Monday, August 13, 2012

Our Founders and Adam Smith

I guess it has always seemed likely to me that people like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were influenced in their views of government by the work of Adam Smith.  Perhaps it was the coincidence of the 1776 publication dates for both the Wealth of Nations and The Declaration of Independence.  Or perhaps it was the similarity in conceptual ideas about liberty.  In any case, I just read an interesting article by Samuel Fleischacker which provides evidence that this intuition of mine was not ill-founded:
Adam Smith's influence was thus deeply present in the founders' thought.  This influence was complex, in part because the founders actually read Smith's tome rather than treating it as a hieroglyph for a free trade slogan.  Smith's influence can be seen in James Madison's subtle notion of the relationship between interest and virtue, in the remarks Madison and others made about the link between economic occupation and moral character, and in the trust in ordinary people's judgment that Madison shared with James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and some of the other founders.  Smith's importance to American political thought in the 1780s should be taken much more seriously than it has been.  It is remarkable that America has a Constitution that, in the functions it gives to government, the structure its provides for the military, and the strict separation it proclaims between religious and secular powers, fits Smith's conception of politics better than any government of his day.  When this remarkable fact is combined with evidence of significant interest in Wealth of Nations among America's political elite--several years before it received much attention elsewhere--it must be concluded that the relative inattention of historians to the influence of Wealth of Nations on the American founding is an oversight badly in need of correction. ["Adam Smith's Reception among the American Founders, 1776-1790," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol 59, No 4 (Oct 2002), 924-924]
I also found it interesting to realize that Adam Smith was especially interested in what was going on in the Colonies and in America.  He apparently thought this was the most likely place for his ideas to take hold.

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