Skip to content

Invisible Hands and Ghostly Spectators

Invisible Hands and Ghostly Spectators Shapero Rare Books

June 2023 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith (1723-1790), one of Britain’s greatest political economists and moral philosophers. Today his name conjures up images of merchantmen and free trade, but it took time for Smith’s ideas to gain the acceptance they now enjoy.
Invisible Hands and Ghostly Spectators Shapero Rare Books

When his totemic Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was first published in 1776 most reviewers, whilst supporting Smith’s advocacy of free trade, remained unconvinced that any changes in policy recommended by the work were necessary. At its heart, Smith’s study is an investigation into what makes certain countries prosperous and others not so. Its genius lies in locating the roots of this comparative wealth in the specialisation of labour which had occurred in developed economies over the preceding decades, making him one of the earliest observers of what we now call the Industrial Revolution.

Given its lukewarm reception, all expectations were surpassed when the entire print run (thought to number between 500 and 750 copies) sold-out within the first six months of printing. Many of these are now in institutional collections. It is a privilege therefore to be able to offer such a beautiful copy of the first edition. Our Wealth of Nations has unusually wide margins, which have been put to good use with the addition of insightful annotations summarising Smith’s arguments.

Two years passed until a new edition was issued in 1778, and another six until the third edition was printed in 1784. Thereafter the Wealth of Nations was reissued in a revised format almost every other year making the eighteenth-century editions of this cornerstone text eminently collectable in all their subtle variations.

Our copy of the seventh edition published in 1793 retains the contemporary tree calf binding so characteristic of English books from the eighteenth century. It also includes the printed statistical tables first incorporated into the text in 1784, which help elucidate Smith’s case study of the White Herring Fishery on the effects of tonnage bounty.

Wealth of Nations has never been out of print, which means that anyone can own a copy of this seminal work. As with the editions of the late eighteenth century, the nineteenth brought even more variety to the publication of the text.  The 1890 edition begins with a critical biography of the author written by Smith’s near-contemporary Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. A fellow Scot, Stewart did much to promote Smith at a time when the French Revolution occluded a more radical approach to political reform.

As a result, Smith’s influence can be felt at almost every turn over the following decades. He appears in Darwin’s most radical work on evolution, The Descent of Man, as a foil to Darwin’s ‘instinct’ theory of human sympathy.  John Maynard Keynes calls upon Smith in his own era-defining attempt to solve the global crisis caused by laissez-faire economics: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published 160 years after Wealth of Nations first appeared. Copies like ours in the original dust jacket are scarce.

It is perhaps fitting that we should end here with Smith where macroeconomics truly begins. Yet just before his death in 1946, Keynes confided in Henry Clay, advisor to the Bank of England, of his hope that Smith’s ghostly spectator could still be prevailed upon to help Britain in its hour of need, as he found himself ‘more and more relying for a solution of our problems on the invisible hand which I tried to eject from economic thinking twenty years ago’.

Previous article Diaghilev
Next article Epic Everest

Leave a comment

* Required fields

Enjoy reading our blog?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay in the know!

About Us

About Us

Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

Shop online and enjoy free international shipping now.


read more

Your cart is empty

Continue shopping