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ELH 72.2 (2005) 429-451
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Adam Smith's Missing History:
Primitives, Progress, and Problems of Genre
Every Man who studies himself or others, must be sensible of a tendency or propensity in the mind, to complete every work that is begun, and to carry things to their full perfection.
On the night of July 11 1790, a few days before his death, Adam Smith ordered his two literary executors, Joseph Black and James Hutton, to burn all of his manuscripts, with the exception of a handful of essays.1 He thus ensured that, barring these short pieces, no incomplete work would be posthumously added to the two monuments of his career, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776).
While the contents of the lost manuscript volumes cannot be known with absolute certainty, the evidence points strongly to their containing versions, or portions, of two long works, one a treatise on the "History of Law and Government," and the other a study of "the different branches of Literature." These are the "two . . . great works" Smith described as "upon the anvil" in his letter of 1 November 1785 to the Duc de La Rochefoucauld.2 Detailed student notes from Smith's lecture courses on jurisprudence and on literature and rhetoric later surfaced, collected as the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres and the Lectures on Jurisprudence, and give us some access to Smith's thought on these topics. However, the absence of these two projected works on literature and legal-political history still makes for an enormous gap in Smith's oeuvre. In effect, I want to argue, this failure to complete the projects and the destruction of his papers mean that Smith's corpus can be seen as defined, to an extraordinary degree, by the major absences of these long-meditated works, as well as by the accomplishments of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. These absences in Smith's oeuvre necessarily shape our understanding of the work that we do have from his hand, and generate a number of pressing questions. Why, for example, did [End Page 429] Smith find it so difficult to bring his thinking on literature and history to fruition in a major work—a Theory of Literature or a History of Civil Society—that would be companion works to his two other great treatises on ethics and economic systems?
Looking at his early career, one would indeed have far sooner expected major works on literature and history from Smith than on economic theory. His education at Oxford had consisted in large part of steeping in classical and recent European literature, he began his career as a man of letters, giving three series of public lectures on rhetoric in Edinburgh from 1748 to 1751, and by all accounts Smith made the study of rhetoric and literature an important part of his classes throughout his career at the University of Glasgow (1751–1763) after he was appointed Professor of Logic in 1751, and then Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1752.3 Smith was similarly deeply involved in thinking about questions of historiography from early on in his career. His thinking about the history of forms of government had occupied him from at least 1759 on: the study of law and government he mentions to La Rochefoucauld had in fact been promised to the public in the closing lines of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and he lectured on jurisprudence at the University of Glasgow throughout the 1750s and early 1760s.4 From 1754 to 1762 he also had the great example of his friend David Hume's six-volume History of England appearing in installments, to progressively greater public acclaim. Why then, given the quality of his surviving contributions to the theory of history in the Lectures, did Smith fail to complete the projected treatise on the history of laws and political institutions?
Critical commentary on Smith has of course frequently lamented these...