Seligman, Edwin R. A.

views updated

Seligman, Edwin R. A.



Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman (1861–1939), American economist, was editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences from 1927 to 1935 and McVickar professor of political economy at Columbia University from 1904 to 1931. He was born in New York City, where his father was a banker prominent in national and international circles. Until the age of 11, Seligman was educated at home, his tutor being Horatio Alger, Jr. From the Columbia Grammar School Seligman entered Columbia College, shortly after his fourteenth birthday, and received his A.B. in 1879. He became proficient in the German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Dutch languages. After attending the universities at Berlin, Heidelberg, and Paris, in 1882 he began graduate studies in economics at Columbia and, “to have a second arrow in the quiver,” also studied law. In 1884 he received both an M.A. and an LL.B., and in 1885, his PH.D. Also in 1885 Seligman was admitted to the New York bar and was appointed lecturer in economics in the newly formed faculty of political science at Columbia University. Three years later he became adjunct professor of political economy; in 1891 he was appointed professor of political economy and finance, a post he held until 1931. He served for many years as chairman of the department of economics. In the 1920s Seligman received honorary doctoral degrees from the universities of Paris and Heidelberg.

Seligman’s immense energy, wide-ranging interests, and sense of social responsibility led him to participate in the work of academic, governmental, and civic organizations and committees, especially those promoting social reform. He was a member of the Social Reform Club of New York City, the Educational Alliance, the Political Economy Club, Greenwich House (a settlement house), and the Society for Ethical Culture and served as president of the last two organizations and as chairman of the Bureau of Municipal Research. He was secretary of the Committee of Fifteen, whose 1902 report, The Social Evil, revealed the economic links of corruption between prostitution and the New York City police.

Seligman was a leader in the founding of the American Economic Association (AEA) and served as its president from 1902 to 1904. He also served a term as president of the National Tax Association, from 1913 to 1915. He helped to establish both the City Club of New York, which has worked for the improvement of civic conditions since its founding in 1892, and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in 1915; he was AAUP president from 1919 to 1920. Seligman was an effective champion of academic freedom. He was the chairman of the AEA committee that wrote the first report on this subject in the United States, the occasion being the dismissal of Edward A. Ross from Stanford [See the biography of Ross], and he was also chairman of the AAUP committee that in 1915 wrote the fundamental Report on Academic Freedom. In the field of his specialty, public finance, Seligman was also active: he was a member of special tax commissions of New York State in 1906 and 1930; chairman of the Mayor’s Commission on Taxation and Finance, New York City, 1914–1916; expert adviser to the New York State Joint Legislative Tax Committee, 1919–1922; member, with Bruins, Einaudi, and Stamp, of the League of Nations Committee on Economics and Finance, 1922–1923, which produced the report Double Taxation; and, in 1931, consultant to the government of Cuba.

When the study of political economy at Columbia became more specialized, Seligman accepted responsibility for the then neglected field of public finance, but he also developed a continuing interest in the history of economic doctrine. This interest led to his giving a course on this subject and to his famous collection of books, pamphlets, and other items on economics, now in the Columbia University library. He was one of the small group of scholars that established economics as a recognized discipline in the United States.

Seligman’s intellectual influence was wide, several of his books being translated into more than one of the leading languages. It has extended to the present, largely through his contributions to the history of economic thought, reflecting the stimulus he received at Paris, and through the clarity and appropriateness of his conceptual and categorizing contributions. The former achievement is illustrated by his article “On Some Neglected British Economists” (first published in 1903; see [1886–1925] 1925); the latter, by the introductory chapter of The Shifting and Incidence of Taxation (1892), “The Classification of Public Revenues” (see 1895), and his analysis of ability-to-pay and faculty concepts in taxation (see 1928). More than one present-day treatise, particularly in Europe, refers frequently to Seligman’s conceptual and historical contributions.

Although Seligman did not entirely escape error in attempting to apply the newly developing price theory to the substantive part of Shifting and Incidence, he did enliven the doctrinal atmosphere with his vigorous approach and equally vigorous counterthrusts when challenged. His exchanges with Francis Y. Edgeworth were enlightening. Seligman’s treatise was a pioneering achievement in its treatment of the history of doctrine and in its arrangement and development of a difficult subject.

Seligman’s writings on taxation, quite influential in their day, are less cited now, either because the paths he opened up were later explored further by so many, or because the terminology he originated soon passed into common use, or because the reforms he advocated were adopted. Among his useful contributions were his Progressive Taxation in Theory and Practice (1894), The Income Tax (1911), and his writings on the property tax, all of which also embody his desire, arising from the contrast between his American and European training, to build a bridge between the deductive and the historical-comparative schools, with emphasis on the latter, which he felt had been neglected in the United States.

Seligman also wrote extensively outside public finance. Some of these contributions were widely accepted for many years, especially The Economic Interpretation of History (1902), which proved influential in developing analysis in this area. Among his interests in applied economics were problems of railroads, unemployment, the fur and jewelry trades, installment selling, agriculture, and resale price maintenance.

It was this catholicity of interest, together with an exceptional erudition and a broad acquaintance with scholars of many countries, that enabled Seligman, toward the close of his career, to make one of his most notable contributions, as a chief promoter of, fund raiser for, and editor-in-chief of the English-language Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, to which he also contributed articles and biographies.

Seligman, formal in the lecture room, was a man of warm temperament, with an intense personal interest in the material and intellectual welfare of his students. Through them and through his own writings, he opened up the field of public finance in the United States both to scholarship and to measures of reform.

Carl S. Shoup

[See alsoInstallment Credit; Taxation.]


(1886–1925) 1925 Essays in Economics. New York: Macmillan.1887 Two Chapters on the Mediaeval Guilds of England.

Baltimore: American Economic Association.(1892) 1927 The Shifting and Incidence of Taxation. 5th ed., rev. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.(1894) 1908 Progressive Taxation in Theory and Practice. 2d ed., rev. enl. Princeton, N.J.: American Economic Association.

(1895) 1928 Essays in Taxation. 10th ed., rev. NewYork: Macmillan.

(1900–1925) 1925 Studies in Public Finance. New York: Macmillan.

(1902) 1934 The Economic Interpretation of History. 2d ed., rev. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1961.

(1905) 1929 The Principles of Economics, With Special Reference to American Conditions. 12th ed. New York: Longmans.

(1911) 1914 The Income Tax: A Study of the History, Theory, and Practice of Income Taxation at Home and Abroad. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Macmillan.

1926 Social Theory of Fiscal Science. Political Science Quarterly 41:193–218, 354–383.

1927 The Economics of Instalment Selling: A Study in Consumers.’ Credit, With Special Reference to the Automobile. 2 vols. New York and London: Harper.

1928 Double Taxation and International Fiscal Cooperation. New York: Macmillan.

1929a Autobiography. Volume 2, pages 117–160 in Felix Meiner (editor), Die Volkswirtschaftslehre der Gegenwart in Selbstdarstellungen. Leipzig: Meiner.

1929b The Economics of Farm Relief: A Survey of the Agricultural Problem. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1930 What Are the Social Sciences? Volume 1, pages 3–7 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1932 Income Tax. Volume 7, pages 626–639 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1932 Seligman, Edwin R. A.; and Love, Robert A. Price Cutting and Price Maintenance: A Study in Economics. New York and London: Harper.

1934 Public Finance. Volume 12, pages 637–646 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.


[The BIBLIOGRAPHY of] Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman. 1931 Pages 25–43 in Columbia University, Faculty of Political Science, A BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . 1880–1930. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Dorfman, Joseph (editor) 1941 Seligman Correspondence. Political Science Quarterly 56:107–124, 270–286, 392–419, 573–599.

Dorfman, Joseph 1946–1959 The Economic Mind in American Civilization. 5 vols. New York: Viking.

Dorfman, Joseph 1955 The Department of Economics. Pages 161–206 in Ralph G. Hoxie et al., A History of the Faculty of Political Science, Columbia University. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman, 1861–1939: Addresses Delivered at the Memorial Meeting Held on December the Thirteenth, 1939. 1942 Stamford, Conn.: Overbrook.