Clapham as an Economic Historian

Clapham’s preference was for a revival of comprehensive political economy, and he continued to refer to himself as ‘a political economist and historian. I underline the word political’ (Clapham 1937: 117). At the founding meeting of the Economic History Society, of which he was to become President, he urged his colleagues to ‘beware of becoming a “craft guild”’, and to retain their links with both history and economics (Barker 1977: 15). In reality, Clapham’s links were closer to history, and he did not provide a clear statement of what a comprehensive political economy would look like. Clark commented that ‘as an historian, after his sheer capacity for work, his best quality was a power of reducing large masses of detailed facts to systematic form’. He preferred to supply concrete, accurate, and well-chosen i nformation which showed the complexity of the past, producing a ‘well-regulated assemblage of facts’. As a result, he was open to criticism for failing to analyse the significance of his material and for producing books that were divided into separate compartments rather than forming a single argument. Clark felt that Clapham was capable of constructing a theoretical argument, but that ‘a certain modesty’ limited his willingness to do so (Clark 1946: 348). As Postan remarked, Clapham was the master of the mot juste and the arresting sentence, but not of the fluent page or balanced volume. Postan’s general conclusion on the three volumes of the economic history of modern Britain was somewhat ambivalent but fair: ‘[Clapham] was a pioneer in the sense in which all men who colonise virgin lands are pioneers; there were beasts and even men in the field before him, but he was the first to live and to build in a civilised way’ (Postan 1946: 57).

Clapham was always a historian rather than an economist in his methodology. His obituary of Eileen Power could apply to his own approach:

[She] was not an economist. She was not trained as one. That is unimportant: Ricardo was not nor, I think, Jevons. Much more fundamental—she would have hated to spend her life with attention concentrated on one aspect of human activity, and could never have brought herself to neglect men and women for generalizations about them ... And from the other side, as she was the first to allow, even proclaim, she had not that combination of speculative and practical interest and sagacity which makes the ideal economist (Clapham 1940: 351).

He elaborated the point in 1930, when he said that economic history

is a branch of general institutional history, a study of the economic aspects of the social institutions of the past ... [T]he method of economic history differs in no way from that of history in general ... The central problems of economic theory, although they may be stated in terms of some particular historical phase, are in essence independent of history. In theoretical discussion it is necessary to isolate forces and factors in a way which history does not permit (Clapham quoted in Kadish 1994: 241).

The main methodological difference between history and economic history, in Clapham’s view, was a reliance on statistics—as he said in his Inaugural Lecture, ‘it is the obvious business of an economic historian to be a measurer above other historians’ (Clapham 1929: 34-35). Phyllis Deane captured his approach well:

What Clapham had learned from Marshall was that economics is the study of mutually interacting quantities and that it was the function of an economic historian to put the key quantitative questions to the historical record—for example, how large? how long? how often? how representative?—when spelling out the chains of cause and effect linking economic events (Deane 2008: 799).

His approach entailed producing quantitative measures to reject or moderate easy generalisations, whether it be Malthus’s law of population or Marx’s claims on immiseration.

Clapham’s use of statistics went with an awareness of their limitations. There might be one set of figures (say, the amount of wool exported in 1273), but not another to make sense of them (the price schedule for wool). It was necessary to be aware of how representative are data, and how useful they are for determining specific questions (Clapham 1929: 34). Although Clapham used statistics to challenge the assumptions of literary evidence, his use of them was limited by scepticism about their accuracy and by his methodology. Quantification was designed ‘to offer dimensions, in place of blurred masses of unspecified size’ (Clapham quoted in Deane 2008: 799) rather than for formal statistical analysis to construct arguments. The American economic historian Abbott Usher complained that ‘[Clapham] was so conscientious in his efforts to achieve accuracy of statement that he refused to follow to their conclusions a number of important principles of empirical analysis’. Neither did he allow himself ‘to be distracted from narrative by incidental efforts to persuade readers to accept his judgements’ which were usually in the nature of obiter dicta. Usher feared that by allowing the correct record to speak for itself without argument, readers were not weaned from ‘superficiality and error’. The focus on what happened meant that little attention was given to why and how it happened, and Clapham did not allow statistics to get in the way of narrative and description (Usher 1951: 149, 150, 152).

Clapham used statistics in a rather limited sense, and warned that the statistician’s world was different from that of the historian. His aim was to balance the ‘unreality of the generalised statistical statement’ with ‘scattered individual facts’ to produce a sense of divergent social realities throughout Britain (Clapham 1926: viii). John Saltmarsh, a fellow economic historian at King’s, pointed out that what mattered to Clapham was ‘men and women, the things they made, the villages and the towns and the land in which they lived, came first, for their own sake. Explanations and theories came afterwards’ (Saltmarsh quoted in King’s College 1949: 8). He did not see statistics as the be-all and end-all. In his Inaugural Lecture, he pointed out:

If the economic historian has his modesties in presence of the pure economist he also has his pride. He is proud because, by definition as historian, he is one to whom the tangled variety of human life is attractive in itself; one who will study alterations in the tangle for the love of it, even when his information is such that he can never hope to pick out with assurance the forces at work, or measure exactly the changes brought about by the aggregate of them between dates x and y. He cares for the beginnings of things as such. He likes to trace the growth of institutions which have been moulded by man’s need to keep alive and man’s desire for comfort and prosperity—village communities, trading companies, Christmas goose clubs—although he may not be able to number the community, or find the slate of the goose club. It pleases him to know that in such and such an age caravans took the golden road to Samarkand, and that in such another age they went no more, even if he cannot count the camels or prove—what he always suspects—that the total amount of the rose-candy spikenard and mastic conveyed was really trifling (Clapham 1929: 34—35).

In his Concise Economic History, Clapham set out his view of human personality that could be seen as a rejection of homo economicus and acceptance of the views of Cunningham: how people lived with their family, what songs they sang, what they thought looking at the sunset, what prayers they made, were more important than the nature of their tools or how they swapped with neighbours. ‘Economic advance is not the same thing as human progress’: a man with a motor car may have less imagination than a man at Stonehenge. But he then pulled back. Commercial and industrial life had its own morality and pleasures: ‘[E]conomic activity, with its tools, fields, trade, inventions and investment, is the basement of man’s house’. Economic basements need not be dull, for A patch of earth dug level, a right stroke with a felling axe, a neat bit of welding, a locomotive brought smoothly to rest, even a tidy balance sheet or a quick calculation in forward exchange, all yield the craftman’s, not to say the artist’s, satisfaction’ (Clapham 1949: Introduction).

In Clapham’s world, there was no simple divide between homo economicus and a wider conception of human personality: an industrial and commercial society rested on values of integrity, hard work, and pride in a job well done. Much the same was true of Marshall who rejected the idea of economic man free of ‘ethical influences’ and altruistic motives. As Marshall said in the third edition of the Principles in 1895, his aim was to deal with a man of flesh and blood and not an abstract economic man,

a man who is largely influenced by egoistic motives in his business life to a great extent with reference to them; but who is also neither above vanity and recklessness, nor below delight in doing his work well for its own sake, or in sacrificing himself for the good of his family, his neighbours or his country; a man who is not below the love of a virtuous life for its own sake.

Similarly, the policy of free trade was complemented by the creation of an active associational life, such as goose clubs or friendly societies, liber?ated from the monopolies of the past; it rested on small businesses that both competed with each other and developed ‘constructive cooperation’ in industrial districts.[1]

Clapham has been characterised as a ‘minor Marshallian’. He was cited in the notes to Marshall’s Industry and Trade (Marshall 1919: 62, fn. 1, 71, fn. 1, 232, fn. 2, 691, fn. 1) and in the fifth edition of the Principles (Marshall 1907, volume 1: 747, fn. 1, and volume 2: 732); in turn, Clapham cited Industry and Trade in the notes to his The Economic Development of France and Germany, 1815-1914, in respect of the aims of German cartels and banks (Clapham 1921: 310, fn. 1, 393, fn. 1). But there was, in the words of Peter Groenewegen, ‘only a few Marshallian flourishes’ (Groenewegen 2012: 70) in the book, such as changes in productive organisation; the role of cooperation in the development of European agriculture which was favoured by Marshall; and the increasing scale of manufacturing production with the emergence of cartels in Germany. Generally, the book was very cautious in coming to firm conclusions as a result of the low quality of available statistics. Like Clapham’s work on the woollen and worsted industry, the book relied on a detailed analysis of the two different experiences, without any generalisation from the case studies or reference to a general theory of economic development. The start and end points defined a ‘great age’ between wars. The victory at Waterloo marked the end of the European wars and the unusual position of the Continent in relation to England.

Clapham agreed with Schmoller that the great social question for Europe up to 1850 was the peasant question. The revolutionary land settlement made the peasant his own master, even if he continued to farm the land as before—and the policy ran from France to emancipation in Prussia and Russia, on to Irish land legislation. By contrast, Clapham felt that the revolutionary age was less decisive in industry. Lifelong wage earners were still a minority and revolutionary legislatures were more concerned to rid industry of medieval restrictions and guilds; the problem of wage contracts hardly interested them, and they did not have the same sympathy for wage earners as for the land. But revolutionary labour policy did clear the way for industrial growth, and its unsympathetic attitude to industrial workers was made permanent in the Napoleonic Codes, which made French urban workers hostile to the law. Commerce was less affected by the revolutionary and Napoleonic reforms, meaning that after the war it could revert to something like the conditions of the late eighteenth century so that the late nineteenth-century merchant experienced less change than the manufacturer or peasant. Above all, the defeat of Napoleon led to a period of peace which meant that English mechanical knowledge became available. In Clapham’s view, peace had never before been associated with the release of new economic forces on such a scale, and nations came together as good Europeans in economic matters more than at any time since the fall of Rome. The book on France and Germany ended in 1914, without any reflections on the closing of that ‘great age’ and why European nations went to war. The implication is that economic activity brought nations together, creating prosperity and peace, and war presumably had other causes (Clapham 1921: especially the Introduction and Epilogue).

In the Economic History of Modern Britain, Clapham paid some attention to the economists of the early nineteenth century, briefly mentioning the influence of Ricardo on debates over free trade and banking; McCulloch and Ricardo on post-war debt; and Malthus on the burden of the Poor Law and population. Even here, he paid little attention to the content of their theories, and he hardly mentioned later ideas. He certainly did not mount any critique of Ricardo. Usher justifiably complained that Clapham’s account of the Bank Charter Act of 1844 in both The Early Railway Age and The Bank of England failed to grasp the competing theories of money and credit in the nineteenth century, and felt that Clapham drew too rigid a line between history and theory (Usher 1951: 151—152). A rare example is a reference to monopoly price theory in The Early Railway Age, merely to note that it was not used in debates over the railways in 1839-1840; Clapham passed on with the comment that the indifference to the theory of monopoly was excusable because at no time did a company ‘secure monopoly revenues of even tolerable size, when reckoned in percentages’. Clapham did not provide any evidence for his claim about monopoly profits, and it is not possible to find any hypothesis that could be tested (see Groenewegen 2012: 74-75; Clapham 1926: 54, 56, 271, 312, 334-335, 349-350, 362, 497, 521; on monopoly prices, 416).

Clapham’s economic history is now little read, and there is no obvious ‘Clapham thesis’ that has provoked and stimulated discussion. Clapham was not interested in the ‘substantial analysis of historical process’, and Usher caught his limitations and achievements well:

He was strategically placed to assume leadership in an empirical reaction against the mechanistic and idealistic systems of the Marxians and the ideal-type sociologists, but by temperament and background he became committed at an early date to a limited program, which he carried out with great skill and unusual literary distinction (Usher 1951: 153).

Nevertheless, Clapham did have a view of the economic development of Britain. He was a product of the free trade industrial society of the late nineteenth century, and he assumed that a market economy, with some concern for welfare, offered solutions to the problems of poverty. The final paragraph of his economic history of modern Britain up to 1914 ended in much the same tone as his economic history of France and Germany, combining literary finesse with a failure at explanation:

Thinkers and dreamers might well be discontented with the order of society or with the rate at which that order was being changed; but no honest man with a reasonably long and accurate memory, and some appropriate knowledge, could deny that it was a better order, if better only by a little, than at any time in the modern industrial age. Whether that age was itself in any profound sense good some doubted, as many have doubted since ... Of uprightness, wisdom and the clearness of the eye the economic historian as such may not profess to speak. He moves on the lower plane, the plane of commodities and comforts. Moving there, he does not hesitate to compare that time to its advantage—not only with other times in the industrial age, but with any time certainly known to him. And to those who lean towards quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes he relies from that same discerning Book: ‘Say not thou, “What is the cause that the former days were better than these?” for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this’ (Clapham 1938: 506—507).

Clapham’s methodology might have something in common with Cunningham but his interpretation was very different. He had a more sanguine view about laissez-faire or free trade economics, and the benefits of a commercial society in spreading both prosperity and stability. This turns us to a third point: Clapham’s views on politics and policy.

  • [1] On the ideology of free trade, see Trentmann (2008); on wider notions of personality, see Pearson(2004); on Marshall, see pp. 34—37 of Pearson (ibid.) quoting Marshall (1890: vi) and (1895: 26—27); onindustrial districts, see Marshall (1919: 249, 324-325, 577-578, 582-584, 590, 605-608).
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