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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Adam Smith (1723–1790)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Theodore Ely (1854–1943)
TO speak of Adam Smith as the author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ brings before us at once his chief claim to a place among the immortals in literature. The significance of this work is so overwhelming that it casts into a dark shadow all that he wrote in addition to this masterpiece. His other writings are chiefly valued in so far as they may throw additional light upon the doctrines of this one book. Few books in the world’s history have exerted a greater influence on the course of human affairs; and on account of this one work, Adam Smith’s name is familiar to all well-educated persons in every civilized land.  1
  Rarely does a man occupy so prominent a position in human thought, whose personality is so vague and elusive. He is generally so described that the impression is produced of a dull and uninteresting man. Quite the opposite must have been the case, however; for even the few incidents recorded of his life are sufficient to show us, when we think about it, that he must have been a delightful friend and companion. Adam Smith is generally associated in the popular mind with weighty disquisitions on free trade, on labor, on value, and other economic topics; but his life was by no means devoid of romantic touches.  2
  Adam Smith was born of respectable parents—his father being a well-connected lawyer—at Kirkcaldy, Scotland, on June 5th, 1723. His father had died three months before his birth; but he was brought up and well educated by his mother, to whom he was most devotedly attached. It is said, indeed, that he never recovered from his mother’s death, which took place when he was sixty years of age. After attending a school in his native town, he was sent to the University of Glasgow at the age of fourteen; and three years later, obtaining an “exhibition,”—or, as we say in the United States, a scholarship,—he went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he remained for more than six years. In 1748 he moved to Edinburgh, and delivered public lectures on rhetoric and belles-lettres. Three years later he was appointed professor of logic in Glasgow University, and four years later he exchanged his professorship for that of moral philosophy. In 1763 he resigned his professorship, and traveled for three years on the Continent of Europe as tutor to the Duke of Buccleuch. From 1766 to 1776 he lived in retirement, engaged in the preparation of his great work, ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ which appeared in the latter year and very soon made him famous. During the years 1776 to 1778 he lived in London, mingling with the best literary society of the time. The year last named witnessed his return to his native Scotland, where he chose Edinburgh as his home for the rest of his life. Three years before his death, which occurred in 1790, he was elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and was highly gratified by the honor conferred upon him.  3
  Adam Smith was a bachelor; but we are told by Dugald Stewart, his biographer, that he had once been warmly attached to a beautiful and accomplished young lady. It is not known why it was that their union was never consummated: neither one ever married. Dugald Stewart saw the lady after the death of Adam Smith, when she was upwards of eighty; and he stated that she “still retained evident traces of her former beauty. The power of her understanding and the gayety of her temper seemed to have suffered nothing from the hand of time.”  4
  Adam Smith was not a voluminous writer, and some of the MSS. which he did compose were destroyed by his order. His works, however, show a wide range of thought and study. One brief treatise of some note is entitled ‘A Dissertation on the Origin of Languages.’ Three essays deal with the ‘Principles which Lead and Direct Philosophical Inquiries as Illustrated’—first, by the ‘History of Ancient Astronomy’; second, by the ‘History of Ancient Physics’; third, by ‘Ancient Logic and Metaphysics.’ Other essays are on ‘The Imitative Arts’; ‘Music,’ ‘Dancing,’ ‘Poetry’; ‘The External Senses’; ‘English and Italian Verses.’  5
  A few words must be devoted to the ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ before hastening on to the ‘Wealth of Nations.’ The former is an ambitious work, and one which in itself has considerable merit. Moreover, it is significant because it is part of a large treatise on moral philosophy which Smith planned. This treatise was to have embraced four parts: first, ‘Natural Theology’; second, ‘Ethics’; third, ‘Jurisprudence’; fourth, ‘Police, Revenue, and Arms.’ The second part is ‘The Moral Sentiments’; and in the ‘Wealth of Nations’ he presented the fourth part, as he himself tells us. Unfortunately, he has not given the world the first and third parts, which however were embraced in his lectures to his students while he was professor of moral philosophy in the University of Glasgow.  6
  The ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments,’ it has been maintained, would have achieved renown for its author, and a place for him in literature, had it been presented to the world simply as a collection of essays on the topics with which it deals; viz., the ‘Propriety and Impropriety of Actions,’ their ‘Merit and Demerit,’ ‘Virtue,’ ‘Justice,’ ‘Duty,’ etc. The essays are finely written, full of subtle analysis and truthful illustration. The book is least significant, however, as philosophy; because it lacks any profound examination of the foundation upon which the author’s views rest.  7
  The guiding principle of the ‘Moral Sentiments’ is sympathy, or fellow feeling; not merely pity or compassion, but feeling with our fellows in their joys as well as sorrows. This sympathy is distinguished from self-love, and it is described as something given to man by nature. This idea is brought out by the opening words, which are these: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there is evidently some principle in his nature which interests him in the fortune of others, and renders their happiness necessary to him; though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”  8
  The full title of Adam Smith’s great work, ordinarily given as simply the ‘Wealth of Nations,’ is ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.’ The date of the appearance of this book—viz., 1776—is a significant one, for it recalls the Declaration of Independence. Both of them were the outcome of the same political and social philosophy; both of them were protests against ancient wrongs and abuses.  9
  The ‘Wealth of Nations’ appeared when the industrial revolution was fairly under way; inventions and discoveries had begun their transformation of industrial society. Old forms and methods were no longer sufficient for the growing, expanding life of this “springtime of the nations”; these springtimes of the nations recur at intervals, and a great deal of rubbish has to be cleared away to make room for new life. Adam Smith’s work was largely negative. One biographer of him, Mr. R. B. Haldane, speaks of him as “one of the greatest vanquishers of error on record.” He regarded himself as the advocate of a system of natural liberty: “nature” and “liberty” are two perpetually recurring words; they must be associated, to understand the economic philosophy of the ‘Wealth of Nations.’ One of the assumptions underlying this book is that of a beneficent order of nature lying back of all human institutions. The cry of the age was “back to nature.” Rousseau gave loud utterance to this watchword, and it was echoed and re-echoed by the writers and thinkers of the eighteenth century, both great and small. Nature, it was held, has done all things well; everything proceeding from the hands of nature is good: what is evil in the world is man’s artificial product; before man interfered with nature there was the “golden age,” and to this “golden age” we must somehow get back. We must break away from human contrivances, and seek for the order prescribed by nature. Consequently we have perpetually recurring demand for natural rights, natural liberty, natural law.  10
  Nature has implanted in man self-interest, and the operation of self-interest in the individual man is socially beneficent. Nature has so ordered things that each man in seeking his own welfare will best promote the welfare of his fellows. We must simply leave nature alone, and give fair play to natural forces to bring about the largest production of wealth. The causes of the wealth of nations must be sought in the manifold actions of self-interest of individuals. The ‘Wealth of Nations,’ then, is a protest against restraints and restrictions; it is directed against what was held to be the over-government, but what subsequent history has shown to be rather the unwise and unjust government, of that period. Careful examination of modern nations, especially as revealed in their financial expenditures, shows that as modern nations have progressed, the activities of government have undergone immense expansion, but have changed their direction and have altered their methods; their spirit and purpose are different.  11
  The abuses against which Adam Smith chiefly protested were restrictions upon the freedom of trade, and the exclusive privileges of ancient guilds and corporations, and laws directed against labor. He was in principle a free-trader. His anti-monopoly views, however, are equally pronounced.  12
  It is important to notice one thing in connection with Adam Smith’s protest against labor laws; and that is, that he had in mind laws aimed to control labor in the interest of the employer, and not laws like our modern labor laws, the purpose of which is to protect and advance the interests of labor. He said, indeed, in one place, that if any labor law should chance to be in the interest of labor, it was sure to be a just law. This ought not to be forgotten in comparing his spirit with that of modern writers who protest against labor legislation. He was warmly humanitarian, and his ruling passion was to benefit mankind. On his death-bed he expressed regret that he had been able to do so little.  13
  Adam Smith was far from being a mere doctrinaire. He had the practical disposition of the Scotchman, and was a close observer of life. Common-sense, then, was one of his chief characteristics; and he never hesitated to make exceptions to general principles when this was required by concrete conditions. Free trade, for example, was a good thing; but he at once recognized that changes in tariff policies must be made with due regard to existing interests which had grown up under a different policy. Private action in the sphere of education was in accord with his philosophy; yet he could say that under certain circumstances it might be wise for the government to foster education, especially in a country with democratic institutions.  14
  Even in so brief a sketch as this, a word must be said about Adam Smith’s position with respect to labor. He opens the ‘Wealth of Nations’ with the statement that “The annual labor of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes.” One school of writers, the Mercantilists, had held that the main thing in the advancement of the wealth of nations was foreign trade. A later school, valued highly by Smith,—viz., the Physiocrats,—had maintained that in the rent of land must be sought the causes of the increase of wealth. It is doubtless as a protest against both these schools that Adam Smith states that the original fund of wealth is labor. He wants to make labor central and pivotal. Rodbertus, the German socialist, has claimed that his socialism consists simply in an elaboration of Adam Smith’s doctrine of labor; but this is undoubtedly going too far.  15
  All the economists before the time of Adam Smith must be regarded as his predecessors; all the economists who have lived since Adam Smith have carried on his work: and his position in economics is therefore somewhat like that of Darwin in natural science. There are many schools among modern economists, but their work all stands in some relation to that large work of this “old master.”  16
  The centenary of Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ was celebrated in 1876; and it was at that time stated that no other work had enjoyed the honor of a centennial commemoration. Statesmen in all nations have been influenced by it. Buckle, with his customary exaggeration, makes this statement: “Well may it be said of Adam Smith, and that too without fear of contradiction, that this solitary Scotchman has, by the publication of one single work, contributed more to the happiness of man than has been effected by the united abilities of all the statesmen and legislators of whom history has presented an authentic account.” Even the more careful Bagehot used these words: “The life of nearly every one in England—perhaps of every one—is different and better in consequence of it. No other form of political philosophy has ever had one thousandth part of the influence on us.”  17

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