Carver, Thomas Nixon

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Carver, Thomas Nixon


From the late 1890s to the 1930s, Thomas Nixon Carver was one of America’s leading economists. He was born in 1865 on his father’s farm near Kirkville, Iowa, and after growing up there he became a farmer, first in Iowa and later in southern California. In 1889, in San Diego, he married an Iowa farm girl, Flora Kirkendall; the marriage lasted seventy years, until her death in 1959. Carver died in 1961.

Carver had some difficulty acquiring his education, but in 1891 he received his A.B. from the University of Southern California. In his senior year there he decided upon college teaching as his vocation, and the following fall he began graduate work at Johns Hopkins. Among his first economics teachers there were Richard T. Ely and John Bates Clark. Carver soon turned from the historical approach to economics advocated by Ely to the analytical approach represented by Clark. While still a graduate student he produced his first contribution to economic theory; his article “The Place of Abstinence in the Theory of Interest” (1893) established Carver’s reputation as an economic theorist.

After completing his PH.D. at Cornell in 1894, Carver held the chair of economics and sociology at Oberlin until his appointment to Harvard in 1900. The period of his Harvard career, 1900−1932, was the period of his most important work.

Carver taught courses in many fields. In economic theory he specialized in problems in the distribution of income and wealth. He did important pioneering work in the economics of agriculture, and for many years his sociology course—in which he presented, with his own revisions and additions, the ideas of Herbert Spencer—was almost the only Harvard course available in the field. Finally, Carver taught a famous course on programs of social reform, including socialism, in which he “took on” the radicals among the undergraduates and tried to convert them to his own devotion to free-enterprise capitalism.

Carver was at once an economist and a rather homespun social, moral, and political philosopher. Inseparably blended with his presentation of economic theory of the neoclassical type (marginal analysis) was his preaching of a politico-economic “gospel” that to him was both scientific and religious truth: that national societies of free individuals under limited governments, with economic systems controlled mainly by the free competition of all in free markets, are at once the best means to achieve national prosperity and strength and, uniquely, morally right.

The range of Carver’s writings was wide. The Distribution of Wealth, first published in 1904, was reissued many times. Carver wrote on agricultural economics, on sociology, and on more general problems of economic and political philosophy. He was the author of many elementary economics textbooks for high school and college and of numerous popular magazine articles.

Retiring from Harvard in 1932, he moved to Santa Monica, California, where he remained vigorously active until his death. He taught at the University of Southern California and continued to publish countless newspaper and magazine articles on economic problems. A lifelong, active member of the American Economic Association, whose president he had been in 1916, he regularly attended and took part in its annual meetings, generally contributing papers to their programs, to the last year of his life.

Although Carver’s homely expression of his controversial views often invited ridicule, he must be recognized not only as a justly eminent economist in his time but also as a significant figure in American intellectual history. His simple (in the best sense), sterling character and mind dealt habitually with the fundamental, general problems of our society, and he made substantial contributions both to economics and other social sciences and to popular enlightenment.

Overton H. Taylor

[For the historical context of Carver’s work, see the biographies ofClark, John B.; Ely; Spencer.]


1893 The Place of Abstinence in the Theory of Interest. Quarterly Journal of Economics 8:40−61.

1894 The Theory of Wages Adjusted to Recent Theories of Value. Quarterly Journal of Economics 8:377−402.

(1904) 1918 The Distribution of Wealth. New York: Macmillan.

(1911) 1932 Principles of Rural Economics. New ed. Boston and New York: Ginn.

1912 The Religion Worth Having. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.

1915 Essays in Social Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1923 Carver, Thomas Nixon; and Hall, H. B. Human Relations: An Introduction to Sociology. Boston: Heath.

1925 The Present Economic Revolution in the United States. Boston: Little.

1935 The Essential Factors in Social Evolution. Harvard Sociological Studies, Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

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Carver, Thomas Nixon

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