Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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RICARDO, David. David Ricardo, one of the most celebrated English economists of this century, was born in London in 1772, and died at Gatcom Park, in the county of Gloucester, Sept. 11, 1823. His family is said to have come originally from Lisbon; it is certain that his father, a Dutch Jew, came to England, where he acquired an honorable position by his ability and integrity, at the same time that he made a fortune in financial business and business on 'Change. David Ricardo received a commercial education at a school in Holland, where he remained two years, and, at the age of fourteen, he was placed in his father's office in London. He soon showed, in this struggle with the chances of financial life, a cool and sound judgment, penetrating sagacity, and great skill in calculating mentally the advantages of an operation, in disentangling difficult transactions, and in reaching an exact solution in spite of the most complicated details.


—Business did not wholly absorb him, however, and his mind was preoccupied, on the one hand, with the social and economical questions raised by the situation of Europe in general and his own country in particular, and also by religious questions on the other. His reflections on these last decided him to change his religion, and to join the church of England, in spite of the formal disapprobation of his family and his father, toward whom, however, he never forgot his duty as a respectful son. This event rendered a separation inevitable, and young David Ricardo was obliged to consider how to make his fortune alone. But as he had already given proof of a remarkable aptitude for business, support, means and encouragement were not lacking, and he was able to take a share in very lucrative operations.


—At the age of twenty-five he was rich, and had married Miss Wilkinson. His lot decided, and being no longer absorbed by the cares of fortune, he, like Lavoisier, divided his time into two parts: one for business, the other for scientific studies, toward which an inborn inclination had long drawn him. He resumed the study of mathematics and of the natural sciences, devoting himself especially to chemical research. He was one of the first to introduce gas burners into one of his residences. At the same time he took great pleasure in reading the chefs-d'-œuvre of literature, and Fonteyrand heard it related in his family that he plunged with infinite delight into the reading of Shakespeare.


—But he was still more strongly attracted toward political economy, after he had read, as he himself relates, the immortal work of Adam Smith, with which he had first become acquainted in 1799, at Bath, to which place he had accompanied Mrs. Ricardo, whose health had become impaired. Thus it was that, by the nature of his business and the bent of his mind, he was preparing himself theoretically and practically for the financial and economical struggles in which he played so great a part during the last years of his life.


—Ricardo made his first appearance as a writer and economist in 1810, at the age of thirty-eight years, by the publication of his pamphlet, entitled, "The high price of Bullion a proof of the depreciation of Bank Notes." This pamphlet made a great sensation, because it revealed the true cause of the decline of the English exchange and of the depreciation of bank notes. Ricardo demonstrated that the increase in prices which merchandise of all kinds had undergone was not, as was generally supposed, attributable to the wars, but rather to the depreciation of paper money. The ministry did not want to believe in this depreciation. A bullion committee was appointed by parliament, and Mr. Horner, who made the report, admitted that Ricardo's demonstration was unanswerable, and he proved by the Hamburg exchange that the value of paper was only 25 per cent. that of specie. This was the opinion of Huskisson, Canning and Henry Thornton; but the house of commons made, nevertheless, on the motion of Mr. Vansittart, chancellor of the exchequer, the singular declaration that paper had not undergone any depreciation! At the head of the opponents of the ideas and measures contained in the treatise of Ricardo, and the report of the committee of the house of commons, was Mr. Bosanquet, who maintained his opinion in a pamphlet which provoked a reply from Ricardo, in the course of this same year (1810).


—The next publication of Ricardo was in 1815, at the time when the famous bill relative to the exportation of foreign grain, so often afterward modified and finally withdrawn, on the motion of Sir Robert Peel and by the efforts of the free trade league, was being discussed. In it Ricardo maintained the principles of commercial liberty, and foreshadowed the theory of rent, with which his name is identified. The year following, he published another tract on monetary circulation, and proposed, that, in order to keep paper on the same level as gold and to render it inconvertible, bank notes should be exchanged for ingots or pieces of bullion of the standard weight and measure.


—Ricardo retired from business shortly after the peace of 1815, and applied himself to study with renewed ardor. In 1816 he arranged his ideas on economy and finance in their proper relation to each other in his "Principles of Political Economy and Taxation." It is to be remarked, that, in his preface to this book, he is far from claiming as his own the theory of rent. He declares, "that the true doctrine of rent was published simultaneously by Malthus, in a pamphlet, entitled, 'An Enquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent,' and by a member of the university of Oxford (Dr. West), in an 'Essay upon the Application of Capital to Land'; that without a profound knowledge of this doctrine it is impossible to conceive of the effect of taxation upon the different classes of society, especially when the things taxed are the direct products of the soil; that Adam Smith and other distinguished writers, not having considered the principle of rent correctly, they had neglected many important truths, the knowledge of which can be acquired only after having thoroughly fathomed the nature of rent." Mr. M'Culloch ("Principles of Political Economy," London, 1843), afterward saw that the first idea of this theory was to be met with in a pamphlet published forty years previous, in 1777, by an Englishman, Dr. James Anderson ("An Enquiry into the Corn Laws"), which seems to have escaped the notice of Adam Smith, and which was undoubtedly unknown to Malthus, West and Ricardo. Be that as it may, we are inclined, together with M'Culloch, Senior, Rossi, and others, to accord to Ricardo the honor of the complete demonstration of this theory, imperfectly seen by Adam Smith, treated of in part by James Anderson in 1777, treated anew and more fully in 1815, in the two simultaneous pamphlets of Malthus and West, and finally expounded with wonderful clearness by Rossi in his Cours d' Economie politique. (See RENT.)*88


—Thanks to these remarkable publications, to his skin in business, and to a large fortune, which was stated to be twelve millions; thanks also to the independence of his mind and character, Ricardo occupied an important position in his country. In 1818 he was returned to parliament by the electors of Portarlington. Two of his letters testify to his extreme distrust of his own strength. "You have seen," he wrote, April 7, 1814, to one of his friends, "that I have a seat in the house of commons. I fear that I shall not be of much use there. I have twice attempted to speak, but in the most embarrassed manner, and have scarcely any hope of being able to overcome the fright which takes possession of me when I hear my own voice." "I thank you," said he, in another letter, dated June 22, 1814, "for the efforts which you have made to inspire me with a little courage. The indulgence of the house has lessened for me the difficulty of speaking, but I still see so many and such terrible obstacles, that I fear much that it would be wiser to confine myself to silent votes." Everything shows that he was too harsh toward himself in this judgment. This is how Lord Brougham expressed himself with regard to it. "Ricardo's language had a remarkable stamp of distinction, his style was clear, simple, correct, and its woof was enriched with facts and valuable documents. He practiced abstention in questions which had not been the object of his long meditation, and, when he spoke on events and laws concerning the church or of politics in general, he seemed to be acting in obedience to the inveterate frankness of his nature and the indomitable freedom of his spirit. Hence it was that few men ever exercised such real effect on parliament; few men have commanded such lively attention, and as he had neither captivating inspirations nor graceful speech, with which to charm his auditors, this influence may be regarded as the triumph of reason, of integrity, of ability. Besides, he commanded the respect of all parties, even the ministerial, against which he was constantly fighting; but he would not submit to the yoke of any coterie, voting with the opposition, the radicals, or the cabinet, from judgment and not from tactics or ambition. Although he owed part of his fortune to the negotiation of government loans, he more than once combated from the tribune that ruinous practice of governments in general and of the then existing English government in particular."


—Such was the man as a politician. As a scholar he was no less calm, no less independent. During twenty years he debated with Malthus, with Mill, and with J. B. Say, without the antagonism of ideas impairing the friendship which existed between his illustrious opponents and himself. In private life, Ricardo's character was at once firm, mild, simple and amiable; he was an indulgent father, a kind husband, a devoted friend. He particularly liked to collect about him men of talent, and to converse freely on all subjects, but principally on those which were connected with his favorite science. A most pleasant memory of him is preserved by the club of political economy of London, one of the founders of which he was, and at Paris, in the circle which J. B. Say and his amiable consort gathered together once a week. It is also said that his generosity kept pace with his ability: nearly all the charitable institutions of London counted him in the number of their patrons, and he maintained at his own expense an alms-house and two schools in the neighborhood of his residence in the county of Gloucester. James Stuart Mill has said of him: "His history offers a most encouraging example; he had everything to do, and he performed well his task. Let the young mind which longs to spring beyond the sphere in which it has been placed not despair, in view of his great career, of attaining to the highest place in science or in politics. Ricardo had to make his fortune, to form his mind and even to begin his education, without any guide but his penetrating sagacity, without any encouragement but his energetic will, and it is thus that, while making an immense fortune, he broadened his judgment and endowed his mind with a strength which has never been surpassed."


—Without being robust, Ricardo was gifted with a constitution which seemed to promise him a longer career. But he had for several years a pain in his ear to which he did not pay much attention, and which assumed a very alarming character, in September, 1823, after his return to Gatcom Park at the close of the session. The rupture of an abscess at first afforded him some relief, but inflammation set in again, the brain was attacked, and he died on the 11th of September,*89 after two days of great suffering. He was but fifty-one years old.


Notes for this chapter

Ricardo has been the subject of many different judgments. Some (Rossi and J. S. Mill being of this number) regarded him as the first of economists, after Adam Smith; others place him in the second rank; the truth probably lying between the two extremes. As a thinker, Ricardo appears to as superior, original and profound; as a writer, he sometimes obscures his thought by abstract formulas, the strictness of which is only apparent, though we do not wish to say that he is in error when he is obscure. He employs short sentences when enunciating propositions introduced by hypotheses and followed by explanations.
The date given by M'Culloch and Fonteyrand. The "Universal Biography" says the 11th of August of the same year, but M'Culloch and Fonteyrand must have known best.


End of Notes

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