Cairnes, John Elliot (1823–75), economist, was born 26 September 1823 in Castlebellingham, Co. Louth, sixth child and eldest surviving son of William Cairnes, a prosperous brewer, and Marianne Cairnes, daughter of the Rev. William Woolsey. After six years in a boarding school in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) followed by private tutoring from a clergyman in Chester, Cairnes seemed destined for a life as a brewer. Three years later, however, against his father's advice, he entered TCD, where he graduated in 1848. Even then unable to decide on a career, he worked at times in the family business, in journalism, and in an engineer's office in Galway. He came to economics late and self-taught. In 1854 he published An examination into the principle of currency involved in the bank charter act of 1844. Urged on by a friend, Professor William Nesbitt (qv) of QCG, in 1856 he successfully contested the Whately chair in political economy at TCD, and in the following year published his statutory Whately lectures as The character and logical method of political economy. He held the chair for his full five-year term, but its demands were strictly part-time. In 1857 Cairnes was called to the Irish bar and in 1859, with strong support from his friend Nesbitt, from Archbishop Richard Whately (qv), and from Edward Berwick (qv), president of QCG, he was appointed professor of political economy and jurisprudence in Galway. Cairnes held the Galway chair until 1870, but employed a replacement to carry out his duties there from 1866 on, when he became professor of political economy at University College, London. He had already moved to Mill Hill near London in 1865.
In 1860 Cairnes married Eliza Charlotte Alexander, daughter of a judge in India and sister of Nesbitt's wife. In the same year he badly injured a knee in a riding accident. Ill-health dogged him for the rest of his life, and forced him to resign his Galway chair. In 1872 he also resigned from University College, London, retiring to Blackheath, crippled with rheumatic gout and virtually unable to write. His Political essays, which contain several essays on Irish subjects, were published in 1873 and Some leading principles of political economy in 1874. He died 8 July 1875, leaving his wife, two sons, and a daughter. William Plunket Cairnes (qv) was a nephew.
Cairnes is best remembered for his methodological contributions to economics and his influence on the thought of John Stuart Mill. He fell under Mill's spell in 1859, when they began a long correspondence highly valued by both men. It was an unequal partnership, but Mill deferred to Cairnes on issues relating to Ireland. Cairnes impressed on Mill the case for fixity of tenure and ultimately peasant proprietorship in Ireland, and a series of articles by Cairnes in the Economist strongly influenced Mill's England and Ireland (1868). Cairnes's The slave power: its character, career, and probable design was first published in Dublin by Richard Davis Webb (qv) of Middle Abbey St. (1862). This work, dedicated to Mill, argued that the viability of slavery depended on the demand for staples such as cotton and sugar. When that demand declined, slavery's days were numbered. This was Cairnes's best-known book, and influenced both contemporary public opinion and the subsequent historiography of southern slavery.
Cairnes's applied work in the economics of slavery, education, land tenure, and other policy-related topics reflected the so-called ‘new political economy’ of Mill, in which the appeal to laissez-faire was more conditional than in Smith or Ricardo, and in which history and institutions played an important part. But his most enduring contributions, The character and logical method and his last book, Some leading principles of political economy, were mainly expositional and methodological. Cairnes had little time for the new subjective approach to economics expounded by William Stanley Jevons and Alfred Marshall, and the expressed aim of Some leading principles was to ‘strengthen’ and ‘add consistence’ to the science built up by earlier economists from Adam Smith to Mill. Cairnes went so far as to offer a lengthy, last-ditch defence of the classical wage-fund theory of income distribution. Since the work of Jevons and Marshall (who reviled Cairnes) augured in a new approach to economic thinking, Cairnes's Some leading principles has often been seen as the testimonial statement of classical economics.