The good temper and moderation of contending factions seems to be the most essential circumstance in the publick morals of a free people. But the factions of the Greeks were almost always violent and sanguinary; whereas, till the time of the Gracchi, no blood had ever been shed in any Roman faction, and from the time of the Gracchi the Roman republick may be considered as in reality dissolved. (Wealth of Nations, Book V)
Let's leave aside Smith's embrace of mythic history here (even if he rejects the death of Remus as even more mythic, he is familiar enough with Livy to know better). In context Smith is offering an empirical attack on a theory proposed by Montesquieu (who drew on "the very respectable authority of Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius"--some other time we need to discuss the significance of the loss of Polybius from our collective philosophical memory) that Greek musical education of the young (a kind of military-gymnastics) has no positive impact on their public morals. Here Smith leaves open which institution does produce "good temper and moderation of contending factions," or if it is a matter of chance.
Elsewhere, in a different context, he explains the source of moderation by pointing at the experiences of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania: "This plan of ecclesiastical government, or more properly of no ecclesiastical government..has been established in Pensylvania, where, though the Quakers happen to be the most numerous the law in reality favours no one sect more than another, and it is there said to have been productive of this philosophical good temper and moderation." (Wealth of Nations, V.) That is to say, he takes the lesson of Hume's Natural History of Religion (where in the context of extensive treatment of the Romans the link between polytheism and mutual toleration is nicely established), and then uses it as a political argument against state control over religion (as favored by Hobbes, Spinoza and Hume) in favor of freedom of religion (and state neutrality among competing sects).
Though the accession of the Prince of Orange to the throne might at first give occasion to many disputes, and his title be contested, it ought not now to appear doubtful, but must have acquired a sufficient authority from those three princes, who have succeeded him upon the same title. Nothing is more usual, though nothing may, at first sight, appear more unreasonable, than this way of thinking. Princes often seem to acquire a right from their successors, as well as from their ancestors; and a king, who during his life-time might justly be deemed an usurper, will be regarded by posterity as a lawful prince, because he has had the good fortune to settle his family on the throne, and entirely change the antient form of government. Julius Caesar is regarded as the first Roman emperor; while Sylla and Marius, whose titles were really the same as his, are treated as tyrants and usurpers. (David Hume, Treatise, 3.2.10; emphasis added.)
As I pointed out Hume is echoing Hobbes's claim that (a) attempted rebellion is against reason and unjust. Yet (b) a successful rebellion can create lawful sovereignty. I am not claming that Hume and Hobbes are identical. Recall that in treating of Ceasar Hume, echoing Machiavelli, emphasizes fortune, while when Hobbes turns to the case of Julius Ceasar he had described how the impact of Caesar's success "may be resembled to the effects of witchcraft."
Okay, let's return to Adam Smith. In another passage, Smith writes that "Men of republican principles have been jealous of a standing army as dangerous to liberty. It certainly is so, wherever the interest of the general and that of the principal officers are not necessarily connected with the support of the constitution of the state. The standing army of Caesar destroyed the Roman republick." (Wealth of Nations, Book V) As my friend Leon Montes has pointed out the issue of a standing army exercised eighteenth century Scots. Either way, here it seems that Smith is agreeing with Hume that Caesar caused the downfall of the Roman republic. But Smith's wording is very careful: it is not Caesar, but his standing army that destroyed it. This may seem mere semantics (either way the Roman republic ends), but, of course, the very fact of a standing army preceded Caesar, and this is why the comment on the Gracchi is so significant; if the Roman republic was dissolved in the age of the Gracchi (who lived many generations before Caesar), Smith is basically claiming that Caesar should not be thought an usurper because there was, in fact, no legitimate authority anymore.
If so, this would be an elaboration and making precise of Hobbes' claim that Caesar's actions were the natural and inevitable consequences of a badly formed, "imperfect constitution" that causes great "diseases" (i.e., recurring civil war); in such a situation the resumption of lawful government will "resemble an unjust act" which will motivate others to rebel. Until a "Pompey or Caesar" are the agents that facilitate the "setting up of monarchy." In badly ordered constitutions appearing to defend the legal order is apparently worse than creating a new, more secure order.
My quasi-Hobbesian reading of Smith on this matter may seem very speculative. But there is evidence that Smith had something like this in mind, too. Because elsewhere in Wealth of Nations he writes:
The admission of the greater part of the inhabitants of Italy to the privileges of Roman citizens, completely ruined the Roman republick. It was no longer possible to distinguish between who was and who was not a Roman citizen. No tribe could know its own members. A rabble of any kind could be introduced into the assemblies of the people, could drive out the real citizens, and decide upon the affairs of the republick as if they themselves had been such. But though America send fifty of sixty new representatives to parliament, the door–keeper of the house of commons could not find any great difficulty in distinguishing between who was and who was not a member. Though the Roman constitution, therefore, was necessarily ruined by the union of Rome with the allied states of Italy, there is not the least probability that the British constitution would be hurt by the union of Great Britain with her colonies. That constitution, on the contrary, would be completed by it, and seems to be imperfect without it. (Wealth of Nations, Book V).
The (1776) context is Smith's desperate and doomed effort to save a British North-Atlantic empire; he does by creating a useful philosophic prophecy that the British constitution would be "completed" by such a parliamentary union of Great Britain and her colonies. (Smith talent for such prophecy was better served in other areas of life.) Either way, for Smith the Roman republic was destroyed by an ill-conceived constitutional change long before Ceasar and his adopted son lived. (Smith's vocabulary of "imperfection" matches Hobbes' sans witchcraft). So, Caesar could not be thought an usurper because his army merely finished off a republic made so imperfect that nothing could save it (notice the modality of necessity in Smith). This (the admission of the greater part of the inhabitants of Italy to the privileges of Roman citizens) is by the way an instance of Smith diagnosing unintended bad consequences.
The previous sentence would be a good place to stop this post. But is then Smith's embrace of the constitution of Great Britain fundamentally an endorsement of Locke and the Whig settlement of 1688? There is a lot to be said about this. But I close with a reflective glance at another passage:
Our obsequiousness to our superiors [i.e., kings and princes] more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their good-will . . . Neither is our deference to their inclinations founded chiefly, or altogether, upon a regard to the utility of such submission, and to the order of society, which is best supported by it. Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it. That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature. (The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), I.iii.3)
The quoted passage is a classic set-piece from Adam Smith. In it, he dismisses, first, the idea that an appreciation of the utility of our whole system of laws, and the order they provide, can, as Hume thinks, be the whole or chief source of our acceptance of authority (e.g., Treatise, 184.108.40.206). Moreover, as Smith explains, “it is seldom this consideration which first animates us” against “licentious practices.” All men, “even the most stupid and unthinking, abhor fraud, perfidy, and injustice, and delight to see them punished. But few men have reflected upon the necessity of justice to the existence of society, how obvious soever that necessity may appear to be” (TMS II.ii.3.9). In fact, Smith devotes the whole of Part IV of TMS to a respectful criticism of Hume’s views, which he thinks more suitable to “men of reflection and speculation” (TMS IV.2.12)—note the irony in Smith taking Hume’s explanation to task for being too reflective!)
Second, Smith grants the rationality and (even) morality ("we should") of the Lockean arguments for the right of revolution (in chapter 19 of the second Treatise). However, he thinks that, in practice, philosophical reason has little hold on us and that there are natural authority relations between superiors and inferiors that can maintain themselves despite their manifest unfairness by relying on psychological mechanisms of submissions (see also here). [Smith may have underestimated the hold that philosophically informed ideology can have over us, although in the sixth edition of TMS he added concerns over how "spirit of system" can corrupt our moral sentiments. (The previous paragraph draws on my joint work with Spencer Pack.)]Qua (moral) philosopher Smith embraces the Lockean stance. But his analysis of man as a political animal also has a Hobbesian streak, but not slavishly so.