An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations


It was the publication in 1776 of Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations that marked the beginning of the ideological revolution explored in this article. Political economy had been much debated in the previous hundred years, but Smith’s formulation set the terms of discussion and over the next fifty years displaced a centuries-old rhetoric of economic values that had celebrated moderation, restraint, stewardship, and charity over greed, lust, and self-interest. During the American revolutionary era, when restless colonial elites began crafting explanations for their independence project, the publication of Smith’s treatise on political economy put into play a new framework for considering the wealth of nations. This new framework resonated as a scientific discourse alongside the equally important new “science of politics” made famous by the revolutionary Whigs. It resonated as well with the new sciences of nature that lately had been exposing immutable “laws” by which human beings now explained their physical world. In each realm—economy, politics, and the natural world—scientific reasoning promised to disable the tyranny of ancient prerogatives, superstitions, illegitimate customs, and fantastical explanations. These new scientific perspectives sometimes intersected directly and sometimes influenced each other only by induction.