varying employment of "I " and "my," "we" and "ours," in the Observations might have been used to discriminate the portions that are by Graunt alone from those in which he had Petty's assistance. The acceptance of this test would show in many cases that parts of the same paragraph, in some cases that parts of the same sentence, had different authorship. English syntax was looser two hundred years ago than now.
  6. Writings, ii. 481.