The Professor and the Statesman: The Friendship of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke

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Kenly Stewart for AdamSmithWorks

August 24, 2020

It is easy to forget that great thinkers of the past were first and foremost people. They fell in and out of love, won and lost friendships, and sometimes probably partook too much of the bottle and awoke the next morning to suffer the consequences. One of the most enduring aspects of Smith’s personal biography was his affectionate friendship with fellow Scottish philosopher David Hume.

 The Smith-Hume friendship is one of the most well-known between Enlightenment thinkers. It is so well-known that it often overshadows Smith’s other friendships. One such friend was the great philosopher-statesman, Edmund Burke. Fittingly enough, their friendship started thanks to Hume. On April 12, 1759 Hume sent a letter to Smith thanking him for “the agreeable Present of your Theory,” Smith’s recently published Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hume “made presents” of multiple copies Smith sent him, giving them to people he “thought good judges” to further “spread the Reputation of the Book” (we could all benefit from a Hume in our lives). One person who received a copy was “Burke, an Irish Gentlemen, who wrote lately a very pretty Treatise on the Sublime.”

 On September 10, 1759, six months after receiving his copy of TMS, Burke wrote Smith for the first time. One immediately sees the beginnings of a friendship. “I am quite ashamed that the first letter I have the honour of writing to you should be an apology for my conduct,” began Burke. He assured Smith that when he “received the Theory of Moral of Sentiments from Mr. Hume,” he “ran through it with great eagerness,” but “was immediately after hurried out of Town, and involved ever since in a Variety of troublesome affairs.” Hence the delay of six months before his response. Known as a reactionary, not a charmer, Burke nonetheless displayed a keen understanding of an author’s ego, telling Smith “My resolution was to defer my acknowledgments until I had read your book with proper care and attention; to do otherwise with so well studied a piece would be to treat it with great injustice.”

 One of the fascinating aspects of the Smith-Burke relationship is the fact  that “There is little scholarly agreement about how to understand” it, as Michael L. Frazer writes. Frazer notes “Philosophical commentators often see the two in fundamental opposition…. Yet historians point out that Smith and Burke were personal friends who not only shared a sentimental attachment, but also considered themselves to be in fundamental agreement on most philosophical and political issues.”

This “fundamental agreement” can be seen in Burke’s first letter to Smith. Burke wrote “I am not only pleased with the ingenuity of your Theory; I am convinced of its solidity and Truth; and I do not know that it ever cost me less trouble to admit so many things to which I had been a stranger before.” Always skeptical of abstract theories, Burke praised Smith for rooting his theory “on the Nature of man, which is always the same, will last, when those that are founded on his opinions, which are always changing, will and must be forgotten.” Such pleasantries may be expected in private correspondence, but Burke also praised Smith’s writings publicly.

 In 1758 Burke became the editor of The Annual Register, an annual publication that recorded important world events, especially those involving British politics, along with collected articles on a diversity of topics. Book reviews made up an important part of the Register, with a short review serving as an introduction to lengthy excerpts from the actual book under review. Burke included brief reviews of and lengthy excerpts from both TMS and TWN in the 1759 and 1776 editions of the Register.

Neither of Burke’s two reviews of Smith were absent of light criticism, but overall they were quite positive. “There will, in a work of this kind, always be great deficiencies” Burke wrote of TMS. Yet he went on to praise Smith’s effort and regretted only providing excerpts from the text. Burke admitted “It is very difficult, if not impossible, consistently with the brevity of our design, to give the reader a proper idea of this excellent work.” He noted there had been “many books written on our moral duties,” and “One would have thought the matter had been exhausted,” but Smith had “struck out a new.” Burke argued similarly about TWN. While others had written about economics, “no one work has appeared amongst them…. anything to be compared to the present performance.” Smith’s greatest compliment as a writer may have come from Burke saying of TMS, “His language is easy and spirited, and puts things before you in the fullest light; it is rather painting than writing.”

The political and philosophical differences in the Smith-Burke relationship are worth exploring, but they should not overshadow their personal relationship. For example, on July 1, 1782 Smith read Burke had resigned as Paymaster General. He sent a quick note to his “dear friend,” telling him “I cannot avoid writing you a few lines to tell you how deeply I feel your affliction.” Smith told Burke when he first heard of his resignation, “my first movement was to run to your house,” but had “restrained” himself for “fear of disturbing your sorrow.” Eight months later Burke was again Paymaster General, and on April 15, 1783 Smith sent him a congratulatory letter declaring, “Nothing ever gave me more pleasure.” Burke responded on June 20, 1783 telling Smith “That such a friend, and such a man as you are, should take any concern in my fortunes is a Circumstance very flattering to me.”

Burke’s first letter, his positive reviews of Smith’s work, and Smith’s support of Burke in political loss and triumph, reveals just the surface of their friendship. From their correspondence we also learn Smith wrote a letter of recommendation for Burke’s cousin Will, and Burke thanked Smith for his “constant kindness” to his son Richard during the latter’s visit to Scotland in 1786. Sadly, we only have a small selection of their correspondence. Burke was no doubt saddened by Smith’s death in 1790, seven years before his own death.

The friendship between the great Scotsman and great Irishman displays the humanity of each. Their friendship also reminds us that those engaged in the world of ideas need companionship like everyone else. Life is inevitably complicated, disappointing, and lonely. Everyone needs a support network and friends for encouragement. In the Smith-Burke relationship we see that their writings about moral philosophy, politics, and economics are important, but so are the often-overlooked smaller, personal communications between friends. At their best, ideas help us truly live, but friendships are what make life worth living.

I like to think Smith and Burke would toast a glass of scotch or pint of Guinness (better still, both) in agreement.

Editor’s Note: You can find Adam Smith’s Correspondence for purchase