Saturday, October 29, 2005

Adam Smith and the US Declaration of Independence

J. G. Vassallo writes an excellent article, “Where do we go from here?”, in Malta Independent On Line (The Malta Business Weekly, 29 October, St Julians, Malta), while discussing a brief recent history of political affairs in the island of Malta and the problems created by its governments.

His answer to his own question, “Where do we go from here?” is a lovely link between Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” (March 1776) and the US “Declaration of Independence” (4 July 1776).

I am not sure whether Jefferson had a copy of the “Wealth of Nations” in time for it to have influenced his drafting of the “Declaration”. The relevant chapter could have been “Of Colonies” (Book IV, Chapter vii), plus many comments on mercantile policies, but the timeline looks tight to get copies from London to Virginia and for them to be read in the midst of all the other things that were occupying Jefferson’s mind in those weeks before the Second Continental Congress adopted the “Declaration” on behalf of the 13 colonies.

However, Jefferson would certainly have been aware of reports of Smith’s general views before they appeared in “Wealth of Nations”. Benjamin Franklin met Smith and it is reported that Smith showed him chapters from the manuscript (1775), but whether Jefferson “borrowed heavily” from “Wealth of Nations” is probably overstating the case. That the sentiments of the “Declaration” and Smith’s works are of similar vintage is at least a reasonable assertion without implying conscious borrowings.

Here is how Vassallo presents his peroration:

It has been said that some fetters make us free, such as the moral law that lies at the core of contracts, and sound natural law, embodied in a wise government, based on consent of the governed.This encapsulates the aspirations of a growing number of Maltese citizens disillusioned by the government’s recent performance. People are asking: “Where do we go from here?”When Thomas Jefferson penned his revolutionary declaration on the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in 1776, he borrowed heavily from another revolutionary document of that same year: Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Smith’s ideas were every bit as astounding as Jefferson’s. Because, while Jefferson believed that men were not made to live under tyranny, Smith declared that men were not made to live in poverty.

I submit that this is a good answer to the real, present-day aspirations of the Maltese electorate."


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