Adam Smith Stories: Too Interesting to be Omitted


Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

Learn more about the one incident from Smith's childhood that has made it through the veils of time: his abduction and rescue from when he was four years old. 
Spending a lot of time with Adam Smith's works makes it easy to forget about Adam Smith the man. Granted, for some people, the person behind the ideas is just far less important than the ideas and their ideas' influences.  My undergraduate institution, St. John's College, a famous Great Books school, is well-known for this and I was frequently surprised by the gaps in my knowledge of our famous authors.  I did find out that George Elliot was the penname for a woman, Mary Ann Evans, before our seminar on her classic novel Middlemarch, but not by much. More embarrassing is to recall wondering what the author of A Treatise on Human Nature and the Wealth of Nations would have to say to each other. Apparently they had quite a lot to talk about. Even Liberty Fund's Pierre Goodrich was known to rip out the introductions to books to avoid having other's biases shape his understanding of the text before he reached his own.

I do wonder if reading biographies is more or less likely to shade an understanding of a work as opposed to reading secondary sources focused on the content of an author's work. I also wonder when in getting to know an author is the best time to branch out beyond the words they wrote. But I also just really enjoy learning about people and Smith's biography might have a greater claim to you attention than most because of his ideas. Sympathy and sympathetic imagination is very important to Smith and one way for us to sympathize with him is to learn about his life and experiences as well as his ideas.

To this end, I've been reading through a few different sources on Smith's life like Dugald Stewart's Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D. in 1810, John Rae's Life of Adam Smith and E.G. West's biography of Smith, Adam Smith: The Man and His Works (Liberty Fund, 1976).  In a previous Speaking of Smith I wrote about Smith's time as a Commissioner of Customs but here I'm going to focus on an incident from his early childhood which, as Dugald Stewart says in his telling is "of too interesting a nature to be omitted in the account of so valuable a life."

He had been carried by his mother to Strathenry, on a visit to his uncle Mr Douglas, and was one day amusing himself alone at the door of the house, when he was stolen by a party of that set of vagrants who are known in Scotland by the name of tinkers. Luckily he was soon missed by his uncle, who, hearing that some vagrants had passed, pursued them, with what assistance he could find, till he overtook them in Leslie wood; and was the happy instrument of preserving to the world a genius, which was destined, not only to extend the boundaries of science, but to enlighten and reform the commercial policy of Europe.

The description from John Rae is a little different: 
Of his infancy only one incident has come down to us. In his fourth year, while on a visit to his grandfather’s house at Strathendry on the banks of the Leven, the child was stolen by a passing band of gipsies, and for a time could not be found. But presently a gentleman arrived who had met a gipsy woman a few miles down the road carrying a child that was crying piteously. Scouts were immediately despatched in the direction indicated, and they came upon the woman in Leslie wood. As soon as she saw them she threw her burden down and escaped, and the child was brought back to his mother. 

It might seem strange to think of THE Adam Smith as a little child but we do all start that way and there's a lot in everyone's life that is a bit of chance.

Interested in learning more?
Renee Wilmeth's Adam Smith—Abducted!
James R. Otteson's A Brief Biography of Adam Smith
Dugald Stewart's Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D.
John Rae's Life of Adam Smith
E.G. West's biography of Smith, Adam Smith: The Man and His Works