Wesley Clair Mitchell
1874 – 1948
Who was Wesley Clair Mitchell?
Mitchell was born in Rushville, Illinois, the second child and oldest son of a Civil War army doctor turned farmer. In a family with seven children and a disabled father with an appetite for business ventures "verging on rashness" a lot of responsibility fell on the oldest son. Despite these challenges, Wesley Clair went to study at the University of Chicago and was awarded a PhD in 1899.
Mitchell’s teachers included economists Thorstein Veblen and J. L. Laughlin and philosopher John Dewey. Although Veblen and Dewey did more to shape Mitchell’s outlook, Laughlin supervised his dissertation. Laughlin's main interest was in currency questions; he was a strong opponent of the quantity theory of money. The currency question facing the US in the 1890s was the choice between alternative monetary standards: inconvertible paper, gold monometallism and gold/silver bimetallism.
Mitchell’s thesis, published as A History of the Greenbacks, considered the consequences of the inconvertible paper regime established by the Union in the Civil War. However this, and the follow-up study Gold Prices and Wages Under the Greenback Standard, transcended conventional monetary history of the kind Laughlin did and provided a comprehensive quantitative account of the behavior of the US economy in the recent past.
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