SMITH (ADAM) Autograph letter signed ("Adam Smith"),  Edinburgh, Tuesday, 9 December 1783
Lot 168
Autograph letter signed ("Adam Smith"), Edinburgh, Tuesday, 9 December 1783
Sold for £ 37,500 (US$ 52,014) inc. premium

Lot Details
Autograph letter signed ("Adam Smith"), [to William Eden], promising that the first day the Customs Board is under adjournment he will endeavour to answer as fully and distinctly as he can "all the questions you have done me the very great honour to ask me concerning our future Commercial connexions with our thirteen revolted Colonies", which he expects will be by Friday or Saturday; his letter opening with an apology for the delay in submitting accounts as requested, and explaining that his clerks had been hard at it all Sunday, adding that "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"; in a postscript, he tells Eden that if his committee continues to think the attendance of a Commissioner of Customs is necessary he would "probably be the person appointed", concluding: "When you do me the honour to write to me, Be so good as to direct to me Commissioner of the Customs. 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"; pencil docket in an early 19th hand "Adam Smith Author of the Wealth of Nations", originally 3 pages, paper watermark of a hunting horn above the royal GR cypher, the second formerly conjoint leaf trimmed and cut to shape and partly pasted at the foot of the verso of the previous leaf, thin guard at verso of left-hand edge, with paper-strengthening at the top left and foot, but otherwise in sound fresh and attractive condition, irregular 4to, Edinburgh, Tuesday, 9 December 1783


  • 'I ONCE HAD THE VANITY TO FLATTER MYSELF THAT I WAS THE ONLY ADAM SMITH IN THE WORD' – A NEWLY-DISCOVERED LETTER BY SMITH, ON HIS OWN FAME AND 'OUR FUTURE COMMERCIAL CONNEXIONS WITH OUR THIRTEEN REVOLTED COLONIES', written three months after the independence of the United States of America had been formally recognised by Great Britain at the Treaty of Paris of 3 September 1783 and soon after completing The Wealth of Nations. It is addressed to William Eden, the former Prime Minister Lord North's right hand man – who perhaps more than anyone had been responsible for putting into effect policies advocated by Smith, namely the removal of barriers on Anglo-Irish trade in 1779 and the introduction of freer trade with France through the Anglo-French treaty of 1786.

    Smith's Wealth of Nations was book-ended by the war with America. He had travelled down to London to prepare it for the press ten years earlier, in 1773: 'This entailed acquiring up-to-date information on American affairs, some of it derived from House of Commons debates, some from experts such as Benjamin Franklin. The causes and consequences of the dispute between Britain and its colonies were a vital part of Smith's treatment of what he was to call, with pejorative intent, the "mercantile system". Although the situation was moving rapidly towards the climax marked by the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, one might not gather that from Smith's calm description of events as the "present disturbances"'; the work eventually appearing in March 1776 (Donald Winch, ODNB). Likewise the end of the war and the loss of the colonies in large measure prompted his final additions to the work which were only finished in November 1783, a month before the date of our letter, and not published until the following year.

    Among these additions is his statement that 'It is unnecessary, I apprehend, to say anything further, in order to expose the folly of a system which fatal experience has now sufficiently exposed' (IV.viii.15). His reference in our letter to "the proper method of preventing smuggling" brings to mind the well-known passage in The Wealth of Nations where he describes the smuggler as 'a person who, though no doubt highly blamable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been, in every respect, an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so' (V.2.209).

    The full background to our letter is provided by John Rae's Life of Adam Smith (1895), where he quotes Smith's next letter to Eden, dated 15 December 1783, at that time the only letter known from this exchange: 'The principles of free trade presently got an impetus from the conclusion of peace with America and France in 1783. Lord Shelburne wrote Abbé Morellet in 1783 that the treaties of that year were inspired from beginning to end by "the great principle of free trade," and that "a peace was good in the exact proportion that it recognised that principle". A fitting opportunity was thought to have arisen for making somewhat extended applications of the principle, and many questions were asked about how far such applications should go in this direction or that. When the American Intercourse Bill was before the House in 1783, one of Lord Shelburne's colleagues in the Ministry, William Eden, approached Smith in considerable perplexity as to the wisdom of conceding to the new republic free commercial intercourse with this country and our colonies. Eden had already done something for free trade in Ireland, and he was presently to earn a name as a great champion of that principle, after successfully negotiating with Dupont de Nemours the Commercial Treaty with France in 1786; but in 1787 he had not accepted the principle so completely as his chief, Lord Shelburne. Perhaps, indeed, he never took a firm hold of the principle at any time, for Smith always said of him, "He is but a man of detail." Any-how, when he wrote Smith in 1783 he was under serious alarm at the proposal to give the United States the same freedom to trade with Canada and Nova Scotia as we enjoyed ourselves. Being so near those colonies, the States would be sure to oust Great Britain and Ireland entirely out of the trade of provisioning them. The Irish fisheries would be ruined, the English carrying trade would be lost. The Americans, with fur at their doors, could easily beat us in hats, and if we allowed them to import our tools free, they would beat us in everything else for which they had the raw materials in plenty. Eden and Smith seem to have exchanged several letters on this subject, but none of them remain except the following one from Smith, in which he declares that it would be an injustice to our own colonies to restrict their trade with the United States merely to benefit Irish fish-curers or English hatters, and to be bad policy to impose special discouragements on the trade of one foreign nation which are not imposed on the trade of others. His argument is not, it will be observed, for free trade, which he perhaps thought then impracticable, but merely for equality of treatment, – equality of treatment between the British subject in Canada and the British subject in England, and equality of treatment between the American nation and the Russian, or French, or Spanish' (pp. 383-4).

    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 our letter is not recorded. The paper on which it is written appears to have been part of the official stock used by officials of HM Customs, and is similar to that used by Smith's compatriot and colleague, Robert Burns, for his manuscript of 'Ye Banks and Braes O'Bonnie Doon' (see above in the present sale).
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