Another surprise twist on the road to Smith’s Damascus

(Walter Bagehot and Adam Smith, part 6)

My previous post described Walter Bagehot’s scathing but on point review of Adam Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. However weak and flimsy Smith’s theory of sympathy was, the publication of the first edition of Moral Sentiments in 1759 would set into a motion a chain of unlikely events, one that would soon open a new chapter in Smith’s life: his three-year grand tour of Toulouse, Geneva, and Paris from early 1764 to late 1766. As Bagehot explains on page 28 of his essay (paragraph 15), Moral Sentiments had come to the attention of a powerful government minister in London, one Charles Townshend (pictured below), who liked this work so much that he not only travelled to Glasgow to meet Smith in person; Townshend also offered the Scottish moral philosopher the position of “travelling tutor” to his stepson Henry Scott, the future 3rd Duke of Buccleuch.

Here, Bagehot identifies another Smithian enigma, one that has puzzled me for years, by the way. Why would a bookworm like Adam Smith ever agree to renounce his prestigious position at the University of Glasgow, “a life-professorship that yielded a considerable income”, in order to become a mere travelling tutor to a future duke he had never met? (See Bagehot 1876, p. 28; para. 15.) And why would a loyal son who still lived with his mother ever decide to give up the company of his dear mother as well as the time to write and think? Was it the money? Smith would earn more as a tutor than as a professor, and he would be entitled to a lifetime pension to boot! Was it the worldly political connections the position afforded? The future Duke was about to become the largest landowner in all of Scotland, while his stepfather was destined to become the next British Prime Minister. Or was it just the opportunity to travel abroad, meet new people, and see distant lands? In those days, the grand tours of wealthy young aristocrats could consume many years of travel and the itinerary would encompass France, Italy, and perhaps the German states of the old Holy Roman Empire.

Perhaps it was the opportunity cost of turning down such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that won out, for if it had not been for Charles Townshend, Adam Smith might have never written The Wealth of Nations, or in the immortal words of Walter Bagehot: the future economist “might have passed all his life in Scotland, delivering [the same old] lectures and clothing [his] very questionable [moral] theories in rather pompous words.” (Bagehot 1876, p. 29, para. 16.) Whatever the reason–and most likely, it was a combination of all three: financial considerations, worldly prestige, and possible adventure–Smith threw caution to the wind, accepted Townshend’s offer, and ended up spending “[t]he greater part of three years abroad” in “the greatest country on the continent”, France. (Ibid., pp. 28-29, para. 17.)

As it happens, one of the most remarkable events in the annals of political economy was occurring on French soil at this very moment in history. France had recently deregulated the sale of grain–the kingdom’s most essential agricultural staple–but in Paris the old police regulations and price controls still applied. The people of the Kingdom of France were thus literal guinea pigs in a massive real-time natural experiment in laissez-faire economics, with Parisians serving as the control group, or in the words of Bagehot: “The caprice of Charles Townshend [his decision to offer Adam Smith the position of travelling tutor] had a singular further felicity. It not only brought [Adam Smith] into contact with facts and the world; but with the most suitable sort of facts, and for his [Smith’s] purpose the best part of the world.” (Bagehot 1876, p. 29, para. 16.)

Stay tuned; I shall turn to Smith’s “grand-tour years” in my next post.

Robert Hartley Cromek, The Right Honourable Charles Townshend, 1725-1767. Chancellor of the Exchequer. Source: The National Galleries of Scotland (see here).

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 Another surprise twist on the road to Smith’s Damascus

  1. Pingback: Additional Adam Smith enigmas | prior probability

  2. Pingback: Die Adam Smith Probleme: a comprehensive recap | prior probability

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