Cunningham, William

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Cunningham, William



William Cunningham (1849–1919), British economic historian, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the third son of James Cunningham, a prominent Edinburgh solicitor. After attending Edinburgh Academy, Cunningham became a student at Edinburgh University and studied for a short time in Tubingen. In 1869 he entered Caius College of Cambridge University to read moral science, and upon his graduation in 1872 he was bracketed top with F. W. Maitland, an honor that earned Cunningham a scholarship to Trinity College. He was a man of “overflowing vitality” (Scott 1920); this trait enabled him, after his ordination in 1873, to combine, with outstanding success, clerical and academic work. Between 1874 and 1878 he served in the industrial cities of Yorkshire and Lancashire as one of the first lecturers in the Cambridge University extension scheme. Before this time his academic training and interests had been mainly philosophical, but he now turned increasingly toward economics and history.

He returned to Cambridge in 1878. The following year he was appointed an examiner in the Cambridge history tripos and found that the examination included a paper on political economy and economic history, although the latter subject was not being taught. Cunningham decided to teach economic history, and the first edition of The Growth of English Industry and Commerce (1882) was prepared as a textbook for his courses. From 1884 to 1888 he was a university lecturer in history and from 1888 to 1891 a lecturer at Trinity College. His appointment as Tooke professor of economics at King’s College, London, from 1891 to 1897, was a tribute to a rapidly established reputation. He would have resided in London had he not been elected in 1891 to a fellowship of Trinity College. An honorary fellowship of Caius College followed in 1895. In 1899 he was lecturer in economic history at Harvard; he returned to Harvard as Lowell lecturer in 1914. He was active in the economic section of the British Association (president in 1891 and 1905) and was a foundation member of the British Academy, president of the Royal Historical Society from 1910 to 1913, and proctor for the clergy in convocation (helping to write, in 1906, an important report on clerical poverty).

It was at Cambridge that Cunningham’s great and enduring work in economic history was done. He was, more than anyone else, responsible for the recognition and establishment of economic history as an independent discipline in the universities of Britain, where it is the only branch of history with, usually, its own department and, often, its own degree. Cunningham’s achievements were, first, to demonstrate the importance of economic history for both history and economics and, second, to stimulate research and teaching in economic history by a stream of publications of high quality. Cunningham gave economic history in Britain both status and content: before him, only J. Thorold Rogers could claim to have been an economic historian in the professional sense; after him, economic history attracted some of the most talented of historians and inspired some of the best historical writing.

Cunningham, with his contemporary W. J. Ashley, outlined the subject matter of economic history, established its methods of inquiry, and defined its problems for at least the next half century. Cunningham’s Growth was the first major historical work to sketch systematically the periods and features of English economic history. Cunningham was responsible for many revisions of accepted historical opinion, the most enduring being his favorable revaluation of mercantilism. His economic history suffered, however, from being too simply conceived as the story of national development within a framework largely established by the political historians. Economic legislation, and the policy behind it, played the major role in Cunningham’s economic history. This led him into bias; for example, he believed mistakenly that Edward in had pursued a consistent economic policy and, for a later period, he exaggerated the extent of the transition in England from state control to laissezfaire.

All of Cunningham’s views were carefully established and strongly held, and he was constantly involved in controversy about history, economics, theology, and academic and clerical administration. Two controversies, one academic and one political, were particularly important. The academic controversy concerned method. Cunningham believed that history was essential to economics in order to prevent economics from becoming an abstract branch of social philosophy, and his advocacy of the historical method precipitated a minor Methodenstreit in England. He argued that economists were unable to give guidance on contemporary affairs because of their ignorance of facts and of “the empirical study of the phenomena of the past.” He believed in “the relativity of economic doctrine” and that economic history was “the best propaedeutic to political economy.” In a famous article Cunningham attacked the economists for what he called “the perversion of economic history” by the neglect of “the serious study of facts” (1892); this provoked a pained reply from Alfred Marshall and caused him to revise the economic history in Book I of his Principles of Economics. It also established more firmly the claims of economic history to a place in the training of economists.

The second controversy concerned protection. Cunningham was an early critic of laissez-faire and had much sympathy for the Sozialpolitik of the German nationalist economists. He was, indeed, a patriot, with a strong sense of Britain’s greatness and imperial responsibilities. This greatness, he believed, was based mainly on industrial strength, which in the long run could only be preserved by trade protection within an imperialist framework. He was thus for many years one of the few academics who vigorously supported the protectionist movement. He did not live long enough, however, to see either the resurgence of empirical economics or the end of free trade.

R. M. Hartwell

[Directly related is the entryHistory, article oneconomic history.]


(1882) 1910–1912 The Growth of English Industry and Commerce. 3 vols., 5th ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.

1892 The Perversion of Economic History. Economic Journal 2:491–506.

(1895) 1904 Cunningham, William; and Mcarthur, Ellen A. Outlines of English Industrial History. Cambridge Historical Series. New York and London: Macmillan.

1896 Modern Civilization in Some of Its Economic Aspects. London: Methuen.

1897 Alien Immigrants to England. London: Sonnenschein; New York: Macmillan.

1902 Economic Change. Volume 1, pages 493–531 in Cambridge Modern History. New York and London: Macmillan.

(1904) 1905 The Rise and Decline of the Free Trade Movement. 2d ed. London: Clay.

1911 The Case Against Free Trade. Preface by Joseph Chamberlain. London: Murray.

(1916) 1925 The Progress of Capitalism in England. New York and London: Macmillan.


Cunningham, Audrey 1950 William Cunningham: Teacher and Priest. Preface by F. R. Salter. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Foxwell, Herbert S. 1919 Archdeacon Cunningham (obituary). Economic Journal 29:382–390.

Knowles, Lilian 1919 Archdeacon Cunningham (obituary). Economic Journal 29:390–393.

Scott, William R. 1920 William Cunningham, 1849–1919. British Academy, Proceedings 9:465–474.

William Cunningham [obituary]. 1919 The Times (London) June 11, p. 16, col. 3.