Barton, John

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Barton, John



John Barton (1789–1852), British economist, was born in Southwark, London, into a Quaker family. His father died before he was born, and he was brought up in Tottenham and London, in the homes of Thomas Home, his maternal grandfather, who seems later to have left him a hand-some fortune. There is evidence that Barton received a good education; he knew French, German, and Latin, and his brother, Bernard, spoke of his “mathematically demonstrative turn of mind.”

After his marriage, Barton and his family seem to have lived at Stoughton, a charming village some six miles northwest of Chichester, Sussex. About 1833 the household moved to Eastleigh, Hampshire. It remained there until 1851, when Barton became paralyzed; he died the following year, at Chichester. An unsigned obituary notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine (1852, p. 431) describes him as “one of the original promoters of the Chichester Savings Bank, the Lancasterian School, and the Mechanics’ Institution, of which he was treasurer until its union with the Philosophical Society. For many years he lectured within its walls in an able and popular manner.”

Barton’s first essay, Observations on the Circumstances Which Influence the Condition of the Labouring Classes of Society, appeared in June 1817. It is more than probable that both Ricardo and Malthus read this essay at once, without grasping, however, the full significance of Barton’s criticism of their free-trade doctrine. Ricardo published his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in the spring of 1817, and Malthus announced that he too intended to publish such a book. Ricardo read Malthus’ book as soon as it became available, in 1820. Ricardo noticed, among other things, a footnote referring to Barton, which reminded him of some correspondence he had had with Barton three years earlier. Thus reminded of Barton’s views, Ricardo revised his own views on the adverse effects of machinery on the income of the laboring classes and introduced a new chapter on this subject into the 1821 (third) edition of his Principles, virtually abandoning the free-trade doctrine.

The significance of Ricardo’s shift cannot be overemphasized, nor the importance of Barton’s role in producing that shift. It is important to remember that when Barton published his first essay, the free-trade doctrine was sweeping Britain and western Europe. Ricardo, in his Principles, seemed to have proved that free trade raised productivity to a maximum and created a necessary and sufficient prerequisite for permanent and lasting prosperity. Freedom of trade implies freedom to invest. Barton was the first writer to demonstrate that investment, or the “increase of fixed capital,” as it was then called, results in the displacement of part of the labor force, which becomes unemployed. The economy can reabsorb the unemployed workers only if additional demand for labor appears from an external source. Barton pointed out that in the case of Great Britain it was the influx of precious metals from America via Spain that created new demand for manufactured articles, providing employment. This was also the cause of the population increase observed at this time.

In his Inquiry (1820) and in his essay on the excess of population (1830), Barton examined the consequences of rapid population growth—the expression “population explosion” had not yet become fashionable. He deplored the fact that “the great majority of political economists direct their attention almost exclusively to the circumstances which influence the accumulation of wealth, abstractedly speaking. Not only do they seem to forget that wealth is not happiness, they even leave out of their consideration the manner in which that wealth is distributed” (1830, p. 42). As an immediate solution to the unemployment problem Barton recommended government-sponsored emigration to Canada.

In his essay In Defence of the Corn Laws, Barton took issue with the promoters of the Anti-Corn Law League. He questioned the theory according to which workers who had lost their jobs could easily find employment in other industries. “Is it supposed, then,” he asked, “that the ploughmen no longer wanted in Sussex might travel to Manchester, and there find employment as cotton-spinners? … The slightest attention to facts might shew that a district overburdened with population is scarcely ever relieved, unless by the cruel process of extermination” ([1833] 1962, p. 29).

On the Continent, Barton’s first two essays were given a favorable review by Simonde de Sismondi. His essay on the corn laws was also mentioned favorably in a report by Dr. L. R. Villermé, commissioned by the French Academy of Moral and Political Science (1840). The Observations were referred to several times in the writings of Karl Marx, who gave Barton credit for his, Marx’s, analysis of the conversion of circulating capital into fixed. More recently, Barton’s original and perceptive studies have been noticed by Edwin Cannan (1893) and Stephan Bauer (1925). An article on Barton appeared in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1930), over the signature of W. H. Dawson. In 1934, Barton’s Observations was reprinted by the Johns Hopkins Press in Baltimore. A letter from Ricardo to Barton, dated May 20, 1817, is appended to this reprint. A two-volume edition of Barton’s Economic Writings (1817−1850), with an introduction and notes by the undersigned, was published in 1962.

G. Sotiroff

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Barton’s ideas, see biographies ofMalthus; Ricardo; Simonde deSismondi.]


(1817) 1962 Observations on the Circumstances Which Influence the Condition of the Labouring Classes of Society. Volume 1, pages 25–112 in John Barton, Economic Writings. Regina (Canada): Lynn. → Also published in 1934 as Condition of the Labouring Classes of Society by the Johns Hopkins Press.

(1817–1850) 1962 Economic Writings. 2 vols., with an introduction and notes by G. Sotiroff. Regina (Canada) : Lynn. → Contains two posthumous essays that were first published in 1954 and 1955.

(1820) 1962 An Inquiry Into the Causes of the Progressive Depreciation of Agricultural Labour in Modern Times. Volume 1, pages 115–240 in John Barton, Economic Writings. Regina (Canada): Lynn.

(1830) 1962 A Statement of the Consequences Likely to Ensue From Our Growing Excess of Population If Not Remedied by Colonization. Volume 1, pages 241–294 in John Barton, Economic Writings. Regina (Canada): Lynn.

(1833) 1962 In Defence of the Corn Laws; Being an Inquiry Into the Expediency of the Existing Restrictions on the Importation of Foreign Corn: With Observations on the Present Social and Political Prospects of Great Britain. Volume 2, pages 5–136 in John Barton, Economic Writings. Regina (Canada): Lynn.


Bauer, Stephan (1925) 1963 John Barton. Volume 1, page 822 in Robert H. F. Palgrave, Dictionary of Political Economy. Rev. ed. New York: Kelley.

Cannan, Edwin (1893) 1953 A History of the Theories of Production and Distribution in English Political Economy, From 1776 to 1848. 3d ed. London and New York: Staples.

Dawson, W. H. 1930 John Barton. Volume 2, page 472 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Obituary. 1852. Gentleman’s Magazine New Series 37: 431 only.

Sotiroff, G. 1962 Introduction. Volume 1, pages 5–24 in John Barton, Economic Writings. Regina (Canada): Lynn.

VillermÉ, Louis RenÉ 1840 Tableau de l’etat physique et moral des ouvriers employés dans les manufactures de coton, de laine et de soie. 2 vols. Paris: Renouard.