RICARDO, David (1772-1823), of Gatcombe Park, Minchinhampton, Glos. and 56 Upper Brook Street, Grosvenor Square, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



20 Feb. 1819 - 11 Sept. 1823

Family and Education

b. 18 Apr. 1772, 3rd s. of Abraham Ricardo (d. 1812), stockbroker, of Bury Street, London and Abigail, da. of Joseph Delavalle, tobacco merchant, of London. educ. Talmud Tora, Amsterdam 1783-5. m. 20 Dec. 1793, Priscilla Ann, da. of Edward Wilkinson, apothecary, of Bow, Mdx., 3s. 5da. (1 d.v.p.). d. 11 Sept. 1823.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Glos. 1818-19.

1st lt. Loyal Lambeth inf. 1798; capt. Tower Hamlets vols. 1803.


Ricardo was a short, weedy man with a squeaky voice. A Jew who had abandoned his faith for Unitarianism (though he was probably agnostic), and a retired stockbroker who purchased landed estates in four counties, he was the founder of the classical theory of political economy. He was a disciple of Bentham and a close friend of James Mill, who egged him on in politics; and during his short parliamentary career he was the leading spokesman of the Utilitarians on economic issues.1 By 1820, he had to his credit, through his writings and his verbal evidence before the 1819 committee on the resumption of cash payments, the major single contribution to the decision to make gold ingots rather than coins the security for bank notes. In the wider sphere, his ideas on economic policy as set out in his Principles of Political Economy (1817), at the core of which was his labour theory of value, had a considerable influence on the thinking of ministers confronted with the task of managing the post-war national economy.2 On the other hand, he was regarded by many politicians as a rigid theorist with little grasp of reality, an impression which his advocacy in December 1819 of a capital levy to pay off the national debt only strengthened.3 An unshakeable conviction of the pressing need for radical parliamentary reform was at the heart of his political philosophy. A conscientious and diligent Member, with a record of attendance second to none, he sided on most issues with the advanced wing of opposition to Lord Liverpool’s ministry, though he regarded himself as independent.4

In early January 1820 Ricardo flattered himself that ‘political economy is making progress in this country’ and that ‘every day correct principles advance’. His friend John Louis Mallett dined with him at this time and assessed his virtues and defects:

It is impossible to be in company with Ricardo and not to admire his placid temper, the candour of his disposition, his patience and attention, and the clearness of his mind; but ... he meets you upon every subject that he has studied with a mind made up, and opinions in the nature of mathematical truths. He spoke of parliamentary reform and ballot as a man who would bring such things about, and destroy the existing system tomorrow, if it were in his power, and without the slightest doubt on the result ... It is this very quality of the man’s mind, his entire disregard of experience and practice, which makes me doubtful of his opinions on political economy. His speech on paying off the national debt has very much damaged him in the House of Commons.

Ricardo dismissed as nonsense a report that he was to stand for Gloucestershire at the 1820 general election, when he came in again for Lord Portarlington’s pocket borough, for which he had paid £4,000 for a four-year term, in addition to lending the proprietor £25,000 on mortgage at six per cent, in 1819. He thought that ‘whether the ministers have a majority of 200, 100 or 50’ would ‘not ... in any degree affect the important questions about which the country should be most particularly solicitous’, especially that of agricultural protection, on which he was determined to resist the expected demands of the country gentlemen for an increase.

Ricardo, whose married daughter, Fanny Austin, died the month after the election, seconded and voted for Hume’s motion for civil list accounts, 3 May 1820.5 He voted against government on the civil list, 5, 8 May; the additional Scottish baron of exchequer, 15 May; the aliens bill, 1 June, 7 July; inquiry into Anglo-Irish trade and reduction of the standing army, 14 June; the barrack establishment, 16 June, and economies in revenue collection, 4 July. On the London merchants’ petition for a relaxation of restrictions on commerce, 8 May, the presentation of which he had anticipated with pleasure, he applauded its ‘sound as well as liberal principles’ and the countenance given to them by Robinson, president of the board of trade. While he admitted the obstacles to the attainment of more open trade, he said there was no reason to ‘make every mischievous system perpetual’ and called for a gradual progression towards commercial liberalism. At the same time, he questioned the validity of Robinson’s reservations about the corn laws, arguing that agriculture was not uniquely burdened by taxes. Later that day he insisted that Alexander Baring had exaggerated the extent of the depreciation of the currency in consequence of cash resumption. He dismissed as misguided agriculturists’ demands for increased protection, 12, 25 May: reducing the price of corn was ‘the first step to that great remedy, the making labour productive’. He spoke at length in the same terms against Sumner’s motion for inquiry into agricultural distress, 30 May, when he said that ‘this would be the happiest country in the world, and its progress in prosperity would be beyond the power of imagination to conceive, if we get rid of the two great evils, the national debt and the corn laws’. Privately, however, he feared that no plan for discharging the debt would be taken seriously, for ‘men do not like to make an immediate sacrifice for a future good’. His technical theoretical argument against the need for national self-sufficiency in corn production prompted Henry Brougham* to observe that Ricardo had addressed the problem ‘as if he had dropped from another planet’.6 He objected to export bounties as a ‘bribe’ to foreign merchants ‘to take goods off our hands which we could not otherwise manufacture with profit’, 25 May.7 He advocated repeal of the Irish Union duties, 2 June, and welcomed government’s proposals for their progressive diminution as a step in the right direction, 8 June. He approved the terms of Vansittart’s loan contract to raise £5,000,000 by annuities, 9 June, but was generally critical of his policy of public borrowing, as he was again, 19, 21 June, when he deplored the ‘alarming deficiency upon the consolidated fund’.8 He opposed Maxwell’s motion for inquiry into means of relieving distressed cotton weavers, 29 June:

He conceived the duty of government to be, to give the greatest possible development to industry. This they could only do by removing the obstacles which had been created ... If government interfered, they would do mischief and no good.

The session left him with a sense of frustration, which was heightened by Baring’s pointed failure to name him to his select committee on foreign trade, 5 June, as he told his friend and acolyte John McCulloch:

You are mistaken in thinking that I could be of use in Parliament by bringing forward the question of free trade with France. In the first place I have not talents for such an undertaking, and in the second I am treated as an ultra reformer and visionary on commercial subjects by both agriculturists and manufacturers.

He confessed five weeks later that he was ‘more than usually daunted by observing that on every point where an abuse is to be got rid of there are such powerful interests to oppose, who never fail of making the worse appear the better reason’.9 In the late summer of 1820 his article for the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the ‘Funding System’ was published.10

Ricardo had voted with opposition in the divisions of 22 and 26 June 1820 on the Queen Caroline affair; and in the autumn he deplored the ‘impolicy and inexpediency’ of the government’s prosecution of her, merely to gratify the ‘resentment and hostility’ of the king. After due consideration, he declined Mill’s offer to promote his election as a director of the East India Company, which would

not contribute to my happiness. You are mistaken in supposing that because I consider life on the whole as not a very desirable thing to retain after 60, that therefore I am discontented with my situation, or have not objects of immediate interest to employ me. The contrary is the case ... I am led to set a light value on life when I consider the many accidents and privations to which we are liable ... I have already lost the use of one ear, completely, and am daily losing my teeth ... I have not ... seriously quarrelled with life; I am on very good terms with it, and mean while I have it to make the best of it; but my observation of the loss of esteem and interest which old people generally sustain ... convinces me that general happiness would best be promoted if death visited us on an average at an earlier period than he now does. If I were an East India director I should be kept from my family more than I now am. I should not be able to absent myself from London for six months together as I now do.

He rejoiced in the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties and was full of ‘indignation against all the queen’s persecutors’, who had forced her to set herself up as ‘the rallying point of the discontented and disaffected’. While he did not seriously expect a change of government, he hoped the Whigs might be given a chance to show what they could do: if, as he anticipated, they failed to implement a significant measure of reform, at least ‘the eyes of the public would be opened, and they would know that the means for good government must be sought in another direction and could only be obtained by their own strenuous exertions’. At bottom, the unreformed representative system was the chief obstacle to improvement:

What ministers, with the present constitution of the House of Commons, can succeed in sweeping away many of our commercial restraints, particularly the greatest, the restraints on the importation of corn? What ministers will dare to encounter our financial difficulties, in the only way in which they should be met, or will seriously commence the work of retrenchment in our expenses? We may probably find men who will remove the disabilities from the Roman Catholics, and make some amendments in our criminal laws, but this will be all.

Ricardo, who was ‘exceedingly agreeable’ to Maria Edgeworth when she met him at Christmas 1820, turned down a proposal from Lord Portarlington to extend the tenure of his seat in return for another cash payment and an increase in the loan. He attended the Gloucestershire meeting to express support for the queen, 30 Dec. 1820. He found its proceedings ‘tame and insipid’ and ‘stoutly refused to second the address’, which he thought did not go far enough; but having agreed to move thanks to Lords Ducie and Sherborne, he spoke

half a dozen sentences in favour of reform ... and endeavoured to impress on the meeting that most of our grievances were occasioned by the bad constitution of the House of Commons, and the little sympathy which did or could exist between such a body and the people. I was listened to with attention, and was cheered by the audience below the upper classes, and even amongst the higher ranks I am sure there were many agreeing with me.

Ricardo’s politics were anathema to the duke of Beaufort, lord lieutenant of Gloucestershire, who kept him off the commission of the peace.11

He voted silently against ministers on the queen’s case in January and February 1821. Curiously, his name did not appear in the list of those who divided for Catholic relief, 28 Feb., although he was present at the debate and expressed the private opinion that ‘no reasonable man can apprehend danger to the United Kingdom’ from conceding Catholic claims in Ireland; presumably there was an oversight on the part of the tellers or the reporters. He was a dedicated supporter of the opposition campaign for economy, retrenchment and reduced taxation throughout the session, though he was not listed in the minority for Hume’s general motion of 27 June. He voted for repeal of the additional malt duty, 14 Feb., 21 Mar., 3 Apr., and on 5 Apr. spoke and voted for repeal of the tax on agricultural horses, ‘not because it was in itself a bad tax, or pressed with peculiar hardship on the landed interest, but with a view of compelling the observance of strict economy in the administration of government’. He voted with opposition in support of the liberal movements in Naples, 21 Feb., and Sicily, 21 June, and for inquiry into the administration of justice in Tobago, 6 June. He divided for repeal of the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act, 8 May, inquiry into the Peterloo massacre, 16 May, and abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 25 May, 4 June 1821.

On the eve of the session Ricardo had told McCulloch that ‘if the House will listen to me, and my courage do not fail me, I will take the first good opportunity of saying something on the injurious effects of the corn laws on the farmers’. He did so on the presentation of the Birmingham merchants’ petition complaining of distress, 8 Feb., when he disputed Baring’s contention that the alteration in the currency was to blame and argued against his call for the adoption of a bimetallic standard: ‘the House listened to me with great attention’, he thought, and the radical Whig Henry Grey Bennet* considered his speech ‘a most able one’.12 He said that the bill to regulate the corn averages would raise the import price and that the only remedy for distress was ‘the total repeal of the corn laws’, 26 Feb. On 7 Mar. he opposed the appointment of a select committee, which would ‘look for relief to restrictions upon importation’. At the same time, he admitted the impossibility of moving to free trade overnight and suggested that a countervailing duty be imposed on imports to compensate domestic producers for any peculiar burdens of taxation which could be proved to exist. He was named to the committee, and in the ensuing weeks effectively exerted himself on it in support of free trade ideas. Ricardo, an economic optimist, thought that ‘the generality of people’, including the parliamentary opposition, ‘undervalue the resources of a great nation’; and he clearly perceived his own role on the committee, where, as he told Mallet, he was given his head by most of the other members, who ‘look upon him as a mere theorist, but ... are very civil and allow him to take his own course with a view to establishing his principles by evidence’:

I have worked very hard ... and I hope not without effect in correcting mistaken principles. We have had many farmers before us who have given a sad but I believe a true picture of the great prevalence of distress. These farmers ... were all for protecting duties, amounting almost to the prohibition of foreign corn. It was my business to show how little they were qualified to be advisers on this important question, by exposing their ignorance of the first principles which should guide our judgements.

He thought that he and Huskisson, a member of the board of trade, who gave him useful support, had successfully demonstrated the wrong-headedness of Attwood’s currency theories, though Attwood himself came away with quite the contrary impression. He reported that the country gentlemen on the committee were ‘all as dull as beetles, whilst Huskisson and Ricardo are as sharp as needles and as active as bees’.13 In the House, 31 May, Ricardo exonerated the government and his fellow committee members from the charge of creating ‘unnecessary delay’ in the production of the report.14 This document, which was drawn up by Huskisson, rejected the arguments that taxation or deflation was responsible for agricultural distress and recommended an open trade in corn subject to a moderate fixed duty, though it fell short of suggesting any immediate action to modify the corn laws in the manner desired by Ricardo. He was largely satisfied with it and with his own efforts in bringing it about, notwithstanding its definition of his notion of the countervailing duty as compensation for the differences between domestic and foreign production costs. He told McCulloch, ‘It is better than could be expected, and I flatter myself there is enough of good about it to show the fallacies which we could not expunge from it’. He praised Huskisson, who was ‘for establishing the trade on the most free and liberal foundation’, but he noted that there was a basic difference between them: ‘he would uphold agriculture permanently to its present height’, while ‘I would reduce it gradually to the level at which it would have been if the trade had been free’. Although the report was presented too late to be acted on that session, it effectively determined future government policy on the corn laws, and was strongly influenced by Ricardo’s theory of diminishing returns, which led him to advocate decultivation of marginal land and free trade to stimulate foreign demand for British manufactures.15

He voted against renewal of the sugar duties, 9 Feb., and objected to the higher duty on East as opposed to West Indian produce, 4 May 1821. He opposed the timber duties, 9 Feb., 27 Mar.,16 5 Apr., when he argued that it was nonsense to ‘take the worst timber at the dearest rate’ for the sake of protecting the American trade: ‘wrong notions of commercial policy had too long prevailed; and now that the country had begun to recognize sounder principles, the sooner they acted upon them the better’. Privately, he was not without hope that this ‘stand for good principles’ had been beneficial. He admitted that as long as the West Indian cotton trade was treated as a monopoly, government was bound to indemnify the producers for the restriction of their market, 25 June; but he ‘complained altogether of the existence of the restrictive system’. At the close of the session he told one of his correspondents that he believed that ministers

view these questions in their true light and would make great improvements in our commercial code if they were not thwarted and opposed by the narrow and selfish policy of the particular interests which are so powerfully exerted in the House of Commons to check improvement and support monopolies.

He spoke and voted for Maberly’s motion for the remission of £2,000,000 in taxes, 6 Mar., and in passing attacked the sinking fund, as he did again when reviewing Vansittart’s budget statement, 1 June 1821. On 23 June he advocated a supreme effort to get rid of the national debt.17 The government’s decision to comply with the desire of the Bank of England to scrap the plan to found the currency on ingots and to bring forward the time for the resumption of cash payments, in terms of gold coin, to May 1821, irritated Ricardo, and put him on the defensive against the currency reformers, as he was blamed for the consequences - an appreciation greater than that which he had predicted - of actions for which he was not personally responsible. He opposed Baring’s call for further inquiry, 19 Mar.; told Attwood that ‘if the Bank, instead of buying, had sold gold, as he recommended, the effect would have been very different from what it was at present’, 9 Apr., and on the third reading of the cash payments bill, 13 Apr., again blamed the Bank for their mismanagement. In private, he hoped that the matter had now been laid to rest, but he remained scathing in his contempt for the authorities of the Bank:

I very much regret, that in the great change we have made, from an unregulated currency, to one regulated by a fixed standard, we had not more able men to manage it than the present Bank directors. If their object had been to make the revulsion as oppressive as possible, they could not have pursued measures more calculated to make it so ... They are a very ignorant set.18

Ricardo welcomed Onslow’s attempt to repeal the usury laws, which ‘occasioned inconvenience, but did no good’, 12 Apr. 1821. He supported Lambton’s parliamentary reform scheme, 18 Apr., but regretted its omission of provision for the secret ballot, ‘a greater security for the full and fair representation of the people than any extension of the elective franchise’. He voted for Russell’s reform motion, 9 May, and for reform of the Scottish county representation the following day. He thought that Scarlett’s poor laws amendment bill would benefit the poor by reducing the supply of labour below the demand, 8 May. He said that it was ‘idle’ to legislate against the ill-treatment of horses, as Martin proposed, 1 June, if the barbarities routinely perpetrated in hunting and fishing were to be ignored. He expressed willingness to support the grant of £6,000 a year to the duke of Clarence to put him on the same footing as his brothers, 18 June; but later that day he voted to reduce the sum by £2,500 and to omit any payment of arrears. In April 1821 he had become a founder member of the Political Economy Club.

At the end of August 1821, Ricardo commented to Mill that the Whigs

are an inconsistent set of people - they are the loudest in their complaints of the bad measures which are pursued by government, and yet the opposers of every scheme which shall afford us a chance of obliging the government to pursue none but good measures. The only prospect we have of putting aside the struggle which they say has commenced between the rich and the other classes, is for the rich to yield what is justly due to the other classes, but this is the last measure which they are willing to have recourse to.

At the same time, he was ‘startled at the extent’ of Mill’s proposition, in his essay on The Liberty of the Press, ‘respecting the liberty to be allowed of exhorting the people by means of the press to resist their governors’: ‘I fear you would make the overturning of a government too easy, which would certainly be an evil, as well as the making it too difficult’. John Cam Hobhouse* had ‘a violent argument’ with him in October, disputing his tenet that ‘to raise one man degraded another’.19 Maria Edgeworth was his guest at a typically boisterous family gathering in November 1821, and was captivated by him:

Mr. Ricardo with a very composed manner has a continual life of mind and starts perpetually new game in conversation ... I never argued or discussed a question with any person who argues more fairly or less for victory and more for truth. He gives full thought to every argument brought against him and seems not to be on any side of any question for one instant longer than the conviction of his mind is on that side. It seems quite indifferent to him whether you find the truth or he find it, provided it be found. One gets at something by conversing with him. One learns either that one is wrong or right and the understanding is improved without the temper being ever tried in the discussion ... He is altogether one of the most agreeable persons as well as the best informed and most clever I ever knew.20

Ricardo was invited to attend the Hereford dinner in honour of Hume, 7 Dec. 1821, when, in addition to pledging his continued support for Hume’s crusade against ‘every wasteful expenditure of the public money’, he again stressed the crucial importance of the ballot in any measure of reform: ‘it was nothing but mockery and delusion to pretend to give the right of voting to a man, if you prevented him from exercising it without control’. To one sceptical correspondent he explained:

You will call all these proceedings by the name of ‘Radical’, but I believe that they are calculated to do much good - to increase the interest of the people in the affairs of government, and to make them better judges of what constitutes good and what bad government. At the same time this will be useful to our governors, and incline them to economy and forbearance.

Attacks on him by disgruntled agriculturists at a Monmouth meeting to give the freedom of the borough to Hume typified, he thought, the ‘error’ prevailing on the subject of the currency, which was given frequent expression by William Cobbett†, who denounced him as the ‘Oracle’.21

Ricardo planned to ‘enter with all my energies on my parliamentary duties’ in the 1822 session; and he made an immediate mark by declining to vote for Hume’s amendment to the address, 5 Feb., because he did not believe that high taxation was the cause of agricultural distress, which he ascribed to low prices caused by over-production. Of Ricardo’s insistence that the pound ‘has not varied ten years’, the backbencher Hudson Gurney, a country banker, noted privately, ‘Are these economists mad?’; and John Allen of Holland House dismissed him as ‘the greatest fool in the world’.22 Ricardo reiterated his opinions on agricultural protection, taxation and the currency in the debate on Brougham’s motion for more extensive tax reductions to relieve distress, 11 Feb. Although he privately believed that Brougham had talked rubbish, he voted for the motion, on the grounds that some relief might be afforded by the repeal of certain taxes and that reductions in expenditure were intrinsically desirable. He was blamed in some Whig quarters for the opposition’s poor showing in the division and their failure to attract the support of disgruntled Tory country gentlemen, many of whom were supposed to have been induced to side with ministers by his apparent approval of their policies. Yet John Whishaw thought that such criticism was largely unfounded:

I think ... that, considering the audience whom he addressed, he spoke too much as a theorist, and in a manner likely to be misrepresented. But though his speeches may have served as pretexts, I cannot think that they operated as the true motives of many votes. Mackintosh represented the number thus influenced, or professing to be so, as nearly forty, but they were all willing to be satisfied with the measures of government, and would have found good reasons for being so if Ricardo had never opened his lips.23

He voted for Lord Althorp’s similar motion, 21 Feb., and went on to divide steadily for economies and reductions. As he said on 20 Mar., he ‘would not trust any ministers ... with a surplus revenue, and he should, therefore, join in any vote for a remission of taxes ... so long as a surplus revenue remained’. Ricardo, who believed that ‘the evils of Ireland ... arise from misrule’, voted against the suspension of habeas corpus and insurrection bills, 7, 8 Feb.; and later in the session he divided against the Irish constables bill, 7 June, for inquiry into tithes, 19 June, and, on the renewal of the insurrection bill, for an investigation of the causes of distress and to limit the duration of the measure, 8 July. He voted in support of Sir Robert Wilson*, 13 Feb., and Robert Waithman*, 28 Feb., over their roles in the disturbances at the queen’s funeral, and for attempts to secure a remission of Henry Hunt’s* gaol sentence, 22, 28 Mar., 24 Apr. 1822.

His principal concern was with the issue of agricultural protection, on which he had feared that ‘some injudicious measures may be adopted, in consequence of the general prevalence of error’. On the motion to renew the select committee on agricultural distress, 18 Feb. 1822, he replied at length to his critics in a speech which excited ‘loud and general cheering’. He felt that the House had ‘listened to me with attention, and appeared to follow and understand my arguments’, though he could not say the same for the newspaper reporters, who, he complained, had again put nonsense into his mouth. He was named to the committee, but felt that he would be ‘able to do little good on it’ in the current climate of agricultural opinion. The loss to him of Huskisson, who refused to attend, was partially compensated by the support he received from the free trader William Wolryche Whitmore. He continued to put forward his views in the House, 5, 14 Mar., but he became increasingly gloomy as the committee, which did not take evidence, proceeded with its deliberations:

The answer to every proposal for the adoption of good measures ... is that the agriculture of the country is in a state of unparalleled distress, and that the committee was appointed for the purpose of affording it relief. I had no idea of being able to do any good now, in the way of making better laws, but I hoped to lay the foundation of a better system in future. In that hope I shall probably be disappointed ... the country gentlemen ... form themselves into a compact body determined to yield no point which has the least semblance to diminished protection.

In the House, 3 Apr., he strongly attacked the principle of the committee’s report, which recommended that there should be an open trade below 70s. and above it a fixed countervailing duty to compensate the domestic producer for his higher production costs. Ricardo immediately rushed into print during the Easter recess with his pamphlet On Protection to Agriculture, which was in effect a minority report. According to Whishaw, it was ‘much praised. The ministerialists, in particular, are much pleased with his doctrines, evidently because he says little against taxation’.24 When the government proposals based on the report were put to the House, 29 Apr., Ricardo laid out his alternative scheme for a fixed 20s. duty to operate when prices attained 70s., to be reduced by 1s. a year until it reached its final level of 10s., and to be balanced by a 7s. bounty on exports. He spoke in his usual terms on the subject, 7 May, seeing himself as fighting ‘the best battle I can against the country gentlemen’. When Huskisson abandoned his own proposals, Ricardo ‘adopted those of them which laid down the correct principles, and added to them my own personal measure’; but on 9 May his scheme was rejected by 218-25. He made further hits at agriculturists who sought salvation in higher food prices, 10, 16 May, but told a correspondent that he felt unequal to the struggle against ‘the fallacious arguments for monopolies’:

I do my best, but that is bad enough. It is difficult to express oneself in terms sufficiently familiar to be understood by those who either understand nothing on these subjects, or who have imbibed prejudices to which they obstinately adhere. I am a very bad speaker, and am sorry to say I do not improve. I have not one good supporter; there are some who understand the subject, but they are on the ministerial bench, and dare not always speak as they think.25

However, he approved the corn bill, 3 June, as an improvement on the former law, and welcomed Canning’s proposal to allow foreign corn in bond to be ground into flour for export, for which he spoke and voted, 10 June 1822.

Ricardo complained of the unsatisfactory way in which Vansittart’s accounts of the national finances were set out, 22 Feb.,26 supported Maberly’s motion for their simplification, 14 Mar., and was named to the select committee appointed on 18 Apr. 1822. He commended Vansittart’s plan to convert the navy five per cents, 25 Feb. On 8 Mar. he attacked the directors of the Bank, who ‘did not know what they were about’, for their handling of the currency conversion and their involvement in the proposed loan of £4,000,000 in exchequer bills to help the agricultural interest; and he supported Hume’s attempt to ensure that the Bank did not derive any profit from its management of the increased capital stock created by the five per cents conversion. He again criticized the Bank and threatened to oppose renewal of its charter, 31 May. In March he was encouraged by political activists in Liverpool to come forward for the borough when Canning vacated his seat to go as governor-general to India; but his first instinct to have nothing to do with it was endorsed by one of his local contacts.27

He voted silently for parliamentary reform, 25 Apr., 3 June, and spoke in its favour at the Westminster anniversary reform dinner, 23 May 1822.28 He again voted for criminal law reform, 4 June. He was unshaken in his views on the sinking fund and the desirability of getting rid of the national debt, as he wrote to a friend, 25 Mar:

While ministers have this fund virtually at their disposal they will on the slightest occasion be disposed for war. To keep them peaceable you must keep them poor.

He supported Hume’s attempt to take the sum required to implement Vansittart’s ‘crooked’ scheme to relieve the burden of naval and military pensions by granting contractors a fixed annuity of 45 years from the sinking fund, 3 May. On the same subject, 24 May, he said that while he was always prepared to give ministers credit where it was due, and that in trying to reduce taxes they had ‘acted judiciously in listening to the general prayer of the people’, he ‘must decline concurring in any terms of excessive gratitude’ for the modified pensions plan, whereby trustees were to manage a fund raised by exchequer bills on the sale of annuities: they were merely ‘giving the people what was, in fact, their own money’. He again supported Hume’s ‘simple and easy’ plan, 3 June, when he also voted for repeal of the salt duties. His only quarrel with the navigation bill, 20 May, 4 June, was that it did not go far enough; and he praised the efforts of Wallace, vice-president of the board of trade, to liberalize commerce.29 Quoting Adam Smith to make his point, he scorned calls for higher protection for the Irish butter trade, 20 June, and next day urged ministers to open the silk trade by repealing the restrictive Spitalfields Acts. He voted against the aliens bill, 5 June, 1, 10 July. In a free trade speech before the court of the East India Company, 12 June, he said that he ‘wished to see a House of Commons free from party, where the interest of the public would alone be considered, in which a deaf ear would be turned to all partial application’. Later that day he spoke at length against Western’s motion for inquiry into the effects of the resumption of cash payments and contended that the Bank’s ‘mistake’ in purchasing gold and abandoning bullion had ‘materially affected the public interests’. Changing his emphasis from previous speeches, he now admitted that there were bound to be difficulties in the early stages of the transition; but he insisted that there could be no going back and called for an end to agitation on the subject. On 14 June he maintained that public creditors had not significantly benefitted from the change.30 He voted in condemnation of the allegedly increasing influence of the crown, 24 June, and the lord advocate’s dealings with the Scottish press, 25 June, and for inquiry into chancery delays, 26 June. He called into question Vansittart’s optimistic financial forecasts and recommended repeal of the usury laws, 1 July. He opposed inquiry into the claims of the Calcutta bankers, 4 July. His last significant speech of the session was against Western’s renewed attempt to reopen the currency question, 10 July 1822.

Two days later Ricardo set off for Switzerland, where he intended to take necessary ‘rest and recreation’ until September. In the event, his wife persuaded him to press on into Italy, and they went as far as Florence. They returned by way of Paris and reached London on 8 Dec. 1822. A week later, Ricardo was anticipating more clamour for relief from the agriculturists. At the end of the year, a disgruntled clergyman condemned him as one of the ‘gang of Jew speculators and moneylenders and loanraisers’, a ‘set of vagrant countryless ragamuffins’, who were doing untold damage.31 Ricardo was ‘astonished’ by the success of Cobbett in carrying resolutions at the Norfolk county meeting for the cancellation of all debts, which would be ‘used as an argument by the anti-reformers against the extension of the suffrage’. He was unable to attend the Herefordshire meeting, where Cobbett ‘as usual asserted falsehoods respecting my opinions’, and the deluded country gentlemen ascribed all their problems to ‘the augmented value of the currency’:

I am rather singularly circumstanced - agreeing as I do with the reformers, on the subject of parliamentary reform, I cannot agree with them that taxation and bad government has been the cause of our present difficulties ... Still less can I support the doctrines of the new converts to reform, who attribute our distress to every cause but the right one, and who, not being governed by principle, will quit the cause of reform the moment that the times mend. I on the contrary am a reformer on principle.

He was inclined to think that British policy on the Franco-Spanish conflict, which he hoped to see end in the defeat of France and ‘the establishing of real representative governments all over Europe’, had been ‘firm and judicious’, for he was very much a pacifist. While he saw merit in the scheme which Robert Wilmot Horton* submitted to him to mortgage the poor rates to finance emigration, he disclaimed any special expertise on the subject:

You know I am frequently reproached with being a theorist, and if those who so reproach me, mean that I am not conversant with the practical details of the subjects which have engaged my attention, they are right. The subject of the poor laws, for instance, is one intimately connected with the science of political economy, but nobody is so little acquainted with them, as forming a part of parish economy, as I am.32

As for the currency, he told Pascoe Grenfell*, who had communicated to him Lord Grenville’s views, 19 Jan. 1823, that ‘we now possess the best system ... that has ever been established in any country’.33

On the motion for the reappointment of the committee on foreign trade, 12 Feb. 1823, Ricardo again paid tribute to Wallace’s work, though he regretted the ‘obstacles’ erected by vested interests which had rendered it less effective than it might have been. He repeated his praises, 21 Mar., when he welcomed the warehousing bill, based as it was on ‘a sound and judicious principle’. Before the session, he had assessed Robinson, now chancellor of the exchequer, as ‘a tolerable political economist’ who was ‘well inclined to liberal principles of trade’, but whose notorious timidity would probably deter him from acting on ‘enlarged views of policy’. On 18 Feb. he exhorted Robinson to be firm with the Bank over the renewal of its charter. On 21 Feb. he generally applauded Robinson’s finance resolutions and flattered him as a talented ‘expositor’ of political economy; but he pointed out that he had overestimated the amount of money available to reduce the national debt by £2,000,000. He thought Maberly’s alternative scheme to get rid of the debt through redemption of the land tax was theoretically feasible, but felt that his proposed remission of £7,000,000 in taxes went too far. He resurrected his own pet scheme for a capital levy to remove the debt at a stroke. He voted for the principle of Maberly’s plan, with the proviso that the concomitant tax reductions should be set at £5,000,000, 28 Feb. He opposed the government’s proposals for reduction of the debt, 3 Mar., when he criticized the currency fanatics;34 6 Mar., when he said that he ‘did not ... think the national purse safe in the hands of ministers’ and ‘confessed his fear of the present Parliament, and its disposition to ministerial compliance’; 11 Mar., when he supported Hume’s amendment to limit the sinking fund to the surplus of revenue over expenditure and denied Grenfell’s assertion that his own nostrum was the ‘wildest’ idea of all, and 13 Mar. He spoke and voted against the naval and military pensions bill, 18 Apr., describing the related bargain with the Bank as ‘a very improvident one for the country’. On 25 Feb. he was named to the select committee on commissioners of sewers in London, on which he was still ‘busily engaged’ at the end of April. He made his usual points about the effects of cash resumption on prices and the value of the currency and supported Whitmore’s attempt to reduce the import price for corn to 60s., 26 Feb. He voted against the appointment of a lieutenant-general of the ordnance in peacetime, 19 Feb., and divided for other measures of retrenchment in March. On the 13th he expressed strong reservations about the merchant vessels apprenticeship bill, which he thought would enable owners to reduce wages. His amendment to expunge the compulsory element, 24 Mar., was defeated by 85-6; and at Huskisson’s request, he withdrew the wrecking amendment which he put forward on 18 Apr. 1823.

Ricardo voted for inquiry into the Irish church establishment, 4 Mar.1823. He divided against Barry’s motion for the production of papers on the alleged plot against the lord lieutenant, 24 Mar., but in the opposition majority for inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., though there had been speculation that he would side with ministers in defence of the Irish attorney-general William Plunket*.35 He divided for inquiry into the state of Ireland, 12 May. Soon afterwards he wrote to Maria Edgeworth:

Your restless nation gives us a great deal of trouble in Parliament. The best amongst us do not know how to manage you, nor what course to take to give you the blessings of peace, order, and good government. You have been so long subjected to misrule as hardly to be in a fit state to be reclaimed by common means. Coercion and severity have proved of little use, and I hope the system of indulgence, kindness and conciliation will now be tried. If that system will not succeed I hope we shall get rid of you altogether.

He opposed aspects of the Irish tithes composition bill, 30 May, 6, 16 June; was added to the select committee on the employment of the poor in Ireland, 23 June; seconded Hume’s motion to consider abolition of the lord lieutenancy, 25 June 1823, and the following day voted for reception of the Catholic petition complaining of the administration of justice in Ireland.

Ricardo attended the dinner in honour of the Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors, 7 Mar.; but in the House, 18 Mar. 1823, he denied that in so doing he had indicated a readiness to ‘engage the nation in war’ in support of the Spanish liberals and protested against ministers being condemned by sections of the opposition before they had had a chance to state their case. Mrs. Arbuthnot recorded Rothschild’s story that Ricardo and John Maberly* had profited in the funds on the strength of their advance knowledge of Canning’s statement of the British position on the matter; and Ricardo himself later confirmed at least the partial truth of the tale.36 He condemned the coastwise coal duties, 21, 27 Mar., and on 18 Apr., at McCulloch’s request, presented a Fifeshire petition for repeal of the equivalent duties on stone; ‘neither the House nor the reporters paid much attention’ to him on the latter occasion, but ministers shortly afterwards conceded the repeal.37 Supporting Mary Ann Carlile’s petition for release from prison, 26 Mar., he disputed the attorney-general’s argument that no leniency could be exercised until she had recanted her blasphemy, deplored the activities of the Constitutional Association and declared that ‘prosecutions ought never to be instituted for religious opinions ... however absurd and extravagant’. In reply to a correspondent who thanked him for this contribution, he remarked that he would extend toleration to atheists and that it was ‘a disgrace to the age we live in, that a part of the inhabitants of this country are still suffering under disabilities imposed upon them in a less enlightened age’. He voted for inquiry into the parliamentary franchise, 20 Feb., and on 24 Apr. supported and was a teller for Russell’s reform motion, though he believed that without the ballot it would be nugatory. He spoke in the same vein at the Westminster anniversary dinner, 23 May.38 He voted for reform in Scotland, 2 June. He divided for the abolition of whipping as a punishment, 30 Apr., of the death penalty for larceny, 21 May, and of flogging in prisons, 7 July. He voiced his ‘astonishment’ that the Spitalfields Acts, ‘an interference with the freedom of trade’, should still be in force and warmly supported the bill for their repeal, 21 May, 9, 11 June, when he denied that Parliament was ‘legislating to the injury of the working classes’. On the presentation of a Southampton petition complaining of agricultural distress, 12 May, he once more ‘attributed all the evils of a fluctuating price of grain to the corn laws and urged a speedy revision of the whole system’.39 He was named to the select committee on mercantile law, 15 May, and on the proposal to set up one on trade bills, 22 May, expressed his pleasure at ‘this contest for the adoption of liberal principles’. Later that day he supported equalization of the sugar duties, as he had in another speech to the East India Company, 19 Mar.40 He spoke and voted for inquiry into the beer and malt duties, with a view to taxing malt only, 28 May. He opposed the beer duties bill as ‘very unjust’, 13 June, when he also objected to any increase in the duty on barilla. On 30 May he excited some surprise by expressing reservations about the introduction of machinery, which he now admitted might in some instances create difficulties. At the same time, he said that the tide of progress could not be resisted and suggested that the working classes could prevent serious unemployment by exercising better birth control. He voted in censure of the lord advocate on the Borthwick case, 3 June, and for investigation of chancery delays, 5 June. He applauded the ‘enlightened views’ incorporated by Huskisson, now president of the board of trade, in the reciprocity of duties bill, 6 June, 4 July. On 9 June he voted to abolish the Leeward Islands four and a half per cent duties, for inquiry into the expenses of the coronation and to reduce the expenditure on foreign embassies. He led the opposition to Western’s call for inquiry into the currency, 11 June, in a long speech, over which he had taken considerable trouble.41 He again supported repeal of the usury laws, 27, 28 June.42 He voted against the grant for Irish churches and glebe lands, 1 July. Speaking in support of Hume’s motion for unfettered discussion of religious issues that day, he cited the atheism of Robert Owen as proof that Christians had no monopoly on beneficence. According to Mallet, he had obtained Owen’s ready agreement to the use of his name in this context earlier that day; but on witnessing from the gallery the outrage which Ricardo’s statement excited in the majority of his audience, Owen’s ‘natural boldness forsook him and a desire for fair fame prevailed’. When Ricardo declined his hastily written request to withdraw the remark, Owen primed William Money to inform the House that he wished it to be known that Ricardo had misrepresented him. Ricardo told Mallet that he was ‘very near stating to the House what had passed between him and Owen in the morning; but his good nature prevailed’, and he merely explained that he had deduced Owen’s non-belief from his writings.43 He voted for the introduction of jury trials to New South Wales, 7 July, and the same day was a teller for the minority against the report stage of the Irish linen manufacture bill. His last reported speech in the House was a brief statement of his undiminished objection to this measure on the occasion of its passage, 9 July 1823.44

From his summer retreat at Gatcombe, Ricardo recalled that in the session just finished, ‘besides the regular attendance which I always give to the House, I was obliged to be every day on some committee’. He took satisfaction in the ‘more liberal spirit than heretofore’ which had been shown in Parliament and hoped that further progress would be made towards ‘getting rid of some of the absurd regulations which fetter commerce, till all shackles are removed’. He composed a paper detailing his plan for the establishment of a national bank, ‘with a view to prove that the nation would lose nothing in profits by abolishing the Bank of England’. He continued, and concluded with an amiable agreement to differ, his long-running correspondence with Malthus on the theory of value. On 30 Aug. he wrote to Mill, who was planning to visit him in mid-September:

The grand cause, good government, is always present to my mind, but I hope it will have a better champion in the House of Commons ... I am quite sure that the good cause is advancing, though at a very moderate step, and all we can hope to do in our time is to help it a little forward.

On 5 Sept. Ricardo began to suffer severely from earache, a complaint to which he was prone. He became seriously ill, appeared to rally when the abscess burst, but developed an infection of the mastoid and, after enduring ‘a period of unspeakable agony’, died on the 11th, aged 51.45 Hume, shocked, as many were, by his wholly unexpected death, wrote to Hobhouse:

I consider him to have filled a space in the public eye and in the House of Commons that no other man can fill, and I deplore his loss as a public calamity. To me the loss cannot be made up. I never knew an individual with so many valuable qualities. I know no one at present likely to take his place.

Lady Holland regarded him as ‘a loss to the community, as he was a virtuous, upright man’. She found ‘rather diverting’ Lord Lauderdale’s observation that he was ‘a very good man, though he has often provoked me by the labour it cost me to decipher the most obscure style of writing I ever attempted to read’. Grenville, a great admirer of Ricardo, commented that he was

a great loss both to the country and to government. The extreme candour and fairness of his mind and conduct contrasted very strikingly with the extravagance of his political opinions.46

Hume and Huskisson paid warm tributes to him in the House, 12 Feb. 1824. His Plan for the Establishment of a National Bank was published that month.47 By his will of 4 Apr. 1820 Ricardo (of whom it had once been said that he had not been ‘improperly influenced, as to the principle of population, by his intimacy with Malthus’) divided his real estate in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Kent and his residuary personal estate between his sons: Osman (1795-1881), Liberal Member for Worcester, 1847-65; David (1803-64), Liberal Member for Stroud 1832-3, and Mortimer (1807-76), an army officer. He provided his unmarried daughters Berthia and Mary with £25,000 each and his surviving married daughters Henrietta and Priscilla with £10,000, in addition to their portions of £12,000. He left his wife £4,000 and a life annuity of the same amount. His personalty was sworn under £500,000, but the total value of his estate must have been between £675,000 and £775,000.48

An anonymous obituarist wrote that Ricardo’s ‘amiable disposition and conciliating manners’ had combined with his ‘profound knowledge of all the mysteries of commerce’ to earn him the respect of the Commons.49 His brother Moses, in an affectionate memoir, commented that ‘to intellectual powers of the first order, he joined a candour, a modesty, a diffidence, which never allowed him to assume to himself a merit which he felt he did not deserve’.50 Hobhouse wrote warmly of him a few days after his death:

He was of unblemished integrity, both public and private ... In all the relations of private life he was kind, amiable, and engaging, as well as just and generous. He seemed free from every bad passion, and those who came within the sphere of his gentle but resistless influence felt that he was born for the consolation of those around him, and for the happiness of mankind.51

Mallet had this to say of him:

No man was more open to conviction, and more ready to acknowledge an error. His great and only object was the discovery of truth; and he carried into conversation a degree of candour and modesty of manner which were not less remarkable than his extraordinary clearness and facility of elucidation ... Ricardo was a bold man ... because he reasoned thoroughly with himself, and carefully examined the opinions which he adopted. Whether he made sufficient allowance for disturbing causes, and for the preponderating influence which the passions of mankind often acquire over their own interests, may admit of doubt. His knowledge of mankind, and of political society, was chiefly acquired in books, and wanted the test of experience; but although he was a thorough reformer ... no man was less of a revolutionist in principle: he was, on the contrary, humane, considerate and just in all his views ... No one was less forward in asserting his opinions, or less impatient to speak: he never argued for purposes of victory, but always with good nature, simplicity and a most winning playfulness of manner.52

Sixteen years after his death, Brougham depicted him as

a person of good information and great ability, though not overtopping all others in learning, nor entitled to be reckoned a man of genius. The originality of some speculations on political economy, in which he engaged, was, indeed, undeniable ... His speaking, his conduct, his manner, were all unexceptionable, and all suited to the man, his high station among philosophers, his known opinions on political affairs, his kindly nature, and his genuine modesty. There was something about him, chiefly a want of all affectation as well as pretension in everything he did or said, that won the respect of every party. His matter was ever of a high value ... His views were often abundantly theoretical, sometimes too refined for his audience, occasionally extravagant from his propensity to follow a right principle into all its consequences, without duly taking into account or practice the condition of things to which he was applying it ... Few men have ... had more weight in Parliament; certainly none who, finding but a small body of his fellow-Members to agree with his leading opinions, might be said generally to speak against the sense of his audience, ever commanded a more patient or even favourable hearing; and, as this was effected without any of the more ordinary powers of oratory or of entertainment possessed by others, it might be regarded as the triumph of reason, intelligence, and integrity over untoward circumstances and alien natures.53

Although few of the reforms for which Ricardo worked were implemented in his lifetime, the influence of his ideas on the formation of British public policy in the nineteenth century was immense. At the same time, his labour theory of value was taken up by a succession of radicals and transformed by them into the fundamental tenet of Socialism: his economic orthodoxy contained principles which were adopted by others to overturn his own assumptions about the natural order of society and to promote revolutionary ideas.54

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Oxford DNB.
  • 2. See Biog. Dict. of Modern British Radicals ed. J.O. Baylen and N.J. Grossman, i. 404.
  • 3. Gordon, 2-3; Works, v, p. xx; viii. 147.
  • 4. Works, v, p. xix.
  • 5. The Times, 4 May 1820.
  • 6. Gordon, 82-86.
  • 7. The Times, 26 May 1820.
  • 8. Ibid. 22 June 1820.
  • 9. Gordon, 89-90.
  • 10. Works, iv. 143-200.
  • 11. Edgeworth Letters, 226-7; Works, v. 469-70; viii. 326-31; The Times, 1 Jan. 1821; Pol. Economy Club, vi. 213.
  • 12. HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 16-17.
  • 13. Works vol. v, p. xxv.
  • 14. The Times, 1 June 1821.
  • 15. Gordon, 99-100; B. Hilton, Corn, Cash, Commerce, 104-7, 117, 124-6, 131, 134.
  • 16. The Times, 28 Mar. 1821.
  • 17. Ibid. 25 June 1821.
  • 18. Hilton, 90-95; Gordon, 102-13.
  • 19. Broughton, Recollections, ii. 159.
  • 20. Edgeworth Letters, 257-62.
  • 21. Works, v. 471-4, 515-21; The Times, 14 Dec. 1821.
  • 22. Harewood mss HAR/GC/83, J. Gladstone to Canning, 6 Feb.; Gurney diary, 10 Feb. 1822.
  • 23. ‘Pope’ of Holland House ed. Lady Seymour, 243-4; The Times, 13 Feb. 1822.
  • 24. Works, iv. 201-70; ‘Pope’ of Holland House, 249.
  • 25. The Times, 11 May 1822; Hilton, 150-2.
  • 26. The Times, 23 Feb. 1822.
  • 27. Works, vol. xi, pp. xiii-xiv.