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Anderson, Jameslocked

  • Rosalind Mitchison

James Anderson (1739–1808)

by Samuel Freeman, pubd 1809 (after J. Anderson)

Anderson, James (1739–1808), agriculturist and political economist, born at Hermiston, near Edinburgh, inherited the tenancy of a large farm there at the age of fifteen when his parents (whose names are unknown) died. He had already prepared himself for the position by attending William Cullen's lectures on chemistry at Edinburgh University. In 1768 he married Margaret Seton (d. 1788) of Mounie, an heiress whose family owned two-thirds of the parish of Daviot, Aberdeenshire, an estate valued at over £900 a year. He took over the management of the farm of Monkshill there. He and his wife had thirteen children (of whom five boys and one girl survived him, among them John Anderson (1775–1808?) [see under Bewick, Thomas, apprentices]); Margaret died in 1788 and in 1801 he married a Mrs Outram, who survived him. In 1786 he was made an LLD by Aberdeen University. He was said to have been very handsome when young.

Anderson's most striking characteristic was the combination of an intense interest in the practical working of some machine or object with a strong grasp of theory. He was an early adherent of the principles of political economy, and is held to have been in the subject's mainstream of development. He also carried out various experiments and was noted for his use of the newly designed two-horse plough at Monkshill. His long-term reputation rests on a large body of publications; pamphlets, newspapers, and articles in other people's works, for which he is said to have had at least fourteen aliases: Agricola, Timoleon, Germanicus, Cimon, Scoto-Britannicus, E., Aberdeen, Henry Plain, Impartial, A Scot, Senex, Timothy Hairbrain, Alcibiades, and Monsoon.

He produced many pamphlets, some of them important. Two of his earliest were A Practical Treatise on Chimneys (1776) and Observations on the Means of Exciting a Spirit of National Industry (1777). His Enquiry into the Nature of the Corn Laws (1777) is held to have anticipated David Ricardo's theory of rent. His The Interest of Great Britain with Respect to the American Colonies (1782) brought him into political concerns and his Observations on the Effects of the Coal Duty (1792) probably helped the process of abolition of the special duty on coal carried coastwise, which handicapped Scottish economic development. He also wrote a paper on the poor law of Scotland which cannot now be traced in any library. A tract on the north British fisheries led to a request by the prime minister William Pitt the younger for a survey of the western fisheries of Scotland, for which he is said not to have been rewarded. On this topic his adherence to the principles of political economy gave way to his concern for the highland economy and his recognition of its few possible growth points, and he urged protection or support of the industry.

Anderson visited London frequently and this enabled him in 1776 to become a friend of Jeremy Bentham and a supporter of some of his enterprises. Bentham referred to him in a letter of 1780 as 'Quite one of us' (Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, 2.404). He supplied Bentham with seeds for various projects, and advice on practical matters. In 1781 he sent him a description of the Scottish poor law which is one of the earliest statements of the view that relief was legally available only for those permanently disabled, a view which became generally accepted in the 1830s. There was a coolness in their relationship in 1783 because of Bentham's attempt to prevent Anderson publishing his views on protection for the Scottish western fisheries, but the relationship soon recovered. Bentham sought Anderson's help for his brother Samuel, who was in the employment of the Russian government and building a factory in Ukraine at Krichev for naval guns. It was suggested that Anderson should find the skilled workers that Samuel needed; there was a later suggestion that he should inspect their performance for a salary of £200 a year. Samuel Bentham left Russia in 1791, before a journey by Anderson to Russia could take place, and the schemes were abandoned.

Anderson was also involved in Jeremy Bentham's plan for what he called the Panopticon, a model economical prison. He was expected in 1791 to bid for managing it. Bentham sent him suggestions on how to keep costs down: a diet largely of potatoes, hammocks instead of beds, drastic economies in clothing. But the building remained on the drawing-board and in 1793 some issue concerning a son of Anderson's led Anderson to take offence and the friendship ended.

Anderson was also in touch with Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, Caithness, who helped him by franking his correspondence. He expressed a low opinion of Sinclair's mental capacity but held a great respect for his energy, particularly in the carrying through of The Statistical Account of Scotland. Anderson wrote one of the county volumes for Sinclair's board of agriculture, A general view of the agriculture and rural economy of the county of Aberdeen and the means for its improvement (1794). This is of particular interest, for it contains an account of how the landowners of the county prevented the harvest failure of 1782 leading to famine. A sample of the poor grain was taken and from it was calculated the amount of oatmeal it could provide; the total shortfall was calculated and decisions made on how much the labour force should tighten their belts, how much the next harvest could be brought early to market, and how much the landowners needed to buy abroad and subsidize. The meeting for the initial measurement was held at Mounie, the estate of Anderson's wife, known for being one where harvest was early. It seems highly probable that the whole response to the emergency was initiated by Anderson.

Anderson moved from Aberdeenshire to Edinburgh in 1783, but from there made visits to London. He published a weekly paper in Edinburgh, The Bee, from 1790 to 1794, at 6d. an issue, much of which he wrote. It was aimed at the intellectual interests of many types of people. There was a period of trouble with the government, then very sensitive to possible political inferences, over one paper in it, and Anderson refused to state who had written it. His hand was forced on this by a journalist called Callender who stated that the offending piece was by a Scottish judge, Lord Gardenstone. This compelled Anderson to admit that it was in fact by Callender. The government gave up the attack.

Anderson visited London fairly frequently from Edinburgh, and in 1797 he moved south permanently, taking a house at Isleworth, Middlesex. That he had become a man of some standing is shown by his publication in 1800 of a selection of his correspondence with George Washington. He continued to write, producing a monthly journal from 1797 to 1802 called Recreations in Agriculture, Natural History, Arts and Miscellaneous Subjects. He died on 15 October 1808 at West Ham, Essex.


  • C. F. Mullett, ‘A village Aristotle and the harmony of interests: James Anderson (1739–1808) of Monks Hill’, Journal of British Studies, 8/1 (1968–9), 94–118
  • Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany (March 1809)
  • J. Anderson, A general view of the agriculture and rural economy of the county of Aberdeen (1794)
  • The correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, ed. T. Sprigge and others, [11 vols.] (1968–), in The collected works of Jeremy Bentham
  • I. S. Ross, The life of Adam Smith (1995)


  • NL Scot., corresp. relating to fisheries
  • U. Aberdeen L., corresp. and papers


  • plaster medallion, 1793 (after J. Tassie), Scot. NPG
  • B. Pastorini, stipple, pubd 1795, BM
  • S. Freeman, stipple (after J. Anderson), BM, NPG; repro. in GM, 1st ser., 79 (1809), 401 [see illus.]
W. Anderson, , 3 vols. (1859–63)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
R. Chambers, ed., (1832–5) [1st edn; many edns to 1875]