The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty/Volume 1/Introduction/PettysLetters

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PETTY'S LETTERS AND OTHER MANUSCRIPTS.


By long-continued activity Petty had accumulated, as he discovered with chagrin when preparing for final departure from Ireland, no less than fifty-three chests[1] of papers of one sort and another. To be sure many of the papers relating to the Down Survey, which must have stuffed a goodly row of chests, were rather prepared under his direction than written by his pen, and it is probable that further chests relating to his estates, and to the Irish revenues were among the fifty-three. But enough is known of his habits in writing to warrant the inference that a number of the chests were likewise filled with manuscripts of his own production. While he was still a young man it had become his habit, when entering upon any weighty undertaking, "to meditate and fill a quire with all that could in nature be objected and to write down his answer to each. So that when any new thing started, he was prepared, as it were extempore, to shoot them dead." During the busy days of the surveys in Ireland, "his way was to retire early to his lodgings where his supper was only a handful of raisins and a piece of bread. He would bid one of his clerks, who wrote a fair hand, go to sleep, and while he eat his raisins and walked about he would dictate to the other, who was a ready man at shorthand. When this was fitted to his mind the other was roused and set to work, and he went to bed, so that next morning all was ready[2]." By no means all the manuscripts which Petty must have prepared are now in existence. Many of those relating to the Irish Surveys were destroyed by the fire at the Council office in Essex Street in 1711[3], and others have been lost in ways not so easy to trace. But a considerable fraction remains, comprising both letters and manuscripts that have proved of value in preparing this edition of Petty's economic writings.

Of Petty's letters several hundred are extant and parts of some six score are in print. They range in date from his nineteenth year to the month of his death and touch upon a great variety of subjects. The earliest are addressed to Dr John Pell[4] and are concerned with Petty's pursuits as a student on the continent. Later he corresponded with Boyle[5] and Hartlib as to his plans for education and for a history of trades, and after the Restoration he sent a number of letters to the Royal Society concerning his double-bottomed ship and other topics[6]. His interest in shipping led also to a prolonged correspondence with Pepys, and among others to whom letters by him are known there may be mentioned Henry Cromwell, Ormond, Anglesey, Sir Peter Pett and John Aubrey[7]. It was, however with his wife's kinsman, Sir Robert Southwell[8], that Petty carried on his most active correspondence. His business affairs, his domestic afflictions, his political aspirations, every act and thought of his last twenty years found a reflection in the hundreds of letters which he showered upon his faithful cousin. It was the life-long habit of that much-enduring man to preserve every scrap of writing that came into his possession, and though he did not hesitate to reprove Petty's aggressive self-confidence[9], he had nevertheless an unusually high regard for all that his outspoken kinsman said or did. Soon after the completion of the "Political Arithmetick," of which Petty gave him a copy in MS.[10], Southwell wrote of "an ebony cabinet wherein I keep as in an archive all the effects of your pen; for I look on them as materials fit for those I would take most care of and hope they will hand them over with like estimation[11]." During Petty's contest for the farm of the Irish revenues[12] Southwell asked for the papers he had delivered in, "for I shrine up all and premise that in after times I shall be resorted to for your works as Mr Hedges[13] is for the true Opobalsamum[14]." Four years later he renewed the assurance of his care: "as to your fifty years' adventures I have them and keep them more preciously than Caesar's commentaries[15]"; and within a fortnight after Petty's death he set out to secure such MSS. of his friend as were not already in his possession, writing to Pepys the 23rd December, 1687, for a paper which Petty had lately lent him[16]. Sir Robert's collection of letters and papers, including those from Petty for which he had promised such pious care, remained in his family and was apparently kept intact until 1834 when, upon the death of his descendant Lord De Clifford they were all sent to the auction block[17]. Of the letters by Petty thus brought to light, the greater part were bid in by Thomas Thorpe[18], who subsequently sold them to the third Marquis of Lansdowne to be added to the collection at Bowood. The amount of light which Petty's letters, especially those to Southwell, are capable of throwing upon his writing as well as upon the circumstances of his life, may be inferred from the use made of them by Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice. By his kind intervention, I received from the Marquis of Lansdowne generous permission to consult the Petty correspondence at Bowood; but the necessity of returning to the United States unfortunately prevented my making use of the privilege. The letters, however, are printed with much fulness in the "Life of Petty" by Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, and he assured me that they contain nothing bearing upon his economic writings beyond what has already been given to the public.

The preservation of excellent manuscript copies of Petty's most important economic works is likewise due to Southwell. Inasmuch as some of the pamphlets were printed in London while Petty himself was in Ireland[19], and others, including the "Political Anatomy" and the authorized version of the "Political Arithmetick," were first issued after his death, a number of gross errors which he doubtless would have removed, were allowed to stand in the published versions[20]. The printer of the "Reflections upon some Persons and Things in Ireland"[21] frankly confesses that, not being acquainted with the island wherein the copy of that discourse was written, he was forced to guess at many interlined and imperfectly obliterated words and sentences, as also at the true places of many of them. Wherefore he desires the reader to excuse the literal errata, and as for others to enquire of Dr Petty himself for his own sense and direction concerning them[22]. The printers of his other works were less frank but hardly more accurate, and to enquire of Dr Petty himself is no longer an available solvent of perplexity. Under such circumstances the beautiful manuscripts of the "Political Anatomy," the "Political Arithmetick," and the hitherto unpublished "Treatise of Ireland," which passed (indirectly) from Southwell to the British Museum[23], assume a high degree of importance. They all bear Petty's autograph corrections and by their use it has been possible to make his economic writings plain in several passages which heretofore were hopelessly obscure. Authentic manuscripts of the "Verbum Sapienti[24]" and of the "Report from the Council of Trade[25]" have also been used, but no good manuscript was found of the "Treatise of Taxes," the "Quantulumcunque" or the various Essays.

Of these manuscripts none but that of the "Treatise of Ireland" has been exactly followed in preparing the present edition of Petty's Economic Writings. The pamphlets previously published are all reprinted from the first editions except Graunt's "Observations," and the variations of the manuscripts are mentioned in foot notes in every case where it seemed possible that the manuscript reading could modify the sense of the printed version.


  1. Fitzmaurice, 292.
  2. Addl. MS. 21,128, f°. 441.
  3. See p. 178, note. It was formerly supposed that all had been lost, but the diligence of Mr W. H. Hardinge has brought a number of maps and papers to light.
  4. Pell was born at Southwick in Sussex, 11 March, 1611. He graduated B.A. at Cambridge in 1628 and in 1643 he succeeded Hortensius in the chair of mathematics at Amsterdam, where Petty made his acquaintance. The letters to him, dated 14 Aug., 1644, 8 Sept., 1644, and 8 Oct., 1645, are in the British Museum (Lansdowne MS. 4279) and are printed in Halliwell's Collection of Letters illustrative of the Progress of Science in England, pp. 81, 90.
  5. Brit. Mus. Addl. MS. 6193, f. 70—72, printed in Boyle's Works, vi. 136—140.
  6. These letters are dated 1662 or 1663 and are addressed either to Brouncker, the president, or to Sir Robert Moray, the secretary of the Royal Society; or to Graunt: Royal Society's Letter book, P. 1. f. 11—33, cf. Halliwell's Catalogue of MS. Letters in the possession of the R. S., 143, also p. 398 note, post.
  7. Some of the later letters to Pepys, dated 1683—1687, are in the Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MSS. A. 189, f. 17—19, A. 190, f. 21, cf. pp. 546, 547, post; others are in the possession of J. Eliot Hodgkin, Esq., of Richmond on the Thames. Fifteenth Report, Hist. MSS. Comm., pt. 2, p. 181. To Cromwell, in the British Museum, Lansdowne MS. 823; to Ormond at Kilkenny Castle (3rd Rept. Hist, MSS. Comm., 429, 4th Rept., 551, 7th Rept., 742); to Anglesey in the Bodleian Library (Rawlinson MS. A. 185, f. 219—a copy, the original is probably at Longleat, cf. 3rd Rept., 199); to Pett at Bowood (Fitzmaurice, 249); to Aubrey in the Bodleian (Aubrey MS. II. f. 100—104).
  8. Southwell was born 31 Dec., 1635, at Battin Warwick on the river Bandon, near Kinsale, where his father was collector of customs. After graduating B.A. at Oxford University, reading for a time in Lincoln's Inn and travelling for two years on the continent, he returned to London in 1661. In Sept., 1664, he was named a clerk of the Privy Council and displayed much method and diligence in that office. Between November, 1665 and August 1669, he was twice envoy to Portugal where he negotiated the Treaty of Lisbon. The following ten years, save the brief period of his mission to Brussels, he passed in London. In December, 1679, he resigned his clerkship of the reorganized Privy Council and soon retired to his seat at King's Weston, near Bristol, where he really congratulated himself upon proving no favourite of his neighbours, as he much preferred philosophy before drinking. Letter to Petty, 28 Nov., 1681, Thorpe's Catalogue (1834), no. 710. In spite of this sentiment Smith's Life, Journals and Correspondence of Pepys, i. 282, makes Southwell declare that his health was worn out by long sitting at the sack bottle! What the poor man wrote was "inck bottle." Cf. Macray, Annals of the Bodleian. 2nd ed., 236. After the Revolution he was for a time Secretary of State for Ireland. He died at King's Weston, 11 September, 1702. The condition of Southwell's papers now in the British Museum, as well as the orderly letter-books of the Royal Society during the period of his presidency (1690—1695) give sufficient evidence of his methodical habits.
  9. Fitzmaurice, 175, 283—284.
  10. Pp. 237—238 post.
  11. Southwell to Petty, Aug. or Sept., 1677, Thorpe, loc. cit.
  12. Cf. pp. xxix, and 438, post.
  13. Perhaps Dr Nathaniel Hodges (1629—1688) the physician who remained in London during the great plague.
  14. Same to Same, 11 Sept., 1682, Thorpe, loc. cit., cf. Fitzmaurice, 292.
  15. Same to Same, Nov., 1686, Fitzmaurice, 292.
  16. Fifteenth Rept. Hist. MSS. Comm., pt. ii. p. 181.
  17. Catalogue of a very Important and Highly interesting Collection of MSS., State Papers and Autograph Letters, received by Sir Robert Southwell while Clerk of the Privy Council [etc]. the Property of Lord De Clifford deceased. Sold by Messrs Christie, Feby. 11, 1834. The principal papers by Petty are entered as lots 261, 290—304, 597—600.
  18. State Papers: Catalogus Librorum MSS. Bibliothecæ Southwellianæ now on sale by Thomas Thorpe, 1834, pp. 399—409. A few of Petty's letters were bought by the British Museum, and 32 of them, dated from January to September, 1686, fell to a Mr Cockran of London. At the sale of Mr Austin Cooper's library at Dublin in 1831, the same Mr Cockran, apparently, bought a number of Petty's papers relating to the Down Survey. Notes and Queries, 2nd series, viii. 130. I have not been able to find any further trace of these papers.
  19. Cf. pp. 4, 238.
  20. E.g. on pp. 103, 136—138, 142, 188, 259, 273, 277, etc.
  21. Bibliography, no. 5.
  22. Op. cit. end of the contents.
  23. Their history is traced in detail on pp. 123—124, 236—237, 547—548.
  24. Cf. p. 100.
  25. Cf. p. 212.