When Smith Swapped A Future as A Clergyman for Economics, Philosophy, and Social Psychology

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Walter Donway for AdamSmithWorks

Donway writes about a pivotal moment in young Adam Smith's life: abandoning ordination studies for secular studies.

June 7, 2023
Read a few essays on the life of Adam Smith and you start skipping the section on his years at Balliol College, Oxford. It always says the same thing.
The University of Oxford had been teaching as early as 1096, which crowns it as the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It always has comprised colleges like Balliol--among the oldest--responsible for their own funds and operations.
Thus, when Adam Smith came from Kirkaldy in 1740, age 17, with a significant “bursary”—or scholarship—Balliol already was 477 years old. Smith found his professors unmotivated to teach, contrasting them with the University of Glasgow and his idol Francis Hutcheson, libertarian, utilitarian, rationalist. Smith, in effect, educated himself at Balliol’s library, did not enjoy his time off from study, and went home before completing his fellowship. He wrote to William Smith, Aug. 24, 1740: "It will be his own fault if anyone should endanger his health at Oxford by excessive Study, our only business here being to go to prayers twice a day, and to [a] lecture twice a week."
Smith appears to have learned something about perverse incentives and how they affect commitment to the job. His famous comment: “In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” College life was arranged “for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters.”
Eamon Butler in a brief version of this story writes “Smith became not just an economist but a social psychologist. This was how he continued to extend the scope of his thinking, from Scotland to England, from countries to empires, in the end to all levels of society, on the basis that people are better off making their own economic decisions than having them imposed.”
Of interest are comments from some of today’s partisans of Oxford that are appended to Butler’s account of Smith’s refusal to concede any universal superiority to Oxford. To paraphrase a few of these querulous comments: Oh, over the next 150 years, did Glasgow’s fee system enable it to “close the gap” with Oxford? Did Smith realize that graduate studies at Oxford were supervised independent study—in the library? Was Smith short-changed—he spent three years in the College’s library, one of the most famous in Europe, where he mastered ancient philosophy and came to grips with modern English, French, and Italian literature?
It might all be beside the point. Young Smith upended all essential conditions of his Snell Fellowship to Oxford. In doing so, he changed his career—and arguably changed history. He did so not with a dismissive wave of his hand, but by entirely legitimate negotiation. It may or may not be telling that exactly such negotiation makes an appearance early in Chapter 1 of The Wealth of Nations.
As a boy, Smith had attended what he always recalled as an excellent school near Kirkaldy. He learned classical and modern languages, though he later remarked he would have appreciated more math and mechanics. At 14, like the brightest Scottish lads, he enrolled (1737) in the University of Glasgow. He lauded all his life the Scottish Enlightenment professor, Frances Hutcheson, who led in lecturing not in Latin but English, jettisoned Calvinism as the framework for teaching, and certainly shone in the compensation-from-student-fees competition that Smith contrasted with curdling disdain to Oxford’s endowed professorships.
The brightest at Glasgow were awarded Snell fellowships to Balliol. So honored, Smith set out on the month-long horseback ride to Oxford, reporting to his mother a new world of noble architecture and fatter cattle than seen in Scottish pastures.
In accepting the Snell scholarship, Smith had agreed to become ordained as a clergyman of the Church of England, the established or government-sanctioned Anglican church of Britain, where other sects were at best tolerated, and called in Scotland the “Church of Scotland.” He agreed to remain at Oxford for a specified number of years. Contemplate, for a moment, Smith’s fulfilling his obligation. As a minister, he might have written the Theory of Moral Sentiments—but also The Wealth of Nations?
Reports are unanimous that outside his studies at the library Smith did not enjoy Oxford life. But he tended to business. In his first year, he got Balliol to agree to permit him to switch to studies of Civil Law. How did he manage this? Balliol, after all, had been chosen for the Snell fellowship recipients as the best preparation for Scottish clergymen.
Gavin Kennedy argues in An Authentic Account of Adam Smith (2018)—reportedly for the first time—that Smith arrived at Balliol with considerable bargaining power—and that he needed it and used it. Referring to the eight Glasgow students selected each year for the Snell bursary, Kenny writes: “[T]he Scotch eight seem to have been always treated as an alien and intrusive faction.” Barry R. Weingast quotes Campbell and Skinner, Adam Smith, that “Balliol could hardly have been less congenial to someone of Smith’s interest and temperament.”
But Kennedy goes on to argue: “His fellowship involved ₤40 per annum. In the mid-18th century, this was a substantial sum. [It translates into £6,500, today, but colleges like Balliol had only a few dozen of students, the bursary covered multiple years, and people contrived to live on far less money, then.] At any rate, most of this sum went to Balliol College. Were Smith to abandon his fellowship, Balliol would cease to capture these funds…”
So, Smith continued, but on the civil law track and attended only lectures he wished to attend. Nor was this his only negotiation. Smith decided to return to Scotland before the fellowship ended. A dropout? Rated an academic failure and a waste of a Snell fellowship? No, Balliol College blessed his departure as “compassionate leave” and “in good standing.”
Even with Smith returning to Scotland, on “leave,” Balliol continued to collect the Snell bursary for three more years. The impression on a young man of the willingness of Balliol College to negotiate with a Scottish “nobody” must have been lasting. Kennedy points to a direct link between Smith’s Oxford negotiations and the opening of the Wealth of Nations. “In Book I, chapter 1 Smith states: ‘IF you give me this which I want, THEN I shall give you that which you want.’” Kennedy suggests that “Smith’s actions during the late summer-early winter of 1745-1746 showed him practicing what he published on bargaining 30 years later in The Wealth of Nations.
Balliol made the best deal for itself--and so did Smith. In fact, his choice turned out better than he might have anticipated when he departed for home in 1744. For 1745 saw the Jacobite rebellion of Highland clans. Balliol might have expected its “Scottish Exhibitioners” to buckle down precisely to stay safely in England. And the British army did crush the rebellion. But Smith, attached lifelong to his mother, who was widowed before Smith was born and always accommodated his needs, would have had notable anxiety about her with reports of the hard Jacobite occupation of the undefended Scottish lowlands.
Smith returned to Scotland with an unblemished reputation (but not as a clergyman) and began to write essays that attracted attention and led to public lectures that launched his academic career at the University of Glasgow.
Genius is ever elusive. We cannot know to what extent Adam Smith acted on clear plans for his future. He decisively rejected the path of a clergyman in the Church of Scotland and pursued diverse interests in the library at Balliol. But we know only very generally what these studies were. And he left the College when he was “done”—but we do not know much about what “done” meant in Smith’s terms.
We do know that each step was deliberate because he faithfully negotiated his decisions with his “counter parties.” And that abandoning ordination studies for secular studies such as civil law probably was the most important decision Adam Smith ever made.