A “most obedient and obliged servant” – a rare Adam Smith letter goes up for sale

Adam Smith
Adam Smith

A rare letter written by Kirkcaldy’s most famous son will be auctioned in America.

The three-page hand-written document was penned by economist Adam Smith and will go under the hammer of Boston-based RR Auction as part of its ‘Fine Autographs and Artifacts’ auction.

Part of Smith's letter from 1760

Part of Smith's letter from 1760

Smith’s letter, dated March 10, 1760, was written by Smith economist to the First Earl of Shelburne regarding the health of his son Thomas Petty-Fitzmaurice, who was then Smith’s student and lodger, during his time working as professor of logic and moral philosophy at Glasgow University.

Bobby Livingston, RR Auction’s executive vice-president, says the letter is extremely rare.

“Even having done this for a number of years we don’t see many Adam Smith letters,” he said, this is maybe only the fourth I’ve ever seen.”

Bobby describes the 250-year-old letter as being in “magnificent” condition.

The world-famous economist's signature

The world-famous economist's signature

“The ink is so bold, it’s obviously been kept on file for all these years and you get to the end and you see that distinctive Adam Smith signature which I think is gorgeous.

“What I like about it is that it displays something that we’ve lost - the art of the handwritten letter. In the 21st century we deal mostly in emails and texts so writing letters is becoming something of a rarity.”

The letter was written to inform the Earl of Shelburne of his son’s illness. It reads: “I think it my duty to inform your Lordship that Mr. Fitzmaurice has been for some days past ill of a slight fever, from which, however, he never appeared to be in the least danger and from which I hope he is now in a fair way of recovery.”

Bobby said: “They sent for the doctor who ordered that he be “blooded” – it’s amazing!

“Thankfully, we know that the student did recover [Thomas would go on to become an MP], but what makes this letter so special is that it show’s Smith’s human side.

“He writes in the letter that he had the chance to write before but didn’t, but now he’s feeling guilty about that. He says that his conduct was “not consistent”.

“For anyone trying to understand Adam Smith, here we see his humanity and humility on display. This letter really captures something about him, his ethics and his morality.

“I just love this letter.”

The auction ends on Wednesday (August 8) and Bobby expects there to be a great deal of interest in Smith’s writings.

“I think anybody or any institution who collect letters seriously really needs to have an Adam Smith letter in their collection,” he said.

“He’s a huge figure historically and even all this time later in today’s modern world, there will be great interest in this letter.”

More details can be found online at www.rrauction.com.