I posit, but can't prove, that James Wilson, one of the leaders of the Federalist Party, learnt his jurisprudence at the feet of Adam Smith.

 

Share

Professor Iain McLean unearths secrets of Adam Smith's lost work on jurisprudence

15 November 2019

Some of the secrets of Adam Smith's lost work on jurisprudence were brought to light in a FLJS lecture at Wolfson College this week by Senior Research Fellow in Politics Professor Iain McLean

Adam Smith is renowned as a founding father of economics, yet he also worked for decades on a book that would have spanned the ground between his moral philosophy and his sociological and economic writing. This was lost to posterity when Smith ordered his manuscripts to be destroyed from his deathbed. However, two students at the University of Glasgow took extensive notes from his lecture series on jurisprudence, otherwise known as his 'Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms'. These thoughts on 'Police, Revenue and Arms' went on to form his most famous work The Wealth of Nations, yet his thinking on justice was never published.

Professor McLean situated the development of Smith's thought on jurisprudence in the context of the Scottish Enlightenment, and, emerging as it does from a stadial view of history by which society develops in a series of stages (hunter-gatherer, pastoral, crop-growing, commercial) based on modes of production, posited that he was an important influence on Karl Marx a century later.

Professor McLean showed that eighteenth-century Scottish thought was heavily influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch philosophy, which rejected theology as a basis for morals, law, and history. Smith's ideas on justice owed much to the Dutch philosopher Grotius, who he cites in the final sentence of his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but he rejected the social contractarian ideals of Rousseau.

Smith outlined a theory of universality and impartiality in order to arrive at a jurisprudence based on the view of the impartial observer, from which could be derived a legal system in the interests of all.

Professor McLean concluded his lecture with a tantalising insight into the potential influence of Smith's thought on the new republic of the United States. He showed that one James Wilson had signed the registry of attendance at Smith's lectures in Glasgow, and that this signature bore a close resemblance to that of a certain James Wilson, later a Justice of the US Supreme Court, who had been a signatory to both the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution:

I posit, but can't prove, that James Wilson, one of the leaders of the Federalist Party, learnt his jurisprudence at the feet of Adam Smith.

 

The lecture was followed by a day of in-depth discussion of Smith's jurisprudence at a workshop of experts in constitutional law, politics and philosophy.

A podcast of the lecture will be available from our Podcast pages next week.