“THE FIRST AND GREATEST CLASSIC OF MODERN ECONOMIC THOUGHT”: 1776 FIRST EDITION OF ADAM SMITH’S WEALTH OF NATIONS, THE LANDMARK MANIFESTO ON THE INDIVIDUAL’S RIGHT TO FREE ENTERPRISE
SMITH, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, 1776. Two volumes. Large quarto, contemporary full tree calf sympathetically rebacked, elaborately gilt-decorated spine, raised bands, red and brown morocco spine labels, marbled endpapers.
First edition of Smith’s masterpiece, the most important work in modern economic thought, in beautiful contemporary full tree calf-gilt boards.
“Wealth of Nations, after more than 12 years of preparation, finally came out in 1776… the historical importance of the Wealth of Nations is surpassed by no other economic book… Smith, for the first time, put together the body of economic knowledge that can still be recognized as an early form of what today may be called mainstream economics… There is little in Jean-Baptiste Say, Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill that is not, more or less directly, an elaboration of Adam Smith” (Niehans, A History of Economic Theory, 62-72). “Where the political aspects of human rights had taken two centuries to explore, Smith’s achievement was to bring the study of economic aspects to the same point in a single work… The certainty of its criticism and its grasp of human nature have made it the first and greatest classic of modern economic thought” (PMM 221). Buckle’s History of Civilization calls the Wealth of Nations “probably the most important book which has ever been written, whether we consider the amount of original thought which it contains, or its practical influence,” while English political economist J. A. R. Mariott claimed that “there is probably no single work in the language which has in its day exercised an influence so profound alike upon scientific economic thought and upon administrative action. There is every reason why it should exercise it still.”
Smith’s work was important to the crisis evolving in the American colonies, and later, to the development of the new nation. Smith’s treatise touches on the situation in America at some length, and it has been surmised that “publication was timed to seize Parliament’s attention, and influence members to support a peaceful resolution of the American conflict. America offered a major point of application for free-market theory, and if Smith could win supporters, there was some hope of ending the cycle of violence induced by efforts to preserve the old colonial system involving economic restraints and prohibitions” (Alan Simpson Ross). “Both Smith and American statesmen were trying to devise social systems in accord with the spirit of natural law. They believed that the principles of social organization conducive to harmonious relations among men and between men and their government are inherent in and may be deduced form the natural forces that motivate men’s behavior. The Declaration of Independence refers to ‘the laws of nature.’ Smith believed that man’s ‘disposition to truck, barter and exchange’ would, given a policy of laissez faire, cause the self-interest of the individual to promote the larger interests of society” (Robert Hetzel).
In fact, Smith showed uncanny prescience when he wrote in Wealth of Nations: “They are weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call their continental congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.”
Smith’s influence may indeed have been greatest in the fledgling United States. “Smith never visited America, but his writings were read by many of the country’s founding fathers, including Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Jay. Though these men were familiar with Smith’s theories, he was not given many citations in their own writings… However, many of Smith’s ideas were right for America, and they were adopted and implemented” (Roy Smith). “Madison read it, and Alexander Hamilton borrowed heavily from it in his Report on Manufactures. There are numerous references to Smith in the letters of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote in 1790 in a letter to Thomas Mann Randolph: ‘in political economy I think Smith’s Wealth of Nations the best book extant” (Hetzel). “No printing record of the first edition has survived, but it is probable that the press run was either 500 or 750 copies” (Tribe, ed., Critical Bibliography of Adam Smith, 19). Without terminal blank leaf in Volume I; without half title in Volume II (none was ever printed for Volume I); errata on verso of second title page; Cadell’s advertisement on p. 588 of Volume II. PMM 221. Goldsmith 11392. Grolier English 57. Kress 7261. Rothschild 1897. Faint early library blindstamp in margins of first and last few leaves in each volume.
Pages exceptionally clean and crisp with only lightest scattered foxing to occasional leaves. A beautiful, wide-margined copy.