Who was Richard Cantillon?

Kerry-born 18th-century banker, credited with the origin of the term entrepreneur, can lay claim to being the father of modern economics

Prof Antoin Murphy, associate professor in economics at Trinity College Dublin and expert on the life and work of Richard Cantillon, reads the author's Essai Sur la Nature du Commerce en Général. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

Prof Antoin Murphy, associate professor in economics at Trinity College Dublin and expert on the life and work of Richard Cantillon, reads the author's Essai Sur la Nature du Commerce en Général. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

 

Little is known about Richard Cantillon’s early life beyond the fact that he was born near Ballyheigue, Co Kerry some time after 1680, and as a young man followed the Wild Geese into French exile.

His fame as the “Father of Political Economy” was founded posthumously on a work published 21 years after his death. But while alive, he used his skills to become fabulously wealthy, and was known wherever he went as “the Irish banker”.

Indeed, his reputation for making fortunes when others were losing shirts – notably in the Mississippi Scheme and South Sea Bubble – earned him many enemies. 

He was jailed briefly in Paris and spent much of the 1720s fighting litigation. The later obscurity may have derived from the care he took to cover his trails, which were widespread. His success as an investor was built on extensive research and travel, so that he had homes in seven different European capitals: including London, the city that did for him eventually.

After a fire in his house there in 1734, Cantillon was found dead in bed with severe burns. At first it was thought he had fallen asleep while reading by candlelight. But a post mortem suggested death had preceded the fire, whereupon the spotlight fell on a cook who had recently been sacked. The cook escaped. Three other servants were subsequently cleared of charges. And perhaps inevitably, there were suspicions that the shifty economist was not dead at all, but that he had faked his own murder to avoid lawsuits. For the record, a grave in London’s Old St Pancras Churchyard argues otherwise.

Despite all his travels, Cantillon retained Irish tastes, at least in some things. He courted a Kerry woman in exile, Olive Trant; and in 1722 married Mary Anne O’Mahony, the daughter of Count Daniel O’Mahony of Killarney. His wife was beautiful and much younger than he, yet they seem to have been happy for a while, at least until 1733, when he felt the need to send her to a convent for six months.

If the famous banker did stage his death the following year, his wife helped the cover story by promptly marrying her lover.

Cantillon might have gone down in history as just an extreme example of the Cute Kerryman, except for his Essai Sur la Nature du Commerce en Général  (Essay on the Nature of Commerce in General). Written in 1730 and published in England in 1755, this influential work expounded his very complex economic theories and was the origin of the term “entrepreneur”. More than a century later, it was hailed as “the veritable cradle of political economy”.

But it was influential from the start, with one account saying, the essay was “shamelessly plagiarised by Postlethwayt (1757), utilised without acknowledgment by Harris (1758), and referred to by Adam Smith (1776)”.

Yet somehow, Cantillon managed to slip back into the shadows and was certainly neglected by his mother country up until recently.

He is a suitable namesake for the long-running column in which Irish Times business journalists endeavour to offer insightful analysis and comment on the business and economic issues of the day.

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