Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Senior, Nassau William
SENIOR, NASSAU WILLIAM (1790–1864), economist, born 26 Sept. 1790 at Compton Beauchamp, Berkshire, was the eldest of ten children of the Rev. John Raven Senior, vicar of Durnford, Wiltshire, by his wife Mary, daughter of Henry Duke, solicitor-general of Barbados. J. R. Senior was the only son of Nassau Thomas and grandson of Aaron Señor, a Spaniard naturalised in England in 1723. He was a graduate of Merton College, Oxford (B.A. 1785, M.A. 1788), and is said to have been a man of remarkable abilities, though he was content with the quiet life of a country clergyman. He died at Umberhorne, Gloucestershire in 1824. His wife was a woman of great beauty, sweetness, and strong practical sense. Nassau Senior's early education was conducted by his father, from whom he imbibed a permanent love of classical literature. He entered Eton on 4 July 1803, and in 1807 was elected a demy of Magdalen College, Oxford. The college tutor desired to make his office a sinecure, and, though Senior's conduct as a student was irreproachable, his reading was self-directed and desultory. He failed at his first appearance in the schools, on account of a hasty answer to a question in divinity and a consequent discussion with the examiner. Stung by the failure, he told his father that he would win a first-class next term. He engaged the services of (Archbishop) Whately, then eminent as a private tutor. He worked unremittingly, formed a lifelong friendship with Whately, and after a few months took a first-class in lit. hum. in 1811. He graduated B.A. in January 1812, and M.A. in 1815. In 1812 he became probationary fellow of Magdalen, and in 1813 Vinerian scholar. He had entered at Lincoln's Inn on 19 Nov. 1810, and in 1812 began his legal studies in London. In 1813 he became a pupil of Sugden (Lord St. Leonards), with whom he formed a warm friendship. He became a certificated conveyancer about 1817, was called to the bar on 28 June 1819, and, when Sugden abandoned conveyancing, succeeded to much of his tutor's practice. A delicate throat and weak voice prevented him from succeeding in other branches of the profession. Among his pupils and friends were Romilly, master of the rolls, C. P. Villiers, Edward Denison (afterwards bishop of Salisbury), and Richard Ford, of the ‘Handbook of Spain.’ In 1821 he married Mary Charlotte, daughter of John Mair of Iron Acton, and settled in Kensington Square. He then built a house in Kensington Gore, which he occupied from 1827 to the end of his life. His hospitality there led Sydney Smith to call it the chapel of ease ‘to Lansdowne House.’ Though a steady worker, he was from the first eminently sociable.
Senior's attention had been especially directed to political economy. He had been much impressed by the evils of misdirected charity in his father's parish, and at the age of twenty-five, as he afterwards said, resolved to reform the English poor law. His first publication upon economic questions was an article upon the state of agriculture in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for July 1821. It is a criticism of a well-known report of a committee of the House of Commons, and an orthodox exposition of free-trade doctrine.
He became a member of the Political Economy Club in 1823, and for many years took a very active part in their debates (Minutes, privately printed, 1882). In 1825 he was chosen as the first holder of the professorship of political economy at Oxford, founded in that year by Henry Drummond [q. v.] He held it for five years, when he was succeeded by his friend Whately. He afterwards held it for another term, from 1847 to 1852. He published several lectures, which won him a reputation both in England and France.
In 1830, at the request of the home secretary, Lord Melbourne, he prepared a report upon trade combinations, the substance of which is given in his ‘Historical and Philosophical Essays.’ In 1833 he was appointed a member of the poor-law commission, and was the author of the famous report upon which was founded the poor law of 1834. Senior's writings upon this subject show his thorough familiarity with the history and actual working of the laws, and a principal share in the credit of one of the most beneficial measures of his time must be assigned to him. A sum of 500l. and a knighthood were offered to him for these services. He declined both, and afterwards refused offers of a Canadian governorship and of the position of legal member of the Indian Council. He also declined a place on the new poor-law board. He was appointed master in chancery on 10 June 1836, and he held the office until its abolition in 1855, when he retired upon his full salary. He was in later years a member of several royal commissions—the factory commission of 1837, the hand-loom commission of 1841, the Irish poor-law commission of 1844, and the education commission of 1857.
Senior had at an early period become well known in official and literary circles in London society. Among his chief friends were Whately, Sydney Smith, Lord Lansdowne, Copleston, Sir G. Cornewall Lewis, and Sir James Stephen. Besides his economical writings he had contributed several articles to the ‘Quarterly’ and ‘London’ reviews upon the ‘Waverley Novels,’ which are warmly praised and often quoted by Lockhart (Life of Scott, ch. liv.). At a later period he wrote an article upon ‘Vanity Fair’ in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ which was of great service, as Thackeray always considered, to the growth of the author's reputation. He was, however, chiefly interested in politics, and his most important articles appeared in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ after 1840. Brougham speaks of him as a ‘great acquisition’ in a letter to Macvey Napier of 16 July 1841 (Napier Correspondence, p. 352), and for several years he wrote many articles upon political and economic questions. Many references in the letters to Napier show that these articles were highly valued at the time, and written after consultation with the most trusted authorities of the party. Sir James Stephen writes to Napier in 1842 (ib. p. 379), that Senior ‘cannot be too highly valued in his own peculiar walk, which is that of comprehensive, mature, and luminous thinking about permanent national interests.’ Senior was, of course, in general sympathy with the whigs of the time, though he was always rather judicial than partisan in his political views. He had been brought into contact not only with Englishmen, but with foreigners of eminence. Alexis de Tocqueville had sought his acquaintance in 1833, and formed a lifelong intimacy. In 1836 Cavour, on his first visit to London, also became a friend, and mentions him in 1844 (Comte Cavour et la Comtesse de Circourt, Lettres inédites, Rome, 1854) as ‘l'esprit le plus éclairé de la Grande-Bretagne.’ Senior made frequent visits to the continent. He was in Paris during the attack upon the national assembly on 15 May 1848. He then began to keep a full journal, and from this time till 1863 recorded conversations with many distinguished men in France and elsewhere. These were frequently revised by the original speakers. Senior took great care to avoid any breach of private confidence; but these records of the opinions of contemporary statesmen upon matters of high importance are often of great historical value. Large parts of them have been published by his daughter, Mrs. Simpson, since his death. The list of his works (see below) gives an indication of the width of his interests, and his desire of obtaining the views of the ablest men of various parties.
Senior was eminently a man of strong common-sense. He was of a placid disposition, and thoroughly enjoyed life. He had a characteristic dislike to dwelling upon painful topics, and maintained a steady reserve on some points. He advises a young friend to study theology carefully, but if he formed unusual opinions, to mention them to none but his most intimate friends. He was a man of strong affections, though not demonstrative in his utterance, and most steadily attached to his numerous friends.
He died at his house in Kensington on 4 June 1864, leaving a widow and two children. His daughter, Mary Charlotte Mair, married Mr. C. T. Simpson. His son, Nassau John (1822–1891), married in 1848 Jane Elizabeth (b 10 Dec. 1828), daughter of John Hughes, of Donnington Priory, and sister of the author of ‘Tom Brown's Schooldays.’ Mrs. Nassau John Senior, a very graceful and accomplished woman, was also generally loved for simplicity and sweetness of character. She took great interest in social questions, and on 18 Jan. 1874 was made temporary inspector of workhouses and pauper schools. She was the first woman to hold such a position. The appointment was made permanent in February 1874, but an illness ultimately fatal forced her to resign in November. Her observations led her to originate the ‘Association for Befriending Young Servants,’ which has been of much service. (The ‘Spectator’ of 31 March and 7 April 1877 describes her work.) She received the medal of the Red Cross Society for her work in the London office during the war of 1870–1871. Mrs. Senior died on 24 March 1877. Her portrait, by Mr. G. F. Watts, R.A., belongs to Mr. Walter Senior.
Senior, says Cossa (Introduction to the Study of Political Economy, 1893, p. 327), deserves the first place among the English economists between Ricardo and J. S. Mill. He wrote much that was valuable upon the distribution of the precious metals, and the causes which determine the rate of wages. He is often noticed for his introduction of the phrase ‘abstinence,’ to describe the motive for the accumulation of capital. He belonged in the main to the school of Ricardo, whom, however, he criticises freely; but his strong common-sense and interest in practical applications of his principles prevent him from stating his doctrine in the absolute form of James Mill and McCulloch. He was especially influenced by Malthus, whose theory he applied to the great reform of the poor laws. Senior was a corresponding member of the French Institute (Sciences morales et politiques).
His separately published works are: 1. ‘Introductory Lecture before the University of Oxford,’ 1827. 2. ‘Three Lectures on the Transmission of the Precious Metals …’ 1828, 2nd edit. 1830. 3. ‘Two Lectures on Population …’ (Easter Term, 1828, and correspondence with Malthus), 1829. 4. ‘Three Lectures on the Rate of Wages, with preface on the Causes and Remedies of the late Disturbances,’ 1830. 5. ‘Three Lectures on the cost of obtaining Money, and on the effects of Private and Government Paper Money,’ 1830. 6. ‘Letter to Lord Howick on a Legal Provision for the Irish Poor, Commutation of Tithes, and a Provision for the Irish Roman Catholic Clergy,’ 1831. 7. ‘Statement of the Provision of the Poor and of the Condition of the Labouring Classes …’ 1835. 8. ‘An Outline of the Science of Political Economy,’ 1836. This formed part of the ‘Encyclopædia Metropolitana.’ It was reprinted separately in 1850 in ‘Political Economy,’ and reached a sixth edition in 1872. 9. ‘Letters on the Factory Act as it affects the Cotton Manufacturers,’ 1837. 10. ‘A Lecture on the Production of Wealth,’ 1849. 11. ‘Four Introductory Letters on Political Economy,’ 1852. 12. ‘American Slavery’ (reprint, with additions of a review of ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’ in the ‘Edinburgh Review’), 1856. 13. ‘A Journal kept in Turkey and Greece … (in 1857–8),’ 1859. 14. ‘Suggestions on Popular Education,’ 1861. 15. ‘Biographical Sketches,’ 1863. 16. ‘Essays on Fiction,’ 1864. Posthumous publications, edited by his daughter, are: 17. ‘Journals, Conversations, and Essays relating to Ireland’ (prepared for publication by Senior, includes a journal of 1852 and earlier articles), 2 vols. 1868. 18. ‘Historical and Philosophical Essays,’ 2 vols. 1865. 19. ‘Journals kept in France and Italy from 1848 to 1852,’ 2 vols. 1871. 20. ‘Correspondence and Conversations o Alexis de Tocqueville with N. W. Senior,’ 2 vols. 1871. 21. ‘Conversations with M. Thiers, Guizot, and other distinguished Persons during the Second Empire,’ 2 vols. 1878 (continues No. 19). 22. ‘Conversations with distinguished Persons during the Second Empire from 1860 to 1863,’ 2 vols. 1880 (continues No. 21). 23. ‘Conversations and Journals in Egypt and Malta’ (during a journey with the Suez Canal commission in 1855–6), 2 vols. 1882.
Senior contributed ‘twelve school miseries’ to the ‘Miseries of Human Life,’ by James Beresford [q. v.], a book praised by Scott in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (Miscellaneous Works, xix. 139, &c.). To the journals may be added ‘Louis Napoleon painted by a Contemporary’ in the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ of May 1873.[Information from Senior's daughter, Mrs. Simpson, and his grandson, Mr. Walter Nassau Senior. See also Bloxam's Register of the Demies of Magdalen College; an article in the Cornhill Magazine for August 1864 by Mrs. Richmond Ritchie; and many references in Ticknor's Life and Letters.]