Wilson, James (1805-1860) (DNB00)

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WILSON, JAMES (1805–1860), politician and political economist, born at Hawick in Roxburghshire on 3 June 1805, the third son in a family of fifteen children, was the son of William Wilson (b. at Hawick 1764, d. of cholera in London 1832), a thriving woollen manufacturer. His mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Richardson, and she died at Hawick in 1815. Wilson was placed from 1816 to 1819 in the school at Ackworth belonging to the Friends, of which religious body his father was a member, and then for six months in a similar school at Earl's Colne in Essex. His taste at this time was for books, and he wished to become a schoolmaster. A desire for a more active life next inspired him, and he wanted to practise at the Scottish bar, but the rules of the Society of Friends did not permit of this occupation.

At the age of sixteen Wilson was apprenticed to a hat manufacturer at Hawick, but he still pursued far into the night the practice of reading and study. After a short time his father purchased the business for him and an elder brother named William. The two young men prospered in their undertaking, and their native town proved too small for their energies. In 1824 they removed to London, and commenced business with a partner, the firm being known as Wilson, Irwin, & Wilson. Their pecuniary gains were considerable, and James Wilson acquired a thorough practical knowledge of commercial life, both at home and in foreign countries. The firm was dissolved in 1831, but he continued, as James Wilson & Co., to carry on the business. On 5 Jan. 1832 he married Elizabeth Preston of Newcastle, and voluntarily ceased to be a member of the Society of Friends. He moved to Dulwich Place, then a secluded spot, though only about four miles from the city. Here he entertained his friends, and was fond of conversing with them on politics and statistics.

For twelve years Wilson succeeded in business, but about 1836 he was tempted into large speculations in indigo, and within three years nearly all his capital had vanished. He called his creditors together and made a proposition to them, which was accepted. Some time afterwards the property which he had assigned to them was realised and did not produce the sum which he had anticipated. He thereupon in the most honourable manner, without any ostentation, made good the deficiency. The firm was unaffected by his private failure, continuing its operations under another name and with Wilson as a partner. In 1844 he retired from business.

Three works published before his retirement made Wilson's name conspicuous in financial circles. The first of them, called ‘Influences of the Corn-laws as affecting all Classes of the Community,’ came out in the spring of 1839, and its third edition was issued in the next year. Its object was to show that the duty on corn did not benefit the agricultural interest any more than that of the manufacturers. The argument was clearly threshed out, and he followed it up by frequent speeches in the same sense. His reasoning had considerable influence over the mind of Cobden, and, by removing from the agitation the stigma that its object was to promote the interests of one class at the expense of another, had much effect on the success of the anti-cornlaw movement.

In the second of these pamphlets, that on the ‘Fluctuations of Currency, Commerce, and Manufactures’ (1840), Wilson traced their rise and fall to the artificial operation of the corn laws. The third of them, ‘The Revenue, or what shall the Chancellor do?’ 1841, was all but written in a ‘single night,’ and it contained an outline of the changes subsequently introduced by Sir Robert Peel and his follower in finance, Gladstone. He urged the increase of direct taxation through the medium of the assessed taxes and the reduction of the tariff regulating the custom and excise duties, as these had largely diminished in yield from the decreased resources of the mass of the people. He showed in detail how the consumption of coffee and sugar had been augmented by the diminution of the duties thereon.

Wilson about 1843 wrote the city article and occasional leaders for the ‘Morning Chronicle.’ For several years he contributed letters and articles to the ‘Examiner,’ and he was desirous of increasing his papers in its columns, but the space was denied him. He thereupon, after consultation with Cobden and Villiers, as the spokesmen of the Anti-Cornlaw League (Morley, Cobden, i. 291–2), determined on establishing a weekly paper for financial and commercial men. He invested in it most of his capital and obtained some help from Lord Radnor, an ardent free-trader. ‘The Economist,’ which appeared for the first time on 2 Sept. 1843, at once became a recognised power in the newspaper world, and has maintained its position ever since. It advocated the repeal of the corn laws, and strenuously upheld the principles of free trade. In the early stages of its existence Wilson wrote nearly the whole of the paper. It was as a practical man, writing for those engaged in the daily routine of business life, that he primarily expounded his views, but the effect of his opinions was not limited to any single section in society. Under the title of ‘Capital Currency and Banking’ he published in 1847 a volume containing ‘his articles in “The Economist” in 1845 on the Bank Act of 1844, and in 1847 on the crisis. With a plan for a secure and economical currency.’ A second edition came out in 1859; it was issued in 1857 in the ‘Biblioteca dell' Economista’ (2nd ser. vi. 455–662); and a translation was published at Rio de Janeiro in 1860. It embodied his criticisms on the currency acts of Peel, with an analysis of the panic of 1847 and of the railway mania which preceded it. He was a strenuous advocate for the sure convertibility of the banknote, but ‘opposed to the technical restrictions of the act of 1844.’ He also advocated the repeal of the navigation laws, regarding them as ‘restrictions on our commerce.’ A pamphlet by him on the ‘Cause of the present Commercial Distress, and its Bearings on Shipowners,’ was printed at Liverpool in 1843, and he printed in 1849 a speech on ‘The Navigation Laws.’

A chance conversation at Lord Radnor's table induced Wilson to become a candidate for parliament at the general election of 1847 for the borough of Westbury in Wiltshire. He was returned by 170 votes against 149 given to his tory opponent, Matthew James Higgins [q. v.], well known as ‘Jacob Omnium.’ He was re-elected in 1852, when he won by six votes only. From 1857 until his departure for India he represented Devonport. Wilson's first speech in parliament was on the motion for a committee to inquire into the commercial depression which then existed, and he soon obtained considerable influence as a speaker. Within six months of the date on which he took his seat office was offered to him, and from 16 May 1848 to the dissolution of Lord John Russell's ministry he was one of the joint secretaries to the board of control.

On the formation of the Aberdeen ministry Wilson was offered the important post of financial secretary to the treasury, and he remained in this place, dealing ably with the vexed questions daily referred to the holder of that position, from January 1853 until the defeat of Lord Palmerston's administration in 1858. During his tenure of this office he was offered, but declined, first the vice-presidency of the board of trade in 1855, secondly the chairmanship of inland revenue in 1856. This was ‘a good pillow,’ he said, ‘but he did not wish to lie down.’

Lord Palmerston returned to power in June 1859, when Wilson accepted the vice-presidency of the board of trade, coupled with that of paymaster-general, and was created a privy councillor. He had scarcely been seated in office when he was offered the post of financial member of the council of India, which had just been created. He hesitated about accepting it, for he appreciated his influence in the House of Commons, recognised the ‘gigantic difficulties’ which awaited him in India, and was not tempted by the high salary, as through the success of his paper, aided by some prudent investments, he was possessed of affluence. On public grounds, however, he determined upon going thither, and on 20 Oct. 1859 he left England for his new position. Through a ‘fortunate accident’ he visited immediately after his arrival the upper provinces of Hindustan. He travelled from Calcutta to Lahore, and back again, visiting every city and town of importance within that area, and returned much impressed with the undeveloped resources of the country. The principles of his budget were explained by him on 18 Feb. 1860. He found himself face to face with a great deficiency of revenue and an enormous increase in public debt. He proposed certain increased import duties with a tax on home-grown tobacco, a small and uniform license duty upon traders of every class, and the imposition of an income-tax on all incomes above 200 rupees a year, but with a reduction for those not exceeding 500 rupees per annum. These propositions met with considerable opposition, mainly through the action of Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan [q. v.], but that official was promptly recalled. Wilson's budget and Trevelyan's recall excited much criticism in England.

Wilson's next act was to establish a paper currency. He set up at Calcutta a government commission charged with the functions exercised in this country by the issue department of the Bank of England. Branch establishments were erected at Madras and Bombay, and the three presidencies were divided for the issue and redemption of notes into convenient districts called currency circles. The notes were to be for 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, or 1,000 rupees, and they were to be redeemable with silver. Wilson then commenced a reformation of the system of public accounts. He it was ‘that first evoked order out of the chaos of Indian finance, and rendered it possible for the future to regulate the outlay by the income.’

For some time after his arrival in India Wilson remained in good health, but with the advent of wet weather his physical strength declined. Under the pressure of work he neglected his condition, but about the middle of July 1860 he went for a week's change to Barrackpore. He returned to labour with only a slight improvement in his state. The dysentery increased, on 2 Aug. he took to his bed, and on the evening of 11 Aug. he was dead. Mourning for his loss was universal in Calcutta; he was buried in the Circular Road cemetery, where a monument was erected to his memory. His widow died in London in 1886, and was buried in the churchyard of Curry Rivel, Somerset. They had six daughters: the eldest, Elizabeth, married Walter Bagehot [q. v.]; the next, Julia, was the second wife of William Rathbone Greg [q. v.]; the fourth daughter, Zenobia, married Mr. Orby Shipley; the fifth, Sophia Victoria, married Mr. Stirling Halsey of the Indian civil service, private secretary to his father-in-law until his death.

Wilson was very active in his temperament, fertile in ideas, and lucid in exposition. To the last hour of his life he was of a sanguine disposition. His memory was marvellous, his judgment was remarkably even, and an iron constitution enabled him to accomplish a vast amount of work. In society his vivacity of conversation was always conspicuous. He was a foreign associate of the Institute of France.

A full-length statue of Wilson, by Steele of Edinburgh, the cost of which was defrayed by the mercantile community of the city, is in the Dalhousie Institute at Calcutta. A marble bust, by the same sculptor, is in the National Gallery of Edinburgh; it was placed there by the Royal Academy of Scotland, in recognition of his services in obtaining a grant from the treasury for the erection of the buildings in its occupation. That body presented Mrs. Wilson in 1859 with a portrait of him by Sir John Watson Gordon. It is now in Mrs. Bagehot's possession; a copy of it was given by Wilson's children to the gallery of local worthies in Hawick town-hall. A pen-and-ink sketch by Richard Doyle of Wilson, together with Sir William Molesworth, is in the print-room at the British Museum. They are both drawn with flowing hair, and underneath are the words: ‘Is that your own hair, or is it a whig?’ He is also represented in J. R. Herbert's picture of the leading members of the Anti-Cornlaw League.

[Economist, supplement by Walter Bagehot to number for 17 Nov. 1860; it was reprinted as a separate publication in 1861, and included in his Literary Studies (1879), i. 367–406 (1898 edit.), iii. 304–57; Gent. Mag. 1860, ii. 432; Vapereau, 1858 ed.; Encyclop. Brit. 8th ed., also by Mr. Bagehot; information from Mrs. Walter Bagehot of Herds Hill, Langport, Somerset.]

W. P. C.