The conspicuous timing of the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and America’s Declaration of Independence, separated by only a few months in 1776, has attracted a great deal of historical attention. America’s revolution was in large part motivated by the desire to break free from British mercantilism and engage the principles, both material and ideological, found in Smith’s work. From 1776 to the present day, the preponderance of capitalism in American economic history and the influence of The Wealth of Nations in American intellectual culture have contributed to the conventional wisdom that America and Smith enjoy a special relationship. After all, no nation has consistently pursued the tenets of Smithian-inspired capitalism, mainly free and competitive markets, a commitment to private property, and the pursuit of self-interests and profits, more than the United States.
The shadow of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations looms large over America. But a closer look at American economic thought and practice demonstrates that Smith’s authority was not as dominant as the popular history assumes. Although most Americans accepted Smith’s work as the foundational text in political economy and extracted from it the cardinal principles of intellectual capitalism, its core values were twisted, turned, and fused together in contorted, sometimes contradictory fashions. American economic thought also reflects the widespread belief that the nation would trace an exceptional course, distinct from the Old World, and therefore necessitating a political economy suited to American traditions and expectations. Hybrid capitalist ideologies, although rooted in Smithian-inspired liberalism, developed within a dynamic domestic discourse that embraced ideological diversity and competing paradigms, exactly the kind expected from a new nation trying to understand its economic past, establish its present, and project its future.
Likewise, American policymakers crafted legislation that brought the national economy both closer to and further from the Smithian ideal. Hybrid intellectual capitalism—a compounded ideological approach that antebellum American economic thinkers deployed to help rationalize the nation’s economic development—imitated the nation’s emergent hybrid material capitalism. Labor, commodity, and capital markets assumed amalgamated forms, combining, for instance, slave and free labor, private and public enterprises, and open and protected markets. Americans constructed different types of capitalism, reflecting a preference for mixtures of practical thought and policy that rarely conformed to strict ideological models. Historians of American economic thought and practice study capitalism as an evolutionary, dynamic institution with manifestations in traditional, expected corners, but historians also find capitalism demonstrated in unorthodox ways and practiced in obscure corners of market society that blended capitalist with non-capitalist experiences. In the 21st century, the benefits of incorporating conventional economic analysis with political, social, and cultural narratives are widely recognized. This has helped broaden scholars’ understanding of what exactly constitutes capitalism. And in doing so, the malleability of American economic thought and practice is put on full display, improving scholars’ appreciation for what remains the most significant material development in world history.