The ambitious, accommodative Adam Smith.

Author:Rashid, Salim
Position:18th century Scottish economist and free trade advocate

If the cause of liberty needs saints to be made palatable, then the arguments for liberty may be in deep trouble. Unmindful of this point, biographies of Adam Smith suggest that any attack on the saintliness of Smith's character sullies the case for economic liberty. (The writings of the late Murray Rothbard are an honorable exception.)(1) Having long believed that the case for freedom of trade has little to do with The Wealth of Nations (Rashid 1990, 1992a), I present here a quite different view of Smith. I maintain that Smith was "street-smart"; that he was a radical; that he manipulated the establishment for his own advancement; and that his strategy succeeded largely because by 1776 the intellectual struggle for free trade had already been won. Smith only shot the wounded after the battle.

Friends in High Places

Believing in the principle that one's first acquaintance with someone should be favorable, I always advise my students to begin learning about Adam Smith by reading E. G. West's Adam Smith (1976) or, if they can get it, Francis Hirst's Adam Smith (1904). However, a great deal more can be said about Smith that is relevant to an evaluation of the nature of The Wealth of Nations and its reception.

Smith's practical political savvy is the least appreciated part of his character. He took care to introduce himself to, and stay in the good graces of, the political elite, such as Duke Archibald, who was often called the King of Scotland because of his power. The ceremonious openings and closings of Smith's letters to the elite clearly suggest the relationship of client to patron (Rae [1895] 1965, 103, 341). The postscript of a letter from David Hume indicates the importance of such links. Apparently Smith had been touched by accusations of heresy, perhaps because of his friendship with Hume, who wrote back confidently: "P.S. Lord Milton can with his finger stop the foul mouths of all the Roarers against heresy" (Rae [1895] 1965, 133).

Smith's practical abilities were widely appreciated at the University of Glasgow, where he was a professor from 1751 to 1763. College records show that he was a valued member of committees and was even sent to London in 1761 to transact business for the college (Rae [1895] 1965, 153). Later he carefully and capably handled his bureaucratic duties in the customs office. One way to reconcile these facts with the traditional portrayal of an archetypal absentminded professor is by assuming that Smith possessed a power of enormous concentration that enabled him to handle very competently such practical affairs as he thought necessary to deal with, but that this work was always an effort.

As Smith's airs of vacancy were both characteristic and well known from his Glasgow days, it is hard to believe that he would have been seen as a suitable tutor to young men or that Charles Townshend, a leading member of Pparlaiment, would not have been put off by such a reputation, unless Smith took special pains to soften this image. The extant correspondence does suggest that Smith was particular about his aristocratic pupils. W. R. Scott (1937, 317) was confident that Smith wrote the manuscript known as the Early Draft of The Wealth of Nations specifically to remind Townshend of his suitableness as tutor to the young duke of Buccleuch.

Smith's membership in various clubs served to keep him in touch with a Who's Who of Scottish life.

The [Select] Society was established and met with the most rapid and remarkable success. The fifteen original members soon grew to a hundred and thirty, and men of the highest rank as well as literary name flocked to join it. Kames and Monboddo, Robertson and Ferguson and Hume, Carlyle and John Home, Blair and Wilkie and Wallace, the statistician; Islay Campbell and Thomas Miller, the future heads of the Court of Session; the Earls of Sutherland, Hopetoun, Marchmont, Morton, Rosebery, Erroll, Aboyne, Cassilis, Selkirk, Glasgow, and Lauderdale, Lords Elibank, Garlies, Gray, Auchinleck, and Hailes; John Adam, the architect, Dr. Cullen, John Coutts, the banker and member for the city; Charles Townshend, the witty statesman; and a throng of all that was distinguished in the country, were enrolled as members. (Rae [1895] 1965, 108)

Smith also touched all the right bases during his stay in France. He "went more into society in the few months he resided in Paris than at any other period of his life. He was a regular guest in almost all of the famous literary salons of that time -- Baron d'Holbach's, Helvetius', Mademoiselle l'Espinasse's, and probably Madame Necker's" (Rae [1895] 1965, 197).

Smith was always cautious about his political connections. He appreciated eighteenth-century realities and looked before he leaped. In writing the Early Draft of The Wealth of Nations to impress Charles Townshend, Smith was undoubtedly aware of the lucrative potential of an appointment as tutor. Even with the ample pension from the Buccleuch tutorship, Smith seemed concerned about the rivalry of Sir James Steuart as adviser to the East India Company in 1772. Whatever he may have written about the serenity of true philosophy, he was not indifferent to being in control of influence. Nor was such influence to...

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