AdamSmithWorks Teaching Resources
Adam Smith and Slavery
At the time the Wealth of Nations was published, the institution of American slavery was in the 157th year of the 246 years of it’s legal legacy. What did Smith, the great moral philosopher, scholarly expert on all aspects of labor, and author of the greatest tome on what leads to the wealth of nations, believe about the institution of slavery?
Smith Scholars have culled his two published works as well as the compilations of class notes and letters of correspondence to gain insight into Smith’s stance on slavery. Their conclusion: he was opposed, and for a variety of reasons. His arguments, while scattered throughout his work, are multiple. Smith saw slavery as inevitable as human nature breeds a preference for dominance, which he believed is exacerbated by wealth and the greater ability to enslave additional human beings.
“Slavery takes place in all societies at their beginning, and proceeds from that tyranic disposition which may almost be said to be natural to mankind…It is indeed all-most impossible that is should ever be totally or generally abolished” (LJ(B) 134, 102)
In the 18th century, it is likely that 100 African slaves were in Scotland; the institution of slavery was abolished in 1778. It is likely that Smith’s elite circle included slave owners or most likely, Scots who prospered as a result of their trading role with American slave holders. Just as he was cautious about publicly speaking out against the church or monarchy, Smith was likely hesitant to take a firm abolitionist stance, with his peers.
In the Wealth of Nations, Smith builds the case for liberty, stating that a labourer should be able to “change his trade as often as he pleases” (WN I.vii.6, I.x.a.1). Additionally he criticizes the excessive shortchanging of apprentices who are not permitted to earn wages and reminds us of how labour markets work: greater competition drives wages down. A further efficiency argument builds the case that slaves have no property rights or “skin in the game” to care about the outcome of their productivity and therefore have lower productivity than the wage earning worker who is able to invest and benefit from his labour (they were all men).
In his life’s project, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith presented our moral development as a process that requires diligence and awareness. To sympathize with slaves, would automatically lead masters to denounce their behavior and to abandon their profitable enterprises. In this sad testament to human nature, Smith reveals why he believed that outcome as unlikely:
Rather than see our own behaviour under so disagreeable an aspect, we too often, foolishly and weakly, endeavour to exasperate anew those unjust passions which had formerly misled us; we endeavour by artifice to awaken our old hatreds, and irritate afresh our almost forgotten resentments: we even exert ourselves for this miserable purpose, and thus persevere in injustice, merely because we once were unjust, and because we are ashamed and afraid to see that we were so” (TMS, III.4.4).
The team at AdamSmithWorks would like to hear from you about the topics you are addressing in your teaching now and what is coming up in the Spring semester. Tell us how any excerpts and works of Adam Smith are being used in your classroom and how we might build useful resource collections to help. We look forward to covering topics that enrich your classroom discussions and readings.
Until next month, stay curious and stay well,
The AdamSmithWorks Team