Rogers, James E. Thorold

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Rogers, James E. Thorold




James Edwin Thorold Rogers (1823–1890), one of the founders of modern British economic history, was a vigorous and versatile scholar whose forceful personality and uninhibited pohtical partisanship directly affected his academic career. As an interpretative historian, he consistently stressed the economic basis of political issues. His personality is evident throughout his historical writings, especially in his prefaces; he repeatedly denounced the follies and injustices of his own and previous generations and boldly asserted his claims to originality and pre-eminence in his chosen field of research.

Rogers’ life began conventionally enough. He was born at West Meon, Hampshire, and after studying at Southampton School and King’s College, London, he graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford in 1846, the year of Richard Cobden’s free-trade triumph. An ardent High-churchman, he was ordained at Oxford, where he combined his clerical duties with a successful career as private tutor in classics and philosophy, examiner, and holder of various unpaid university administrative posts. About 1860, however, the whole pattern of his life changed. He abandoned the church because of his increasing dissatisfaction with the Tractarian movement and became a leading supporter of the Clerical Disabilities Relief Act of 1870—which he was the first to avail himself of. He turned from the classics to economic subjects, partly in response to suggestions made at the International Statistical Congress and partly because the Clarendon Press had refused to publish his Aristotelian dictionary. In 1861 he published Education in Oxford: Its Methods, Its Aids, and Its Rewards, which contained many severe criticisms of the university. He had already, in 1859, been appointed Tooke professor of statistics and economic science at King’s College, London, a post he retained until his death, and in 1862 he also became Drummond professor of political economy at Oxford, nominally a five-year appointment. Rogers’ tenure was characteristically energetic. He delivered frequent lectures enlivened by racy anecdotes and incisive comments on contemporary personalities and issues, and he published the first two volumes of his monumental History of Agriculture and Prices in England in 1866, as well as other works on political economy, ethics, law, and politics. Nevertheless, he failed to secure re-election in 1868, owing to a vigorous campaign by members of convocation who objected to his strictures on Oxford and his outspoken radical opinions.

This defeat reinforced Rogers’ iconoclasm and drew him inexorably toward politics, a field which brought out the boisterous and intemperate side of his nature. His political ideas were deeply influenced by his intimacy with Richard Cobden, whose sister had married Rogers’ elder brother. Rogers edited Cobden’s and Bright’s speeches (see Cobden 1870; Bright 1879), and the essays in his Cobden and Modern Political Opinion (1873) reveal his staunch adherence to free trade. In 1880, after an earlier unsuccessful candidacy, he entered the House of Commons and remained a member for six years. But he was neither a conspicuously successful nor active parliamentarian, for he continued to live at Oxford and pursue his scholarly activities. His most important writings include Six Centuries of Work and Wages (1884), which contains the preliminary results of his indefatigable researches, and four additional volumes of his History of Agriculture and Prices, which appeared in 1887. Volume 7, in two parts, was published posthumously, as was a volume of lectures, The Industrial and Commercial History of England (1892). These, like his earlier lectures entitled The Economic Interpretation of History (1888a), were delivered at Oxford, where Rogers was re-elected to the Drummond chair in 1888, following the death of Bonamy Price, his rival of the 1860s. This reinstatement was widely interpreted as an effort to make restitution for the earlier injustice, a verdict which Rogers himself did nothing to discourage.

As a scholar Rogers was too wayward, too much influenced by personal likes and dislikes. His scathing comments on Ricardo’s and Malthus’ “metaphysical” school of English political economy and his insistence on the need to base economic principles on an exhaustive examination of the facts made him a natural ally of the historical economists, who were attacking the doctrines and methods of classical economics during the 1870s and 1880s. Yet he was far too idiosyncratic to be a faithful member of any doctrinal school. Indeed, he greatly exaggerated his disagreements with Ricardo and Malthus, and in contrast to the histori-cists, he was profoundly influenced by Frédéric Bastiat’s laissez-faire ideas. Admittedly, he qualified his earlier uncritical adherence to the wages-fund doctrine and became a warm advocate of trade unions; but he made only minor concessions to those who desired an increase in government intervention in economic and social life.

As a historian Rogers was a great pioneer, but he lacked the indispensable qualities of modesty and caution. In contrast to his painstaking accumulations of price data, which he published with un-discriminating zeal, he made many sweeping and uncritical judgments about the past. His conviction that “all genuine facts are far more valuable than the inferences of any individual who uses them” (1866–1902, vol. 4, p. vi) was, therefore, borne out in his own case. At a time when historians were being increasingly influenced by evolutionary ideas, Rogers’ approach to the past was, as one contemporary critic observed, “cataclysmic” (Ashley 1889, p. 400; see also Gibbins 1891). He seriously overrated the pernicious influence of governmental policies, past and present, but his hostility toward all forms of privilege, his distaste for the governing classes, and his sympathy toward the workers made his books acceptable to several generations of students, especially in the world of adult education. Through this medium, in conjunction with Arnold Toynbee, Rogers helped to popularize the pessimistic view of the consequences of the industrial revolution that dominated English economic history almost until the 1940s.

A. W. Coats

[For the historical context of Rogers’ work, seeEconomic thought, article onthe historical school; History, article oneconomic history; and the biographies ofBastiatandToynbee.]


1861 Education in Oxford: Its Method, Its Aids, and Its Rewards. London: Smith & Elder.

1864 Primogeniture and Entail: Letters of J. E. T. Rogers and Henry Tupper and Others, on the History and Working of the Laws of Primogeniture and Entail, in Their Moral, Social and Political Aspects. Manchester (England): Ireland.

1866–1902 A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, From the Year After the Oxford Parliament (12S9) to the Commencement of the Continental War (1793). 7 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.

1867 Bribery. Pages 259–276 in Frank H. Hill et al., Questions for a Reformed Parliament. London: Macmillan.

(1868) 1876 A Manual of Political Economy for Schools and Colleges. 3d ed. rev. Oxford: Clarendon.

1869–1870 Historical Gleanings. 2 vols. First and Second Series. London: Macmillan.

1873 Cobden and Modern Political Opinion. London: Macmillan.

1883 Ensilage in America: Its Prospects in English Agriculture. London: Sonnenschein.

(1884) 1949 Six Centuries of Work and Wages: The History of English Labour. Edited with a new preface by G. D. H. Cole. London: Allen & Unwin.

1887 The First Nine Years of the Bank of England: An Enquiry Into a Weekly Record of the Price of Bank Stock From August 17, 1694 to September 17, 1703. New York: Macmillan.

1888a The Economic Interpretation of History. New York: Putnam.

1888b The Relations of Economic Science to Social and Political Action. London: Sonnenschein.

(1888c) 1900 Holland. New York: Putnam.

1892 The Industrial and Commercial History of England. Edited by Arthur G. L. Rogers. New York: Putnam. → Published posthumously.


AristotleAristotelis ethica nicomachea. London: Rivington, 1865.

Bright, John 1879 Public Addresses. London: Macmillan.

Cobden, Richard (1870) 1880 Speeches on Questions of Public Policy. Edited by John Bright and James E. Thorold Rogers. London: Macmillan.

Great Britain, Parliament, House of Lords 1875 Complete Collection of the Protests of the Lords, With Historical Introductions. Edited from the Journals of the Lords. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.

Oxford (City) 1891 Oxford City Documents: Financial and Judicial: 1268–1665. Oxford Historical Society Publication, No. 18. Oxford: Clarendon.

Smith, Adam (1776) 1869 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Oxford: Clarendon.


Ashley, W. J. 1889 James E. Thorold Rogers. Political Science Quarterly 4:381–407.

Gibbins, H. B. de 1891 In Memoriam: Thorold Rogers. Economic Review (London) 1:86–89.

Hewins, W. A. S. (1897) 1921 James Edwin Thorold Rogers. Volume 17, pages 123–126 in Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford University Press.

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