Additional Adam Smith enigmas

One of the most famous episodes in the history of modern mathematics occurred on August 8, 1900 at the Sorbonne, when German mathematician David Hilbert presented ten unsolved problems during that year’s International Congress of Mathematics. Following Hilbert’s lead, in this post I will try to draw up a comprehensive list of “unsolved mysteries” in Adam Smith studies. Thus far, I have explored two puzzles from the last phase of the Scottish philosopher’s life: his decision to become a commissioner of customs in 1778 (see here), and his decision to have most of his unpublished papers destroyed upon his death (here). Today, I will identify several other Smithian enigmas from the first 40 or so years of his life:

  1. Adam Smith’s religion. Why did Smith renounce his religious vocation, and what, in general, were his views on religion? By way of background, the young Adam Smith was awarded a Snell Exhibition to attend Oxford’s Balliol College, but this scholarship was a religious one: recipients of the Snell award were supposed to become clergymen after completing their studies. Smith, however, never did so. Why not?
  2. The marriage question: Unlike Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, or David Ricardo, Adam Smith was a lifelong bachelor. Did the father of economics have any love affairs during his youth (when he was student at Balliol College) or later (during his grand tour days in France), and why and when did he vow (pun intended!) to never marry?
  3. The travelling tutor years. Why was the Scottish philosopher willing to renounce his prestigious Glasgow professorship — perhaps as early as 1759 or 1760; see here — in order to become a “mere” travelling tutor? In summary, Adam Smith was overseas from 1764 to 1766, the only time in his life that he had lived or travelled beyond British shores, and during that span of time Smith was the future 3rd Duke of Buccleuch (Duke Henry)’s private tutor. Why?

In addition to these three open questions, Adam Smith’s grand-tour days with Duke Henry raises many other minor mysteries. For the record, I identify a few of these unanswered “grand tour” questions below:

  1. Horace Walpole. What was the nature of the relationship between the English homosexual aesthete Horace Walpole and the Scottish philosopher and the future duke? As it happens, Walpole’s first visit to Paris coincided for several weeks with Adam Smith’s last visit to the City of Light, and the names of Smith and his pupil Duke Henry are mentioned almost two dozen times in Walpole’s Paris travel journal. (For more information about this mystery, see my work-in-progress “Adam Smith’s Paris through the Eyes of Horace Walpole”, which is available here.)
  2. Paris address. We know that for most of 1766 Adam Smith and his pupil Duke Henry resided at the Hôtel du Parc Royal on the rue du Colombier (now rue Jacob) in the fashionable Saint Germane quarter of Paris (see, for example, section 3 of my work on “Adam Smith in the City of Lights: First Impressions”, available here), but where exactly was this place located and what was it like to live there?
  3. Love affair in Abbeville? As I discuss on pages 141-142 of my 2021 “Adam Smith in Love” paper (see here), one source reports of a possible love affair between Adam Smith and a “Madame Nicole” that may have occurred in the French town of Abbeville. (As an aside, Abbeville was a familiar overnight destination on the royal road between Calais and Paris.) Who was this Madame Nicole, and when did this visit occur: in early 1764 (after Smith had first arrived in the port of Calais with Duke Henry), in late 1766 (on Smith and Duke Henry’s return trip to England), or sometime in between?
  4. Château de Compiègne. This royal residence was not only the French king’s favorite hunting lodge; it was Adam Smith and Duke Henry’s home away home during the months of August and September of 1766. (“Compiègne” appears on the heading of all of Smith’s letters at this time.) Did they meet Louis XV or give chase to any wild animals while they were there?
  5. Post-Grand Tour: Dalkeith House. One year after his return from France, Duke Henry returned to his ancestral home Dalkeith Palace in Scotland. We know that Adam Smith resided there for two months in the fall of 1767 (see, for example, Bonnyman 2014, pp. 59-60), but what exactly was he doing there during those months?

Rest assured, I will address each of these Smithian enigmas in due time …

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 Additional Adam Smith enigmas

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

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