Petty's Place in the History of Economic Theory

Petty's Place in the History of Economic Theory  (1900)  by Charles Henry Hull
Introduction and Contents

published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 1900, pp. 307-340





MAY, 1900


The economic and statistical writings of Sir William Petty (1623-1687) are only a fraction of the total output of his diligent pen. Still their bulk is as great as that of Ricardo's Principles and nearly twice that of Menger's Grundsätze.[1] To give an exhaustive account of them in the pages of this Journal is, therefore, impracticable. Lack of space equally with lack of knowledge precludes likewise the indication here of all the actual or possible relations between them and the writings of later economists. This is, however, by no means a ground for unmixed regret. Laborious disentanglement of the course of thought concerning this or that economic problem has, no doubt, its usefulness. But the value of such elaborate Dogmengeschichte as has been produced by Zuckerkandl[2] and Bergmann[3]—I select two writers who assign to Petty a prominent place—seems to lie quite as much in the intellectual stimulus afforded by a comprehensive survey of the subject from differing points of view as in any contribution made to our understanding of the way in which knowledge grows or theory accretes. No doubt a closer and closer interfiliation of theories does take place as the class of professional economists becomes more numerous and active, the discussions in journals more frequent and animated. But two hundred years ago our apparatus for conserving and incubating economic ideas did not exist. Writers of that day for the most part turned their attention but casually to the field of economic pamphleteering, and were as disregardful of their predecessors as their successors were of them. In treating of a seventeenth-century economist, therefore, I believe that more false inferences will be avoided than truths overpassed by refusing to recognize any lines of descent except those that can be clearly proved in court.

  1. The original pamphlets have become scarce. They are reprinted in The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty, together with the Observations upon the Bills of Mortality, more probably by Captain John Graunt. Edited by C. H. Hull. Cambridge: at the University Press. 1899. 2 vols., 8vo.
  2. Zur Theorie des Preises, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der geschichtlichen Entwickelung der Lehre, 1889.
  3. Geschichte der nationalökonomischen Krisentheorieen. 1895.


Chapter I. pag. 308
II. 313
III. 321
IV. 332
V. 338