Although better known as a literary figure, Thomas de Quincey was also a staunch and very eloquent supporter of the Ricardian Classical School. He records his encounter with Ricardian theory in his famous Confessions of an Opium Eater:
In this state of imbecility, I had, for amusement, turned my attention to political economy. My understanding, which formerly had been as active and restless as a hyena, could not, I suppose (so long as I lived at all), sink into utter lethargy; and political economy offers this advantage to a person in my state – that, though it is eminently an organic science (no part, that is to say, but what acts on the whole, as the whole again reacts on and through each part), yet the several parts may be detached and contemplated singly. Great as was the prostration of my powers at this time, yet I could not forget my knowledge; and my understanding had been far too many years intimate with severe thinkers, with logic, and the great masters of knowledge, not to be aware of the utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists. I had been led in 1811 to look into loads of books and pamphlets on many branches of economy; and, at my desire, M.[argaret] sometimes read to me chapters from more recent works, or parts of parliamentary debates. I saw that these were generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect; and that any man of sound head, and practised in wielding logic with a scholastic adroitness, might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus heads to powder with a lady’s fan. At length, in 1819, a friend in Edinburgh sent me down Mr. Ricardo’s book: and recurring to my own prophetic anticipation of the advent of some legislator for this science, I said, before I had finished the first chapter, “Thou art the man!” Wonder and curiosity were emotions that had long been dead in me. Yet I wondered once more: I wondered at myself that I could once again be stimulated to the effort of reading: and much more I wondered at the book. Had this profound work been really written in England during the nineteenth century? Was it possible? I supposed thinking had been extinct in England. Could it be that an Englishman, and he not in academic bowers, but oppressed by mercantile and senatorial cares, had accomplished what all the universities of Europe, and a century of thought, had failed even to advance by one hair’s breadth? All other writers had been crushed and overlaid by the enormous weight of facts and documents; Mr. Ricardo had deduced, à priori, from the understanding itself, laws which first gave a ray of light into the unwieldy chaos of materials, and had constructed what had been but a collection of tentative discussions into a science of regular proportions, now first standing on an eternal basis. (Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium- Eater, 1821 edition, p.99-100 – Note: Later 1856 edition modified this passage considerably).
De Quincey’s life was nothing if not frought with misfortunes, most of them of his own making. Born to a family of Manchester textile merchants, his father’s early death portended problems to come. After a brilliant early school career, he ran away from home at 17, living on the streets of London as a mendicant. Reconciled to his family in 1803, he attended Worcester College, Oxford the next year. It was around this time that he grew acquainted with the English romanticist poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and began experimenting with opium. In 1808, he dropped out of Oxford and moved to Grasmere, in the lake district where his literary friends lived. As his opium addiction grew deeper, he grew gradually estranged from the Wordsworths.
In 1816, de Quincey married Margaret Simpson, the mother of his illegitimate child. In 1818-1819, he did a stint as an editor for the Westmoreland Magazine, before being dismissed and joining the foundling Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. In 1821, he published his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater – his greatest hit. For the remainder of his life, De Quincey continued writing a fast and furious number of articles on all sorts of topics – literary criticism, theology, philosophy, politics, etc. – for contemporary magaizines, like Blackwood’s, London Magazine, Tait’s and Hogg’s.
Economics was one of his topics. In 1823-1824, de Quincey reviewed David Ricardo’s work and entered into the debates then raging in economics on the theory of value and the Malthusian population doctrine. De Quincey’s ‘Dialogues of the Three Templars’ (1824) are a very capable defense of Ricardo’s theory. He had his reservations as well: e.g. he was never keen on the repeal of the Corn Laws and also disputed the notion that there was an ‘inexorable’ tendency for profits to decline. His apologism for the Ricardian doctrine did not prevent the flowering of an intimate friendship with Thomas Carlyle.
All the while, de Quincey was sliding deeper into debt and trouble. De Quincey moved to Edinburgh in 1830, but the creditors and the furies were fast at his heels. He was convicted and imprisoned in 1831 for debts. He was convicted twice more in 1833 and three times in 1834, forcing him to take refuge in a debt sanctuary for a time. In the meantime, two of his sons died – the first, aged two, in 1832, the second, aged eighteen, in 1834. In 1837, his wife died and he was convicted twice more for debts. De Quincey started taking opium intensely again, got into more debt and went into hiding in Glasgow. To cap his misfortunes (and not without a trace of irony), another son died in 1842, during the Opium War against China.
In 1843, De Quincey, now a broken man, retired to a cottage in Lasswade. It was here that he finished his treatise on economics, The Logic of Political Economy (1844). His Suspiria de Profundis, a sequel to the Confessions, were published in 1845. In 1850, he moved back to Edinburgh and, around the same time, a pair of English and American publishers separately began putting out his collected works. De Quincey’s collected writings, widely praised, brought him finally the ounce of joy he needed before he died.
Major Works of Thomas de Quincey
– Prolegomena to All Future Systems of Political Economy
– Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1821, London Magazine (book form, 1822)
– The Measure of Value, 1823, London Magazine
– Letter in Reply to Hazlitt Concerning the Malthusian Population Doctrine, 1823, London Magazine
– Letters to a Young Man who’s Education has been Neglected, 1823, London Magazine
– Notes from the Pocket Book of a Late Opium-Eater, 1823, London Magazine
– The Services of Mr. Ricardo to the Science of Political Economy, 1824, London Magazine?
– Dialogues of the Three Templars on Political Economy, Chiefly in relation to the Principles of Mr. Ricardo, 1824, London Magazine
– Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, 1827, Blackwood’s (suppl. 1839)
– The Last Days of Immanuel Kant, 1827, Blackwood’s
– The Toilette of the Hebrew Lady, 1828, Blackwood’s
– Rhetoric”, 1828, Blackwood’s
– Sketch of Professor Wilson, 1829, Edinburgh Literary Gazette
– Kant in his Miscellaneous Essays, 1830, Blackood’s
– Richard Bentley, 1830, Blackwood’s
– French Revolution, 1830, Blackwood’s
– Dr Parr and his Contemporaries, 1831, Blackwood’s
– Klosterheim, or The Masque, 1832
– The Caesars, 1832-4, Blackwood’s
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1834, Tait’s
– Sketches of Life and Manners from the Autobiography of a Late Opium-Eater, 1834-41, Tait’s
– A Tory’s Account of Toryism, Whiggism and Radicalism, 1835, Tait’s
– The Revolt of the Tartars, 1837, Blackwood’s
– ‘Goethe’, ‘Schiller’, ‘Shakespeare’, ‘Pope’, 1837, Encyclop Britannica
– The Household Wreck, 1838, Blackwood’s
– The Avenger: A narrative, 1838, Blackwood’s
– Style”, 1840, Blackwood’s
– Ricardo and Adam Smith, 1842
– The Logic of Political Economy, 1844
– Coleridge and Opium-Eating, 1845, Blackwood’s
– Suspiria de Profundis, 1845, Blackwoods
– On Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1845, Tait’s
– The System of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescope, 1846, Blackwood’s
– The English Mail-Coach, 1849, Blackwood’s
– Selections Grave and Gay, from Writings Published and Unpublished (1853-60)
– De Quincey’s Writings, 1851-70
– Vol. I – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater & Suspiria de Profundis
– Vol. II – Biographical Essays
– Vol. III – Miscellaneous Essays
– Vol. IV – The Caesars
– Vols. V & VI, Literary Reminiscences
– Vol. VII & VIII, Narrative and Miscellaneous Papers
– Vol. IX – Essays on the Poets and Other English Writers
– Vols. X & XI – Historical and Critical Essays
– Vol. XII – Autobiographic Sketches
– Vol. XIII & XIV – Essays on Philosophical Writers and Other Men of Letters
– Vol. XV – Letters to a Young Man
– Vol. XVI & XVII – Theological Essays and Other Papers
– Vol. XVIII – Note Book of an English Opium-Eater
– Vol. XIX & XX – Memorials and Other Papers
– Vol. XXI – The Avenger and Other Papers
– Vol. XXII – The Logic of Political Economy and Other Papers
– The Uncollected Writings of Thomas de Quincey, 1890
– The Posthumous Works of Thomas de Quincey, 1891-3
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