In a private letter dated 14 July 1794, four years and three days after the death of Adam Smith, Dr James Currie mentions that Adam Smith visited the small town of Abbeville in northwest France. Currie’s letter does not say when Smith was there or for how long, but in 1766, the same year Smith was in Paris, Abbeville was the center of a huge controversy. It was where Chevalier de La Barre was put to death in July of 1766, the last man in Europe to be executed for the crime of blasphemy.
Although Currie’s letter is based on a second-hand report, and although I do not have any further evidence beyond this letter, I conjecture that Adam Smith may have travelled from Paris to Abbeville to witness the execution of the Chevalier de La Barre. (For detailed histories of this celebrated case, see Claverie 1992; 1994; Chassaigne 1920.) At the time, “l’affaire du Chevalier de La Barre” attracted attention across France—even attracting the sustained notice of the celebrated atheist and free-thinker Voltaire, who Adam Smith had visited in Geneva on his way to France. (Also, as it happens, Voltaire wrote not one but two accounts of the young de La Barre’s prosecution and sentence. Voltaire’s first essay about this case is dated 15 July 1766, but some scholars believe this essay was actually written in 1767 or 1768. For a summary of Voltaire’s involvement in this notorious case, see Claverie 1994; see also Braden 1965, 58–65.)
As it happens, this case has now become so central to the identity and history of modern France that many streets are named after the Chevalier de La Barre and many monuments were subsequently erected in his honor, including a statue standing at the gates of the famous Sacred Heart Cathedral in the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris. A picture of this particular monument to de La Barre is posted below. (Alas, this monument was taken down during the Second World War on orders of Marshal Philippe Pétain and melted down. See Caulcutt 2020.)
Dr Currie’s 1794 letter also contains the following observation:
“Dr. Smith, it seems, while at Abbeville, was deeply in love with an English lady there. What seems more singular, a French Marquise, a woman of talents and esprit, was smitten, or thought herself smitten, with the Doctor, and made violent attempts to obtain his friendship. She was just come from Paris [and], … was determined to obtain his friendship; but after various attempts was obliged to give the matter up. Dr. Smith had not the easy and natural manner of Mr. Hume…. He [Smith] was abstracted and inattentive. He could not endure this French woman, and was, besides, dying for another.”
Dying for another! Is the reference to the “Marquise” in this letter to Madame Riccoboni, or did Smith have yet another French admirer? Also, who was the “English lady” that Smith was “deeply in love with”? I will address these questions next week …
Irene Braden, Voltaire and Injustice. Master’s thesis, Kansas State University (1965).
Marc Chassaigne, Le procès du Chevalier de la Barre, Librairie Victor Lecoffre (1920).
Clea Caulcutt, “French Free-Thinking Knight Still a Controversial Figure,” France Médias Monde (Dec. 16, 2010).
Elisabeth Claverie, “Sainte indignation contre indignation éclairée: L’affaire du Chevalier de La Barre,” Ethnologie Française, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2010), pp. 271–290.
James Currie, Letter 87 (“To Dugald Stewart, Esq., Edinburgh, July 14, ’94, Respecting Dr. Adam Smith”), in William Wallace Currie, editor, Memoir of the Life, Writings, and Correspondence of James Currie, M.D. F.R.S., of Liverpool, vol. 2, pp. 317–320. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green (1831).