Published August 25, 2021 by Tom Porter

Bowdoin Scholar was America’s First Appointed Economics Professor, Says Prof. Zorina Khan

In 1824, a scholar called Samuel Phillips Newman was appointed to the newly created position of lecturer in political economy at Bowdoin—a post he held for fifteen years. This, explains Professor of Economics Zorina Khan, makes Bowdoin the first American college to have a professor dedicated to the subject of economics.
Newman's book Elements of Political Economy attracted the critical attention of Karl Marx

Other schools had previously offered lectures in “political economy” (as the subject was then known), says Khan, but Bowdoin was the earliest one to create a specific faculty position. Writing in a blog post on her personal web page, Khan points out that the University of Virginia in 1826 and Brown University in 1828 both followed Bowdoin when they added faculty slots in this field.

Harvard graduate Newman had been initially hired to teach language and rhetoric, writes Khan, but he lobbied the College to show a commitment to economics in the curriculum. She describes Newman as a passionate free market economist at a time when the US was starting to undergo massive economic expansion. “Prescient observers realized that the ossified standard College curriculum, which largely produced lawyers and clergymen, was failing to meet the demands of a rapidly-growing economy,” she observes. 

prof khan
Khan profiles Newman in her personal blog.

Newman’s commitment to free markets and individual enterprise, as outlined in his book Elements of Political Economy, gained him sufficient notoriety to attract the attention of Karl Marx, who singled out the book for criticism in his classic indictment of capitalism, Das Kapital, says Khan. “Like most free market economists,” she adds, Newman also “had a ‘rational heart,’ that was ‘full of sympathy for every form of suffering.’” Besides his pioneering contributions to economics as a teacher and scholar, Newman was a vocal supporter of financial aid policies at Bowdoin so disadvantaged students would have access to educational opportunities.

“The whole research project got started when I realized that the Bowdoin archives included our course catalogues from the early nineteenth century,” explains Khan, who says she was  astonished to find that the College had added a position in economics so early in its history. “As a free market economist myself, it’s a great honor to realize that I’m part of a Bowdoin Economics tradition that extends back for two hundred years.”

Khan says she wrote the post because she wanted to share this discovery with current and former students. Victoria Yu ’19, who is starting this fall at Harvard Law School, emailed Khan to say: “It is so incredible to see the scans of the course catalogs going back so many years. It fills me with wonder to think about the change that the college has undergone in two hundred years, and to think about where a couple hundred more will lead it.”  

The full post can be read on Professor Zorina Khan’s blog, Life on the Margin, which shows how history matters for understanding economic policies today.

Khan describes Newman as a passionate free market economist at a time when the US was starting to undergo massive economic expansion.