Adam Smith on Colonialism and Republicanism, Antique and Modern. Paris Talk II

The completely anti-republican nature of the negative models of colonialism is matched by the purity of the republican forms of the positive forms of republicanism, which are Greek and British in north America. The British in North America model even presents a kind of liberty beyond republican liberty. Smith refers to the solitary freedom of the settler in the vast open spaces of North America. This is a liberty unconstrained by government and laws, republican or otherwise. Forms of liberty outside republicanism as understood by Greeks and Romans was understood by them and referred to with reference to barbarians, or even in philosophical limit situations like the god or animal Aristotle thinks of outside the republic (polis). Smith and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers themselves had ways of thinking about this with reference to the savage and barbarian stages of human history, which contain a kind of liberty of natural force not found in civilisation and which threatens civilisation. We can find this discussion in Hume as well as in Smith, and most richly in Ferguson’s History of Civil Society.

We can see these analyses at the background of Tocqueville’s understanding of the United States in Democracy in America, where the liberty of the ‘Indians’ is an important counterpoint to the growth of commercial and political liberty amongst whites, particularly in the non-slave states. The bondage of African-Americans in the slave states providing another counterpoint round despotic social relations, and the possibility of unlimited force erupting between whites and blacks in a race war.

In Smith, in an area of tension he shares with other Enlightenment thinkers, the isolated liberty of an individual in the wilderness, has an intensity of natural liberty lacking in the natural liberty Smith discerns in civilised commercial states and which he wishes to improve. The idea of natural liberty itself leads Smith into concerns about what can go wrong with trying to make natural liberty too  systematic and perfect. The idea of the isolated settler in the wilderness of North America presents another extreme aspect of liberty, where it disappears in the sense that Smith and others generally use it, of the liberty obtaining in a community under law.

The way that Tocqueville used the Enlightenment historical stages to analyse the America of the 1830s, should itself remind us of the way that Smith, Hume and Ferguson were referring to distinctions within Britain and Ireland. The formation of their thought coincides with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, which largely ended with the victory of Hanoverian forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Charles Edward Stuart drew on support from clans in the Gaelic speaking islands and mountains of Scotland, where different laws, customs and authority structures prevailed in comparison to the Scots speaking lowlands. The Hanoverian victory in defence of the settlement of 1688 did not end of all those differences, which traditional landowners in the Highlands using a feudal style of authority over peasants well into the 19th century, but a major state offensive took place against the self-governing Gaelic communities on the north and west of the Highland line. Crown authority became complete beyond the line, with suppression of distinctive language, dress and custom to create subjects of the crown rather than of Highland chiefs. Before and after the crushing of the 1745 Uprising, social conditions in the Scottish islands and mountains could be defined as barbaric or even savage in relation to the Enlightenment centres of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, or Smith’s home town, the commercial centre of Kirkcaldy. A similar way of thinking could be applied to the Gaelic speaking rural parts of Ireland in relation to Dublin, the English speaking aristocracy, and the Presbyterians of Ulster, who made their own contribution to Scottish Enlightenment through Frances Hutcheson. These are crude distinctions, and Edmund Burke for one would not fit clearly into the category of Protestant upper class cosmopolitan remote from Catholic peasant culture. Many other qualifications can and should be made to distinctions between civilised English speaking moderate Protestant Enlightenment Britain and Ireland, and the ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ opposites. Nevertheless, there is some reality to them, enough to push Smith and others in the direction of a savage-barbarian-civil and commercial society understanding of history, where the civil and commercial communities are perpetually at risk from being overwhelmed by the natural strength of the less civil and commercial communities.

(to be continued)

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