The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident

Alternative Title: The Anecdote (Part 1 of 3)

Although I have surveyed Adam Smith’s “Oxford years” in three separate posts this month (see post #1 here, #2 here, and #3 here), I have left out what is perhaps the most intriguing anecdote involving Adam Smith at Oxford, an incident that allegedly occurred in his private quarters when he was a Snell scholar at Balliol College. (Shout out to Peter Clark bringing this incident to my attention.) According to lore, someone at Oxford — it’s unclear who: either one or more of the fellows or chaplains at Balliol or perhaps even the master of the college — “severely reprimanded” the young Adam Smith for daring to read David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, and they confiscated Smith’s copy of Hume’s works to boot!

But did this alleged affair really happen? Although this formative incident of Smith’s youth is recounted in just about every sketch of the political economist’s life and work (one notable exception, however, being Dugald Stewart’s biography of Adam Smith), I did some further digging and discovered that there are at least two — and possibly as many as three — different versions of The Anecdote! (Note: I shall hereafter refer to the various reports of this alleged incident as “The Anecdote“.) The earliest version was published in 1797 — more than 50 years after Smith had left Oxford — and is cited by Ian Simpson Ross (see Ross 2010, p. 71), Nicholas Phillipson (see Phillipson 2010, p. 65 & p. 292 n.28), and Dennis Rasmussen (2017, pp. 39-40 & p. 266 n.19), while another version was published another 50 years later in the 1850s and is also cited by Ian Simpson Ross (see Ross 2007, p. 347 & p. 347 n.4) as well as by John Rae (see Rae 1895, p. 24). The third version was not published until 1855 (see Strang 1855, pp. 27-28) and is cited by both Ross (1995) and Rae (1895).

Although all these various versions of The Anecdote are similar, there are two subtle but salient differences. In one version of this story Smith is caught red-handed by his “superiors” in the actual act of reading Hume’s work; in the other version, by contrast, a copy of one of Hume’s works is found lying around somewhere in Smith’s rooms by a group of “reverend inquisitors”. Here, for example, is Story #1 of The Anecdote — the less dramatic version of events — which first appeared in press on page 60 of Volume 22 of the January 1797 issue of The Monthly Review (see screenshots below):

We have heard that the heads of the college thought proper to visit his chamber, and finding Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, then recently published, the reverend inquisitors seized that heretical book, and severely reprimanded the young philosopher.”

Next, here is Story #2, which first appeared on pages 445-446 of the first edition (1853) of Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo by John Ramsay McCulloch (born 1789, died 1864) and also on pages 511-512 of the “enlarged and improved” second edition of this work:

Something had occurred, while Smith was at Oxford, to excite the suspicions of his superiors with respect to the nature of his private pursuits; and the heads of his college, having entered his apartment without his being aware, unluckily found him engaged reading Hume’s “Treatise of Human Nature.” The objectionable work was, of course, seized; the young philosopher being at the same time severely reprimanded.”

At the end of the last sentence of Story #2, the author also drops a footnote to explain why this report is most likely true, even though The Anecdote does not appear in any edition of Dugald Stewart’s widely-read biography of Adam Smith and even though Stewart knew Smith personally: “Mr Stewart has not mentioned this circumstance, but it rests on the best authority.” (As an aside, both the 1853 and 1859 editions of McCulloch’s book were published in Edinburgh by Adam and Charles Black, and The Anecdote appears the same word-for-word in both editions.)

I will return to Story #3 later. In the meantime, it suffices to say that all three versions of The Anecdote are based on pure hearsay. Story #1 begins with the words, “We have heard …” The anonymous author of the story, however, does not bother to tell us from whom he has heard this story, so we have no way of judging the credibility of his source. Worse yet, the credibility of Story #2 is ever more dubious: it is told in the passive voice, and we are simply informed in a footnote that this second story is true “on the best authority” yet that authority or source is never specified. Furthermore, there is no reference to this incident in Smith’s surviving correspondence, and neither version of The Anecdote was published during Smith’s lifetime. In fact, the first version of The Anecdote was not published until half a century after this alleged affair was supposed to have occurred!

Nevertheless, most of Smith’s biographers — some of the most eminent and learned scholars in the world — continue to believe in the veracity of this incredible tale for at least two reasons. One is that the anonymous author of the 1797 version of The Anecdote was later revealed to be John Leslie, who did know Adam Smith personally. The other reason is a supposed “smoking gun” piece of evidence — Story #3! — in the form of an 1855 book by Dr John Strang titled Glasgow and Its Clubs. According to Strang’s story, it was none other than Adam Smith himself who used to tell The Anecdote among the company of friends at the private clubs of Glasgow, presumably during his professor years at the University of Glasgow (1751 to 1763)! I shall address the first of these points (the Leslie connection) in my next post in this series.

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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5 Responses to The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident

  1. Pingback: The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident, Part 2 | prior probability

  2. Craig says:

    Here is an interesting thought, at least I think so: Does the existence of two quite-different accounts of an incident, at variance in fact but similar in effect, actually add some *credence* to the incident or something like it having happened? This leads me, an atheist, to wonder whether the differences in the Gospels is a strength rather than the weakness it is generally held to be. People remember differently.

  3. Pingback: A postscript to the Adam Smith-David Hume incident | prior probability

  4. Thank you for the shout!!

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