John Elliott Cairnes

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Cairnes, John Elliott, LL.D., a distinguished political economist, was born at Castlebellingham, 26th December 1823. After leaving school, he spent some time in his father's counting-house, but was eventually permitted to follow his natural bent, and enter Trinity College. In 1851 he took the degree of M. A. He engaged in the study of law, and was called to the Irish Bar. He does not appear to have felt much inclination for the legal profession, and during some years occupied himself to a large extent with contributions to the daily press, chiefly relating to various Irish social and economic questions. Political economy he studied with great thoroughness and care; this led to a friendship with Archbishop Whately, and in 1856 he was appointed to the professorship of Political Economy founded in Trinity College by that prelate. In 1857 appeared his Character and Logical Method of Political Economy, which forms a most admirable introduction to the study of economics as a science. Able articles in Frazer's Magazine and the Edinburgh Review on the gold question as relating to prices, next occupied his attention. In 1861 he was appointed to the professorship of Political Economy and Jurisprudence in the Queen's College, Galway.

From the first he took much interest in the American civil war of 1861-'5, and combated Confederate sympathies by the publication of The Slave Power in 1862, a work that rapidly went through two editions, and had considerable influence in modifying opinion in the United Kingdom. The Encyclopaedia Britannica styles it "one of the finest specimens of applied economical philosophy." His health, at no time very good, was further weakened, about 1863, by a fall from his horse; and an acutely painful malady gradually crept over him, that ultimately rendered physical exertion impossible.' As his friend Mr. Fawcett writes: "The courage of the battle-field sinks almost into insignificance compared with the heroism which enabled Mr. Cairnes, through long years of hopeless pain, to keep up a constant cheerfulness, and to use the great powers of his mind to add by his writings to the knowledge and well-being of mankind." In 1866 he was appointed to a professorship in University College, London. He spent the session of 1868-'9 in Italy. His health soon rendered it impossible further to discharge public duties, and he resigned his post in 1872, retiring with the honorary title of Emeritus Professor of Political Economy. Next year the Dublin University conferred on him the degree of LL.D. The last years of his life were spent in the collection and publication of papers contributed to various reviews and magazines, and in the preparation of his great work, published in 1874 — Some Leading Principles of Political Economy Newly Expounded — " beyond doubt a worthy successor to the great treatises of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and Mill. . . While in fundamental harmony with Mill, especially as regards the general conception of the science, Cairnes differs from him to a greater or less extent on nearly all the cardinal doctrines, subjects his opinions to a searching examination, and generally succeeds in giving to the truth that is common to both, a firmer basis, and more precise statement. . . Taken as a whole, the works of Cairnes form the most important contribution to economical science made by the English school since the publication of J. S. Mill's Principles:' It may be added that the friendship between Mill and Cairnes was warm and intimate. A careful summing up of the results of these contributions will be found in the last Encyclopoedia Britannica, showing the advances in economic doctrine established by him, in (1) his exposition of the province and method of political economy; (2) his analysis of cost of production in its relation to value; (3) his exposition of the natural or social limit to free competition, and of its bearing on the theory of value; (4) his defence of the wages fund doctrine. Professor Cairnes died in London, 8th July 1875, aged 51, and was interred at Willesden.


124. Encyclopaedia Britannica. London, 1860.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

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