Tuesday, August 23, 2005

William Wallace and Adam Smith

In a spirited piece, “Scotland: Seven Centuries After William Wallace” by Lawrence W. Reed, in Mackinac Centre for Public Policy Michigan 23 August, about aspects of Scottish history, heavily influenced by “Braveheart, the film, the author links his theme to Adam Smith and David Hume, and exhibits more than a trifle of poetic licence.

Lawrence Reed writes: “Wallaceite rugged individualism was apparent in the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, which produced Adam Smith, David Hume and other 18th century thinkers committed to ideas of limited government, self-reliance, freer markets and personal freedom.”

Stirring stuff indeed. What he attributes to Smith and Hume is correct but whether these ideas meant the same to William Wallace and the men he worked with and against is not so clear.

Never forget that Scotland was a fractious clan society at the time (13th century), with bitter feuds and outrageous betrayals on a grand scale, and living standards to match. A night out in the open near winter in the Highlands would soon cure romantic notions of a happy playground for neighbourly clansmen and their families, not shown in the film.

Adam Smith regarded the Highlands and their communities as backward savages in the 18th century. He opposed Jacobites and their tendency to rebellion against the union of Scotland with England, as had his father during the fateful shenanigans of the dissolution to the Scottish Parliament in 1707 (where gold and trinkets played a larger role in securing the vote than did stirring beliefs in freedom, as did in Wallace’s days in his dastardly betrayal to the English King by fellow Scots).

On the 1745 rebellion he noted that several thousand

"naked and unarmed highlanders took possession of the improved parts of this country without any opposition from the unwarlike inhabitants. The penetrated into England and alarmed the whole nation, and had they not been opposed by standing army they would have seized the throne with little difficulty. 200 yeas ago such an attempt would have roused the spirit of the nation. Our ancestors were brave and warlike, their minds were not enervated by cultivating arts and commerce, and they were ready with spirit and vigour to resist the most formidable foe.” (Lectures in Jurisprudence, 540-41)

It is clear which Scotland Smith preferred to live in, though like all Scots he respected the figures of the past. He just didn’t think there was any role for them in a modern world. Nor did David Hume, a gentle man in all things.


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