RICARDO, David (1772-1823), of Gatcombe Park, Glos.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



20 Feb. 1819 - 11 Sept. 1823

Family and Education

b. 18 Apr. 1772, 3rd s. of Abraham Ricardo, stockbroker, of Bury Street, London by Abigail, da. of Joseph Delvalle, tobacco merchant, of London. educ. Talmud Tora, Amsterdam 1783-5. m. 20 Dec. 1793, Priscilla Ann, da. of Edward Wilkinson, apothecary, of Bow, Mdx., 3s. 5da.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Glos. 1818-19.

1st lt. Loyal Lambeth inf. 1798, capt. Tower Hamlets vols. 1803.


Ricardo’s father, the son of a Sephardi broker on the Amsterdam Bourse, was naturalized in 1771, and in 1773 was appointed to one of the 12 brokerships reserved for Jews in the City of London. Six of his sons were to follow him, including David, who at 14 was employed by his father in the Exchange ‘where he placed great confidence in him and gave him such power as is rarely granted to persons considerably older than himself’.1 Ricardo’s love match with a beautiful Quaker alienated his father and family, who ‘went into mourning for him as if he was dead’. Having abandoned his faith for Unitarianism, he was left £100 in his father’s will ‘in token of forgiveness’.2 By then Ricardo, who had subscribed £1,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797, and invested in East India Company stock, was a rich man. Influential friends had assisted him to set up as a broker. In partnership with Barnes and Steeres, he contracted successfully for all the government loans between 1811 and 1815.

Ricardo’s theoretical interest in financial questions, derived from his study of Adam Smith, was first demonstrated by his letters on the depreciation of the paper currency in the Morning Chronicle from September 1809, issued as a pamphlet, High price of bullion, in 1810. A year later he took up his pen in defence of the findings of the bullion committee, which agreed with his own. On 30 Sept. 1814 his friend James Mill urged him ‘to place himself in that situation in which his tongue as well as his pen might be of use’, but he demurred because of his ‘immense concerns in business’. When in August 1815 Mill renewed his plea, Ricardo replied ‘Your parliamentary scheme is above all others unfit for me,—my inclination does not in the least point that way. Speak indeed! I could not, I am sure, utter three sentences coherently.’ Write he could and did that year, as a critic of the Corn Laws. Meanwhile he had embarked on a series of country estate purchases and reinvestments which brought him an income of £28,000 a year and the opportunity to retire from business. In November 1816 he declined an invitation to contest Worcester on a vacancy. James Mill did not blame him: ‘If I were in your situation, the rottenest borough I could find would be my market, with nothing to do but part with a sum of money’. In December 1817 Ricardo’s agent Edward Wakefield negotiated with Lord Portarlington’s agent for the latter’s borough of Portarlington, ‘at the market price of the day’, as part of a loan agreement for the needy peer. The deal then fell through because ‘Lord Portarlington found there was nothing to be got by returning an opposition man’.3

Ricardo was by now eager to be in Parliament. On 22 Mar. 1818, a week after his admission to Brooks’s Club, he wrote:

If I could, without much trouble, get into the new Parliament I would. I should neither be Whig nor Tory but should be anxiously desirous of promoting every measure which could give us a chance of good government. This I think [will] never be obtained without a reform in Parliament.

Several borough seats, including Wootton Bassett and Fowey, were considered, but nothing was concluded and on 12 June he informed his friend Malthus, ‘I believe it is now finally settled that I am not to be in Parliament, and truly glad I am that the question is at any rate settled, for the certainty of a seat could hardly compensate me for the disagreeables [sic] attending the negotiations for it’. Yet in August 1818, at Brougham’s instigation, he secured Lord Portarlington’s borough for £4,000, as part of the terms of a loan of £25,000. Tierney, the Whig leader in the House, informed Lord Grey, 29 Sept., ‘This will add one to our numbers, and, if he speaks as profoundly as he writes, very considerably bewilder the understanding of many country gentlemen’.4

Ricardo first drew attention to himself in the House when he gave evidence to the committee on the resumption of cash payments by the Bank. He put forward his theory, outlined in the appendix to his pamphlet High price of bullion, and developed in his Proposals for an economical and secure currency, with observations on the profits of the Bank of England (1816), that the value of bank-notes would be best maintained by making bars of gold bullion, rather than gold coin, security for them. On 27 Mar. 1819, Lord Granville commented: ‘I think Ricardo is the ablest and most thoroughly conversant on the subject of any witness we have examined, and his plan of bullion payments instead of coin payments is not unfavourably viewed by the committee’. So it proved, for Ricardo’s plan was to be, at least temporarily, adopted, the gold ingots issued on 1 Feb. 1820 being popularly called ‘Ricardos’. On 24 May, loudly called upon to speak, he supported Peel’s proposals from the committee. J. L. Mallet noted that Ricardo,

notwithstanding his slender footing in the House, his Jewish name and his shrill voice, obtained the greatest attention, and was cheered throughout his speech: which altho’ very good and containing much sound argument yet had chiefly the character of broken and detached observations on the preceding speeches, with several traits of pleasantry, which were all successful. A few days afterwards, the Duke of Wellington having met Ricardo at a large party at Lady Lansdowne’s, came up to him, congratulated him on his speech, and on the success of the measure, and remained in conversation with him for 20 minutes.5

Ricardo had been named to the Poor Law committee on entering the House and his maiden speech, 25 Mar. 1819, on the poor rates misapplication bill, expressed his fears that it could not remedy the twin evils of over-population and inadequate wages. On the second reading, 17 May, he castigated the bill as ‘only the plan of Mr [Robert] Owen, in a worse shape, and carried to a greater extent’. He admitted, 16 Dec., that he was ‘completely at war with the system of Mr Owen, which was built on a theory inconsistent with the principles of political economy’. His own Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, published in 1817, had sought to break new ground by relating rent, profit and wages, properly defined, to taxation. It had become bedside reading for such up and coming politicians as William Huskisson*. But Ricardo’s ‘nostrum’ (not his own invention) of encouraging the poor to insure themselves by means of savings bank annuities was thought impracticable by cool observers like Alexander Baring*, who came to regard him as a doctrinaire theorist.6 He was made to feel this when on 9 June 1819 and subsequently he attempted to win over the House to his proposal for a tax on capital to redeem the national debt: this was his ‘crotchet’. On 24 Dec. 1819, on the theme of commercial distress, he said

he conceived that the distress was chiefly to be ascribed to the inadequacy of the capital of the nation to carry on the operations of trade, manufacture and commerce ... But of all this evil, the national debt, and the consequent amount of taxation was the great cause.

Ricardo was ‘a radical reformer for uniform and equal but not universal suffrage, very strong for the ballot’. He was also in favour of ‘all free discussion on behalf of any doctrine anti-Christian or otherwise’. These views, attributed to him by John Cam Hobhouse are confirmed by his support of reform and condemnation of repression of civil liberty in the House, though Hobhouse regretted that Ricardo’s ‘stammering and stuttering’ were his excuse for not moving his discharge from Newgate.7 Except on cash payments, Ricardo voted assiduously with opposition. He also voted for Catholic relief, 3 May 1819, though he never visited his constituents.

Described by Thomas Grenville as ‘a clever man with very modest manners and temperate conversation’,8 Ricardo came into his own in his second and last Parliament, when he was able to exert himself in committee on behalf of retrenchment and free trade. He died 11 Sept. 1823. Henry Brougham wrote of his brief and portentous parliamentary career: ‘few men had more weight in Parliament’, and hailed his triumph of ‘reason, intelligence, and integrity over untoward circumstances and alien natures’.9

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: Lawrence Taylor


Based on P. Sraffa, Works of Ricardo, x. 1-105.

  • 1. Annual Biog. (1824).
  • 2. Add. 56540, f. 114.
  • 3. Sraffa, vi. 138, 240, 252, 263; vii. 101, 110, 216, 232, 346.
  • 4. Ibid, v. p.xvi; vii. 254, 260, 264, 269, 293.
  • 5. Add. 48223, f. 116; Sraffa, v. 17; Colchester, iii. 113.
  • 6. C. R. Fay, Huskisson and his Age, 197; Lansdowne mss, Baring to Lansdowne, 28 Dec. 1819.
  • 7. Add. 56540, ff. 114, 130.
  • 8. Add. 51534, Grenville to Holland, 21 July 1819.
  • 9. Hist. Sketches (ser. 2), 188-91.