/The Spectator and the Market Miracle, by Sarah Skwire

The Spectator and the Market Miracle, by Sarah Skwire

America

Long before Adam Smith wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments or Wealth of Nations, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele began their own project to portray and educate the rising merchant classes of 18th century London. Their project—a daily paper called The Spectator[1] that was issued from 1711-1712, is a treasure trove of humor, literary criticism, political and social gossip and advice for the early 18th century man or woman on the rise. For friends of this website, it is also a delightful and important early source of thinking about markets.

Issue #69 of The Spectator, published on May 19, 1711, begins, “There is no Place in the Town which I so much love to frequent as the Royal-Exchange and the whole of the issue is devoted to the praise of trade and commerce. It amounts to a brilliant four-page love letter to the human propensity to truck, barter, and exchange. Indeed, the sight moves Joseph Addison, the author of this particular issue of The Spectator, to tears of pride and of appreciation.

Addison begins by emphasizing the international quality of the Exchange as something of a United Nations of trade.

I look upon High-Change to be a great Council, in which all considerable Nations have their Representatives. Factors in the Trading World are what Ambassadors are in the Politick World; they negotiate Affairs, conclude Treaties, and maintain a good Correspondence between those wealthy Societies of Men that are divided from one another by Seas and Oceans, or live on the different Extremities of a Continent. I have often been pleased to hear Disputes adjusted between an Inhabitant of Japan and an Alderman of London, or to see a Subject of the Great Mogul entering into a League with one of the Czar of Muscovy. I am infinitely delighted in mixing with these several Ministers of Commerce, as they are distinguished by their different Walks and different Languages: Sometimes I am jostled among a Body of Armenians; Sometimes I am lost in a Crowd of Jews; and sometimes make one in a Groupe of Dutchmen. I am a Dane, Swede, or Frenchman at different times…

 

[It is well worth noting, by the way, Addison’s sanguine acceptance of being “lost in a crowd of Jews.” Jews had only been readmitted to England in 1656, 55 years before Addison is writing, after a banishment that had lasted since 1290. In Addison’s Royal Exchange, though, they are merely another set of traders among all the other traders, and no longer the reviled and exiled outsiders of just a few decades before.]

Intriguingly, this international gallimaufry is not one in which Addison envisions national identity as permanently lost. In fact, he takes enormous national pride in the fact that this United Nations of trade is located in London. The English location “gratifies my Vanity, as I am an Englishman, to see so rich an Assembly of Countrymen and Foreigners consulting together upon the private Business of Mankind, and making this Metropolis a kind of Emporium for the whole Earth.” And it is with a further eye towards the benefits of all this trade for the English, in particular, that Addison continues his essay. The English, he argues, are from an island that is so bereft of resources that they would have nothing worth having without trade.

[Our] Melons, our Peaches, our Figs, our Apricots, and Cherries, are Strangers among us, imported in different Ages, and naturalized in our English Gardens; and that they would all degenerate and fall away into the Trash of our own Country, if they were wholly neglected by the Planter, and left to the Mercy of our Sun and Soil. Nor has Traffick more enriched our Vegetable World, than it has improved the whole Face of Nature among us. Our Ships are laden with the Harvest of every Climate: Our Tables are stored with Spices, and Oils, and Wines: Our Rooms are filled with Pyramids of China, and adorned with the Workmanship of Japan: Our Morning’s Draught comes to us from the remotest Corners of the Earth: We repair our Bodies by the Drugs of America, and repose ourselves under Indian Canopies. My Friend Sir ANDREW calls the Vineyards of France our Gardens; the Spice-Islands our Hot-beds; the Persians our Silk-Weavers, and the Chinese our Potters. Nature indeed furnishes us with the bare Necessaries of Life, but Traffick gives us greater Variety of what is Useful, and at the same time supplies us with everything that is Convenient and Ornamental. Nor is it the least Part of this our Happiness, that whilst we enjoy the remotest Products of the North and South, we are free from those Extremities of Weather which give them Birth; That our Eyes are refreshed with the green Fields of Britain, at the same time that our Palates are feasted with Fruits that rise between the Tropicks.

What saves Addison from accusations of merely wanting to make the whole world the servants of and suppliers to England is his ready acknowledgement that this trade goes both directions. “The Mahometans are clothed in our British Manufacture, and the Inhabitants of the frozen Zone warmed with the Fleeces of our Sheep.”

This paean to the glorious opportunities opened by trade is a common moment in later writing. We see it, of course, in Smith’s Wealth of Nations and later in Read’s I, Pencil. It is the literary evocation of the moment of wonder when one realizes precisely how broadly trade operates, and how far-flung are the sources of even our most commonplace objects. (A fine contemporary analogue is found in Thomas Thwaites’s book, The Toaster Project, which details his attempt to make a toaster—all by himself.) The fun of finding such a moment in The Spectator is the fun of discovering that people have been noticing such moments for so much longer than most of us think they have.

Concluding with the statement that “there are no more useful Members in a Commonwealth than Merchants. They knit Mankind together in a mutual Intercourse of good Offices, distribute the Gifts of Nature, find Work for the Poor, add Wealth to the Rich, and Magnificence to the Great,” Spectator #69 should surely find fans among fans of Econlog.

 

 

 

[1] Adam Smith owned a bound copy of all the issues of The Spectator, which was enormously popular long after the paper ceased daily publication. Considerable work has been done on the influence of Addison and Steele’s Spectator on Smith’s thinking about the impartial spectator.

 

 

Sarah Skwire is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc., and she regularly publishes at both Econlib andAdamSmithWorks.