Sunday, April 24, 2005

Why Smith did not publish "Jurisprudence" 3


thanks for that. I can see your point. If he had published "Jurisprudence" and come out sympathetic to a more American view of law and liberty, it would have undermined the standing of "The Wealth of Nations" and other works in the minds of the political figures that were in a position to act upon its prescriptions. That seems quite a plausible argument.

I don't know how far his years as a customs man distracted him. He was a Commissioner of Customs, the top rank, so it was presumably a fairly honorific title, a sinecure. On the other hand, he seems to have been signing letters on all sorts of trivial matters – we have a copy of one in the Adam Smith Institute office. So perhaps he did actually take it as a serious job rather than just a reward for past service to the nation.

What a boon that "Astronomy" was saved from the flames. I guess that most readers of Smith don't understand much about science and scientific method. But "Astronomy" is a really penetrating, clear, and refreshing take on the subject. We're lucky too to have his students' notes on things like "Policy" but of course they lack the coherence of the Master himself.

Posted by Eamonn Butler at April 23, 2005 05:56 PM


In a letter to Andreas Holt, Commissioner of the Danish Board of trade and Economy, dated 26 October 1780, apologising for a delay in replying to him, Smith wrote, by way of explanation:

“I am occupied four days in every Week at the custom House; during which it is impossible to sit down seriously to nay other business; during the other three days too, I am liable to be frequently interrupted by the extraordinary duties of my office, as well as by my own private affairs, and the common duties of society” (Correspondence of Adam Smith, E. C. Mossner and I. S Ross, eds., Oxford University Press, pp. 248-9)

But was he really busy or just claiming a plausible excuse for being so? The fact is that this does not really matter to the points I made above. For the Commissioner’s post to be a true or a plausible excuse for not completing “Jurisprudence”, he only needed to be appointed to the post. Whether in practice this made him too busy or the appearance of being too busy, the appointment served its purpose. Nobody was likely to visit him to confirm or deny his claims - an intrusive media did not feature in 18th century Edinburgh.

The fact remains that if he had not been appointed a Commissioner of Customs, somebody else would have been – there were many names able to do the job – but nobody else could write “Jurisprudence”. That is the true measure of what he had done by deliberately making himself ‘too busy’ to write it.

On his juvenile essay, ‘Astronomy’, I believe it played a far larger part in his decision to abandon his ordination into the Church at Oxford and to choose instead the “uncertain future” of becoming a philosopher than is realised. But that is another story covered in “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)…


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