Adam Smith’s lost years

(Walter Bagehot and Adam Smith, part 9)

Thus far, I have reviewed the first 20 pages (pp. 18-38 or paragraphs 1-31) of Walter Bagehot’s beautiful essay “Adam Smith as a Person” (available here, by the way). Today, I will review the next three pages (paragraphs 32-34).

The buzz generated by the publication of The Wealth of Nations in 1776 would produce a third major plot twist in the last chapter of Adam Smith’s life, a permanent detour that would mark the formal end of Smith’s scholarly pursuits: his eventual appointment as a Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh, a bureaucratic but well-remunerated post the Scottish philosopher would hold for the remaining 12 years of his life (February 1778 to July 1790). Doctor Smith was thus a customs officer for almost as many years as he was a professor (1751 to 1763)!

A further irony, as Bagehot himself notes, is that a “person less fitted to fill [this post] could not indeed have easily been found.” (Bagehot 1876, p. 38; para. 32.) Not only was the Scottish philosopher by all accounts an absent-minded scholar, bookworm, and literary light; he was now in charge of enforcing the very same protectionist laws that he had denounced in his magnum opus! But for me the worst part of Smith’s Customs House years in Edinburgh was that his day-to-day duties prevented him from completing his third great book on law and government. Although Smith made substantial revisions and additions to the last edition of Moral Sentiments toward the end of his life, as a full-time customs officer he would no longer enjoy sufficient time to conduct further researches, let alone write any new works.

In the alternative, what if the absence of scholarly productivity during the last phase of Adam Smith’s life were actually a good thing? As it happens, it is none other than Walter Bagehot who presents this surprising and counterfactual conjecture on page 39 (paragraph 33) of his 1876 Adam Smith essay. Although the Scottish philosopher had “made a vast accumulation of miscellaneous materials” since his early scholar days at Oxford (p. 39; para. 33), Bagehot is somehow skeptical of Smith’s ability to assemble and then synthesize so much information into a unified and useful whole. Perhaps Bagehot is right, but it is here where the English essayist and I (amicably) part ways. I prefer a single Adam Smith to a thousand Walter Bagehots!

I will conclude my review of Bagehot’s Adam Smith essay in my next post.

Source: The National Galleries 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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1 Response to Adam Smith’s lost years

  1. Pingback: Adam Smith’s enigmas | prior probability

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