Farming James Mill’s Marginalia in the Fields of David Ricardo

Tucked into the top row of the C shelves of the Mill Library is an unassuming collection of tracts—written in response to the Corn Bill (ultimately passed in 1815) and the early nineteenth-century agricultural depression that led to the Luddite disturbances— and bound together under the title Corn and Labour.  Those with the fortitude to forage past An Enquiry into the Causes of the High Price of Corn and Labour; Wages Must Rise; Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Difficulties and Internal Distresses of the Country, and its sequel, Hints, Addressed to the Serious Consideration of the Tradesman, the Agriculturalist, and the Stockholder; and Thoughts on the Causes and Consequences of the Present Depressed State of Agricultural Produce; will find a rich harvest of marks, annotations, and editorial corrections from James Mill sown throughout the margins of his friend, David Ricardo’s, Essay on the Influence of the Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock.

Obviously reading with an eye towards future republication, Mill has meticulously numbered each paragraph, not as they were originally written, but as he would like to see them recombined and broken.  Note, for instance, his imperative to wrap a sentence-length paragraph into the existing paragraph 42 below:

Sentence long paragraph written by Mill on David Ricardo's  Essay on the Influence of the Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock

Note also the annotation, which concludes by yoking “profits of stock” to “the cost of producing food.”  Food for the thought of capitalists in a period of agricultural protectionism.

Many of the annotations grow to considerably greater size than this, however, with those found on pp. 4 and 12 hinting at just how much grist there was for the elder Mill among the fertile fields of free trade promoted by Ricardo:

Mill's marginalia gets larger in scope

Mill would not, of course, have made many friends among the followers of General Ludd with his closing observation that prices of corn, and hence profits of stock, may only be raised “nominally” without lowering “the wages of labour.”

Whatever the hypothetical reception of his marginalia among agricultural laborers, it seems clear that Mill was most concerned to produce an effect upon Ricardo, whose argumentative plowshares he wanted to help sharpen into swords.  His helpfully critical editorial persona is perhaps easiest to see on p. 44:

Mill writes critical editorial marginalia on this page.

Here, Mill asks Ricardo to clarify his rejection of Thomas Malthus’s approval of Adam Smith’s statement about the relative value of improvements made in agriculture and manufacturing, writing simply “How can they be compared?”  On this same page he also suggests a new paragraph break at “Productive” and a subsequent paragraph wrap through “employed on the land?”; with these specific editorial changes proffered in order to emphasize the disagreement with Malthus in the first place, and to better define the terms of that break in the second.

Neither Ricardo’s subsequent pamphlet, Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency, nor the remaining two tracts in the volume, receives much attention from Mill, who has apparently cast his immediate stock of editorial seed upon corn prices and stock profits.  The results achieved by Ricardo only two years later in Principles of Political Economy and Taxation suggest that Mill’s editorial labor was not performed entirely in vain, even if, up until now, it has remained hidden in the margins of this earlier and more occasional text.


– Albert Pionke