A postscript to the Adam Smith-David Hume incident

My previous posts assembled, surveyed, and subjected to lawyerly scrutiny the three different versions of “The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident at Oxford” that appear in the historical record — the 1797 version of this storied anecdote attributed to Sir John Leslie (see here), the 1853 version authored by John Ramsay McCulloch (here), and the 1855 version reported by Dr John Strang (here).

Here, I will add a short postscript to my researches: is there any reference to the Smith-Hume incident in the records of Oxford University itself? Considering that all three versions of this anecdote agree that the young Adam Smith was “severely reprimanded” and that his copy of Hume’s works were confiscated, there should be some mention of this affair in the records of Balliol College, where this incident supposedly occurred. By way of example, see the meticulous set of itemized entries in the “Bursars’ Computi” or financial accounts of Balliol College for the 1734-35 academic year, which are reproduced in Beachcroft 1982, Table 2 (see Note 1 below the fold) and which span nine pages.

To this end, I read two book-length and well-researched histories of this storied institution: one by an emeritus fellow of Balliol College (Jones 1988); the other by an editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (Davis 1899), the precursor of today’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (See also note 1 below the fold.) Although both of these tomes refer to Adam Smith and to his time at Balliol College (see, e.g., Davis 1963 [1899], pp. 154-155; Jones 1988, pp. 164, 261), but the Smith-Hume incident is mentioned in passing in one of these books (Davis 1963 [1899], p. 155) and is not mentioned at all in the other (Jones 1988).

In summary, the one Oxford Univeristy historian to mention the anecdote is Henry William Carless Davis, who asserts that the young Adam Smith “was one of the unpopular Snell Exhibitioners [at Balliol College], and never appears to have mingled much in undergraduate society.” (See Davis 1963 [1899], p. 154.) In addition to being an unpopular introvert who kept to himself (if Davis is to be believed), the future economist also “had the misfortune to be caught in the act” of reading one of the works of David Hume. In Davis’s words:

“And Smith, moreover, had the misfortune to be caught in the act of reading Hume’s Treatise; the fact, we may be sure, did not increase the goodwill of his tutor.”

Davis 1963 [1899], p. 155

Alas, where have we seen such an uncorroborated statement before? Like Sir John Leslie’s 1797 version of the anecdote, John Ramsay McCulloch’s 1853 version, and Dr John Strang’s 1855 version, no evidence or other source is offered in support of this hearsay statement in Professor Davis’s 1899 history of Balliol College. In fact, to this day we still don’t know the identity of Smith’s tutor during his Oxford years, let alone the identities of the actual superiors who supposedly confiscated Hume’s works from Smith’s dorm room and reprimanded him for reading those works.

In closing, I will bring this series of blog posts to an end by posing a new set of questions for future research. Specifically, how common was it for chaplains, tutors, or college masters to search the rooms of their students at Oxford during the mid-17th century, and what formal or informal procedures were in place at that time whenever forbidden books or other contraband materials were found within the walls of the university? I shall consider this new set of questions in a future blog post.

Map of Balliol College in Davis 1963 [1899]

Note 1 (added here on 26 April 2023): A day or two after I published this blog post on 23 April, a used copy of a third book about Balliol College, which I had ordered a few weeks ago, arrived in the mail. This third tome, which is titled Balliol Studies, was published in 1982 by Leopard’s Head Press and consists of a collection of essays edited by British historian John Prest. Alas, a cursory review of Prest’s book reveals no reference to the Adam Smith-David Hume incident. Nevertheless, this book does contain a fascinating essay by Gwen Beachcroft on “Balliol College Accounts in the 18th Century” (Beachcroft 1982, pp. 77-88). Due to my travels, however, I won’t be able to take a closer look at Beachcroft’s work until sometime next week. I will then update this post at that 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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