An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.London, Strahan & Cadell, 1776 Stock Code: 137336
NotesFirst edition, in fine condition and with a remarkable provenance. Best remembered now as an art collector and classicist, Richard Payne Knight was well-versed in the theories and evidence set forth in the Wealth of Nations. Eight years after inscribing this copy he published a long didactic poem called The Progress of Civil Society (1796), thoroughly imbued with Smith's theories.
"An encyclopaedic investigation into the history of mankind, progressing from international to national, and personal interrelations between peoples and people", Knight's survey of society according to its economic stages drew so heavily on Smith's theory of the four stages of history that a contemporary critic, Thomas Mathias, described it as essentially a "versification" of the Wealth of Nations, as well as of Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws and one or two other milestones of Enlightenment literature.
Knight's marginalia, numbering perhaps 200 or so and predominately concentrated in Books IV and V, demonstrate his close, thoughtful reading of the text and reveal his keen engagement with Smith's examination of competing mercantilist and physiocratic models of political economy, and with the history and role of taxation. The majority of Knight's annotations gloss the text, presumably allowing him to navigate easily to sections of particular interest: "The effects in Spain and Portugal" introduces a paragraph on coinage; short phrases such as "Bank Money", "course of exchange", "origin of American Colonies", "their destructive Administration", and "Good Effects that would spring from making the Colonies independent" work to similar effect. One or two are a little longer - for example, the final paragraph of chapter II of Book IV, on the taxation of foreign goods and freedom of trade, is closed with the comment: "The Swiss are the richest & most industrious of any inland people & their country the best cultivated - their commerce is free & unburdened with all the World."
After his grand tour of 1772 Knight immersed himself in the study of all things classical, eventually publishing works on the Greek alphabet (1791) and Homer (1808; 1820), and amassing an unrivalled collection of some 1,144 drawings, over 5,205 coins, and 800 bronzes. Subsequent trips to Europe in 1776 and 1777 cemented his love of Greek architecture and literature. During his lifetime he was renowned for the distinctive design and construction of his house in Herefordshire, known as Downton Castle, which was "a landmark in English 18th-century architecture and set the fashion for castellated buildings" (ODNB). He spent some years serving as MP, first for Leominster and then Ludlow, but his pursuits in the arts remained his primary interest. "Knight's reputation as a national arbiter of taste was confirmed by his most successful publication, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805)" (ibid.), though his standing was seriously damaged by his involvement in the Elgin marbles dispute the following decade.
In his Wealth of Nations, Smith "begins with the thought that labour is the source from which a nation derives what is necessary to it. The improvement of the division of labour is the measure of productivity and in it lies the human propensity to barter and exchange The Wealth of Nations ends with a history of economic development, a definitive onslaught on the mercantile system, and some prophetic speculations on the limits of economic control" (PMM). "The Wealth of Nations had no rival in scope or depth when published and is still one of the few works in its field to have achieved classic status, meaning simply that it has sustained yet survived repeated reading, critical and adulatory, long after the circumstances which prompted it have become the object of historical enquiry" (ODNB).
2 volumes, quarto (278 x 220 mm). Contemporary polished tree calf, twin red and green morocco spine labels with contrasting numbering pieces, smooth spine elaborately tooled in gilt, marbled endpapers, edges yellow. Housed in quarter morocco brown solander boxes with chemises by the Chelsea Bindery.
Provenance: from the library of art collector and numismatist Richard Payne Knight (1751–1824), with his ownership inscription to the half-title of vol. II, dated 1778, the same vol. with his marginalia inked throughout (with one annotation to vol. I, p. 479). With the half-title in vol. II (no half-title issued for vol. I) and the errata on title leaf verso of vol. II as called for. A fine copy, the corners very slightly rubbed, some surface abrasion to boards, the occasional gathering faintly spotted. Vol. I: Q1 cancellation stub preserving the upper margin in full length, tiny puncture to margin of 2A3 not affecting text, light offset from small pieces of paper laid-in, like bookmarks, between pp. 238-9 and 434-5. Vol. II: spillburn to fifth spine compartment, headcap delicate and a little fractured. Previous bookseller's description laid in.
Goldsmiths' 11392; Grolier, English 57; Kress 7621; Printing and the Mind of Man 221; Rothschild 1897; Tribe 9; Vanderblue, p. 3.
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