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William Petty and the Origins of Political Economy

Life and Writings

William Petty (1623-1687) had an eventful life.1 The son of a clothier, he was a ship-boy on a merchant ship at the age of thirteen, but ten months later he was put ashore on the French coast with a broken leg. Here he succeeded in getting admission to the Jesuit college in Caen. After serving in the Royal Navy, when the civil war broke out he joined other refugees, in Holland first (1643) and then in Paris (1646), where he studied medicine and, with Hobbes, anatomy. When his father died, in 1646 he returned to Romsey, his birthplace, but soon we find him in London, where he tried to patent an invention of his own, a machine capable of producing duplicate copies of a written text simultaneously. Then in 1648 he was awarded the degree of doctor of medicine at Oxford University. Here he had an incredibly rapid career, favoured by political circumstances (the rise of Cromwell, which led to the old professors considered supporters of the king being set aside): in 1650 he became the professor of anatomy. But by the following year he had already moved to the chair of music at Gresham College, London.2 In the same year he became chief medical officer of the English army sent to Ireland by Cromwell. After the victories over the Irish, Petty was entrusted with the task of conducting geographical survey of the Irish lands, as the first step for distributing them among the English soldiers, the state domain and the financiers of the military expeditions. Petty proved extraordinarily able in rapidly concluding the survey and emerged from it as a very rich man, with large estates in Ireland, thanks also to trade in debentures (representing rights to the lands to be distributed) sold by the soldiers.

  • 1 On the topic of this chapter, cf. Roncaglia 1977.
  • 2 At the time mathematical relations were an essential part in the study both of human anatomy and of the laws of harmony. On Petty’s connection with the new English philosophical culture of the time, cf. McCormick 2009.
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From then up to his death, Petty was busy with administration of his estates and with unending legal controversies over the titles to the Irish lands as well as over taxes and moved continuously between England and Ireland. Nevertheless, in 1660-1662 he took part in the founding of the Royal Society for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. In 1667 he married a widow, who gave him five children; but he also fathered at least one illegitimate daughter, who was to appear on the scene in London as a dancer.

Only a small part of Petty’s manuscripts were published during his lifetime under his own name. With the exception of the A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions (1662), the main writings relating to economic matters were published after his death, when the 1688 revolution rendered the political climate more favourable to his ideas.

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