The imperial magazine


Putting down the Mutiny: soldiers from the British Hodson’s Horse cavalry regiment, India, 1857 PHOTO/Hulton Archive · Getty

The Economist, when founded in 1843, was all about free trade, small government and no social welfare. Then its editor James Wilson began promoting British government intervention across the world for profit.

When James Wilson launched The Economist, in 1843, he promised ‘original leading articles in which free-trade principles will be most rigidly applied to all the important questions of the day’. His language conjures up images of a crusade more readily than a business journal. Abroad he saw ‘within the range of our commercial intercourse whole continents and islands, on which the light of civilization has scarce yet dawned’; at home, ‘ignorance, depravity, immorality and irreligion, abounding to an extent disgraceful to a civilized country’. In both cases the civilizing medium was free trade, which ‘we seriously believe will do more than any other visible agent to extend civilization and morality — yes, to extinguish slavery itself’.

In its first two years the fledgling paper was true to its word, examining the deleterious effects of tariffs on the supply, quality and cost of sugar, wool, wheat, wine, iron, corn, cochineal, silk, fish, lace, coal, coffee, wages, currency, tailors, slaves and French linen. Information was conveyed in two densely packed columns, beneath the ornate Gothic letterhead, The Economist: or the Political, Commercial, Agricultural, and Free Trade Journal.

Editorials often went beyond denouncing particular laws as misguided: they also laid out grand theoretical statements, as in a series of articles asking, ‘Who is to Blame for the Condition of Society?’ After weighing in turn the role of the lower classes, the capitalists, the landowners and the state, The Economist found that the first and last shared responsibility — but unevenly. For in a world in which ‘each man is responsible to nature for his own actions’, and for learning from them, the poor were fully culpable for their misery, wasting wages and free time on sex, drink and gambling instead of practising thrift and self-improvement.

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