David R. Henderson  

Adam Smith on U.S. Independence

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Jersey Shore, Emily Whitehurst... Tone vs. Substance...

Here is what Adam Smith wrote in 1776 (in The Wealth of Nations) about the odds that the British government would voluntarily give up control over the 13 colonies. Notice his clear distinction between what he thought the British government should do and what he predicted (it turns out correctly) that it would do. This is IV.7.152.

To propose that Great Britain should voluntarily give up all authority over her colonies, and leave them to elect their own magistrates, to enact their own laws, and to make peace and war as they might think proper, would be to propose such a measure as never was, and never will be adopted, by any nation in the world. No nation ever voluntarily gave up the dominion of any province, how troublesome soever it might be to govern it, and how small soever the revenue which it afforded might be in proportion to the expence which it occasioned. Such sacrifices, though they might frequently be agreeable to the interest, are always mortifying to the pride of every nation, and what is perhaps of still greater consequence, they are always contrary to the private interest of the governing part of it, who would thereby be deprived of the disposal of many places of trust and profit, of many opportunities of acquiring wealth and distinction, which the possession of the most turbulent, and, to the great body of the people, the most unprofitable province seldom fails to afford. The most visionary enthusiast would scarce be capable of proposing such a measure with any serious hopes at least of its ever being adopted. If it was adopted, however, Great Britain would not only be immediately freed from the whole annual expence of the peace establishment of the colonies, but might settle with them such a treaty of commerce as would effectually secure to her a free trade, more advantageous to the great body of the people, though less so to the merchants, than the monopoly which she at present enjoys. By thus parting good friends, the natural affection of the colonies to the mother country which, perhaps, our late dissensions have well nigh extinguished, would quickly revive. It might dispose them not only to respect, for whole centuries together, that treaty of commerce which they had concluded with us at parting, but to favour us in war as well as in trade, and, instead of turbulent and factious subjects, to become our most faithful, affectionate, and generous allies; and the same sort of parental affection on the one side, and filial respect on the other, might revive between Great Britain and her colonies, which used to subsist between those of ancient Greece and the mother city from which they descended.

In the following passage, IV.7.161, Smith predicts that the British will lose and that the United States (it didn't have that name then) would become "one of the greatest and most formidable" empires in the world. Not bad for an 18th century armchair economist.
Unless this or some other method is fallen upon, and there seems to be none more obvious than this, of preserving the importance and of gratifying the ambition of the leading men of America, it is not very probable that they will ever voluntarily submit to us; and we ought to consider that the blood which must be shed in forcing them to do so is, every drop of it, blood either of those who are, or of those whom we wish to have for our fellow-citizens. They are very weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call their continental congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps, the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which, they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Tracy W writes:

Noticeably Britain went on to voluntarily give up Australia, Canada and NZ. Indeed, they rather had to nudge NZ out.
Though the level of filial respect they got for it seems to have rather dropped off over the generations.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tracy W,
Good point. And, of course, the big one: India.

David Friedman writes:

You left out my favorite bit of Smith's discussion. He suggests that the best way of getting the leading men of America to give up on independence is to offer the colonies seats in parliament proportional to their contribution to the empire's tax revenue, and goes on to comment that:

"Such has hitherto been the rapid progress of that country in wealth, population, and improvement, that in the course of little more than a century, perhaps, the produce of American might exceed that of British taxation. The seat of the empire would then naturally remove itself to that part of the empire which contributed most to the general defence and support of the whole."

He is predicting, I think correctly although I haven't checked the numbers, that U.S. national income will pass that of the U.K. in the late 19th century. And he is wholly untroubled by the thought that the capital of the combined polity would accordingly move to the New World.

David R. Henderson writes:

@David Friedman,
Wow! Thanks! I think I left it out because when I read Smith, I find myself zoning out and missing important nuggets because of the reading style.
Good job on your site, by the way, of pointing out the key 7 words people often leave out when they claim that Smith was a proponent of “progressive” taxation.

David R. Henderson writes:

Oops. I mean “writing” style.

Dan Hill writes:

@David Henderson
It's a stretch to say the English gave up India voluntarily. Perhaps at the end and not until they messed it up royally with the Partition, but only after two generations of violent suppression of the independence movement.

@Tracy W
"Though the level of filial respect they got for it seems to have rather dropped off over the generations."
That didn't really start until the UK joined the EU. Why should I as an Australian have a soft spot for the UK and the Queen and the other relics of empire when it's harder for me to get into the country than the proverbial Polish plumber?

Gian writes:

Dan Hill,
"two generations of violent suppression of the independence movement."

Violent relative to what?. India had elected provincial governments from 1935.
British hurried to leave India and the date of independence was brought forward from earlier 1948 t 1947 on British initiative.

Tracy W writes:

Gian: I presume Dan Hill meant violent compared with the departure of Australia, NZ and Canada. There was after all the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
(There was a lot of violence against native populations, but that was mostly the colonists' leading, with the British government to some extent trying to protect the natives, or in NZ at least, to a significant extent between the Maori on the side of the colonists and the Maori opposed to colonisation).

Joe Cushing writes:

Yeah, his paragraphs are too long and you don't get a chance to come up for air.

Joe Cushing writes:

I bet an editor could take his work, not change a word and make it more readable.

Ken B writes:

Gibbon is much snappier.

Ken B writes:

@Dan Hill: Good point. When my grandparents got their Canadian passports they listed them as British Subjects Living in Canada. I also believe that Canadians had a right to enter the UK for a long while.

MikeP writes:

Dan Hill,

I second that good point.

Recall as 1997 approached that people from Macau could emigrate to the UK, via Portugal, while people from Hong Kong couldn't.

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