Adam Smith Legacy

February 18, 2016
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Adam Smith, in his Lectures of Jurisprudence, makes an argument for the necessity of marriage through biological mechanisms. While superficially similar, his arguments seem to differ greatly from the modern notion of how labor is distributed within the household. Instead of examining the comparative advantages in production between the husband and the wife, Smith seems to focus on the importance of lineage and, more specifically, inheritance.

The foundation of Smith’s argument for the necessity of marriage is rooted in children. He begins with examples contrary to the human experience. He finds that in mammals, since “the support of the young is no burthen to the female” any further relation is seen as unnecessary (Smith 438). Birds, however, “some such thing as marriage seems to take place” (438). He quickly counters with: “but whenever the young can shift for themselves all further inclination ceases” (438). The essential piece of this argument here is the demands made on the parent by the child. According to his argument, the bond that ties the males to the females, amongst lesser species at least, is solely the necessity of child rearing.

Contrary to the notion of a comparative advantage, Smith places the role of the woman as mother as wholly dependent on the father as the breadwinner. “In the human species, woemen by their milk are not capable of providing long for their children” (Smith 438). Smith uses this as the foundation for the necessity of marriage. Beginning with the assumption that women are only capable of providing for children by use of their own physical selves, Smith reaches the conclusion that “the assistance of the husband is therefore necessary for [the children’s] sustenance” (438). Thus, he sees the very foundation of marriage to be a matter of the mother relying on the father to provide for the next generation.

Even in his discussion of “the duties of each of the two parties during their union, ” Smith continually sees them solely in terms of the next generation (Smith 438). It is passingly remarkable that Smith writes that “breach of chastity is the greatest of offences” (438). His arguments supporting this claim are of a greater interest to this paper. His primary objection is that “spurious children may be introduced into the family and come to the succession instead of lawfull ones” (438). It must be remembered at this point that this is primarily a discussion of juris prudence and is therefore preoccupied with the legal aspects of infidelity. However, by extension, Smith seems to be saying that it is the woman’s “first duty” is to provide a legitimate heir for the father.

This leads to one final point about marriage and inheritance. Smith considers “when female succession took place and women came to be possessed of fortunes” (Smith 467). He claims that this would lead to “a new species of marriage…which rendered the parties equally independent” (467). Smith here seems to be contradicting his reasoning for the entire purpose of marriage. When the line of succession is interrupted, or marred by the entrance of women, marriage under Smith’s model seems to break down. The very foundations of Smith’s domestic juris prudence rely on the patriarchal assumption that women are incapable of providing for the next generation.

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