Many believe that the science of economics began with the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. In fact, the origins go back further to Richard Cantillon, an Irish Catholic Jacobite, whose life is shrouded in controversy and mystery.

Given his life story, it is hardly surprising that it has taken so long to recognise Cantillon as the true founding father of economics. His Essai sur la nature du commerce en général, written around 1730, is his only surviving work. In it, Cantillon argued that “The land is the source or matter from whence all wealth is produced. The labour of man is the form which produces it: and wealth in itself is nothing but the maintenance, conveniencies, and superfluities of life.” He outlined a theory of circulation – his main contribution to economics.

Cantillon was not primarily interested in economic theory. Rather, he wrote in support of his legal defence against usury charges. He cut a fierce reputation for making fortunes at the expense of others and was mixed up in the two major financial scandals of the day, the Mississippi Scheme and the South Sea Bubble, earning him many enemies. His escapades extended to matters of the heart: he banished his wife of 10 years to a convent for six months.

Reasons for his life being surrounded by mystery and conjecture are threefold. First, his birth was not registered, though we can narrow it down to the 1680s in Ballyronan, in the parish of Ballyheigue, County Kerry. Secondly, he took care to cover his activities as a banker and a Jacobite. Thirdly, he reportedly died in a fire which destroyed his papers, leaving us scant records. Later reports speculated that this may have just been a ruse and that he had instead escaped to Suriname in South America. Yet records show that he was buried in the grounds of the Anglican St Pancras Old Church in London.

Henry Higgs, the translator of Cantillon’s work into English, said of the thinker that he “brushes ethics and politics aside as imperiously as the referee orders the seconds out of the ring in a prizefight”. Higgs thought that Cantillon wasn’t especially devout, based on his decision to settle in London and his daughter Henrietta’s marriage to a member of a prominent Northern Irish Protestant family.

Emigrating to Paris in 1714, Cantillon had prominent enablers, including Lord Bolingbroke, a leader of the Jacobite cause who fled to France, who introduced him to the likes of Montesquieu and Voltaire. He took up the position of chief assistant to a second cousin, also named Richard, at the latter’s bank. Within two years, he had bought the bank. Cantillon became banker for the Stuart court in exile, as well as most of the British and Irish émigrés in Paris.

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