Animating the Public Spirit
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Adam Smith
civic education
public spirit
public spiritedness
civic virtue
constitutional education
theory of moral sentiments
wealth of nations

How to Cite

Animating the Public Spirit: Adam Smith on Conscience, Constitutions, and Civic Education. (2023). The Political Science Reviewer, 47(1), 295-322.


Adam Smith believed that the civic virtue of “public spirit” is prerequisite for stable and just government. Yet according to Smith, the very societies that adopt the economic principles Smith promotes in The Wealth of Nations face serious difficulties when it comes to promoting public spiritedness. For Smith, civic educators can employ their students’ capacities for self-love and selflessness to motivate public spiritedness. In particular, educators can build upon citizens’ “love of system” by teaching about the nation’s constitution and laws. Taught in this way, constitutional education constitutes the educator’s most powerful tool in promoting public spiritedness. However, Smith argues that public spiritedness must be moderated by an active conscience; otherwise, public spiritedness can lead to factional conflict and the rise of ambitious leaders who will overthrow constitutions and refound states. Thus, constitutional education is necessary, but not sufficient, in promoting the public spirit; an active conscience and the exercise of other civic virtues are required. In this way, Smith speaks directly to our civic divisions today by demonstrating that not only are constitutional knowledge and civic virtues like public spiritedness both eminently worth seeking, but civic educators also can and ought to see them as mutually reinforcing and even requisite to avoid dangers inherent in capitalist liberal democracies like the United States.
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