Adam Smith’s Scottish Context: Rebellion, Repression & Clearances

The Oct. 18 New Yorker has an excellent essay on Adam Smith by Adam Gopnik (behind subscription wall.) Nominally, it is a favorable review of Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Yale Univ. Press, 2010) by Nicholas Phillipson. As with many Gopnik pieces, it provokes many musings. This is one in a series.

In an earlier post, I noted the difficulty readers have appreciating a writer’s context. The farther the reader is culturally and temporally from the writer, the more detail and nuance fails to strike the reader’s Hubble-like lens. Only the light survives.

Smith the Scot  
Adam Smith died in Edinburgh, Scotland, 220 years ago this past July. He was born a Scot and spent almost all his 67 years in the Scottish lowlands. Apart from noting a final ‘k’ to publick, Smith can be and is, sadly, read by most with little thought to his times.

It’s obvious enough that he died a year after adoption of the US Constitution (1789), in the year of George Washington’s first election to the presidency. It’s obvious to very few why, four years later, Washington would lead the largest army he ever commanded against farmers in western Pennsylvania most of whom were of Scots origins.

Was it Mel Brooks who launched through Madelaine Kahn that great double entendre, ‘The peasants are revolting!’ Substituting ‘Scots’ for ‘peasants’, that line would have gotten laughs, tinged with anxiety, in an 18th century London theater.

The wryly humorous professor, Adam Smith, housed in civilized, genteel Edinburgh was not the personification of ‘Scot’ for most English or Americans, for that matter, of his time.

Scottish Immigrants

Think instead of the pictures of filthy, emaciated denizens of Manhattan’s Lower East Side ca.  1900 – the faces of most immigrants throughout history.

Borders and Highland Scots peopled the factories Smith wrote about in the UK, the plantations of Northern Ireland, and the farms and forests of the American Colonies from Philadelphia south and west. Like most immigrants, their removal from their homes rarely was entirely voluntary.

The Scots had some unique history that affected their fates in the late 18th century – and offered a context for Smith’s writings.

Reivers & Bloody Borders

Add to the familiar immigrant picture a thousand-year tradition of ‘reiving’ – robbing, raiding, marauding and plundering – for 30+ miles above and below the Scots-English border. (See George MacDonald Fraser, The Steel Bonnets (1972), p. 1.) If you think in an American context of ‘Bloody Kansas’, Quantrill’s Raiders and the James Gang, you have the picture – with the same clans.

Now add the participation of many Scots in organized rebellions against the English king starting in 1715. The most serious of these, the Jacobite Rebellion in support of the pretender ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’, failed in 1746 while Smith studied at Oxford.

Ian Simpson Ross in The Life of Adam Smith (1995) (a companion to the definitive Glasgow Edition of Smith’s works) describes ‘the fury of the State’ in mopping up the rebels. Three noble Jacobites were beheaded; 116 commoners were hung, drawn and quartered – a particularly gruesome protracted sequence of public tortures ending in death; and more than 3,400 men, women and children were transported, died or disappeared. (Ross, at 81.) In 1750 Scotland had a population of 1.25 million.

The Highland Clearances

What happened next – the Highland Clearances – would go by the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ today. They did not involve slaughters as in the ‘Bloodlands’ of 1930-40s Eastern Europe or the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But the objective was the same: the removal of a troublesome lot.

The Clearances lasted into the early nineteenth century, creating the vast emptiness we now assume in the north of Britain. Thus, they went on throughout Smith’s last 44 years, almost all of which he spent in Scotland.

Robert Louis Stevenson & Adam Smith

The Clearances have several historians, and I’ve linked above to those on Amazon. But the best picture of the political and social environment to which Smith returned in Scotland is in two novels by Edinburgh-born Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped (1886) and its sequel, David Balfour (also called Catriona) (1893). (Beware of abridgements!)

As with the greatest of ‘children’s’ literature, adults will find different messages in them than the young. Besides being real thrillers, Stevenson captures the morally ambiguous choices a Scot loyal to the Crown – as Smith was unquestionably — faced in the early 1750s.

At the books’ political center is the execution of the MacGregor clan chief for the murder of a British agent. Although clearly innocent, the authorities hang him as an example to the restive highlanders. (Smith commented on the execution of Dr. Archibald Cameron in 1753 apparently under similar circumstances. (Ross, 83.))

At the close of David Balfour, Stevenson describes his hero in middle age, say the 1770s, in comfortable circumstances in Edinburgh, occasionally visited by a human reminder of the agonies he witnessed at 17.

Accomodation & the Scottish Enlightenment

Stevenson’s scene of David Balfour’s hearth came to mind when I read Gopnik’s observation:

“Above all, Edinburgh’s intellectual life [in Smith’s time] … was built around a distinctly city university, intertwined with the commercial life and the civic life of a merchant capital, rather than set off in a country town with country values… [Nicholas] Phillipson [in Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life] sees ‘The Wealth of Nations’ as… ‘one of the supreme achievements of a remarkable intelligentsia that was engaged in the project for distilling a theory of sociability out of a popular culture of politeness.’”

Ross puts it a bit differently.

“Also in the aftermath of the ‘45 rising, leaders of Scottish society were stressing to the youth of the country the importance of that ‘polite and useful learning’ appropriate for gentlemen and necessary for the practice of their professions, also for attaching them to English culture.” (At 83.)

I think Ross better captures the great, now largely unrecognized subtext in Adam Smith’s works. To me, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) takes on a force stronger than Smith’s words when it is read against the backdrop of rebellion, repression and clearances.

Smith as Gospel

In the long term, Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment failed in their mission of accommodation and in implementing their theories of sociability. The Scottish National Party and the Protestants in the North of Ireland testify to that. And so, too, do today’s American conservatives.

Looking beyond the Hubble-like refractions of Smith’s work, I can only marvel at their wisdom, their humaneness and their idealism. But Smith never thought of his writings as gospels. Nor, did he think the human condition and character permanent. Neither should we.


Thanks to Adam Gopnik and the New Yorker, I will muse on Adam Smith over several posts.

Don’t limit your enjoyment of Smith to secondary encounters. Read him! You can get handsome, sturdy trade paper editions of the definitive Glasgow Edition of Smith at laughably low prices. The source is Liberty Fund, a press whose politics I abhor but whose books I adore.