Abstract: “Monopoly and its Critics in the Age of Enlightenment”

Richard R. John


The Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations both appeared in 1776. The relationship of these two texts to the economic ideas of the founders of the American republic is a historical perennial.  Much of this writing posits that American public figures rejected Adam Smith’s withering critique of government-chartered institutions such as the East India Company in their determination to hasten economic development. This paper contends, on the contrary, that a principled critique of monopoly power shaped even the best known developmental projects of the early republic.  This critique had deep roots in the colonial experience, and would informs government policy concerning patents, copyrights, and corporate charters.  Notwithstanding the oft-voiced assumption that certain large-scale projects could be undertaken only by the federal government, public figures in the United States proved far more willing than their counterparts in Britain or France to promote what the economic historians Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast have termed an “open access” order.  This paper is based on the writings of the founders, economic tracts, and the popular press.  It is part of a larger study of the antimonopoly tradition that seeks to recover a critique of concentrated economic power that antedated by many decades Andrew Jackson’s 1832 attack on the Second Bank of the United States, and that would subtly and not so subtly shape the structure of American industry from the colonial era to the present.