Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"The Wealth of Nations," the "Sermon on the Mount," and Poverty in the Early Republic

Gabriel Loiacono, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, checks in with another report from last weekend's thirty-sixth annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in Philadelphia. Thanks for Gabriel's great work as correspondent at SHEAR for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Click here to read his previous report.
An Erudite Opera in Four Parts
SHEAR President John Larson’s presidential address, last Saturday evening, was big-thinking and light-hearted all at the same time.  Entitled “An Inquiry into Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” Larson also called his talk a comic opera in four acts.  In between the occasional comic leavening, Larson’s goal was to tackle Adam Smith’s famous work, and to pose the question: did Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” upend Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount when it comes to our attitude towards poverty?  While I can’t do justice to Larson’s whole talk, and I assume it will appear in the Journal of the Early Republic as past presidential addresses have, I can give you a taste of what it hit upon.  It traced the varying meanings of the word “Fortune,” from uncontrollable circumstances to a pile of cash.  It traced the uses to which Smith’s work was put, from his own assumptions of Christian charity and a common good to readings which stripped those assumptions away.  The villain of Act IV of Larson’s talk was undoubtedly Francis Wayland, the Baptist pastor and president of Brown University, in whose works Larson finds a sanctification of the most ruthless readings of Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” 
As a scholar of poverty, and as a teacher of the survey, I appreciated Larson’s big sweep and inclusion of poverty in the story.  I highly recommend it to all readers of the JER.  And, of course, it whet a large number of SHEAR-ites to come back for more great scholarship on Sunday morning.  Always a tough time, I was pleased to see lots of listeners in that time slot.
Signing off,