Political economy

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 Jeffrey’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 Jeffrey’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 Jeffrey 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).


To Francis Horner (9 April 1802)

Dear Horner,

I have been cutting at my quill for these five minutes, pondering with the most intense stupidity what apology I should make for not having written to you before. The truth is, though it is anything but an apology, that I have written none of my reviews yet, and that I was afraid to tell you so. I began to Mounier, however this morning; and feel the intrepidity of conscious virtue so strong in me already, that I can sit down and confess all my enormities to you. I must first tell you about the Review, though, that you may be satisfied that it holds the first place in my affection. We are in a miserable state of backwardness, you must know, and have been giving some symptoms of despondency; [end p.248] various measures have been tried, at least, against the earliness of our intended day of publication; and hints have been given of a delay, that I am quite afraid would prove fatal. Something is done, however; and a good deal, I hope, is doing. Smith has gone through more than half his task. So has Hamilton. Allen has made some progress: and Murray and myself, I believe, have studies our parts, and tuned our instruments, and are almost ready to begin. On the other hand, Thomson is sick: Brown has engaged for nothing but Miss Baillie’s plays; and Timothy has engaged for nothing, but professed it to be his opinion, the other day, that he would never put pen to paper in our cause. Brougham must have a sentence to himself; and I am afraid you will not think it a pleasant one. You remember how cheerfully he approved of our plan at first, and agreed to dive us an article or two without hesitation. Three or four days ago, I proposed two or three books that I thought would suit him: he answered with perfect good-humour that he had changed his view of our plan a little, and rather thought that he should decline to have any connection with it.

I forget to tell you that I ran away for three days to the Circuit at Glasgow, where I recruited Birkbeck, and Lockhart Muirhead, and my friend Dr. Brown for our review. They are all so lately enrolled, however, that I doubt if we can expect any active service from them for our first number. Birkbeck talks of going to France in the summer; and Brown I am afraid will have but little time to spare from his patients and his botany. We are most in want of a German reviewer at present; without that language it would be ridiculous to pretend that we are to give a passable account of Continental literature: and now I am sick of this subject, and if Murray has sent you his chapter on the Prospectus, I think you will be completely master of it.

“I am a little curious” to hear more what you have been doing, and what impressions have been made upon you by the things you have seen and heard. Upon the whole, I hope you will be wearied of London by the end of this month, and will return to us with the good resolution of remaining. I cannot find out, either, whether you are to have any thing to do in the House of Lords, and beg you would tell me as much of all these things as you think proper. For my part, I have no sort of news to repay you with. Brougham is going on diligently with his book. I have good hopes of it now, for he says it will not be ready for publication for two years at least to come.

This vernal weather is so extremely cold, that I cannot afford to sit still any longer. As soon as it grows warm, I engage to write you a more entertaining and more legible letter; on condition, however, that you take an idle morning to send me a large sheetful of London intelligence.

Believe me always, dear Horner,

Very faithfully yours,


Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850), or Lord Jeffrey


FRANCIS JEFFREY was born in Edinburgh on 23 October 1773 to the humourless and conservative George Jeffrey, Depute Clerk in the Court of Session (Scotland’s highest court), and his more lively and affectionate wife, Henrietta (née Louden), of a Lanarkshire farming family, who would die when Jeffrey was only twelve. Of small stature and with little interest in sports, Jeffrey excelled academically, first at the Edinburgh High School, then (from age 14 to 17) at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. After an unhappy year at Oxford in 1791-2, Jeffrey completed his legal studies in Edinburgh before being admitted advocate at the Scottish bar in December 1794. His friend and biographer, Henry Cockburn, writes eloquently and at length of the bias and obstruction facing liberal Whigs in the increasingly conservative 1790s under the ‘reign’ of the Tory Henry Dundas, Scotland’s political manager. Like many of his Whig friends, Jeffrey was refused official positions in Edinburgh’s legal institutions and found briefs difficult to come by, and began to establish a reputation as an advocate only by occasional pleading in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

In November 1801, Jeffrey would add to his responsibilities by marrying his second cousin, Catherine Wilson, daughter of the Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of St Andrew’s. Jeffrey and Catherine lost a son at only one month in September 1802, and Catherine herself died in August 1805 – events which, with the early loss of his beloved mother and sudden loss of her equally beloved surrogate, his sister Mary, in 1804, exacerbated a natural pessimism and induced in him a markedly fatalistic attitude to life that sometimes colours his social and political thinking. At the very least it explains why, when Jeffrey crossed the Atlantic in 1813 to marry his second wife, Charlotte Wilkes (another second cousin and great niece of the notorious John Wilkes) and they had a daughter (another Charlotte), the three became inseparable, with Charlotte and Charly accompanying him wherever he went – and this in defiance of Jeffrey’s reputation in society for harmless gallantry.

Jeffrey was eventually able to overcome political resistance to his advancement in the legal profession and would go on to become one of Scotland’s leading advocates, at the height of his powers in the years following the Battle of Waterloo when economic hardship led to industrial unrest and he became the (often successful) council to activists who fell foul of the state’s repression of political dissidence. Until his voice gave out in the mid to late 1820s, and in spite of a hybrid accent adopted as an eighteen-year-old living in England, Jeffrey was one of the greatest speakers of his age, his court pleading an Edinburgh tourist attraction. In July 1829, he was elected Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, giving the conflict of interest that would be created by his accepting this non-political legal appointment as his reason for handing over the editorship of the Edinburgh. From that moment, his life became a public and political one. Created Lord Advocate of Scotland when the Whigs won power late in 1830, Jeffrey was obliged to seek election to a seat in parliament and from there would be responsible for the Scottish Reform Bill, which in 1832 increased the franchise to fourteen times its original size (from 4,500 to 65,000). In 1834, having been elected MP for Edinburgh in the newly reformed parliament, he resigned his seat to take up a position on the bench in the Court of Session, held until his death on 26 January 1850.


Edinburgh Reviewer and Editor

Disappointed in his profession, Jeffrey’s thoughts had turned to writing – to creative writing (poetry) and to critical commentary. Throughout the 1790s, though with no specific end or vocation in mind, he continued the self-improvement mandated by his Enlightened teachers by attending university lectures in a variety of disciplines, becoming a regular and vocal member of Edinburgh’s Speculative Society (an agonistic intellectual debating society over which he presided for four years), reading extensively, and writing exhaustive critical notes on everything he read. In retrospect, it proved the perfect apprenticeship for the reviewing that would occupy his out-of-court moments for nearly thirty years. On initiating the Edinburgh Review in October 1802 with Sydney Smith and fellow lawyers Francis Horner and John Archibald Murray, Jeffrey immediately became (with Henry Brougham) its most prolific contributor, with the bulk of his substantial contribution (230 articles which amounted to 15% to 40% of each number) in original literature and literary history, travel writing, biography, cultural history and geography, philosophy, education, politics, and politics.

As an editor, when he took over from the third number, he was disorganized: always generous but never careful in his accounting, and sometimes forced to rely on contributors to tell him how much he owed them; often scrambling around for contributors and obliged to fill the vacuum with writings of his own; rarely meeting his own deadlines (though only occasionally seriously delinquent). But Jeffrey read, corrected, thought, and wrote scrupulously and well at an incredibly high speed, often writing and editing into the early hours. Though Brougham (on whom he was reliant) seems to have been allowed to impose on him, the Edinburgh remained very much his own throughout the years of his editorship, when the Edinburgh’s popularity and influence remained impressively consistent. The policies generally true of the Review were all specifically true of its editor, and the sheer quantity of his and Brougham’s contributions had a centripetal effect. On top of this, not only did Jeffrey often more or less subtly let a contributor know what approach and summary judgment he had in mind when commissioning a review, but most reviews were modified editorially after their composition. Sometimes these modifications were extensive, sometimes only slight, but nothing escaped Jeffrey’s surveillance. When in May of 1807 it looked like the Review would have to begin again under another name to circumvent a legal battle between Longman and Murray over the London publication rights, Horner reminded Jeffrey of something the other contributors had also repeatedly confirmed: ‘it is the stamp of your own hand that gives the work all its character’. The title Edinburgh Review remained, but by 1815 Horner was calling it ‘Jeffrey’s Review’.