Cairnes, John Elliot (DNB00)

CAIRNES, JOHN ELLIOT (1823–1875), economist, was born at Castle Bellingham, Co. Louth, 26 Dec. 1828. He was the sixth child and eldest surviving son of William Cairnes by his wife, Mary Anne (Wolsey). His father was partner in a brewery in Castle Bellingham, and two years after the son's birth took a brewery in Drogheda. When eight years old the boy was sent to a boarding school at Kingstown, and at fourteen or fifteen was placed with a clergyman named Hutton at Chester. Mr. Hutton thought him a dull boy, and told his father that he was unfit for college. He was therefore placed in his father's house at Drogheda, and stayed there three years, during which he learnt some chemistry, and became intimate with a young man named La Bart. La Bart's influence drew him for a time towards Calvinism, and the young men held prayer meetings together, while Cairnes also began to develope intellectual tastes. He read Gibbon and many other books, and gradually took a dislike to business. His desire to go to college now led to a coolness with his father, which lasted for some years. His father, however, made him a small allowance, upon which he lived at Trinity College, Dublin. He graduated as B.A. in 1848, and as M.A. in 1854. He led a desultory life for some time, studying chemistry occasionally, and at one time entered an engineer's office at Galway. Here he became acquainted with Professor Nesbitt of Queen's College, Galway. Nesbitt turned his attention to political economy, and advised him to compete for the Whately professorship of political economy at Dublin. He won this upon an examination in 1856, and held it for the regular term of five years. He delivered his first course of lectures in the Hilary term of 1857, and published them in the same year as 'The Character and Logical Method of Political Economy' (second edition in 1875). In 1859 he was appointed professor of political economy and jurisprudence in Queen's College, Galway. He had been called to the Irish bar in the Michaelmas term 1857, but never seriously practised. In 1860 he injured his knee by an accident in hunting, the consequences of which were ultimately fatal to his health. He visited Aix-les-Bains the same year, and was apparently cured, but the mischief reappeared and gradually became worse. In 1860 he married Eliza Charlotte, daughter of George Henry Minto Alexander, officiating judge at Banda, India. Her sister was the wife of his great friend, Professor Nesbitt. In 1862 he established his reputation by his work on ‘The Slave Power,’ the most powerful defence of the cause of the Northern states ever written. It made a great impression both in England and America (a second edition, ‘greatly enlarged, with a new preface,’ appeared in 1863). In 1865 he settled at Mill Hill, near London, where the dampness of the situation was very prejudicial to his health. In 1866 he was appointed professor of political economy in University College, London. Renewed attacks of ill health in the shape of rheumatic gout forced him to pay several visits to foreign baths. A severe operation in 1868 gave him some relief, but he was in time completely crippled. In the spring of 1870 he settled at Lee, near Blackheath, and two years later at Kidbrooke Road, Blackheath. Here he remained for the rest of his life, becoming by degrees a more hopeless invalid, but never losing his cheerfulness or his intellectual vigour. He was a near neighbour and a warm friend of J. S. Mill, and was especially intimate with the late Henry Fawcett and Mr. L. H. Courtney, both of whom constantly visited him. Through them and other friends, as well as by his occasional writings, he exercised considerable political influence. He was deeply interested in questions of national education in Ireland, being always a strong advocate of united education. He took an energetic part in the opposition to the supplementary charter of the Queen's Colleges in 1865–6, which was ultimately pronounced invalid by the master of the rolls. He also did much to inspire the successful opposition to Mr. Gladstone's scheme of an Irish university in 1873. During this time he contemplated a book upon the economical history of Ireland, and upon finding the task too much for his strength worked up the fragments, together with various papers upon the education question, into a volume called ‘Political Essays,’ published in 1873. In that year appeared also a volume of ‘Essays on Political Economy, Theoretical and Applied,’ containing some articles upon the change in the value of gold which had originally been published in ‘Fraser's Magazine.’ The predictions in these articles were remarkably verified by the statistical researches of Professor Stanley Jevons made some years later in ignorance of Cairnes's speculations. A remarkable book, entitled ‘Some Leading Principles of Political Economy newly explained,’ appeared in 1874. In the same year the honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the university of Dublin, though he was unable to present himself to receive it. Cairnes at the time of his death was undoubtedly at the head of living economists. Although in the main a follower of J. S. Mill, and therefore of the so-called orthodox school, he was a strikingly original thinker, and did more than any one else to develope the doctrine which he accepted. His statement of the wages fund theory is particularly worth notice. In private life he was a man of singular charm of conversation, even when quite disabled physically. He died, after long suffering, borne with heroic patience, on 8 July 1875, leaving a widow and three children.

Besides the works above mentioned the following have been published separately:

  1. ‘The Southern Confederacy and the Slave Trade, a correspondence between Professor C. and G. M'Henry (reprinted from the Daily News), with introduction by G. B. Wheeler,’ 1863.
  2. ‘Who are the Canters?’ (No. 3 of a series of tracts published by the Ladies' Emancipation Society), 1863.
  3. ‘England's Neutrality in the American Contest,’ reprinted, with additions, from ‘Macmillan's Magazine,’ 1864.
  4. ‘University Education in Ireland, a letter to J. S. Mill,’ 1866.
  5. ‘University Education in Ireland,’ reprinted from the ‘Theological Review,’ 1866.
  6. ‘Woman Suffrage,’ a reply to Goldwin Smith, reprinted from ‘Macmillan's Magazine’ of September 1874.

He published many articles in the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ his last contribution being an interesting criticism of ‘Mr. Herbert Spencer on Social Evolution’ in the numbers for January and February 1875.

[Information from Mrs. Cairnes; Times, 8 July 1875 (article by L. H. Courtney); H. Fawcett in Fortnightly Review for August 1875; personal knowledge.]

L. S.