Adam Smith's Attendance at Edinburgh Clubs
Daniel Klein asks a couple of interesting questions:
“Something that puzzles me about Smith's involvement in the Select Society and the Poker Club is that if Smith was living in Kirkcaldy or Glasgow (or London), how could he attend? As I understand it, Smith lived in Edinburgh only 1748-1751 and after 1778. How then can he have been prominent in these two Edinburgh-based groups?
Or, do we have knowledge that while he lived in Kirkcaldy or Glasgow, he would would make the long jaunt to Edinburgh just to attend such meetings? (Or was there a ferry between Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh?)
Thanks for any insight you can provide. Perhaps this question is worthy of blog post?”
Comment and response
Daniel Klein is a professor at George Mason University and we have corresponded for a few years since we met at a conference at Balliol College, Oxford University, in January 2009, Celebrating the 250th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Adam Smith’s “Theory of Sentiments” in 1759.
We have both published some papers and replies to each other debating the significance or otherwise of Adam Smith’s use of the invisible hand metaphor. See Econ Journal Watch 2009 “Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth” HERE ; “In Adam Smith’s Invisible Hands: Comment on Gavin Kennedy by Daniel B. Klein” HERE
Though we have quite different views on this subject, Daniel is a fine and courteous debater and, thankfully, never takes our disagreements personally, as we expect from members of the Republic of Letters.
“On your question, I think the answer is clearer from his biography (Ian Ross, The Life of Adam Smith, 2nd ed. 2010. P 141 and his Correspondence both from Oxford University Press).
“Travelling on the Glasgow-Edinburgh stage-coach, Smith could be in the capital before dinner, eaten at our lunchtime, spend the afternoon and evening in Edinburgh, and be back in Glasgow before dinner the next day (Murray, D. 1927. “Memories of the Old College of Glasgow”: Jackson Wylie). He certainly travelled quickly to and from Glasgow for his appointment as Professor of Logic, and after being inducted at the Cathedral, he asked to be excused as he had pressing business with “friends” in Edinburgh, most likely Henry Home (a judge, later Lord Kames and James Oswald, MP, the co-sponsors of his series of public lectures that he gave in Edinburgh from 1748-51 and which drew his reputation to the attention of the principal and professors at Glasgow University.
On his return to Edinburgh from France in 1766, via some months in London, Smith returned to Kirkcaldy in June to September 1767 (when he was temporarily in with the young Duke of Buccleugh in Dalkeith, nr Edinburgh (David Hume was in London). Smith stayed at his mother’s Kirkcaldy house to write his notes for the Wealth Of Nations. I visited recently the original rear garden of his mother’s house in Kirkcaldy, its location, fronting onto the shore of the Firth of Forth, certainly was quiet enough to be unlikely to have distractions for him. The ‘ferry’ to Edinburgh was a hired small boat with a seaman rowing or sailing, via a large island off the Kirkcaldy coast to the Edinburgh shore a few miles away. Whether he took that journey is not known because there are many breaks in his surviving correspondence.
Smith stayed in Kirkcaldy from January 1768 through to September 1774, when his letters show that he was in London guiding Wealth Of Nations through the press and acting very “zealous’ in the debates on the turbulences in the North American colonies. Broadly he seemed to be supportive of the colonies’ case. He does not appear to have been in Edinburgh during this time until he went by the coach to London, or if he was, it was not recorded. WN was published in London in April 1776. He was back in Kirkcaldy by May 1776. He was in Edinburgh again, briefly, in July (when the colonists’ Declaration of Independence was made in July 1776), and he was back in Kirkcaldy in August 1776. He returned briefly to Edinburgh on 31 August, returning to Kirkcaldy in September.
His correspondence with Wm Strahan, his publisher, regarding the vexing problem, for him, of publishing David Hume’s ‘Dialogues on Natural Religion’ is from Kirkcaldy. He returned to London (presumably via Edinburgh) in January 1777. Smith’s efforts regarding written references for two separate requests by individuals to support their nominations to be appointed Commissioner of Scottish Customs were conducted from Kirkcaldy in October 1777. They did not get their wished for appointment but Smith’s friends in London, primarily the Duke of Buccleugh, were active with Ministers in the Government and senior civil servants promoting his on merits for the Commissioner’s appointment, which efforts were successful eventually and warmly received by the Minister.
Smith was back in Edinburgh by 20 December 1777 and Kirkcaldy in January 1778, presumably to arrange the moving of his mother and cousin, Janet, to Panmure House, and he moved with the family to Edinburgh by February 1778, staying there until 1790. These various dates are from his surviving correspondence.
Of your question as to his attendance at the many clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Ross reports that: “On such visits [to Edinburgh] Smith attended the clubs and societies of the literati in Edinburgh. The Philosophical Society … flourished from the 1750s”. [The foundation of the Royal Society of Edinburgh came largely from the membership of the Philosophical Society.]
The “Select Society” (1754) to “promote literary and Philosophical discussion“. Ross writes: “At the first meeting on 22 May …Smith in his first and last speech, so it was said, presented the guiding principles that members could suggest any topic for debate “except such as regard Revealed Religion, or Principles of Jacobitism” (Ross, 141-2). Smith did not attend afterwards – probably he was not inclined to debate for debate’s sake. Select Society members were allocated a side to debate from irrespective of their views for or against the evening’s motion, which suited advocates in the legal profession more that it was to Adam Smith and his immediate circle. These meetings did not appeal to the mature Adam Smith; he was never one for political controversy or aimless judicial advocacy.
[The Select Society still exists but it is relatively secret as well as very select. It meets in Edinburgh University and members may be given the task to debate for or against propositions of which they may hold the opposite views to those they were charged with defending or attacking, as in Court. This continues its tradition since 1754.]
Smith was also a founding member of the Poker Club (as in poking the fire to stir things up), which largely focussed on the militia question. Scotland, after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion (to restore King James to the throne), had no standing army or militia. The only army allowed was the British (English) army. Bearing arms in Scotland was a criminal and hanging offence for some years after the ‘45’. Smith also cooled on the case for a Scottish militia in Wealth Of Nations and he also recognised the dangers to liberty of a standing army. He attended the Poker Club only once (Ross, p 143).
Smith was more active in meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh while living at Panmure House (he also attended meetings of the Royal Society of London, of which he was a keen reader of its ‘Transactions’, that he collected for his Panmure library). He was Fellow of both Royal Societies.
At Panmure House he ran an open house for members of the literati and also often met with them in the ‘Oyster Club’ (also known as ‘Adam Smith’s Club’) in a nearby Grassmarket tavern (wine and beer were safer to drink than Edinburgh water at this time). Visitors to Edinburgh were always welcome to join in these regular activities, provided they did not dominate the conversations among regular memebrs. A roll call of attendees at Panmure House suppers and the Oyster Club meetings are also a roll call of the luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, a poignant feeling when standing in its public rooms in the about to be restored building, now owned by Edinburgh Business School (Heriot-Watt University). These are my initial thoughts on Daniel's questions. His years writing Wealth Of Nations and editing editions of it and editions of TMS were very important to him, and I suggest now to us.