(Walter Bagehot and Adam Smith, part 4)
I concluded my previous post by asking, How did an obscure bookworm like Adam Smith become a leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment? According to Walter Bagehot (see especially paragraphs 9 through 12 of his beautiful essay “Adam Smith as a Person”), it was a combination of powerful patrons and raw oratorical talent, along with a small dose of good luck, that would alter the course of the future economist’s fortunes–from college dropout to university professor, and all within the span of five pivotal years: 1746 to 1751!
Specifically, Bagehot singles out two prominent men (and possible father figures) who took Smith under their proverbial protective wings: a Lord Kames and a Provost Cochrane. Kames was Henry Home, Lord Kames (c.1696–1782), a great Scottish judge, philosopher, and man of letters who was a founding member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh. For his part, Cochrane was Andrew Cochrane of Brighouse (1693–1777), an 18th-century Glaswegian tobacco merchant and slave trader who led a private clique called the Political Economy Club and served three terms as Lord Provost of Glasgow. (Learn more about Provost Cochrane and the “tobacco lords” of Glasgow here.)
As it happens, the young Adam Smith must have not only befriended the founders of these social and scientific circles; Smith must have also somehow made a lasting impression on them. As early as 1748, for example, two years after Smith had left Oxford, Lord Kames arranged for the young college dropout cum scholar to deliver some guest lectures to the members of his learned society in Edinburgh. Against all odds, Smith somehow turned out to be a captivating and spellbinding speaker, perhaps the greatest of his generation! His Edinburgh lectures were so successful that he was offered a prestigious professorship at the University of Glasgow soon thereafter (around 1751).
And it was in Glasgow–where “Doctor Smith” spent the next 13 years of his quiet life–where the young philosopher would cross paths with the wealthy, powerful, and respected Provost Cochrane. By all accounts, they began to meet regularly at Cochrane’s Political Economy Club, which Bagehot describes as “this borderland between theory and practice” (p. 26; para. 12), and it was here, Bagehot conjectures, where this odd couple, a scholar and a slave trader, must have discussed a wide variety of economic topics. It was also here where Smith was most likely first exposed to the “heresy” of free trade, or in the immortal words of Bagehot: “From this club Adam Smith … learned much which he would he never have found in any book ….” (ibid.).
But Smith would not finish writing The Wealth of Nations until three decades later. In the meantime, Smith was still an up-and-coming professor of moral philosophy, and Smith the moral philosopher was teaching and writing a book on ethics–specifically, on the pivotal role that our emotions or “moral sentiments” play in helping us distinguish right from wrong. For his part, Bagehot will not only devote the next few pages of his essay to Smith’s first great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (pp. 26-29; paragraphs 13-15); Bagehot will subject Smith’s philosophical ideas to withering criticism. I will describe and further discuss Bagehot’s epic take-down of Smith’s moral philosophy next week, starting on Monday, April 3.
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