Robert Burns

Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments

London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell in the Strand; and Edinburgh: W. Creech, and J. Bell & Co., 1790

Sp Coll RB 2905-2906 

The poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), famous as Scotland's Bard, was born on 25th January 1759, at Alloway, Ayrshire, the eldest son of William Burns, a tenant farmer. Robert grew up in poverty working hard on the land but William Burns believed his children's prospects could be improved significantly through education, and from their early childhood he hired a tutor for his sons. When Burns began to make his name as a poet, he was portrayed as a very poor farmer of little education, but this was far from the truth, as he was very well-read, in French and Latin as well as English, and he had a keen interest in and knowledge of philosophy and the political issues of the day. As a young man he read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments and much admired Smith's work which influenced the development of his own thought.

This copy of Smith's work bears the following inscription on the fly-leaf of volume one in the hand of William Nichol Burns, the son of the poet: From Mr. Wm. N. Burns to his much respected Friend Mr. Wm Maxwell this book, which belonged to his Father Robert Burns.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an important work on ethics and human nature, and made Smith's name. In it, he expressed his belief that people are born with a moral sense, and our conscience tells us what is right or wrong. This, combined with a natural fellow-feeling, ensures that human beings can live together in mutually beneficial social organizations.

This copy of the work is currently on display at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, until 2012.

Adam Smith's Wealth of nations also made its mark on the development of Burns' thought, and Burns' own copy of this work, with his signature on each title page, is also held in the Special Collections Department at Sp Coll RB 2942-2944

Robert Burns: Flyleaf of Smith, Adam: The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Flyleaf of Robert Burns' copy of Smith, Adam: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Go to the next book in the exhibition, previously owned by: Thomas De Quincey.