Monday, August 02, 2010

Two Reviews of Nicholas Phillipson's New book on Adam Smith

Two reviews (so far) of Scottish historian, Nicholas Phillipson’s, new book, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, (Allen Lane, London, 368 pages), described best as an intellectual biography, which I have been waiting for these past five years, since he first told me about what he was doing when I met him in Colombia University, New York in 2005 (though we both live in Edinburgh).

At that initial meeting, I spoke to him after had delivered a short talk on Adam Smith that was far and above one of the better lectures at what was, for me, a disappointing conference on Adam Smith (I disagreed with most of the papers – but with outstanding papers from Samuel Fleischcker, Emma Rothschild, and Ivan Hont.

Nicholas told me he was writing an intellectual biography – ‘his ideas not his life’ - and now it is out five years later. My copy should be waiting for me in Edinburgh for when I return in September.

So far, I have read two reviews, both good for Nicholas, as I would expect. I have a couple of comments on the reviews.

The first, by Noel Malcolm in the Daily Telegraph (1August), includes this passage:

But the Duke’s patronage then became counterproductive. Buccleuch wangled for him the well-paid post of Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh, and the burdens of this office absorbed most of Smith’s energies until his death; several further treatises (on literature, on the 'imitative arts’, and on law and government) remained unwritten.’

This seems to suggest that the Duke of Buccleuch somehow imposed on Adam Smith a post he did not seek, which is not supported by Smith’s correspondence (Adam Smith’s Correspondence, Oxford University Press, 1983).

From this we see that Smith was approached by two persons seeking his interest in support for their applications for the vacant post of Scottish Commissioner of Customs, to which he obliged by letters to Sir Grey Cooper. However, he announced that he too was a candidate himself as early as 27 October, 1777. He asked William Strahan (MP and his publisher) to seek out ‘intelligence’ on his chances of success.

He was told my Alexander Wedderburn (MP; 30 October, 1777; p. 226-27) that neither of the two men he had ‘warmly recommended’ would be appointed. Wedderburn also reported that the Duchess of Buccleuch was active is promoting Smith as a candidate and she had passed to him a note of Smith’s interest in the post, which Wedderburn passed immediately to Lord North (Chancellor of the Exchequer, and later Prime Minister) which had ‘its full effect’.

Most interestingly, Sir Grey Cooper, MP, Secretary to the Treasury, wrote to Smith on 7 November, a coded letter, effectively, telling Smith that he would be successful in his application, talking of him in the third person that:

‘His merit is so well known to Lord North and to all the world, that (Alas what a Bathos) He will very soon, if I am not much mistaken, be appointed a Commissioner of the Customs in Scotland.’ (p. 228).

Smith’s post, and his overly assiduous attention to his Commissioner’s duties, saved him to embarrassment of fulfilling his long-standing promise (from 1759) to write on the laws and constitution ought to govern every country. This would have required detailing (sympathetically) with the government of the former colonies in North America, which could not help but be seen as critical of the British constitutional monarchy. Smith avoided that conundrum (he respected the Sovereign’s role) by working four-days a week at the Customs house up to just before he died in 1790 (see ‘Why Smith did not complete his third book’ in my, Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, 2008, 1st edition, pp 92-97).

Ian Maclean’s review (2nd August, Financial Times) is excellent as is to be expected by Professor of Politics at Oxford University, and the author of ‘Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian’ (Edinburgh University Press). However, his reviewer writes:

[Smith] comes to life only at a few dramatic moments, especially in 1776. In that year Hume died. Smith’s brave eulogy showed that an atheist could live and die as nobly as a Christian.

But, less bravely, Smith refused to publish his friend’s Dialogues on Natural Religion, in spite of Hume’s deathbed request.
Why did the author of TheTheory of Moral Sentiments, which derives its morality from what would seem right to an impartial spectator, refuse his best friend’s deathbed request? If it was cowardice, it was an odd cowardice, because Smith’s eulogy to Hume got him into serious trouble from Christians; whereas the dialogues, when finally published by Hume’s nephew, caused none.

This was a curious incident. That much I can agree with the reviewer. However, I am not so sure that his account is the whole story. Set aside for a moment the morality of the incident. Add in the other concerns of Smith.

His Wealth Of Nations had just been published and he was known to be sensitive to the reaction of the protestant presbyteries on Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Glasgow Presbytery had charged three of the University’s Professor’s of Moral Philosophy with ‘heresy’, all three of them long-standing Christian members and doctors of divinity, (Simmons, 1729, Hutcheson, 1737; and Leechman, 1746).

I think the main problem is that modern commentators and reviewers sometimes write as if they have no idea of the religious tyranny of the Church in Smith’s day (Maclean would know better). Zealots abounded and hounded those they perceived to be wayward in behaviour and speech.

Adam Smith was very wary of the zealots. For my account, see my: The Hidden Adam Smith in His Alleged Theology (forthcoming in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought). He had just published Wealth of Nations (March) and did not want to damage sales (or his influence). He was also worried about the impact of Hume’s Dialogues on sales of Hume’s new History volume was at the printers (he advised Strahan to publish Hume’s History first before the Dialogues to protect sales of the former (Smith to Strahan 5 Sept and 16 Sept, 1776).

This was not ‘cowardice’; it was ‘prudence’.

Also, Smith’s mother was a devoted Christian; Smith wasn’t, and publication associated with controversy risked upsetting her. After she died in 1784, Smith made many changes to the 6th edition of Moral Sentiments (1789-90) which were all in one direction only; they diluted or excised many of the overly Christian theological tones of the earlier editions, all published while she was alive.

Some letters and pamphlets were published after his remarks on Hume were published, but he was not persecuted further. His friends, including prominent Christians (Dr Robertson, Moderator of the Church of Scotland and Principal of Edinburgh University, and n intimate friend both Hume and Smith) stood by him. The Rev. George Horn, principal of Oxford University and Bishop of Norwich, wrote a pamphlet exorcising Smith, but today it reads as written by a fool.

Of course, no author is responsible for his or her reviewers.

I think, on the whole Nicholas Phillipson will be happy with his reviewers. I expect many more reviews will appear around the world and Nicholas’s book on Adam Smith will achieve what it deserves in multiple citations among Smithian scholars for years to come.

PS: I last met Nicholas Phillipson at a conference in Glasgow University, in 2009, commemorating Smith’s Moral Sentiments (1759), and spent some time in his company discussing Adam Smith. I found much to concur with in his thinking. I expect to enjoy his new book, and I shall review it here in due course.



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