Born at Melfi, Basilicata, Nitti studied law in Naples and was subsequently active as journalist. He was correspondent for the Gazzetta Piedmontese ("Piedmontese Gazette") and was one of the editors of the Corriere di Napoli ("Courier of Naples"). In 1891 he wrote the work Il socialismo cattolico ("The Catholic-socialism"). In 1898, when only 30 years old, he became Professor of Finance at the University of Naples.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia ("Theories of Overpopulation"), Nitti (Population and the Social System, 1894) was a staunch critic of English economist Thomas Robert Malthus and his 'Principle of Population'. He was an important meridionalist and studied the origins of southern Italian problems that arose after Italian unification.
Nitti was elected in 1904 for the Italian Radical Party to serve in the Italian parliament. From 1911 to 1914 he was Minister of Agriculture, Industry and Trade under Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti. In 1917 he became Minister of Finance under Vittorio Emanuele Orlando which post he held until 1919. On 23 June 1919 Nitti became Prime Minister and Interior Minister. A year later he added to these roles the post of Minister of the Colonies. In social policy, Nitti’s government passed a law setting up compulsory insurance for unemployment, invalidity, and old age.
Nitti's cabinet had to deal with great social unrest and dissatisfaction over the results of the Treaty of Versailles. Particularly troublesome was the agitation over Fiume led by Gabriele D'Annunzio. Nitti had great difficulty keeping the administration functioning at all, thanks to the enmity between the extremely divergent political factions: the communists, anarchists and fascists. After less than a year as head of government, he resigned, and was succeeded by the veteran Giolitti on 16 June 1920. Italian nationalists saw Italy's position following The Great War as a mutilated victory for what they considered to be little territorial gains achieved. Orlando was ultimately forced to abandon the Paris Peace Treaty conference and resign, refusing to see the war as a mutilated victory, addressing the nationalists calling for a greater expansion to the effect that "Italy today is a great state....on par with the great historic and contemporary states. This is, for me, our main and principal expansion." Nitti, who was completely opposed to the Versailles Treaty nevertheless took Orlando's place in signing it on behalf of Italy.
In 1924 a disillusioned Nitti decided to emigrate to the United States, but after the Second World War he returned to Italy. He was elected to the Italian Senate, first for the Italian Liberal Party in National Bloc and later for the Independent Left. Being secular and anti-clerical, he was an opposer of Christian Democracy (Italy). To Italy's NATO membership he remained staunchly opposed.
Nitti authored numerous books and articles on both economics and politics including:
- Population and the Social System (1894)
- Catholic Socialism (1895, reprinted 1908)
- Eroi e briganti (Heroes and brigands) (1899; reprinted by Osanna Edizioni, 2015) - Template:ISBN, 9788881674695)
- L'Italia all'alba del secolo XX (1901)
- Principi di scienza delle finanzie (1903, 1904; 5th ed., 1922). French translation: Principes de science des finances, (1904)
- Peaceless Europe (1922)
- The Decadence of Europe (1922)
- The Wreck of Europe (1923)
- Bolshevism, Fascism and Democracy (1927)
- other works online here (archive.org)
- Francesco Saverio Nitti, L'Italia all'alba del secolo XX, Casa Editrice Nazionale Roux e Viarengo, Torino-Roma, 1901
- Francesco Saverio Nitti, Domenico De Masi, Napoli e la questione meridionale, Guida, Napoli, 2004
- La scienza della finanza 1903-1936
- Democracy and Social Policy by Yusuf Bangura
- See his books: Peaceless Europe and The Wreck of Europe (both 1922) and The Decadence of Europe - Paths of Reconstruction (1923)