An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations … In two volumes. Vol. I [– II].

London, W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776.

Two vols, 4to (c. 282 x 220 mm), pp. I: [xii], 510, II: [iv], 587, [1 (publisher’s advertisements)]; with the half-title to vol. II (not required in vol. I), without the final blank in vol. I, contemporary ink correction in vol. I to the mis-signed ‘Z3’ (i.e. 2Z3); lower corner of 3S and 3T creased, some light offsetting with occasional spotting, the initial and final leaves in each vol. and the upper margin of a couple of leaves in vol. I lightly foxed, but a very good set; bound with generous margins in contemporary British speckled calf, skilfully rebacked to style with contrasting red and green gilt morocco lettering- and numbering-pieces; contemporary armorial bookplate of Viscount Sydney to pastedown of each volume, later armorial bookplates of Sir Alfred Moritz Mond, first Baron Melchett (1868–1930) to front free endpapers, with the loosely inserted armorial bookplates of Henry and Gwen Melchett (originally been pasted over the Sydney bookplates); a highly desirable copy, housed in a modern brown cloth clamshell box with gilt red morocco lettering-piece.


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First edition, a copy of remarkable provenance, of ‘the first and greatest classic of modern economic thought’ (Printing and the Mind of Man) and the most important account of the tenets and the rise of capitalism.

The Wealth of Nations was ‘the first major expression’ of the modern theory ‘that the individual had the right to be unimpeded in the exercise of economic activity’ (Printing and the Mind of Man). ‘Where the political aspects of human rights had taken two centuries to explore, Smith’s achievement was to bring the study of economic aspects to the same point in a single work … The certainty of its criticism and its grasp of human nature have made it the first and greatest classic of modern economic thought’ (ibid.). ‘The first edition of the Wealth of Nations was published a few months before the revolt of Britain’s North American colonies reached its climax in the Declaration of Independence. During the last stages of composition Smith was “very zealous in American affairs” … He may even have delayed publication in order to complete those parts of his general treatment of colonies that contained his analysis of the underlying causes of the deteriorating American situation and his remedies for dealing with its most likely consequences’ (Winch, p. 3).

This copy, one of likely only 500 or 750 printed, belonged to Thomas Townshend, first Viscount Sydney (1732–1800), the British politician after whom the cities of Sydney in Australia and in Nova Scotia are named. He held several important cabinet posts in the eighteenth century, serving as Home Secretary between 1783 and ’89 in Pitt’s administration. He devised the plan to settle convicts at Botany Bay. His choice of title when created a viscount in 1789, referring pointedly to Townshend’s ancestor Algernon Sidney (d. 1683), in contemporary political parlance would have been a resonant synonym with opposition to tyranny and absolutism – it was in this spirit that Sydney gave the new colony a constitution and judicial system suitable for a colony of free citizens. ‘Townshend was an anomaly in the British Cabinet … He had long been interested in the way in which the empire might be a medium for British liberties, traditionally understood’ (A. Atkinson, 1997). His philosophy was accurately captured in Governor Phillip’s statement that ‘There will be no slavery in a new country and hence no slaves’.

In the Wealth of Nations Sydney would have found the fullest justification for his stance in economic terms: in particular, reading Book III he must have reflected upon the economic irrationality of slavery, with evidence mustered to show that slave masters’ short-sighted desire for power makes them incapable of ‘foresee[ing] how much this regulation must obstruct improvement, and thereby hurt in the long-run the real interest of [them and] the landlord’ (III.ii.16).

Carpenter XXVII; Einaudi 5328; Glasgow Edition 1; Goldsmiths’ 11392; Kress 7621; PMM 221; Rothschild 1897; Tribe 9; Vanderblue, p. 3.

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