Saturday, January 10, 2009

Curious 'Facts' About Adam Smith - where did he graduate?

Professor Ian S. Ross, author of the definitive biography of Adam Smith ,(The Life of Adam Smith, Oxford University Press, 1995 (2nd edition is due in 2009) was among the distinguished persons attending the Oxford conference and I had several informative and friendly conversations with him. I also listened to his plenary talk and to his various interventions in the discussion sessions. All were of remarkably high quality.

I also had several questions of a biographical nature answered by Professor Ross. One of which called for my speedy correction to a possible error that I have made in respect of Adam Smith’s degrees (it being the duty of an academic to correct at the earliest opportunity any statement shown to be incorrect in the light of new evidence).

In my book, Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, 2008, Palgrave Macmillan, I report on page 16:

“…which should dispose of claims that he had an MA from Glasgow (his MA was from Oxford)”

The facts now appear to be different. We know that Adam Smith did not graduate from Glasgow in 1740, before he left for Oxford on the Snell Exhibition, because it was a condition for the award of a place at Oxford that he arrived at Balliol College ‘without taking any Degree from Here or elsewhere’.

He arrived at Oxford in August 1740 without a degree. The records show that he did not graduate with his Oxford BA in 1744 with the rest of his class. He seems to have taken a rather unusual step of re-registering at Oxford as a law student in August 1744 and the records show this ‘side-step’.

It was explained to me that this may have been an administrative device to excuse Smith from taking the ordination course and to take a law course instead without leaving Balliol. At this time Smith was suffering from some sort of medical condition and may also have been disillusioned with his becoming a Minster. He remained at Oxford for two more years until the third week of August 1746, when he left and returned home to his mother’s house in Kirkcaldy, again without graduating, and without ever returning to Oxford.

Adam Smith was entered into the Glasgow University records as having an ‘AM’ degree without stating from where he graduated. In my book, I took this to be his Oxford degree on grounds that he had completed six years at Oxford. However, Ian Ross gave me his opinion that this was a Glasgow degree, possibly awarded for his years of study from 1737 to 1740 at Glasgow.

In the Glasgow University records, on 28 April 1749, there is a note of an “Intimation from the Master and Fellows of Baliol College in Oxford date the 15th April Current giving notice that there is one Exhibitioner to be elected into Mr Snell’s foundation – in room of Adam Smith A.M. who has resigned.”

I asked the Curator of Balliol about Smith’s degrees and she assured me that Smith was not awarded a degree from Oxford, otherwise it would have been entered in the records, and, interestingly, a clincher perhaps, Oxford had not adopted the Latin designations of either ‘AB’ or ‘AM’ degrees and had always referred to them as either ‘BA’ and ‘MA’. Now, Glasgow did use the Latin designations of ‘AB’ and ‘AM’, and therefore, the ‘AM’ entered in the Glasgow records must have been awarded by Glasgow.

My statement, therefore, is incorrect. Smith held a Glasgow ‘AM’, at least from 1749. It was probably awarded without formal examination. When the University appointed him a Professor of Logic, he was required to read to the assembled professors his Latin dissertation, 'De Origine Idearum’, as a ‘trial of his qualification’ before they formally appointed him.

Years later, Glasgow University awarded its Doctorate degree, LL.D. to Adam Smith on 21st October 1762:

“[The Faculty meeting] considering Mr. Adam Smith’s universally acknowledged Reputation in letters and particularly that he has taught Jurisprudence these many years in this University with great applause and advantages to the Society do unanimously resolve to confer the Degree of Doctor of Laws upon him and appoint a Diploma to be accordingly expeded for that Purpose.”

I am not 100 per cent clear that we have got to the bottom of these small details, but probably we have got as far as we can with those records that have survived.

You can read more in William R. Scott, Adam Smith as Student and Professor, 1937, Glasgow Jackson & Son; in Ian S. Ross, The Life of Adam Smith, 1995, Oxford University Press, and my book, Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, 2008, Palgrave Macmillan.



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