Adam Smith in Hispanic America in the 19th century

essay political economy wealth of nations latin america hispanic america colonies censorship spain jimena hurtado catholic church physiocrats

by Jimena Hurtado for AdamSmithWorks

June 26, 2019
Adam Smith’s name and works in Hispanic America[1] are related to the emergence and consolidation of a liberal ideology in the region. Liberalism becomes especially influential during the 19th century, associated with the process of Independence from the Spanish Crown from the 1810s to the 1830s. This type of Liberalism is associated with that coming from the Courts of Cádiz (1808-1814), which has been recognized as the first Spanish Liberalism, even if liberal reforms in Hispanic America date from the end of the 18th century. Liberalism then might be said to date from the Independence period and its influences, and to have developed during the 19th century with different levels of influence in each country. For some the period between the 1830s and 1860s marks its climax and ascension to power, and its decline comes around the last decades of the century. 

In search of philosophical and theoretical grounds to reform Colonial government and institutions and build new and modern republics, leaders in the region turned to thinkers who were associated with promoting individual freedom, market economies, representative governments, and the scientific method. These leaders read and used Adam Smith to advance their arguments to open the markets and participate fully in the world economy.[2] 

However, it is likely that most of them did not read Adam Smith directly in English. When they read his books, they did so in Spanish and French translations, most of them partial and amended. Only parts of the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations were translated into Spanish, and it would not be until 1956 that a complete and accurate translation was available[3]. José Alonso Ortiz was the first Spanish translator of the Wealth of Nations. A first edition of his translation was published in 1794, and two more editions were published in 1804-5 and 1933-4. Before the first publication of his translation, Ortiz declared before the Inquisition that he had left out some details that contradicted the Catholic doctrine, and he had made some changes regarding interest rates and usury to meet with the conditions the Inquisition established to authorize publication. Nevertheless, Ortiz had to go through several courts and corrections before he finally received the needed approvals to publish his translation. A close reading and comparison between the original and the translation have shown that he also changed some passages in Smith’s discussions of colonization and free commerce, and most of his references to Spain, the Spanish Crown and the Catholic church are revised. 

Censorship plays an important role in the reception and diffusion of Smith’s ideas in Hispanic America, as it does in Spain. The influence of Catholicism and the power of the Church made civil servants cautious of the possible consequences of the French Revolution and its anti-religious message. Even if texts by authors of the Enlightenment were translated into Spanish most went through the scrutiny of religious and civil censorship. Therefore, Smith, as others, was mostly read and discussed indirectly, and his ideas were interpreted and adapted to the specific conditions of the times. 

Despite the censorship, the circulation of ideas between Hispanic America, Spain and the rest of Europe that had spiked in the 18th century, continued into the 19th century. The end of the 18th century saw an increasing number of Europeans come to the region, some as public servants and members of scientific expeditions promoted by the Spanish Crown. Hispanic Americans also travelled to Europe to study, and they established continued contacts and correspondence with European thinkers. These exchanges allowed the creation of important private libraries where French editions of Smith’s work could be found. The Bourbonic reforms of the 18th century, and especially, those Carlos III promoted, led to a favorable environment for the ideas of the Enlightenment including economic reforms. Hispanic Americans had access to these ideas through, among others, the works of Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos and Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes, Spanish politicians and economists, who both knew Adam Smith. Political economy was seen as part of the art of government and legislation, just as Smith and Say defined it, and it was considered part of a modern, scientific, and pragmatic approach to public affairs. Many, especially during the 19th century, viewed political economy as the study of the moral causes of wealth. They saw a direct link between economic policies and the formation of modern and enlightened citizens, which represented the main concern of most Liberals in the region. 

Some prominent thinkers like Juan Bautista Alberdi in Argentina devoted pages of his later work to Smith. Alberdi, part of the Generation of 37, opposed Juan Manuel de Rosas’ dictatorship and went into exile. When he came back to Buenos Aires, he published a book that became one of the building blocks of the Argentine Constitution of 1853. Like other Hispanic American thinkers, Alberdi used and adapted Smith in order to support and advance his own economic view. Alberdi believed labor and not land was the source of wealth and used the Wealth of Nations to back his argument. He also transformed the difference between productive and unproductive labor in order to associate the former with intelligent and free labor producing useful goods. Manuel Belgrano, figure of  Argentine independence, before Alberdi, also read and transformed Smith to defend self-interest as the main motivation of human behavior and the need to promote agriculture to participate in world commerce. Antonio Nariño, forefather of independence in Nueva Granada, knew Smith’s work well and quoted him on the division of labor. These are just some clear examples of how Smith’s ideas and message were transformed and adapted but also mixed with other and even contradictory views to advance the positions of thinkers and leaders in the region. 

By the end of the 18th century, before the idea of Independence was fully formed, several thinkers and public figures used especially Smith’s and the Physiocrats’ theories to advocate eliminating commercial barriers that harmed all the Spanish nation. They defended the promotion of new sectors and changes in regulations. Adapting ideas to their own context, they gave the leading role to agriculture. Commerce was seen as an instrument to promote and advance the exploitation of natural resources, seen as the main source of the region’s wealth. Discovering and using natural wealth to the advantage of all of Spain was an important part of economic thought in Hispanic America during the period. Independence brought a rupture with the Colonial economic organization and forced the new rulers to search for new and different sources of income in order to address the costs of the war and of establishing a new government. Changes in economic regulation and structure came about at different rhythms and with different emphasis throughout the region. They began with the elimination of military and religious privileges, including the expropriation of some religious orders; the abolition of state monopolies and tariffs; the redefinition of property rights, and the search for foreign sources of investment. This was fertile ground for a renewed discussion of economic ideas, enriched by the arrival of books and European merchants to the newly freed ports and the more general support of free commerce. 

In this context, Smith was part of the general inspiration that nurtured Liberal ideas. These inspiring theories, that gave support to the political projects of building modern nations, were transformed and adapted not only to the material conditions in the region but also to local beliefs. In particular, Hispanic America remained profoundly Catholic. Even if liberal thinkers and politicians were in clear opposition to the Catholic Church, Hispanic American thinkers adapted liberal economic ideas to what they considered the main lessons of Catholicism. Battling against the accusation of materialism and atheism that conservatives used against them, many liberals in Hispanic America strived to show there was no opposition between Catholic doctrine and economic and political liberalism, based on individual freedom and self-government. The market, especially a less regulated one that could integrate different regions, promoted cooperation among individuals, and this cooperation led to better living conditions for all, as well as Christian charity, and peaceful relationships among its participants. Therefore, markets advanced the general interest and helped the poor, especially ethnic minorities, who could have better opportunities and be treated in a fair and respectful manner. However, it was not complete laissez-faire that was adopted because the government still had an important role to play not only in promoting industry, but also in providing public goods such as education and infrastructure, and in ensuring that individual well-being was always compatible with the general interest. 

In this context, Smith was not associated with the Scottish Enlightenment but was perceived as part of a greater European liberal movement in economics that also included Richard Cobden, Frédéric Bastiat and, in particular, Jean-Baptiste Say [4], probably the most influential economist in Hispanic America during the 19th century. Smith’s ideas were mostly read through other authors, especially Bastiat and Say, so he had an indirect and mediated influence and diffusion. Moreover, all of these thinkers were read through a national lens in search of practical solutions to the problems involved in building these new republics. Therefore, this pragmatic view transformed, mixed with, and reinterpreted liberal ideas, and adapted theories and lessons to the particular and pressing needs of the times. Liberalism in Hispanic America had different interpretations and applications making it rather experimental and productive of different results in different countries and periods. 

This particular context of continuous change and experimentation also explains why the privileged vehicles for the discussion and diffusion of ideas were the newspapers. In 1801, for example, Jorge Tadeo Lozano founded the Correo Curioso, erudite, económico y mercantile de la ciudad de Santafé de Bogotá, the first private newspaper to exist in el Virreinato of the Nueva Granada. During its 10 months of existence, as other newspapers that circulated during the 19th century, the Correo Curioso defended the project of a society following the precepts of political economy as the physiocrats and Smith had defined them in order to promote agriculture, popular education, physical and natural sciences and commerce. A newspaper with a similar purpose was founded in Buenos Aires by Juan Hipólito Vieytes, and discussions, quotations,,  and mentions of Smith and the principles of political economy also appeared in Chilean newspapers. Smith was also recommended in courses of political economy in Chile, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, and Cuba, and his ideas and works were mentioned in legislative discussions in several countries. However, there is little evidence of a systematic analysis of the Wealth of Nations, and much less of the Theory of Moral Sentiments. As noted above, Smith was used to enrich practical economic thinking and projects in conjunction with other economists, particularly Say, whose works almost completely replaced Smith’s in the teaching of political economy. 

Even if it is difficult to establish Smith’s precise influence in Hispanic America in the 19th century, his ideas were known and discussed through the works of others, especially through Say. Smith’s ideas were adapted and transformed to support and advance liberal views, in most cases, by trying to make them compatible with a strong and influential Catholic tradition. As part of a liberal project Smith’s thought was adapted and mixed with other approaches in order to propose economic policies that would insert Hispanic America in the world economy, and, more generally, to modernize the region and its citizens.

[1] Hispanic America or Ibero America refers to Spanish speaking countries in the subcontinent, which, in spite of their heterogeneity, share some common historical traits that are relevant to understanding Adam Smith’s influence and reception in the region. 

[2] Some of them, as the Colombian Salvador Camacho Roldán (1827-1900), also used Smith’s authority in defense of a simple and progressive tax structure.

[3] There is evidence showing that Pedro Rodríguez, Count of Campomanes, commissioned a translation in 1770. A partial Spanish translation of the Marquis de Condorcet’s French résumé by Carlos Martinez de Irujo appeared in 1792, the same year the book was included in the Catholic Index of prohibited books. But even if Martínez considered the Wealth of Nations to be the best work ever written in political economy it suffered from blemishes in the application of its own principles, explaining why, for example, this translation did not include Smith’s discussion of religion and sectarism. The translation never mentioned Smith by name. The first full translation into Spanish of the The Theory of Moral Sentiments was published in 1997. A partial translation was published in 1934.

[4] Say’s books and, especially, his Treatise on Political Economy published in 1803 was immediately translated into Spanish (1804) and was part of many national higher education programs in different countries in the region. 


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