Themes from Smith and Rousseau: the best and the worst aspects of archival research

Some Adam Smith related books in Special Collections

Some Adam Smith related books in Special Collections

Blogpost by Amy Westwell, Internship Hub student volunteer curator in Special Collections.

From April to July I curated an exhibition for the ‘Themes from Smith and Rousseau 2015’ conference held at the University of Glasgow from the 20th to the 22nd of July. I sifted through the wealth of archival material held in the University Library’s Special Collections and the University Archives, and produced an exhibition based around four themes: political economy, religion, culture and music.

The first way to approach an archive is with a sort of reverence – Adam Smith owned this book, touched it, breathed upon it. He turned the pages just as I am doing now. The book surely contains his spiritual essence. This sort of thrill was absent from my own enquiry, perhaps because Adam Smith’s world seemed cloistered by the stuffy lifestyle of the Scottish intelligentsia, and concerned with the administration of the university and the customs house, reporting on the learning of wealthy students to their parents and guardians, corresponding with civil servants who longed to be considered as intellectuals.

A second way is the precise opposite. The archive contains stacks of evidence, detailing the complex plot of history. Certain truths can be gleaned from documents, they can be sewn together in chains of demonstration. Such an attitude was perhaps first promoted by the 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke, who aspired to understand history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” – as it actually happened. The historian must clear her mind of preconceptions and any idea of a broad sweep or pattern to history, and interpret sources as clearly as possible from a perfect empirical and analytic perspective.

Pirated Dublin edition of the Wealth of Nations (Sp Coll RQ 3134)

Pirated Dublin edition of the Wealth of Nations (Sp Coll RQ 3134)

As Walter Benjamin pointed out, the study of the past is rarely so innocent. Historical enquiry is a struggle for control over the past, usually won by the ‘enemy’ who wishes to subject the past to a number of categories designed to make it inaccessible to the people. The idea of Adam Smith has been thoroughly exposed to such treatment, as he is lauded as the founder of classical economics, and placed at the beginning of a story of relentless ‘progress’. Within the university he is an ‘alumnus’ who described his time at the university as “by far the most useful and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life”. These words of praise are hardly likely to be entirely truthful given the context: Smith was thanking the students for his election as rector. Nevertheless, they provide near-perfect marketing material, and the university is excused for an understandable misrepresentation of history.

The history of Adam Smith is highly embroiled in politics and interest, and so are the objects I was working with. There is of course an international market in Adam Smith paraphernalia, and many of the documents held by the library were directly purchased at auction or donated by someone who had previously speculated on these commodities, or who had inherited them as family keepsakes. The result is that books and manuscripts are spread haphazardly across the world, and the Special Collections set, though extensive, is confusingly arbitrary for the curator who is trying to give them order. I was unable to show the progression of any particular correspondence, or to demonstrate any set of books that Smith owned.

I therefore set about trying to order the exhibition based on themes. It would be nice to say that I selected the themes beforehand, and that they had some kind of conceptual unity. In fact, I wrote down lists of documents that I found interesting, and then forced them into categories. The documents that I found most interesting were those that demonstrated something about the medium of communication, mostly letters and illegal copies of Smith’s work, produced cheaply or in countries like France where his work was censored.

Going through Smith’s letters was not a particularly intimate endeavour, because there was so much correspondence with people he didn’t really know, people he had a passing acquaintance with, or those who wrote to Smith simply because they were men or women of a similar social standing who dabbled in Enlightened ideas. Smith’s French correspondents wrote to him, not particularly fluently, in language that seemed clichéd, about their liberal thoughts and the general advancement of Europe. Many of those correspondents would soon experience the revolution, and some were killed for being on the wrong side, or being of the wrong class. With this retrospective understanding, their letters often seem amusingly flippant, as if the writers were playing around with concepts they didn’t really understand, but would soon confront in a far less leisurely context.

Letter to Alexander Wedderburn from Adam Smith, Kirkcaldy: 14 August 1776. (MS Gen. 510/47)

Letter to Alexander Wedderburn from Adam Smith, Kirkcaldy: 14 August 1776. (MS Gen. 510/47)

Smith was a mostly silent partner in these exchanges; he received a lot of mail, but did not often write back, and when he did, very rarely disclosed the sort of personal information that his correspondents offered up. He was engaged in Enlightenment culture on a certain level – he ordered the Encyclopédie for the university library, and wrote about it for the Edinburgh Review – but he did not seem to appreciate certain aspects of Enlightenment. He felt that the Encyclopédie should be more serious, and concern itself more with science than opinion, which was hardly in the spirit of its editors. Similarly, he did not share the enthusiasm of many of his contemporaries for Deism, perhaps because he had a more sage view about the political consequences. So, alongside presenting the way Smith communicated his ideas and how this sometimes fell short of the ideal associated with the ‘Republic of Letters’, I also tried to show the aspects of Smith that fall short of the idea of the Enlightened intellectual.

One of the most striking aspects of the archival research was, as I have already suggested, the banality of some of the correspondence, and the correspondents. A recurring figure in the manuscripts is one Count de Sarsfield, who is mentioned incessantly as a wonderful person, who everyone seems to have loved speaking to. My research yielded very little more information about this universally-lauded character, and I was forced to conclude that the exemplary Count was simply a very good socialite, one who had managed to gain the respect of great thinkers without being particularly interesting himself. He was, in effect, a good pal.

And herein lies the best and the worst aspect of archival research concerning intellectual history. It complicates an already complicated person and body of thought with a kind of historical litter, which may provide clues as to the intellectual’s life and motives, but on the other hand will often be meaningless: the historian has very little way of knowing. At the end of the process, the thinker seems more human and therefore far more disappointing. On the other hand, their thought becomes more clearly exposed as a type of action rather than abstract words-on-a-page, whether that action is a political intervention or a snide put-down of a former-friend. In certain moments of clarity, the array of documents that were produced or engaged with by Smith seem to give a much greater clue as to his general intent.

Curating the Adam Smith exhibition gave me many insights into the world of the Scottish Enlightenment, and was an enriching way to end my studies at Glasgow University.


Categories: Reflections, Special Collections

Tags: , , , ,

2 replies


  1. Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #10 | Whewell's Ghost
  2. University of Glasgow Library Exhibits | International Adam Smith Society

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