Adam Smith in Love: “Hypotheses upon Hypotheses”

Here is yet another extended excerpt from my work-in-progress “Adam Smith in Love” (update: this excerpt was revised on 10/31):

Ian Simpson Ross, who has written the definitive biography of Adam Smith’s life, provides the most comprehensive picture to date of Smith’s amorous interludes.[1] Alas, Ross concludes that “the biographer can do little more with the topic of Adam Smith’s sex life than contribute a footnote to the history of sublimation.”[2] Nevertheless, despite its erudition, careful research, and scholarly attention to detail, Ross’s biography of Smith neglects several additional hypotheses about Adam Smith’s sexuality and love life. One intriguing hypothesis, for example, is that Adam Smith was just not attracted to women, that he was what we would call today a “closet homosexual.”[3]

Another intriguing hypothesis, perhaps the simplest and most plausible one, is that Adam Smith was involved in a secret, long-term affair with his unmarried cousin Janet Douglas (b. *?*, d. 1788), who lived in the same household all her adult life with Smith and Smith’s mother Margaret Douglas. (See, e.g., Kennedy, 2005, p. 5.) According to one source (Özler, 2012, p. 348), Janet Douglas had moved into the Smith household as early as 1754, where she remained for four decades–until her death in 1788. Given their close proximity and the number of years–nay, decades–that they lived under the same roof, this conjecture is not that far-fetched.[4] Nevertheless, such types of incestuous relationships were not only strictly forbidden by the Church of Scotland (see generally Hardy, 1978); during Adam Smith’s lifetime the sex lives of Scots were strictly monitored by the local “kirk sessions” or ecclesiastical courts of each parish. (See generally Mitchison & Leneman, 1998.) Also, how much older (or younger) was Adam Smith than his cousin?[5]

This Article will propose yet another hypothesis–a third theory, and perhaps the most plausible one. In summary, it is more likely than not that Doctor Smith did fall in love at least once, possibly twice. His first serious romantic attachment most likely occurred upon his return to his hometown of Kirkaldy in 1746 at the age of 23, i.e. after having completed his formal studies at Glasgow (1737 to 1740) and Oxford (1740 to 1746).[6] Additionally, I further conjecture that Margaret Douglas (pictured below), his strong-willed and dominating mother, must have objected to Adam Smith’s proposed union and that the young Smith acquiesced to his mother’s demands.

Although these conjectures do not appear in the literature on Adam Smith–and may sound completely far-fetched–they provide the best explanation of Smith’s early love life, especially given the available evidence (see part 3) and also given what we know about early modern Scottish society (see part 5) and Smith’s lifelong devotion to his mother. For starters, Smith’s mother, Margaret Douglas Smith, descended from a powerful, landowning family, while his father (also named Adam Smith) died a fairly rich man, leaving a large income and considerable property behind. (See Özler, 2012, pp. 346-347.) Also, Smith’s dependence on family income continued through his teen years and young adulthood (ibid., p. 346), i.e. until his initial appointment as Professor of Logic at the University of Glasgow in 1951.

Furthermore, although parental consent was not a legal requirement (see, e.g., Leneman, 1999, p. 673; see also Leneman & Mitchison, 1993, p. 845, p. 847), in early modern Scotland it was expected that “children should have the consent of their parents, or those ‘in loco parentis’, to their marriage.” (Hardy, 1978, p. 531. Cf. Leneman, 1999, p. 675, explaining why some Scottish couples resorted to clandestine marriages: “usually because the man was (or said he was) financially dependent on relations who would not approve of marrying at that stage in his life, or of his choice of wife.”) This parental consent norm was so pervasive that it “could vary from marriages arranged by parents without consideration being given to the personal wishes of their children to marriages where the child made the selection of marriage partner and the parents were expected to accede to their choice.” (Ibid., p. 531.) Moreover, this informal norm makes all the more sense given the structure of Scottish society during Adam Smith’s lifetime, a neo-feudal and deeply religious (Calvinist) society in which property, especially property in land, was held on a family basis. (Ibid., p. 528.)

Lastly, I also conjecture that Adam Smith may have fallen in love a second time at some point during his three-year Grand Tour of France (1764 to 1766), most likely during the last year of his overseas sojourn. Although the sexual aspect of European Grand Tours during this era has gone mostly unnoticed (but see Alcouffe & Massot-Bordenave, 2020, pp. 57-58), one piece of evidence in particular, a letter addressed to Adam Smith and dated 18 September 1766, appears to support both of my conjectures.

Screen Shot 2020-10-29 at 8.03.29 PM

[1] See Ross, 2010, pp. 227-228.

[2] Ibid., p. 228. Accord Harkin (2013, p. 502), who refers to a “complete dearth of information” about Adam Smith’s love life.

[3] Cf. Kennedy, 2005, p. 4: “Not surprisingly, in the absence of definite evidence occasional speculation emerges that Smith’s sexuality varied from him having an Oedipus complex to his being in a homosexual relationship with David Hume ….” See also this fascinating and thoughtful Reddit thread via r/AskHistorian, n.d.

[4] Or in the euphemistic words of one Smith scholar, Miss Douglas and Adam Smith were “quite close.” Weinstein, 2001, p. 10.

[5] Alas, I have been unable to confirm Janet Douglas’s year of birth.

[6] For a visual outline of Adam Smith’s biography, see timeline in the Online Library of Liberty, 2016. See also Wright, 2002, pp. 267-269, App. A.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to Adam Smith in Love: “Hypotheses upon Hypotheses”

  1. Pingback: Adam Smith’s Lost Loves (Part 3) | prior probability

  2. Pingback: Adam Smith in Love Update: A Fourth Conjecture | prior probability

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