Adam Smith on Colonialism and Republicanism, Antique and Modern. Paris Talk III (Final Part)

We should think of Smith’s work on colonialism and empire as including relations between England, Scotland and Ireland, and relations between the Anglo parts of Ireland and Scotland, and the rest. This is largely an implicit issue,  though he does have a lot to say about the injustice of not allowing equal trade terms to Ireland with Great Britain. Smith is silent on what he thinks about the Jacobite Uprising and the means used to put it down. It seems reasonable to assume that Smith preferred the Hanoverian cause to the Jacobite cause, the latter at least symbolically linked to a return to the more absolutist model of monarchy preceding the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Did he approve of the harsh measures used to crush the social basis of Jacobitism after Culloden? That seems at odds with his general emphasis on justice in the state and sympathy in ethics, but maybe he did see some violence against savages/barbarians as necessary to the emergence and preservation of civil and commercial society. He was deeply aware of the fate of ancient states based on some measure of liberty and commercial life, and their defeat by more barbaric peoples, as in the domination of the Greece of free republics by the Macedonian monarchy or the defeat of the Roman Empire in the west by barbarians. He sometimes seems deeply pessimistic about the survival chances of liberty and commercial society in the modern world, for example having a rather exaggerated view of the triumphs of Louis XIV, the model of absolutist monarchy, over the republican and commercial Dutch Republic. He also shows great pessimism about the prospect of republics progressing in liberty for all, suggesting that it is a republic of the greatest liberty for its citizens that is most unlikely to extend rights to non-citizens. He fears that slavery will never be abolished, partly because the freest republics, like the American colonies will be unwilling to emancipate slaves. Their system of liberty is embedded in the political economy of slavery, so how is it possible to hope the citizens benefitting from that system will take it apart? He looks at the Roman Republic in the same light, though oddly does not refer to the amelioration in the conditions of slaves during the Empire. Sometimes Smith seems caught up in a pessimistic acceptance of a Ferguson or Vico style of cyclical history in which savagery or barbarism (the divine and heroic ages in Vico) will keep returning, which may also reflect a fear that ethical and civil progress means a loss of natural strength.

The American colonies appear to be a model for the future, as a repetition of the Greek colonial system, if Britain grants the colonies independence as Smith hopes. However, that proposed birth of perfected liberty in American republics incorporates both a the slavery which Smith fears persists the more republican liberty exists, and the liberty in the American wilderness which cannot be incorporated into republican or any ‘natural’ system of of liberty. Colonisation of the New World produces a model of pure political absolutism and economic robbery in the Spanish Americas, and a model of liberty so pure it collapses in the British Americas. That fear that American liberty could be torn between despotism over salves and extreme disaggregation of individuals in the wilderness might explain some of Smith’s silence about the dark side of monarchical-republican liberty in Britain, as if that was the best that could be hope for, rather than the experiment in pure liberty that Smith hopes for and fears in the Americas.

Smith hopes for an end to colonialism, though as with other hopes, in a manner tinged with pessimism. He argues that Britain would benefit from giving up the colonies, so saving itself the expense of providing external security and the broader economic costs of distorted trade. Despite the historical precedents he identifies in the Ancient Greek model of relationship, between parental republic and descendent republics, he seems to despair of the possibility of a voluntary termination of colonialism. The advantages of free trade and friendship based on voluntary association between states may never outweigh the narrow self-interests behind mercantilism. The unspoken issue, is should the crown and the real source of power in the semi-republican oligarchy, not only give up overseas colonies, but also Ireland  and Scotland, or maybe just the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles and the Gaelic parts of Ireland along with the Welsh speaking parts of Wales? Smith envisages a European ‘Empire’, by which he means a free trading confederacy, maybe with some shared form of representative government. The trade element would bring great economic benefits, and some kind of shared representative government is Smith’s ideal model for overseas colonies. The lack of the representative principle in antiquity made republican government impossible in the imperial stage of the Roman Republic and the fully Imperial stage of the Roman state. The political and moral decline of the Roman Republic, after the imperial expansion associated with victory over the Carthaginian republic, was an issue in the late republic, in Renaissance republicanism and in the European Enlightenment thought of Montesquieu and Rousseau. This is presumably in the background of Smith’s thoughts about modern empire. The two approaches to modern empire, dissolving it or establishing a confederation through representative government is never fully presented as an option, though it is mentioned as what the Romans lacked. The implications for the three core kingdoms of the British monarchy (England, Scotland and Ireland) are not fully explored, or at least the issue of coercion in the interests of crown and mercantilist oligarchy is not dealt with perhaps because in some respects Smith believed in the justice of a coercive civilising state, an impression confirmed by his doubts about pure republicanism.

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