James Boswell: A Sentimental Education

James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s future biographer, found Glasgow a dull place. Yet it was at the city’s university that he came into contact with the political economist Adam Smith, whose insights forced the student to grapple with competing claims on his conscience, as Robert Zaretsky explains.

In October 1759 James Boswell (1740-95) half-stepped, half-collapsed from the coach that had just plied a 12-hour journey over rutted roads from his hometown of Edinburgh to Glasgow. The city’s centre, known as the Trongate, was impressive: the English novelist Daniel Defoe (c. 1661-1731) had marvelled a few decades earlier over its broad avenues and stone buildings, the bustle of commerce and construction. Surely, he exclaimed, Glasgow was ‘the cleanest and beautifullest, and best built city in Britain, London excepted’.

For the 18-year old Boswell, though, Glasgow was the emptiest city in Britain – empty of the arts, empty of culture, empty of all interest. While Defoe saw this city on the river Clyde as a stage for the romance of trade, the young Scot found it the scene for the tragedy of exile. All the fine buildings and Doric columns in the world could not make up for the numbing absence of theatre. As he stared glumly at the exchange houses and merchant booths Boswell must have considered stepping back into the mail coach.

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