Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/February 1877/Editor's Table
ABOUT a hundred gentlemen sat down to dinner at Delmonico's, December 12th, in commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the publication of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations." The occasion was an interesting one, and the various topics suggested were treated with an earnestness and ability of which the public got but a very imperfect idea through the newspaper reports. Mr. Parke Godwin presided with efficiency, and made a very instructive opening speech, which was followed by addresses from Mr. Bigelow, Mr. Atkinson, Mr. D. A. Wells, Prof. Sumner, and Dr. Anderson, of the Rochester University, each of which brought out an important aspect of the great subject of free-trade. While Adam Smith was honored as the chief historic representative of rational and liberal views in regard to the liberty of commerce, it was pointed out that his position may be easily misconceived, and his claims exaggerated. Without denying the proposition of Mr. Buckle, that Smith's "Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" is probably the most important book in its influence upon the policy of states and the economical welfare of mankind that was ever written, it was shown also that Adam Smith was but the mouth-piece of his age; that a preceding generation of inquirers had prepared for him; that the French economists were in advance of Europe in their economic views; and that an elaborate French work appeared in 1778, simultaneously with the "Wealth of Nations," in which the same conclusions were reached, and enforced with great clearness and power. As stated by Mr. Bigelow, it was but another case so common in the progress of scientific investigation, where the ideas reached belong rather to the epoch than to any individual exponent of them.
Mr. Wells gave an admirable account of the workings of the restrictive system, which burdened the industries of Europe from the middle ages down to the time of Adam Smith. He showed that the fundamental idea in all business transactions, whether between nations or individuals, was that parties trading were in necessary relations of enmity, and that what one man or one nation gained the other party inevitably lost. So radical was this antagonism regarded between men, guilds, and different countries, as to find expression in Hobbes's theory that the state of man in society is one of necessary and perpetual war. The merit of Adam Smith was, that he demonstrated the utter fallacy of this view, and proved that by the natural laws of trade the advantages of exchange are mutual, and that in its largest possible freedom there will accrue the largest possible benefits to all. Christianity had been trying for many centuries to enforce the golden rule of mutual justice as a matter of duty, to be carried out even though it involve suffering and loss; Adam Smith showed that the rule of right in human intercourse, so far as trade is concerned, produces reciprocal good, and is for the pecuniary interest of both parties.
Dr. Anderson maintained forcibly and impressively that free-trade is to be placed on the broadest grounds of morality. The liberty of commerce he held to be a God-given right as much as any other kind of liberty; and the restrictions upon trade to be just as immoral and vicious as interference with other forms of freedom. A man has a natural and inalienable right to his personal freedom of action, to the use of his muscles, and the employment of his powers, in any manner and direction that he chooses; to contravene this is slavery. A man has a right to the use of his mind, to freedom of thought and speech; and to interfere with this is. tyranny. A man also has a natural right to freedom of exchange of the products of labor, to buy and to sell, as he pleases and where he pleases; and every arbitrary impediment to this liberty is despotism. In the advance of civilization, and through the struggles of ages, personal liberty of action and thought has been secured; but it still remains to extort from governments absolute freedom of commercial intercourse, whether on a small scale or large. Dr. Anderson paid a compliment to the great abstract thinkers—Grotius, Smith, and Bentham—who, although only scholars and philosophers, have exerted a powerful influence upon the modern world; and he stated that free-trade doctrines are now taught in all our best colleges so efficiently that this influence will be certain to tell in the future settlement of the question.
Prof. Sumner took up, briefly, the present state of political economy, and remarked upon its incompleteness and the conflict of views that has recently sprung up in regard to its scope, its validity, and its permanence. While many of its questions will have to be further elucidated, while much that was at first laid down as true has required revision, and while other forms of knowledge are reacting upon and modifying it, Prof. Sumner is of the opinion that political economy must stand in the future as an established division in the classified hierarchy of the sciences.
Mr. Sanborn, of Boston, followed this line of thought in some remarks on the relation of political economy to social science. In that closer interdependence of the various forms of knowledge which has resulted from scientific investigation our views become enlarged, and it is apparent that these subjects must more and more be considered together. Political economy will suffer if studied exclusively, or with no reference to that philosophy of man and society of which it is but a part.
Dr. Leverson closed the speechmaking by an appeal to introduce the study of the rudiments of political economy in our schools. He testified, from his own large experience as a lecturer, both in England and in this country, that pupils in schools may be very early interested in an elementary knowledge of economics, or of the sources of familiar things and the business operations by which they are procured. He thought this was the proper place to begin the study of social science.
The necessity of associated action for the attainment of desirable and important public objects is generally understood, as is shown by the numerous societies and organizations for the promotion of religious, political, philanthropic, literary, historical, and scientific objects. The directions taken by such associations in respect to the interests to be promoted are, of course, various, and well represent the state of intelligence, the culture, the mental preoccupations and aspirations, of the community in which such societies are formed. As regards science, the organization of societies for its promotion has mainly had for its object the encouragement and aid of original observation and research; and, as men devoted to independent inquiry are not numerous, and are widely scattered, such associations are neither large in number nor strong in their membership and support. Moreover, from the nature of their objects they are more completely cut off from public interest, sympathy, and patronage, than any other societies. In speaking of the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Buffalo last August, we called attention to the duty of scientific men to take the public more into the account in the organization of their work, and we showed how that might be done without any detriment to the proper objects which the convention had before it. Of all the subjects that are now promoted by social combinations, that of the diffusion of science owes the least to such agencies. The work of disseminating scientific knowledge among the people goes slowly on, by means of the press, by schools, and by lectures; but it would be much more vigorously prosecuted if it were made a distinctive and prominent object, either in associations expressly formed for the purpose, or in societies that combine different lines of effort in the general purpose of popular instruction. It is gratifying to note the multiplication of scientific academies in the leading cities of the country, which bring together observers and investigators, and call out original contributions that prove to be valuable and worthy of publication in an annual volume of "Transactions." But such associations can only be sustained at the larger centres of population, and even there they must struggle hard to maintain their existence. But if these, bodies embraced within their plans, as a leading ana permanent object, the diffusion of science through the community and the scattering of valuable information upon practical subjects, there can be little doubt that they would be better sustained, both by attendance at their meetings and by the contribution of funds to carry on their operations. Moreover, in the smaller cities and towns, where the higher work of science is impracticable from the fewness of its cultivators, societies promotive of popular scientific education might be created that would do efficient and valuable service. Scientific libraries might be collected, scientific essays contributed, and followed by instructive discussions, and courses of lectures secured from competent men on subjects that would enlist the attention and secure the liberal patronage of the public. In every town of five or ten thousand inhabitants a dozen active, thoughtful, and spirited men might be found, competent to organize and manage such a society, that would effect much good in the locality; and, if adjacent towns did the same thing, much might be gained in various ways by coöperation. Only one thing is needed to achieve this result, and that is, a hearty interest and some enthusiasm in the enterprise on the part of a few individuals to carry it on.
We by no means claim that such an association should be exclusively scientific in its aims. It might embrace literature, local history, political economy, and various social questions, among its objects. We only urge that the popular diffusion of scientific information should be an essential element and a clearly-recognized object. From such modest and perhaps ill-defined beginnings valuable and lasting institutions have often arisen. We have met with some remarks in a paper on the "Historical Societies of the United States," contributed to the Report of the Bureau of Education in Washington by Dr. Henry II. Holmes, Librarian of the New York State Library at Albany, which are so suggestive in relation to this subject that we take the liberty of quoting them:
"It may be urged as an objection that some of our societies have commenced with the title of 'historical and philosophical,' and have not been remarkably successful. Others, however, have tried the plan of conjoined aims, and congratulate themselves on the result. The Essex Institute of Salem, Massachusetts, was formed in 1848 from the union of a county historical and a county natural history society, and organized on a popular basis of large membership, having at the present time four hundred and eighty members. With the aid of historical and scientific workers it is prosecuting both branches with an efficiency, as shown by its publications, which must compel imitation. The Albany Institute, New York, has been perpetuated with varying fortunes for forty-six years, and has four departments of research—physical science and the arts, natural history, history, and general literature. It has at no time been so promising an organization as at the present, when it has been extended to a membership of two hundred and four. A similar successful society is the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, England, founded in 1846, which has over two hundred members, and has published twenty-eight volumes of its 'Transactions.' The subjects treated of in these conform, in fair proportion of literature, history, and science, to the name of the society. One motive assigned in its constitution for organizing the society, 'to modify the local tendency to the pursuit of commerce,' is capable of receiving a wider application.
"We have purposely alluded to the large membership in these three societies, because a late scientific writer, speaking of the frequent failures of the learned societies of the United States, declares that they have died from 'a constant enlargement of the range of membership, and consequent lowering of the tone of the society' (North American Review, October, 1874). And yet we draw from this same writer the two facts that the membership of the leading English societies ranges from four hundred to one thousand or several thousand members, and that the annual tax on each member is from two to four guineas. We should infer from these facts that, by a large membership, an abundant income is secured for the purposes of a society, and that the original papers of the men of science who are joined with them can be published, and the expense of their investigations provided for. A large membership secures friends, an audience, an income, and elevates the purposes and aims of all. Some aid by active efforts, some by pecuniary help, and all by the sympathy of a common purpose. Membership is not a reward of merit, acquired for achievements in literature or science, but an encouragement and a stimulus both to the less learned and the most learned. It ought not to be difficult to combine the man of research with the intelligent aspirant for knowledge, who educates himself for similar researches by means of the companionship. To the man of science or invention it must be desirable that he should have the encouragement of a listening audience, and be brought in contact with men of varied pursuits, outside of his specialty. It affords him an opportunity at least to utter his words of scientific truth before his fellow-citizens. To make an addition to the sum of human knowledge, or to diffuse and inspire a love of it, may be of equal importance to humanity.
"In suggesting this combination of varied objects of pursuit, we are not, of course, supposing that academies of scientists can be founded everywhere; but we cannot resist the belief that in most counties and towns there will be found a sufficient number of men of education, of all professions, occupations, and opinions, disposed to unite for the mutual pursuit of history, science, and the arts; and that they will engage in it, not in a spirit of exclusiveness, but of benevolence, aiming to develop a love for the most elevated and accurate forms of knowledge. It should be easy, in a multitude of places, for associations formed with these blended purposes to sustain twice a month, or even weekly, during a large part of the year, meetings for the purpose of listening to papers, original or compiled, from members or invited speakers, or for the discussion of any topic introduced. By some such method as this, local societies would become schools of thought and learning for the active members of the community in hundreds of our towns and cities. There might naturally follow a union of the societies of a State under a general society, for the publication of such papers as might be deemed suitable.
"The extensive formation of such societies throughout the land seems so full of promise and so potent for good as to justify the establishment of a national society for the organization of associations for the pursuit of knowledge. Such a society might initiate efforts which would have the cordial support of co-workers in every State of the Union. The original name of our oldest learned society, the American Philosophical, of which Franklin was the first president, was 'The American Society for Promoting and Propagating Useful Knowledge.' The title is an indication of the expanded and benevolent designs of its founders. This society had, also, its standing committee on history and commerce. If the Smithsonian Institution, founded 'for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,' should be able to incorporate, with its present benefactions to science, the support of an agency for encouraging such societies as have been described, it might be hoped it would not be a departure from the spirit of its founder. It would be an agency, by whatever association it should be controlled, for introducing and promoting a plan for enlisting tens of thousands in the direct study of science, art, and history. Such societies would be the means of educating many communities to a loving appreciation of scientific investigations, and of correct views of human history. They would contribute incalculably to the progress of American society and to the happiness of millions."