The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

Living Edition
| Editors: Matias Vernengo, Esteban Perez Caldentey, Barkley J. Rosser Jr

Adams, Henry Carter (1851–1921)

  • A. W. Coats
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-349-95121-5_56-1
  • 359 Downloads

Abstract

Adams was born on 31 December 1851 in Davenport, Iowa, and died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on 11 August 1921. In many respects typical of the new generation of late nineteenth-century American social scientists, Adams became a professional economist only after considering a career in the church or in reform political journalism. After graduating from Iowa (later Grinnell) College in 1874, he spent 1 year as a school teacher and another studying at Andover Theological Seminary before obtaining a fellowship at the newly founded Johns Hopkins University, where he received its first PhD, in 1878. At Hopkins, Francis Walker steered him towards public finance, a field to which Adams subsequently made major pioneering contributions. But he was no narrow specialist, and 2 years’ further study in Europe, mainly at Berlin and Heidelberg, laid the foundations for the breadth of interest, historical perspective, and philosophical insight that characterized his later writings.

Keywords

Professional Economist American Economic Association Narrow Specialist Interstate Commerce Commission Philosophical Insight 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Adams was born on 31 December 1851 in Davenport, Iowa, and died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on 11 August 1921. In many respects typical of the new generation of late nineteenth-century American social scientists, Adams became a professional economist only after considering a career in the church or in reform political journalism. After graduating from Iowa (later Grinnell) College in 1874, he spent 1 year as a school teacher and another studying at Andover Theological Seminary before obtaining a fellowship at the newly founded Johns Hopkins University, where he received its first PhD, in 1878. At Hopkins, Francis Walker steered him towards public finance, a field to which Adams subsequently made major pioneering contributions. But he was no narrow specialist, and 2 years’ further study in Europe, mainly at Berlin and Heidelberg, laid the foundations for the breadth of interest, historical perspective, and philosophical insight that characterized his later writings.

On returning to the USA Adams, like many of his contemporaries, found difficulty in obtaining a satisfactory permanent academic post and was obliged to spend several years in temporary or part-time employment before obtaining a permanent position at the University of Michigan in 1886, where he spent the remainder of his career. The frank and revealing correspondence between Adams and President Angell immediately prior to this appointment is a notable contribution to the chequered history of academic freedom in America (cf. Dorfman 1954, editor’s introduction; Coats 1968), for Adams had only recently been dismissed from Cornell for having publicly expressed support for labour unions during the outcry over the Haymarket bomb incident. At Ann Arbor, Adams built up a distinguished department (Brazer 1982) and achieved national recognition for his nearly two decades of service as Chief Statistician to the Interstate Commerce Commission, where by constructing and implementing a system of uniform railway accounts he made a lasting contribution to the development of public regulation.

A co-founder and staunch supporter of the American Economic Association, of which he was President in 1896–1897, Adams endeavoured to bring the best elements in European economic, social, and political thought to bear on the study of contemporary problems. He made no significant contributions to economic theory, although he was one of the first American economists to incorporate Jevons’s value theory into his teaching. A more temperate critic of laissez-faire individualism than Richard T. Ely, Adams preferred clear thinking to exhortation and was respected by his peers for his solid scholarship and balanced judgement, for example in his seminal essay on the ‘Relation of the State to Industrial Action’, the first systematic American examination of the respective spheres of private and public economic activity. While recognizing the force of competition as a principle he considered it inadequate as a curb to monopoly power, and liable to depress the ethical plane of economic activity as unscrupulous employers undercut their more reputable rivals. Arguing the need for increased government intervention as the economic system became more complex, Adams nevertheless opposed socialism and nationalization, initially preferring municipal and state to federal regulation. Later he viewed the regulatory commission as the ideal conservative instrument of reform. His analysis of the distinction between increasing, constant and diminishing returns underlay his concern at the growth of corporate power and at the end of his life he advocated cooperation as the most desirable basis for industrial reform. Like many later thinkers he emphasized the need for collaboration between the various organized groups in society, and his emphasis on the worker’s proprietary rights in his employment became a significant theme in the writings of American labour economists. Another pioneering contribution was his appreciation of the interdependence of economics and jurisprudence, one of many elements drawn from the tradition of German historical economics. Although he displayed little interest in the monetary questions which troubled so many of his contemporaries, Adams was a versatile and fertile thinker, many of whose ideas became common currency among later generations of American social scientists.

Selected Works

  • 1881. Outline of lectures upon political economy. Amherst: C.A. Bangs. 2nd ed., Ann Arbor, 1886.

  • 1884. Taxation in the United States 1789–1816. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

  • 1887a. Public debts: An essay in the science of finance. New York: D. Appleton. 2nd ed., 1898.

  • 1887b. Relation of the state to industrial action. Baltimore: American Economic Association. New ed., ed. J. Dorfman, New York: Columbia University Press, 1954.

  • 1897. Economics and jurisprudence. London: Macmillan; New York: S. Sonnenschein. New ed., ed. J. Dorfman, New York: Columbia University Press, 1954.

  • 1898. The science of finance: An investigation of public expenditures and public revenues. New York: H. Holt. Rev. ed., 1924.

  • 1918. American Railway Accounting: A commentary. New York: H. Holt.

References

  1. Brazer, M.C. 1982. The Economics Department at the University of Michigan: A centennial perspective. In Economics and the world around it, ed. S.H. Hymans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  2. Coats, A.W. 1968. Henry Carter Adams: A case study in the emergence of the social sciences in the United States, 1850–1900. Journal of American Studies 2: 177–197.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. W. Coats
    • 1
  1. 1.