We are delighted to report an exciting new arrival in Special Collections – a beautiful copy of the first edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations recently gifted by alumnus Stuart Leckie, OBE. The Wealth of Nations hardly needs introduction – it is regularly described as one of the most important and influential books ever written and, as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) comments:
“… is still one of the few works in its field to have achieved classic status, meaning simply that it has sustained yet survived repeated reading, critical and adulatory, long after the circumstances which prompted it have become the object of historical enquiry”.
Published in the same year as the American Declaration of Independence (1776), Smith’s An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations – now universally abbreviated to Wealth of Nations – was intended as a thoroughgoing examination of wealth and how its benefits should be measured and judged. Smith was vexed by a knotty question, as the ODNB describes:
“While there is no difficulty in explaining how the rich and powerful come to enjoy the fruits of others’ labour, how is it that in civilized societies even the poorest members enjoy more of the necessaries and conveniences of life than an African king?”
The work has come to be most closely associated with a single idea: the invisible hand. The exact meaning of this catchy metaphor (which appears just once in the whole work!) has been hotly contested and over the years the phrase has taken on a life of its own. As a result Smith, the Wealth of Nations and the invisible hand have become synonymous with free market self-regulation and the benefits to all of mutual self-interest.
Smith has very close links with the University of Glasgow. He studied here as an undergraduate (enrolling at age 14 –not uncommon in those days, incredibly!) before returning to teach – first as Professor of Logic, then later Professor of Moral Philosophy, Dean of Faculties and finally Rector. He even served as Quaestor (the official in charge of accounts) to the University Library for a time.
It is fitting then, that this wonderful copy of Smith’s great work should end up in the University Library and we are very grateful to Stuart Leckie for donating it. Stuart, like Adam Smith, studied here at Glasgow, graduating with a BSc in Mathematics in 1967. A qualified actuary, he is currently the Chairman of Stirling Finance, a Hong Kong-based pensions and investments advisor and has been a great supporter of the University contributing to the Chancellor’s Fund, and sponsoring a Talent Scholarship.
The donated copy has ownership that can be traced right back to the late 18th century and it has literally travelled the world! Its earliest known owners were the Bell family of Woolsington, Northumberland; by the 1920s it was in the library of Viscount Mersey at Bignor Park, Sussex, before crossing the Atlantic to enter the collection of the avid US bibliophile Richard Epstein. Sold by Epstein in 1992, it then seems to have navigated the Pacific to reach Hong Kong where it was purchased for us by Stuart Leckie!
In celebration of Adam Smith’s close links with the University of Glasgow, the Business School has recently been renamed the Adam Smith Business School. Appropriately, our new addition will be on display throughout the launch and lecture tomorrow evening, Wednesday 6th February.
If you are interested in finding out what other Adam Smith resources are held in Special Collections and Archives, have a look at our Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment web page.