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DAVIDSON, JOHN, university professor, political economist, and librarian; b. 29 June 1869 in Edinburgh, son of William Davidson and Agnes Laurie; d. 28 July 1905 in Colinton (Edinburgh).

John Davidson was the son of a commission agent at Leith and Edinburgh. He attended the Royal High School at Edinburgh and matriculated in 1886. At the University of Edinburgh he won honours and prizes in logic, ethics, metaphysics, English, and political economy and received an ma in 1891. Scholarships enabled him to begin studying at the University of Berlin in the spring of 1892. A few months later he was asked to take up the chair of mental and moral philosophy and political economy at the University of New Brunswick.

During his ten years in Fredericton Davidson lectured in many fields but his favoured subject was political economy. He had reservations about the traditional academic curriculum and stressed the importance of “the study of man and especially the study of man’s activities,” suggesting that the social sciences could teach a “concrete philosophy” of economic and social life. He was popular with his students, who not only attended lectures but also visited industrial establishments, prepared research papers on local conditions, and debated topics of contemporary interest. Davidson gave public lectures as well and promoted the extension program in Saint John.

Appointed university librarian in 1896, Davidson followed the dictum that a library is the best university. His first innovation was to unlock the bookcases for two hours a day, and by 1898 he had transformed the library into “a general reading room.” He expanded the holdings by encouraging donations, exchanges, and bequests. In 1900 he announced the completion of the library’s first card catalogue, organized along modern lines by author, subject, and title.

On 31 July 1895 Davidson had married Helen Watt, daughter of an Edinburgh leather merchant, and she was soon presiding at social events in Fredericton as well as assisting her husband in preparing his first book for publication. In 1897 Davidson received doctoral degrees from both Berlin and Edinburgh. By this time he was growing restless in Fredericton. “A change is my most earnest desire,” he wrote to a colleague. “One is too isolated here.” He was amused by the city’s prohibitionist pretensions and appalled by the cynicism surrounding local politics. Despite his own loyalty to an imperial ideal, he held revisionist opinions about the loyalist legacy, which he associated with an excessive preoccupation with politics and an inadequate dedication to business.

Davidson published two books while at the University of New Brunswick. In The bargain theory of wages . . . (New York and London, 1898) he examined the labour question and concluded that none of the existing wage theories adequately described the conditions of imperfect competition governing labour markets and industrial relations. His own theory, based in part on local evidence, was that “the price of labor will lie somewhere between the subjective estimates of the buyer and the subjective estimates of the seller. . . . and the result will depend on the comparative strength of the bargainers.” The work was notable for accepting the uniqueness of labour-power as a personal commodity and for recognizing the significance of such factors as modes of remuneration, combinations of employers, population movements, and trade unions in the determination of wages.

Davidson’s second book, Commercial federation and colonial trade policy (London and New York, 1900), placed contemporary debates about imperial relations in a larger historical and economic context. According to Davidson, by the end of the 19th century Britain’s economic interests were no longer confined to the empire, nor were the colonies to be regarded as dependencies. Like other imperialists of the era, he identified the British connection as the guarantee of Canadian nationalism and welcomed the resurgence of imperial sentiment. But he was sceptical about the prospects for imperial or commercial federation and believed that the ideals of empire could be reinforced by more mundane measures, including subsidies to steamships, cables, and postal communications, and the encouragement of exhibitions, trade, and loans.

In 1902 Davidson obtained a year’s leave of absence to pursue research in Scottish economic history. Shortly after returning to Edinburgh he developed a pulmonary condition which required medical intervention. His leave was renewed, but in 1904 he resigned his position. “I liked the work I did,” he commented, “and I had some consciousness of doing it well; and that is enough to make one regret that there is to be no more of it.” He died the following year. His final work, The Scottish staple at Veere . . . (London, 1909), was completed by a collaborator, Alexander Gray, and published posthumously to favourable reviews.

Davidson’s role at the University of New Brunswick underlined the significance of Scottish influences in Canadian higher education and also confirmed the persistence of a progressive intellectual tradition in the Maritimes at the turn of the century. At a time when the university increasingly favoured professional programs such as engineering, he helped maintain the institution’s strong reputation in the arts and established the foundations for the study of the social sciences. His own intellectual endeavours reflected the preoccupations of a generation of political economists who were trying to reconcile economic theory with empirical observation. His work addressed issues of public concern as well as academic interest and, like other economists of the historical school, he injected ethical and subjective elements into the analysis of economic problems. Craufurd D. W. Goodwin has appropriately identified Davidson as Canada’s first labour economist, and Burton Seely Keirstead has suggested that the “Davidson approach” anticipated the partnership of theory and history which has characterized economic study in this country. In conjunction with William James Ashley at the University of Toronto and Adam Shortt* at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., Davidson helped establish a Canadian tradition in political economy that placed a strong emphasis on economic history and public policy.

David Frank

In addition to the works mentioned in the text, John Davidson published articles in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (Boston), the Political Science Quarterly (New York), the Economic Journal (London), the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Philadelphia), and other scholarly journals. He also contributed to journals of opinion such as the Fortnightly Rev. (London) and Macmillan’s Magazine (London, etc.).

GRO-E, RBMB for Colinton and Edinburgh. QUA, Adam Shortt papers, Davidson to Shortt, 23 Sept. 1897. UNBL, UA RG 81, 2.2.37. Scotsman (Edinburgh), 31 July 1905. Economic Journal, 15 (1905): 454–55. C. D. W. Goodwin, Canadian economic thought: the political economy of a developing nation, 1814–1914 (Durham, N.C., and London, 1961). Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.1 (sketch by F. C. W. [Francis Cox Walker]). University Monthly (Fredericton), 1881–1906. The University of New Brunswick memorial volume . . . , ed. A. G. Bailey (Fredericton, 1950).

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Cite This Article

David Frank, “DAVIDSON, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davidson_john_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davidson_john_13E.html
Author of Article:   David Frank
Title of Article:   DAVIDSON, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   September 26, 2023