Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman

views updated May 11 2018

Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman

The American economist and editor Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman (1861-1939) was known as editor in chief of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences and for editing the Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law.

On April 25, 1861, Edwin R. A. Seligman was born in New York City, where his father was a banker of some prominence in both national and international financial circles. For his early education (until the age of 11) he was tutored at home. He then entered the innovative Columbia Grammar School, and at the age of 14 he entered Columbia College, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1879. He then went abroad to study at universities in Berlin, Paris, and Heidelberg.

In 1882 Seligman returned to Columbia to pursue simultaneously graduate studies in economics and in law; he received his master's in economics and was admitted to the New York State bar in 1884. In the same year, he received an appointment as lecturer in economics in the faculty of political science at Columbia. This discipline had been newly established under the aegis of John W. Burgess and was a truly pioneering development in the history of American education. In 1888 Seligman was promoted to adjunct professor of political economy and in 1891 received the rank of professor of political economy and finance, which he retained until his death.

Seligman's efforts through his life were dispersed over a wide range of activities. Not only was he energetically engaged in academic, professional, and editorial areas, but he worked in governmental and civic spheres, especially with groups concerned with promoting various social reforms. He was a cofounder of the American Economic Association and served as its president (1902-1904). He was president of the National Tax Association (1913-1915) and was one of the moving forces behind the founding of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, serving as its president (1919-1920). He was also a frequent adviser to New York State and New York City tax commissions, this being the area of his special competency. In the same capacity he acted as consultant to the League of Nations (1922-1923) and the reform-minded government of Cuba in 1931.

At Columbia, Seligman taught mainly in the field of political economy and the history of economic doctrines, originally a subfield of political philosophy, which attained an independent status in the 20th century. Recent thought on this matter, however, has reverted to the ancient view that economics cannot be really considered or understood apart from political philosophy, which sets the goals for economic activities. Seligman was one of a small group of scholars who worked actively to establish economics as an independent discipline. His own works on the history of economic doctrines and on economic terminology exercised an important influence in the United States and Europe; several of them were translated and are still cited today in professional works. His works on taxation were quite influential when written, but unlike his treatments of the development of economic doctrine, they are less frequently cited today. Many of the tax reforms that he advocated were adopted, such as the progressive income tax.

Perhaps Seligman's chief contribution to modern education, however, was his editorship (1927-1935) of the influential and highly esteemed Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, the most important and comprehensive reference work in the social sciences. In the original edition, Seligman himself wrote several articles reflecting his own wide interests, including an introductory essay, "What Are the Social Sciences?"

Further Reading

There is no definitive biography of Seligman. Some information on his life is in Edwin R. A. Seligman, 1861-1959: Addresses Delivered at the Memorial Meeting Held on December the Thirteenth, 1939 (1942), and his career is discussed in Joseph Dorfman, The Economic Mind in American Civilization (5 vols., 1946-1959), and Ralph G. Hoxie and others, A History of the Faculty of Political Science, Columbia University (1955). His position in the history of economic thought is assessed in Ben B. Seligman, Main Currents in Modern Economics: Economic Thought since 1870 (1962). A list of Seligman's works is included in Columbia University, Faculty of Political Science, A Bibliography … 1880-1930 (1931). □

Seligman, Edwin Robert Anderson

views updated May 23 2018


SELIGMAN, EDWIN ROBERT ANDERSON (1861–1939), U.S. economist. A member of the *Seligman banking family of New York, Seligman began teaching at Columbia in 1885 and held the post of professor of political economy and finance from 1888 to 1931, when he became professor emeritus in residence. His wide-ranging interests and his sense of social responsibility involved him in many academic, public, and civic organizations and institutions. He was instrumental in forming the American Economic Society and served as its president, 1902–04. He also served a term as president of the National Tax Association, and the American Association of University Professors, and chaired its committee which in 1915 published the fundamental report on academic freedom. In his special field, public finance, he was a consultant member of numerous public committees, at the city, state, and federal levels, as well as in international organizations. In 1932, while lecturing at Havana University, he undertook, at the request of President Gerardo Machado, the reorganization of Cuba's fiscal system. His writings on taxation were influential since many of the innovations he advocated were adopted, and the terminology he originated passed into common use.

He published 15 works on taxation and economics generally, including The Economic Interpretation of History (1902), a significant contribution to the development of the subject; Principles of Economics (1905); The Economics of Farm Relief (1929); and Price Cutting and Price Maintenance (1932). His wide range of interests enabled him to become the chief promoter and editor in chief of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (15 vols., 1930–35), to which he also contributed articles and biographies. He was also editor of the Columbia Series in History, Economics, and Public Law, and the Political Science Quarterly. A bibliography of his writings was published in 1931 by Columbia University; his correspondence was published by Joseph Dorfman in 1941, and a collection of memorial addresses in 1942.


Family Register of the Descendants of David Seligman (1913); L. Herz, Die vierteltausendjaehrige Geschichte der Familie Seligman, 16801930 (1935), includes bibliography; L. Wells, The Seligman Story (Ms., 3 vols., 1931); G.T. Hellman, in: New Yorker Magazine, 30 (Oct. 30, 1954), 34–40.

[Joachim O. Ronall]