Review: Skjönsberg on Stafford's The Case of Ireland

political economy book review ireland

Max Skjönsberg for AdamSmithWorks

While other countries improved in trade and wealth during the Enlightenment, Ireland remained relatively poorer longer. Adam Smith, James Stafford, and Max Skjönsberg weigh in on the case of Ireland.

November 9, 2022
The title of James Stafford’s The Case of Ireland: Commerce, Empire and the European Order, 1750-1848 (Cambridge University Press, 2022) is derived from William Molyneux’s 1698 pamphlet, in which the author, a friend of John Locke, defended the right of the Irish parliament to regulate its foreign trade in opposition to English assertions of superiority. The backdrop of Molyneux’s The Case of Ireland, Being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England, Stated was the constitutional issues arising from attempts on the part of the English parliament to suppress the Irish woolen trade. It eventually became a cornerstone of Irish nationalism. In addition, Stafford argues that the pamphlet should be recognized as “the first of many Irish attempts to come to terms with the arrival of commerce as a central question of European politics” (p. 17). This is also a crucial question in Stafford’s book, and it is therefore not surprising that Adam Smith is one of its main figures. The starting point of Stafford’s meticulously researched book is that Ireland in the final decades of the eighteenth century “became the object of a vigorous debate concerning the promise and perils of commerce in an era of global war and revolution.” (p. 1). Rather than adopting a strictly national focus, the book deftly explores what debates about Ireland in an age of empire, revolution and reform can tell us about British and European political thought. Smith emerges as a particularly astute contributor to the debates, and we can easily see why he had so much to say about the case of Ireland.
In an age of improvement and expansion of global trade, Ireland’s relative poverty naturally became a significant topic. A key issue was the so-called “rich country-poor country” debate, thoroughly investigated in the pathbreaking research of the intellectual historian Istvan Hont. This debate centered on whether lower wages meant that manufacturing would inevitably move from rich countries like England to poorer ones like Ireland, and the role of protectionist taxes in preventing such a scenario. Moreover, unlike Smith’s Scotland, which had voluntarily entered into a parliamentary union with England in 1707, and before that the Union of Crowns in 1603, Ireland’s entire system in the eighteenth century was the result of conquest and plantation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Anglo-Irish Ascendancy who dominated eighteenth-century Ireland and its parliament was therefore an oligarchy which held lands that had recently been appropriated from the country’s Catholic majority.
English settlement in Ireland had begun as early as the twelfth century, but the first major attempts to subjugate the entire island of Ireland started during the Reformation under Henry VIII, who created the Irish Kingdom and the Church of Ireland. Ireland then became a battlefield of the wars of religion for nearly two centuries. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms and their aftermath intensified this process. The Act of Settlement in 1652 transferred property from the Gaelic population to the “New English” in Ireland; two thousand Catholic landowners were relocated to marginal land in the western province of Connacht between 1655 and 1657 (p. 27). William of Orange’s victory against the Jacobite forces in Ireland following the Glorious Revolution instigated a new series of expropriations that consolidated the power of the Anglican Ascendancy. The Catholics in Ireland were further alienated by the Penal Laws, a series of statutes enacted by the Irish parliament between the 1690s and the 1720s, including the 1704 “Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery,” which prevented Catholics from inheriting from Protestants, buying land or leasing land for more than 31 years (p. 34).
For Smith’s older friend and fellow Scottish Enlightener David Hume, the suppression of Irish trade was evidence of Britain’s destructive policy of “jealousy of trade.” Meanwhile, the Irish parliamentarian-cum-philosopher Edmund Burke, also a friend of Smith, believed that the Penal Laws had ruined the country’s prospects for improvement, since these laws alienated the majority of the population from both property and the state. As Stafford shows, Smith linked the two problems together and created an argument for a parliamentary union between Britain and Ireland. In the final pages of the Wealth of Nations, he argued that “Ireland possessed an aberrant form of social hierarchy that was incapable of sustaining a stable and prosperous commercial society.” (p. 25). He realized that reform needed to pertain to both imperial trade and the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy who dominated the Irish parliament, from which Catholics as well as Irish Presbyterians were excluded. A parliamentary union, drawing on the experience of Scotland, had the potential to restrain the power of the Anglican oligarchy in Ireland and offer new opportunities for the entire population. As he wrote in Book 5 of the Wealth of Nations:
“By the Union with England, the middling and inferior ranks of people in Scotland gained a compleat deliverance from the power of an aristocracy which had always oppressed them. By an union with Great Britain the greater part of the people of all ranks in Ireland would gain an equally compleat deliverance from a much more oppressive aristocracy; an aristocracy not founded, like that of Scotland, in the natural and respectable distinctions of birth and fortune: but in the most odious of all distinctions, those of religious and political prejudices.” (WN V.iii.89, cited in Stafford, p. 50).
For Smith, the 1707 Union between England and Scotland had aided the latter’s progress from feudalism to modern liberty. As he sought to demonstrate in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), lineage as well as wealth were natural sources of deference. In Ireland, by contrast, the social position of the ruling aristocracy was founded solely on confessional allegiance. As a result, as Smith wrote in a letter to the Earl of Carlisle, Ireland lacked
“order, police, and a regular administration of justice both to protect and to restrain the inferior ranks of people, articles more essential to the progress of Industry than both coal and wood put together, and which Ireland must continue to want as long as it continues to be divided into two hostile nations, the oppressors and the oppressed, the protestants and the papists [i.e. Catholics].” (Correspondence of Adam Smith, pp. 202-3, cited in Stafford, p. 51).
A union would benefit Ireland and Britain alike. Smith shared the concern of Hume that Britain was close to bankruptcy in the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756-63). Its fiscal and imperial system needed reform, and a parliamentary union with Ireland was a measure proposed by Smith in this spirit as he sought to encourage policymakers to shift attention from political control of markets to productivity and revenue. Under the existing system, Britain only made losses from its colonies, he emphasized. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 when Americans had protested against taxation without representation for over a decade. Smith completed the first edition of the work as these protests escalated into a rebellion that would eventually lead to separation and American independence. In his thought experiment of a pan-imperial union, all the different provinces of the British empire would pay taxes, but crucially they would also be represented in proportion to the taxes they contributed (p. 49).
Smith’s proposed union with Ireland would combine parliamentary representation with a strong executive backed by monarchical patronage. Hume and the French jurist and man of letters Montesquieu had established that free states such as the Roman Republic and eighteenth-century Britain treated colonies more harshly than civilized monarchies, in which all subjects were equally subordinate. Drawing on the arguments of Hume and Montesquieu, Smith was convinced that the monarchical element in Britain’s mixed constitution was essential for enabling Britain “to grant to its Irish dependency an equal and integral status within a unified British Empire.” (p. 49).
In short, Smith, as presented in this book, exemplified “an Enlightened critique of the British Empire in Ireland” (p. 57). This entailed a new understanding of political economy as a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator, not influenced by monopolistic interests but committed to the common good and informed by a philosophy of human nature.
The book covers many thinkers besides Smith. In several densely researched and well-written chapters, Stafford outlines what happened to understandings of Ireland between the age of Smith and American Independence and that of 1840s, at which time the British government in Ireland became a symbol of an unequal industrial society. In the late 1770s and 1780s, a Patriot movement in Ireland that wanted to break free from English restrictions on its trade arose, resulting in the Constitution of 1782 – a series of Acts passed by the Irish and British parliaments in 1782–83 which increased the legislative and judicial autonomy of the Irish Kingdom. But Catholics were still excluded from the political order. In the 1790s, in the wake of the French Revolution, a more radical reform movement emerged in Ireland. In this new environment different writers and agitators argued for Catholic emancipation and Irish independence on different grounds: the pursuit of glory and empire (Wolfe Tone) as well as cosmopolitan and Christian brotherly love (Thomas Russell).
One of the prominent champions of Catholic emancipation, Arthur O’Connor, was heavily influenced by Smith, and especially Book 3 of the Wealth of Nations. In this part of his great work, Smith distinguished between a “natural progress of opulence” and the “unnatural and retrograde order” of economic development which characterized Europe after the Roman Empire. Natural economic growth involved bottom-up development from agriculture to commerce and industry. Europe, by contrast, had developed towns and trade before advanced agriculture, as feudalism was established after the fall of commercial Rome. Large estates, entails and primogeniture prevented improvement and impeded productivity, as major landowners pursued luxury consumption rather than agricultural efficiency. His critique notwithstanding, Smith was skeptical about the possibilities of reforming the unnatural and retrograde order of modern Europe. But for O’Connor, drawing on Thomas Paine’s reading of Smith, the French Revolution demonstrated that antiquated inheritance laws such as primogeniture could be effectively removed. The Marquis de Condorcet – whose wife Sophie de Grouchy translated The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1798 – instructed O’Connor that an enlightened collective consciousness would lead to an era of “grand revolutions of the human race.” (p. 125).
The Irish Rebellion of 1798 failed. Instead of revolution, Ireland and Britain entered into a parliamentary union in 1801. Although Smith had been dead for over a decade by then, he was influential for several key thinkers in the debate about union. The reforming lawyer Theobald McKenna, who wrote for a Catholic audience in the 1790s, grounded his analysis of political behavior in the theories of “Dr. Adam Smith, an excellent judge of the springs by which men are moved.” Smith argued that Scotland had benefitted from the decrease in internal factional conflicts after the abolition of its parliament in 1707. Since Ireland was divided by religion, McKenna emphasized the urgency of “render[ing] Ireland as little as possible the scene of political activity.” (p. 150). Thomas Brooke Clarke applied Smith’s history of economic development to Ireland when he distinguished between luxury generated by commerce on the one hand and that by conquest on the other, which respectively civilized and corrupted manners. He was confident that a parliamentary union would moderate social distinction and religious enthusiasm in Ireland, just as it had done in Scotland. He wrote: “Let us remember, that through commerce the lordly yoke of feudal tyranny has been broken throughout Europe, KINGS freed from tyranny, and PEOPLE from OPPRESSION.” (p. 162).
In the nineteenth century, Stafford singles out the Swiss historian and political economist Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi as one of the most faithful readers of Smith (p. 257). Following Smith, Sismondi traced the origins of modern commercial societies in the history of Europe since the fall of Rome. However, Sismondi did not share Smith’s dislike of feudalism. Indeed, he considered the small-scale agriculture of the feudal system, in which lords had to pay attention to the interests of their vassals, as superior to the abusive farming of Rome’s plantations and modern slaving powers alike. The stable social relations of feudalism had been ruined by commercial tenures and labor conditions in modern Britain and Ireland. As a solution, he proposed peasant proprietorship for Ireland. British political economy, which Sismondi regarded as money-making without an ethical dimension, was incapable of understanding the poverty of Ireland. Instead, a science of distribution was necessary to stabilize commercial society.
One of the achievements of The Case of Ireland is its analysis of the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, from the age of Smith and Rousseau to the age of Mill and Marx. The French Revolution is often treated as a radical break, which it certainly was. The application of the rights of man and the principle of nationality altered politics in the nineteenth century. Workers eventually gained the vote and the -isms that have since defined modern politics came to the fore: liberalism, conservatism, socialism, capitalism, and nationalism. The industrial revolution transformed classes and living standards. Economics became more technical and specialized as the division of labor was applied to academic subjects. But in history there is always continuity amid change, and the doctrines and debates of the nineteenth century had deep roots in the crises of the preceding century and in the Enlightenment.
Stafford goes one step further and concludes the book by arguing that the forms of political understanding we should employ to understand the modern world are lineal descendants of that of Smith and the other thinkers considered in his book. As he writes: “We can still analyse the rivalry of modern commercial empires in terms of ‘political economy’, linking domestic political regimes and interests to the pursuit of prestige and influence abroad. Our political judgement on the dominant powers of today’s capitalism can still be formed by the manner in which they treat their most vulnerable citizens and most fragile dependencies.” (p. 260). Stafford’s learned book about Ireland is thus a must-read for anyone with an interest in what is living and what is dead in the thought of Adam Smith.
Works cited:
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (2 vols., Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982 [1776]).
Ernest Campbell Mossner and Ian Simpson Ross (eds.), Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987).