Cairnes, John Elliott

Cairnes, John Elliott (1823-1875)
Political Economist

John Elliot Cairnes, a political economist, was born in 1823 at Castlebellingham, County Louth, the son of William Elliott Cairnes and Marianne Woolsey. John Cairnes spent some time in the counting house of his father’s brewery in Drogheda before entering Trinity College Dublin to study Arts. He received a BA degree in 1848 and an MA in 1854. He then studied Law and was called to the Irish Bar.

However, his interests lay with political economy, and in 1856 he was appointed to the Whately Chair of Political Economy at Trinity College Dublin. The lectures of his first year’s course were published in 1857 as Essays on Some Unsettled Questions in Political Economy, which formed an admirable introduction to the study of economics as a science.

In 1861, Cairnes was appointed Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at Queen’s College Galway and the following year published The Slave Power, regarded as one of the finest specimens of applied economic philosophy. The works of Cairnes formed the most important contribution to economical science made by the ‘English school’ since the publication of J.S.Mill’s Principles.

In 1866, Cairnes was appointed Professor of Political Economy at University College London, but increasing ill-health forced him to retire in 1872 and he died three years later at Blackheath near London.


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