Adam Smith's Unmerited Censure: Revisiting a Satirical 1764 Pamphlet on Slavery

GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 21-10

American Political Thought, forthcoming

38 Pages Posted: 5 May 2021 Last revised: 3 Dec 2021

See all articles by Daniel B. Klein

Daniel B. Klein

George Mason University - Department of Economics; George Mason University - Mercatus Center

Kendra Asher

George Mason University

Date Written: May 3, 2021

Abstract

We revisit the 1764 anonymous pamphlet, An Essay In Vindication of the Continental Colonies of America, from A Censure of Mr Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. With some Reflections on Slavery in General. The title page says “By an AMERICAN.” The pamphlet has often been misunderstood by modern scholars. On the surface the pamphlet rebuts Adam Smith for his supposed censure of American colonists as base wretches and the refuse of the jails of Europe. But it is clear that Smith was referring specifically to slave ship crews, who often had spent time in jails or faced imprisonment. The pamphlet’s true intent was to honor Smith and to promote his rebuke of the slave trade and slavery in general. The misconstrual of Smith satirizes the miscommunication and misunderstanding between the American colonies and Britain, a problem made inevitable by the Atlantic ocean. Also, this feigned misconstrual leads the reader into the final 40 percent of the pamphlet, where the text suddenly launches into an all-out condemnation of slavery. Indeed, the pamphlet was recognized as such by the American abolitionist Anthony Benezet and the chronicler of the anti-slave-trade movement Thomas Clarkson. Authorship of the pamphlet has been attributed to Arthur Lee. We doubt that attribution and suppose that the invisible hands behind the pamphlet were British satirists of the day.

Keywords: Adam Smith, slave trade, slavery, satire, parody, abolitionist movement, Edmund Burke, esotericism

JEL Classification: B12, B31

Suggested Citation

Klein, Daniel B. and Asher, Kendra, Adam Smith's Unmerited Censure: Revisiting a Satirical 1764 Pamphlet on Slavery (May 3, 2021). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 21-10, American Political Thought, forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3838988 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3838988

Daniel B. Klein (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

HOME PAGE: http://economics.gmu.edu/people/dklein

George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

Kendra Asher

George Mason University ( email )

Fairfax, VA
United States

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