Adam Smith’s Condemnation of Slavery, 1759

Adam Smith fulminated against the injustice of slavery in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, speaking of the slave traders as the refuse of the jails of Europe:

There is not a negro from the coast of Africa who does not, in this respect, possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving. Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished. (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 206-7)

Smith fully endorses the contempt that the victims felt for their oppressors, and he leads his readers to feel contempt for the slavers. Smith frames his condemnation in a way so as to induce British readers to sympathize and identify with the victims of the slavers. He suggests that compared to the French and Italians, the British are less refined and amiable but more respectable. If Britons felt an invidious pride in being told that they were a step above the French and Italians in the respectable virtues, then they might notice that Smith implies that the Africans are five steps above them.

Smith’s words helped to advance the cause of the anti-slavery movement. For example, they were quoted by a number of works, including Thomas Clarkson’s famous two-volume account of the abolitionist movement, The History of the Rise, Progress, & Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-trade, by the British Parliament (1808).

In the following video, Jonas Grafström and I discuss Smith’s remarkable sentences:

This conversation is based on my article, “Adam Smith’s Rebuke of the Slave Trade, 1759,” published in The Independent Review (Summer 2020).

Smith is not the only Scottish professor that Clarkson paid tribute to in his 1808 work. He also noted that Smith’s University of Glasgow teacher Francis Hutcheson and Smith’s Glasgow student John Millar aided the cause against slavery, as well as William Robertson at Edinburgh University. Clarkson could have noted, as well, Gershom Carmichael, who was Hutcheson’s teacher at Glasgow. A long line of liberal moral philosophers helped to persuade their fellow citizens of the rank injustice of slavery. And there remains at least one good liberal at Glasgow, the Adam Smith Senior Lecturer Craig Smith, who has lately published the best primer on the great man, Adam Smith, a book that Don Boudreaux has been commending.

Daniel B. Klein is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute, and Chief Editor of Econ Journal Watch.
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