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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 January 2014

History Department, University of Exeter and US Studies Centre, University of Sydney
History Department, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4


This article 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 globalization, 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.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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I am grateful to Anthony Howe, Duncan Bell, and the journal's anonymous referees for their helpful comments and suggestions, to International Security Studies, Yale University, for its support, and to the 2013 British Scholar Conference attendees for their feedback.


1 Reprinted in Bennett, George, ed., The concept of empire: Burke to Attlee, 1774–1947 (London, 1962; orig. edn, 1953), pp. 165–6Google Scholar.

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8 For studies of the connection between imperialism and technological advancements, see Lewis Pyenson, ‘Science and imperialism’, in Olby, Robert Cecil and Cantor, Geoffrey N., eds., Companion to the history of modern science (London and New York, NY, 1990)Google Scholar; Boyce, Robert W. D., ‘Imperial dreams and national realities: Britain, Canada, and the struggle for a Pacific telegraph cable, 1879–1902’, English Historical Review, 115 (2000), pp. 3970CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Headrick, Daniel, The tools of empire (New York, NY, 1981)Google Scholar; Headrick, Daniel, The tentacles of progress: technology transfer in the age of imperialism, 1850–1940 (Oxford, 1988)Google Scholar; Headrick, Daniel, The invisible weapon: telecommunications and international politics, 1851–1945 (Oxford, 1991)Google Scholar; and Drayton, Richard, ‘Science and the European empires’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 23 (1995), pp. 503–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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10 Knorr called Smith's theories on colonies ‘the most revolutionary advance in the evolution of British thought’ in his analysis of the subject. See Knorr, Klaus E., British colonial theories, 1570–1850 (Toronto, 1963; orig. edn, 1944), pp. 175–95Google Scholar. Other good summaries of Adam Smith and imperialism can be found, among others, in Muthu, Sankar, Enlightenment against empire (Princeton, NJ, 2003)Google Scholar; Pitts, Jennifer, A turn to empire: the rise of imperial liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, NJ, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hont, Istvan, Jealousy of trade: international competition and the nation state in historical perspective (Cambridge, MA, 2005)Google Scholar; Skinner, Andrew S., ‘Adam Smith and the American economic community an essay in applied economics’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 37 (1976), pp. 5978CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Winch, Donald, Riches and poverty: an intellectual history of political economy in Britain, 1750–1834 (Cambridge, 1996)Google Scholar; Winch, Donald, Classical political economy and colonies (Cambridge, MA, 1965)Google Scholar; and Winch, Donald, Adam Smith's politics: an essay in historiographic revision (Cambridge, 1978)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 I should note that the analysis and examples included herein are by no means exhaustive, but illustrative of the turn-of-the-century usage of Adam Smith's advocacy of imperial federation.

12 Bell, Idea of Greater Britain, p. 66.

13 Winch, Smith's politics, p. 148.

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15 Knorr, British colonial theories, pp. 187–94. Gerard M. Koot points to a more general crisis over Adam Smith's legacy during this period in English historical economics, 1870–1926: the rise of economic history and neomercantilism (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 10–14.

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20 Trentmann, Frank, Free trade nation: commerce, consumption, and civil society in modern Britain (Oxford and New York, NY, 2008), p. 2Google Scholar; Trentmann, Frank, ‘Political culture and political economy: interest, ideology and free trade’, Review of International Political Economy, 5 (1998), pp. 217–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a provocative interpretation of imperialism and British socialism during the period covered here, see Claeys, Gregory, Imperial sceptics: British critics of empire, 1850–1920 (Cambridge, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Matthew, H. C. G., The liberal imperialists: the ideas and politics of a post-Gladstonian elite (London, 1973)Google Scholar; McKibbin, Ross, The evolution of the Labour party, 1910–1924 (New York, NY, 1974)Google Scholar; and Morris, A. J. A., Edwardian radicalism, 1900–1914: some aspects of British radicalism (Boston, MA, 1974)Google Scholar.

21 As Anthony Howe describes, ‘only slowly was the discontent of agrarians, manufacturers, and imperial federationists fused, under the aegis of Britain's historical economists, into the Tariff Reform assault on the body of Cobdenism pronounced dead a decade earlier’ in the 1890s. Howe, Free trade and liberal England, p. 195.

22 Smith, Adam, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations (Edinburgh, 1843; orig. edn, 1776), pp. 251, 254Google Scholar.

23 Smith, Wealth of nations, p. 259.

24 Goldwin Smith was the most outspoken Cobdenite advocate of British decolonization, and was prone to referencing Adam Smith to support his argument. Duncan Bell notes that Goldwin Smith was himself ‘highly selective’ in employing ‘Smithian arguments against the economic viability of the colonial system’. Bell, Idea of Greater Britain, p. 198. For such usage, see for instance Goldwin Smith, The empire (Oxford and London, 1863), pp. xvi–xvii, 21–3, 113.

25 Smith, Wealth of nations, pp. 255, 258.

26 Ibid., p. 258; Guttridge, G. H., ‘Adam Smith on the American Revolution: an unpublished memorial’, American Historical Review, 38 (1933), pp. 714–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Skinner, Andrew S., ‘Adam Smith and the American Revolution’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 7 (1977), pp. 7587Google Scholar.

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29 Brown, Tariff Reform movement; Kendle, John E., The round table movement and imperial union (Toronto and Buffalo, 1975)Google Scholar; Palen, ‘Protection, federation and union’; Palen, ‘The conspiracy of free trade’, ch. 8.

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37 Greswell, ‘Imperial federation’, pp. 3–5.

38 Ibid., pp. 9, 11–12.

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50 Miller, Some phases, pp. 5, 2, 4. This Cobdenite logic was of course quite in keeping with Smith's proposal for imperial decolonization.

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62 J. Shield Nicholson, introduction to Friedrich List, The national system of political economy, trans. Sampson S. Lloyd (London, 1904; orig. edn, 1885), pp. xxvi–xxvii. Koot even places Nicholson, albeit with caveats, in the English ‘historical economist’ camp and briefly touches upon his imperial project. Koot, English historical economics, pp. 155–9.

63 Nicholson, J. Shield, A project of empire: a critical study of the economics of imperialism, with special reference to the ideas of Adam Smith (London, 1909), pp. xxiGoogle Scholar. For criticism of Nicholson's nationalist-imperialist interpretation, see especially Knorr, British colonial theories, pp. 187–94.

64 F. S. Oliver, ‘Mr. Shield Nicholson's “project of empire”’, London Times, 5 Jan. 1910, p. 5.

65 Howe, Free trade and liberal England, pp. 280–1; Wood, British economists, p. 116.

66 Trentmann, Free trade nation; Trentmann, ‘The strange death of free trade: the erosion of the “liberal consensus” in Britain, c. 1903–1932’, in Eugenio F. Biagini, ed., Citizenship and community: liberals, radicals, and collective identities in the British isles, 1865–1931 (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 219–50; Howe, Free trade and liberal England, ch. 8; Young, Ralph A., ‘British imperial preference and the American tariff’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 141 (1929), pp. 204–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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