How God, Adam Smith, and the invisible hand changes over time

[Cross-posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

So with a suitably provocative title I think we can declare 2012 open. And in starting the year I was struck by how words and sentences can change in meaning over time, particularly prompted by this quote:

“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.”

It looks like an elegant statement of policy intent from a finely crafted presidential speech and we all know what it means. And it was exactly that, but the meaning may not be entirely clear when I tell you that the president was George Washington and the words were uttered in 1789. There is a lot of discussion of what the invisible hand means, or doesn’t mean (e.g. Kennedy 2009), but lets stick with Washington and his first inaugural speech to Congress.

“In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency”

Out of context it could have been any current president. With a little bit of context – here the surrounding sentences – it starts to become a very 18th century statement. That ‘Great Author’ or ‘Providential Agency’ is quite definetly a deity of some form, and then it is left to the rest of us to work out how Washington – who had a copy of Smith’s work on the shelves – had read Adam Smith’s expression of an invisible hand (or some previous reference to it). I’m partial to the religious side, but may have been swayed by Andy Denis (2005) – what do you think?

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About Benjamin
see www.mitrakahn.com

2 Responses to How God, Adam Smith, and the invisible hand changes over time

  1. But George Washington could have taken the notion of “an invisible hand” from any of a dozen or more books on his shelves from predecessors or contemporaries of Adam Smith. It was a popular metaphor among many authors, particularly among theologians and church ministers in their sermons.

    For a list of around forty 17th-18th-century authors using the IH metaphor, see Peter Harrison (an Oxford professor of Theology) in the Journal of the History of ideas, September, 2010). Both Harrison and the memorable Andy Denis (Andy Denis, 1999, ‘Was Adam Smith an Individualist?’ History of the Human Sciences vol. 12,no. 3, August, 71-86), hold the view that Adam Smith was a Calvinist and/or Deist. I do not share religious interpretations of Adam Smith, for reasons explained in my paper: ‘The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology’ Journal of the History Economic Thought, September, Vol 33, no 3, 2011.

    For my earlier views on Adam Smith’s use of the IH metaphor, see: Kennedy: 2009: ‘Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: from Metaphor to Myth’, Econ Journal Watch, vol 6, no 2, May 2009, pp 239-263 HERE http://econjwatch.org/articles/adam-smith-and-the-invisible-hand-from-metaphor-to-myth

    For more my recent statements, see: http://www.adamsmithslostlegacy.com, passim, 2010-11.

  2. Benjamin says:

    I can’t say much more than thank you Gavin, some really good stuff here (as ever) and I agree that he could have taken it from any number of sources – and having not read your EJW article I have just downloaded it and plan to spend the weekend with it.

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