Ashley, William James

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Ashley, William James



William James Ashley (1860–1927) was one of a group of economists (including, among others, William Cunningham, H. S. Foxwell, and W. A. S. Hewins) who at the turn of this century constituted the English school of economic history, the school which had been given its form in the 1870s and 1880s by Thorold Rogers and Arnold Toynbee. Ashley, alone of this group, also had ties with the German school of historical economists, which under the leadership of Gustav Schmoller had, from the 1870s on, posited a historical, statistical, and inductive method against the abstract, deductive method of the classical school of Ricardo.

Ashley was born in Bermondsey. His father was a journeyman hatter of modest means—a Baptist, a teetotaler, and a free trader. Ashley began his career at Oxford in 1878 as a history scholar in Balliol. There his interests were shaped under the influence of Toynbee, William Stubbs, and Sir Henry Sumner Maine. He took a First in History in 1881 and remained at Oxford for several years as a private tutor. In 1888 he was invited to occupy the chair of political economy and constitutional history at Toronto; in that same year the first part of his An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory, dedicated to Toynbee, was published. It proved to be a landmark in the field. In 1892 Ashley accepted an invitation from President Eliot of Harvard to fill the first chair in economic history in the world. The second part of his Introduction, which made an important contribution to medieval agrarian and burghal history, appeared in 1893. In 1901 Ashley returned home to become professor of commerce at the new University of Birmingham, helping to organize the first university school of commerce in the United Kingdom.

It was from the German historical economists that Ashley learned “the duty of generalization as the complement to the duty of research” (1900, p. 29). From a liberal cosmopolitanism, he was converted to the nationalist and protectionist position of his German mentors; he also adopted their social doctrine, which bore the label Kathedersozialismus (”socialism of the chair”) and which called for state action to protect trade unions, to promote factory legislation, and to enact social reforms. Although Ashley had a better understanding of orthodox economic analysis than did the German school, he shared the latter’s view of “modern economic theories,” which, he declared, are “not universally true; they are true neither for the past, when the conditions they postulate did not exist, nor for the future, when, unless society becomes stationary, the conditions will have changed” (1888–1893, p. xi).

Believing that history could serve as a guide for policy, Ashley turned his attention to eighteenthcentury mercantilism in essays on “The Tory Origin of Free Trade Policy” and “The Commercial Legislation of England and the American Colonies” in his Surveys, Historic and Economic (1900). When Joseph Chamberlain announced his neomercantilist proposals for imperial preference in 1903, Ashley and Hewins came actively to his support, especially since, along with imperialist and protectionist planks, Chamberlain had included a pension scheme reminiscent of Bismarckian social reform; orthodox economists, led by Alfred Marshall, remained loyal to free trade.

In 1912 Ashley reviewed the whole of English economic history in eight lectures delivered at Hamburg; these appeared as The Economic Organisation of England in 1914. In these lectures he envisioned a future society based upon the corporative theories that were being revived on the Continent; Ashley was alone among English economists in defending these theories. He saw both trusts and trade unions as inevitable parts of capitalist development and welcomed them as mitigating the evil effects of competition, which, he felt, led to crises and unemployment. He foresaw a corporation organization of both industry and labor, regulated by the state in the community interest.

Ashley’s pioneering efforts in economic history had borne such fruit that, as early as 1913, he could say that “the study of specifically economic history is no longer an individual eccentricíty, calling almost for an apology” (1913, p. 165). Ashley also sat on a number of governmental commissions, to which he made noteworthy contributions, and he was knighted for such services in 1917. (This governmental activity continued after his retirement from his duties at Birmingham in 1925.) In 1923 Ashley delivered the Ford lectures at Oxford, on the place of rye in the English diet. In the years that remained, he continued these researches, and the result, The Bread of Our Forefathers, was published posthumously, in 1928.

Bernard Semmel

[For the historical context of Ashley’s work, seeEconomic thought, articles onMercantilist thoughtandthe historical school; and the biographies ofCunningham; Maine; Rogers; Schmoller; Toynbee. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeHistory, article oneconomic history.]


(1888–1893) 1931–1936 An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory. 2 vols. London and New York: Longmans. → Volume 1: The Middle Ages. Volume 2: The End of the Middle Ages.

1900 Surveys, Historic and Economic. London and New York: Longmans. → Includes essays first published between 1889 and 1900.

(1903) 1920 The Tariff Problem. 4th ed. London: King. 1904 The Progress of the German Working Classes in the Last Quarter of a Century. London and New York: Longmans.

1913 Comparative Economic History and the English Landlord. Economic Journal 23:165–181.

(1914) 1949 The Economic Organisation of England: An Outline History. 3d ed. London and New York: Longmans.

1925 The Christian Outlook, Being the Sermons of an Economist. London and New York: Longmans.

1928 The Bread of Our Forefathers: An Inquiry in Economic History. Oxford: Clarendon.


Ashley, Anne 1932 William James Ashley: A Life. London: King.

Clapham, John H. 1927 Obituary: Sir William Ashley. Economic Journal 37:678–683.

MacDonald, Janet L. 1942 Sir William Ashley. Pages 20–44 in Bernadotte E. Schmitt (editor), Some Historians of Modern Europe: Essays in Historiography by Former Students of the University of Chicago. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Semmel, Bernard 1957 Sir William Ashley as “Socialist of the Chair.” Economica New Series 24:343–353.

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