Slavery and Absolute Property in Adam Smith

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith is concerned with slavery in a number of ways, all of which condemn slavery. For reasons I cannot currently fathom, clear universal condemnation of slavery only begins in the 18th Century. That certainly confirms that the Enlightenment really was a great movement, as in the condemnation of slavery in Montesquieu. Rousseau, Hume, Smith and less well known figures like Gershom Carmichael. Carmichael was the first Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, a post later filled by three great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment: Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid. I hope to return to Carmichael.

Returning to Carmichael’s second successor in that chair, Adam Smith, Smith suggest that in his time slavery is more humane when administered by the absolutist monarchy of France, rather than by the constitutional parliamentary government of Britain. Slavery is relatively humane, when administered under an absolute government, according to Smith, because such a government will interfere with the rights of property owners while a constitutional government will not.

Smith is thinking of the relative administration of slave plantations in the British and French Caribbean. He is also thinking of classical references familiar to all Enlightened educated readers of that time. He also refers to the way in which slavery became more moderate under the Roman Empire, than under the Republic (that great exemplar of the slef-government of citizens). He is most certainly thinking of Tacitus, the historian of the early Empire nostalgic for the Republic. It is Tacitus who refers to a Senator during the early Empire, who complains of the increasing regard shown for the legal rights of slaves.

Looking at the European Enlightenment, it is Giambattista Vico, who refers to the Empire as more democratic than the Republic in Roman History, in The New Science. I doubt that Smith was aware of this book. Like Alexis de Tocqueville later, Vico thinks of democracy as about equal rights rather than political participation Tocqueville clearly thinks democracy is significantly about elections and participation, but his starting point is that democracy means equality of conditions.

What we are referring to here is the republicanism based on oligarchy. Still at some points, democracy has been linked with slavery. e.g. the leaders of the Confederate States of America (the break away slave owning southern states who precipitated the Civil War).

The point I am concerned with here is the United States was founded by slave owners, so one of the great moment in modern constitutional government, the formation of the USA, was embedded in the desire of property owners to defend their property including slaves.

I’ve been looking at the US Constitution, which is a short document. Despite what some people claim there is nothing about property rights, there is a lot about constitutional federal government. Despite what the libertarian-conservatives say, the Constitution is not a document devoted to absolute property rights, as some US libertarians less tied to conservatism, have noticed.

From a progressivist libertarian point of view, I suggest that the absolutism of property rights in US history begins with the belief of slave owners that their property has foundations beyond any particular law.

The belief that the US constitution is concerned with absolute property rights rather than the benefits of republican self-government, is false and false by a big margin.

No right is absolute in the sense that it overrides all other rights. Absoluteness of property rights comes from the time of slavery. Smith opposed such a notion, property rights cannot override the right of the slave to seek liberty. This property absolutism, right or wrong is not supported by Smith. Property rights must be judged by their general social consequences,

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