McCulloch: Sketch of David Ricardo
Source: John Ramsay McCulloch, Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1853). Chapter: SKETCH OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF DAVID RICARDO, ESQ., M.P.
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SKETCH OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF DAVID RICARDO, ESQ., M.P.
Mr Ricardo was placed, in early life, under circumstances apparently the least favourable for the formation of those habits of patient and comprehensive investigation, which afterwards raised him to a high rank among political philosophers.
He was the third of a numerous family, and was born on the 19th of April 1772. His father, a native of Holland, and of the Jewish persuasion, settled in this country early in life. He is said to have been a man of good talents, and of the strictest integrity; and, having become a member of the Stock Exchange, he acquired a respectable fortune, and possessed considerable influence in his circle. David, the subject of the present memoir, was destined for the same line of business as his father; and received, partly in England, and partly at a school in Holland, where he resided two years, such an education as is usually given to young men intended for the mercantile profession. Classical learning formed no part of his early instruction; and it has been questioned, with how much justice we shall not undertake to decide, whether its acquisition would have done him service; and whether it might not probably have made him seek for relaxation in the study of elegant literature, rather than in the severer exercises of the understanding, and prompted him to adopt opinions sanctioned by authority, without inquiring very anxiously into the grounds on which they rested.
Mr Ricardo began to be confidentially employed by his father in the business of the Stock Exchange when he was only fourteen years of age. Neither then, however, nor at any subsequent period, was he wholly engrossed by the details of his profession. From his earliest years he evinced a taste for abstract reasoning; and manifested that determination to probe every subject of interest to the bottom, and to form his opinion upon it according to the conviction of his mind, which was a distinguishing feature of his character.
Mr Ricardo, senior, had been accustomed to subscribe, without investigation, to the opinions of his ancestors on all questions connected with religion and politics, and he was desirous that his children should do the same. But this system of passive obedience, and of blind submission to the dictates of authority, was quite repugnant to the principles of young Ricardo, who, though he did not fail to testify the sincerest affection and respect for his father, found reason to differ from him on many important points, and even to secede from the Hebrew faith.
Not long after this event, and shortly after he had attained the age of majority, Mr Ricardo formed a matrimonial union, productive of unalloyed domestic happiness. Having been separated from his father, he was now thrown on his own resources, and commenced business for himself. At this important epoch of his history, the oldest and most respectable members of the Stock Exchange gave a striking proof of the esteem entertained by them for his talents and character, by voluntarily coming forward to support him in his undertakings. His success exceeded the most sanguine expectations of his friends; and in a few years he realised an ample fortune.
“The talent for obtaining wealth,” says one of Mr Ricardo’s near relations, from whose account of his life we have borrowed these particulars, “is not held in much estimation; but perhaps in nothing did Mr R. more evince his extraordinary powers than he did in his business. His complete knowledge of all its intricacies,—his surprising quickness at figures and calculation,—his capability of getting through, without any apparent exertion, the immense transactions in which he was concerned,—his coolness and judgment, combined certainly with (for him) a fortunate tissue of public events,—enabled him to leave all his contemporaries at the Stock Exchange far behind, and to raise himself infinitely higher, not only in fortune, but in general character and estimation, than any man had ever done before in that house. Such was the impression which these qualities had made on his competitors, that several of the most discerning among them, long before he had emerged into public notoriety, prognosticated in their admiration that he would live to fill some of the highest stations in the state.”1
According as his solicitude about his success in life declined, Ricardo devoted a greater portion of his time to scientific and literary pursuits. When about twenty-five years of age, he began the study of some branches of mathematical science, and made considerable progress in chemistry and mineralogy. He fitted up a laboratory, formed a collection of minerals, and was one of the original members of the Geological Society. But he never entered warmly into the study of these sciences. They were not adapted to the peculiar cast of his mind; and he abandoned them entirely, as soon as his attention was directed to the more congenial study of Political Economy.
He is stated to have become acquainted, for the first time, with the “Wealth of Nations” in 1799, while on a visit at Bath. He was highly gratified by its perusal; and it is most probable that the inquiries about which it is conversant continued henceforth to engage a considerable share of his attention, though it was not till a later period that his spare time was almost exclusively occupied with their study.
Ricardo made his first appearance as an author in 1809. The rise in the market price of bullion, and the fall of the exchange, which had taken place in the course of that year, excited a good deal of attention. Ricardo applied himself to the consideration of the subject; and the studies in which he had latterly been engaged, combined with the experience he had derived from his moneyed transactions, not only enabled him to perceive the true causes of the phenomena in question, but to trace and exhibit their practical bearing and real effect. He began this investigation without intending to lay the result of his researches before the public. But having shown his manuscript to the late Mr Perry, the proprietor and editor of the “Morning Chronicle,” the latter prevailed upon him, though not without considerable difficulty, to consent to its publication, in the shape of letters, in that journal. The first of these appeared on the 6th of September 1809. They made a considerable impression, and elicited various answers. This success, and the increasing interest of the subject, induced him to commit his opinions upon it to the judgment of the public, in a more enlarged and systematic form, in the tract entitled, “The High Price of Bullion a Proof of the Depreciation of Bank Notes,” which led the way in the far-famed bullion controversy. It issued from the press several months previously to the appointment of the Bullion Committee, and is believed to have had no inconsiderable effect in forwarding that important measure. In this tract Mr Ricardo showed that redundancy and deficiency of currency are only relative terms; and that, so long as the currency of any particular country consists exclusively of gold and silver coins, or of paper immediately convertible into such coins, its value can neither rise above nor fall below the value of the metallic currencies of other countries, by a greater sum than will suffice to defray the expense of importing foreign coin or bullion, if the currency be deficient; or of exporting a portion of the existing supply, if it be redundant. But when a country issues inconvertible paper notes (as was then the case in England), they cannot be exported to other countries in the event of their becoming redundant at home; and whenever, under such circumstances, the exchange with foreign states is depressed below, or the price of bullion rises above, its mint price, more than the cost of sending coin or bullion abroad, it shows conclusively that too much paper has been issued, and that its value is depreciated from excess. The principles which pervade the “Report of the Bullion Committee” are substantially the same with those established by Ricardo in this pamphlet. But the more comprehensive and popular manner in which they are illustrated in the Report, and the circumstance of their being recommended by a committee comprising some of the ablest men in the country, gave them a weight and authority which they could not otherwise have obtained. And though the prejudices and ignorance of some, and the interested, and therefore determined, opposition of others, prevented for a while the adoption of the measures proposed by Ricardo and the committee for restoring the currency to a sound and healthy state, they were afterwards carried into full effect; and afford one of the most memorable examples in our history of the triumph of principle over selfishness, sophistry, and error.
The fourth edition of this tract is the most valuable. An Appendix added to it has some observations on certain disputed questions in the theory of exchange; and it also contains the first germ of the original idea of making bank notes exchangeable for bars of gold bullion.
Among those who entered the lists in opposition to the principles laid down, and the practical measures suggested in this tract, and in the Report of the Bullion Committee, a prominent place is due to Mr Bosanquet. This gentleman had great experience as a merchant; and as he professed that the statements and conclusions embodied in his “Practical Observations,” which are completely at variance with those in the Report, were the result of a careful examination of the theoretical opinions of the Committee by the test of fact and experiment, they were well fitted to make, and did make, a very considerable impression. The triumph of Mr Bosanquet was, however, of very short duration. Mr Ricardo did not hesitate to attack this formidable adversary in his stronghold. His tract, entitled “Reply to Mr Bosanquet’s Practical Observations on the Report of the Bullion Committee,” was published in 1811, and is one of the best essays that has appeared on any disputed question of Political Economy. In this pamphlet, Ricardo met Bosanquet on his own ground, and overthrew him with his own weapons. He examined the proofs which the latter had brought forward, of the pretended discrepancy between the facts stated in his own tract, which he said were consistent with experience, and the theory laid down in the Bullion Report; and showed that Mr Bosanquet had either mistaken the cases by which he proposed to test the theory, or that the discrepancy was apparent only, and was entirely a consequence of his inability to apply the theory, and not of anything erroneous or deficient in it. The victory of Ricardo was perfect and complete; and the elaborate errors and misstatements of Bosanquet served only, in the words of Dr Coppleston, “to illustrate the abilities of the writer who stepped forward to vindicate the truth.”1
This tract affords a striking example of the ascendancy which those who possess a knowledge both of principle and practice, have over those who are familiar only with the latter. And though the interest of the question which led to its publication has subsided, it will always be read with delight by such as are not insensible of the high gratification which all ingenuous minds must feel in observing the ease with which a superior intellect clears away the irrelevant matter with which a question has been designedly embarrassed, reduces false facts to their just value, and traces and exhibits the constant operation of the same general principle through all the mazy intricacies of practical detail.
The merit of these pamphlets was duly appreciated; and Mr Ricardo’s society was, in consequence, courted by men of the first eminence, who were not less pleased with his modesty and unassuming manners, than with the vigour of his understanding. He formed, about this time, an intimacy with Mr Malthus, and Mr Mill, the historian of British India, which ended only with his death. To the latter he was particularly attached, and readily acknowledged how much he owed to his friendship.
Mr Ricardo next appeared as an author in 1815, during the discussions on the bill, afterwards passed into a law, for raising the limit at which foreign corn might be imported for consumption, to 80s. Malthus, and a “Fellow of University College, Oxford” (afterwards Sir Edward West), had, by a curious coincidence, in tracts published almost consentaneously, elucidated the true theory of rent, which, though fully explained by Dr Anderson as early as 1777, appears to have been entirely forgotten. But neither of these gentlemen perceived the bearing of the theory on the question in regard to the restriction of the importation of foreign corn. This was reserved for Ricardo, who, in his “Essay on the Influence of a Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock,” showed the effect of an increase in the price of raw produce on wages and profits; and founded a cogent argument in favour of the freedom of the corn trade, on the very grounds on which Malthus had endeavoured to show the propriety of subjecting it to fresh restrictions.
In 1816, Mr Ricardo published his “Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency, with Observations on the Profits of the Bank of England.” In this pamphlet he examined the circumstances which determine the value of money, when every individual has the power to supply it, and when that power is restricted or placed under a monopoly; and he showed that, in the former case, its value will depend, like that of all other freely supplied articles, on its cost; while, in the latter, it will be unaffected by that circumstance, and will depend on the extent to which it may be issued compared with the demand. This is a principle of great importance; for it shows that intrinsic worth is not necessary to a currency, and that, provided the supply of paper notes, declared to be legal tender, be sufficiently limited, their value may be maintained on a par with the value of gold, or raised to any higher level. If, therefore, it were practicable to devise a plan for preserving the value of paper on a level with that of gold, without making it convertible into coin at the pleasure of the holder, the heavy expense of a metallic currency would be saved. To effect this desirable object, Ricardo proposed that, instead of being made exchangeable for gold coins, bank notes should be made exchangeable for bars of gold bullion of the standard weight and purity. This plan, than which nothing can be more simple, was obviously fitted to check the over-issue of paper quite as effectually as it is checked by making it convertible into coin; while, as bars could not be used as currency, it prevented any gold from getting into circulation, and, consequently, saved the expense of coinage, and the wear and tear and loss of coins. It was recommended by the Committees of the Houses of Lords and Commons appointed, in 1819, to consider the expediency of the Bank of England resuming cash payments; and was adopted in the bill for their resumption introduced by Sir Robert Peel. In practice it was found completely to answer the object of checking over-issue. Inasmuch, however, as it required that the place of sovereigns should be filled with one pound notes, the forgery of the latter began to be extensively carried on. And it was wisely judged better to incur the expense of recurring to and keeping up a mixed currency, than to continue a plan which, though productive of a large saving, held out an all but irresistible temptation to crime.
In 1817, Mr Ricardo published his great work on the “Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.” This was a step which he did not take without much hesitation. He was not, and did not affect to be, insensible of the value of literary and philosophical reputation; but his modesty always led him to undervalue his own powers; and having acquired a high degree of celebrity as a writer on currency, he was unwilling to risk what he already possessed, by attempting to gain more. Ultimately, however, he was prevailed upon, by the entreaties of his friends, to allow his work to be sent to press. Its appearance forms a memorable æra in the history of political science. Exclusive of many valuable subsidiary inquiries, he has pointed out, in this work, the source and limiting principle of exchangeable value, and has traced the laws which determine the distribution of wealth among the various ranks and orders of society. The powers of mind displayed in these investigations, the dexterity with which the most abstruse questions are unravelled, the sagacity displayed in tracing the operation of general principles, in disentangling them from such as are of a secondary and accidental nature, and in perceiving and estimating their remote consequences, have never been surpassed; and will secure the name of Ricardo a permanent place among those who have done most to unfold the mechanism of society, and to discover the circumstances on which the well-being of its various orders must always mainly depend.
The principle, that the exchangeable value of commodities, or their worth as compared with each other, depends on the quantities of labour necessarily required to produce them and bring them to market, is fully established in this work. Adam Smith had shown that this principle determines the value of commodities in the earlier stages of society, before land is appropriated and capital accumulated; but he supposed that, after land has become property and rent begins to be paid, and after capital has been amassed and workmen are hired by capitalists, the value of commodities fluctuates not only according to variations in the labour required to produce and bring them to market, but also according to variations of rents and wages. Ricardo, however, has shown that this theory is erroneous, and that the value of commodities is determined, in all states of society, by the same principle, or by the quantities of labour required for their production. He has shown that variations of profits or wages, by affecting different commodities to the same, or nearly the same extent, would either have no influence over their exchangeable value, or, if they had any, it would depend upon the degree in which they occasionally affect some products more than others. And Dr Anderson and others having already shown that rent is not an element of cost or value, it follows that the cost or value of all freely produced commodities, the supply of which may be indefinitely increased (abstracting from temporary variations of supply and demand), depends wholly on the quantities of labour required for their production, and not upon the rate at which that labour may be paid; so that, supposing the labour required to produce any number of commodities to remain constant, their cost and value will also remain constant, whether wages fall from 3s. to 1s., or rise from 3s. to 5s. or 7s. a-day. This is the fundamental theorem of the science of value, and the clue which unravels the intricate labyrinth of the laws which regulate the distribution of wealth. Its discovery has shed a flood of light on what was previously shrouded in all but impenetrable mystery; and the knotty and formerly insoluble questions regarding the action of wages and profits on each other and on prices, have since ceased to present any insuperable difficulties. What the researches of Locke and Smith did for the production of wealth, those of Ricardo have done for its value and distribution.
The establishment of general principles being Ricardo’s great object, he has paid comparatively little attention to their practical application, and sometimes, indeed, he has in great measure overlooked the circumstances by which they are occasionally countervailed. In illustration of this we may mention, that society being laid under the necessity of constantly resorting to inferior soils to obtain additional supplies of food, he lays it down that, in the progress of society, raw produce and wages have a constant tendency to rise and profits to fall. And this, no doubt, is in the abstract true. But it must at the same time be observed, that if on the one hand society be obliged constantly to resort to inferior soils, agriculture is on the other hand susceptible of indefinite improvement; and this improvement necessarily in so far countervails the decreasing fertility of the soil; and may, and in fact frequently does, more than countervail it. Ricardo has also very generally overlooked the influence of increased prices in diminishing consumption and stimulating industry, so that his conclusions, though true according to his assumptions, do not always harmonise with what really takes place. But his is not a practical work; and it did not enter into his plan to exhibit the circumstances which give rise to the discrepancies in question. The “Principles of Political Economy and Taxation” is not even a systematic treatise, but is principally an inquiry respecting certain fundamental principles, most of which had previously been undiscovered. And though it be often exceedingly difficult, or it may be all but impossible, to estimate the extent to which these principles may in certain cases be modified by other principles and combinations of circumstances, it is obviously of the greatest importance to have ascertained their existence. They are so many land-marks to which to refer, and can never be lost sight of even in matters most essentially practical.
The portion of his work, in which Ricardo traces the incidence of taxes on rent, profit, wages, and raw produce, is more practical than the others; and should be carefully studied by those who wish to make themselves well acquainted with this department of political science.
Mr Ricardo had now become an extensive landed proprietor, and had wholly retired from business, with a fortune acquired with the universal respect and esteem of his competitors. But he did not retire from the bustle of active life, to the mere enjoyment of his acres. Non fuit consilium socordia atque desidia bonum otium conterere. He had other objects in view; and while his leisure hours, when in the country, were chiefly devoted to inquiries connected with that science, of which he was now confessedly at the head, he determined to extend the sphere of his usefulness, by entering the House of Commons. In 1819 he took his seat as member for Portarlington. His diffidence in his own powers had, however, nearly deprived the public of the services which he rendered in this situation. In a letter to one of his friends, dated the 7th of April 1819, he says—“You will have seen that I have taken my seat in the House of Commons. I fear that I shall be of little use there. I have twice attempted to speak; but I proceeded in the most embarrassed manner; and I have no hope of conquering the alarm with which I am assailed the moment I hear the sound of my own voice.” And in a letter to the same gentleman, dated the 22d of June 1819, he says,—“I thank you for your endeavours to inspire me with confidence on the occasion of my addressing the House. Their indulgent reception of me has, in some degree, made the task of speaking more easy to me; but there are yet so many formidable obstacles to my success, and some, I fear, of a nature nearly insurmountable, that I apprehend it will be wisdom and sound discretion in me to content myself with giving silent votes.” Fortunately he did not adopt this resolution. The difficulties with which he had at first to struggle, and his diffidence in himself, gradually subsided; while the mildness of his manners, the mastery which he possessed over the subjects on which he spoke, and the purity of his intentions, speedily secured him a very extensive influence both in the House and the country, and gave great weight to his opinions.
Mr Ricardo was not one of those who make speeches to suit the ephemeral circumstances and politics of the day; he spoke only from principle, and with a fixed resolution never to diverge in any degree from the path which it pointed out; he neither concealed nor modified an opinion for the purpose of conciliating the favour, or of disarming the prejudices or hostility, of any man or set of men; nor did he ever make a speech or give a vote which he was not well convinced was founded on just principles, and calculated to promote the lasting interests of the public. Trained to habits of profound thinking, independent in his fortune, and inflexible in his principles, Ricardo had little in common with mere party politicians. The public good was the grand object of his parliamentary exertions; and he laboured to promote it, not by engaging in party combinations, but by supporting the rights and liberties of all classes, and by unfolding the true sources of national wealth and general prosperity.
The change that has taken place in public opinion respecting the financial and commercial policy of the country, since the period when Ricardo obtained a seat in the House of Commons, is as complete as it is gratifying. Not only are the most enlarged principles advocated by all the leading members of both Houses; not only are they ready to admit that it is sound policy to admit free competition in every branch of industry, and to deal with all the world on a fair and liberal footing; but they have embodied these doctrines in the law of the land, and given them the sanction of parliamentary authority. Sir Robert Peel,1 at a vast personal sacrifice, and despite obstacles which none else could have overcome, carried out and established, in their fullest extent, the principles of commercial freedom developed by Smith and his followers. And that great statesman willingly admitted that the writings and speeches of Ricardo had contributed in no ordinary degree to pave the way for this desirable consummation. As he was known to be a master of economical science, his opinion, from the moment he entered the House of Commons, was referred to on all important occasions.2 And he acquired additional influence and consideration, according as experience served to render the House and the country better acquainted with his talents, and his singleness of purpose.
In 1820, Ricardo contributed an article on the “Funding System,” to the Supplement to the “Encyclopædia Britannica.” This tract, though confused in its arrangement, and in many respects defective, embraces some valuable discussions. He was a decided friend to the plan for raising the supplies for a war within the year, by an equivalent increase of taxation. And he also thought (in which opinion few probably will be disposed to concur) that it would be not only expedient but practicable to pay off the public debt by an assessment on capital.
In 1822, Ricardo published, during the parliamentary discussions on the subject of the corn laws, his tract on “Protection to Agriculture.” This is the best of all his pamphlets, and is, indeed, a chef-d’œuvre. The questions respecting remunerating price, the influence of a low and high value of corn over wages and profits, the influence of taxation over agriculture and manufactures, and many other topics of equal difficulty and interest, are all discussed in the short compass of eighty or ninety pages, with a precision and clearness that leaves nothing to be desired. Had he never written anything else, this pamphlet would have placed Ricardo in the first rank of political economists.
In this tract, Mr Ricardo explained his views in regard to the proposal, which he supported, of opening the ports to the free importation of corn under a fixed duty, accompanied with a nearly corresponding drawback. These he held to be necessary to countervail the peculiar burdens falling on the land, of the existence and pressure of which he had no doubt whatever. Conformably to this principle, he proposed that a duty of 20s. a-quarter should be laid on wheat (and proportionally on other grain), to be diminished by 1s. a-year till it was reduced to 10s., when it should become permanent; and that the accompanying drawback should be 7s. a-quarter. He adds, “10s. is, I am sure, rather too high as a countervailing duty for the peculiar taxes which are imposed on the corn-grower, over and above those which are imposed on the other classes of producers in the country; but I would rather err on the side of a liberal allowance than of a scanty one; and it is for this reason that I do not propose to allow a drawback quite equal to the duty.”1
In farther illustration of this statement, we may mention, that in a letter,2 which the author of this work had the honour to receive from Mr Ricardo, about a year previously to the publication of the tract now referred to, he expressed himself as follows, viz.:—“Your observations on the Report of the Agricultural Committee (of 1821) are excellent. I fought hard against the principle of the first passage which you quote, but without success. Mr Huskisson did not himself quite agree with its correctness. But the difference between him and me is this: he would uphold agriculture permanently up to its present height; I would reduce it gradually to the level at which it would have been if the trade had been free; for I should call the trade free, if wheat were subject to a permanent duty of 8s. a-quarter, to countervail the peculiar taxes to which land is subject.”
There cannot, therefore, be any doubt in regard to Mr Ricardo’s opinion respecting the proper course to be followed in dealing with the late corn laws. Had he lived to take part in the debates in 1846, there is every probability that he would have supported the measures which were then taken for their abolition. But he would not have done this from a conviction that they were really just and fair to all classes, but because, in addition to their being highly expedient in a general point of view, they had become imperatively necessary in the peculiar circumstances under which the failure of the potato crop had placed the country.1
Though not robust, Mr Ricardo’s constitution was apparently good, and his health such as to promise a long life of usefulness. He had, indeed, been subject for several years to an affection in one of his ears; but as it had not given him any serious inconvenience, he paid it but little attention. When he retired to his seat in Gloucestershire (Gatcomb Park), subsequently to the close of the session of 1823, he was in excellent health and spirits; and, besides completing a tract containing a plan for the establishment of a National Bank, he engaged, with his usual ardour, in elaborate inquiries regarding some of the more abstruse economical doctrines. But he was not destined to bring these inquiries to a close! Early in September he was suddenly seized with a violent pain in the diseased ear. The symptoms were not, however, considered unfavourable; and the breaking of an imposthume that had been formed within the ear contributed greatly to his relief. But the amendment was only transitory. Within two days, inflammation recommenced; and, after a period of the greatest agony, pressure on the brain ensued, which produced a stupor, that continued until death terminated his sufferings, on the 11th September, in his fifty-second year.
In private life, Ricardo was most amiable. He was an indulgent father and husband, and an affectionate and zealous friend. No man could be more thoroughly free from every species of artifice and pretension, more sincere, plain, and unassuming. He was particularly fond of assembling intelligent men around him, and of conversing in the most unrestrained manner on all topics of interest, but more especially on those connected with his favourite science. On these, as on all occasions, he readily gave way to others, and never discovered the least impatience to speak; but when he did speak, the solidity of his judgment, his candour, and his extraordinary talent for resolving a question into its elements, and for setting the most difficult and complicated subjects in the clearest light, arrested the attention of every one, and delighted all who heard him. He never entered into an argument, whether in public or private, for the sake of displaying ingenuity, baffling an opponent, or gaining a victory. The discovery of truth was his exclusive object. He was ever open to conviction. And if he were satisfied he had either advanced or supported an erroneous opinion, he was the first to acknowledge his error, and to caution others against it.
Few men have possessed in a higher degree than Mr Ricardo, the talent of speaking and conversing with clearness and facility on the abstrusest topics. In this respect, his speeches were greatly superior to his publications. The latter cannot be readily understood and followed without considerable attention; but nothing could exceed the skill and felicity with which he illustrated and explained the most difficult questions of Political Economy, both in private conversation and in his speeches. Without being forcible, his style of speaking was easy, fluent, and agreeable. It was impossible to take him off his guard. To those who were not familiar with his speculations, some of his positions were apt to appear paradoxical; but the paradox was only in appearance. He rarely advanced an opinion on which he had not deeply reflected, and without examining it in every point of view. And the readiness with which he overthrew the most specious objections that the ablest men in the House could make to his doctrines, is the best proof of their correctness, and of the superiority of his understanding. That there were greater orators, and men of more varied and general acquirements, in Parliament than Ricardo, we readily allow; but we are bold to say, that in point of deep, clear, and comprehensive intellect, he had no superiors, and very few, if any, equals, either in Parliament or in the country.
Not less generous than intelligent, he was never slow to come forward to the relief of the poor and the distressed; and while he contributed to almost every charitable institution in the metropolis, he supported, at his own expense, an alms-house for the poor, and two schools for the instruction of the young, in the vicinity of his seat in the country.
Besides the publications previously enumerated, he left one or two manuscripts. Among others a “Plan for the Establishment of a National Bank” was found in a finished state, and was soon after published.
He also left “Notes” on Mr Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy; containing a vindication of his own doctrines from the objections of Malthus, and showing the mistakes into which he conceives the latter had fallen. But we doubt whether they have sufficient interest to warrant their publication. The truth is, that Mr Malthus never had any clear perception of Mr Ricardo’s peculiar doctrines, nor was he very successful in elucidating his own. Mr Ricardo refers as follows, in one of his letters, to Malthus’ tract on the “Measure of Value,” published in 1823:—“Have you seen Malthus’ book on the ‘Measure of Value’? His arguments appear to me fallacious from beginning to end. He would have done much better to rest his defence of the standard he has chosen upon the old arguments in its favour, which I think unsatisfactory. But those which he now uses are delusive, and scarcely to be understood.”
Though not properly belonging to the Whig party, Ricardo voted almost uniformly with the Opposition. He was impressed with the conviction that many advantages would result from giving the people a greater influence over the choice of their representatives in the House of Commons than they then possessed; and he was so far a friend to the system of the radical reformers, as to give his cordial support to the plan of voting by ballot; which he considered as the best means for securing the mass of the electors against improper solicitations, and for enabling them to vote in favour of the candidates whom they really approved. He did not, however, agree with the radical reformers in their plan of universal suffrage. He thought the elective franchise should be given to all who possessed a certain amount of property; but he was of opinion, that while it would be a very hazardous experiment, no practical good would result from giving the franchise indiscriminately to all. His opinions on these subjects are fully stated in the “Essay on Parliamentary Reform,” and in the “Speech on the Ballot,” in the collected edition of his works.
Of the value of the services which he rendered to Political Economy, there can be, among intelligent men, only one opinion. His works have made a large addition to the mass of useful and universally interesting truths, and afford some of the finest examples to be met with of discriminating analysis, and of profound and refined discussion. The brevity with which he has stated some of his most important propositions; their intimate dependence on each other; the fewness of his illustrations; and the mathematical cast he has given to his reasoning, render it sometimes a little difficult for readers, unaccustomed to such investigations, readily to follow him. But we can venture to affirm, that those who will give to his works the attention of which they are so worthy, will find them to be as logical and conclusive as they are profound and important. It was the opinion of Quintilian, that the students of eloquence who were highly delighted with Cicero, had made no inconsiderable progress in their art; and the same may, without hesitation, be said of the students of Political Economy who find pleasure in the works of Ricardo: Ille se profecisse sciat, cui Ricardo valde placebit.
When the circumstances under which he spent the greater part of his life are brought under view; and when it is also recollected that he died at the early age of fifty-one, it may be truly said that very few have achieved so much. His industry was as remarkable as his sagacity and his candour.
“The History of Mr Ricardo,” to use the words of Mr Mill, “holds out a bright and inspiring example. Mr Ricardo had everything to do for himself; and he did everything. Let not the generous youth, whose aspirations are higher than his circumstances, despair of attaining either the highest intellectual excellence, or the highest influence on the welfare of his species, when he recollects in what circumstances Mr Ricardo opened, and in what he closed, his memorable life. He had his fortune to make; his mind to form; he had even his education to commence and conduct. In a field of the most intense competition, he realised a large fortune, with the universal esteem and affection of those who could best judge of the honour and purity of his acts. Amid this scene of active exertion and practical detail, he cultivated and he acquired habits of intense, and patient, and comprehensive thinking; such as have been rarely equalled, and never excelled.”
- “Blest paper credit! last and best supply!
- That lends corruption lighter wings to fly!
- Gold, imp’d by thee, can compass hardest things,
- Can pocket states, can fetch or carry kings;
- A single leaf shall waft an army o’er,
- Or ship of senates, to some distant shore;
- A leaf, like Sibyll’s, scatter to and fro
- Our fates and fortunes, as the wind shall blow;
- Pregnant with thousands, flits the scrap unseen,
- And silent sells a king, or buys a queen.”—Pope.
- “Your mind is tossing on the ocean;
- There, where your argosies with portly sail,
- Like signiors and rich burghers of the flood,
- Do overpeer the petty traffickers.”
- —Shakespeare, “Merchant of Venice.”
[1 ] See an Account of the Life of Mr Ricardo in the “Annual Obituary” for 1823, supposed to be written by one of his brothers.
[1 ] First Letter to the Right Hon. Robert Peel, by one of his Constituents, p. 61.
[1 ] The most disinterested and truly patriotic minister that this country has had since the Revolution.
[2 ] Mr Ricardo made the first of his prominent appearances on the 24th of May 1819, in the debate on the resolutions proposed by Sir Robert Peel, respecting the resumption of cash payments. He did not rise until he was loudly called upon from all sides of the House.
[1 ] Works, p. 493.
[2 ] Dated 8th July 1821.
[1 ] It is perhaps needless to say, that a thing may be expedient and necessary without being just. It may not only be expedient, but indispensable to the safety of a ship in a storm, to throw overboard some portion of the cargo; but it would be most unjust to allow a sacrifice incurred for the advantage of all, to fall exclusively on the owners of the ejected goods. And hence the practice, as old as the Rhodian law, but neglected in the case referred to, of average contributions.
- A Guide to David Ricardo Online
- Editor’s Intro to Principles of Political Economy
- Editor’s Intro to Ricardo’s Correspondence
- Editor’s Intro to Ricardo’s Notes on Malthus
- Editor’s Intro to Ricardo’s Speeches in Parliament
- James Mill and David Ricardo
- McCulloch: Sketch of David Ricardo
- Ricardo, David (1772-1823)
- Ricardo, David (1772-1823)