Saturday, April 23, 2005

Why Smith did not publish "Jurisprudence"

Dr Eamonn Butler in the ASI Blog has opened a discussion on the consequences of Adam Smith not completing his promised work, "Jurisprudence".

My comments are published below. To follow the discussion visit the Adam Smith Institute (via the link in the left column):

Comments: The lost principles of justice

The excellent piece you wrote today raises interesting questions as to why Smith did not complete his book on “Jurisprudence”, despite first announcing it in 1759 in “Moral Sentiments” and reporting as late as a few months before he died (1790) that it was nearly finished.
You suggest he was too busy with “Wealth of Nations” (1766-76). OK, that explains the 17-year gap to 1776. The Grand Tour took from 1764-6, but what of the years to 1790?

He took the post of Commissioner for Customs, but he did not need the money – he gave most of it to charity – and he kept working three days a week until a few months before he died. He had a perfect excuse for not finishing “Jurisprudence”, despite his regular announcements.
I have heard from scholarly experts on Smith that they believe he did not finish it because he could not reconcile Natural Liberty with Justice (the negative virtue protecting property and harm against the person).

Maybe. I have put forward a different suggestion (“Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy”, Palgrave Macmillan, March 2005).

Smith delayed publishing “Wealth of Nations” from 1773 to 1776, and David Hume warned him not to wait any longer for a resolution of the American rebellion. I think the answer lies in the circumstances of the American rebellion and its possible impact on Britain (Smith advocated withdrawing gracefully from the colonies).

The students’ notes published as “Jurisprudence” (1976) gave detailed accounts of his Glasgow lectures (1763-4). They develop his 4 stages theory of the evolution of society and analyse the evolution of the Rule of Law, Justice and Constitutional Monarchy in Britain. Smith, by nature was not a revolutionary, nor given to advocating major changes, especially quickly, in constitutional matters. His lectures show he was comfortable with what the American colonists adopted into their Constitution, including the separation of powers and republican government. He seemed to see the British Monarchy eventually transforming itself into republic in all but name by becoming impotent figureheads with no power.

However, the American colonists had won their liberty by contesting the King’s Will in armed rebellion. That was not something the ever prudent Smith would wish to be seen supporting.
If “Jurisprudence” had been published he risked offending his King; there was no way a book from Smith could avoid commenting honestly on the American Constitution and its contrast to British constitutional arrangements.

He chose not to do so, deliberately and with forethought. He sought and took the Customs Commissioner’s post in 1783 and spent the remaining years of his life being assiduously ‘busy’, but not from competing his manuscript.

And a wise move for him that was too. In 1789 the French revolution began. He died in 1790. The Terror erupted in 1793. Any leeway he might have been granted before 1790 would have been swept away had he lived, if “Jurisprudence” was considered by a panicky Establishment to be seditious in the British context.

Smith did not know students had copied his lectures. On his deathbed he ordered the “Jurisprudence” manuscript to be destroyed. He felt his reputation safe.
As it was, Dugald Stewart and others were interviewed in 1793-4 by the Scottish judiciary searching for evidence that Smith’s works might incite ignorant mobs to seek mischief. His friends survived – some of them by denying they agreed with “Wealth of Nations”! Leaders of the ‘mobs’ got 14 years transportation.

The authorities had their suspicions about him, but what they did not have was Smith’s “Jurisprudence”.

Posted on ASI by gavin kennedy at April 22, 2005 08:38 PM


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