Rae on the publication of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

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Source: John Rae, Life of Adam Smith (London: Macmillan, 1895).


THE Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was at length published on the 9th of March 1776. Bishop Horne, one of Smith's antagonists, of whom we shall presently hear more, said the books which live longest are those which have been carried longest in the womb of the parent. The Wealth of Nations took twelve years to write, and was in contemplation for probably twelve years before that. It was explicitly and publicly promised in 1759, in the concluding paragraph of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, though it is only the partial fulfilment of that promise.

The promise is: "I shall in another discourse endeavour to give an account of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society, not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns policy revenue and arms, and whatever else is the object of law." In speaking of this promise in the preface of the sixth edition of the Theory in 1790, Smith says, "In the Inquiry concerning the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations I have partially executed this promise, at least so far as concerns policy revenue and arms." Now doubtless when Smith began writing his book in Toulouse he began it on the large plan originally in contemplation, and some part of the long delay that took place in its composition is probably to be explained by the fact that he would have possibly been a considerable time at work before he determined to break his book in two, and push on meanwhile with the section on policy revenue and arms, leaving to a separate publication in the future his discussion of the theory of jurisprudence.

The work was published in two vols. 4to, at the price of £1 : 16s. in boards, and the author uses this time all his honours on the title-page, describing himself as Adam Smith, LL.D. and F.R.S., formerly Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow. What was the extent of this edition, or the terms, as between author and publisher, on which it was put out, is not exactly known. The terms were not half-profits, for that arrangement is proposed by Smith for the second edition as if it were a new one, and is accepted in the same way by Strahan, who in a letter which I shall presently quote, pronounces it a "very fair" proposal, "and therefore very agreeable to Mr. Cadell and me"; nor was it printed for the author, for the presentation copies he gave away were deducted from the copy money he received. On the whole, it seems most probable that the book was purchased from him for a definite sum, and as he mentions in his letter of the 13th November 1776 that he had received £300 of his money at that time, and had still a balance owing to him, one may reasonably conjecture that the full sum was £500—the same sum Cadell's firm had paid for the last economic work they had undertaken, Sir James Steuart's Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy.

The book sold well. The first edition, of whose extent, however, we are ignorant, was exhausted in six months, and the sale was from the first better than the publishers expected, for on the 12th of April, when it had only been a month out, Strahan takes notice of a remark of David Hume that Smith's book required too much thought to be as popular as Gibbon's, and states, "What you say of Mr. Gibbon's and Dr. Smith's book is exactly just. The former is the most popular work; but the sale of the latter, though not near so rapid, has been more than I could have expected from a work that requires much thought and reflection (qualities that do not abound among modern readers) to peruse to any purpose."86 The sale is the more remarkable because it was scarce to any degree helped on by reviews, favourable or otherwise. The book was not noticed at all, for example, in the Gentleman's Magazine, and it was allowed only two pages in the Annual Register, while in the same number Watson's History of Philip got sixteen. This review of the book, however, was probably written by Burke.

Smith speaks in one of his letters to Strahan of having distributed numerous presentation copies. One of the first of these was of course sent to his old friend David Hume, and that copy, by the way, with its inscription, probably still exists, having been possessed for a time by the late Mr. Babbage. Hume acknowledged receipt of it in the following letter, which shows among other things that not even Hume had seen the manuscript of the book before publication:—

EDINBURGH, 1st April 1776.

EUGE! BELLE! DEAR MR. SMITH—I am much pleased with your performance, and the perusal of it has taken me from a state of great anxiety. It was a work of so much expectation, by yourself, by your friends, and by the public, that I trembled for its appearance, but am now much relieved. Not but that the reading of it necessarily requires so much attention, and the public is disposed to give so little that I shall still doubt for some time of its being at first very popular, but it has depth and solidity and acuteness, and is so much illustrated by curious facts that it must at last attract the public attention. It is probably much improved by your last abode in London. If you were here at my fireside, I should dispute some of your principles. I cannot think that the rent of farms makes any part of the price of the produce, but that the price is determined altogether by the quantity and the demand. It appears to me impossible that the King of France can take a seignorage of 8 per cent upon the coinage. Nobody would bring bullion to the mint, it would be all sent to Holland or England, where it might be coined and sent back to France for less than 2 per cent. Accordingly Necker says that the French king takes only 2 per cent of seignorage. But these and a hundred other points are fit only to be discussed in conversation, which till you tell me the contrary I still flatter myself with soon. I hope it will be soon, for I am in a very bad state of health and cannot afford a long delay. I fancy you are acquainted with Mr. Gibbon. I like his performance extremely, and have ventured to tell him that had I not been personally acquainted with him I should never have expected such an excellent work from the pen of an Englishman. It is lamentable to consider how much that nation has declined in literature during our time. I hope he did not take amiss this national reflection.

All your friends here are in deep grief at present for the death of Baron Mure, which is an irreparable loss to our society. He was among the oldest and best friends I had in the world.87

On the same day as Hume wrote this letter from Edinburgh, Gibbon wrote from London to Adam Ferguson and said among other things, "What an excellent work is that with which our common friend Mr. Adam Smith has enriched the public! An extensive science in a single book, and the most profound ideas expressed in the most perspicuous language. He proposes visiting you very soon, and I find he means to exert his most strenuous endeavours to persuade Mr. Hume to return with him to town. I am sorry to hear that the health and spirits of that truly great man are in a less favourable state than his friends could wish, and I am sure you will join your efforts in convincing him of the benefits of exercise, dissipation, and change of air."

Some of Smith's personal friends seem to have entertained the common prejudice that a good work on commerce could not be reasonably expected from a man who had never been engaged in any branch of practical business, and seemed in outward air and appearance so ill fitted to succeed in such a line of business if he had engaged in it. One of these was Sir John Pringle, President of the Royal Society, and formerly, like Smith himself, Professor of Moral Philosophy at a Scotch university. When the Wealth of Nations appeared Sir John Pringle remarked to Boswell that Smith, having never been in trade, could not be expected to write well on that subject any more than a lawyer upon physic, and Boswell repeated the remark to Johnson, who at once, however, sent it to the winds. "He is mistaken, sir," said the Doctor; "a man who has never been engaged in trade himself may undoubtedly write well upon trade, and there is nothing that requires more to be illustrated by philosophy than does trade. As to mere wealth—that is to say, money—it is clear that one nation or one individual cannot increase its store but by making another poorer; but trade procures what is more valuable, the reciprocation of the peculiar advantages of different countries. A merchant seldom thinks but of his own particular trade. To write a good book upon it a man must have extensive views; it is not necessary to have practised to write well upon a subject."

It is not within the scope of a work like the present to give an account of the doctrines of the Wealth of Nations, or any estimate of their originality or value, or of their influence on the progress of science, on the policy and prosperity of nations, or on the practical happiness of mankind. Buckle, as we know, declared it to be "in its ultimate results probably the most important book that has ever been written"; a book, he said, which has "done more towards the happiness of man than has been effected by the united abilities of all the statesmen and legislators of whom history has preserved an authentic account";88 and even those who take the most sober view of the place of this work in history readily admit that its public career, which is far from being ended yet, is a very remarkable story of successive conquest.

It has been seriously asserted that the fortune of the book in this country was made by Fox quoting it one day in the House of Commons. But this happened in November 1783, after the book had already gone through two editions and was on the eve of appearing in a third. It is curious, however, that that was the first time it was quoted in the House, and it is curious, again, that the person to quote it then was Fox, who was neither an admirer of the book, nor a believer in its principles, nor a lover of its subject. He once told Charles Butler that he had never read the book, and the remark must have been made many years after its publication, for it was made at St. Anne's Hill, to which Fox only went in 1785. "There is something in all these subjects," the statesman added in explanation, "which passes my comprehension; something so wide that I could never embrace them myself nor find any one who did."89 On another occasion, when he was dining one evening in 1796 at Sergeant Heywood's, Fox showed his hearty disdain for Smith and political economy together. The Earl of Lauderdale, who was himself an economist of great ability, and by no means a blind follower of Smith, made the remark that we knew nothing of political economy before Adam Smith wrote. "Pooh," said Fox, "your Adam Smiths are nothing, but" (he added, turning to the company) "that is his love; we must spare him there." "I think," replied Lauderdale, "he is everything." "That," rejoined Fox, "is a great proof of your affection." Fox was no believer in free trade, and actively opposed the Commercial Treaty with France in 1787 on the express and most illiberal ground that it proceeded from a novel system of doctrines, that it was a dangerous departure from the established principles of our forefathers, and that France and England were enemies by nature, and ought to be kept enemies by legislation.

It is curious therefore that in a House where Smith had many admirers and not a few disciples, his book was never mentioned for near eight years after its appearance, and was mentioned then by an enemy of its principles. Fox's quotation from it on that occasion was of the most unimportant character. It was in his speech on the Address of Thanks to the Throne, and he said: "There was a maxim laid down in an excellent book upon the Wealth of Nations which had been ridiculed for its simplicity, but which was indisputable as to its truth. In that book it was stated that the only way to become rich was to manage matters so as to make one's income exceed one's expenses. This maxim applied equally to an individual and to a nation. The proper line of conduct therefore was by a well-directed economy to retrench every current expense, and to make as large a saving during the peace as possible."90 To think of this allusion having any influence on the fortunes of the work is of course out of reason. It was never even mentioned in the House again till the year 1787, when Mr. Robert Thornton invoked it in support of the Commercial Treaty with France, and Mr. George Dempster read an extract from it in the debate on the proposal to farm the post-horse duties. It was quoted once in 1788, by Mr. Hussy on the Wool Exportation Bill, and not referred to again until Pitt introduced his Budget on the 17th February 1792. In then explaining the progressive accumulation of capital that was always spontaneously going on in a country when it was not checked by calamity or by vicious legislation, that great minister, a deep student of Smith's book and the most convinced of all Smith's disciples, made the remark: "Simple and obvious as this principle is, and felt and observed as it must have been in a greater or less degree even from the earliest periods, I doubt whether it has ever been fully developed and sufficiently explained but in the writings of an author of our own time, now unfortunately no more (I mean the author of the celebrated treatise on the Wealth of Nations), whose extensive knowledge of detail and depth of philosophical research will, I believe, furnish the best solution of every question connected with the history of commerce and with the system of political economy."91 In the same year it was quoted by Mr. Whitbread and by Fox (from the exposition of the division of labour in the first book) in the debate on the armament against Russia, and by Wilberforce in his speech introducing his Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

It was not mentioned in the House of Lords till 1793, when in the debate on the King's Message for an Augmentation of the Forces it was referred to by Smith's two old friends, the Earl of Shelburne (now Marquis of Lansdowne) and Alexander Wedderburn (now Lord Loughborough, and presiding over the House as Lord Chancellor of England). The Marquis of Lansdowne said: "With respect to French principles, as they had been denominated, those principles had been exported from us to France, and could not be said to have originated among the population of the latter country. The new principles of government founded on the abolition of the old feudal system were originally propagated among us by the Dean of Gloucester, Mr. Tucker, and had since been more generally inculcated by Dr. Adam Smith in his work on the Wealth of Nations, which had been recommended as a book necessary for the information of youth by Mr. Dugald Stewart in his Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind." The Lord Chancellor in replying merely said that "in the works of Dean Tucker, Adam Smith, and Mr. Stewart, to which allusion had been made, no doctrines inimical to the principles of civil government, the morals or religion of mankind, were contained, and therefore to trace the errors of the French to these causes was manifestly fallacious."92

Lord Lansdowne's endeavour to shield Smith's political orthodoxy under the countenance lent to his book by so safe and trusted a teacher of the sons of the Whig nobility as Dugald Stewart, is hardly less curious than his unreserved identification of the new political economy with that moving cloud of ideas which, under the name of French principles, excited so much alarm in the public mind of that time. For Dugald Stewart was in that same year 1793 (on the evenings of 21st January and 18th March) reading his Memoir of Adam Smith to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and he tells us himself (in 1810) how he was compelled to abandon the idea of giving a long account of Smith's opinions which he intended to have done, because at that period, he says, "it was not unusual, even among men of some talents and information, to confound studiously the speculative doctrines of political economy with those discussions concerning the first principles of government, which happened unfortunately at that time to agitate the public mind. The doctrine of a Free Trade was itself represented as of a revolutionary tendency, and some who had formerly prided themselves on their intimacy with Mr. Smith, and on their zeal for the propagation of his liberal system, began to call in question the expediency of subjecting to the disputation of philosophers the arcana of State policy, and the unfathomable wisdom of feudal ages."93 People's teeth had been so set on edge by the events in France that, as Lord Cockburn tells us, when Stewart first began to give a course of lectures in the University on political economy in the winter 1801-2, the mere term "political economy" made them start. "They thought it included questions touching the constitution of governments, and not a few hoped to catch Stewart in dangerous propositions."94

The French Revolution seems to have checked for a time the growing vogue of Smith's book and the advance of his principles in this country, just as it checked the progress of parliamentary and social reform, because it filled men's mind with a fear of change, with a suspicion of all novelty, with an unreasoning dislike of anything in the nature of a general principle. By French principles the public understood, it is true, much more than the abolition of all commercial and agrarian privilege which was advocated by Smith, but in their recoil they made no fine distinctions, and they naturally felt their prejudices strongly confirmed when they found men like the Marquis of Lansdowne, who were believers in the so-called French principles and believers at the same time in the principles of Adam Smith, declaring that the two things were substantially the same. Whether and how far Smith or Tucker had any influence on that development of opinion which eventuated in the Revolution, it would be difficult to gauge. Before Lord Lansdowne made this speech in 1793 two different translations of the Wealth of Nations into French had already been published; a third (by the Abbé Morellet) had been written but not published, and a fourth was possibly under way, for it appeared in a few years. The first and worst of these translations, moreover (Blavet's), had already gone through three separate editions, after having originally run through a periodical in monthly sections for two years. These are all tokens that the work was unquestionably influencing French opinion.

But if the French Revolution stopped for a time, as is most likely, the onward advance of Smith's free-trade principles, it does not seem to have exercised the same effect on the actual sale of the book. I do not know whether the successive editions were uniform in number of copies, but as many editions of the Wealth of Nations—four English and one Irish—appeared between the years 1791 and 1799 as between the years 1776 and 1786, and since none was called for from 1786 till 1791, the edition of 1786 took longer to sell off than the subsequent editions of 1791, 1793, and 1796. It is quite possible—indeed it is only natural—that the wave of active antagonism which, according to Stewart's testimony, rose against the principles of the book after the outbreak of the French Revolution would have helped on the sale of the book itself by keeping it more constantly under public attention, discussion, and, if you will, vituperation. The fortune of a book, like that of a public man, is often made by its enemies.

But the very early influence of the Wealth of Nations in the English political world is established by much better proofs than quotations in Parliament. It had actually shaped parts of the policy of the country years before it was ever publicly alluded to in either House. The very first budget after its publication bore its marks. Lord North was then on the outlook for fresh and comparatively unburdensome means of increasing the revenue, and obtained valuable assistance from the Wealth of Nations. He imposed two new taxes in 1777, of which he got the idea there; one on man-servants, and the other on property sold by auction. And the budget of 1778 owed still more important features to Smith's suggestions, for it introduced the inhabited house duty so strongly recommended by him, and the malt tax.95 Then in the following year 1779 we find Smith consulted by statesmen like Dundas and the Earl of Carlisle on the pressing and anxious question of giving Ireland free trade. His answers still exist, and will appear later on in this work.96

[86.][86] Hume MSS., R.S.E.

[87.][87] Burton's Life of Hume, ii. 487.

[88.][88] Buckle's History of Civilisation, ed. 1869, i. 214.

[89.][89] Butler's Reminiscences, i. 176.

[90.][90] Parliamentary History, xxiii. 1152.

[91.][91] Parliamentary History, xxix. 834.

[92.][92] Ibid., xxx. 330, 334.

[93.][93] Stewart's Works, x. 87.

[94.][94] Cockburn's Memorials of My Own Time, p. 174.

[95.][95] See Dowell's Taxation, ii. 169.

[96.][96] See below, pp. 350, 352.