Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-vpsfw Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-18T19:21:31.507Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 October 2014

Department of English, Concordia University, Montreal E-mail:


This essay shows how Adam Smith addressed concerns about economic decline not only by proposing quantifiable categories through which relative decline could be measured, but also by characterizing the century as the proper timescale in which such quantities could be observed. What sometimes appears up close to be a process of decline and fall, Smith suggested, could, with a shift to a more distant long view, be explained instead as part of a normal business cycle. William Playfair then used Smith's emphasis on quantification to develop elaborate graphic techniques—what we now call the time-series line graph and the pie chart—to visualize more easily the patterns Smith sought to identify. Collectively, the reordering of temporal scale by Smith and Playfair helps us to rethink not only discourses of decline, but also our understanding of the temporalities of political economy as a problem of historical distance that needs to be thought about beyond temporal terms.

Forum: Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge, MA, 1987), 6Google Scholar.

2 Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge, MA, 1994)Google Scholar; see especially “Historia Magistra Vitae: The Dissolution of the Topos into the Perspective of a Modernized Historical Process,” 21–38, and “‘Space of Experience’ and ‘Horizon of Expectation’: Two Historical Categories,” 267–88.

3 Pocock, J. G. A., Virtue, Commerce, and History (Cambridge, 1985), 98, 99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Quoted by Winch, Donald, Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750–1834 (Cambridge, 1996), 50Google Scholar. The reply also gives Winch the title of a subsequent essay on Smith. See Winch, “A Great Deal of Ruin in a Nation,” in Clarke, Peter and Trebilcock, Clive, eds., Understanding Decline: Perceptions and Realities of British Economic Performance (Cambridge, 1997), 3048Google Scholar.

5 Winch, “A Great Deal of Ruin in a Nation,” 39, 45.

6 Bailyn, Bernard, “1776 a Year of Challenge: A World Transformed,” Journal of Law and Economics, 19/3 (Oct. 1976), 437–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar, characterizes 1776 as a watershed year for its particular interpellation of “challenges of force and of statecraft” (at 445) with intellectual events like Gibbon's Decline and Fall and Smith's Wealth of Nations, but also Thomas Paine's Common Sense, Richard Price's Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, and Jeremy Bentham's Fragment on Government. For Bailyn, who relates all of these events to economic and demographic shifts building through the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century, this a “year of extraordinary, world-transforming challenges in every sphere of life—in ideology, in politics, in government, in religion, in economics, in law, in the uses of military force, and in the basic principles of international relations. In the annals of western history there is probably no equivalent annus mirabilis, so far-reaching in its challenges and in the range of its ultimate consequences” (at 445).

7 This is one of the central arguments of Foucault's The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1970), and recurs repeatedly throughout as, for example, when Foucault claims that for “eighteenth-century thought, chronological sequences are merely a property and a more or less blurred expression of the order of beings; from the nineteenth century, they express, in a more or less direct fashion, and even in their interruptions, the profoundly historical mode of being of things and men” (at 276).

8 Here, as will become clear, I follow Mark Phillips's recent work on historical distance, which distinguishes four overlapping distances—“form, affect, summoning, and understanding”—that combine “in various ways to shape our experience of time” and “provide an orientation to some of the central problems of historical representation” (6). See Phillips, On Historical Distance (New Haven, 2013). For an earlier version of this argument, see Phillips, “Rethinking Historical Distance: From Doctrine to Heuristic,” History and Theory, 50 (Dec. 2011), 11–23; for further reflection on historical distance, see the articles collected in the special issue on Historical Distance: Reflections on a Metaphor, History and Theory, 50 (Dec. 2011), 1–149.

9 Although I do not explore the issue in this essay, the temporal rescaling that I discuss might also be linked to other contemporary practices and discourses, notably to Levi-Strauss's concept of the “historian's code” in his debate with Sartre in the 1950s; to the large-scale history of the Annales school and the recent revival of interest in the Mediterranean as a category sparked by Horton, Peregrine and Purcell's, NicholasThe Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar; to the genre of microhistory (for a recent and revealing essay on microhistory in relation to questions of scale and historical distance see Brewer, John, “Microhistories and the Histories of Everyday Life,” Cultural and Social History, 7/1 (2010), 87110)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and, finally, to recent debates in literature about the scale and pace of reading as evidenced, for example, in concepts of distant reading (Moretti) and surface reading (Best and Marcus). See Franco, Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London, 2005)Google Scholar; and the essays edited by Marcus, Sharon and Stephen Best for a special issue on The Way We Read Now, Representations, 108 (2009), 1146Google Scholar.

10 Sonensher, Michael, Before the Deluge (Princeton, 2007), 6Google Scholar.

11 Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. Womersley, David, 3 vols. (London, 1994), 1: 103Google Scholar. Further references to this edition will be cited parenthetically in the text.

12 See Momigliano, Arnoldo, “Declines and Falls,” American Scholar, 49 (1980), 3750Google Scholar.

13 Pocock, Barbarism and Religion: The First Decline and Fall, vol. 3 (Cambridge, 2003), 304.

14 Ibid., 314.

15 Koselleck, Reinhart, “Historia Magistra Vitae: The Dissolution of the Topos into the Perspective of a Modernized Historical Process,” in Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Tribe, Keith (Cambridge, MA, 1985), 2138Google Scholar.

16 Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Cannan, Edwin (Chicago, 1976), 426Google Scholar. Further page references to this edition will be provided parenthetically in the text.

17 “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour” (WN, 7).

18 Forbes, Duncan, “‘Scientific’ Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Millar,” Cambridge Journal, 7 (1954), 643–70, 649Google Scholar.

19 Phillipson, Nicholas, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (New Haven, 2010)Google Scholar.

20 Phillips, On Historical Distance.

21 Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Raphael, D. D. and Macfie, A. L. (Indianapolis, 1982), 110Google Scholar.

22 Ibid., 110, emphasis mine.

23 Dwyer, John, “Ethics and Economics: Bridging Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations,” Journal of British Studies, 44 (Oct. 2005), 662–87, 679CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 For further elaboration of this point, see essays in this forum by Mark Phillips and John Brewer.

25 This point brings to mind Zhou Enlai's response when asked in the early 1970s about the impact of the French Revolution: “Too early to say.” Though this is now thought to have been a mistranslation of a question about the 1968 uprisings in Paris, the point stands.

26 Miller, Mary Ashburn, A Natural History of Revolution (Ithaca, NY, 2011), 10, original emphasisCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 On this point, see Rudwick, Martin, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (Chicago, 2005), 127–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Ibid., 131, original emphasis.

29 McLane, Maureen and Slatkin, Laura, “British Romantic Homer: Oral Tradition, ‘Primitive Poetry’ and the Emergence of Comparative Poetics in Britain, 1760–1830,” ELH, 78 (2011), 687714, 703CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Thompson, E. P., “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present, 38/1 (1967), 5697CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Priestley, Joseph, A Description of a New Chart of History, 6th edn (London, 1786), 8 (emphasis original)Google Scholar.

32 Ibid., 11.

33 Ibid., 16.

34 William Playfair was the younger brother of John Playfair, the champion of James Hutton's Theory of the Earth who became professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. William's career, however, was much less conventional than that of his older brother. While John stayed in Scotland, William apprenticed with Matthew Boulton and James Watt in Birmingham, abandoned engineering for enterprise, and set off for France, where his Commercial and Political Atlas had attracted the attention of Louis XVI. In France, he stayed through the Revolution (he was rumoured to have stormed the Bastille), became involved in the notorious Scioto land swindle, and left to escape prosecution just before the Terror. Back in London, his various enterprises included a bank, a newspaper, gun-carriage making, and a series of dubious efforts to supplement his income by blackmail, extortion, and one outright swindle that led to his conviction at the Court of King's Bench in 1805, the same year that he published his Inquiry and the first critical edition of Smith's Wealth of Nations, which included corrections and extensions of Smith's ideas. See entry for Playfair, William, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 200411), consulted 3 May 2011Google Scholar.

35 On Playfair as a graphic innovator see Tufte, Edward R., The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, CT, 1983), especially chap. 1 on “Graphical Excellence,” 1351Google Scholar.

36 In this, Playfair differs from Smith, who insisted that the relevant metric should be the annual balance of production and consumption and not the balance of trade. Both, however, agree on the need to consider annual figures over longer periods of time, most often a century.

37 Playfair, Permanent Causes, xv.

38 Grafton, Anthony and Rosenberg, Daniel, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (Princeton, 2010), 136Google Scholar.

39 Koselleck, Futures Past, 5.

40 Playfair, Permanent Causes, xvi.

41 Ibid., xv–xvi.

42 Playfair, Commercial and Political Atlas of Great Britain, 3rd edn (London, 1801), xiv.