History of the Department

Political Economy at William & Mary

by Clyde A. Haulman and William J. Hausman '71, William & Mary

Note: This history of economics at William & Mary is taken from a paper published in Essays in Economic and Business History, Vol. 6 (1988), pp. 110-123. Since that time other works on the early teaching of economics have appeared including William J. Barber (ed), Breaking the Academic Mould: Economists and American Higher Learning in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1993). See in particular John K. Whitaker, "Early Flowering in the Old Dominion: Political Economy at the College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia," pp. 15-41.

I. Introduction

The College of William & Mary was for some time among the leaders, not just in the South but in the nation, in providing instruction in economics.[1] The intensity of interest, however, was critically dependent on individual faculty members in an age when college faculties were quite small in comparison to what they are today. In addition, being a southern school, its faculty members were enmeshed in a system that was becoming an anachronism in a rapidly changing world. The impact of slavery was profound on all those involved with it, and that included the College and its faculty. William & Mary was devastated, both physically and intellectually, by the war fought to defend the system. The College's prominence in the teaching of political economy was lost with the war. The post-war years were exceedingly difficult and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the College regained the ability to offer a broad curriculum. It was only then that instruction in political economy reappeared. Since that time, the teaching of economics has evolved gradually into a form typical in higher education today.

II. The Revolution to the Civil War

The College of William & Mary claims among its priorities to have been the first college in the nation to teach political economy. This development was an outgrowth of a reorganization of the College in 1779 instigated by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jeffersonwho as Governor was appointed to the Board of Visitors of the College. The reorganization entailed a secularization of the curriculum. The grammar school, which primarily taught classical languages, and the chairs of divinity and oriental languages were eliminated and three new chairs were created: law and police ( administration); anatomy, medicine, and chemistry; and modern languages. In addition, the laws of nature and of nations as well as fine arts were added to the duties of the chair of moral philosophy, and natural history and biology were added to the duties of the chair of natural philosophy and mathematics.[2] Robert Andrews held the chair of moral philosophy at this time, but it is not known whether he lectured on political economy within the context of moral philosophy or the law of nations.[3]

A. Madison and Smith

When Jefferson instituted the reorganization of the College, James Madison (later the first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia) Bishop James Madisonwas its president and occupied the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy. In 1784 Madison gave up the mathematics title and assumed the chair of moral philosophy previously held by Andrews. Bishop Madison may have been the first teacher of political economy in America. He is known to have been lecturing on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations by the end of the century, and it has been presumed that these lectures commenced in 1784.[4] This is the basis of the Colleges claim of priority.[5] Whether or not William & Mary was the first college to provide instruction in political economy, it is certain that by the end of the eighteenth century, political economy was an integral part of the curriculum of the College, and it continued to be so during the antebellum period.

John Augustine Smith carried on the tradition of lecturing in political economy after a brief interlude following Madison's death in 1812. Smith graduated from the College in 1800, after which he studied medicine in London. He returned to Virginia to practice, but shortly moved to New York City. In 1807 he joined the first faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and eventually attained the position of Professor of Anatomy, Surgery, and Physiology. In 1814 he was appointed President and Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at William & Mary.[6] Smith had a strong interest in government as well medicine, and his political beliefs were ardently republican.[7] In his lectures on government, for example, he stated, "From the only political chair in the Union, the purest principles of republicanism should undoubtedly be promulgated."[8] He argued vigorously that the right to vote should be limited to those with a stake in the outcome-- property holders-- and rejected as "certainly objectionable" the text used by his predecessor, Rousseau's Social Compact in favor of Vattel's Law of Nations.[9]

Smith produced no original works in political economy. He believed, however, the subject to be "of all the sciences, next morality and government, the most important...."[10] Several sets of notes taken by students in the early 1820s survive. One set entitled Sketches of Lectures on Moral and Political Philosophy delivered by John A. Smith, contains notes on metaphysics followed by a series of 26 lectures delivered between April 16 and June 17 on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. These are a précis of Smith's book, chapter by chapter, with few critical comments. In another student notebook of the period, there is a similar précis interspersed with discussions of Stewart's Philosophy, Campbell's Rhetoric, and notes on astronomy and chemistry.[11] There is evidence that Smith was familiar with other works of political economy. Joseph C. Cabell in a letter to Jefferson notes that Smith "will adopt either Say or Tracy on Political Economy, as the one or the other may appear best, when the latter comes out."[12] It is thus probable that Smith made efforts to keep up with what was occurring in the discipline. He also maintained an interest in practical matters and attended the Philadelphia Free Trade Convention in 1831.[13]

Smith's tenure at William & Mary was controversial. The College had reached a low ebb following the War of 1812, when at one point only twenty students were enrolled. Furthermore, its future was threatened by the opening of Jefferson's University of Virginia. Smith proposed moving the College to Richmond and beginning a program in medicine in order to compete. He went before the state legislature in 1824 with such a proposal (supported by the other professors but opposed by the town) but the attempt failed. The following year he returned to his position with the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, rising to the presidency of that institution in 1831.[14]

Smith was somewhat controversial all his life, and there is an interesting but little known connection to the political economist Thomas Cooper of South Carolina College. In 1818 when he was at the University of Pennsylvania, Cooper wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "The Medical faculty to their great disgrace, have recommended Dr. Augustine Smith of Williamsburg, who is some kind of relation to Physick and Dorsey, and whom they expect to manage at will. Smith may be a tolerable dissector, but he is no more. He cannot write a page either of grammar or orthography, without much consultation with a dictionary. He is perfectly ignorant of the classical languages, his temper is very bad, and I have no reason to speak in favor of his conduct, which has been marked by duplicity."[15] Perhaps this incident had something to do with Cooper's failure to secure the professorship in Chemistry within the medical school at Pennsylvania.[16] Smith did not accept the position and remained at William & Mary, whereas Cooper went on to become a prominent political economist at South Carolina College.

B. Dew

The high point of political economy at the antebellum College came with the appointment of Thomas Thomas Roderick DewRoderick Dew as Professor of Political Law in 1826. Dew was to become one of the South's most influential thinkers.[17] An ardent free trader, he applied Ricardian analysis to a wide range of issues. But his fame came primarily from his defense of slavery. This defense, according to Eugene Genovese, "dramatically altered the terms of the proslavery argument, moving it from the defense of a necessary evil to the assertion of a positive good,"[18] and has been characterized as being based on "twisted and even grotesque reasoning."[19]

Dew was born in 1802 and attended William & Mary from 1818-20. While at the College he studied political economy under John Augustine Smith. Following an extended European tour he returned to the College, taking a masters degree in 1824. In 1826 he received a faculty appointment. Refusing an offer from South Carolina College in 1834 to succeed Thomas Cooper, Dew was appointed President of William & Mary in 1836. Shortly before his death, Dew received but declined an appointment from the University of Virginia to succeed George Tucker as Professor of Moral Philosophy. Dew died while visiting Paris on his honeymoon in 1846 at the age of 44.[20]

Throughout his career at William & Mary, Dew taught a senior course on political economy using first Smith's Wealth of Nations, later substituting McCulloch's Outlines and Say's Political Economy. Additional texts for the course included Brown's Philosophy of the Human Mind and his own Lectures on the Restrictive System. Ricardo's Principles was used for more advanced (masters) students.[21] Although the use of these texts tell us something of Dew's economics, his view of the discipline and his use of economic analysis can be best understood in light of his own works. Dew's initial recognition as an economist came in 1829 when his Lectures on the Restrictive System was published.[22] A strong free trade response to the Tariff of Abominations (1828), the provided carefully considered arguments based on systematic application of economic method and familiarity with a wide range of writings on the subject.[23] The work begins with a discussion of the fundamental principles governing economic activity. His discussion of the theory of value draws heavily and explicitly on Smith, Say, Ricardo, McCulloch, Malthus, and Tracy. In the context of this discussion he makes a strong theoretical case for laissez faire. It is man pursuing his own interests "alone which will account for the immense improvements which we witness in the world. It is this which has caused the forest to be felled, cities to be built, commerce to flourish, and population to increase. Without it, this favored land would be nothing more than that dreary wilderness which our forefathers found it more than two centuries ago."[24] The classical Ricardian position of Dew is evident throughout the book. With the economy dominated by diminishing returns in the agricultural sector and driven by the Malthusian population doctrine, wages and profits become the determinants of exchangeable value with rent the residual. The long-run tendency of profits to decline leads the economy to a stagnant stationary state. However, differences in circumstances among nations mean that not all are necessarily facing stagnation simultaneously.

Dew next considers the benefits of specialization and exchange. He moves from consideration of comparative advantage at the level of the individual to an abstract discussion of comparative advantage among nations, then applies the concept specifically to the circumstances faced by an agricultural former colony relative to a mature manufacturing economy, and finally considers comparative advantage within a large developing country. Dew argues that free trade enables an agrarian country to import cheap manufactured goods from the mature country and to export its grain or raw materials. This results in lower grain prices in the mature economy (since land can be taken out of cultivation, thus lowering the cost of production) but one still above the cost of production in the agrarian country. Accumulation in the agrarian country is enhanced, leading to a growth of population, a scarcity of land, and the development of manufacturing. Ultimately, Dew sees the agrarian country going through the "natural" transformation to an advanced manufacturing economy with comparative advantage of the two advanced economies determining their specific manufactured goods and agricultural commodities.[25]

Restrictionist policies, according to Dew, serve to thwart the natural course of development. Restrictive policies, rather than increasing domestic markets, insuring national independence, and postponing the coming of the stationary state, merely serve to redistribute capital from unprotected sectors to protected industries and to restrict the movement of factors of production (which if allowed to freely operate enhance development in the long run).[26] He argues that protection injures agricultural regions within a nation relative to its more advanced regions, at least temporarily. Free trade is desirable since it allows all regions to benefit from natural growth: "In a country very extensive, like our own, we saw that one section and one interest might be benefited at the expense of another; that this benefit might accrue in two ways, either by a prevention of a fall in profits, which might otherwise take place; or by preventing emigration of citizens of the densely populated regions, to other sections of our country, whose population is less dense. But under any circumstances, the effect of restrictive measures could be little more than to take millions from the income of the agricultural, commercial, and shipping interest, to add thousands to the income of the manufacturers; and thus these prohibitory measures destroy ten times as much wealth as they create."[27]

Dew goes on to elaborate his theoretical discussion with consideration of the actual structure of the balance of accounts (which tend to overstate the value of imports), the practical workings of exchange rates and gold points, and historical examples (including the fallacies that France's development was caused by Napoleon's continental system and Britain's development was due to protectionist policies).[28] The work as a whole is a learned and eloquent defense of free trade.

In the area of money and banking Dew followed Tooke, Fullarton, and the Banking School in their support of the Law of Refux (Real Bills Doctrine).[29] This position sees banks as passive agents in the creation of credit, assigns determination of the price level to the level of trade, and blames financial crises on speculative behavior. Dew supported a strong state banking system but feared that the deposit of funds in the "pet banks" following the demise of the Second Bank of the United States (1836) could prove destabilizing, since the government might suddenly call all the funds and create a panic. Finally, he strongly opposed Van Buren's hard currency sub-treasury system, in part, on the grounds that it could lead to the creation of a strong government bank with an ability to infringe on individual liberties.[30]

But it was not his economic writings that brought Dew fame. It was instead his position on slavery. Dew's Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature (1832) changed the nature of the proslavery argument by attempting to provide it with a moral foundation.[31] Arguing from the basis of property rights, Dew sees an implicit justification for slavery in the right to buy and sell property. He sees slavery as "a necessary and inevitable consequence of the principles of human nature and the state of property."[32] It was part of the natural order of things and had a long historical existence. Combining a concept of natural inequality with the importance of property to the existence of government, Dew goes so far as to suggest that slavery, by preventing the rise of a revolutionary, non-propertied mass, in fact supports the preservation of free institutions.[33]

Dew's economic analysis of slavery is subordinate to the political-social-cultural elements contained in the work. He does rely, however, on Malthus' view of population to argue that the voluntary destruction of slavery in Virginia (where he estimates that slaves comprise about one-third of total wealth) would lead to a lowering of the standard of living and a general decline in population.[34] The position of Adam Smith, that free labor was superior to slave labor, gave Dew considerable discomfort. He states, "The ground assumed by Smith and Storch, who are the most able supporters of the doctrine of the superior productiveness of free labor, is that each one is actuated by a desire to accumulate when free, and this desire produces much more efficient and constant exertions than can possibly be expected from the feeble operation of fear upon the slave. We are, in the main, converts to this doctrine, but must be permitted to limit it by some considerations."[35] The limitation derives from the southern climate. "We doubt whether the extreme south of the United States, and the West India Islands, would ever have been cultivated by any other than slave labor. The history of colonization furnishes no example whatever, of the transportation of whites to very warm or tropical latitudes without signal deterioration of character, attended with an unconquerable aversion to labor."[36]) Without stating specifically that slavery would eventually die out in the American south, the prospect is nevertheless evident in his theory of development: "But it is said, with the increasing density of population, free labor becomes cheaper than slave, and finally extinguishes it, as has actually happened in the west of Europe; this, we are ready to admit."[37] Although this also might be the inevitable course of development for the South, Dew steadfastly maintains that it would be economic suicide to abolish the institution at a single stroke.

C. Washington and Morrison

With Thomas Dew political economy at William & Mary reached a level of importance and recognition which would not be regained. Upon Dew's death Robert Saunders became President of the College.[38] His administration was marked in 1848 by the resignation of all the faculty with the exception of N. Beverley Tucker. The mass resignation came in response to renewed attempts to move the College to Richmond and personal differences within the faculty and between the faculty and the Board of Visitors. As a result all classes except law were suspended for the 1848-49 term, and in 1949 the College was reorganized.

As part of the reorganization of the College, Henry Augustine Washington was appointed Professor of History and Political Economy.[39] Educated at Georgetown College and the College of New Jersey, Washington studied law under Judge Taloe Lomax in Fredericksburg and was licensed to practice in 1841. Following five years of law practice in Richmond, he took up farming in King George County but still had time to write. His essay "The Social System of Virginia" appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1848. After his appointment to the faculty, Washington taught a year-long course covering both ancient and modern history to first-year students and half-session courses in political economy and the law of nations. Major publications during his tenure included editing nine volumes of the Writings of Thomas Jefferson, published in 1853-54, and completion of a digest of Thomas Dew's history lectures with additional material appended, published in 1853 as A Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners and Institutions, of the Ancient and Modern Nation.[40]

From lecture notes it is possible to reconstruct much of what Washington covered in the political economy course.[41] The course appears to have consisted of three major components. The most interesting was his treatment of production and value. Here the influence of John Stuart Mill John Stuart Millis evident not only from the numerous references to Mill (and in some cases actual pages torn from his Principles) but also from the ordering of topics. A distinguishing feature of Mill's Principles of Political Economy (1848) was the reversing of the traditional order in classical economics of treating first value then production and distribution.[42] Washington follows Mill by first dealing with production then turning to distribution and lastly considering value theory. In addition to the reliance on Mill, Washington's notes have numerous references to the works of Smith, Say, Ricardo, and McCulloch, indicating a familiarity with the breadth of classical thought. The second component of Washington's course dealt with tariffs. Here almost complete reliance on Dew's Restrictive System is evident (again with pages from the work included in the notes). The third topic addressed concerned money, credit, and banking. Again, Mill's Principles forms the basis for these lectures with additional material on the subjects of the Bank of the United States and coinage in the United States.[43] Washington thus appears to have offered a comprehensive course in political economy incorporating elements of contemporary contributions to the discipline, His interests, however, were primarily in the field of history, and no original contributions to political economy were offered.

Washington was followed by Robert J. Morrison. It is clear from a college catalog of 1859 that political economy continued to be taught, although very little information on Morrison survives, and his only known publication was a history of the college.[44]

III. The Civil War to the Present

The College was closed from 1861 to 1864. It reopened in 1865 and although a course encompassing modern history, constitutional law, and political economy was taught, the instructor is unknown. The catalog for 1870 lists no course in political economy. In 1877 the College advertised for a Professor of Belles Letters, Mental and Moral Philosophy, and Political Economy. Lyon G. TylerLyon Tyler held the position for one year, after which it remained vacant. The College closed its doors again in 1881. It reopened with the help of a state subsidy for training male public school teachers in 1888, when Tyler was named President and Professor of Moral Science, Political Economy, and Civil Government. For the next fifteen years political economy was taught to seniors as part of a course that included ethics and logic. The texts were Perry's Political Economy and Dew's Restrictive System. Jevons' Political Economy was added in 1890. By 1905 there was a Department of Economics and Political Science, in which there was a single course in economics. In 1906 the College became a state school, and in 1918 became coeducational. Until 1919 there continued to be a single course in economics at a time when many other schools were offering a wide variety of courses. The 1920s were years of expansion under the presidency of J.A.C. Chandler. The School of Economics and Business Administration was created in 1919 and the number of course offerings in economics expanded. By the end of the decade there were five faculty members who covered topics in economics. In 1968 the Department of Business Administration became a school, and economics at William & Mary attained its current form, a department within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, offering an undergraduate degree in economics.


1.Studies of the teaching of political economy in the antebellum period include Joseph Dorfman, The Economic Mind in American Civilization, Vol. II (New York, A. M. KelIey, 1966); Michael J. L. O'Connor, Origins of Academic Economics in the United States (New York, Columbia Univ. Press, 1944); David W. Robson, Educating Republicans (Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1985); E.R.A. Seligman, "The Early Teaching of Economics in the United States," in J.H. Hollander, ed. Economic Essays Contributed in Honor of John Bates Clark (Freeport, New York, Books For Libraries, 1927); and E. V. Wills, "Political Economy in the Early American College Curriculum," South Atlantic Quarterly 24 (April 1925). Works on the early history of the Collage include Herbert B. Adams, The College of William & Mary (Washington, U.S. Bureau Education, 1887); J. E. Morpurgo, Their Majesties' Royall Colledge (Williamsburg, Endowment Association, 1976); and L. G. Tyler, The College of William & Mary: Its History and Its Work (Richmond, Willett and Shepperson, 1907). Previous works on the history of political economy or economics at the College include Charles L. Quittmeyer, The Development of Business Administration as a Field at William & Mary (Williamsburg, School of Business, 1984); Ibid., "Development of Political Economy at William & Mary as Precursor to its First School of Management," School of Business Working Paper 86-004; and Albion G. Taylor, "Economics at the College of William & Mary," Alumni Magazine (December 1938).
2.Wills, pp. 133-34.
3.A substantial portion of the records of the College concerning this time period have been lost.
4.Lyon G. Tyler, William & Mary Quarterly 6 (1898), pp. 181-2.
5.Seligman (pp. 294-302) challenged this claim by carefully examining the evidence presented by Tyler. He concluded that the evidence on which it is based is very slender, and argued instead for the priority of his own institution, Columbia University. O'Connor (pp. 10-11, 20) did not find Seligman's arguments to be conclusive.
6.Faculty File, John A. Smith, Swem Library, College of William & Mary.
7.Robson, pp. 161, 169-71.
8.John A. Smith, A Syllabus of the Lectures delivered to the Senior Students in the College of William & Mary (Philadelphia, Thomas Dobson, 1817), p. 7.
9.Ibid., p, A2.
10.Archives, College of William & Mary, Bound Volumes 14, 17, 63.
11.Copy of a letter to Jefferson from Joseph C. Cabell, Faculty File, John A. Smith, Swem Library, College of William & Mary.
12.O'Connor, p. 217.
13.Faculty File, John A Smith. Also see Quittmeyer, "Political Economy," pp. 6-8.
14.Copy of letter to Jefferson (Feb. 20, 1818) in Faculty File, John A. Smith., Smith was later involved in a dispute regarding dismissal of a faculty member at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
15.Michael D. Gordo and William H. Phillips, "The Development of Political Economy at South Carolina College," paper delivered at the Economic and Business Historical Conference, San Francisco, 1987, p. 7.
16.Dorfman, pp. 845-96. Also see Eugene Genovese, Western Civilization through Slaveholding Eyes: The Social and Historical Thought of Thomas Roderick Dew(New Orleans, Tulane Univ., 1985); Lowell H,. Harrison, "Thomas Roderick Dew: Philosopher of the Old South," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 57 (1949); Allan Kaufman, Capitalism, Slavery, and Republican Values (Austin, Univ. of Texas Press,1982); Stephen S. Mansfield, "Thomas Roderick Dew at William & Mary: 'A Main Prop of that Venerable Institution'," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 75 (1965); and Kenneth Stampp, "An Analysis of Dew's Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature," Journal of Negro History, 27 (1942).
17.Genovese, p. 1.
18.James C. Bite and Ellen J. Hall, "The Reactionary Evolution of Economic Thought in Antebellum Virginia," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 80 (1972).
19.Mansfield, pp. 429-442
20.Ibid., pp. 431, 436, Dorfman, p 896.
21.Thomas R. Dew, Lectures on the Restrictive System (Richmond, Samuel Shepherd, 1829).
22.Kaufman, p. 92.
23.Dew, Restrictive System, p. 7.
24.Ibid., pp. 28-9.
25.Ibid., pp. 34-46.
26.Ibid., p. 54.
27.Ibid., pp. 133-43.
28.See Mark Blaug, Economic Theory in Retrospect (Homewood, Ill., Irwin, 1968) pp. 201-3, for a discussion of the Banking School.
29.Dorfman, pp. 899-903.
30.Kaufman, pp,. 108-20.
31.Thomas R. Dew, "Review of the Debate," in The Pro-Slavery Argument (Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo, & Co., 1853), p. 324.
32.Genovese, pp, 9-10. 39.
33.Dew, "Debate," p. 372.
34.Ibid., p. 482.
35.Ibid., p. 484.
37.George Frederick Holmes was Professor of History and Political Economy at the College for one year (1846-7). He left to become the first President of the University of Mississippi. He soon returned to Virginia and eventually was appointed to a Professorship at the University of Virginia, where he taught until his death in 1897. N. Beverley Tucker was Professor of Law at the College from 1834-51. Although he never taught political economy, he was interested in the field and, like Dew, was ardently pro-slavery. The economic content of his novels is discussed in Dorfman, pp. 909-20.
38.Dorfman, p. 921, and Carol H. Sturzenberger, "The Diaries of Henry A. Washington 1842-1845" (M.A. Thesis, College William an Mary, 1979).
39.Sturzenberger; also see John Johns, Memoir of Henry Augustine Washington (1859).
40.Faculty File, Henry A. Washington, Swem Library, College of William & Mary, and Tucker-Coleman-Washington Papers, Archives, Swem Library, College of William & Mary, boxes 9 and 16.
41.Blaug, pp. 181-2.
42.Tucker-Coleman-Washington Papers.
43.Faculty File, Robert J. Morrison, Swem Library, College of William & Mary.
44.Much of this information is from various college catalogs. Also see Quittmeyer, Business Administration, and Taylor "Economics."