Monday, July 03, 2006

Smith on 4th July: a happy participant?





Gavin Kennedy

Alan W. Bock (Senior Editorial Writer) writes a trenchant summary of the international importance of the US Declaration of Independence in “Roots of American liberty: The radical, revolutionary Declaration of Independence” (, Orange County, CA, 2 July). It puts the Declaration and the events leading to it (inclusive of the roles of several Scottish and English philosophers) in context.

I have some minor quibbles with it, but they are not of vast importance, and I recommend you to read it in full (

Bock writes:

“Locke was well-known and highly respected in the colonies, as were the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, like David Hume, Andrew Ferguson and Adam Smith, who criticized the statist economics of mercantilism and laid the philosophical foundations of modern capitalism. When events created tension between the Colonies and Great Britain it was to these thinkers – and to some extent the classical philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome – that the colonists turned to justify their rebellion.”

CommentThe educated men who provided the intellectual force behind the rebellion were educated from the same texts as the philosophers quoted, including a grounding in and classical Greece and Rome (learning Latin was a requirement for a basic education). Form the classics they examined almost every known system of government and all the debates about them.

Among the roots of the Declaration of Independence were strains in philosophy (with its much wider coverage of subjects in the 18th century than today) that provided the rebellion with sound theories about what the struggle was about. British attitudes to the American colonies were not monolithically hostile; they may have been self-censored to an extent because while people enjoyed greater liberties than their forebears (brilliantly surveyed by Bock), they were nevertheless living in a hierarchical society which had its reserves of repression, against which the colonists were fighting.

Adam Smith, for example, is a case in point. He was indirectly linked to one of the main protagonists (antagonists, perhaps) against which the colonists were driven into rebellion. Charles Townshend, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, had invited Adam Smith to become tutor to his stepson, the 15-year old, Duke of Buccleugh (sometimes spelt Buccleuch) and conduct him on a tour of France. In 1764 Smith undertook this lucrative assignment, for which he received a life pension. Bock puts Townshend’s role in provoke rebellion in context:

This increasingly independent group of colonists was therefore ripe to rebel when the British monarchy sought to finance the French and Indian War (ended in 1763) with a tax imposed on the colonists without consulting them. This "taxation without representation" was followed by the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts and eventually the Intolerable Acts, all designed to reinforce British control and squeeze revenue from the Colonies.”

This personal relationship did not stop Smith from writing extensively about the ‘recent disturbances’ in the colonies in Wealth of Nations. He showed some sympathy for the plight of the colonists and clear understanding of what was at stake. He advised the British government personally on several occasions in interviews with Cabinet Ministers during 1773-6 when he was in London completing Wealth of Nations for the publication. His advice is not recorded but its outlines are clear.

Put bluntly: If colonies will not contribute to their own defence and Britain finds the burden unacceptable, the best line was to abandon the colonies to their own defence. That the burden was unacceptable, in Smith’s view, he drew attention to the cost of the ‘last war’ with the French, whose own American colonies lay to the North of the British colonies, in which Britain spent near on £100 million to ‘protect’ a colonial trade (a monopoly, incidentally) worth £26 million. His stance in response to the colonists demand of ‘no taxation without representation’ was (effectively) ‘no representation without taxation’.

In this respect, he proposed that the colonies send representatives (MPs) to the British parliament in proportion to their population to the ‘mother country’ and that this continue. By the 1870s, he predicted, the colonies would outnumber the mother country in population and wealth and the British government would then move to New York. But short of this happening (it was rejected from the start by government opinion), Britain should quit America and enter into a trade agreement with the new government, leaving the colonists to deal with the French to the North and the Spanish to the south, both absolutist monarchies and liable to behave as such, in contrast to the more liberty-minded British constitutional monarchy and elected parliament.

The outcome of the ‘recent disturbances’ had a lasting effect on Smith’s intellectual work. As he had advertised several times in editions of Theory of Moral Sentiments, he was preparing a third major work on Jurisprudence. He never published it and the ms was burned on his orders a few days before he died in 1790. Why he never published Jurisprudence has long been a mystery (we have two copies of his Lectures in the form of student notes, found in 1895 and 1958). In my view the answer lies in the political problems that the Declaration of Independence created for Smith, a loyal subject of the Hanovarian British King and a believer in the longer-term benefits of the evolution of British liberty.

There was no way Smith could ignore the US Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution, the outlines and contents of which were hotly debated in the US at the time. Jurisprudence is ‘the theory by which civil governments ought to be directed’ (the opening sentence of his lecture course in 1762, Lectures in Jurisprudence, i.I: p 5, 24 December). But if he discussed the US ‘civil government’ how could he do so without either offending the British Establishment or offending his own republican principles (small ‘r’)? Smith’s self-directed role as a philosopher was ‘do nothing, but observe everything’. It was not to take sides, be a figurehead of controversy (a la his friend David Hume), stir up public dissent or ‘publish and be damned’ (a la Martin Luther).

He went as far as he was comfortable with in Wealth of Nations (the gist of his advice to the British cabinet) because he was confident that in time the ‘democratical’ principles of the Americans would develop the world’s wealthiest economy and, reversing John Locke’s observation, when speaking of the ‘savage societies’ of the North American ‘Indians’, that ‘in the beginning all the world was America’ (Two Teatises on Government) i.e., all Europe was once ‘savage’ like America), he believed implicitly that in due course ‘all the world will become like America’.

In the event, Smith’s prudence in destroying his manuscript and letting events run their course, proved wonderfully prescient. In this respect, I am sure that he too would celebrate at tomorrow’s 4th July parties.


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