Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
1st edition.
23 of 35



SMITH remained at Kirkcaldy from May to December 1776, except for occasional visits to Edinburgh or Dalkeith, but his thoughts, as we have noticed from time to time, were again bent on London, as soon as his mother's health should permit of his leaving home. He seems to have enjoyed London thoroughly during his recent prolonged sojourn, and inspired some hopes in friends like Strahan that he might even settle there as a permanent place of residence. After his departure for Scotland in April Strahan used to write him from time to time a long letter of political news keeping him abreast of all that was going on, and in a letter of the 16th of September he says: "I hope your mother's health will not prevent you from returning hither at the time you propose. You know I once mentioned to you how happy I thought it would make you both if you could bring her along with you to spend the remainder of her days in this Place, but perhaps it will not be easy to remove her so far at this time of her life. I pray you offer her the respectful compliments of my family, who do not forget her genteel and hospitable reception at Kircaldy some years ago."*21 The time Smith proposed to return, as he had written Strahan early in September, was November, but he afterwards put the journey off for two months on account of his own health, which had suffered from his long spell of literary labour, and was in need of more rest; and he might have postponed it still further but for the visit being necessary in order to carry the second edition of his work through the press. Early in January 1777 he is already in London, having found lodgings in Suffolk Street, near the British Coffee-House, and on the 14th of March we find him attending a dinner of the Literary Club, with Fox in the chair, and Gibbon, Garrick, Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, and Fordyce for the rest of the company.*22


His great work had not yet attracted much public notice. Its merits were being fully recognised by the learned, and it was already leaving its mark on the budget of the year; but it was probable Smith was more talked about in general company at the time for his letter to Strahan than for his Wealth of Nations. In one little literary circle he was being zealously but most unjustly decried for taking a shabby revenge on a worthy young Scotch poet who had ventured to differ from him in opinion about the merits of the East India Company. Mickle, the author of the popular song "There's nae luck aboot the hoose," published his translation of the Lusiad of Camoens in 1775, and dedicated the book by permission to the Duke of Buccleugh, whose family had been his father's patrons, and from whose interest he hoped to obtain some advancement himself. When the work appeared the author sent a nicely-bound presentation copy to the Duke, but received no acknowledgment, and at length a common friend waited on his Grace, and, says one of Mickle's biographers, "heard with the indignation and contempt it deserved, a declaration that the work was at that time unread, and had been represented not to have the merit it had been first said to possess, and therefore nothing could be done on the subject of his mission." A dedication in those days was often only a more dignified begging letter, and Mickle's friends declared that he had been cruelly wronged, because the Duke had not only done nothing for him himself, but by accepting the dedication had prevented the author from going to some other patron who might have done something. Whatever could have been the reason for this sudden coolness of the Duke? Mickle and his little group of admirers declared it was all due to an ill word from the Duke's great mentor, Adam Smith, whom they alleged to have borne Mickle a grudge for having in the preface to the Lusiad successfully exposed the futility of some of the views about the East India Company propounded in the Wealth of Nations.*23


But since the Wealth of Nations was only published in 1776, its opinions obviously could not, even with the vision and faculty divine of the poet, be commented on either favourably or unfavourably in the Lusiad, which was published in 1775. The comments on Smith's views appeared first in subsequent editions of Mickle's work, and were probably effects of the injury the author fancied himself to have suffered. Anyhow they could not have been its causes, and the whole story, so thoroughly opposed to the unusual tolerancy and benevolence of Smith's character, merits no attention. It sprang manifestly from some imaginary suspicion of a sensitive minor poet, but Mickle used to denounce Smith without stint, and, thinking he had an opportunity for retaliation when the letter to Strahan appeared, he wrote a satire entitled, "An Heroic Epistle from Hume in the Shades to Dr. Adam Smith," which he never published indeed, though he showed it about among his friends, but in which, says Sim, who had seen it, Smith and his noble pupil were rather roughly handled.*24 Mickle afterwards burnt this jeu d'esprit, and very probably came to entertain better views of Smith, for he seems to have been not only quick to suspect injuries, but ready after a space to perceive his error. He once inserted an angry note in one of his poems against Garrick, who had, as he imagined, used him ill; but going afterwards to see the great actor in King Lear, he listened to the first three acts without saying a word, and after a fine passage in the fourth, heaved a deep sigh, and turning to his companion said, "I wish that note was out of my book." Had he foreseen the noise his several friends continued to make, even after his death, about this purely imaginary offence on the part of Adam Smith, the poet would not improbably wish the polemical prefaces out of his book. Smith did not think much of Mickle's translation of the Lusiad, holding the French version to be much superior,*25 but if he happened to express this unfavourable opinion to the Duke of Buccleugh, it could not have been with any thought of injuring a struggling and meritorious young author. He has never shown any such intolerance of public contradiction as Mickle's friends chose to attribute to him. Dr. James Anderson, the first and true author of what is known as Ricardo's theory of rent, won Smith's friendship by a controversial pamphlet challenging some of his doctrines; Bentham won—what is rarer—his conversion from the doctrines impugned, and a very kindly letter still exists which Smith wrote to another hostile critic, Governor Pownall, and which I shall give here, as it was one of the first things he did after now arriving in London. Pownall had been Governor of Massachusetts, a man of much activity of mind and experience of affairs, and author of respectable works on the Principles of Polity, the Administration of the Colonies, and the Middle States of America. He was one of the forty-two persons to whom the authorship of the letters of Junius has been attributed. He differed strongly from many of Smith's views, especially from his condemnation of the monopoly of the colonial trade, and wrote a pamphlet setting forth his criticisms in the form of a letter to Adam Smith. This pamphlet Smith received in Edinburgh, just before his departure for London, and when he arrived he wrote the Governor as follows:—

SIR—I received the day before I left Edinburgh the very great honour of your letter. Though I arrived here on Sunday last, I have been almost from the day of my arrival confined by a cold, which I caught upon the road; otherwise I should before this time have done myself the honour of waiting on you in person, and of thanking you for the very great politeness with which you have everywhere treated me. There is not, I give you my word, in your whole letter a single syllable relating to myself which I could wish to have altered, and the publication of your remarks does me much more honour than the communication of them by a private letter could have done.

I hope in a few days to have the honour of waiting on you, and of discussing in person with you both the points on which we agree and those on which we differ. Whether you will think me, what I mean to be, a fair disputant, I know not; I can venture to promise you will not find me an irascible one. In the meantime I have the honour to be, with the highest respect and esteem, etc. etc.

SUFFOLK STREET, 12th January 1777.*26


The gentleman who forwarded this letter to the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine in 1795, but whose name is not published, states, in further evidence, as he says, of Smith's liberality of mind, that "he altered in his second edition some of the parts objected to, and instead of a reply, sent to Governor Pownall a printed copy of this second edition so altered, and there all contest closed." Smith, however, does not appear to have made any such alterations. In fact, in the second edition he hardly made more than three or four alterations, and these were confined to the introduction of an additional fact or two in confirmation of his argument; and besides, when we refer to Pownall's pamphlet we find that their differences were all about points on which Smith's views were mature and the Governor's raw.


Smith probably remained most of the year 1777 in London, for, as we have seen, one of his reasons for being there was to see the second edition of his work through the press, and the second edition of his work did not appear till 1778. But he was back in Kirkcaldy again before December, and while there he received from Lord North the appointment of Commissioner of Customs in Scotland, vacant through the death of Mr. Archibald Menzies. The offence he unexpectedly gave to the world's religious sensibilities by his account of Hume's last days had not interfered, as he feared such an offence would, with his prospects of employment in the public service, nor, what is quite as remarkable, had his political opinions. For he was always a strong Whig, and the preferment was bestowed by a Tory ministry. It is usually attributed to the influence of the Duke of Buccleugh and Henry Dundas, then a member of the ministry as Lord Advocate for Scotland, and their word may no doubt have helped; but there is reason to believe that the appointment was really a direct reward to the author of the Wealth of Nations for the benefit Lord North, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer as well as Prime Minister, derived from that book in preparing the budgets for the years 1777 and 1778. Smith himself, in a letter to Strahan which will presently appear (p. 323) attributes the appointment largely to the favour of Sir Grey Cooper, who had been Secretary to the Treasury since 1765, and was naturally Lord North's right-hand man in the preparation of his budgets. At the time the Wealth of Nations appeared the English Chancellor of the Exchequer was at his wits' end for fresh and convenient and easy means of increasing the revenue to carry on the American war, and the book was a mine of suggestions to him. He imposed two new taxes in 1777, of which he got the idea there,—one on man-servants, estimated by him to bring in £105,000, though in the event it yielded only £18,000, and the other on property sold by auction, which was to bring in £37,000; but in the budget of 1778, which he would have under consideration at the very moment of Smith's appointment, he introduced two new taxes recommended by Smith,—the inhabited house duty, estimated to yield £264,000, and the malt tax, estimated to yield £310,000. Under those circumstances Smith's appointment to the Commissionership of Customs is to be regarded not as a private favour to the Duke of Buccleugh, but as an express recognition on the part of the Premier of the public value of Smith's work, and the more honourable because rendered to a political opponent who had condemned important parts of the ministerial policy—their American policy, for example—in his recent work.


The appointment was worth £600 a year,—£500 for the Commissionership of Customs and £100 for the Commissionership of the Salt Duties; and Smith still retained his pension of £300 from the House of Buccleugh. When he obtained this place he thought himself bound in honour to give up his Buccleugh pension, possibly because of the assistance he may have believed the Duke to have given in securing it; but he was informed that the pension was meant to be permanent and unconditional, and that if he were consulting his own honour in offering to give it up, he was not thinking of the honour of the Duke of Buccleugh. Smith now settled in Edinburgh accordingly with an assured income of £900 a year, and £900 a year was a comparatively princely revenue in the Scottish capital at a time when a Lord of Session had only £700 a year, and a professor in the best chair in the University seldom made as much as £300.


Though the appointment was made probably in November 1777, Smith did not receive the Commission till January 1778, and there were still fees to pay and other business to transact about the matter, which he got Strahan to do for him. That occasioned the following letters:—

DEAR SIR—The last letter I had the pleasure of receiving from you congratulated me upon my being appointed one of the Commissioners of Customs in Scotland. You told me at the same time that you had dined that day with Sir Grey Cooper, and that you had both been so good as to speak very favourably of me. I have received from London several other congratulations of the same kind. But I have not yet received, nor has the office here received, any official information that any such appointment had been made. It is possible that the Commission is not made out on account of the fees. If this is the case, you may either draw upon me for the amount, which I understand to be about £160, or you may write to me, and I shall by return of post remit you the money to London. Whatever be the cause of the delay, I beg you will endeavour to find it out and let me know as soon as possible, that I may at least be at the end of my hope. Remember me most affectionately to all your family, and believe me to be, most faithfully yours,

EDINBURGH, 20th December 1777.


Neither you nor Mr. Cadell have wrote me anything concerning the new Edition of my Book. Is it published? does it sell well? does it sell ill? does it sell at all? I left directions with Mr. Cadell to send copies of it to several of my friends. If John Hunter was not among the number, put him in ex dono authoris, and desire Cadell to send me the account of the whole, that I may pay it. I should write to him, but it would only be plaguing him. If you draw upon me make your bill payable at five days' sight. I return to Kirkaldy on Christmas Day.*27


On returning to Kirkcaldy Smith again wrote Strahan:—

DEAR SIR—I should have sent you the enclosed bill the day after I received your letter accompanyed with a note from Mr. Spottiswood, had not Mr. Charteris, the Solicitor of the Customs here, told me that the fees were not paid in London, but at Edinburgh, where Mr. Shadrach Moyes acted as receiver and agent for the officers of the treasury at London. I have drawn the bill for £120, in order to pay, first, what you have advanced for me; secondly, the exchange between Edinburgh and London; and lastly, the account which I shall owe to Mr. Cadell, after he has delivered the presents I desired him to make of the second edition of my book. To this I beg he will add two copies, handsomely bound and guilt (sic), one to Lord North, the other to Sir Gray Cooper. I received Sir Gray's letter, and shall write to him as soon as the new Commission arrives, in order not to trouble him with answering two Letters. I believe that I have been very highly obliged to him in this business. I shall not say anything to you of the obligations I owe you for the concern you have shewn and the diligence you have exerted on my account. Remember me to Mr. Spottiswood. I shall write to him as soon as the affair is over. Would it be proper to send him any present or fee? I am much obliged to him, and should be glad to express my sense of it in every way in my power.

I would not make any alteration in my title-page on account of my new office.

Remember me to Mrs. and Miss Strahan, likewise to the Homes and the Hunters. How does the Painter go on? I hope he thrives.—I ever am, my dear sir, most faithfully and affectionately yours,

KIRKALDY, 14th January 1777.*28


The Mr. Spottiswood mentioned in this letter was a nephew of Strahan, and no doubt an ancestor of Strahan's present successor in his printing business. The Hunters are John and William Hunter, the Homes are John Home and his wife, and the painter is Allan Ramsay.


In the course of a fortnight the Commission arrived, and Smith then wrote Strahan again:—

EDINBURGH, 5th February 1778.

MY DEAR STRAHAN—I received the Commission in due course, and have now to thank you for your great attention to my interest in every respect, but above all, for your generosity in so readily forgiving the sally of bad humour which, in consequence of General Skeenes, who meant too very well, most unreasonably broke out upon you. I can only say in my own vindication that I am not very subject to such sallies, and that upon the very few occasions on which I have happened to fall into them, I have soon recovered from them. I am told that no commission ever came so soon to Edinburgh, many having been delayed 3 weeks or a month after appearing in the Gazette. This extraordinary despatch I can impute to nothing but your friendly diligence and that of Mr. Spottiswood, to whom I beg to be remembered in the most respectful manner.

You have made a small mistake in stating our account. You credit me with £150 only, instead of £170; the first bill for £120, the second for £50. Cadell, however, still remains unpaid. As soon as I understand he has delivered the books, or before it, if he will send me the account of them, I shall send him the money.—I ever am, dear sir, most faithfully yours,



What was the cause of Smith's outbreak of very unhabitual irritation with Strahan on the occasion alluded to in this letter, I cannot say, nor probably does it in the least matter. His temper, indeed, was one of unusual serenity and constancy, and but for his own confession in this letter, we should never have known that it was liable, like others, to occasional perturbations, from which it appears, however, he speedily recovered, and of which he is evidently heartily ashamed. General Skeenes was probably one of his relations, the Skenes of Pitlour.


The money transactions mentioned in the concluding paragraph refer doubtless to his Commission fees, which from some calculations made, probably by Strahan, on the back of the letter, seem to have come to £147:18s. But the reference to Mr. Cadell's account shows that the second edition of his book had now appeared. It was not published in four volumes octavo, as he originally proposed to Strahan, but, like the former edition, in two volumes quarto, and the price was now raised from £1:16s. to two guineas, so that under the half-profit arrangement which was agreed upon, he must have obtained a very reasonable sum out of this edition, and we can understand how, from the four authorised editions published during his lifetime, he made, according to his friend Professor Dalzel, a "genteel fortune," as genteel fortunes went in those days.

Notes for this chapter

Hume MSS., R.S.E. Library.
Leslie and Taylor, Life of Reynolds, ii. 199.
Sim's Works of Mickle, Preface, xl.
Ibid, Preface, xliii.
The Bee, 1st May 1791.
Gentleman's Magazine, lxv. 635.
Original with Mr. F. Barker.
Original in possession of Mr. Alfred Morrison.
Original in possession of Mr. Alfred Morrison.

Chapter XXI

End of Notes

23 of 35

Return to top