Smith in the City: Colbert de Castle-Hill

Note: After a one-week hiatus due to my travels, I am now resuming my series “Adam Smith in the City of Lights.”

Smith’s closest friend and confidante in France was Seignelay Colbert de Castle-Hill (1736-1811), the Abbé Colbert, whose portrait (circa 1781) is pictured below.[1]. Although he was born in Scotland, near the small town of Inverness,[2] he had emigrated to France at a young age in 1746, the year his father had died.[3] The young Colbert then enrolled in the Scots College in Paris in 1747,[4] became an ordained priest in 1762,[5] and was appointed a Vicar General for the diocese of Toulouse.[6] The provincial town of Toulouse, where Smith and his pupil Duke Henry began their Grand Tour, is where the Abbé Colbert and Adam had first met in March of 1764.[7]

At that time, Colbert was one of Smith and Duke Henry’s few contacts in the south of France; he even travelled with Smith and Duke Henry to Bordeaux and to other places in the South of France and would thus become Smith’s “chief guide and friend” during this stage of his travels.[8] Moreover, as it happens, Colbert and Smith coincided in the French capital during the first part of Smith’s stay in Paris (February to April, 1766), for Colbert’s name appears multiple times in Horace Walpole’s travel journal. As such, Colbert and Smith must have continued their friendship during this time, perhaps at the salons of the leading ladies of Paris. In a letter addressed to Smith and Duke Henry dated September 1766, Colbert writes:

“And you, Adam Smith, Glasgow philosopher, high-broad Ladies’ hero and idol, what are you doing my dear friend? How do you govern the Duchess of Anville and Madame de Boufflers, where your heart is always in love with Madame Nicol and with the attractions as apparent as hidden of this lady of Fife that you loved.” [Quoted in Alcouffe & Massot-Bordenave 2020, p. 260.]

With the exception of the “lady of Fife,” whose identity remains a mystery,[9] two other ladies are identified in Colbert’s letter by name, including the “Duchess of Anville,” Madame de Boufflers, and Madame Nicol. The Duchess of Anville could refer either to Marie-Louise Nicole Elisabeth de La Rochefoucauld 1716-1797, Duchesse d’Enville, the widow of Jean Baptiste Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld de Roye, Due d’Anville,[10] or perhaps to Elisabeth Louise de La Rochefoucauld (1740–1786), who was the “[g]rand-daughter of La Rochefoucauld (the author of the ‘Maximes’) and faithful friend of Turgot.”[11] For her part, Madame de Boufflers refers to Marie Françoise Catherine de Beauvau-Craon (1711–1786), mistress to the Prince of Conti[12] and friend of David Hume[13] and one of the leading ladies of Paris at the time, but who was “Madame Nicol”? According to Alcouffe and Moore, she might refer to the spouse of Jacques Nicol de Montblanc, Capitoul elected in 1763,” who “had received in his Chateau the Duke of Fitz-James during his conflict with the Parlement.”[14]

Regardless of who these women were and regardless of the precise nature of their relationship to Adam Smith–secretly amorous or purely Platonic–the jocular and intimate tone of Colbert’s letter suggests camaraderie and close connections, or in the words of Alain Alcouffe and Philippe Massot-Bordenave, the letter “is probably a private correspondence between friends who have established trust.”[15] This letter may also provide some indication of Smith’s circle of friends in Paris, such as Madame de Boufflers and the Duchess of Anville. What other French ladies did Adam Smith meet at this time?


[1] Alcouffe & Massot-Bordenave 2020, pp. 216–217; see also Rae 1895, p. 179.

[2] See Alcouffe & Moore 2018.

[3] Ibid.                        

[4] Halloran 1996, p. 319.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Alcouffe & Moore 2018. Later, Colbert would be appointed the Bishop of Rodez (1781). See Halloran 1996, p. 319. See also Alcouffe & Massot-Bordenave 2020, pp. 63-64.

[7] See Alcouffe & Moore 2018, pp. 1-2.

[8] Rae 1895, p. 176. See also Alcouffe & Massot-Bordenave 2020, pp. 54-66.

[9] See Guerra-Pujol, 2021.

[10] See Autobiography of John Adams, entry for “April 9. Thursday. 1778,” available at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-04-02-0001-0041.

[11] Alcouffe & Moore 2018, p. 14 n.15.

[12] See section 9 of this paper above, “The Parisian Gatsby.”

[13] See Mossner 1980, Ch. 32.

[14] Alcouffe & Moore 2018, p. 14 n.17. As an aside, the Duke de Fitz-James here refers to Charles de Fitz-James (1712–1787), who was a cousin of Duke Henry and was the royally-appointed governor of Languedoc province from 1761 until his resignation in 1763. See Alcouffe & Moore 2018, p. 7. See also Bouillet & Chassang 1878.

[15] See Alcouffe & Massot-Bordenave 2020, p. 217.

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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