Senior’s Early Life and Education
Nassau William Senior (1790–1864) was born in the village of Compton in Berkshire County in the UK, about halfway between Reading and Oxford. (Note that “Senior” is used here as a surname, not a suffix.) His father was a minister of the Church of England.
Senior received his secondary education at Eton College, the elite, private preparatory school. For his higher education, he attended Oxford University’s Magdalen [pronounced “Maudlin”] College.
While at Oxford, Senior was befriended by Richard Whately—a famous philosopher, logician, economist, author, and Anglican prelate, who eventually became the Archbishop of Dublin. Senior engaged Whately for a time as a private tutor. The two men remained lifelong friends.
Senior took his bachelor’s degree in civil law from Magdalen College in 1811. He then received a prestigious scholarship which allowed him to pursue higher legal studies.
In 1816, Senior became a “pupil” (apprentice) in a private law firm, eventually qualifying as a lawyer in 1819.
However, Senior only practiced the law briefly. In 1825, he returned to Oxford, this time as the first tenant of a new chair in political economy, which he occupied until 1830, and once again years later, from 1847 until 1852.
Beginning in the late 1920s, Senior began to produce a steady stream of books, pamphlets, and articles for such prominent journals of his day as the Quarterly Review, the Edinburgh Review, the London Review, and the North British Review.
As Senior’s writings brought him to public attention, the then-governing Whig Party began to take an interest in him, eventually tapping him as an official adviser.
Senior served on several Whig government committees, playing a leading role in the drafting of the New Poor Law of 1834 and of a report on the attempted organization of the hand-weaving industry by the trade union movement that was issued in 1841.
Many of Senior’s writings were translated into French and other languages. As a result, he received invitations to travel to various conferences abroad, where he became acquainted with many of the leading economists, political thinkers, and statesmen of his day.
Among Senior’s many overseas connections was the distinguished French political thinker and author, Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, with whom he formed a close friendship.
Senior stoutly maintained that economics was a fact-based science and that no political policies can or should be inferred directly from economic facts.
Senior’s basic orientation was classical liberalism in the tradition of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, and David Ricardo. His main contributions were in the nature of fine-tuning of the specific doctrines of those authors as inferred from their general principles.
Senior is perhaps best known for his willingness to speak his mind on controversial public issues and to take unpopular positions.
For example, he stoutly maintained that the Poor Laws—which mandated work in government-run institutions for the otherwise unemployed—contributed to the overall well-being of the populace because they improved the industriousness of the poor
Selected Works by Senior
Two Lectures on Population, with a Correspondence between the Author and Malthus (1829).
Political Economy (1850).
Historical and Philosophical Essays, edited by Mary Charlotte Mair Simpson (two volumes) (1865).
Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville with Nassau William Senior from 1834–1859, edited by Mary Charlotte Mair Simpson and translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (two volumes) (1872).
Industrial Efficiency and Social Economy, edited by S. Leon Levi (two volumes) (1930).
Selected Works about Senior
Bowley, Marian, Nassau Senior and Classical Economics (2003).
Levy, S. Leon, Nassau W. Senior: The Prophet of Modern Capitalism (1943).
Levy, S. Leon, Nassau W. Senior, 1790–1864 : Critical Essayist, Classical Economist and Adviser of Governments, revised edition (1943).
Robbins, Lionel, The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy (1961; second edition, 1978).
Taussig, Frank W., Wages and Capital: An Examination of the Wages Fund Doctrine (1896).