The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident: the John Leslie connection

Alternative Title: The Anecdote (Part 2 of 3)

According to one of Adam Smith’s biographers (John Rae 1895, p. 24): “A story has come down … to the effect that [the young Adam Smith] was one day detected [by his superiors at Balliol College, Oxford] reading Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature … and was punished by a severe reprimand and the confiscation of the evil book.” Is this story true, though?

My previous post (see here) traced the origins of this oft-repeated Smithian anecdote to three historical sources: an anonymous essay published in the January 1797 issue of The Monthly Review; an 1853 biography of Smith by Scottish economist John Ramsay McCulloch (1789–1864), and an 1855 history of “Glasgow and Its Clubs” by Scottish author John Strang (1795–1863). In addition, I also concluded that these various versions of “The Anecdote” are based on pure hearsay and should therefore be discounted as uncorroborated and far-fetched fabrications, but one reputable Adam Smith scholar (Ian Simpson Ross 2010, p. 71) claims that we can believe the 1797 version of this story because it was published in a reputable journal (The Monthly Review) by a reputable source with direct knowledge of The Anecdote (the mathematician John Leslie, who is pictured below)!

In the words of Ian Simpson Ross (2010, p. 71): “We can believe this story, since it is included in a review of EPS [i.e. Adam Smith’s posthumous Essays on Philosophical Subjects] in the Monthly Review, 1797 (Mizuta, 2000: v.2) [i.e. Volume 2 of Hiroshi Mizuta’s six-volume collection of reviews of Adam Smith’s works, published by Routledge in 2000], written by the mathematician and natural philosopher, John Leslie (identified in Nangle, 1955).” Note: The reference to “Nangle, 1955” is to the master index of Monthly Review contributors and articles compiled by Benjamin Christie Nangle and published by the Clarendon Press in 1955. Simpson Ross (2010, p. 71) further claims a direct connection between John Leslie and Adam Smith: “Smith had befriended Leslie in 1787-8 (Morrell, ODNB, 2004) [i.e. Jack Morrell’s entry for “Leslie, Sir John” in the 2004 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography], and employed him to teach his heir, David Douglas (Corr. No. 275) [i.e. Letter #275 in The Correspondence of Adam Smith].”

The mathematician John Leslie is indeed identified as the author of The Anecdote in Nangle’s 1955 index (see Nangle 1955, p. 204), and furthermore, Leslie did know Adam Smith personally for many years. We know about this direct connection between the political economist (Smith) and the mathematician (Leslie) because Smith himself once wrote a letter of introduction on behalf of John Leslie in 1787, and in this letter Smith acknowledges that Leslie “has been known to me for several years past” and that “more than two years ago” (i.e. 1784 or 1785) Leslie had been a tutor to Smith’s “nearest relation” (namely, to Smith’s nephew and heir David Douglas). (See The Correspondence of Adam Smith, Letter #275, which is addressed to Sir Joseph Banks in Edinburgh and is dated 18 December 1787. Smith further adds that Leslie the tutor “acquitted himself most perfectly both to my satisfaction and to the young Gentleman.” Ibid.)

It is therefore possible that Adam Smith recounted The Anecdote to John Leslie sometime in the 1780s, but if so, then why does John Leslie’s version of The Anecdote (assuming that Leslie is, in fact, its author) begin with the words “We have heard …” Why not identify Smith himself as the source? Also, even if these conjectures were true — i.e. that Smith told The Anecdote to Leslie in the 1780s and that Leslie then included it in his review of Smith’s posthumous essays — why did Smith wait over 40 years to tell his story, and why did Smith tell it to Leslie of all people? Did Smith share The Anecdote with anyone else, and did he do so earlier than the 1780s? I shall address these questions and wrap up this series in my next post.

Leslie, Sir John
Sir John Leslie, via the Encyclopaedia Britannica (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 The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident: the John Leslie connection

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

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