Adam Smith & the Rock of Ages

By Dave Crater

    Editor's Note: March 1 has been observed as Adam Smith Day here in Backbone Colorado USA each year since the early 1990s, at the instigation of John Andrews and the Independence Institute's Dave Kopel. Dave Crater evidently approves.

How delightful to learn that Andrews and Kopel have set up an Ebenezer stone (explanation to follow) with their annual tribute to Scottish, Western, and economics great Adam Smith. I suspect this March 1 observance is not merely a public reminder to Colorado of the roots of American economic order and the giant who put those roots in the ground. I suspect it also has Ebenezer value to them as a personal reminder of many years laboring together in the American West for what prior generations liked to call, and what a few Coloradans are still fond of calling, the Permanent Things.

To explain, for the benefit of less-informed readers and Jay Bennish pupils: Ebenezer stones and the permanent things go together. One is a reminder, a landmark, of the other. The first Ebenezer stone (in the Hebrew, a “stone of help") was set up by the prophet Samuel around 1000 B.C. to commemorate a Jewish victory over the denizens of what is today the Gaza Strip (I Sam. 7:12) -- and to resist what American school teachers like Bennish now pursue with vigor: amnesia, apathy, and arrogance toward great souls of prior generations who set the world aflame with their wisdom and virtue.

Such modern public amnesia, apathy, and arrogance is even more marked in its expression toward the Invisible Hand whose silent operation Smith noted and who still sets great souls aflame. Smith, for example, 17 years prior to his 1776 economic epic The Wealth of Nations (five editions of which had appeared before the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789) had educated the West in moral philosophy with his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments. Even if one is without other Ebenezer help, one can form the impression from the life and magna opera of Smith that free market economics and moral principle are handmaidens rather than antagonists.

Great publishing in the year 1776 had begun in January with the sensational publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a monograph that contrasted with Paine’s later writings in its use of the Bible – Ebenezer stones and all – to argue for republican government. Old Testament Israel, after all, had not originally been designed as a monarchy, but a republic, and it was only the Jewish failure to observe and remember the Ebenezers that led to their political decline from republic to tyranny.

The story was not wasted on an American nation struggling to emerge from under a tyrant’s boot. They turned to their Bibles and read anew that the first Ebenezer was the last recorded deed performed by Samuel before the sons of Abraham demanded a king (I Kings 7-8), forcing Samuel to warn against the liberty-deprived future awaiting them: “[The king] will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants…He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants.” (v. 14-15)

A tax rate of 10% was the government oppression to come? With tax rates in the modern bureaucratic state approaching 40% for the rich and 25% for the middle classes, such a monarchy is today but a wisp of a wistful dream in free imaginations where Adam Smith is still hallowed.

The climax and consummation of 1776 literature, however, was December. That single month produced not only Smith’s Wealth of Nations, but also Edward Gibbon’s magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Paine’s second revolutionary volley, The American Crisis (“These are the times that try men’s souls.”).

That summer, Catholic missionaries searching for a better route from Santa Fe to California had first crossed what was to become the state of Colorado. In August, Smith’s philosophical countryman David Hume, who, contra Smith, was to become inspiration for Enlightenment skeptics everywhere over the next two centuries, had died. In September, Yankee patriot Nathan Hale had been caught spying on the British and had departed this mortal realm with a manlier spirit than Hume -- and a ringing line that was to haunt every generation of American school children until Jay Bennish: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Like all times that try men’s souls, the year 1776 not only produced good economics, good history, good exploration, and good republican government. It also produced good hymnody. Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship by Englishman Augustus Toplady appeared that year, and it gave us the timeless “Rock of Ages,” which is still a Sunday morning Ebenezer stone for Christian congregations worldwide:

    While I draw this fleeting breath, When mine eyes shall close in death, When I soar to worlds unknown, See Thee on Thy judgment throne, Rock of Ages cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee.

This was the world Adam Smith inhabited -- a world inhabited also by great ideas, great heroism, and knowledge of the Invisible Hand. And this world with all its Ebenezer stones still lives, for those weary travelers and weary nations seeking economic and moral wisdom from Smith, and economic, social, political, and spiritual shelter from the Rock of Ages.