I have used the timeline from the BBC Timeline of British history which provide a flavour of what was happening during the lifetime of Adam Smith. His father (same name) was a Judge Advocate after qualifying as a solicitor (called Writers at the time). His mother was Margaret Douglas, only daughter of Robert Douglas (landed gentry, of Strathendry) and Susan Balfour.
In the last decade of the 17th century a gambling project, the Darien Scheme was persuasively sold to gullible aristocrats by William Paterson. It became an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to become a world trading nation by establishing a colony called “Caledonia” on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s. The aim was for the colony to have an overland route that connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. From the beginning the undertaking was beset by poor planning and provisioning, divided leadership, lack of demand for trade goods, devastating epidemics of disease, and failure to anticipate the Spanish Empire’s military response. It was finally abandoned in March 1700 after a siege by Spanish forces, which also blockaded the harbour.
As the Scottish Darien Company was backed by 25–50% of all the money circulating in Scotland, its failure left the entire Lowlands almost completely ruined and was an important factor in weakening their resistance to the Act of Union (completed in 1707). The land where the Darien colony was built is virtually uninhabited today.
It was likely a Scotsman, William Paterson, convinced many wealthy individuals to gamble on the South Sea Bubble also, The original suggestion for the South Sea scheme has sometimes been credited to Daniel Defoe, but it is more likely the idea originated with Paterson, one of the founders of the Bank of England and the Darien Scheme.
October – November 1720
‘South Sea Bubble’ bursts and triggers a financial panic
The South Sea Company was a financial and trading organisation mainly dealing with Spanish America. It received trading rights to the South Seas in return for financing the British government’s debt. Shares were issued and unrealistic expectations cultivated. A monopoly of the slave trade was envisaged. When it was discovered that the directors of the profitless company had sold out, it sparked a massive panic and a major financial crash occurred in the City of London. Huge fortunes were lost.
It seems Paterson never tired of gambling away the money of others. Perhaps Adam’s mother understood these foolish actions which had been detrimental to the nation. Perhaps she told her son to beware of gambling. There must be a more certain way a nation can generate wealth?
It was 3 years before Adam Smith snr died and before his son was born, his father apparently dying before seeing his son.
A Douglas archive states
‘Variously described as the ‘5th daughter’ and the ‘only daughter’. As a widow and single mother, Margaret Douglas lived near her family of established landowning farmers and she had the emotional and advisory support of a circle of powerful local dignitaries, whom her prudent husband had arranged to act as his unborn son’s guardians. Their backgrounds indicate the patronage available to baby Adam if he survived (child mortality at the time was horrendous). His father, in addition to the provision he made for his 13-year-old son and heir, Hugh Smith, also made provision for ‘any child or children of my present marriage’. Among his guardians were James Oswald, former Kirkcaldy MP in both the Scottish and the UK parliaments, and five members of his parents’ families.”
I have not seen any further mention of a brother, Hugh. I wonder if he died too. It would seem Margaret bonded with Adam so closely that he never married and his mother lived with him in Edinburgh until she died in 1784 aged 90. He died 6 years later aged 67. For the last year of his life he was rector of Glasgow University for two terms. He had been first a student there 1737 – 1740.
Sir Robert Walpole becomes the first prime minister
In April 1721, Sir Robert Walpole became first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, in the wake of the South Sea Bubble financial crash of 1720. He confirmed the Whig party’s allegiance to the Hanoverian monarchy. He never held the actual title of ‘prime minister’, but was given the powers that came to be associated with the office. George I also gave him 10 Downing Street, still the official residence of the prime minister.
Common land was always for local use. Cattle grazing, growing food for communities, fishing and trapping animals locally to feed hungry mouths. New laws were put in place to throw people off the land and turn them into ‘vagrants’ .
Poaching becomes a capital offence
Poaching disturbances in Windsor Forest and Park led to clashes between ‘blacks’ (gangs of bandits and poachers who blackened their faces) hoping to maintain common rights and wardens and gamekeepers. The government issued the Black Act to handle the situation. This made various poaching misdemeanours into capital crimes.
Part 2 to follow