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Below is a transcription of what might appear to be a fairly routine communication between Arthur Cecil Pigou and Sir Frederic Kenyon, Secretary to the British Academy in 1945.  It has some of the characteristics of an ordinary polite exchange, rather like the dinner invitations, expressions of thanks, and apologies for non-attendance that those used to handling personal archives come across regularly.  Combined with a little more information about Pigou and his election to the Academy, however, it may say something slightly more significant.

The letter was sent when Pigou, at the age of 68, was about to retire from the Chair of Economics at Cambridge he had occupied since 1908.   Pigou had written to say that since he was retiring from his teaching duties he had also decided to resign from Fellowship of the British Academy.  This was not a requirement of the Academy and the Secretary had written to query whether resignation was really Pigou’s wish.  The letter gives Pigou’s response.

King’s College,


Nov 8 [1945]

Dear Sir Frederic Kenyon,

Thank you for your letter.  I think, however that, while for a professor in Marshall’s succession here not to be a fellow of the Academy might have given rise to comment, an elderly gentleman in retirement may disrobe, and incidentally throw open a vacancy for somebody else, without damage to anybody.  So I should be grateful if you would report my resignation.


A. C. Pigou

Pigou’s belief that his FBA was an honour connected with tenure of a teaching post at Cambridge says something about his modesty and his ordinary professional assumptions.  But the more interesting feature of the letter is the oddly passive reference to himself as ‘a professor in Marshall’s succession here’.  One could say that nearly four decades after the event Pigou’s consciousness of his Marshallian inheritance had not dimmed.  Indeed, he even assumed that it could be shared casually with Kenyon, a classicist who ended his career as Chief Librarian at the British Museum, and hence was probably a comparative stranger to the world of economics and economists.

It is also possible that Pigou was recalling something else, namely that his election as FBA did not take place until 1927, nineteen years after he had been elected to Marshall’s chair.  In 1908 Pigou was only 30, and since Marshall in retirement remained an FBA until his death in 1924, albeit not a very active one, it might be said that one ‘notional’ Cambridge slot was occupied during this period.   But it was only notional and by the time Pigou had published his most original work, Wealth and Welfare, in 1912 an impressive array of publications could be assembled under his name.  Indeed, his list of publications was superior in professional terms to most other candidates, including that of a youthful John Maynard Keynes, who had been proposed for election to the Academy in 1920.   With support from Marshall and Edgeworth, Pigou was nominated for election in 1913 and again in 1917.  On each of these occasions neither Keynes nor Pigou was elected for reasons that were more political than academic.

Opposition to Keynes within the Academy chiefly came from Fellows who were not economists, those who were incensed by what they perceived to be the pro-German and anti-French bias of his Economic Consequences of the Peace.  In Pigou’s case the opposition came from three members of the section that housed the economists: Herbert Somerton Foxwell, the local rival whom Pigou had defeated in the competition for Marshall’s chair; Foxwell’s ally William Cunningham, an inveterate opponent of Marshallian economics who had lost out to Marshall when the chair was previously on offer in 1885; and Joseph Shield Nicholson, a member of the appointing committee in 1908 who had voted for Foxwell.

Pigou, like Marshall, was broadly on the free-trade side of the Tariff Reform controversy provoked by Joseph Chamberlain in 1903, and Foxwell, Cunningham, and Nicholson were all in varying degrees on the other side.  But what most incensed Pigou’s opponents when his name came up for consideration again in the immediate post-war period was not so much his cosmopolitan free-trading enthusiasms as his public status as a conscientious objector to war.  Foxwell and Cunningham appealed on three occasions against the decision of Pigou’s Cambridge recruitment tribunal to accept his plea to be recognised as a conscientious objector doing work that was as essential as serving in the army.

Understandably, given his own opposition to conscription, Keynes judged the grounds on which Pigou had been excluded from the Academy as ‘discreditable’ when they were explained to him after his own failure to be elected in 1920.  Pigou in turn was scandalised when he learned in 1927 that Keynes’s early candidacy for election to the Academy had been rendered unsuccessful by the offence to France he was judged to have delivered in Economic Consequences of the Peace.

Some of the background to this episode can be gleaned from letters published in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes (volume XVII, pp. 165-6).  More will be revealed in a forthcoming article on the subject for the British Academy Review and more fully in a learned journal articleHow much of it was known to Pigou at the time, and hence available for recall in 1945, it is impossible to say.  But in casually making the connection between election to the chair and election to the Academy he invites the historian to think again about an episode that has already been the subject of considerable inquiry and comment.

Donald Winch