Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. JAMES DEACON HUME. 1 ( From The Saturday Review, 7 th May, 1859.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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MR. JAMES DEACON HUME. 1 ( From “ The Saturday Review, ” 7 th May, 1859.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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MR. JAMES DEACON HUME.1
This is a book which should either not have been written at all, or have been written by someone else. The life of Mr. James Deacon Hume might have been made both interesting and instructive by a biographer acquainted with the history of the science of political economy during the present century, and with the details of our commercial legislation during the same period. But it is of little interest in the hands of any other person. The career of Mr. Hume had no marked singularity or striking events. It is the straightforward progress of a straightforward man of business. Mr. Badham’s style is entirely unsuited to this sort of biography. It is unmethodical, pompous, and ambitious of needless ornament. To the scientific or the official knowledge which would have made his work of real value, he does not seem to pretend; and he has attempted to give a factitious interest to his subject by accounts of things and persons with which Mr. Hume was very slightly connected.
One of the peculiarities of active life in England of late years has been the number of men of business who have taken an interest in abstract political economy, and who have written valuable works upon it. For many years merely theoretical writers on this science have done very little to advance its progress, and that little has not been very important. But this defect has been amply supplied by the valuable labours of many practical men. There is, indeed, nothing singular in the fact that men of business should take an interest in the theory of business—we should be surprised if it were otherwise. Nevertheless, the great excellence of works of this kind is a peculiarity of recent time. But very few such works of any great value are known, even by those most curious in such matters, to have appeared before the publication of the Wealth of Nations. The reason seems to be, that Adam Smith removed out of the path of succeeding inquirers most of the more obvious fallacies, most of the errors of first impression which perplex the subject, and established its fundamental principles on a firm though rather vague basis. Men of business would not have been themselves equal to this preliminary task. A priori, it would seem to need a more general philosophic training than they have at present; and more of leisure than it can be expected that they will ever have. In fact, before the time of Adam Smith, the minds of men of business were generally clouded by the errors of what is called the “mercantile system”—which is but an attempt, more or less successful, to express in a scientific form certain prejudices natural to the money market. From the time that practical men were started in a right direction they have made great progress—far greater than that of any scientific writers—but they want the general views and calm reflectiveness necessary at the earliest stage. At that point an acquaintance with detail is scarcely an assistance—a little remoteness from it is even an advantage.
Mr. J. D. Hume belonged precisely to the class of persons of whom we have been speaking. He was a scientific economist and a practical man of business, and he distinguished himself in both pursuits. His position was very favourable for a combination of the two. His father, whose merits as a man of business appear to have attracted the notice of Mr. Pitt, was Secretary to the Board of Customs, and he himself entered the Custom House at sixteen. In early life he seems to have been most remarkable for bodily energy. He had been at a public school, and benefited at least by that portion of its training. His fondness for hunting must have been remarkable. “Upon one occasion,” we are told, “in the depth of winter, being disappointed of the horse which was to take him to the place where the hounds met, he rose between three and four o’clock in the morning and walked in his top-boots a distance of twenty-three miles into Hertfordshire; and in the evening he offered for a trifling wager to walk back again to London.” Of his official career his biographer tells us little, and that little is not very intelligible. We ought to have had, in such a biography as this, a clear account of Mr. Hume’s official career; but Mr. Badham evidently thinks this portion of his duties beneath him. He gives us instead quotations from Mr. Burke and other eminent writers, which very seldom have any tendency to elucidate his subject. We have, however, some account of Mr. Hume’s introduction to the statesman of that time who was most likely to appreciate his powers of usefulness. “Mr. Hume’s situation,” which, if we rightly understand his biographer, was at the time that of the Controller of the Customs, “often imposed upon him the duty of writing reports upon subjects connected therewith for the use of the Commissioners. One of these papers had been forwarded to Mr. Huskisson, and related to a subject upon which he happened to be seeking information. Struck probably by the document, he begged to see the individual who had written it; and he, of course, had not long conversed with Mr. Hume before he perceived his worth, how much he had reflected upon, and how thoroughly versed he was in every branch of political economy.”
The great work to which Mr. Hume owed his reputation as a man of business was his consolidation of a large portion of the Customs Law. An enormous number of statutes—Mr. Badham says fifteen hundred—then regulated that portion of our administration. Each Act had been passed with reference only to its special object, and the confusion and complexity which might have been expected seem to have ensued. In 1822, Mr. Hume undertook to consolidate a large part of these Acts into a moderate compass. The success of his attempt has been vouched for by many very competent judges. Sir James Stephen, in the volume before us, has pronounced the following characteristic eulogium on it: “Mr. Deacon Hume and I were, during several years, contemporary members of the Board of Trade. But as counsel to that Board I had nothing to do with his great work, the consolidation of the laws of the Customs. He wrote every word of the code, which ought to have borne his name, locked up day and night, as he often told me, in lodgings which he took for the purpose in Westminster, where even his wife and children were scarcely ever admitted. After a self-imprisonment of many months in that cell, he came out of it with a manuscript, which, when printed, filled a small octavo volume, and which might have been compressed into a pocket duodecimo. It contained all the kernel of that branch of the law which, till then, had been spread over the whole of the statutes at large, or printed collectively in the form of a quarto, containing as much letter-press as any two volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Mr. Hume’s digest was passed into law by Parliament, as he told me, without the change of a word; and I do not believe that among all the Acts in the Statute Book any could be mentioned which so completely exhausted, and so luminously arranged, so vast a subject within so very narrow a compass of words.” And Mr. Huskisson, in the House of Commons, gave a still higher testimony to the value of the work:—
“The task (of consolidating the Customs laws) was of great magnitude, but we did not shrink from it. I am free to admit that we never could have succeeded in our undertaking without the assistance of a gentleman in the service of the Customs, a gentleman of the most unwearied diligence, and who is entitled, for his persevering exertions, and the benefits he has conferred on the commercial world, to the lasting gratitude of the country. In the performance of this duty we had innumerable difficulties to encounter, and battles without end to fight. And now, sir, in one little volume which I hold in my hand, are comprised all the laws at present in existence on the subject of the management and the revenue of the Customs, of navigation, of smuggling, of warehousing, and of our colonial trade, compressed in so clear and yet so comprehensive a manner, that no man can possibly mistake the meaning or the application. . . . Mr. Hume’s volume is the perfection of codification.”
The important task was completed in 1826, and two years afterwards Mr. Hume was removed from the Customs to the Board of Trade, of which he was one of the Secretaries, till his retirement from the public service in 1840. During that period he was undoubtedly a most efficient man of business, but he had no opportunity of doing anything which would be likely to be remembered very long. An administrative reputation is, from the nature of it, very temporary.
Mr. Hume’s claim to a posthumous fame rests on his writings as a political economist, of which the most remarkable are a series of letters published under the signature of H. B. T. in the Morning Chronicle in 1834, and which Mr. Badham has very properly reprinted. Pamphlets on political economy are not often of enduring reputation, but these letters deserve a place in economical history, as among the earliest expositions of two remarkable theories on two important subjects. The first is that of Free Trade. Mr. Deacon Hume was a Freetrader, and almost the earliest Free-trader of what may be called the Anti-Corn-Law League school. The general maxims of commercial freedom have been stereotyped commonplaces from Adam Smith’s time downwards. Educated men have for many years more or less acquiesced in them. But it was considered by the majority of Englishmen, not excepting many eminent political economists, that there were economical circumstances which rendered it very unwise to apply them to many parts of English commerce, and especially to the corn-trade. It was to this last point especially that Mr. Hume endeavoured to draw public attention in the letters we have mentioned. The received notion, even among Free-traders, then was, that there were peculiar burdens affecting English agriculture which rendered it impossible for it, under a system of free trade, to compete even in the English market with foreign agriculture, and that a protective duty on the importation of foreign corn would countervail those peculiar disadvantages, and enable it successfully to compete with them. Mr. Hume was among the first to deny both these assumptions. He maintained that there were no important burdens affecting the English farmer which did not press with equal weight on all other capitalists in this country, or which could give him a claim to protection at the expense of other capitalists. He also denied that the price of corn was higher under the protective system than it would be under one of entire free trade, and that, therefore, it was an error so to speak of the existing duties as a satisfactory compensation to the farmers for their peculiar burdens. He strongly maintained that they did not give them higher prices for their corn than they would obtain without them.
These views are those which, fifteen years ago, were first made generally known to the country by the efforts of the League. Although doubts may be raised to some of the details of these tenets, and substantial objections taken to many of the most celebrated arguments by which they were supported, their general correctness was, at the time of the repeal of the Corn-laws, generally admitted by educated men, and has been to a certain extent confirmed by the event. Mr. Hume was so convinced of their soundness that he was in the habit of saying, “that a better case could be made out for giving a bounty on the importation, than for levying a Custom-house tax on foreign corn”; and he is entitled to be remembered as one of the earliest promulgators of such tenets. Mr. Hume’s services to the Free-trade cause were not confined to writing. He possessed very considerable powers of conversational exposition, and made use of them in explaining his favourite views to the many statesmen with whom he was officially brought into contact. And there is much evidence collected in the volume before us that he did so with remarkable success.
The second subject with which Mr. Hume’s name ought in some degree to be connected is that of the currency. His contributions to this subject are less important than to that of Free-trade, and from other causes much less interesting. It had been generally believed that the suspension of cash payments by the Bank of England had—at least before the time of the Bullion Committee in 1810—been followed by a great depreciation in the currency of this country. Gold, it is certain, was not then to be found in actual use here as a circulating medium, and it was believed that it had been driven abroad by over-issues of paper. Mr. Hume denied that the effect was owing to such a cause. He considered that the exportation of gold was mainly owing to the demand for it consequent on our foreign military payments, and on the unfavourable balance of trade created by Napoleon’s prohibition of our manufactures. Gold went abroad, he thought, not because our currency was in excess, but because it was the only commodity which Bonaparte would permit the Continent to take, or which would be suitable for war payments. He believed besides that the prices of commodities here were not, generally speaking, higher than they were on the Continent, as apparently they would have been if our currency had been depreciated below the level of theirs. Mr. Hume did not dissent from the doctrine of the Bullion Committee, that the English currency was depreciated below the value which it would have maintained if the suspension of cash payments had not been adopted. He fully agreed with the committee that, to the price at the Mint, the paper currency was depreciated below what must have been its value had it been convertible into gold on demand; but he thought that if Banknotes had continued to be so convertible, the whole currency of both gold and paper would have risen in value as compared with commodities in general, because of the unusual demand for gold upon the Continent. He believed, therefore, that the measures of the Bank should rather be said to have prevented an appreciation, than to have caused a depreciation of the currency. Views of this kind have since been very extensively promulgated, but in 1834 they were new; and, whatever may be their soundness, Mr. Hume’s name ought to be mentioned in connection with them.
On the whole, Mr. Hume must be considered as one of the first of the practical men of business who have contributed to the progress of political economy. His mind was strong, and his views, for the most part, sound. He was profoundly acquainted with the commercial details of his age, and spared no labour in attempting to verify his commercial theories by comparison with actual facts. He was unusually successful as an expositor, for his great powers as a man of business inclined most persons to listen to his theories about business.
[1 ]The Life of James Deacon Hume, Secretary of the Board of Trade, by Charles Badham, M.A. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1859.