Comments on Charles Davenant
I am posing a quick first draft of the introduction to a short chapter on Charles Davenant, hoping that some of you might know more than me about the subject or at least show me how to make it sharper.
Shifting from great economists, such as Petty, Law, and Cantillon to Charles Davenant, the same person who worked with Cantillon is a war profiteer, might seem a bit jarring. Although some of Davenant’s insights anticipated later economic thinking, few economists gave much thought to Davenant. Cantillon did lump Davenant put together with Petty, but he did so to diminish Petty rather than to praise Davenant.
Davenant was a good writer, so much so that the Dutch ambassador refused to have lunch with Jonathan Swift, suspecting that Swift had been the author of one of Davenant’s pamphlet. The art of writing may have been embedded in Davenant’s genes. His father William D’Avenant was a popular playwright and poet laureate of England.
His father was also the godson of William Shakespeare and widely accepted at the time as the illegitimate son of the Bard. D’Avenant’s mother was married to a wine merchant and innkeeper with whom she had no children for many years. Shakespeare often stayed the inn when traveling between London and Stratford. She was rumored to have been Shakespeare’s mistress. Davenant’s uncle, a clergyman, used to tell how Shakespeare would shower him with kisses. The main source for Shakespeare’s paternity was Davenant’s father. One Shakespeare biographer finds numerous hints of the relationship between D’Avenant and Shakespeare in his plot lines (Weis 2007).
Although Davenant seemed to have avoided the legal problems that hounded the other three economists, he seemed to have the same ruthless drive to improve his position in life. As a young man working for Brydges, the war profiteer:
## 309-10: “Davenant urged a correspondent at Lisbon to undertake the delicate mission of informing the Paymaster of the English Force in Portugal (Morrice) that the Paymaster General of the Forces Abroad (Brydges) was accustomed to receive presents from all foreign princes subsidized by England; that the Portuguese court had been negligent therein; that Morrice should with all prudence and secrecy try to induce the Portuguese ministers to atone for their previous neglect and make their gifts retrospective; and that Morrice’s success would result in greater activity, on Brydges’ part, in soliciting for Morrice’s own “incidents.” [Davies and Schofield 1941, pp. 309-10]
John Macky offers another glimpse at Davenant. Macky was a famous Scottish spy, whose network famously informed William III of the planned invasion by the deposed king, James II. Macky’s son later published his father’s short sketches of acquaintances, which pictured Davenant as “a very cloudy-looked Man, fat, of middle Stature, about fifty Years old” (Macky 1733, p. 133). Macky accused Davenant of conspiring with Lord Peterborough to take advantage of the Fenwick Affair.
John Fenwick was arrested for plotting an uprising against the King. According to Macky, Peterborough promised to prevent Fenwick’s execution if he would implicate Peterborough’s rivals, the Duke of Shrewsberry, and the Lord Oxford. Davenant assisted Peterborough publishing a book, Memoir of Secret Service (1699), under the name of Matthew Smith (Macky 1733, p. 65). Jonathan Swift annotated his copy of Macky’s book with a note on Davenant: “He ruined his estate, which put him under a necessity to comply with the times.”
A short biographical sketch describes Davenant as being involved in highly suspicious dealings with French agents (Waddell 1958, pp. 281-82). The author, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Davenant, probably studied him more than anybody in history. Davenant also frequently changed positions in order to ingratiate himself with the government’s positions at the time. Regardless of Davenant’s questionable character or even the absence of any major contribution to economic theory, Davenant still merits our attention. To begin with, in his capacity as a government official Davenant was an important figure in modernizing the system of tax collection. In this role, Davenant was not merely concerned about raising money for the state; he was also attempting to create a database.