as it was clarified in the mid-18th century by Adam Smith and David Hume, was the systematic study of the structures of wealth, markets, and finance, especially as they informed individual interactions, social arrangements, governmental power, and international relations. For the Edinburgh, the dissemination of knowledge about economics and its political ramifications was one of its crucial missions.
DURING the early years of the 19th century, political economy had theoretical and applied aspects which transformed both legal and economic practices in the century following Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). The causes and effects of inflation and national debt; the relationship between the economic aid, in the form of relief to the poor, and population increase (often called the Malthusian controversy); the legal structuring of loans, annuities, taxation, and insurance; and the development of infrastructures of consumer purchasing such as stores and restaurants in crowded cities, and the concomitant rise in elaborate advertisements and theories of desire represent only some of the more salient aspects of economics during the romantic period, which Karl Polanyi identified as the ‘Great Transformation’ when land, money, and labor were reconstituted as commodities. Throughout’s time as editor of the Edinburgh Review, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations remained the touchstone text for Political Economy, but its implications were established not only by the text itself, but by the pamphlets, articles, and books that sought to clarify, modify, and extend it; on any given issue, Smith would be generally adduced by both proponent and opponent as an authority. In an 1820 review on the Evils of Public Ignorance’, the Edinburgh laments the misapplication of ‘laissez faire’ policies: ‘how many people have we heard thus disposing of all nice matters of national polity by crying out, “Adam Smith”’ (ER 34:222).
The Edinburgh understood the dissemination of economic knowledge as among its crucial missions, and further understood the dissemination of knowledge generally as deeply implicated in the production of national wealth and personal well-being. It recognized a dynamic loop between the belief in economic laws and the success of those laws. Thus, by circulating knowledge about economics, the Edinburgh increased the efficacy of its practical effects. Francis Horner, who eventually headed the committee that produced the Bullion Report (1810), realized that ‘knowledge may be considered in the light of a commodity, prepared by a separate profession, and consumed or enjoyed by the community as a luxury’ (Horner 1:96), and, as Jerome Christensen has observed, the Edinburgh ‘commodifies Horner’s epiphany’ and ‘aims to be the medium of exchange’ in the market Horner contemplates (116). Thus, the extension of economic knowledge was implicated in the construction of a market for knowledge itself. In its first issue, the Edinburgh acknowledged the ‘General Diffusion of Knowledge’ as ‘one great cause of the Prosperity of North Britain’ (ER, 1:92) and declared that the knowledge derived from economic disasters such as the South Seas Bubble partially compensated for that disaster.
From the founding of the Edinburgh until’s retirement as editor, more than 180 articles use the phrase ‘political economy’ – four in the first issue, of which three are written by Francis Horner. Horner reviewed Thornton’s book on paper credit in this first issue, John Ramsey McCulloch reviewed Ricardo on Political Economy and Taxation in 1818, and Richard Whately reviewed N.W. Senior’s Introductory Lectures on Political Economy in one of the final issues oversaw. The Edinburgh devoted considerable attention to the behavior of money within markets, and the various ways regulation could manipulate that behavior (see currency and finance). Discussing Senior’s Introductory Lectures, the Edinburgh acknowledges that there ‘are so many crude and mischievous theories afloat, which are dignified with the name of Political Economy, that the science is in no small danger of falling into disrepute’ (ER, 45:170). Under Jeffrey’s guidance, the Edinburgh saw that the way in which political economy was understood was integral to the way in which political economics would function, and that the reliance of markets on bad economic assumptions could have catastrophic results.
The Edinburgh contained two kinds of economic articles. First, there were those that specifically engaged economic theories, and these tended to emphasize monetary policy and the relations of markets, capital, wages, and consumption. Second, there were those articles that explored the specific conditions in which economics figured – considering the effects of a reduction of the duties on wine (July 1824) and coffee (January 1825), for example, and attending to the consequences of foreign trade on English wages. There were reviews of practical matters such as forgery and pauperism, but in these considerations, the reviewers sought to ground their reasoning in both statistical or historical knowledge and a theory of markets that implied a qualified notion of human rationality.
McCulloch, whose first review for the Edinburgh was on Ricardo’s Principle of Political Economy in 1818, became the Review’s primary economic theorist through the 1820s. He published reviews that espoused a hybrid political economy between Ricardo’s insistence on the comparative advantages of individual specialisation and relatively free trade among nations, on the one hand, and, on the other, the earlier position along ‘the lines of Smith’s cost-of-production approach’ (Fontana 76). Thomas Malthus, Jeffrey’s friend and an occasional contributor to the Edinburgh, wrote to a friend in 1821 that the Review ‘has so entirely adopted Mr. Ricardo’s system of Political Economy that it is probably neither you nor I shall be mentioned in it’ (quoted in Fetter 239). Although Malthus was exaggerating and many of the frequent references to him in the 1820s are laudatory, McCulloch was critical of a number of his positions, such as that on the way the accumulation of capital affects buying power and wages (Mar 1824). Although attentive to Malthus’s principle of population, the Edinburgh instituted into economics its theory of genius, noting that no ‘possible limits can be assigned to the powers and resources of genius, nor consequently to the improvement of machinery, and of the skill and industry of the labourer’ (ER 41:13). Thus a notion of intellectual progress, which the Edinburgh took as its own primary social function, was grafted onto Ricardo’s economics, to create a mechanism (or at least its illusion) of inevitable progress.
Mark Schoenfield, Vanderbilt University
Christensen, Jerome, Romanticism at the End of History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
Horner, Francis Memoirs and Correspondence of Francis Horner, M. P. 1843. Ed. Leonard Horner. 2 vols, (London: Murray, 1853).
Fetter, FW, “The Authorship of Economic Articles in the Edinburgh Review, 1802-47” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 61.3:(Jun., 1953) 232-259.
Fontana, Biancamaria. Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society: The Edinburgh Review, 1802–1832 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).