Sunday, April 24, 2005

Why Smith did not publish "Jurisprudence": 2

Posted by Dr Eamonn Butler, Adam Smith Institute Blog site (link below left column):

Prof, I think that's the most erudite comment ever posted on this site!

Yes, I was only speculating that the rush of the Grand Tour and the effort of "The Wealth of Nations" distracted him. But I can see that, from such a prominent figure, a book that could be taken to be so critical of the British government and its policy towards the Americans could have been just too controversial for his tastes.

On the other hand, he was pretty frank about it in "The Wealth of Nations" and that hadn't done him too much harm – I guess that a fair proportion of his more intelligent readers actually agreed with him. Are you saying it was the looming prospect of revolution in France that did for the book? But how far was that predicted back in 1790?

Smith indeed ordered his notes to be burned, but then he ordered all his papers to be burned, as people did at that time: they did not want to be judged on still-incomplete manuscripts. Had it been complete, then like Hume with his "Dialogues on Natural Religion", might he perhaps have allowed it to be published after his death? Sure, he was not as ebullient a character as Hume: but was it just that he feared the consequences, or might it have been that the work was substantially incomplete?

Posted by Eamonn Butler at April 22, 2005 08:53 PM

Posted by me in response: 23 April, 2005, 5.45 pm:

Dear Dr Eamonn Butler (ASI)

Good points and worth bearing in mind, recognising that we are speculating (or at least I am).

Smith was in London (1773-6) where he discussed privately the developing American situation with academics, friends, colleagues and government officials. No doubt he expressed himself and listened to others. But the focus was on the events and how they might be resolved. What we know of his advice shows him dealing pragmatically with these events and not ideologically. His discourses on Jurisprudence and the evolution of government were unlikely to have featured.
The leaders of the American colonists were beginning to explore other ideas about government that would lead after 1783 to the US Constitution, which were several steps further along the road to republican democracy than he had advocated publicly. This only added to the tensions he must have felt, knowing how he had pushed the boundaries with his ‘six principles’ of Liberty in his Glasgow Lectures on constitutional monarchy. Friendly advice to ‘tone it down’ if he wanted to influence the King’s Ministers would not have been necessary for such a prudent man.

As it was, in 1793 the Judiciary questioned the contents of the “Wealth of Nations” and criticised him for it. Edmund Burke also joined in. The fact is they did not have copies of his Lectures, nor, of course, a published book or a manuscript.

The events in France surprised many people, so I do not think Smith was influenced in 1783 to drop Jurisprudence by expectations on that score. Smith realised that he could not complete Jurisprudence without commenting on the American Constitution. If he wrote positively about it, he would cause offence in high places and disappoint many; if he wrote negatively, he would betray his concepts of Liberty. By not writing at all he avoided both.

I see no contradiction in his ordering the burning of an unfinished manuscript; his problem was to explain why he did not finish it over the 31 years (1759-1790) that he claimed publicly to be writing it, particularly during the critical 14 years (1776-1790) when he deliberately chose to do something trivial instead. If he had not been a Commissioner of Customs, somebody else would have been, but nobody else could or did write “Jurisprudence”. That is the true measure of his fateful neglect.

He ‘saved’ from the flames his ‘juvenile’ essay, ‘Philosophical Method’ (also known as his “History of Astronomy”). He was horrified at the request from David Hume for him to publish the ‘Dialogues on Religion’ after Hume’s death. He wanted nothing to do with it or the expected controversy it would cause, despite the deep offence he caused Hume (who, characteristically, 'forgave' him). As it is the zealots savaged even his single page in praise of Hume’s character.

Smith was determined to avoid controversy. The issue is not that “Jurisprudence” was incomplete; it was that if he completed it he feared the consequences for his reputation with the people he was trying to influence. Hence, he didn’t.

That the French Revolution broke out at the end of his life no doubt convinced him of the prudence of his earlier decision to desist from anything disrespectful of authority or likely to be interpreted as such. If he had lived to see the Terror he would have felt completely vindicated.

Remember, Smith lived in Scotland where religious zealots in the 18th century were ever vigilant for the slightest sign of unorthodoxy; he had avoided successfully their attention by excessive prudence in all things. In Britain, he was no less careful to avoid inciting political criticism from those he despised because they were wedded to faction and favour.

[With slight editing]


Post a Comment

<< Home