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‘Elements of Political Economy’: the wisdom of James Mill 200 years on

The birth of a ‘school-book of political economy’, which originated from the notes of a teenager two centuries ago, is hailed by Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books.

Imagine yourself as a 13-year-old boy being dragged on daily walks by your father, who spent this quality time lecturing you on the rudiments of economics. And woe betide you if a passing bird or a flower captured your interest, or you are overcome by an irresistible desire to run, for you had to pay full attention in order to write up the lectures in note form and to submit them for paternal scrutiny and criticism the next day.

This was the fate of John Stuart Mill, and it is how the famous Elements of Political Economy (1821) by his father, James Mill, originated. The book is based partly on Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) which James Mill persuaded his friend David Ricardo to write. Mill consolidates, expounds and interprets Ricardo in a simplified form to make his theories accessible to ‘persons of either sex of ordinary understanding’ who wished to learn the essential principles of Ricardo’s interpretation of economics without grappling directly with his texts.

Thus, Mill’s work is the first textbook of Ricardian economics; a ‘school-book of political economy’, as Mills describes it. He claims no originality, yet his labour is by no means a mindless crib. In some 300 pages of close argument, Elements of Political Economy sums up and methodises 20 years of Mill’s reflections, discussion and writings on political economy. In addition to interpreting Ricardo, he returns more clearly to Adam Smith’s seminal Wealth of Nations (1776) and brings out Smith’s classical economic thought: the growth factor, the division of labour, and the distinction between productive and unproductive consumption.

His three major tenets are: (1) that political reformers’ chief problem is to limit the increase of population, which rises naturally at a greater rate than capital; (2) that a thing’s value depends entirely on the amount of labour expended on it; and (3) that what is now known as the ‘unearned increment’ of land is a proper object for taxation. Mill revised the book extensively for two later editions, in 1824 and 1826.

Not everybody admired Mill’s efforts. Most devastatingly, the Scottish economist John Ramsay McCulloch (1789–1864), the first professor of political economy at University College London and a leading economist of the Ricardian school, condemned the book as being ‘of too abstract a character to be either popular or of much utility’. He thought it should have discussed secondary principles and modifying circumstances which it did not, and concluded that, ‘The Science is very far from having arrived at the perfection Mr Mill supposed’ (Literature of Political Economy, 1855, pp. 17–18).

Others were kinder, and the book’s lucidity is praised today. Even textbooks can be influential, and Karl Marx used Mill’s creed about the value of things, while John Stuart Mill wrote in his autobiography that his own theory of international values emanated from his conversations with his father. John Stuart Mill thought that the book was useful when first published, albeit subsequently outdated. The copy in Senate House Library is from the classical historian George Grote (1794–1871), the University of London’s vice-chancellor from 1862–71, who bequeathed his books to the university as one of its library’s founding collections.

Elements of Political Economy has a particular significance for Grote. A man of many interests, he was attracted to political economy by the writings of Ricardo, who he met in 1817, and owned seven of his publications, including the first edition of Principles of Political Economy and Taxation). He came to greatly admire and respect James Mill introduced to him by Ricardo, and to share his views.

As Harriet Grote recorded in her 1873 memoir of her husband, Grote described Mill as ‘a very profound thinking man [who] seems well disposed to communicate, as well as clear and intelligible in his manner’. Mill instructed Grote in psychology and economics, and later they discussed political philosophy, theology, and ethics. James Mill and the Grotes visited each other frequently, and Grote’s library also contains Mill’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (2 volumes, 1829). George Grote enhanced the book with his annotations (see below).

Political economy

Yet intriguingly, Mill presented this copy of Elements of Political Economy not to George Grote, but to his wife, Harriet, clearly inscribing it: ‘To Mrs Grote from her sincere friend the author’ (see below right).

Political economyHarriet was a highly intelligent woman who under Grote’s tutelage herself read political economy and philosophy and took part in discussions with the men, so that the gift would have been Mill’s present of his output as a part of himself, rather than a condescending experiment to prove the book’s readability by ‘persons of either sex of ordinary understanding’. As regards the book ending up in George Grote’s library, this is by no means an isolated instance of a wife’s book joining her spouse’s collection.

Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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