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Monday, July 30, 2012

Thomas Salmon -- Present State of Nations (1744)

My family happens to own copies of the first two volumes of Thomas Salmon's 1744's "Modern History, or The Present State of All Nations," in which Salmon goes through nation after nation, discussing the history, geography, culture, and attitudes of each nation of the world, one by one.  Apparently, he also wrote 11 separate volumes on England itself.  I haven't read very far in the book, and for all I know the author has been deservedly forgotten for many years.  Nevertheless, it was an impressive effort, and although much of it seems based on hearsay, the author's earnestness and desire to impart truth seems to come through on every page. 

I was particularly struck by the introduction (reproduced in part below, courtesy of Google Books), where Salmon explains that he believes that "all men are naturally inclined to acts of humanity and benevolence, and it is only prejudice and an unhappy education, which induce them to commit acts of cruelty and injustice, and treat strangers with inhumanity."  He knows of "scarce instance" where a native people behaved rudely or barbarously to foreigners without provocation.  Although he dedicates the book to his King, on the first page of the introduction he makes it clear that he feels that the conquering Europeans, and not the natives, of Asia and America are the "barbarians," and that European barbarity tends to confirm the natives in their superstition, rather than provide a basis for conversion to Christianity.  It is clear that he is talking about the English here, because he goes on to discuss the shortcomings of England's attempt to spread Protestantism as compared to the Catholicism spread by other European conquerors.  Here's the passage I'm talking about:



So it's good to know that even then, at least some educated Englishmen understood that English expansionism was being carried out in a less than charitable manner.

So what does this have to do with this blog?  Just that it's a tidy historical (and possibly metaphorical) example of the imperfections of unregulated capitalism. It's another example where letting people act in their "self-interest" certainly can accomplish the goals of a nation (conquest and tribute), but is not necessarily good for humanity in general.  When a conquering adventurer (think Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro; I can't name their less-famous British counterparts) took control of a new land, he almost always treated the natives abominably, while sending vast profits back to the mother-land.  Today we often assume that the maltreatment was the result of innate cruelty or prejudice, but really, it was nothing more or less than self-interest (the great god Profit), placed above the interest of others.  It's the same sort of self-interest that allows those who profit off of the meat industry to simply ignore the suffering that they are inflicting on the animals that they raise, torture, and slaughter.  And those who benefit from that cruelty -- those of us who can't resist a tasty lamb chop, veal, or hamburger -- should probably question where their meals are coming from.

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