Between 1776 and 1815, Britain was at peace for just 10 years, notes Samuel Gregg, Acton’s Director of Research. Reading the Scottish defense of free trade without this in mind is a mistake:
It’s easy to forget that the tremendous intellectual creativity flowing from the Scottish Enlightenment occurred against a background of war. These included Britain’s participation in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the American War of Independence (1775–1783), the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Between 1776 and 1815, Britain was at peace for just 10 years.
It’s therefore unsurprising that Scottish Enlightenment luminaries like Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith were very attentive to international relations. Much of their commentary focused on Britain’s relationship with its American colonies. But their starting point on these matters was always nation-states—not aspirations towards some pan-European federation of the type sketched out in 1713 by the Abbé de Saint-Pierre in his Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe and developed by Immanuel Kant in his 1795 Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay.
Hutcheson, Hume and Smith were part of the Enlightenment’s transnational world of letters. By the standards of the time, they lived cosmopolitan lives. But they did not develop cosmopolitan affections, let alone sympathy for global governance-like projects. Instead their approach to international relations is marked by an attention to principle and deep realism about human nature.