The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Carlyle, Thomas (1795–1881)

  • Murray Milgate
Reference work entry


The eldest of nine children of Margaret Aitkin and James Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle was born at Ecclefechan in Scotland on 4 December 1795. While Carlyle’s contributions ranged over many fields (including history, literary and social criticism, biography, translation and political commentary), in economics he is remembered chiefly as the originator of the epithet ‘the dismal science’ (‘The Nigger Question’, 1849; in Miscellaneous Essays, vol. 7, p. 84). Among ‘the professors of the dismal science’, one M’Croudy (J.R. McCulloch) is a principal target of Carlyle’s criticism. Yet Carlyle’s writings on economics are more extensive than this small measure of recognition might suggest, and his key criticisms of the economic and political tendencies of the ‘present times’ (as he called them) are contained essentially in three works: Chartism, (1840), Past and Present (1843) and Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). Almost inevitably, Carlyle’s characteristically romantic reaction to the decline of authority and the rise of utilitarian individualism led him into head-on collision with the prevailing economic doctrines of the day. Since, for Carlyle, the challenge of democracy to the ancien régime had been carried forward under the mistaken banner ‘Abolish it, let there henceforth be no relation at all’ (1850, p. 21), it was natural for him to hold that laissez-faire, free competition, the law of supply and demand, and the ‘cash nexus’ were no more than ‘superficial speculations … to persuade ourselves … to dispense with governing’ (1850, p. 20). Although Carlyle’s account of the ‘cash-nexus’ was adopted verbatim by Marx and Engels in the opening pages of The Communist Manifesto, in the latter sections of that document his overall position is roundly attacked (see there the reference to the ‘Young England’, of which Carlyle was a prominent member).


Carlyle, T. Cash nexus Democracy Engels, F. McCullough, J. R. Marx, K. H. Ruskin, J. Utilitarianism 

JEL Classifications

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Mill, J.S. 1848. Principles of political economy, ed. W.J. Ashley from the 7th edn (1871). London: Longmans, 1909.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Murray Milgate
    • 1
  1. 1.