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Kadish Workshop in Law, Philosophy, and Political Theory: Shannon Stimson, Georgetown University

Friday, October 27, 2023 @ 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm

Shannon Stimson is the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Professor in the Foundations of American Freedom. She is a historian of political and economic thought, focusing largely from the 17th to the 19th centuries. 

Paper Title and Abstract:

Lions in Winter: Sir William Petty, Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Hobbes on taxation, unity and the constitution of the Seventeenth-century State

The aim of this paper is to explore the intersection between economic and constitutional thought in the works of the seventeenth-century projector and fiscal reformer Sir William Petty.  My focus will draw primarily from three of Petty’s works: A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions (1662), the Political Arithmetic (1671) and the Treatise of Ireland (1687).[1] I will argue that Petty drew in these works on the political and fiscal thinking of two individuals whose works preceded him in the decades-long struggle over order, stability, fiscal policy and political sovereignty ­stretching from the Civil War to the end of the Commonwealth and Protectorate and through the Restoration until 1688.  Here I refer to Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Hobbes.

This is of course a very different way of understanding Petty’s contributions to the economic and political thought of the mid-to-late seventeenth century in England and Ireland.  Ever since Marx first explored Petty’s writings in detail, in his Theories of Surplus Value (1863), Petty contribution has most often been considered as having outlined a set of discrete conceptual considerations about rent, labor, value and money.  In this kind of doctrinal history, Petty is cast as an early contributor to “political economy” whose ideas were variously taken up later, and transformed, by thinkers like Smith, Ricardo, and Marx.

However, I want to argue instead that there are historical as well as theoretical problems with this read-back of Petty.  Historically speaking, Petty’s seventeenth-century economic world was distinctly closer to the feudal period, where agricultural production was overwhelmingly predominant and where ground-rent was “the normal form of surplus,”[2] than it was to the manufacturing and industrial worlds of those later political economists. This was certainly Joseph Schumpeter’s view. Theoretically speaking, to link Marx’s political economy to the mid-seventeenth century produces a narrowed rendering of the original and controversial nature of what Petty was actually doing in these works.  Constitutionally, he was aiming at a codified union of England, Ireland and Scotland, governed under a monarch and single parliament with proportional representation and a national income drawn from a more equitable fiscal system of taxes, systematically calculated using political arithmetic, the statistical “toole” he invented largely for this purpose.[3]  Petty’s effort in these works was to rethink the fiscal constitution of a new “British” state in the service not only of that stability and order sought as well by Hobbes and Cromwell, but also in service to the growth and direction in his own words, of “the wealth of the nation” so essential to both.[4]

[1] Hull, The Economic Writings, pp. 1-97; 233-313; 545-621 (Appendix, pp. 622-632).

[2] Ted McCormick, William Petty and the Ambitions of Political Arithmetic (OUP, 20009), p.), p.308.

[3] Political arithmetic, as Petty conceived it, can be described as a mathematical approach to problems confronting government, employing a host of variables and data including mortality, labor, population, the value and extent of lands housing, imports and exports, are statistically analyzed, or as Petty wrote, “brought into a sort of     Demonstration.” Petty develops a more extensive list of such variables in the Political Arithmetic.  See Hull, Economic Writings, pp., 232-313, p. 233.

[4] BL Add MS 72865 Petty Papers Vol. XVI (ff.166) Essays and treatises relating to public and economic affairs in the reign of Charles II, particularly matters of public revenue and trade; bef. 1662-83.  n.d.; II. 2.ff.6-23, a dialogue between A and B on prices and excise beginning, “The Wealth of the Nation is (1) the territory thereof, which is the Mother or Matrix, (2) the daily Labour of the People, which [is the] father and seed of Wealth….”


About the Workshop:

This course is a workshop for discussing works in progress in moral, political, and legal theory. The workshop creates a space for students to engage directly with philosophers, political theorists, and legal scholars working on normative questions toward the goal of fostering critical thinking about concepts of value and developing analytical thinking and writing skills. Another aim is to bring together people from different disciplines and perspectives who have strong normative interests or who speak to issues philosophers and theorists should know something about.

The theme for the Fall 2023 workshop is “Current Work on the History of Political, Legal, and Moral Philosophy.”


141 Law Building


Kadish Center for Morality, Law & Public Affairs

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