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Steuart, Smith, and the ‘system of commerce’: international trade and monetary theory in late-18th century british political economy


  • Maurício C. Coutinho

    (Universidade de Campinas)

  • Carlos Eduardo Suprinyak



Though contemporaries, Adam Smith and Sir James Steuart are commonly portrayed as men belonging to different eras. Whereas Smith went down in history both as founder of Classical Political Economy and patron of economic liberalism, Steuart became known as the last, outdated advocate of mercantilist policies in Britain. Smith himself was responsible for popularizing the notion of the ‘system of commerce’ as an approach to political economy that dominated British thought during the early modern period. As it evolved into a historiographical concept, the mercantile system came to be seen as an international trade theory grounded upon the fallacious doctrine of the favorable balance of trade. In the Wealth of Nations, however, Smith puts limited emphasis on international trade as a theoretical concern. His analysis of the subject, moreover, was marred by lack of analytical clarity, which caused him to be chastised by some among his followers who adhered more enthusiastically to the free trade cause. Given Smith’s doubtful credentials as a free trade theorist, in this paper we try to analyze the reasons that led him and Steuart to be historically placed on opposite sides of the mercantilist divide. To do so, we analyze the works of both authors in depth, showing that their disagreements in matters of economic policy have chiefly to do with different views about the role of money in the economy. Additionally, we explore how early-19th century writers helped forge the intellectual profiles of both Steuart and Smith.

Suggested Citation

  • Maurício C. Coutinho & Carlos Eduardo Suprinyak, 2018. "Steuart, Smith, and the ‘system of commerce’: international trade and monetary theory in late-18th century british political economy," Textos para Discussão Cedeplar-UFMG 575, Cedeplar, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais.
  • Handle: RePEc:cdp:texdis:td575

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    More about this item


    Free trade; money; mercantilism; Adam Smith; James Steuart;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • B11 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Preclassical (Ancient, Medieval, Mercantilist, Physiocratic)
    • B12 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Classical (includes Adam Smith)
    • E40 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates - - - General
    • F10 - International Economics - - Trade - - - General

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