Thoughts on Smith’s Failure to Publish his Third Major Work on the “Science of Jurisprudence’
When Smith had almost completed writing “Wealth Of Nations”he took his manuscript to London in 1773 [i] to see it through the press for publication. We know that Smith “was very zealous in American affairs” in London from 1773 to 1776.[ii] The momentous political events in North America intruded and he delayed publication of Wealth Of Nations to March 1776.
As it was, he ended “Wealth Of Nations” in its very last paragraph with a direct reference to the events in America, more from a pragmatic view of strategic pubic finance than any themes it had for his unfinished ‘Science of Jurisprudence’:
“The rulers of Great Britain have, for more than a century past, amused the people with the imagination that they possessed a great empire on the west side of the Atlantic. This empire, however, has hitherto existed in imagination only. It has hitherto been, not an empire, but the project of an empire; not a gold mine, but the project of a gold mine; a project which has cost, which continues to cost, and which, if pursued in the same way as it has been hitherto, is likely to cost immense expence, without being likely to bring any profit; for the effects of the monopoly of the colony trade, it has been shewn, are, to the great body of the people, mere loss instead of profit. It is surely now time that our rulers should either realize this golden dream, in which they have been indulging themselves, perhaps, as well as the people; or, that they should awake from it themselves, and endeavour to awaken the people. If the project cannot be compleated, it ought to be given up. If any of the provinces of the British empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expence of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishments in time of peace, and endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.”[iii]
After WN was published he was left with the dilemma of what do next and how to avoid the implications for his ‘science of jurisprudence’ of the last paragraph in WN. He had already widely advertised his intentions of completing such a volume in his Theory Of Moral Sentiments in the first 1759 edition and in subsequent editions.[iv]
The events in the British colonies in North America may have caused Smith to hesitate from fulfilling his 1759 promise, but having taken 12 years work to complete WN, he had no obvious excuse for delaying his ‘Jurisprudence’ indefinitely. In December 1762, [v] he told his students: “Jurisprudence is the theory of the rules by which civil governments ought to be directed”. Obviously, a theory of jurisprudence must cover a very long swathe of history from Grecian times to the implications for jurisprudence following the American events. At the very least, he would have to explain them privately.
If British colonists succeeded in rejecting a constitutional monarchy, Smith’s ‘Jurisprudence’ would have to cover that event, knowing that he had to be cautious of whatever problems arose for him from his comments. Subsequent events after the 1783 Declaration of Independence and the outcome of armed conflict exacerbated his dilemma because he could not write on a “science of jurisprudence” without confronting the American problem head-on. Except by saying nothing at all and by postponing the completion of his proposed book on Jurisprudence, and, eventually, by destroying his unfinished manuscript, dogged postponement resolved his problem, however unsatisfactory it remains for his posterity. He gave strict orders to his executors from his deathbed in 1790 that most of his unpublished papers, including his draft manuscripts for “Jurisprudence” were to be burned “unread” and “without any examination”.[vi]
The new US Constitution may have fitted well with Smith’s teachings on Jurisprudence and Wealth Of Nations, such as the separation powers, the separation of church and state, Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and judges appointed for life and good behaviour.[vii] But whatever the appeal the US constitution might have had for Smith, he could not publicly condone a rebellion against King George. Smith was an Hanoverian in matters of rebellions in Scotland in 1715 and 1745 against the King. Therefore, Smith’s major problem in post-1776 Britain was to avoid offending the legitimacy of the British sovereign. Whichever way he wrote “Jurisprudence”, he had to address the American rebellion and the implications of the ideas behind the rejection of George III by the former colonists.
Smith from 1776, still had to find something else to do. He also wanted to move to Edinburgh where the intellectual life was most appealing to him. In the event, in 1777 that opportunity presented itself in the form of a vacancy at the Scottish Customs Board. Smith decided to apply for the post to Sir Grey Cooper, Secretary to the Treasury. His long time friend, the Duke of Buccleuch, aided independently by his mother, the Duchess, were active in pursuing support for Smith’s appointment. By coincidence, Smith had written earlier to Sir Grey Cooper, Secretary the Treasury Secretary, in support of an individual for a vacant post of a Collectorship at Grenville harbour, and which Sir Grey said showed marked enthusiasm for that candidate. Grey said Smith’s application on someone else’s behalf contrasted with the “Phlegm, Composure and Indifference” of Smith’s own application for himself of the post as a Scottish Custom’s Commissioner. Grey also told Smith, at that time acting as consultant on tax affairs for Lord North (premier), that he did not need “yours or any other great mans recommendation” for a Commissioner’s appointment and he “will, if I am not much mistaken soon be appointed a Commissioner of the Customs in Scotland”.[viii]
Smith assiduousness in exercising his Custom House duties is revealing. Minutes show he attended 4 days week from January 1778 to 1790, chairing meetings and administrative work, except when on official duty in London at the request of government ministers for advice, combined on occasion when he visited his publisher to guide new editions through the press. His regular attendance at the Custom’s House resulted in his signature on over 80 per cent of the official letters and minutes during his tenure. He chaired a Commissioner’s meeting for the last time on 8 April 1790, just weeks before he died on 17 July.
The demands of being a fulltime Commissioner fortuitously precluded Smith from finishing his major work on Jurisprudence and I suggest this became his perfect excuse for his silence about ‘Jurisprudence’ and implications for the governance of the UK of American independence from 1776-90.
[i] Smith, A. Correspondence, Letter no. 137 to David Hume, pp. 168. 16 April 1773.
[ii] Smith, A. 1980. Correspondence, Letter no 149 from David Hume, pp.188-9. 8 Feb 1776.
[iii] Smith, A. 1776. Wealth Of Nations, Book V. iii.92: 946-47.
[iv] Smith, A. 1759. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, II.iv.37: p.342. cf. the ‘Advertisement’ in ed. 6: p.5.
[v] Smith, A. Lectures on Jurisprudence, LJ(A), 1762. ix. 1:7. Dec. 24, 1762. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[vi] Ross, 2010. P 435. [Please note that Ian Ross is not implicated in my interpretations of Smith’s motives or behaviours in the above matter].
[vii] See: Kennedy, G. 2010. “Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy”, London: Palgrave-Macmillan, pp. 49-51.
[viii] Smith, A. Correspondence, Letter. No. 186, pp. 227-28.from Sir Grey Cooper, 7 November, 1777.
From: Gavin Kennedy: “Adam Smith from Kirkcaldy, via Glasgow University to Panmure House, Edinburgh” for the Adam Smith Review, 2013. Extracted (26 March, 2013) from a lecture given to the ‘Adam Smith Colloquium’, Kirkcaldy, 7 August 2012.