The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

January 2003

AAP Homepage

Emma Rothschild

Economic Sentiments

Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment

Chapter 4: Apprenticeship and Insecurity

Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001

Text pp. 87-115, Notes 283-288


A Strange Adventure

It Is But Equity, Besides

Corporations and Competition

Education and Apprenticeship

A State of Nonage

The Apprenticeship: A Digression on the Slave Trade

Uncertain Jurisprudence

History and Institutions


A Strange Adventure

Adam Smith was an unrelenting critic of apprenticeship, and his views were invoked by the opponents and supporters of apprenticeship schemes in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  They were indeed the subject of the very earliest controversy over the Wealth of Nations, some weeks before it was first published in London in March 1776.  “Here is a strange adventure,” the abbé Morellet wrote to Turgot on February 26; he relates that as he was waiting, earlier in the day, for the proofs of his translation of “the piece by Mr. Smith” - a section of the early chapter of the Wealth of Nations dealing with corporations and apprenticeships - he received news that the manuscript had instead been seized by the police, and was deemed to be worthy of burning. [1]  Morellet’s translation, which had been commissioned by Turgot, was somewhat approximate; he speaks of various “transpositions,” including bringing together Smith’s remarks on the “difficulty of the art of agriculture” and on the “uselessness of apprenticeships.” [2]  But this “chapter of an English work on corporations,” as the diarist Métra described it, was seen as a contribution to Turgot’s criticism of established power; “one could never get permission” for its publication. [3]

My object, in this chapter, is to look at the arguments Smith put forward against apprenticeship, which took the entirely characteristic form, for Smith, of asserting that the institution of apprenticeship was both inefficient and unjust.  Smith’s criticism of apprenticeship regulations, together with his criticism of regulations on the corn trade, was at the heart of his view of economic reform.  Like Turgot’s reform edicts on the mastership guilds and on the regulation of corn, they together suggested an inclusive system of commercial freedom: for industry and for agricul-


ture, and for the commerce in labor as well as for the commerce in commodities.  Smith’s observations on corporations - on the silk weavers of London, the cutlers of Sheffield, the “universities” of master smiths, the ancient corporations of bakers, and other partial associations of trades - have attracted much less attention, at least since the late nineteenth century, than his observations on food.  This is a consequence, in part, of the conclusive success of efforts to reform the old apprenticeship corporations, both in England and in France.  The historian, searching the past for the seeds of the present, has little interest in disputes over long-forgotten institutions and long-concluded controversies. [4]  But the reception of Smith’s views of apprenticeship played a critical role, as will be seen, in the remarkable transformation in his reputation in the decades following his death in 1790.

Index or Notes

It Is But Equity, Besides

Smith’s arguments about apprenticeship were part of a much more general criticism of corporate, municipal, and parochial institutions, and in particular of the uncertain jurisprudence in which these institutions flourished.  This more general criticism is in turn of substantial importance to understanding Smith’s view of commerce and government, and of the sides of economic life -oppressive or vexatious, discursive or independent - which belong neither to commerce nor to the state.

Smith’s arguments about apprenticeship can be grouped into four categories.  The first, which is the closest to what would later have been thought of as an economic argument, is that exclusive apprenticeships tend to obstruct competition and to damage the public interest by keeping up wages and profits in particular industries, employments, or locations.  The second argument is also, in part, about efficiency.  Smith favored universal, obligatory education; he argues that apprenticeship is an unsatisfactory means of training workers either in particular skills or in habits of industry.  The third argument is about both efficiency and equity; it is that apprenticeship, which is a restriction on personal liberty, is unjust to workers within apprenticeship relations and to other workers who are excluded from these regulated trades.  The fourth argument is the closest to what would now be considered a purely political argument, although it is central, as will be seen, to Smith’s account of economic change.  It is that apprenticeships are unjust because they reflect an oppressive combination of public laws and corporate bylaws - a “corporation spirit” - in which laws


are enacted for the benefit of the powerful, and enforced at the caprice of magistrates, masters, overseers, and churchwardens.  They are themselves a source of insecurity.

Smith’s four arguments were interpreted in strikingly different ways in the course of successive nineteenth-century debates over the reform and revival of apprenticeship, and I will look at each argument in turn.  I will be concerned, principally, with the period preceding the reform of statutory apprenticeship in England in 1814.  The four arguments provide an interesting illustration, it will be suggested, of Smith’s capacity to appear as almost all things to almost all men; of the extent to which the Wealth of Nations has been (and is) an enormous mirror of changing economic times.  Beatrice Webb wrote in her unpublished “History of English Economics” that subsequent critics “have forgotten that Adam Smith lived in an age of class oppression and that the ‘Wealth of Nations’ is a history book of social abuses.”  There was a profound change in his reputation, she said, which took place between 1776 and 1817, or between the publication of the Wealth of Nations and the publication of Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy. “What, then,” she asks, “were the changes in events and ideas that transformed this crusade of the 18th century [into] the ‘Employer’s Gospel’ of the 19th century?” [5]  The debates over apprenticeship reform provide some insight, it will be suggested, into these events and these ideas.

There is a “double nature” or “twofold character” of Smith’s work, Webb wrote, in which he is both a theorist who seeks to discover (and put to practical use) the laws of production, and at the same time a “reformer of social abuses.”  Each of Smith’s four arguments against apprenticeship, as will be seen, is about economic theory (or efficiency) and also about social justice (or equity).  Apprenticeship, for Smith, is both inefficient and unjust; it is as inefficient as it is unjust.  The “affected anxiety of the lawgiver lest they should employ an improper person, is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive,” Smith said of the English statute of apprenticeships; the liberal reward of the laboring poor, he said earlier in the Wealth of Nations, will be of advantage to society, and “it is but equity, besides.”  The laws which prevented manufacturers from selling their goods in shops, and farmers from selling corn, “were evident violations of natural liberty, and therefore unjust; and they were both too as impolitic as they were unjust.” [6]

It is this sense of the contiguity of economic and political reasons-of “equity, besides” - which makes the successive nineteenth-century dis-

89 Index or Notes

putes over apprenticeship such an intriguing illustration of the changing uses of political economy, and of the Wealth of Nations in particular.  Apprenticeship is a “cultural institution,” in K. D. M. Snell’s description; it should be seen as embedded within “a wide range of social, legal, settlement, welfare and administrative considerations.”  There are evident changes, from this perspective, between the three phases of British apprenticeship that Snell distinguishes, from the “guild apprenticeship” before the Elizabethan statute of 1563, to the “statutory apprenticeship” of 1563-1814, and the “voluntary’ apprenticeship” of the period since 1814. [7]  Yet one of the interesting characteristics of the nineteenth-century debates with which I will be concerned-of the history of economic thought about apprenticeship, in relation to its economic and political history - is the extent to which obsolete apprenticeship systems are themselves a subject of continuing dispute.  History is put forward, in the debates, as a way to justify present policies.  It is something which is either to be cherished (for opponents of reform) or to be overthrown.  It is also, as it was for Smith, a way to discover laws or principles which persist over time.  The pre-Elizabethan guilds are still present, in Smith’s description, in the statutory apprenticeships; the corporation spirit, or the subordination of individual wills, is present in the new, voluntary apprenticeships of the later nineteenth century.

Index or Notes

Corporations and Competition

Smith’s first set of arguments is about competition.  Statutes of apprenticeship, he says, are, like “the exclusive privileges of corporations,” “a sort of enlarged monopolies.”  Their effect is to keep up both the wages of the workers and the profits of the masters.  They obstruct “the free circulation of labour from one employment to another,” just as the privileges of corporations “obstruct it from one place to another.”  “The intention of both regulations is to restrain the competition,” and the effect of restraining that free competition is to keep prices high.  If apprenticeships were ended, “the public would be a gainer, the work of all artificers coming in this way much cheaper to market.”  Smith’s prescription was to “break down the exclusive privileges of corporations, and repeal the statute of apprenticeship, both which are real encroachments upon natural liberty, and add to these the repeal of the law of settlements.” [8]

It is this set of arguments, about the economic inefficiency of apprenticeship, which was most conspicuous in the political discussions over


the suspension and eventual partial repeal in 1814 of the Elizabethan statute of apprenticeship. [9]  The defenders of the old act, in particular, were at pains to refute Smith’s arguments.  William Playfair, the editor of the “eleventh edition” of the Wealth of Nations, was an ardent supporter of apprenticeship, and his edition is a compendium of counterarguments to Smith’s criticisms.  Smith’s account of apprenticeship is annotated with irritable footnotes: “In this particular assertion, Mr Smith is certainly entirely wrong”; “This seems to be founded on wrong information, having no sort of foundation in reality.”  Playfair also inserts a “Supplementary Chapter,” “On Education,” between chapters 1 and 2 of Book 5, in which he comments that “Dr Smith is an enemy to apprenticeships,” asserts that “the control which the law gives a master over an apprentice, seems to be one of the most fortunate inventions in the present order of things,” and recommends that “instead of suppressing, it would be well to encourage this species of bondage.” [10]

Playfair, who was known for his theories of the decline of nations, and for his epigrammatic denunciations of French philosophy (“Prussia, the former headquarters of atheism,” “Condorcet, a captain of assassins”), returned to the same theme in other works.  Prejudice, he said, had in the case of apprenticeship led Smith astray, and his views should be “examined, and refuted, if found wrong.”  Smith was even wrong, Playfair wrote, in denying that apprenticeships were truly ancient institutions, with their equivalent in Egypt and Rome: “Are we quite certain that the freed men, so often mentioned, were not people who had served apprenticeships?” [11]  “It is very easy to trace the intimate connection between the theory of leaving trade free, and those levelling principles that ruined France for a long period,” he wrote in a pamphlet of 1814; opposition to the statute of apprenticeship was “founded upon the same delusive theoretical principles which fostered the French revolution.” [12]

For the early nineteenth-century opponents of the Elizabethan act, by contrast, Smith was a source both of true principles and of useful evidence.  Smith’s illustrations - the wheelwright who is permitted to make a coach, and the coach maker who is not permitted to make a wheel; the success of Manchester, Birmingham, and other manufacturing towns outside the scope of the act - recur in the reformers’ arguments. [13]  A committee of London Manufacturers formed in 1814 said of the act that it “strikes at the root of all our prosperity,” by “the color it gives to the combination of workmen for the raising of wages.” [14]  The “least of the evils to be apprehended” from such combination is “the progressive rise of Wages,” say the

91 Index or Notes

members of a parliamentary committee of 1806 which recommended the repeal of the apprenticeship clauses of the act in respect of wool; this is in itself “abundantly sufficient to accomplish the ruin... of the whole commercial greatness of our Country.”  It is as though Smith’s views scarcely needed to be repeated.  “At this day,” the committee observes, “the true principles of Commerce are so generally understood and acknowledged, it cannot be necessary for your Committee to do more than refer to them.” [15]

Smith was the implicit hero, therefore, of the reformers.  But what is striking in their arguments is the extent to which they picked and chose within his criticism of monopoly and restraint.  Smith himself, to take one example, linked statutory apprenticeships repeatedly to the privileges of corporations.  The early nineteenth-century opponents of apprenticeship were by contrast often at pains to distinguish between corporate and apprenticeship regulations.  Sir Frederick Eden, for example, accepts Smith’s criticism of apprenticeship, but objects to “his mistaken ideas respecting corporation laws,” his attribution of removals of the poor “to corporation spirit,” and his “much to be regretted” asseverations about the low quality of workmanship in incorporated towns. [16]  It was hardly expedient in the decades following Smith’s death, as Dugald Stewart commented in 1810, to think of “subjecting to the disputations of philosophers, the arcana of State Policy, and the unfathomable wisdom of the feudal ages.” [17]  Smith’s criticism of arcane English corporations is notably absent, only a few years later, from the disputes over apprenticeship.

The parliamentary critics of apprenticeship are led into quite odd arguments in their efforts to avoid calling into question the corporate, English origins of the apprenticeship regulations.  The system to be reformed is thus described, in a curious substitution of simile for history, as something which is more Indian than English.  The intention of the apprenticeship act, said Serjeant Onslow, the leading parliamentary supporter of the 1814 amendment, was to introduce distinctions “as is created in India by the institution of castes.” The Committee of London Manufacturers say that the apprentice is fixed in his trade “as if he belonged to one of the castes of India”; another parliamentary supporter of reform, George Phillips, said that “this principle went, in fact, to place the trading classes in this country on a level with the Indian castes.” [18]  Onslow’s closing words, in moving the reform amendment, are a reminder that it is only apprenticeship, and not corporate privileges, which is in question: the amendment does not “affect, or alter the bye-laws, or privileges of any corporation, or company


lawfully constituted: indeed, out of abundant caution, and to prevent any alarm that may have been industriously excited, I have inserted a clause to that effect.” [19]

Smith’s concern about the effects of apprenticeship on wages, profits, and prices, to take a different example, is decomposed in much the same way.  Smith’s presumption, as has been seen, is that high wages for “servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds” are an advantage to society, and “but equity, besides”; the liberal reward of labor, he says, is the “cause of the greatest public prosperity.”  He was much more disturbed by high profits than by high wages, and included in the second and subsequent editions of the Wealth of Nations a passage explaining that “in reality high profits tend much more to raise the price of work than high wages.”  It was also easier to restrict competition in the interest of profits than in the interest of wages: “We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it,” and the “masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.” [20]

In the debates of the 1810s, Smith’s opinions are reduced, by the proponents of reform, to a concern only with the effects of apprenticeship privileges on wages.  “Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages,” Smith observes, while “they say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits.  They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains.  They complain only of those of other people.” [21]  The masters of 1814 behaved very much as Smith described, as Lujo Brentano pointed out in his history of guilds. [22]  George Phillips, who had been so concerned about Indian castes, felt it necessary to distance himself from Smith: “Adam Smith thought that combinations among workmen were not dangerous - because they were counteracted by combinations among the master manufacturers, which he believed to be more frequent.  That able writer was mistaken in the fact.”  Masters did not frequently combine, Phillips went on; “on the other hand, the journeymen drove the reluctant into combination, through terror.” [23]

There is yet another aspect of Smith’s argument about apprenticeship and competition which is almost entirely missing in the debates of the 1810s.  The apprentice and corporation laws were instituted and enforced, in Smith’s description, for the security of relatively powerful people.  The corporation laws obstruct both the free circulation of labor and that of stock, but “it is everywhere much easier for a wealthy merchant to obtain

93 Index or Notes

the privilege of trading in a town corporate, than for a poor artificer to obtain that of working in it.”  There is an inside and an outside community, in a quite literal sense.  Within an incorporated town, Smith says, the different classes of traders and artificers thus buy from one another “somewhat dearer than they might otherwise have done”; “but in their dealings with the country they were all great gainers.”  The barriers to entry are barriers, quite literally, or at least inspections; they obstruct the farmers who set out for town to sell their corn, or the consumers, like Smith’s customer “in the suburbs,” who return home with smuggled work. [24]

Even within the class of artificers, in Smith’s description, it is those who have least power - including apprentices who “cannot give money” - who do least well.  Others are simply outside such protection as the regulations may provide.  “Our spinners are poor people, women commonly, scattered about in all different parts of the country, without support or protection,” Smith says.  “In most parts of Scotland she is a good spinner who can earn twenty-pence a week.” [25]  The most oppressed of all, as so often for Smith, are the common laborers.  Their understanding is generally much superior to that of mechanics in towns.  But they are subject to the entire system of injustice constituted by the conjunction of the apprenticeship, corporation, and settlement acts.  The exotic Orient appears here, for once, as an encouraging precedent: “In China and Indostan accordingly both the rank and the wages of country labourers are said to be superior to those of the greater part of artificers and manufacturers.  They would probably be so every where, if corporation laws and the corporation spirit did not prevent it.” [26]

Smith’s description of insideness and outsideness - of the multiple identities of individuals, as people with privileges because they are members of apprenticed trades, or citizens settled in certain towns, or workers with certain skills - is missing, once again, in the invocations of political economy during the apprenticeship disputes of the 1810s.  The London Committee of Manufacturers, who are more bold than their parliamentary allies in their references to “feudal times,” do point out that the Elizabethan statute restricted apprenticeships to the children of prosperous families; the parents of woollen weavers were supposed (in a subsequently unenforced provision) to have sixty shillings a year in land, while laborers “were excluded and not permitted to quit husbandry.” [27]  The committee members appeal, even, to equity for illicit women workers: “Will you, by enforcing it at the peace, drive to the miserable and infamous resource of prostitution, the multitudes of women now employed in the fabrication of


arms for the defence of the State?” [28]  But the reformers’ arguments about commerce and competition are close, in general, to the painfully contracted, lowly calculating political economy to which William Godwin objected in 1820, and which Francis Place defended. [29]  Arnold Toynbee said of Smith’s views on apprenticeship, in his lectures of 1881-82, that “it is the doctrine of free exchange of labour... that has brought political economists into collision with the feelings of the people.”  Yet Smith’s own intention, he said, was to represent “the opinions of the workmen”; “we see that this doctrine was first popularised by a warm champion of the labourers as the true solution of all the evils of their state.” [30]

Index or Notes

Education and Apprenticeship

Smith’s second set of concerns, about the inefficiency of apprenticeship as a way of teaching skills, is also ubiquitous in the debates over reform.  He was unconvinced, in general, that extensive instruction or skill was needed in most manufacturing employments.  He thought that country labor, in which people had to be able to work under widely varying conditions, required “much more skill and experience,” and “much more judgment and discretion.”  Even watchmaking could be explained in the lessons of a few weeks, or perhaps of a few days, to be followed by “much practice and experience”; “long apprenticeships are altogether unnecessary.”  The effect of the statutory apprenticeship system was moreover to obstruct workers from moving from decaying to prosperous manufactures; the arts of plain linen and plain silk weaving, for example, were “almost entirely the same,” and not very different from the art of weaving plain wool. [31]

The institution of long, bound apprenticeship was an unsatisfactory way of teaching even those skills and tastes which do turn out to be useful; it “has no tendency to form young people to industry.”  Journeymen and pieceworkers, Smith said, have an incentive to be industrious, and to conceive “a relish” for work; he indeed believed that they have a tendency rather to “over-work themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution.” [32]  But an “apprentice is likely to be idle, and almost always is so, because he has no immediate interest to be otherwise.”  He does not enjoy the “sweets” of work, and he may even conceive “an aversion to labour.”  Smith argues that apprenticeships can “give no security that insufficient workmanship” will not be put on public sale, a security which is much better provided by a system of marking plate or stamping cloth.  The sale of shoddy goods, he says, “is generally the effect of fraud, and not of in-

95 Index or Notes

ability; and the longest apprenticeship can give no security against fraud.”  The risk of fraud is indeed greater in exclusive, privileged corporations.  For the workman without privileges, it is the fear of losing customers “which restrains his frauds”; workers in the suburbs outside incorporated towns “have nothing but their character to depend upon.” [33]

Smith’s arguments reappear throughout the debates over reform.  The London Committee points out that the Elizabethan Parliament was obliged to legislate again, thirty-eight years after passing the apprenticeship statute, over the true making of cloth: “The saddle was at last put on the right horse; the fraud of the master.” [34]  The 1806 Parliamentary Committee on the Woollen Manufacture, too, heard dire stories of shoddiness.  One merchant was thus cross-questioned about the time, “perhaps forty years ago,” when the cloth merchants of the West Riding “lost the clothing of the Russian guards”:

A. I believe it was lost by regulations of the Russian government, it never returned back to Leeds after it was lost.

Q. Did you never hear it mentioned, as a leading cause of those regulations, that upon a grand review of the Russian guards, who turned out clad in coats, on a very rainy day, that the same coats the next morning were very much shrunk into jackets?

But the case of the Russian order was explained, in the end, by the iniquities of German trading houses and the protectionism of the Russians, and the committee concluded, with Smith, that apprenticeship was in no way essential for teaching skills.  The committee indeed surmised, like Smith, that apprentices, who do not enjoy the immediate fruits of their industry, might instead learn lasting “habits of idleness and dissipation.” [35]

The “true principles of Commerce,” here too, are fairly contracted and calculating.  But it is interesting that the wider scope of Smith’s arguments - his view of the politics of education and apprenticeship - was virtually ignored, as in the case of his arguments about competition, by the parliamentary proponents of reform.  It was the opponents of reform, and especially William Playfair, who pointed to the profound and even subversive scope of Smith’s position.  “To free youth from the shackles of apprenticeship, and subject infancy to the authority of schoolmasters, is the present bent of political economists,” Playfair wrote in his supplementary chapter on education in his eleventh edition of the Wealth of Nations.  He sees Smith’s opposition to apprenticeship, quite generally, as the outcome of an imposing choice between two ways of life: between a society brought


together by education, and a society brought together by training.  “Whether or not it contributes to the comfort and happiness of the working man, to read and write, is a question not necessary to decide, and probably not very easy,” he says.  “Reading frequently leads to discontent, an ill-founded ambition, and a neglect of business... [l]t is at least clear that habits of industry, and a trade, are the most essential parts of the education of the lower order of people.  But Dr. Smith is an enemy to apprenticeships.” [36]

Playfair’s supplement follows the chapter in the Wealth of Nations where Smith puts forward his plan for the universal, publicly funded education in local schools of the “children of the common people,” and universal education, for Playfair, is in clear opposition to training and apprenticeship.  “That portion of education, which appears to have got an exclusive title to the name, reading and writing, are, with the working classes, a very inferior object,” he had written in his earlier work on the decline of nations.  In 1813, describing the attentions of Smith’s admirer Samuel Whitbread to the education of poor children, he concludes, “Perhaps we do not agree with him and many others, in regard to the advantage of men doomed to industry and privation being excited to read and write.” [37]

Playfair is explicit, unlike Smith, in seeing education and training as two opposing systems.  But the tension between the two projects constitutes the context in which Smith’s arguments about apprenticeship should be understood.  Smith is insistent, from the beginning of the Wealth of Nations, on the equality of natural talents.  The difference between the philosopher and the common street porter, he says, “seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom and education.  When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike.” [38]   Their “very different genius,” as adults, is the consequence of the division of labor more than its cause.  People are not born “stupid and ignorant” but are made so by their “ordinary employments”; by the simple, uniform nature of the work they can get; and by the circumstance that their parents, who “can scarce afford to maintain them even in infancy,” send them out to work as soon as they can. [39]  Smith’s comments in his then unpublished lectures on jurisprudence would have confirmed Playfair’s suspicions: “When a person’s whole attention is bestowed on the 17th part of a pin,” he says, it is hardly surprising that people are “exceedingly stupid,” and England, where boys are set to work at “6 or 7 years of age,” is to be contrasted most unfavorably with Scotland, where “even the meanest porter can read and write.” [40]

97 Index or Notes

The public “can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose” a system of education on “almost the whole body of the people,” Smith says.  The “most essential parts of education” are “to read, write, and account,” and even the poorest people should “have time to acquire them” before they begin their working life.  It is interesting that education, here, is something that precedes, and is distinct from, training.  The circumstances of commercial society impose the need for government expenditure on education.  Smith’s description of the genesis of stupidity and ignorance in commercial societies-of individuals “mutilated and deformed” in the “essential part of the character of human nature” - is indeed the most severe of all his criticisms of modern, civilized life. [41]  But government-supported education is in no sense something which is itself needed in the interest of commercial prosperity.  It is a consequence of economic advancement, and not a requirement of further advancement.

Smith is in fact resolute in identifying education as something which is good in itself, and not as the means to a distinct, commercial end.  When he does talk of universal instruction as a means, it is in relation to the political ends of the society, or to the common interest in political security.  People who are instructed “feel themselves, each individually, more respectable,” and they “are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through,” political projects. [42]   The ideal, that is to say, is of the disposition of enlightenment, or of universal public discussion, among thoughtful, reflecting, self-respecting individuals; the prospect of “political discussions among the multitude,” which Dugald Stewart was obliged to repudiate in Edinburgh in 1794. [43]

Education is more generally, for Smith, something which is not only useful but also amusing.  Even when he says, as a justification for teaching the principles of geometry and mechanics to the “children of the common people,” that these principles are useful in common trades, he adds that they are also inspiring; the “introduction to the most sublime as well as to the most useful sciences.”  In the lectures on jurisprudence, he is once again more outspoken.  The lack of education is, for “low people’s children,” “one of their greatest misfortunes.”  A boy who starts work when he is very young thus finds that “when he is grown up he has no ideas with which he can amuse himself.”  Even the poor need things to think or theorize about: “They learn to read, and this gives them the benefit of religion, which is a great advantage, not only considered in a pious sense, but as it affords them subject for thought and speculation.” [44]

Apprenticeship, for Playfair, is a way for masters to “control” the young, and a source of “good moral conduct.”  To discourage apprenticeships, he


wrote in 1814, would be “a great detriment to the moral order of society.”  They provide people in the “lower and middling ranks of society” with “the means of keeping their sons in due subjection during the first dangerous years of manhood”; parents bind their children to be apprentices, “to keep them from becoming vagabonds and blackguards.”  Playfair compares “modern reformers,” here too, to the “misled reformers” in France in 1793, “when the authority of husbands over wives and children, was represented as an infringement of natural rights, and a remain of the feudal system!” [45]

It is interesting that even the opponents of the Elizabethan statute made some sort of reference, before the 1814 repeal, to the beneficent consequences of apprenticeship for morality and subordination.  The 1806 committee thus regretted the decline in “opinions and feelings of subordination,” but concluded that apprenticeship in the woollen trade could do little to prevent it. [46]  George Rose M.P., Serjeant Onslow’s predecessor in investigating reform of the statute, explained in a debate of 1807 on Samuel Whitbread’s Parochial Schools Bill - which was criticized on the grounds that it was likely to prejudice the morals of the poor “instead of teaching them subordination” - that “he had no doubt that the poor ought to be taught to read; as to writing he had some doubt.” [47]  Onslow himself repudiated, aghast, any notion that he might put “national wealth in competition with national morals.”  The London Committee suggested that even when apprenticeship was no longer itself compulsory, a parent might well wish to apprentice his child in the interest of the child’s own interior life; of “that compulsory subordination, by which he is inured to habits of industry, which cannot be attained under a parent’s roof, amidst the familiarity of relations.” [48]

For Smith, by contrast, the prospect of instruction in subordination seems to have been a matter of the greatest indifference.  It was unlikely to promote habits of industry, which were discouraged, rather, by long, subordinate apprenticeships.  It had almost nothing, in particular, to contribute to the flourishing of moral sentiments.  The habitual sympathy which is essential to virtue, Smith wrote in one of the last passages he added to the Theory of Moral Sentiments, is a matter of one’s affection for one’s relations and one’s friends.  He is strongly in favor of domestic education, or keeping one’s children at home.  He is in favor, even, of treating children with respect: “Respect for you must always impose a very useful restraint upon their conduct; and respect for them may frequently impose no useless restraint upon your own.” [49]

The apprenticeship debates prior to the 1814 repeal were imbued, like

99 Index or Notes

all other political discussion of the times, with the precedent of the French Revolution; with what the members of the 1806 Committee on the Woollen Manufacture described as the effects “so fatally exemplified not long since, in a Sister Kingdom.” [50]  Playfair spoke of Serjeant Onslow as the instrument of more resolute men, much as the opponents of slavery were duped in France in 1780.  Onslow’s bill would be “the first step to liberty and equality in this country, as the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, was in Paris, about twenty-five years ago,” to be followed by “terrible revolution.” [51]  Smith had been widely described, as has been seen, as a friend of France, and his views on ignorance and universal education were indeed among his most popular in Revolutionary France.  Condorcet observed in 1788, citing Smith, that true public instruction is the only remedy for the general stupidity that is a consequence of the division of labor.  It is “workers who only know how to do one thing, or even one part of one thing,” who are particularly likely to become unemployed, and to fall into poverty.  In the system of public instruction proposed by Condorcet, children would not learn one trade; they would instead learn how to learn new trades.

For Condorcet, as for Smith, instruction is an end, far more than a means.  If people were less ignorant, they would be better at buying things, and “less exposed to being victims of a thousand petty frauds, a thousand petty vexations.”  They would be better at leading “a common life”; they would have correct ideas of “their rights and their duties,” and an understanding of “local jurisprudence.”  In Condorcet’s last plan of public instruction during the Revolution, in which he also cites Smith, the system of education is extended to grown-ups, with classes on Sundays for mothers, fathers, and people of all ages.  “In thus continuing instruction throughout life,” it will become possible for people to keep their spirits active; to learn about new laws; to be instructed “in the art of instructing oneself.” [52]   Smith was one of the inspirations of the revolutionary projects of public instruction of 1788 and 1791; he was far closer to these projects, in his view of education, than to Playfair’s system of moral subordination through occupational training.

Index or Notes

A State of Nonage

Smith’s third set of arguments against apprenticeship, about oppression and personal liberty, was the subject of virtually no interest in the parliamentary debates of the 1800s and 1810s.  “The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property,


so it is the most sacred and inviolable,” Smith says; the apprenticeship system, which prevents the poor man from using his labor as he thinks proper, “is a plain violation of this most sacred property,” and thereby of “just liberty.”  The injustice, in turn, takes two distinct forms.  In the first, which is closely related to the arguments about free circulation of labor considered earlier, workers are obstructed from moving from one occupation to another, or from one parish to another.  “A thousand spinners and weavers” may be dependent, Smith says, on “half a dozen wool-combers”; the wool-combers, by refusing to take apprentices, can “reduce the whole manufacture into a sort of slavery to themselves.” [53]

The apprenticeship system is closely connected, in Smith’s description, to the law of settlements within the English Poor Laws.  It is both complementary to and a component of the system of removals and certificates for the poor, which Smith described as “an evident violation of natural liberty and justice,” and in which the common people, “so jealous of their liberty,” are “most cruelly oppressed.”  The poor worker must thus provide “security” - the security of owning property in the parish, for example, or of having served an apprenticeship - before he can himself attain the “security” of being established or settled.  He is scarcely free; he is subject to the will of “the churchwardens and overseers of the poor,” and of “two justices of the peace.”  The skilled worker who has served an apprenticeship is prevented, even, from going abroad to exercise his trade: “The boasted liberty of the subject, of which we affect to be so very jealous… is so plainly sacrificed to the futile interests of our merchants and manufacturers.” [54]

The other sort of injustice is internal to the apprenticeship relation itself.  “The whole labour of the apprentice belongs to his master,” Smith writes; he is a “servant bound to work at a particular trade for the benefit of a master.”  It is this relationship - this unfreedom - which makes apprentices indolent.  The expectation that apprenticeship would provide training in skills, or education in morality, is doomed by the inequality of the relationship on which it depends.  Smith thought it most improbable that people should work better “when they are disheartened than when they are in good spirits, when they are frequently sick than when they are generally in good health”; this was one of his many arguments in favor of high wages.  Masters prefer periods of low real wages, in which their employees are “more humble and dependent.”  Smith’s own view is that the “separate independent state” is far more conducive both to industry and to “morals.” [55]

Smith’s view of apprenticeship and natural liberty is close, once again,

101 Index or Notes

to the positions of reformers before and in the early years of the French Revolution.  Turgot’s edict for the suppression of the jurandes or guild wardenships, and their associated apprenticeships, was at the heart of the Lit de Justice of Louis XVI in March 1776.  It was written a little before Turgot commissioned Morellet’s first translation of the sections of the Wealth of Nations, as has been seen.  Like Smith, Turgot was “in no way afraid that the suppression of apprenticeships” would expose the public to bad service.  He spoke, like Smith, of the property one has in one’s labor as “the first, the most sacred and the most imprescriptible of all”; he said of the apprenticeship system that it prevents the indigent worker from living by his work, that it rejects women, and that it forces the poor to submit to “the law of the rich.” [56]   In his Vie de M. Turgot, published in 1786, Condorcet described the suppression of the jurandes as a “great act of justice,” by which “this odious and ridiculous slavery was abolished” (and which also led to reductions in prices).  Only a few provisions remained, “like the ruins of ancient palaces”; one of the earliest Revolutionary acts in 1789 was indeed the repeal of these residual apprenticeship provisions, of which Brentano writes in his history of guilds that “in France the sovereign people finally swept the corporations away in the night of the 4th August, 1789.” [57]

For Turgot’s opponents, by contrast, the right to property in one’s own labor was only one right of property among many others.  It was not particularly imprescriptible; the proposed reforms would also “violate the property of the masters who make up corporations,” for whom privileges are “a real property which they have bought, and which they enjoy on the faith of regulations.”  The reforms were also expected to exert a profound and sinister influence on social and economic relationships.  If the jurandes are destroyed, the advocate-general Séguier said in the Lit de justice, “all subordination will be destroyed; there will be no more weight or measure; the desire for gain will animate every workshop, and, since honesty is not always the best route to gaining a fortune, the entire public” would be at the mercy of secret enemies.  One argument for apprenticeship is thus, as it was later for Playfair, that the “interior discipline” of the jurandes is needed to restrain “turbulent and licentious youth,” and to prevent them from “believing themselves independent.”  Another, more subtle argument, is that commitment to a restricted group, or subordination to a community, is the necessary condition for prosperity.  Séguier contrasts the “indefinite liberty” of “independence” with the “real liberty” of freedom under the “salutary fetters” of authority.  The will of the individual, includ-


ing his desire for gain, is regulated by the community: “Each member, in working for his personal utility, necessarily works, even without willing it, for the true utility of the entire community.” [58]

In the English debates over apprenticeship reform a generation later, it was the arguments of Turgot’s enemies, about property rights and also about subordination, which inspired both the proponents and the opponents of reform.  The language of imprescriptible or natural rights seems to have been seen both as subversively foreign and - for Francis Place, the friend of Bentham and James Mill - as slightly ridiculous.  Serjeant Onslow asserted, as has been seen, that he had no idea at all of interfering with “chartered rights.”  The artisans who supported apprenticeship asserted their “unquestionable right” to the “quiet and exclusive use and enjoyment of their several and respective arts and trades, which the law has already conferred upon them as a property.” [59]   The London Committee of Manufacturers even saw a violation, by artisans in apprenticed trades, of the rights of masters: “Are the masters to be the slaves of the journeymen?” [60]

The debates of the 1800s and 1810s reflect a painful conflict, nonetheless, between different sorts of rights, including the rights of different sorts of workers.  The great promise of apprenticeship, for the artisans who opposed repeal, was the promise of “quiet.”  Even Smith conceded that the apprenticed trades provided a sort of security; journeymen who had served an apprenticeship in the common manufactures earned somewhat more than common laborers, and “their employment, indeed, is more steady and uniform.” [61]  It is this expectation which was overthrown, cataclysmically, in the expansion of manufacturing of the 1780s, 1790s, and 1800s.  The 1806 investigation of the Committee on the Woollen Manufacture is a protracted exploration of the conflict between the “Domestic System” and the “Factory System,” of the sentiments of masters and journeymen in the two systems, and of the transformation of individual lives as one system gave way to the other. [61]  Apprenticeship, associated by tradition with the domestic system, seemed to offer the prospect of a return to security.  Richard Sheridan, defending the petition of the calico printers (an occupation exempt from the Elizabethan statute) for “relief and protection” through enforced apprenticeship restrictions, describes the “monstrous” scene of an industry in transition.  Children were taken into apprenticeship, served seven or more years in a “business confessedly injurious to their health,” and were then replaced by new cohorts of children; one house, he said, employed fifty apprentices and only two journeymen.  The

103 Index or Notes

expectation of steady and uniform employment was thus turned on its head, and it was only by restricting the employment of children as apprentices, Sheridan said, that the “matured” population could be protected; “he never was a proselyte to the doctrines of Adam Smith upon this subject.” [63]

Apprenticeship, in these turbulent times, promises a return to the lost world in which, as one domestic master said to the 1806 committee, “men and masters are in general so joined together in sentiment, and, if I may be admitted to use the term, love to each other, that they do not wish to be separated if they can help it.” [64]  It was also a return, for some of the defenders of the apprenticeship system, to their own youth: to their own expectations of quiet, perhaps, or to the property rights they once earned with their indentured work.  William Playfair himself had been apprenticed to a “very ingenious millwright,” following the death of his clergyman father. [65]   One of the most eloquent supporters of the domestic system in the 1806 inquiry, a journeyman called William Child, was asked by the committee if he had ever been bound: “I served sixteen years and a half as apprentice; I was put out by the parish in the year 1758, when I was seven years and six months old.” [66]

The defense of apprenticeship in the 1800s and 1810s is far more poignant, in these circumstances, than the conflict between rights and privileges which Smith envisaged.  It is a defense of the old industry against the new, and of the old against the young; of the old, even, against their own children.  But what is entirely missing, in the debate about reform, is the defense of freedom within the apprenticeship relation - of the rights of the children themselves - which is at the heart of Smith’s argument.  The consequence of the repeal of the Elizabethan statute was to make apprenticeship voluntary, to allow freedom of movement between different industries and occupations.  But for the apprentice himself or herself, to be an apprentice was to be unfree.  It was to be, for a limited period, subject to the will of someone else.

The will of the person being bound was indeed of central importance to the jurisprudence of apprenticeship.  In the statute defining parish apprenticeships - the system of pitiful bargains under which, in Dorothy Marshall’s description, parish overseers disposed of children to other parishes for premiums of £7 10s for a little girl to a gingerbread maker, or £18 for a lame boy - churchwardens, overseers, and justices of the peace were thus given the right to bind pauper children “as if such Child were of full Age, and by Indenture of Covenant bound himself or herself.” [67]   But the


counterfactual of consent - the “as if” they were free - was essential to the jurisprudence of other apprenticeships as well.  The child bound by his or her parents would thus be required to covenant himself “of his own voluntary will”; to commit himself freely not to be free. [68]  He was not fully free; if he were free, in the sense of being of full age, he could not be an apprentice.  Like Mary Ann Davis, in one of the cases discussed by the 1806 committee, he or she must be “in a state of nonage.” [69]

The apprentice was not fully unfree, either; he had to appear with his father and promise to learn how to be a responsible person.  It was this no-man’s-land of rights which Smith found so unpropitious to industry and to duty.  But to the proponents of the apprenticeship reform of 1814, as to Playfair and to Turgot’s opponents, the bondage of youth was something which was to be desired, and which would indeed persist in the new world of voluntary apprenticeship.  Parents would still want their children to grow up in a severe and unfamiliar environment, as the London committee said.  The people whose freedom was in question were only children, after all.  As one member of Parliament, Alderman Atkins, concluded in the Commons debate on repeal, “The answer of the parents and masters is, ‘We are afraid to trust you; we will have our bond, and then we have a security for your attendance to your duty.” [70]

Index or Notes

The Apprenticeship: A Digression on the Slave Trade

Smith’s arguments about apprenticeship and oppression were out of place, like his references to inviolable rights, in the prudent debates of the 1810s.  But it is interesting that they were rediscovered when apprenticeship again became a subject of political importance in the course of the 1830s, in a startlingly different setting. [71]  The discussions with which we have been concerned in the 1810s were a matter of only modest parliamentary interest.  The House of Commons was even counted out at a crucial stage in the repeal of the Elizabethan statute: “there being only 27 members present, the House adjourned of course.” [72]   The debates of the 1830s over apprenticeship - or over “The Apprenticeship” - were by contrast one of the greatest parliamentary and political spectacles of the century.

The Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 was introduced by the colonial secretary (Stanley, later Lord Derby) as a “mighty experiment,” on which would depend the happiness and existence of “millions of men.”  But what it prescribed was something less than freedom.  The concern of officials in the Colonial Office had been to identify what was described as “an in-

105 Index or Notes

termediate state between slavery and freedom” – “a safer and a middle course,” or a “transition state” - which would both protect the rights of the planters and train the slaves to be free. [73]  The government had thus considered several proposals, including plans in which slaves would be free for two days a week, or in which they would be emancipated but required to pay taxes for the support of their former owners.  The plan eventually adopted was “The Apprenticeship.”  The slaves were freed, but were to be “entitled to be registered as apprenticed labourers”; they were to be indentured to work without pay for their former owners for four and a half days a week, over a period of up to six years.  In an inversion of the English system, it was only children under six - children who were too young to be apprenticed - who were actually set free. [74]

It was this “Apprenticeship,” and its operation in the West Indies, which became the focus of reform in the later 1830s.  The apprenticeship of the former slaves was profoundly different from the apprenticeship systems with which we have been concerned.  But the debate over reform was a sort of grotesque reflection, nonetheless, of the disputes about English apprenticeship: about the conflict between different rights, or the oppressive decisions of magistrates, or the incentives to be industrious.  Both the opponents and the supporters of the Apprenticeship thus argued in the language of earlier debates over apprenticeship in England.  Admiral Sir Charles Rowley was reported to have “declared that, if born to a state of absolute labour, he would rather be a black man in Jamaica than a white labourer in England, it being his opinion, that in the former case he should sooner be his own master.”  Sir James Stephen, who drafted the scheme, believed that it was “evidently imprudent” to interfere with the “natural” operation of “incentives to Industry.” [75]  Joseph Sturge, the great Quaker reformer who traveled to the West Indies to document the horrors of the system, challenged Lord Brougham on the basis of the English law: “If when Lord Chancellor thou hadst a ward in chancery who was apprenticed, and his master was violating the terms of indenture, what wouldst thou do?” [76]

Daniel O’Connell, one of the powerful opponents of the scheme in Parliament, said that “it introduced a new state of society.  There had been nations of hunters, and of shepherds, and of agriculturists, and of masters and slaves, but never before had they heard of a nation of masters and apprentices.  An old woman of eighty was to become an apprentice, and she was to be told that if she lived till ninety-two, she would be out of her time, and might commence a life of gaiety and jollity on her own ac-


count.” [77]  The universal or axiomatic truths of political economy were invoked with reference to earlier debates.  “The experiment of apprenticed labourers has been tried under circumstances infinitely more favourable, and has failed,” another opponent said; it is a “truth so universally recognized, as to hold the rank of an axiom, that men can only be taught industry by having the fruits of their industry secured to them.” [78]

The Apprenticeship was eventually repealed, two years ahead of time, in 1838.  The debate by now engaged the young W. E. Gladstone, in one of his earliest major speeches (of which he wrote in his diary that “prayer earnest for the moment was wrung from me in my necessity: I hope it was not a blasphemous prayer, for support in pleading the cause of injustice”).  Gladstone’s cause, in the speech, was to defend apprenticeship in the interest of his own, planter, society.  The Apprenticeship was, he said, an integral part of the compensation which was to be paid to the proprietors for the loss of their former slaves’ time (and for “the freedom of the children”), along with the less indirect compensation of £20 million, also provided for by the act.  It was a scheme by which “security was substituted for doubt, and estates became saleable.” [79]

Gladstone also had recourse, as so often later, to high principles of law and commerce.  He addressed himself, in his peroration, to the conscience of the English manufacturers: “Compare the child of nine years old - and some say, under - entering your factories to work eight hours a day - and some say, more.”  He compared the contract implicit in the 1833 act, in a remarkable simile, to the original or social contract: “We hear constantly, for example, of the original contract or compact between the ruler and the subject.  Where is that contract written, or in what store of archives is it preserved?  It is written in the nature of things... And so in this case.”  The right created in the act, he said - the right to six years of bound labor by one’s former slaves – “was the nearest possible approach to the form of a contract..” [80]

 Index or Notes

Uncertain Jurisprudence

Smith’s fourth and final set of arguments is about the unjust and insecure jurisprudence of apprenticeship.  I started by saying that this fourth argument was the closest to what would now be considered a purely political position.  But each of Smith’s arguments, as has been seen, turned out to be in some degree political; to be about efficiency and about “equity, besides.”  The characteristic of apprenticeship regulations, quite generally, is

107 Index or Notes

that they are both political (in the sense of being upheld by public law) and partial (in the sense of being enforced by private or parochial institutions).  Apprenticeships in incorporated trades, Smith says, are regulated by the bylaws of the corporation; these bylaws are, however, “confirmed by a public law of the kingdom.”  The point of the Elizabethan statute of apprenticeship, in fact, was that “what before had been the bye-law of many particular corporations, became in England the general and public law” of market towns.  The jurisprudence of the Elizabethan Poor Law, and the subsequent law of settlements within it, was in Smith’s description similarly indirect.  The relief of the poor was established by the public law of the kingdom (43 Eliz. c.2); its enforcement was then entrusted to the churchwardens, justices of the peace, and appointed overseers of each parish. [81]

The Wealth of Nations has been explained, since the early nineteenth century, as an extended, relentless criticism of government; in Smith’s own phrase, as a “very violent attack... upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.” [82}  What has been of less concern, in general, is how Smith himself understood the extent of government - what he took to be included within it.  It was natural in nineteenth-century England to see government as coextensive, for the purposes of commercial policy, with the policies of the national state.  But to limit the scope of Smith’s attack in this way is to misdescribe it in an essential respect.  For the objects of Smith’s obloquy are not only the institutions of national government; they are also, and even especially, the oppressive government of parishes, guilds and corporations, religious institutions, incorporated towns, privileged companies.  One of the most insidious roles of national government is indeed to enact, or to confirm, the oppressive powers of these intermediate institutions.  The criticism of local institutions, with their hidden, not quite public, not quite private powers, is at the heart of Smith’s politics; it is at the heart, too, of his criticism of the apprenticeship system.

Smith’s description of bylaws and public laws was of very little interest to his opponents and followers in the nineteenth-century debates over apprenticeship.  Sir Frederick Eden was critical, as has been seen, of Smith’s frequent references to the corporation spirit in connection with apprenticeship. [83]  He was also one of the earliest to object that Smith was far more concerned, in his account of apprenticeship and of the law of settlements, with the statutory basis of legislation than with the way it actually operated in eighteenth-century England: “In this instance, as in many others, the insensible progress of society has reduced chartered rights to a state of in-


activity.” [84]  Eden’s criticism of Smith’s rather theoretical understanding of apprenticeship is undoubtedly justified, as Smith’s modern editors show. [85]  Smith relied to a great extent on reading statutes, and on Burn’s Justice of the Peace; he may also have been concerned (as on other occasions) with corporate obstructions in France rather than in England, or with the same oppressive jurandes and droits that so preoccupied Turgot.  As George Pryme, the first professor of political economy at Cambridge, wrote in his copy of Playfair’s Wealth of Nations, next to Playfair’s footnote about consumers smuggling commodities in from the suburbs, “Dr S. is speaking of Europe in general, not of Gr. Br. in particular.” [86]

To confront Smith’s prescriptions with the more complicated and in some respects more kindly history of eighteenth-century England is, however, to lose sight of the politics of his jurisprudence.  For it is precisely the conditions which Eden describes, of imperfectly enforced, insensibly evolving laws, which Smith finds most insidious in English institutions.  The laws are not enforced, but they are still there; they can be brought to life at any time, on the caprice of corporate or parish or church officials.  Serjeant Onslow said in Parliament in 1814 that the statute of apprenticeship “has been frittered away,” “unrepealed and unamended,” leaving juries reluctant to convict under its provisions and causing “judges to act almost as legislators. [87]  The crisis over reform in the 1810s was precipitated, in fact, by the transient success of certain “institutions” or “societies” of journeymen in bringing prosecutions against masters under these long-forgotten provisions.  But the persistence of unenforced, untimely laws is in general, as Smith shows, of benefit to the powerful and the well informed: to the rich and not to the poor.

Smith’s criticism of the jurisprudence of unenforced laws starts with the presumption that laws are in general devised in the interests, or with the counsel, of the powerful, and that they are enforced in the same spirit.  There are several passages in Smith’s chapters on wages in the Wealth of Nations which are often quoted by his more radical admirers, from William Godwin (in his attack on Malthus’s Essay on Population) to Beatrice Webb, Lujo Brentano, and Arnold Toynbee. [88]  Smith supported high wages, as has been seen, and he said that there are no acts of Parliament against combining to reduce wages; he also said that when the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, “its counsellors are always the masters.  When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.” [89]  The masters

109 Index or Notes

were evidently the counsellors of Parliament in the reform of the apprenticeship statute, as Brentano points out. [90]

Laws are enforced, as well as written, in the interests of the powerful; the law does not deal impartially, Smith says, in treating the combinations of masters and workmen, and legislation concerning wages “enforces by law that very regulation which masters sometimes attempt to establish by such combinations.” [91]  Bylaws thus turn into laws, regulations into statutes, and parish ordinances into public principles.  To Sir Frederick Eden, the insensible customs of English towns and parishes are something to be relied upon; to Smith they are to be treated with the utmost suspicion.  For the point of his repeated references to the corporation spirit is just this: that corporations, like other restricted institutions, are societies held together not by rules but by a common spirit, insensible to outsiders.  Their initiates, or their officials, are at one and the same time magistrates, masters, and members of “institutions.”  (There is much the same contrast, in the debate over the other, colonial “Apprenticeship,” when Gladstone rebukes the Quaker Sturge for his lack of confidence in the special magistrates, sent from Britain to supervise both the punishment of the apprentices and their “valuation” for release.  Sturge had said of the new magistrates that they were often “completely subservient” to the local magistrates, who were themselves “almost invariably planters and friends of the master,” such that “Mr C. sat as a magistrate to value for Mr S., and Mr. S. for Mr. C.”  Gladstone, very much on his dignity, retorts that “these magistrates are a body of English gentlemen.”) [92]

There is a further, even more insidious element in the oppression which Smith describes.  This is the element, or opportunity, of personal vexation.  Smith’s account of the origin of regulations is in some respects highly abstract.  It is interesting that Beatrice Webb, in summarizing Smith’s “general principle” of government, turns suddenly to a sort of algebra: “If interest A be virtually the State, and if interest A be antagonistic to interest B, then any state regulation of the joint affairs of A and B will be disadvantageous to interest B.” [93]  Smith is opposed, in the specific case of English wage regulations, to the policies of masters and merchants; he also expects, quite generally, that the interests of powerful communities will be reflected in the policies of the institutions over which they exercise their power.  But the specific form which this power takes is neither abstract nor impersonal.  The state is, for Smith, composed of evolving, interdependent institutions, public, private, and semi-public.  The interests and communities which he describes are composed of individuals, with evolving, per-


sonal objectives; they are subject to whim, or to jealousy, or to being disheartened.

The fluctuating jurisprudence of unenforced laws is thus especially propitious, in Smith’s account, for the sort of highly personal oppression which he describes as vexation.  The regulation which leaves room for individual discretion and local circumstance will leave room, too, for individual despotism.  “The love of domination... I am afraid is natural to mankind,” Smith says in the lectures on jurisprudence, and corporations, like the institutions of local revenue collection, are little republics of discretionary domination. [94]  Vexation is a personal, as well as a political, condition; Smith refers often in the Wealth of Nations, as has been seen, to “mortifying and vexatious visits,” “odious visits,” the “certain hardness of character” contracted by excise officers. [95]  It is highly unpredictable.  It depends on the character of the officers, and on the characters of the people they dislike - in Serjeant Onslow’s words, speaking of prosecutions under unenforced statutes, on “personal malignity.” [96]

“Interests, prejudices, laws and customs” are Smith’s principal concern in much of the Wealth of Nations, and their consequences are reasonably acceptable when the individuals who obey them, or enact them, are reasonably impartial. [97]  The domestic system of manufacturing worked well in the enterprises, described to the 1806 committee, where men and masters were “joined together in sentiment.”  One’s years as an indentured apprentice work well if one has a good master.  One’s trade works well if one can be sure that one’s friends will be lenient if one infringes obscure ordinances.  O. Jocelyn Dunlop says of the Hallamshire Cutlers, in the eighteenth century, that “heavy fines were inflicted upon those who were proved to have broken the gild rules.  But in almost all cases the fines were remitted, so that bye-laws could really be broken with impunity... the fee [for apprenticeship infringements] was raised to £10, but the entries show that £9 19s was usually remitted.” [98]

The difficulty with this system, in Smith’s description, is that it is itself insecure.  Smith tried to imagine what it would be like to be someone for whom the system does not work well: the child with the bad master, the calico printer whose work was no longer steady and uniform, the cutler whose fees were not in the end remitted.  He saw, with his “melancholy and evil boding mind,” that the system of bylaws and ordinances was never in fact sure, or secure. [99]   It was especially insecure for people who were poor, or who were disliked.  It was an unsure foundation, in any case, for the development of commerce.  The opulence which depends on inter-

111 Index or Notes

ests, prejudices, laws, and customs, Smith says, is “necessarily slow, uncertain, liable to be disturbed and interrupted by innumerable accidents.” [100]

The liberty and security of individuals is for Smith the condition for the growth of commerce, and its most important consequence as well. [101]  Like Turgot and like Condorcet, once more, he understands security in a personal, individual sense.  One of Turgot’s most profound economic writings is concerned, to illustrate, with the psychological and legal conditions for the development of credit.  Turgot describes a credit crisis which unfolded in 1769 in the town of Angouléme, when an unscrupulous debtor initiated legal proceedings against his creditors under previously unenforced usury laws.  He was convinced by the episode that usury laws must be repealed, if commerce were to become established.  A “jurisprudence which was arbitrary, changing with public opinion,” Turgot wrote, was both unjust and an insecure foundation for commerce. [102]  Condorcet’s commentary, in his life of Turgot, is strikingly reminiscent of the jurisprudence of apprenticeship in eighteenth-century England; it was thought, he said, “that one could let the law sleep, while reserving the possibility of awakening it at the will of prejudice, of public rumour, and of the whim of every judge.” [103]  This was not a setting in which commerce could flourish, or in which individual merchants could feel themselves secure.

William Playfair observed, in one of his supplementary chapters to the Wealth of Nations, that Smith, unlike the French economists, had no tendency “to hold human virtue in great esteem.” [104]  This is only partly true.  For it is public virtue which was held by Smith in only limited esteem, or which he considered to be in only limited supply.  He had very little confidence in the public spirit of merchants and manufacturers; one of his political projects, as has been seen, was to think of institutions which were independent of the discretion of judges, or the kindliness of parish overseers.  This is the point, for example, of his celebrated “plan of ecclesiastical government, or more properly of no ecclesiastical government.”  “The clergy of every established church constitute a great incorporation,” he said, and can be dangerous and troublesome when they are “under a regular discipline and subordination.”  His own prescription was therefore for free competition among religious sects, such that “no one could be considerable enough to disturb the public tranquillity.” [105]

Smith’s plan of universal public education, too, was the project of a society in which individuals are independent of institutions, and institutions are independent of individual virtue.  Children do not learn subordination and the corporation spirit.  They learn to see through projects, and to feel


themselves to be respectable.  They become the sort of people who can move from one employment to another, and from one parish to the next.  They learn to have many different things to think about, hundreds of ideas which will jostle for their interest, just as there will be hundreds of sects to jostle for their souls.  They learn to be virtuous, too.  But it is a private or domestic virtue, quite unsuited to great public exertions.  It is learned, above all, in the family, “amidst the familiarity of relations,” as the London Committee of Manufacturers said so censoriously in 1814.  For the virtue which Smith did esteem, greatly, was the virtue of ordinary sympathy, for one’s family and one’s friends.  It was the virtue in which children are respected by their parents; “the wise security of friendship.” [106]

 Index or Notes

History and Institutions

Smith’s arguments about the apprenticeship system, and the uses of these arguments in the early part of the nineteenth century, provide some sort of answer to the question - Beatrice Webb’s question - with which this chapter began.  How was Adam Smith’s crusade against oppression transformed, between 1776 and 1817, into the Employer’s Gospel of the nineteenth century, she asked.  It is as though we have seen the answer unfolding, week by week, in the Committees and Minutes of the agitation for apprenticeship reform.  Each of Adam Smith’s four arguments, about competition, education, exclusion, and the corporation spirit, turned out to be concerned with oppression and injustice, as much as or more than with efficiency.  But each was presented, in the course of these early nineteenth-century disputes, as a question of incentives.  The disputes may provide some insight, thereby, into the subsequent history of English political economy, and into the destiny of the eighteenth-century preoccupation with sentiments in economic and political life.

The debates over apprenticeship provide some insight, too, into the odd uses of history in economic policy.  This chapter has been concerned with the intellectual history of economic ideas, in the setting of economic history.  But history, like memory, is itself the subject of much of this history.  The individuals with whom we have been concerned speak constantly about the past.  They remember stories, as of the rainy day when the greatcoats of the Russian guards shrank into jackets, and they also remember ways of life.  They describe the principles of commerce in great historical similes; they talk, as Playfair does, of the apprenticeship system of the ancient Egyptians.  They turn the insensible evolution of corporate ordi-

113 Index or Notes

nances into a subject of controversy, and of political theory.  They define the apprenticeship of the future by what it is not to be.

Adam Smith has been criticized, at least since Sir Frederick Eden’s State of the Poor, for being a little out of date in his history of apprenticeship, and a little out of place.  He died, in 1790, at the start of a period of prodigious turbulence in this history, and in the history of economic ideas about children and other laborers.  But he did not himself present his description of English apprenticeships as being of principally historical (or principally English) interest.  Walter Bagehot makes the interesting remark about Smith that he is less concrete, or historical, than he seems: “His writings are semi-concrete, seeming to be quite so.” [107]  Smith believed that he was uncovering eternal truths about social institutions.  These truths took the form, quite often, of abstract principles about personal character and personal oppression.  Smith’s opinion, as has been seen, is that laws and regulations are influenced by powerful groups; that small institutions defend insiders and exclude outsiders under the protection of these laws; and that the fluctuating jurisprudence of public laws and small institutions provides opportunity for personal vexation, against insiders as well as outsiders.  These are eternal or enduring historical truths, for which the evidence is to be found, in part, in the history of economic sentiments.  Smith admired Thucydides, above all, for his demonstration that “nothing gives greater light into any train of actions than the characters of the actors.”  His own method is also that of Thucydides: to have a clear view of events which have happened, and of “those which will some day, in all human probability, happen again in the same or a similar way.” [108]

Bagehot said of English political economy that it was a theory which was true only of a single kind of society: “a society of grown-up competitive commerce, such as we have in England.” [109]  The commerce was grown-up, in the sense of having been growing for some time, and also in the sense of being something which is carried on by grown-ups.  There are difficulties, which are well known, in depicting children as being entirely without wills (as “consumption goods”), and there are also difficulties in depicting them as tiny little economic men.  The difficulty posed by apprenticeship, in Smith’s account, is that it is an institution which is concerned with the traverse from one of these conditions (and descriptions) to the other; with the no-man’s-land into which children are inducted in a condition of “nonage,” or semi-will, and in which they must learn to be decisive, to be rational, and to be good.

The debates over apprenticeship were concerned with people who were


thought of as not entirely or not yet rational: children, or elderly slaves, or people who are very poor.  It is within the apprenticeship relationship that they were supposed to learn how to be economic, or at least how to be industrious.  But the interesting aspect of apprenticeship, in these debates, is that it instructs in so many other things as well.  People learn about history (the history of their corporation, for example); they learn to be loyal; they learn to be subordinate; they learn the rules within which they are expected to pursue their own self-interest; they learn that the rules of their own corporation or institution are not the same as the rules of the public society.  There is an odd moment, in the report of the 1806 Committee on the Woollen Manufacture, when the members turn to consider the psychological conditions of the domestic manufacturer.  “Diligence, economy, and prudence are the requisites of his character, not invention, taste and enterprise,” they conclude; “he walks in a sure road as long as he treads in the beaten track.” [110]  The requirements of being a good entrepreneur in the domestic system are not the same, that is to say, as the requirements in the factory system; the requirements may even, in certain circumstances, be inconsistent with one another.  The good apprentice, too, may find herself expected to learn a long, conflicting, and inconsistent list of ways to be rational.


Index or Notes

The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

January 2003

AAP Homepage