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Malachy Postlethwayt was a prolific English writer and publicist on matters of mercantilist economics in the 1740s and 1750s. Little is known about his upbringing or formal education, although he is believed to be the brother of James Postlethwayt (d. 1761), a writer on finance and demography. Malachy Postlethwayt was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1734. His writings are claimed by Edgar Johnson to “have exerted a good deal of influence on the trend of British economic thought” (1965, p. 185).
Postlethwayt was alleged to be propagandist for the mercantilist endeavors of the Royal Africa Company, whose interests were well served by his publications The African Trade, the Great Pillar and Supporter of the British Plantation Trade in North America (1745) and The National and Private Advantages of the African Trade Considered (1746). These works supported a strategy of British commercial and manufacturing expansion through trade with Africa and the colonies, and promoted the importance of slavery for British commerce and industry.
Postlethwayt’s most noted work, The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, appeared after he had devoted twenty years to its preparation. The first edition was published in London in installments between 1751 and 1755, and then in subsequent editions as a two-volume set in 1757, 1766, and 1774. This dictionary was a translation, with large additions and improvements, from Jacques Savary des Bruslons’ Dictionnaire universal de commerce (1723–1730). According to Johnson, Postlethwayt’s dictionary was a “huge storehouse of economic facts, laws and theory” (1965, p. 188), and his departures from the French version reflected his “greater interest in political problems; his more intense economic nationalism; and his exuberant belief in the economic usefulness of experimental philosophy” (p. 402).
In the 1757 edition of the Universal Dictionary, Postlethwayt outlined his vision for the establishment of a British mercantile college to benefit those who intended to work as merchants, or in gathering public revenue, or in merchandizing. He proposed that theoretical training for business should occur in formal academies and involve the study of mercantile computations, foreign exchanges and the intrinsic value of foreign coins, double-entry accounting, languages, geography, and public revenues and related laws. Postlethwayt’s ideas appear to have been influential in developing the statutes and procedures of the Portuguese School of Commerce, established in Lisbon in 1759.
Postlethwayt’s most important contribution to economic literature is regarded by many to be Britain’s Commercial Interest Explained and Improved (1757), in which he outlines his concept of “physical commerce” and the policies England should follow to attain commercial parity with foreign rivals.
Whether Postlethwayt’s writings were his original thoughts and words is a matter for conjecture. Johnson (1965, p. 205) notes that his Universal Dictionary included ideas taken from fifty other past or contemporary writers and that it had scattered throughout it practically all of Richard Cantillon’s Essai sur la nature du commerce en général (Essay on the Nature of Commerce in General, 1755). Although Postlethwayt was alleged widely to be a plagiarist, Peter Groenewegen considers this accusation to be “greatly exaggerated” (2004, p. 1000).
Postlethwayt died suddenly on September 13, 1767, and was buried in the Old Street Churchyard, Clerkenwell, in London.
- Groenewegen, Peter. Postlethwayt, Malachy. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 44, ed. H. C. G. Mathew and Brian Harrison, 999–1000. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Johnson, Edgar Augustus Jer  1965. Predecessors of Adam Smith: The Growth of British Economic Thought. New York: A. M. Kelley.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. The African Trade, the Great Pillar and Supporter of the British Plantation Trade in North America. London: printed for J. Robinson.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. The National and Private Advantages of the African Trade Considered. London: printed for John and Paul Knapton.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. Considerations on the Making of Bar Iron with Pitt or Sea Coal Fire. London: printed for J. Roberts.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. Considerations on the Revival of the Royal-British Assiento. London: printed for John and Paul Knapton.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. The Merchant’s Public CountingHouse, or, New Mercantile Institution. London: printed for John and Paul Knapton.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. 1751–1755. The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce. London: printed for John and Paul Knapton.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. A Short State of the Progress of the French Trade and Navigation. London: printed for John Knapton.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. Britain’s Commercial Interest Explained and Improved. London: printed for D. Browne et al.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. Great Britain’s True System. London: printed for A. Miller et al.
- Postlethwayt, Malachy. In Honour to the Administration: The Importance of the African Expedition Considered. London: printed by C. Say.
- Rodrigues, Lúcia Lima, and Russell C 2004. Mercantilist and English Influences on the Portuguese School of Commerce, 1759–1844. Atlantic Economic Journal 32 (4): 329–345.
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