Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought, 1895-1914

By Bernard Semmel | Go to book overview

XI
SIR WILLIAM ASHLEY AS 'SOCIALIST OF THE CHAIR'

William James Ashley was one of a small band of pioneer scholars--William Cunningham, W. A. S. Hewins, H. S. Foxwell, and H. J. Mackinder were others--who constituted the English 'school' of economic history at the turn of this century. The efforts of this group were overshadowed by those of the German historical school which, first under the leadership of Wilhelm Roscher and then of Gustav Schmoller, devoted more attention to theoretical problems and questions of methodology, was more far-ranging in acquiring and utilizing other departments of knowledge, was considerably more prolific, and had even become a force in German political life. The English school cannot, however, be set down as a mere offshoot of the German; it was of native growth and worked independently, turning its attention to a rather different type of problem. Ashley, alone of the leading English economic historians, belonged not only to the school of Adam Smith, Thorold Rogers, and Arnold Toynbee, but also to the German school of historical economists whose historical, statistical, and inductive method had been brought to England in the 'seventies and 'eighties by Cliffe Leslie and J. K. Ingram and posited against the abstract, deductive method of the followers of Ricardo and Say.

Ashley began his career at Oxford, as a history scholar of Balliol, in 1878. There his interests were formed under the influence of Toynbee, Stubbs, and Maine. He took a first in History in 1881 and remained at Oxford for several years as a private tutor. In 1888, he was invited to occupy the chair of political economy and constitutional history at Toronto where he did much to stimulate the work in economic history which has since been associated with that university. In 1892, Ashley accepted President Eliot's invitation to come to Harvard to occupy the first chair in economic history in the world. Nine years later Ashley returned home to become Professor of

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