Guide to John Rae's Life of Adam Smith: Introduction

Guide to John Rae's Life of Adam Smith: Introduction

Guide to John Rae's Life of Adam Smith: Introduction

Guide to John Rae's Life of Adam Smith: Introduction

Excerpt

The primary purpose of this "Guide" is to facilitate for the present-day reader the use of John Rae Life of Adam Smith. As a comprehensive biography, it had no substantial predecessor. Seventy years after its publication, it still has no substantial successor. Its original edition, and until the present reissue its only edition, is not only out of print but in booksellers' terminology is "scarce." It has historical importance not only for its merits, which are many, but even for its defects. It has long been the main reliance and for many the sole reliance for the facts of Adam Smith's life; its errors and omissions have thus to a large extent become "institutionalized," standard, for most persons with any interest in Smith.

There were for Rae, and there would continue to be for any new and ambitious biographer of Smith, great difficulties in writing a comprehensive and accurate biography covering his activities, his experiences, and his personal relations with his relatives, his friends and neighbors, his correspondents. In the circle in which he lived, a high value was set both on the privacy of one's own affairs and on the protection of the privacy of those with whom one had had intimate personal relations. It was then quite common, therefore, for men in their old age to carry out, or to leave instructions for carrying out after their death, a massive destruction of their private papers. Adam Smith did this, and it is on record that so also did others whose papers would or might have been valuable sources of biographical information with respect to Smith, notably George Dempster, David Hume and Adam Ferguson.

Even when papers were left in quantity, heirs often did not appreciate their value and either let them perish or deliberately destroyed them. The papers of Dugald Stewart . . .

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