Carey, Henry C.

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Carey, Henry C.



Henry Charles Carey (1793−1879), American social scientist, was born in Philadelphia. A pervasive influence in his life was his father, Mathew Carey (1760−1839), an immigrant from Ireland who made a name for himself as a Catholic spokesman, reformer, humanitarian, anti-British and protectionist publicist, supporter of Hamilton’s and Clay’s American system, and founder of a great publishing house, which was used to disseminate his and his son’s copious writings. Even though the son broke with the ancestral faith and became a wavering Episcopalian, his life was in many respects the fulfillment of that of the father. He started work in the paternal firm at the age of eight, became its head in his early thirties, and retired after less than ten years to devote himself to the promotion of his widespread business interests in manufacturing, real estate, and utilities. Side by side with these activities he found time for a literary career that yielded more than 13 substantial books and about six thousand pages of pamphlet and newspaper material. He was one of the leading citizens of Philadelphia, and as an influential figure in state and national politics his advice was sought by more than one president. Had he been willing he could probably have held high public office himself. On his death he was referred to as America’s most widely known private citizen.

Not since the time of Thomas Mun and Josiah Child had a businessman’s economic writings exerted as strong an appeal as did Carey’s. In substance, too, with their emphasis on economic nationalism and protectionism, there is a parallel with the thought of the mercantilists, as there is also in the insinuation that they helped to serve the author’s own business interests.

Carey never failed to preach the harmony of economic interests. His optimistic outlook was typically American and marked a sharp break with the “dismal science” of Ricardo and Malthus, with whose views about free trade, population, rent, and wages he found as much fault as he did with the institutions and policies of Britain.

Initially, Carey embraced protectionism only haltingly. In his first book, Essay on the Rate of Wages, he depicted restrictions on foreign trade as a “disgrace” frustrating “the beneficent designs of the Deity” ([1835] 1960, p. 14). In other respects this work anticipated many ideas that were more fully worked out in Carey’s later writings, such as the harmonious “law of distribution,” which makes the accumulation of capital the all-important instrument of concordant economic progress: with capital increasing more rapidly than population and with increasing production, profits rise absolutely and wages absolutely and relatively. Soon thereafter, Carey published his Principles of Political Economy (1837−1840), in which he developed a reproduction cost theory of value. In this work he extended the harmony between capital and labor to the relationship between these and the landowner, interpreting the landowner’s return as a reward for the application of capital to land rather than as the mere result of the operation of the forces of nature. In this harmonious ordering of the economic universe, in which the landowner appears in a better light than he does in the Ricardian tradition, population growth need not constitute a serious problem: it is not governed by a law of nature but is subject to social conditioning in the form of restraint. Carey’s harmony doctrine and his value theory invited comparison with similar views of Bastiat, and there was a protracted controversy about the respective priorities.

The break with Ricardo and Malthus—but not with Adam Smith, whose views Carey ostensibly upheld and which he considered perverted by Ricardo and Malthus—becomes complete in The Past, the Present, and the Future (1848), in which Carey further developed his theory of rent and revealed himself to be a thoroughgoing protectionist. Basic to his theory of rent is the idea that cultivation moves from inferior to superior land, an order that reverses the one postulated by Ricardo, with resulting increasing rather than diminishing returns. Carey advocated protection because it conformed to his law of association: it encouraged “commerce,” an associative link between producer and consumer, rather than “trade,” which required middlemen, and facilitated centralization and combinations. Commerce, therefore, produced the kind of diversification of economic activities that was an important element in Carey’s law; other elements were the diffusion of an increasing population and a decentralized organization of society. Carey made much of this law in his writings.

In The Harmony of Interests (1851) the protectionist argument is again developed and given popular appeal. In The Slave Trade (1853) Carey argued that protectionism was even more badly needed in the South than in the North in the United States: it would reduce the dependency of the South on foreign trade, stimulate its industrial development, put an end to slavery, and bring about its economic integration with the North.

Carey’s later works go beyond the boundaries of economics, branching out into social and cosmic science. They are in line with the rise of sociological thought elsewhere and reflect the influence of Comte and possibly also of Spencer. The Principles of Social Science (1858−1860) restates many of Carey’s earlier ideas and demonstrates the harmonious order of the cosmos. The Unity of Law (1872) claims a providential identity of cosmic and social laws. An unfriendly critic called it “a work which offers a rich harvest of blunders in physics” (Cossa [1876] 1893, p. 468).

In his method Carey aimed to support his theories with abundant references to historical and statistical material and to natural science. He was a pioneer in the use of quantitative data as well as in their graphic presentation. His works may be rhetorical and redundant, but the patient reader is rewarded with occasional insights. Carey’s writings were widely translated, and his fame spread far beyond his homeland. For some time he had considerable following in Continental Europe, especially in Germany, where he found a faithful apostle in Eugen Diihring, whom he remembered in his will. Carey had some academic adherents, especially in Philadelphia, but his influence on the later development of a more disciplined and specialized economic science was slight.

Henry W. Spiegel

[For the historical context of Carey’s work, seeEconomic thought, article onMercantilist thought; Laissez-Faire; and the biographies ofBastiat; Comte; Malthus; Ricardo; Smith, Adam. See alsoEconomic growth; International trade.]


(1835) 1960 Essay on the Rate of Wages. New York: Kelley.

(1837−1840) 1960 Principles of Political Economy. 3 vols. in 1. New York: Kelley.

(1848) 1859 The Past, the Present, and the Future. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart.

(1851) 1890 The Harmony of Interests, Agricultural, Manufacturing and Commercial. Philadelphia: Skinner.

(1853) 1862 The Slave Trade, Domestic and Foreign: Why It Exists and How It May Be Extinguished. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart.

(1858−1860) 1963 Principles of Social Science. 3 vols. New York: Kelley.

1872 The Unity of Law: As Exhibited in the Relations of Physical, Social, Mental and Moral Science. Philadelphia: Baird.


Bernard, Luther L.; and Bernard, Jessie 1943 Origins of American Sociology: The Social Science Movement in the United States. New York: Crowell.

Cossa, Luigi (1876) 1893 An Introduction to the Study of Political Economy. London and New York: Macmillan. → First published as Economia politica.

Dorfman, Joseph (1946) 1965 The Economic Mind in American Civilization. Volumes 1−2: 1606−1865. New York: Kelley. → See especially Chapter 29.

Green, Arnold W. 1951 Henry Charles Carey: Nineteenth-century Sociologist. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Jenks, Jeremiah W. 1885 Henry C. Carey als Nationalökonom. Jena (Germany): Fischer.

Kaplan, Abraham D. H. 1931 Henry Charles Carey: A Study in American Economic Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Smith, George W. 1951 Henry C. Carey and American Sectional Conflict. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press.

Spiegel, Henry W. (editor) 1960 The Rise of American Economic Thought. Philadelphia: Chilton.

Teilhac, Ernest (1928) 1936 Pioneers of American Economic Thought in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Histoire de la pensée économique aux États-Unis au dix-neuvième siècle.

Turner, John R. 1921 The Ricardian Rent Theory in Early American Economics. New York Univ. Press. Walker, Francis A. (1883) 1888 Political Economy. 3d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Holt. → See especially pages 395−407.