On May 21st 2020 I delivered a paper called ‘Adam Smith and the Glasgow Tobacco Merchants’ to a specialist Smith studies workshop. It was due to be held in Newcastle, but had to be reconvened online due to the current lockdown conditions.
Abstract: The conceptual distinction between Britain and Greater Britain can be used as a starting point to help shed light on some of the difficulties Adam Smith encountered when scaling up his principles of economic development from the national context to make them suitable for the world of empire. This was certainly the world that dominated the activities of the Glasgow tobacco traders from whom Smith seems to have derived most of his insights into the economic approach of the merchant classes of his day. However, they do not get any explicit mention at all in The Wealth of Nations. They entirely fall through the cracks of two important tensions which its text reveals. The first is between, on the one hand, the overwhelmingly positive interpretation that is placed on the story of Britain’s economic development from feudalism to the mid eighteenth century and, on the other hand, the obvious ambivalence with which he treated the more recent dalliance with the colonial trade. The second is between the generally frenetic denunciation of British colonial adventures in India and the comparative soft-pedalling on the really rather similar activities taking place in its North American colonies. The former appears as an attack in particular on the merchant/political complex embedded in elite London society, whereas the latter offers something approaching a free pass to those same connections in Glasgow. The paper attempts to unpack the tensions contained in such a conspicuous silence, as they seem to run counter to the teachings of Smith’s system. I speculate on the impact that Smith’s known friendships with Glasgow tobacco merchants might have had on what look like potential misfires of his sympathy procedure when writing about the colonial trade of Greater Britain.
On May 11th 2020 I presented a version of the paper that I will be delivering 'in' Newcastle the following week to the online Political Economy Lockdown Seminar Series. The paper was entitled, 'A Failure of System or a Failure of Nerve? Adam Smith's Conspicuous Soft-Pedalling on the Imperial Adventures of Glasgow's Eighteenth-Century Tobacco Merchants'. In it, I focused on the apparent bifurcation in Smith's critique of Empire, in which the activities of the East India Company were subjected to a withering attack, but the activities of the merchants trading within the Atlantic economy were criticised much more gently, despite being different only in degree rather than in type. Smith's obvious contempt for the East India Company resulted from what he had learnt about the way in which it was intertwined with London's commercial interests to disrupt good governance norms, but the Glasgow tobacco merchants he counted amongst his friends and acquaintances were let off lightly by comparison.