Rare letter from Adam Smith goes up for Auction

A rare example of a first edition of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Picture: TSPL
A rare example of a first edition of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Picture: TSPL
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A RARE letter from Scotland’s “father of modern economics” Adam Smith to the British statesman and diplomat William Eden written in the aftermath of the loss of Britain’s American colonies has surfaced at an auction house in London.

The letter, signed and in Smith’s own hand, is expected to fetch up to £40,000 when it goes under the hammer on June 18th at Bonhams Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in London.

In 1778, Kirkcaldy-born Smith was appointed to a post as Commissioner of Customs in Scotland, following great success with his magnum opus “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, which was published in 1776.

In the letter, written from Edinburgh on Tuesday 9th December, 1783, Smith promises Eden that he will endeavour to answer “all the questions you have done me the very great honour to ask me concerning our future Commercial connexions with our thirteen revolted Colonies”.

Smith opens with an apology for the delay of submitting reports as requested, explaining the clerks had it all of Sunday, adding: “The report of the board of Customs here, concerning the proper method of preventing smuggling, is likely to be so perfectly agreeable to my own ideas, that I shall not anticipate it by giving you any account of them. You will receive it in a day or two after the accounts.”

The letter was penned three months after the independence of the United States of America was formally recognised by Great Britain at the Treaty of Paris of 3 September 1783.

Spurred on by the secession of the thirteen American colonies, the then British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, a great admirer of Smith, had asked Eden to look into how Britain and France - which had lost her own colonies in Canada - could open up trade across the English Channel to replace those former captive markets.

Eden went on to successfully negotiate the French Commercial Treaty, or the Eden Treaty as it became known to posterity.

The Treaty was signed between Britain and France in 1786 and ended, for a brief time, the economic war between the two countries and set up a system to reduce tariffs on goods from either country.

Smith signs off the letter asking for further correspondence to be addressed to Commission of Customs, due to confusion with previous letters.

Smith wrote: “I once had the vanity to flatter myself that I was the only Adam Smith in the world; but to my unspeakable mortification, there are two or three others of the same name in this town, and my letters are sometimes gone wrong”

Experts at Bonhams say letters by Adam Smith are extremely rare, less than two hundred being known to Ernest Campbell Mossner and Ian Simpson Ross, editors of the Glasgow edition of The Correspondence of Adam Smith (second edition 1987), where this particular letter is not recorded.

Smith was born in Kirkcaldy in 1723, the son of a solicitor, and attended the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy - said to be one of the best secondary schools in Scotland at the time - and Latin, mathematics, history, and writing.

After studying graduating in social philosophy at Glasgow University and at Balliol College, Oxford, he delivered a successful series of public lectures at the University of Edinburgh, leading him to collaborate with the renowned Scottish philosopher David Hume, who was 10 years his senior.

Smith obtained a professorship at Glasgow teaching moral philosophy, and was one of the key figures in Scottish Enlightenment, as well as a pioneer of political economy.

In 2005, The Wealth of Nations was named among the 100 Best Scottish Books of all time. Margaret Thatcher is reported to have kept a copy in her handbag.