Charles Davenant (1657-1714)

davenant_1He must know the laws, constitution, humour and manners of his own country, with the number of  its inhabitants, and its annual expense and income from land, with its product from trade, manufactures, and the other business of the kingdom; and mankind in the mass being much alike everywhere, from a knowledge of his own country, he may be able to form an idea, which shall prove right enough, concerning any other, not very distant, people.

Life & Contributions:

Charles Davenant was the son of the famous poet and playwright, Sir William Davenant. Following his father’s footsteps, Davenant initially headed towards a career in theater, but eventually switched to studying law. During his lifetime, Davenant served as a member of parliament, inspector general of trade, and as a commissioner of excise.

Davenant is considered a mercantilist, and as such, he was a strong advocate of a favorable balance of trade. He was also; however, an eclectic and did not follow to the mercantilist stereotype to a t. He played down the role of money in the economy and was skeptical of too much government intervention in the market. In his Essay on the East-India Trade, for example, he argues against an embargo on imported textiles from India. In general, Davenant believed that trade should occur only where there were natural incentives for those directly involved. The state, he believed, should oversee imports and exports and yet seldom interfere with specific trade routes.

Trade is in its nature free, finds its own channel, and best directs its own course: and all laws to give it rules and directions, and to limit and circumscribe it, may serve the particular ends of private men, but are seldom advantageous to the public

Davenant was also a proponent of population growth. He believed a growing population would lead to higher population density, which could spawn higher levels of innovation and production. He was thus in favor of a liberal immigration policy and religious tolerance towards immigrants.

Now why is Davenant grouped in the same category as Petty? Unlike some of his contemporaries, Davenant employed a more technical approach to his analysis. Like Petty, he was interested in public finance, and like Petty, he employed ‘political arithmetic’ to better understand trade, money, economic growth, and national defense. This was so much the case that many scholars identify ‘political arithmetic’ more with Davenant’s name than with Petty’s. Following Petty, Davenant worked to calculate things such as national income and expenditure. His Discourses on the Public Revenue…, which comes in two volumes, begins with a basic description of the use of political arithmetic. He writes: “By Political Arithmetic, we mean the art of reasoning by figures, upon things relating to government. The art itself is undoubtedly very ancient, but the application of it to the particular objects of revenue and trade, is what Sir William Petty first began, who as yet, has been followed by very few” (p. 128).

Davenant believed political arithmetic could be based on a thorough understanding of demographics and he sought to improve Petty’s methods by using better data. As was representative of the time, Davenant’s main aim in collecting statistical data was to understand how nations could outgrow and outcompete their neighbors. There are many passages in the Discourse, for example, that talk about measuring England’s capacities in relation to its neighbors (particularly France).

No commonwealth or monarchy did ever arrive at a very great power, but by methods to be comprehended by the understandings of men; and we read of no great empire ruined, but the seeds of its destruction may have been observed long before, in the course of its history; there being a certain degree of wisdom, industry, virtue and courage, requisite to advance a state; and such a measure of folly and ill conduct necessary to pull it down. In the same manner, the ways are evident by which a country grows rich (p. 134)

It is no surprise that while some scholars remember Davenant as the eclectic mercantilist other refer to him as a neo-machiavellian.


An Essay on Ways and Means of Supplying the War (1695)

Essay on the East-India Trade (1696)

Discourses on the Public Revenue and on the Trade of England (1698)