Walker, Francis A.

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Walker, Francis A.



Francis Amasa Walker (1840-1897), American economist and statistician, was born in Boston, the offspring of an old New England family. His father, Amasa Walker, a prominent manufacturer, retired from business the year of his son’s birth and devoted the remainder of his life to public service and economic studies, becoming the outstanding American economist of his time, a distinction later assumed by his son.

Walker attended Amherst College and subse quently served in the Civil War; less than five years after graduation he was brevetted brigadier general. After the war he was called to Washington as chief of the bureau of statistics in the Treasury Department. He proved to be an administrator of great ability and was appointed superintendent of the censuses of 1870 and 1880. In these positions he acquitted himself with great distinction. Doing such work also provided him with the opportunity of becoming acquainted with a huge mass of statistical data relating to the economy of the United States.

Guided by his father, Walker studied economics and in 1872 was appointed professor of political economy and history at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. The decade which followed was one of unusual literary productivity. In 1876 Walker published The Wages Question; in 1878 a long discussion entitled Money; in 1879 a briefer one, Money in Its Relations to Trade and Industry; in 1883 both Land and Its Rent and a full-length textbook, Political Economy. Meanwhile, in 1881, Walker had been appointed president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in this post again proved to be an able administrator. In spite of the pressure of new duties, Walker’s interest in economics continued. He became the leader of the profession, serving as president of the long-established American Statistical Association from 1883 to 1896 and helping the new and at the time controversial American Economic Association on its way by serving as its first president from 1886 to 1892. In addition, he held a large number of public offices, ranging from membership on the New Haven Board of Education, where he favored the discontinuation of religious exercises in public schools, to an appointment as U.S. commissioner to the International Monetary Conference, which convened at Paris in 1878. He took a stand on many public issues, including parochial schools and the “new immigration,” both of which he opposed. In politics he was a Republican but turned “mugwump” in 1884 and voted for Grover Cleveland.

Walker’s economic views differed from those of earlier American economists in a number of important respects. He considered economics a science rather than an art, concerned with principles rather than precepts. Economists, he said, ought “to teach and not to preach” (1899a). Walker also refused to adhere to the opinion dear to many protectionists that economics should be developed in the form of a “national political economy” that would lend itself to immediate application to practical politics. He was not a dogmatic exponent of laissez-faire; rather, he recognized the existence of economic conflicts of various sorts and referred to instances of “imperfect competition” calling for the intervention of the government. In the field of distribution Walker generalized Ricardo’s concept of differential rent and applied it to the earnings of entrepreneurs. Wages appeared to him as a residual share left over after the product had been diminished by rent, interest, and profit. This over-all theory of distribution did not win many adherents. It placed a ceiling on the earnings of labor no less effectively than that imposed by the old wages-fund doctrine, according to which wages are the quotient of the employers’ “wages fund” divided by the number of workers. This doctrine Walker demolished with lasting effect by making wages a function of the product, and it is for this contribution that he is remembered best in the history of economic thought.

Walker’s views of monetary questions were given forceful expression in International Bimetallism (1896). In the face of a gold supply that was inadequate relative to the growth of the world economy, Walker strongly urged the international monetization of silver.

In the field of statistics Walker was a pioneer in supplementing tabular presentation with graphic material, sometimes shown in color. The Statistical Atlas of the United States, published under his editorship in 1874, set new standards for official statistical publications. The rise of statistics as an increasingly important field of professional specialization was in no small measure due to Walker’s influence in the academic world as well as to his efforts aiming at the establishment of a permanent staff for the census. As a publicist who could count on a wide audience he made the public aware of the importance of adequate statistical data. Here as well as in his other pursuits he was also a leading figure in the international field.

Henry W. Spiegel

[See alsoRent; Wages, article on Theory.]


(1876) 1904 The Wages Question: A Treatise on Wages and the Wages Class. New York; Holt.

(1878) 1891 Money. New York: Holt.

(1879) 1907 Money in Its Relations to Trade and Industry. New York: Holt.

(1883a) 1891 Land and Its Rent. Boston: Little.

(1883b) 1888 Political Economy. 3d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Holt.

1896 International Bimetallism. New York: Holt.

1899a Discussions in Economics and Statistics. 2 vols. New York: Holt. → Volume 1: Finance and Taxation, Money and Bimetallism, Economic Theory. Volume 2: Statistics, Natural Growth, Social Economics. Published posthumously.

1899bDiscussions in Education. New York: Holt. →Published posthumously.


Dewey,Davis R. 1934 Walker, Francis Amasa. Volume 15, pages 323-324 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Dorfman, Joseph 1949 General Francis A. Walker: Revisionist. Volume 3, pages 101-110 in Joseph Dorfman, The Economic Mind in American Civilization. New York: Viking.

Dunbar, Charles F. 1897 The Career of Francis Amasa Walker. Quarterly Journal of Economics 11:436-448. → Originally published in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Fitzpatrick, Paul J. 1957 Leading American Statisticians in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of the American Statistical Association 52:301-321.

Fitzpatrick, Paul J. 1962 The Development of Graphic Presentation of Statistical Data in the United States. Social Science 37:203-214.

Hutchison, T. W. (1953) 1962 A Review of Economic Doctrines, 1870-1929. Oxford: Clarendon.

Laughlin, J. Laurence 1897 Francis Amasa Walker. Journal of Political Economy 5:228-236.

Munroe, James P. 1923 A Life of Francis Amasa Walker. New York: Holt. → Includes a bibliography of Walker’s writings and addresses.

Spiegel, Henry W. 1960 Francis A. Walker. Pages 143-153 in Henry W. Spiegel (editor), The Rise of American Economic Thought. Philadelphia: Chilton.

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

Wright, Carroll D. 1897 Francis Amasa Walker. Journal of the American Statistical Association 5:245-290. → A bibliography of Walker’s writings and addresses appears on pages 276-290.