80 Economic Bestsellers before 1850: A Fresh Look at the History of Economic Thought

This new Working Paper studies the economics books which – judged by the number of editions – were the most influential between 1500 and 1849, and compares these to what is represented in accounts of the history of economic thought today. The most interesting outcome of this work is that if we assume some degree of correlation between the influence of a text and the number of editions published, the publication history we present here suggests that some authors who were once influential are now being neglected.

Based on a project started in 1975, this paper lists works on economics which were published in book form in 10 editions or more – including translations – before 1850. Included are also texts that were first published as manuscripts – ancient Greek economics – if they fulfill the criteria of achieving 10 or more book editions before 1850.

The list comprises one book printed in the 1400s, 4 books published in the 1500s, 13 during the 1600s, 46 during the 1700s, and 16 during the period from 1800 to 1848.

The language distribution is as follows (Roman numerals indicate the position on the list):

  • 4 books were originally printed in Latin, three translated from ancient Greek authors Aristotle and Xenophon (I, II, IV) and one by a German (XXXIII Pufendorf)
  • 1 book was originally published bilingual, Latin and Italian (XXXI Belloni)
  • 2 books were originally published in Dutch
  • 2 in Spanish
  • 7 in German, of which one by an Austrian (XLV Sonnenfels) and one by a Swiss (XLI Hirzel)
  • 7 in Italian
  • 27 in English, of which 5 by Scots (XIX Law, XXXII Hume, XLVI Steuart, LIII Smith, LXXI McCulloch), 2 by Welshmen (XXX Tucker, LXVI Owen), and 3 by Americans (XXXVII Franklin, LVIII Paine, LX Hamilton)
  • 30 in French, 2 of which by Germans (XXXIX Bielfeld & XLIII Beausobre), one by an Italian (XLIX Galiani), and 2 authors hail from the Republic and Canton of Geneva (XXXVIII Rousseau, LI, LII, LV, LVII Necker).

Six authors are represented with more than one work. One of them was first written in Greek and first published in printed form in Latin (II, IV Zenophon), the other four were written and published in French. Pierre Daniel Huet (1630-1721, XXI, XXIII), Gabriel-François Coyer (1707-1782, XXXV, XLVII) – the former a Bishop and tutor of the Dauphin and the latter an Abbé – and Victor de Riquetti Mirabeau (XXXVI, XL) have two books each. Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) is represented with three works on the bestseller list (LXV, LXVII, LXXII), while the only author with four different works on this list (see above) – Jacques Necker (1732-1804) – Minister of Finance and an ardent anti-physiocrat – stood for principles different from those of Say.

Only two authors of the bestselling economic books are women, Jane Marcet (LXVIII) and Harriet Martineau (LXXV).


Defining the limits of ‘economics’ is of course not straightforward. Not only does the delineation between economics and other sciences become more difficult the further we go back in time, authors tended to cover broader subject areas back then, at the same time the definition of what economics is has also narrowed over the recent decades. A main guideline for inclusion has been if the author is included in the 1900-1901 edition of Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy or similar works in other languages. This explains the inclusion of authors like Pufendorf and Filangieri: although today normally classified as lawyers they made significant contributions to economics. Herbert Foxwell’s collection, which forms the core of the Kress Library, used criteria wider than ours.

In terms of the number of editions, the methodology has been relatively straightforward. We have included works that appeared in ten or more editions, including of course translations, before 1850. We have followed the practice of Carpenter (1975) in excluding practical works and manuals for merchants, farmers, and craftsmen. Journal articles have not been included.

The authors are aware that the number of editions by no means is the only possible way to measure the diffusion of ideas. Unfortunately it is generally impossible to estimate the number of copies printed. This list is therefore biased against authors who were already famous when their bestselling work was printed, since the initial print run is likely to have been large.

Carpenter (1975) makes this argument – a probably very large first print run of an already famous author – about Pedro Rodriguez Campomanes (1723-1802) whose Discurso sobre el Fomento de la Industria Popular (1774) was translated into Dutch, German, Italian, and Portuguese but did not make it to 10 editions in total. The flip side of this bias against authors who were already famous, is a slight bias in favor of authors who started as outsiders, but whose ideas proved to have a large impact. In sum, we find this makes the list more – rather than less – interesting.

The Great Mirror of Folly (Het groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid) which was published in folio format in Amsterdam in 1720, consisting of a large number of engraved plates, one researcher with more than 30 copies at hand concluded that each and every copy may be unique. This book therefore meets our criteria in an unusual way, and the subject – the mechanisms of speculation of financial crises – also makes it highly relevant in today’s context. It is also the only anonymously published book on our list[1], and one of two books originally published in the Dutch language.

We have made one exception to the ten-editions rule in order to include an author who was very influential at the time, and where the same arguments were spread over different books which, alone, do not meet the ten edition criteria, but when considered as one publication do. The author is Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi (1717-1771) who developed his theories in many books with similar texts. One reason for this is probably that book publishing was the main income for this itinerant economist, another may well have been the turbulences of the Seven Years’ War. Justi was not only the most important 18th century German economist, he was also the only one to be extensively translated.[2] We felt that the many books on the same subject – bordering on self-plagiarism – make him qualify in order to provide the overview we wish this publication to render.

Main findings

Probably the most interesting outcome of this work is that if we assume some degree of correlation between the influence of a text and the number of editions published, the publication history we present here suggests that some authors who were once influential are now being neglected.

From the point of view of development economics we can observe a pattern of cyclicality in economic literature, a cyclicality we can also observe in policy shifts. This cyclicality is tied to the rise and fall of the hegemonic powers over time.[3] The United States under Trump is presently abandoning free trade at the same point in the ‘hegemonic cycle’ as when England abandoned the same principle in the early part of the 20th century and as Holland, the earlier European superpower, did after 1725.

As we shall discuss later, ‘emulation’ – copying the economic structure of the leading economic power in order to catch up with them – seems to have a common early strategy which later shifts to one of ‘comparative advantage’ once international competitiveness has been reached in the manufacturing sector.

Thus in his 1729 work The trade and navigation of Great-Britain considered (XXVI), English writer Joshua Gee straightforwardly explained the colonial economic strategy of England, to prevent manufacturing in the colonies (the text below is not as racist as in sounds, a few years earlier the English had prohibited the export of woolen manufactures, the most high-tech item of the day, from Ireland):

That all Negroes shall be prohibited from weaving or spinning or combing of Wool, or manufacturing hats, …Indeed, if they set up manufactures, and the Government afterwards shall be under a Necessity of stopping their progress, we must not expect that it will be done with the same ease that now it may.

Gee’s book was published in at least 20 editions between 1729 and 1780, including translations. As a comparison there were 16 editions of Ricardo’s Principles between 1817 and 1850, only 4 of them in England. Today David Ricardo and his trade theory is probably, after Adam Smith, the economist who is best known to students of economics. For bestselling author Joshua Gee there is not even a Wikipedia entry in any language.

The most successful economics publication of the period is no doubt Benjamin Franklin’s Way to Wealth, first published in 1757, which reached more than 1.100 editions before 1850.[4] It is not a typical textbook of economics, but it is in many ways a handbook in capitalist ethics.

The history of economic thought has traditionally been focused on literature originating in English and French. Indeed, for English readers it will probably be a surprise to find that Adam Smith is number 53 in the chronological order, while for French readers it is probably equally surprising to find that the anti-physiocrats outnumber the physiocrats on the list in an order of 5 to 1. The latter is partly a result of the fact that we found our task would be impossible if we were also to include journal articles on our list.

We have consciously worked in order to bring into light bestselling economists writing in other languages. We consider it an important achievement that this publication now brings to the forefront the founders both of Italian and German economics, Giovanni Botero (V) and Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff (IX).[5] Our research into Spanish bestsellers only achieved increasing the number of works from 1 to 2 compared to the 1975 list, adding Jovellanos (LXIII) to Ustáriz (XXV).

As indicated above we feel that the data we present indicate that history of economic thought, as it is handed over to today’s students, is somewhat biased. A recent list of 650 important economic texts of all times[6] includes only 41 of the 71 authors on our list. We do not mention this in order to criticize the work in question – indeed it appears to be very thorough – but in order to emphasize that our story probably provides a version of the history of economic thought closer to Leopold von Ranke’s ideal of finding out wie es eigentlich gewesen ist: how it really was, in the sense of which economists were the most popular at the time, measured by the number of editions of their work. [7]

Since Wikipedia has become the measure of things, we have indicated the degree of wikipedia coverage of our authors [8]. There are no Wikipedia entries for some of our authors, for Culpeper (VI), Cary (XVIII), Gee (XXVI), and Belloni (XXXI). It is worth noticing that, in addition to Culpeper, the only English economists who are not represented on Wikipedia are the two who most honestly explained English economic policy, e.g. (in the case of Gee) the prohibition of manufacturing in the colonies. For Herbert (XXXIII) Wikipedia has only name, dates, and the title of his book.

This publication reveals that confronting our historical record with today’s textbooks in the history of economic thought, the textbooks have a heavy bias in favour of the physiocrats and disfavor of the anti-physiocrats. Very influential economists before Physiocracy – like Botero all over Europe and Seckendorff in Germany – who are presently neglected, stood for the opposite policy of physiocracy, for giving manufacturing industry priority over agriculture in national policy. As regards policy towards manufacturing it is also worth noticing that US Finance Minister Alexander Hamilton’s Report on the Manufactures (LX) was published in Russian in 1807, just one year after the first translation of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (LIII) had been completed.

Carpenter’s policy from the start has been to leave out publications in periodicals, like the Éphémérides du citoyen. François Quesnay and his colleagues’ volume on Physiocracy come far from meeting our established cut-off point of 10 editions. Victor de Riquetti Mirabeau – with two works (XXXVI & XL) – appears to be the only true physiocrat on our list (Forbonnais did change his mind and opposed physiocracy). Among the bestsellers we find a large number of anti-physiocrats, some of them ardently so: Forbonnais (XXXIV), Galiani (XLIX), Genovesi (XLIV), Mably (XLII), Necker (with 4 different works), and Verri (L).[9] In fact physiocracy was only carried into practice in two limited geographical areas, and not with success, in Tuscany in Italy and in the Margravate of Baden in Germany. Indeed, today what is normally seen as ‘the beginning of economic science’ was a) not the beginning, and b) in practice it was a total failure. To Ferdinando Galiani – whom Nietzsche called ‘the most profound, sharp-sighted … man of his century’ – Quesnay was no less than ‘the Antichrist’.

The failure of physiocratic economic policy was a main cause of the shortage of bread in Paris, and thus also a main mover behind the French Revolution.[10] In spite of their fame, the Physiocrats lost all battles in history, except the one in today’s economic textbooks. [11] The ardent anti-physiocrat Jacques Necker – the only author represented by four different works in this bestseller list – represents the theoretical counterpart to Quesnay. Necker’s strong presence on this list and his absence in today’s history of economic thought represents the mirror image of Quesnay’s over-representation in today’s textbooks and his absence from this list.

For an overview of the publication history of Quesnay’s tableau économique see the thorough work of Marguerite Kuczynski and Ronald Meek [12]. We have not found a publication of the tableau that qualifies as a pamphlet or book, especially not in the required 10 editions. Curiously, the same François Quesnay in his role as a physician was a very verbose author when writing about his specialty, the art of bleeding patients. His works on the subject appeared in several editions in French, and also in Spanish translations. In 1736 Quesnay’s volume L’art de guérir par la saignée [13] consisted of 375 pages + introduction. By 1750 his volume on the same subject had grown to 716 pages + introduction [14].

Another salient observation regards the spread of economic ideas in the early 1800s. Data shows that the ideas of Adam Smith appear to diffuse more through French writers like Jean-Baptiste Say (LXV, LXVII, LXXII) and Droz (LXXIII) than through David Ricardo (LXIX), In fact Ricardo himself, in the translations both into French and German, was published ‘avec des notes explicatives et critiques, par M. Jean-Baptiste Say’. The first economics textbook with a truly global publication record, including Argentina and India, appears to be that of James Mill in 1821 (LXX).

We should also mention three authors one might think were to be found on our list. We may be wrong about the editions, but one conspicuously absent author is Antoine Monchrestien (ca. 1575-1621). His 1615 Traité d’économie politique does not appear to have been published again until 1889. Another author whom we expected to qualify is Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi (1775-1842), the Geneva author whose changing ideas about the role of free trade mirrored his time. Richard van den Berg has informed us that Richard Cantillon’s 1755 Essay on the Nature of Trade in General also does not make it to 10 editions before 1850.

At the very last moment before going online with this paper we have found two additional books also qualifying as bestsellers. Both represent the anti-free trade, anti-physiocracy tradition that has been marginalized in the history of economic thought, with yet another English author who is not on Wikipedia. The first work is Charles King’s The British Merchant; or, Commerce Preserv’d, published in in three volumes in London (John Darby) in 1721.[15] The second one consists of the doubts expressed in 1768 by Abbé Mably (also author of XLII) about physiocracy (Doutes proposés aux philosophes economists sur l’ordre naturel et essential des sociétes politiques. A La Haye, et se trouve á Paris, MDCCLXVIII).[16]

Kenneth Carpenter has also produced massive data, so far unpublished, on translations of publications (not only books) in economics. Using Carpenter’s data in Chart 1[17] below, we can observe how the number of translations in political economy virtually exploded in the latter part of the 18th century. The Vielschreiberei – the furor scribendi – of the time manifests itself also as a huge increase in translations.

Studying the balance of translations in economics – the languages that had a surplus vs. a deficit in the number of translations – gives some surprising results. Chart II[18] reveals a wave of translations from English into other languages at the time it became evident that the United Kingdom was forging ahead of other European nations. ‘Emulation’ – learning from the leading country – was the name of the game.[19] In earlier periods this same principle was reflected in the publications and translations focusing on learning from the Dutch Republic, the leading nation before England: Botero (V), Seckendorff (IX), particularly after his visit to Holland, de la Court (X), Child (XII)[20], Temple (XIV), and Huet (XXI), all appearing in first editions before 1712.


[1] Many of the books on the list were published anonymously, but their authors are now known.
[2] We here refer to German nationality, not German language. Hirzel (Swiss) and Sonnenfels (Austrian) were both 18th century authors who wrote in German and both were translated, but they were not German nationals.
[3] For a discussion of this, see Reinert, Erik, ‘Economics and the Public Sphere: The Rise of Esoteric Knowledge, Refeudalization, Crisis and Renewal’, Paper presented for The Public Mission of the Social Sciences and Humanities: Transformation and Renewal, Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB), Berlin http://publicsphere.ssrc.org/reinert-economics-and-the-public-sphere/
[4] See Kenneth Carpenter’s and Sophus Reinert’s project www.waytowealth.org
[5] We have attempted to bring these authors, their national traditions, and the role of emulation to the forefront in the recent Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development, Reinert, Erik, Jayati Ghosh & Rainer Kattel (eds.), Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 2016. Chapter 1. Erik Reinert: ‘Giovanni Botero (1588) and Antonio Serra (1613): ‘Italy and the birth of development economics’, pp. 3-41, chapter 2: Sophus Reinert. ‘Economic emulations and the politics of international trade in Early Modern Europe’, pp. 42-62; and chapter 3: Erik Reinert and Philipp Rössner, ‘Cameralism and the German tradition of development economics’, pp. 63-86. The book has 40 chapters.
[6] Hertz & Weinberger (eds.), 2006, see bibliography.
[7] The authors from our list of 80 works who are not in the list of the 650 works are: Bacon, Beausobre, Belloni, Bielfeld, Botero, Cary, Coyer (2 works on our list), Culpeper, de la Court, Droz, Filangieri, Forbonnais, Gee, Herbert, Hirzel, Holroyd, Huet (2 works on our list), Jovellanos, Marcet, Melon, Mengotti, Mirabeau (2 works on our list), Muratori, Poivre, Rossi, Seckendorff, Temple, Thiers, Verri, and Young.
[8] At the time of writing, April 2017.
[9] Probably the most ardent of all anti-physiocrats, Simon-Nicolas Henri Linguet, was guillotined in Paris in 1794.
[10] For a thorough discussion of this, see Kaplan, Steven L., Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV, 2nd edn., London, Anthem, 2015 [1976].
[11] For a discussion, see ‘Introduction’ in Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development, op. cit. and Backhaus, Jürgen (ed.), Physiocracy, Antiphysiocracy and Pfeiffer, New York, Springer, 2011. The balance between physiocracy and anti-physiocracy is dicussed also in Kaplan, Steven L. and Sophus A. Reinert (eds), The Economic Turn: Recasting Political Economy in Enlightenment Europe, London, Anthem, forthcoming 2017. 2 vols.
[12] Quesnay’s Tableau Économique, edited, with new material, translations and notes by Marguerite Kuczynski & Ronald L. Meek, London, MacMillan, 1972.
[13] A Paris, chez Guillaume Cavelier.
[14] Traité des effets et de l’usage de la saignée, par M. Quesnay, Nouvelle édition de deux traités de l’auteur sur la saignée, réunis, mis dans un nouvel ordre et très augmentés [par F. Quesnay], Paris, D’Houry, 1750.
[15] The first translation was into Dutch (1728), then follow several French translations, the first one in 1733, and German (1764).
[16] The large number of editions of Mably’s complete works adds some uncertainty to the number of editions of this book, but it appears to qualify.
[17] Source: Kenneth Carpenter, published in Reinert, Sophus A., Translating Empire: Emulation and the Origins of Political Economy, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 46.
[18] Source Kenneth Carpenter, published in S. Reinert 2011, op.cit, p. 52.
[19] See S. Reinert 2011, op. cit.
[20] Whose 1668 book opens with a statement about the need to learn from the Dutch.

Erik Reinert is Professor of Technology Governance and Development Strategies at Tallinn University of Technology.

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