Monday, May 08, 2006

Smith's Missing Jurisprudence Work

The comment by James Farrell on Nicholas Gruen’s review of James Buchan’s recent book on Adam Smith questions the failure of Smith to complete what he announced he had set out to do in his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ 1759, namely to write an account of jurisprudence. Now Smith claimed consistently that he was still working on this project for 31 years, right up to his final edition of ‘Wealth of Nations’, sent to his printer only a few months before he died in 1790.

James Farrell, in his comment on Nicholas Gruen’s review presents the conventional account for Smith’s behaviour:

“My only comment is to wonder whether there is really any great mystery about why Smith abandoned the 'third' book (which would have been the second book had fate in the form of Townsend not intervened). I didn't think there was more to it than what John Rae wrote:
‘In the preface to the 1790 edition [of TMS, Smith] refers to the promise he had made in that of 1759 of treating in a future work of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they had undergone in the different ages and periods of society, not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns policy, revenue, and arms, and whatever else is the object of law; and he says that in the Wealth of Nations he had executed this promise so far as policy, revenue, and arms were concerned, but that the remaining part of the task, the theory of jurisprudence, he had been prevented from executing by the same occupations which had till then prevented him from revising the Theory. He adds: "Though my very advanced age leaves me, I acknowledge, very little expectation of ever being able to execute this great work to my own satisfaction, yet, as I have not altogether abandoned the design, and as I wish still to continue under the obligation of doing what I can, I have allowed the paragraph to remain as it was published more than thirty years ago, when I entertained no doubt of being able to execute everything which it announced
.’ ”

Two aspects of Smith’s own explanations for not concluding his promised work on jurisprudence, and of some other works which he claimed at various times to have on the ‘anvil’, raise credible doubts as to the truth merely being completely explained by what he allowed into the public domain.

Over 31 years between his first public announcement and his last is at the very least most strange. He was not suffering from ‘very advanced age’ for all 31 years; he did not have to make public pronouncements of his intentions to remind readers of what was missing; he wrote and delivered the bulk of his intellectual ‘system’ in his Glasgow lectures in 1751-63 (see his ‘Lectures on Jurisprudence, 1762-3; for which he received his doctorate, LL.D) and he worked diligently from 1778-1790, excepting some minor periods of leave while engaged in publishing editions of his two books and advising the UK government on trade policy and, significantly the American war, as a Commissioner of Scottish Customs in Edinburgh, showing anything but indolence or the effects of ‘advanced age’ right up to a few months before he died.

In this respect note that Smith wrote or signed 90 per cent of the over 1,100 pieces of correspondence and reports for the Scottish Commissioners, which allowing for his few absences, means he dealt personally with nearly 100 per cent of their output from 1778-1790.

Hence, there is controversy about his sudden decision not to publish the long awaited third book on Jurisprudence to complete the promised trilogy. My suggested explanation in Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (2005) is that Smith was too embarrassed politically and personally to publish Jurisprudence. He was noted for his prudence in all matters (for instance, only critiquing by name dead, not those of living, authors).

Reading his lecture notes on Jurisprudence, made by students in 1762-3, on the social-political evolution of constitutional liberty in Britain (mainly England), knowing of his ‘Hanoverian’ affiliations through his father’s role in the 1704-5 shenanigans to unify the parliaments of Scotland and England and of his own predilections that led him to be within the Duke of Argyll’s sphere of interest in those crucial years from which he obtained his education at Glasgow and Oxford, and his chairs at Glasgow University, and knowing from his works of he ‘republican’ sympathies (i.e., ‘democratic’, pro-the lower orders of society and in favour of ‘liberty’), it is not a stretch of conjecture to suggest that the American rebellion posed serious personal problems for Smith.

Wealth of Nations contains material of the ‘recent disturbances’ in the American colonies and he takes a conciliatory line towards the demands of the colonists within a frank discussion of the proper role of colonies in a ‘great Empire’. That is about as far as he could go without causing political repercussions for himself and for others who espoused similar sympathies. In the context of Smith avowal of the benefits of stability in social harmony, amidst the ever present dangers of ‘factions’ and ‘discord’, he faced a dilemma: to support the cause of constitutional liberty in America was disloyal to the Hanoverian King and government; to oppose the same was disloyal to those principles he enunciated to his classes in 1751-63. He chose to remain silent.

As it was just after his death in 1790, from the time Dugald Stewart read his eulogy in 1793, the political atmosphere had swung towards repression under the influence of the French Terror, and many of Smith’s friends were investigated, along with Smith’s books, for signs of sedition and for stirring up discord among the common peoples. Men of lesser social importance were subjected to judicial punishments, including transportation to New South Wales and in a few instances to hanging. If ‘Jurisprudence’ had been published as it was likely to have been written on the basis of his jurisprudence teachings, the ‘close’ inquiries into Smith’s friends, and his own reputation, would have been a lot ‘warmer’ and discomforting than it was when the authorities only had Wealth of Nations and informers’ reports to go on.

When Smith ordered his unfinished manuscripts to be burned he did not know about the students’ notes, which by then were stored among family papers and forgotten. He could assume that the oral tradition was not a threat to him or others, the students having dispersed. Without hard evidence the authorities were powerless to think the worse. A hundred years later in 1896, the first set of students notes surfaced in Scotland (John Rae’s biography was published in 1895) and the second set was discovered in 1958. This changed the game considerably from the effects of natural aging to one of contrived prudence.

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