Charles Davenant (1656–1714) was one of the leading economic and political pamphleteers in the England of William III and Queen Anne. His writings have a literary distinction far above that of the average pamphlet of the time, and they show considerable skill in the use of the new techniques of “political arithmetic.” These qualities, combined with the air of judicious detachment that the author often succeeded in imparting, have misled many commentators into considering Davenant an independent and objective thinker. His pamphlets, however, are essentially occasional pieces, concerned with advancing a particular partisan cause and indeed frequently concerned with advancing the author’s own personal interests. Nevertheless, they are interesting examples of early economic analysis and were influential in promoting the increased use of quantitative argument on political and economic questions.
From 1678 to 1689 Davenant served as a commissioner of excise, but when a new commission was named after the accession of William in, he was omitted. This must have been a serious financial blow to him, and for the next five years he applied, without success, for reinstatement in the revenue service. His early writings represent a new approach to the same end. His first pamphlet, published in 1695, An Essay Upon Ways and Means of Supplying the War (1771, vol. 1, pp. 1–81), a number of unpublished “memorials” of that and the following year, and his Discourses on the Public Revenues, and on the Trade of England, Part I of 1698 (1771, vol. 1, pp. 125–302) can be regarded as an attempt to bring about an alteration in policy likely to redound to his own benefit. These works express disapproval of the financial measures of the Whig ministry and in particular of its use of long-term loans, which Davenant argued would prove detrimental to the economy. His counterproposal was an increase in excise taxation —the branch in which he had had experience.
But he had also a political objection to the loans, for they brought profits to the moneyed men, whom Davenant identified with the Whigs, and the greatest burden of taxation fell on the landed gentry, who were mainly Tories and whose interests Davenant came to espouse. This political side became more prominent, and at the end of An Essay Upon the Probable Methods of Making a People Gainers in the Balance of Trade (1771, vol. 2, pp. 163–382), published in 1699, Davenant gave up proposing changes in policy and launched an out-andout attack on the ministry and all its works. He was presumably convinced that his chances of advancement were better with the Tory opposition, and he went on to write several purely political pamphlets, the most celebrated being The True Picture of a Modern Whig (1771, vol. 4, pp. 125–180), published in 1701. These established him as the leading Tory pamphleteer. He was also identified with the extreme Tories in Parliament, where he sat from 1698 to 1701.
When his friends came to power on the accession of Anne in 1702, he was rewarded with the customs post of inspector-general of exports and imports, which he held until his death in 1714. This was not, however, enough to keep him out of financial difficulties, and he lived his last years largely on the charity of friends. His next work, in 1704, Essays Upon Peace at Home and War Abroad (1771, vol. 4, pp. 267–439; vol. 5, pp. 1–69), supported the new ministerial policy of “moderation” and infuriated his former extremist associates. When they returned to power in 1710, Davenant had to conciliate them with two partisan dialogues in his old style and with two Reports to the … Commissioners for … Public Accounts (1771, vol. 5, pp. 345–463) on the trade with France and Holland, which, although in the guise of impartial statistical studies, constituted in fact an economic argument in justification of the ministerial policy of deserting the Dutch and other allies and making a separate peace with France.
Davenant’s earlier writings on foreign trade are less political, but they reveal the same fears of the threat of Dutch rivalry to England’s trade. In An Essay on the East India Trade (1771, vol. 1, pp. 83–123) published in 1696, he argued that English textiles need not be protected against Indian goods. Some passages in this work have given rise to the myth that Davenant was an early free trader. His whole argument, however, is conceived in terms of the balance of trade, and he takes the line, as did earlier writers, such as Thomas Mun, that even if the “particular” balance with India is adverse, this is more than compensated for through the interdependence of different branches of international trade and that it is the country’s “general” balance of trade alone that matters. Two years later, in 1698, he elaborated this argument and applied it also to the “losing” trade with France in Discourses on the Public Revenues, and on the Trade of England, Part II (1771, vol. 1, pp. 343–459; vol. 2, pp. 1–162). He obtained some reward for these services from the East India Company and may also have been remunerated for his strong advocacy of the case of the Royal African Company in Reflections Upon the Constitution and Management of the Trade to Africa (1771, vol. 5, pp. 71–343), published in 1709.
Although Davenant’s personal career was not very successful, although he was on the losing side in almost every controversy he joined, and although his enemies had some grounds for regarding him as a self-seeking, mercenary time-server, his writings have a place in the history of economic thought and analysis; they set out tenable points of view held by significant bodies of minority opinion and often suggest a very genuine concern for the welfare of his country.
D. A. G. Waddell
For a complete list of works, see Waddell 1956. With the exception of Davenant 1710, all of Davenant’s important published works, including all titles mentioned in the text, are collected in Davenant 1771.
(1695–1696 ) 1942 Two Manuscripts by Charles Davenant. Edited by A. P. Usher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. → Contains A Memorial Concerning the Coyn of England, 1695, and A Memorial Concerning Creditt, 1696.
1710 Sir Thomas Double at Court, and in High Preferments. Volume 2: New Dialogues Upon the Present Posture of Affairs. London: Morphew.
1771 The Political and Commercial Works of That Celebrated Writer Charles D’Avenant. Edited by Charles Whitworth. 5 vols. London: Horsfield.
Biographical information is summarized in Waddell 1958. No satisfactory critical work has been published. Casper 1930 is an attempt to analyze Davenant’s economic ideas, and Ballière 1913 is a bald summary of his economic writings.
BalliÈre, Yvon 1913 L’oeuvre économique de Charles Davenant. Paris: Rivière.
Casper, Willy 1930 Charles Davenant: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis des englischen Merkantilismus. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Nationalökonomie, No. 7. Jena (Germany ): Fischer.
Waddell, D. A. G. 1956 The Writings of Charles Davenant. Library: A Quarterly Review of Bibliography 5th Series 11:206–212.
Waddell, D. A. G. 1958 Charles Davenant (1656–1714)—A Biographical Sketch. Economic History Review 2d Series 11:279–288.