McCulloch, John Ramsay

views updated

McCulloch, John Ramsay



John Ramsay McCulloch (1789–1864), economist and statistician, was born in Scotland, the son of a small landowner. He studied law in Edinburgh but soon abandoned that field in favor of political economy. His first publication, which appeared in 1816, called for a reduction of the rate of interest on the national debt on both theoretical and practical grounds and led to a correspondence with Ricardo. When Ricardo’s Principles appeared in 1817, McCulloch immediately supplied a masterful digest of the book to the Edinburgh Review, the most popular quarterly of the day. For the next twenty years almost every issue of the Review carried an article by him. At the same time, he contributed to the Scotsman, and from 1818 to 1820 he edited this famousliberal paper.

In 1820 he went to London, where he taught economics privately. After Ricardo died in 1823, his friends and admirers chose McCulloch to de-liver the Ricardo memorial lectures at a privately rented hall. These lectures were expanded into an outline of basic principles in the article on political economy for the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1824a); in this article McCulloch equates Ricardo’s brand of economics with the science itself. It was succeeded by a formal treatise, The Principles of Political Economy (1825), a work which had considerable vogue until J. S. Mill’s work of the same title (1848) supplanted it. There followed A Treatise on the Circumstances Which Determine the Rate of Wages (1826), to which the Webbs later drew attention by calling McCulloch “the inventor of the wages fund doctrine” (Webb & Webb 1897). However, this doctrine is to be found in Adam Smith’s writings, as well as in Ricardo’s, and McCulloch did not contribute anything new to its presentation.

Academic security eluded him all his life. In 1828 he was appointed to an unendowed chair at the newly founded University College in London. He resigned the position in 1832 because no donor had come forward to endow the chair. Earlier an attempt to make him the first incumbent of a new chair of political economy at the University of Edinburgh had also been unsuccessful. At last, in 1838 he obtained a lifetime sinecure as comptroller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. He took little part in the activities of the department and, although he had by then abandoned journalism, he continued to publish books and pamphlets on economic subjects.

It was McCulloch, more than any other man, who was responsible for Ricardo’s enormous influence upon the economic thinking of the times. He was, however, more than Ricardo’s spokesman; he was the greatest economic publicist of his day — so much so that all those who detested political economy invariably selected him as their whipping boy. He appears, Scots accent and all, as “McGroudy” in Carlyle; as “MacFungus” expounding “ecoonoomical science” in Peacock; andas “The Scot” in that old Victorian favorite Noctes Ambrosianae, by Christopher North. Today he is chiefly remembered as a prime example of the zealous, dogmatic disciple. But devoted disciple though he was, he did not endorse all of Ricardo’s opinions: he condemned Ricardo’s volte face on the question of technological unemployment; he never fully accepted the theory of comparative advantage; and he always qualified Ricardo’s theory of profit. In later years he openly admitted defects in the Ricardian system.

An indifferent theorist, McCulloch appears at his best in his statistical and descriptive compendia rather than in his theoretical writings. His Dictionary. .. of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (1832), much of which was embodied in his later treatise A Descriptive and Statistical Account ofthe British Empire (1837), demonstrated his encyclopedic knowledge of the British economy, and it remains tothis day an authoritative reference work. Moreover, he deserves to be regarded as the first professional historian of economic thought. A Discourse on the Rise. .. of Political Economy, first published in 1824 and then appended to his Principles, was the first attempt in any language to project a formal history of this subject. Later contributions to the historiography of economics consisted of an edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1828, with copious notes; an edition of the works of Ricardo in 1846, with a famous biography; numerous reprints of scarce tracts; and a celebrated catalogue raisonne, The Literature of Political Economy (1845a), based upon his own magnificent collection of economic works.

Unlike other members of Ricardo’s circle, McCulloch did not subscribe to radicalism in politics, nor did he share the utilitarian enthusiasm for land reform. His outlook was that of a liberal Tory, optimistic but conservative. He always took exception to the gloomy implications of the Malthusian theory of population. He hesitated to condemn thepoor laws entirely and, in contrast to most other economists of the day, disapproved of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Although a convinced free trader, he never joined Richard Cobden and John Bright in demanding immediate and total repeal of the corn laws. In his days as a journalist, he achieved notoriety as an apologist for the new factory system, but in later years he grew increasingly uneasy about the consequences of the indus-trial revolution.

Mark Blaug

[For the historical context of McCulloch’s work, see the biography of Ricardo.]


1824a Political Economy. Supplement, Volume 6, pages 216–278 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Edinburgh: Constable.

1824b A Discourse on the Rise, Progress, Peculiar Objects, and Importance, of Political Economy: Containing an Outline of a Course of Lectures on the Principles and Doctrines of That Science. Edinburgh: Constable. → Later appended to McCulloch 1825.

(1824c) 1921 The Founding of the Political Economy Club. Volume 6, page 41 in Political Economy Club of London, Minutes of Proceedings, 1899–1920; Roll of Members and Questions Discussed, 1821–1920; With Documents Bearing on the History of the Club. Centenary Volume. London: Macmillan. → The John-sonian flavor of McCulloch’s mind is best conveyed by his impromptu observations at the Political Economy Club and by letters in Ricardo 1817–1823.

(1825) 1886 The Principles of Political Economy. London: Ward.

(1826) 1868 A Treatise on the Circumstances Which Determine the Rate of Wages, and the Conditions of the Labouring Classes... London: Longmans. → First published as An Essay on the Circumstances.. .

(1832) 1882 A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical, of Commerce and Commercial Navigation. London: Longmans.

(1837) 1854 A Descriptive and Statistical Account of the British Empire. 4th ed., rev., 2 vols. London: Long-mans. → First published as A Statistical Account of the British Empire.

(1845a) 1938 The Literature of Political Economy. London School of Economics and Political Science Series of Reprints of Scarce Works on Political Economy, No. 5. London School of Economics and Political Science.

(1845k) 1863 A Treatise on the Principles and Practical Influence of Taxation and the Funding System. 3d ed. Edinburgh: Black.

1848 A Treatise on the Succession to Property Vacant by Death. London: Longmans.


Blaug, Mark 1958 Ricardian Economics: A Historical Study. Yale University Studies in Economics, No. 8. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Bonar, James 1895 John Ramsay McCulloch. Part 6, pages 1-5 in Bernard Quaritch (editor), Contributions Towards a Dictionary of English Book-collectors. London: Quaritch.

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.

Halevy, Elie (1901–1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.

Mill, John Stuart (1848) 1961 Principles of Political Economy, With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. 7th ed. Edited by W. J. Ashley. New York: Kelley.

Ricardo, David (1809–1823) 1951–1955 Works an Correspondence. Edited by Piero Sraffa. 10 vols. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Volumes 6 through 9 contain Ricardo’s correspondence.

Smith, Adam (1776) 1950 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 6th ed., 2 vols. Edited, with an introduction, notes, marginal Summary, and an enlarged index, by Edwin Cannan. London: Methuen. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Irwin.

Taussig, Frank W. (1896) 1932 Wages and Capital: An Examination of the Wages Fund Doctrine. London School of Economics and Political Science.

Webb, Sidney; and Webb, Beatrice (1897) 1920 Industrial Democracy. New ed. 2 vols. in 1. London and New York: Longmans.

About this article

McCulloch, John Ramsay

Updated About content Print Article