School Troops Resources

Economics at Pennsylvania

 University of Pennsylvania

[Note: Part of the HET Website.  This page is not related to or endorsed by the University of Pennsylvania or any other organization. See the official University of Pennsylvania website]

The University of Pennsylvania was founded on the initiative of Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin's 1749 pamphlet, Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, laid down a plan to found a new model college in Pennsylvania. Eschewing the model of Harvard, Yale and William & Mary, which were directed to training clergy and classics, Franklin proposed a college without religious tests, a modern curriculum of useful topics (natural history, moral philosophy, geography, geology), classes taught in English (rather than Latin), and each subject taught by an expert in the field (rather than a single teacher for all subjects).  However, Franklin was not (yet) aiming for a university, but only for an academy for younger children.  The pamphlet led to the assembling of trustees in November 1749, which composed the constitutions for an Academy of Philadelphia and a conjoined Charity School. Both institutions were finally opened in August 1751, in an unutilized schoolhouse built back in 1740 for a Great Awakening-type school (the 1740 date has been misleadingly utilized by some Penn propagandists as a founding date to pip Princeton and Columbia in age). The Penn family, the proprietors of the colony, granted charters to the Academy & Charity school in 1753.

The university proper,  the College of Philadelphia, for higher-level education, was only created in 1755. It was founded at the urging of William Smith, a teacher at the Academy, who persuaded Franklin and the trustees that his graduating students were ready for college-level education.  Although the College notionally retained its non-denominational promise, Franklin's departure for Europe in 1757 left the fledgling college in the hands of other trustees, who began to give it a more decidedly Anglican/Episcopalian makeover.  A medical school was added in 1765.  During the American revolution, the College of Philadelphia was suspected as a hotbed of loyalist sentiment so in 1779, the Pennsylvania state authorities took over the college, purged its faculty and trustees, and recast it as the "University of the State of Pennsylvania".  After a decade of wrangling, the College was restored in 1789 under its old 1755 charter and its former teachers reappointed, while the University of the State moved to a different location. The difficulty of maintaining two similar institutions in the same city prompted a merger in 1791 between the 1755 College and the 1779 University of State, into a single "University of Pennsylvania".  

The first century of the University of Pennsylvania was rather non-descript.  Its college remained small, the university being largely dominated by its medical school and later its law school.  Since 1837, a small dollop of classical British economics was offered in the general moral philosophy diet supplied by the provost Henry Vethake.  However, Vethake's peddling of Ricardian free trade dogmas was not well-received in a city which had given birth to the protectionist movement.  The business community was much enamored with its famous son, Henry Carey, and viewed Penn with suspicion. Gradually, via their positions on the board of trustees, Philadelphia industrialists began to push for reforms in the university's curriculum which would allow them to insert their favored economic dogmas.   They succeeded in displacing Vethake by 1860, and by 1870 had instituted a new curriculum of social sciences (required for all students). A firmly Carey-based economics was delivered by Robert Ellis Thompson, Penn's Professor of Social Sciences from 1874.

The ascension of the energetic William Pepper as Provost in 1881 would be accompanied by reforms that changed the archaic character of the University of Pennsylvania. A graduate "School of Philosophy", offering earned Ph.D. degrees on the German model, was formed in 1881. That same year, Penn accepted an offer of $100,000 from  Philadelphia industrialist Joseph Wharton (a Carey disciple) to found a school for the training of businessmen and political leaders.  The result was the Wharton School of Finance and Economy (later changed to "Finance and Commerce"), which would become America's first (and for quite some time only) business school.  But Wharton's scheme, initially to reinforce Thompson, was changed in the hands of Pepper, who was eager to the eject the rickety Careyite heritage and embrace a more modern economics.  Under Pepper's direction, both the Graduate School and Wharton promptly capitalized on the "new generation" of American economists returning from graduate study in Germany. 

The first to arrive was Edmund J. James in 1883, breaking Thompson's monopoly (who subsequently became professor of history and English literature).  However, James had little inclination to teach general economics, preferring to focus on applied topics, leaving much of the lecturing on economics to Thompson.  But student dissatisfaction prompted the shifting out of Thompson and the hiring of Simon Nelson Patten, to take on the economics load.. Recommended by James (they had studied together in Halle), Patten seemed to fit the bill - trained in Germany to satisfy Pepper, with sufficient protectionist credentials to satisfy the industrialist trustees..  Other economists would soon arrive, most of them also German-trained - Roland P. Falkner in 1888, James Harvey Robinson and Albert S. Bolles in 1891, Sidney Sherwood (also 1891, but only one year),  Emory R. Johnson in 1893,  Joseph French Johnson (also 1893, but only for a year). In addition, there were appointments of S.M. Lindsay in sociology and Leo S. Rowe in political science in 1894.

The Penn economists founded the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1889, in conjunction with professors in other local Pennsylvania colleges, like Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore.  For a time, the Annals of the AAPSS almost served as the house journal of the Penn economists.  When James left for Chicago in 1896, Patten succeeded as the chairman of Wharton and editor of the Annals.   Henry R. Seager and James T. Young were appointed in 1896, carrying some of the weight left by James.  Penn graduate Edward S. Meade joined the faculty in 1900.  The early marginalist Stuart Wood, although not at Penn but in the private sector, was a resident in Philadelphia throughout this time and was involved in the activities of the Penn economists and the AAPSS.  The Austrian-inclined Philadelphia engineer Charles W. MacFarlane was also in the vicinity, and studied briefly at Penn.

Simon Nelson Patten was without the doubt the leading figure at Pennsylvania during these decades, and set the tone for the economics program, grooming a generation of students, many of whom would become leading Progressives.   Up to this stage, Wharton was merely a set of courses and faculty had appointments elsewhere.  After two years of conventional courses in liberal arts in the college, undergraduate students could turn to complete their degrees with Wharton courses. It was really only after 1904 that Wharton had its own faculty, and only in 1912 was it finally given autonomy from the college.

Things would soon change, as Philadelphia industrialists lost interest in protectionism and grew more worried about crop of progressives being turned out by Patten & Co.  Penn was embroiled in a controversy in 1915 over academic freedom when the trustees engineered the dismissal of assistant professor of economics Scott Nearing (a Patten protege) for his outspokeness on child labor, wealth inequality and social reform.  The Penn faculty and the fledgling AAUP, which had only been formed six months earlier, took up the cudgels for Nearing, but could not get the decision reversed.  The trustees continued their purge of the progressives with the dismissal of Patten himself in 1917 - more precisely, they refused to allow him to stay on after reaching the official retirement age of 65.

Pennsylvania lost some of its stature and energy with Patten's departure.  Transportation expert Emory Johnson, who had joined Penn in 1896, became dean of Wharton in 1919, a position he would hold until 1933, presided over a quieter but unremarkable transition period.


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Resources on Pennsylvania Economics

  • Official websites of University of Pennsylvania Dept. of Economics (at Arts & Sciences) and the Wharton School.
  • Joseph Wharton: "International Industrial Competition", 1871, J of Social Science, p.49
  • Penn Graduate Observer, 1941 p.210
  • "Alumni roused by Nearing Case", June 22, 1915, NY Times [online]
  • "A Letter on the Nearing Case", by "an Alumnus" (= trustee J. William White), 1915, Old Penn (Oct), p.5 (trustees' view)
  • The Nearing Case, by Lightner Whitmer, 1915 [bk] (faculty view)
  • "An Affair to Remember: the Dismissal of Scott Nearing",  by Samuel Hughes, Penn Gazette [online]
  • "Pennsylvania University"  in Kibble's Cyclopedia of Education, 1883
  • The University of Pennsylvania: its history, influence, equipment and characteristics, J.L. Chamberlain, editor, 1901 [bk]
  • History of the University of Pennsylvania 1740-1940 by Edward Potts Cheyney, 1940 [penn] (esp. Ch.8)
  • Wharton history timeline [online]
  • History of U Penn overview [online]
  • Penn biographies [online]
  • The Making of a Radical: A political autobiography by Scott Nearing, 1972.
  • "Penn archives" at Irwin Collier's Economics in the Rear-view Mirror blog.
  • Wiki


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