Chalmers and Scottish Political Economy
(From an introduction by Anthony Waterman)

What then is the place of Thomas Chalmers in Scottish political economy? In one respect any rate, it is a little like the place of Lord Keynes in English political economy. He was the only internationally recognized public figure in the history of Scotland to achieve distinction as an economist. For more than two decades he compelled the often reluctant attention of Melbourne and Russell, Peel and Aberdeen. Thousands lined the streets of Edinburgh at his burial. The influence of Chalmers on economic policy debates in the United Kingdom Parliament has been documented by Boyd Hilton (1988).

More has been written about him in English, especially by way of biography, than any other nineteenth-century economist save Marx. Adam Smith and David Hume were well-known as ‘philosophers’ in France and England but were essentially private men, playing little part if any in great affairs of state. No other Scottish economist has enjoyed more than merely professional fame. He was also the last major economist to live and work in Scotland. It is not altogether far-fetched to see Chalmers as a very late chrysanthemum of the Scottish Enlightenment, withered suddenly by sharp evangelical frost in 1810. James Mill and J. R. M’Culloch, contemporary Scottish economists of comparable intellectual weight, early chose ‘the fairest prospect in Scotland’ and worked in England, Mill from 1802 and M’Culloch from 1828. John Rae emigrated to Canada in 1822. And Chalmers was a pioneer in the teaching of political economy in Scottish universities. Dugald Stewart’s annual lectures at the University of Edinburgh, beginning in the academic year 1799-80, were the first ever to be devoted, ostensibly and exclusively, to the new science. But they were more in the nature of what would now be called ‘outreach’, intended for and attracting an audience drawn from the general public and which included a number of distinguished visitors from England. M’Culloch gave somewhat similar public lectures in Edinburgh before moving to London.

Long before these, of course, Adam Smith had included much of what would later be called ‘political œconomy’ in his Glasgow University lectures on ‘Police’. So far as I can discover however, the courses in political economy that Chalmers offered during his last two years at St Andrews (1826-27, 1827-28) were the first in Scotland to be described as such, and recognized by the university as part of the formal undergraduate programme in Moral Philosophy. By contrast with England and Ireland, there were no professorial chairs in political economy in Scotland for several more decades. In Edinburgh, a chair in ‘Commercial and Political Economy’ was finally created in 1870. A lectureship in political economy was begun at Glasgow in 1892, and the Adam Smith chair founded in 1896. A chair in Political Economy was established at Aberdeen in 1921. And at Chalmers’s alma mater a Lectureship in Political Economy was begun in 1894 and a chair finally created in 1946. Thomas Chalmers appears to have been the only professor in the world to offer a course of lectures in political economy to Divinity students.

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