In this article for The Historical Journal, research associate Marc Palen examines how The Wealth of Nations (1776) was transformed into an amorphous text regarding the imperial question throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Adam Smith had left behind an ambiguous legacy on the subject of empire: a legacy that left long-term effects upon subsequent British imperial debates. In his chapter on colonies, Smith had proposed both a scheme for the gradual devolution of the British empire and a theoretical scheme for imperial federation. In response to the growing global popularity of protectionism and imperial expansionism, the rapid development of new tools of globalisation, and the frequent onset of economic downturns throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, turn-of-the-century proponents of British imperial federation formed into a formidable opposition to England’s prevailing free trade orthodoxy — Cobdenism — a free trade ideology which famously expanded upon the anti-imperial dimensions of The Wealth of Nations. Ironically, at the turn of the century many advocates for imperial federation also turned to Smith for their intellectual inspiration. Adam Smith thus became an advocate of empire, and his advocacy left an indelible intellectual mark upon the burgeoning British imperial crisis.
Adam Smith as advocate of empire
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Dr Marc-William PalenLecturer