– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

exhibition archive – Adam Smith

This article originally appeared on the Balliol Archives & Manuscripts website. It documented an exhibition mounted in the College Chapel by Dr John Jones with assistance from Anna Sander. The catalogue which follows was written by Dr Jones.

An Exhibition arranged for a Conference of the
International Adam Smith Society
11-13 January 2009

The Exhibition was held in the College Chapel, by kind permission of the Chaplain.


Adam Smith was nominated to a Snell Exhibition by the University of Glasgow and admitted to Balliol in 1740. He held his Exhibition until 1749, and was probably in actual residence in Balliol for practically all of the period July 1740-August 1746. His Snell Exhibition was augmented by a Warner Exhibition in 1742. Most of what has been written about Smith’s six years at Oxford is speculation and padding. In his earliest surviving letter, written to his cousin William Smith a month after arrival, he remarked “…. it will be to his own fault if anyone should endanger his health at Oxford by excessive study, our only business here being to go to prayers twice a day, and to lecture twice a week.”

It was a depressed period in the history of the College. Student numbers had fallen to the lowest since the Reformation, and some of the dons were idle, absent, or preoccupied with intrigue and litigation. But two of them, Charles Godwyn and Joseph Sanford, were lifelong scholar-bibliophiles, and the Master Theophilus Leigh paid lip service at least to academic discipline. Smith’s attitude was probably coloured by the fact that the Scots were not warmly welcomed. But he made lasting friends here, and had the time and opportunity to read widely.

What he read, where he read it, and who, if anybody, advised him is not documented. But he knew and may have been influenced by George Drake (ca.1711-1752). Drake was an active Fellow and Lecturer in Smith’s time of whom very little is known, but Smith’s friend John Douglas recorded that his “Tutor was Mr George Drake, whom I shall always have an affectionate Remembrance of as I profited much by his superintending my Studies”. Douglas was, like Smith, from Fifeshire; he resided as a Warner Exhibitioner 1738-1744, then saw active service abroad as a military chaplain before returning to Balliol as Snell Exhibitioner1745-1748. Later a member of Samuel Johnson’s circle and FRS, he was Bishop of Salisbury 1791-1807.

The Snell (1699) and Warner (1668) Exhibitions were often known together as the Scotch Exhibitions. They had been established to finance young Scots at Oxford, where they would be ordained and return to bolster the episcopal church in Scotland. In fact few Exhibitioners ever did as expected. There was tension between the Glasgow and Balliol authorities over the administration of the Snell Trust from the outset until the mid-nineteenth century. The Trust survives, and Glasgow graduates still follow in Adam Smith’s footsteps to Balliol.

It is ironic that one of our greatest alumni was here at a relatively undistinguished time, and probably owed little more to Balliol than the opportunity to read as he liked. But nor does the College owe its reputation in economics and social reform to him. Five of our many statesmen have served as Chancellor of the Exchequer (Stafford Northcote, Asquith, Macmillan, Healey and Jenkins); three members have won the Nobel Prize in Economics (Myrdal, Solow and Hicks); many members have distinguished themselves in economics as academics or journalists; the present Master Andrew Graham is an economist, and two of his pupils are rising stars in national politics (James Purnell and Yvette Cooper). Lord Beveridge, architect of the Welfare State, was a student at Balliol; and Arnold Toynbee was a Lecturer. Similarly in Moral Philosophy: four distinguished contributors to the field have been Master in the last 150 years (Benjamin Jowett, Edward Caird, Lord Lindsay and Sir Anthony Kenny) – Caird and Lindsay indeed had previously held Adam Smith’s Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow; and both TH Green and RM Hare were Fellows of Balliol.

Items on display

1.a) Admissions and Degrees Book 1686-1833, open at Adam Smith’s admission entry, 4 July 1740

1.b) Smith’s entry among graduation records, 5 May 1744: Com. Smith admissus est Jurista.

This entry is of particular interest as it seems to have been missed by his many biographers, who have been puzzled by his status at Oxford 1744-1746 and some of whom have conjectured that he took the BA, which he could have done. He never took any degree at Oxford, but men of his standing in Balliol were given the courtesy title of a BA, Dominus, and placed in the social hierarchy as if they had graduated BA. The term Jurista indicates that he was a student of civil law.

There is a corresponding entry in the University Archives ref. SP 70, 18 January 1743/4, for which thanks are due to Simon Bailey, Keeper of the Archives: Adam Smith e Collegio Ball’ Commensalis admissus fuit in facultate Juris Civilis, Licentia sub Chirographo Praefecti Collegii sui prius significata. He paid the same College fee in 1744 as those graduating BA, and from this time he appears in all College lists as “Ds Smith” without distinction from those who were BA. This may be an indicator of what he was studying; or it may have been a device to evade being drawn along the path towards ordination; or he may have quibbled at the Oath of Allegiance required on graduating BA. On the College’s side it was no doubt a matter of not allowing any potential fee-payer to escape.

2.a) Latin Register 1682-1781, open at Adam Smith’s Snell Exhibition nomination by the Glasgow authorities, 11 March 1740.

This document is pasted into a large ledger and had to be photographed at an awkward angle. You will need to refer to both images for the entire text.

2.b) Smith’s admission by the Snell Trustees, 4 July 1740.

‘July the 4th 1740
‘We, whose names are hereunto subscribed, do give our Consents, that Adam Smith born in the kingdom of Scotland, & chosen into one of Mr Snell’s Exhibitions in Balliol College by virtue of a Decree made in the High Court of Chancery in 1693, be admitted accordingly into the said Exhibition.
‘T. Leigh V[ice] Ch[ancello]r & Master of Balliol
‘W. Smith Prov[os]t of Queen’s Coll[ege]
‘Will[iam] Holmes Presid[en]t of St John’s.’

2.c) Smith’s Warner Exhibition presentation by the Warner Trustees 2 November 1742.

‘Whereas by the last Will & Testament of the Right Reverend Father in God Dr John Warner late Lord Bishop of Rochester , the Nomination & Election of Four Scotch Scholars to be maintained by His Charity in Balliol College in Oxford, is vested in the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Rochester for the Time being. These are therefore to certify that We John the present Archbishop of Canterbury and Joseph Lord Bishop of Rochester do hereby nominate & elect the Bearer hereof Mr Adam Smith being (as We are certainly informed) born at Kirkcaldy in Scotland aged Nineteen Years and now a Member of Your College to be by You forthwith admitted into the place lately enjoyed by James Monteath & now vacant , and to enjoy the pension belonging to the Same , as fully and amply as by the aforesaid Will and Act of Parliament confirming the same he ought to do. In Witness whereof We have hereunto set our Hands and Seals this 2nd day of Nove[ember] in the Year of Our Lord 1742.
‘Jo[hn Potter] Cant[uar, Canterbury]
‘Jos[eph Wilcocks] Roffen [ Rochester]
‘To the Reverend Dr Theophilus Leigh
‘Master of Balliol College in Oxford.’

2.d) Smith’s Snell Exhibition resignation, written from Edinburgh on 4 February 1749, although he went out of residence in 1746.

‘ Edenburgh feb:4:1748/9 I Adam Smith one of the Exhibitioners on Mr Snells foundation in Baliol College in Oxford do hereby resign into the hands of the Revd Dr Leigh Master of the said college all right & title which I have to an Exhibition on the said foun- dation as witness my hand
‘Adam Smith. ‘

3. Caution Money Book 1640-1750, open at the entry in Adam Smith’s hand, acknowledging the return of his friend John Douglas’s deposit [“caution money”], 28 May 1744.

4. John Douglas, photograph of the College portrait, Robert Muller, ca.1797.

5. Adam Smith, bust, Baron Carlo Marochetti, 1852.

6. Adam Smith, miniature portrait plaque, James Tassie, 1787.

7. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations two volumes, 2nd edition (1778).

Arnold Toynbee’s copy. Volume I is open at the title page, and volume II shows the Toynbee commemorative bookplate. The College has no copy of the 1st edition of The Wealth of Nations (1776), and unfortunately no early edition at all of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

8. Arnold Toynbee, portrait plaque, Sir Joseph Boehm, ca.1883.

9. William Beveridge, bust, Benno Elkan, 1943.


On Adam Smith at Oxford, with the caveat that little is actually documented:

  • WR Scott, Adam Smith as Student and Professor, 1937
  • EC Mosser and IS Ross (Eds.), The Correspondence of Adam Smith, 1977
  • IS Ross, The Life of Adam Smith, 1995.

On his status see A Clark, Notes and Queries 10 S XII Nov 13 1909, 384.

On the Snell Exhibitions:

  • WI Addison, The Snell Exhibitions from the University of Glasgow to Balliol College, Oxford, 1901
  • L Stones, The Life and Career of John Snell (c. 1629-1679), Stair Soc. Miscellany II, 1984
  • J Jones, John Snell’s Exhibitions 1699-1999, 1999 [ISBN 0 9512569 4 7].

For background to 18th century Balliol: J Jones, Balliol College: a history, 2nd edn revised, 2005.

On the busts etc: J Jones, The Portraits of Balliol College, a Catalogue, 1990. [ISBN 0 9512569 2 0].

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