Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
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London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
1st edition.




ADAM SMITH was born at Kirkcaldy, in the county of Fife, Scotland, on the 5th of June 1723. He was the son of Adam Smith, Writer to the Signet, Judge Advocate for Scotland and Comptroller of the Customs in the Kirkcaldy district, by Margaret, daughter of John Douglas of Strathendry, a considerable landed proprietor in the same county.


Of his father little is known. He was a native of Aberdeen, and his people must have been in a position to make interest in influential quarters, for we find him immediately after his admission to the Society of Writers to the Signet in 1707, appointed to the newly-established office of Judge Advocate for Scotland, and in the following year to the post of Private Secretary to the Scotch Minister, the Earl of Loudon. When he lost this post in consequence of Lord Loudon's retirement from office in 1713, he was provided for with the Comptrollership of Customs at Kirkcaldy, which he continued to hold, along with the Judge Advocateship, till his premature death in 1723. The Earl of Loudon having been a zealous Whig and Presbyterian, it is perhaps legitimate to infer that his secretary must have been the same, and from the public appointments he held we may further gather that he was a man of parts. The office of Judge Advocate for Scotland, which was founded at the Union, and which he was the first to fill, was a position of considerable responsibility, and was occupied after him by men, some of them of great distinction. Alexander Fraser Tytler, the historian, for example, was Judge Advocate till he went to the bench as Lord woodhouselee. The Judge Advocate was clerk and legal adviser to the Courts Martial, but as military trials were not frequent in Scotland, the duties of this office took up but a minor share of the elder Smith's time. His chief business, at least for the last ten years of his life, was his work in the Custom-house, for though he was bred a Writer to the Signet—that is, a solicitor privileged to practise before the Supreme Court—he never seems to have actually practised that profession. A local collectorship or controllership of the Customs was in itself a more important administrative office at that period, when duties were levied on twelve hundred articles, than it is now, when duties are levied on twelve only, and it was much sought after for the younger, or even the elder, sons of the gentry. The very place held by Smith's father at Kirkcaldy was held for many years after his day by a Scotch baronet, Sir Michael Balfour. The salary was not high. Adam Smith began in 1713 with £30 a year, and had only £40 when he died in 1723, but then the perquisites of those offices in the Customs were usually twice or thrice the salary, as we know from the Wealth of Nations itself (Book V. chap. ii.). Smith had a cousin, a third Adam Smith, who was in 1754 Collector of Customers at Alloa with a salary of £60 a year, and who writes his cousin, in connection with a negotiation the latter was conducting on behalf of a friend for the purchase of the office, that the place was worth £200 a year, and that he would not sell it for less than ten years' purchase.*1


Smith's father died in the spring of 1723, a few months before his famous son was born. Some doubt has been cast upon this fact by an announcement quoted by President M'Cosh, in his Scottish Philosophy, from the Scots Magazine of 1740, of the promotion of Adam Smith, Comptroller of the Customs, Kirkcaldy, to be Inspector-General of the Outports. But conclusive evidence exists of the date of the death of Smith's father in a receipt for his funeral expenses, which is in the possession of Professor Cunningham, and which, as a curious illustration of the habits of the time, I subjoin in a note below.*2 The promotion of 1740 is the promotion not of Smith's father but of his cousin, whom I have just had occasion to mention, and who appears from Chamberlayne's Notitia Angliæ to have been Comptroller of the Customs at Kirkcaldy from about 1734 till somewhere before 1741. In the Notitia Angleæ for 1741 the name of Adam Smith ceases to appear as Comptroller in Kirkcaldy, and appears for the first time as Inspector-General of the Outports, exactly in accordance with the intimation quoted by Dr. M'Cosh. It is curious that Smith, who was to do so much to sweep away the whole system of the Customs, should have been so closely that connected with that branch of administration. His father, his only known relation on his father's side, and himself, were all officials in the Scotch Customs.


On the mother's side his kindred were much connected with the army. His uncle, Robert Douglas of Strathendry, and three of his uncle's sons were military officers, and so was his cousin, Captain Skene, the laird of the neighbouring estate of Pitlour. Colonel Patrick Ross, a distinguished officer of the times, was also a relation, but on which side I do not know. His mother herself was from first to last the heart of Smith's life. He being an only child, and she an only parent, they had been all in all to one another during his infancy and boyhood, and after he was full of years and honours her presence was the same shelter to him as it was when a boy. His friends often spoke of the beautiful affection and worship with which he cherished her. One who knew him well for the last thirty years of his life, and was very probably at one time a boarder in his house, the clever and bustling Earl of Buchan, elder brother of Lord Chancellor Erskine, says the principal avenue to Smith's heart always was by his mother. He was a delicate child, and afflicted even in childhood with those fits of absence and that habit of speaking to himself which he carried all through life. Of his infancy only one incident has come down to us. In his fourth year, while on a visit to his grandfather's house at Strathendry on the banks of the Leven, the child was stolen by a passing band of gipsies, and for a time could not be found. But presently a gentleman arrived who had met a gipsy woman a few miles down the road carrying a child that was crying piteously. Scouts were immediately despatched in the direction indicated, and they came upon the woman in Leslie wood. As soon as she saw them she threw her burden down and escaped, and the child was brought back to his mother. As he grew up in boyhood his health became stronger, and he was in due time sent to the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy.


The Burgh School of Kirkcaldy was one of the best secondary schools of Scotland at that period, and its principal master, Mr. David Millar, had the name of being one of the best schoolmasters of his day. When Smith first went to school we cannot say, but it seems probable that he began Latin in 1733, for Eutropius is the class-book of a beginner in Latin, and the Eutropius which Smith used as a class-book still exists, and contains his signature with the date of that year.*3 As he left school in 1737, he thus had at least four years' training in the classics before he proceeded to the University. Millar, his classical master, had adventured in literature. He wrote a play, and his pupils used to act it. Acting plays was in those days a common exercise in the higher schools of Scotland. The presbyteries often frowned, and tried their best to stop the practice, but the town councils, which had the management of these schools, resented the dictation of the presbyteries, and gave the drama not only the support of their personal presence at the performances, but sometimes built a special stage and auditorium for the purpose. Sir James Steuart, the economist, played the king in Henry the Fourth when he was a boy at the school of North Berwick in 1735. The pupils of Dalkeith School, where the historian Robertson was educated, played Julius Cæsar in 1734. In the same year the boys of Perth Grammar School played Cato in the teeth of an explicit presbyterial anathema, and again in the same year—in the month of August—the boys of the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy, which Smith was at the time attending, enacted the piece their master had written. It bore the rather unromantic and uninviting title of "A Royal Council for Advice, or the Regular Education of Boys the Foundation of all other Improvements." The dramatis personæ were first the master and twelve ordinary members of the council, who sat gravely round a table like senators, and next a crowd of suitors, standing at a little distance off, who sent representatives to the table one by one to state their grievances—first a tradesman, then a farmer, then a country gentleman, then a schoolmaster, a nobleman, and so on. Each of them received advice from the council in turn, and then, last of all, a gentleman came forward, who complimented the council on the successful completion of their day's labours.*4 Smith would no doubt have been present at this performance, but whether he played an active part either as councillor or as spokesman for any class of petitioners, or merely stood in the crowd of suitors, a silent super, cannot now be guessed.


Among those young actors at this little provincial school were several besides Smith himself who were to play important and even distinguished parts afterwards on the great stage of the world. James Oswald—the Right Hon. James Oswald, Treasurer of the Navy—who is sometimes said to have been one of Smith's schoolfellows, could not have been so, as he was eight years Smith's schoolfellows, could not have been so, as he was eight years Smith's senior, but his younger brother John, subsequently Bishop of Raphoe, doubtless was; and so was Robert Adam, the celebrated architect, who built the London Adelphi, Portland Place, and—probably his finest work—Edinburgh University. Though James Oswald was not at school with Smith, he was one of his intimate home friends from the first. The Dunnikier family lived in the town, and stood on such a footing of intimacy with the Smiths that, as we have seen, it was "Mr. James of Dunnikier"—the father of the James Oswald now in question—who undertook on behalf of Mrs. Smith the arrangements for her husband's funeral; and the friendship of James Oswald, as will presently appear, was, after the affection of his mother, the best thing Smith carried into life with him from Kirkcaldy. The Adam family also lived in the town, though the father was a leading Scotch architect—King's Mason for Scotland, in fact—and was proprietor of a fair estate not far away; and the four brothers Adam were the familiars of Smith's early years. They continued to be among his familiars to the last. Another of his school companions who played a creditable part in his time was John Drysdale, the minister's son, who became one of the ministers of Edinburgh, doctor of divinity, chaplain to the king, leader of an ecclesiastical party—of the Moderates in succession to Robertson—twice Moderator of the General Assembly, though in his case, as in so many others, the path of professional success has led but to oblivion. Still he deserves mention here, because, as his son-in-law, Professor Dalzel tells us, he and Smith were much together again in their later Edinburgh days, and there was none of all Smith's numerous friends whom he liked better or spoke of with greater tenderness than Drysdale.*5 Drysdale's wife was a sister of the brothers Adam, and Robert Adam stayed with Drysdale on his visits to Edinburgh.


A small town like Kirkcaldy—it had then only 1500 inhabitants—is a not unfavourable observatory for beginning one's knowledge of the world. It has more sorts and conditions of men to exhibit than a rural district can furnish, and it exhibits each more completely in all their ways, pursuits, troubles, characters, than can possibly be done in a city. Smith, who, spite of his absence of mind, was always an excellent observer, would grow up in the knowledge of all about everybody in that little place, from the "Lady Dunnikier," the great lady of the town, to its poor colliers and salters who were still bondsmen. Kirkcaldy, too, had its shippers trading with the Baltic, its customs officers, with many a good smuggling story, and it had a nailery or two, which Smith is said to have been fond of visiting as a boy, and to have acquired in them his first rough idea of the value of division of labour.*6 However that may be, Smith does draw some of his illustrations of the division of labour from that particular business, which would necessarily be very familiar to his mind, and it may have been in Kirkcaldy that he found the nailers paid their wages in nails, and using these nails afterwards as a currency in making their purchases from the shopkeepers.*7


At school Smith was marked for his studious disposition, his love of reading, and his power of memory; and by the age of fourteen he had advanced sufficiently in classics and mathematics to be sent to Glasgow College, with a view to obtaining a Snell Exhibition to Oxford.

Notes for this chapter

Original letter in possession of Professor Cunningham, Belfast.

To eight bottles of ale £0 12 0
To butter and eggs to the seed cake 1 4 0
To four bottles of ale 0 6 0
To three pounds fresh butter for bread 0 14 0
To one pound small candles 0 4 0
To two pounds bisquet 1 4 0
To sixteen bottles of ale 1 4 0
To money sent to Edinr, for bisquet, stockings, and necessars 25 4 0
To three expresses to Edinburgh 2 14 0
To a pair of murning shous to Hugh 1 10 0
To horse hyre with the wine from Kingdom 0 15 0
To the poor 3 6 0
To six bottles and eight pints of ale to the beadels, etc. 1 10 4
To pipes and tobacco 0 4 0
To four pints of ale to the workmen 0 12 8
To the postage of three letters 0 6 0
To making the grave 3 0 0
To caring the mourning letters thro' the town and country 1 10 0
To the mort cloth 3 12 0
To Robert Martin for his service 1 4 0
To Deacon Lessels for the coffin and ironwork 28 4 0
To Deacon Sloan for lifting the stone 1 11 0

Summa is £80 16 6

On the back is the docquet, "Account of funeral charges, Mr. Adam Smith, 1723," and the formal receipt as follows: "Kirkaldie, Apl. 24, 1723. Received from Mr. James of Dunekier eighty pound sexteen shilling six penes Scots in full of the within account depussd by me.


"Mr. James of Dunekier" is Mr. James Oswald of Dunnikier, the father of Smith's friend, the statesman of the same name, and he had apparently as a friend of the family undertaken the duty of looking after the funeral arrangements.

In possession of Professor Cunningham.
Grant's Burgh Schools of Scotland, p. 414.
Drysdale's Sermons, Preface by Dalzel.
Campbell, Journey from Edinburgh through North Britain, 1802, ii. p. 49.
Wealth of Nations, Book I. chap. iv.

Chapter II

End of Notes

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