America & Mr. Smith – Full Video
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America & Mr. Smith – Full Video

We all know about the Founders who created this nation. Men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and others. But there was another man who was very important to making the United States the nation it is today; a man who never set foot in America. His name was Adam Smith. His ideas flow through the heart of the American Constitution, and America’s economic system. He has had a powerful effect on all of our lives. He recorded his revolutionary ideas in two remarkable books: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Smith was fascinated with the American colonies, and his ideas influenced America’s founding principles. Today we’ll explore the connection between America & Mr. Smith. Adam Smith was born in 1723, in the small seaside town of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, where he learned about morality and economics at the local merchants’ market. He studied at Glasgow University, became its top administrator, and then a pillar of the unlikely intellectual revolution called the Scottish Enlightenment. He lived, lectured and socialized in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh. Smith was at the height of his influence during the years when the colonies were causing all kinds of problems with Great Britain. Smith thought that the Americans were victims of the mercantilist system. That Britain was trying to extract wealth from America and make sure that no wealth went from Britain to America. Smith gets caught up in this debate, and becomes closely involved. The Parliament of Great Britain insists upon taxing the colonies; and they refuse to be taxed by a Parliament in which they are not represented. Smith is widely respected, very well connected, and feels that the way Britain deals with the American colonies is very important not just for the colonies, but for Britain as well. Is a commonwealth, a free trade zone with America, is that possible? Because he believed that the best for both sides would be open and free trade. This is one of the most hotly debated and difficult problems that any British government has ever had to face. Smith listens to the debates on the American issue in the British Parliament. He even lobbies politicians, urging them to let go of their mercantilist thinking and keep Americans on friendly terms with open trade and migration. In fact, he speculates that America could one day be the seat of the capital of Great Britain. Yet war is clearly on the horizon in which thousands of British troops will be sent to die on a faraway shore. It will be a very unpopular and costly war. In Smith’s day, the military is the government’s single largest expense. And this is one reason why. This is the H.M.S. Victory, on which Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the French Navy, and lost his own life, at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It’s been beautifully restored and rests here in Portsmouth, England. Built at a cost in excess of what would be 75 million U.S. dollars today, the Victory was a deadly floating gun platform with 100 bronze cannons on three decks. She carried four acres of canvas and made battle speeds of eight knots. Launched in 1765, this ship had a crew of 821 men. The Royal Navy in those days had more than 500 active ships, and 140,000 seamen, plus huge homeport facilities in England to maintain and repair all those ships. Smith has run the numbers in detail- as he always did- and he really couldn’t see any way in which the colonies would ever be profitable to Britain. Controlling colonies, just to monopolize trade, would never pay. As we all know, the British government didn’t adopt Adam Smith’s views on the colonies. But he felt so passionately about it that he concludes The Wealth of Nations with them as an example. In 1776, just months before America’s seething discontent bursts into outright rebellion, The Wealth of Nations is published. The book was very popular in America right from the start, and many of the Founders had copies. Colonial Americans found Smith very interesting because they were starting a new country, and his books- especially The Wealth of Nations- offered them a blueprint on how to create a nation. The Founders were dealing with things like how to structure a government, an economy, the banking system, the church, the military. And Smith had a lot of things to say on all these points. So does the United States follow Smith’s principles? The answer can be found here, at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Its holdings include more than 32 million cataloged books and other print materials, and the largest rare book collection in North America. Included in the collections is the personal library of Founder, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and a lifelong admirer of Adam Smith. His library at the time numbered 6,487 volumes. Mark Dimunation is chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. Certainly, one thing you can learn by looking at Jefferson’s library is the pervasiveness of Enlightenment philosophy and intellectual conversation that plays throughout the creation of the American government. In fact, you could claim that Jefferson’s book collection brings the Enlightenment to America. In 1814, the British attacked and burned Washington. On learning of the burning of the capital and the loss of the 3,000-volume Library of Congress, Jefferson offers Congress his personal library as a replacement. And in 1815, a gentlemen arrived with horse drawn wagons, took a collection that took Jefferson 50 years to build, left him in Monticello. He never saw his books again, never went to Washington again. But a second fire, on Christmas Eve in 1851 destroyed two-thirds of those volumes. Through a private grant, the Library of Congress is now reassembling Jefferson’s library, as it was when he sold it to Congress 200 years ago. It was the entire world of Thomas Jefferson’s mind, the understanding of the roots of so much of what influences American culture; the nature of the Constitution; the nature of the revolution; the foundation of separation of church and state; the whole philosophy of politics as it is in the United States is embedded in that collection. One book that has survived is Thomas Jefferson’s original copy of The Wealth of Nations. This is the three-volume set of Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. These are books that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. He writes a lot about his reading but he very rarely marks his books. There’s no underlining here; there’s no, “good idea”– “use in the Declaration of Independence.” There’s nothing like that. So you really have to read what Jefferson says about books in order to understand what he gains from them. Jefferson didn’t just read Smith’s book; he frequently studied it, referenced it, and recommended it to others. In a letter to John Norvell, Jefferson writes: “If your views of political enquiry go further to the subjects of money and commerce, Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the best book to be read. There has to have been a moment in which Jefferson and Hamilton had a conversation that was at least laced with Smithian philosophy if nothing else whether they identified him or not. This is a book however that- that Jefferson would take seriously. But Jefferson wasn’t the only Smith devotee among the Founders. James Madison, considered the principal author of the Constitution, was also an admirer. I think of Madison as having a view of government very similar to Smith’s in a very, very deep way. Sam Fleischhacker has written extensively about Adam Smith’s influences in colonial America. Both Madison and Smith believed that human beings are strongly motivated by self-interest, but also capable of virtue, and that what you want to do is design institutions such that- first of all- freedom is protected, whether people are acting in a self-interested fashion or not. And secondly, they have the opportunity to develop their virtues. So the Founders certainly knew of Smith and his works. But to what extent did Smith influence the American character? Is the United States “Smithian?” I think the United States is Smithian in its bones. Smith fits extremely well with the vision of the Founders, and indeed, of the vision of most Americans from that time till our own. And what you see in the Constitution is an attempt to implement and integrate into a governmental plan some of the ideas Smith had, about what could allow for a prosperous society. Every man is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty (for which) no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people. The United States sees itself and talks about itself as a land of opportunity. That’s really the Smithian vision in a nutshell. You have a limited government with a few but specific and robust protections. Much of the actual work of making your life better was left to the individuals. But to do that in a way that was stable; to do it in a way that had long-term benefits; to do it in a way in which there weren’t simply the concerns of the moment- but to have a lasting constitutional order. This, I think, binds the American Founders to the Scots, and especially to Smith in a deep way. Well, here you have a groundbreaking book in how to run an economy. And more than that- it’s really a general book on politics. So it makes a good deal of sense that these people who were founding a new country would look over to the best work in the Enlightenment. Not just to Smith, but to the other great social scientists of the day- as it were- and be particularly interested in them. Ideas matter. When faced with the challenge of how to create and structure a new nation, the Founders turned to the Enlightenment- and to Adam Smith- for guidance.

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