Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
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London: Macmillan and Co.
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1778-1790. Aet. 55-67


ON settling in Edinburgh Smith took a house in the Canongate—Panmure House, at the foot of Panmure Close, one of the steep and narrow wynds that descend from the north side of the Canongate towards the base of the Calton Hill; and this house was his home for the rest of his days, and in it he died. The Canongate—the old Court end of the Scottish capital—was still at the close of last century the fashionable residential quarter of the city, although Holyrood had then long lain deserted—as Hamilton of Bangour called it,

A virtuous palace where no monarch dwells.

The Scottish nobility had their town-houses in its gloomy courts, and great dowagers and famous generals still toiled up its cheerless stairs. Panmure House itself had been the residence of the Panmure family before Smith occupied it, and became the residence of the Countess of Aberdeen after his death. Most of his own more particular friends too—the better aristocracy of letters and science—lived about him here. If it was to Edinburgh, as Gibbon remarks, that "taste and philosophy seemed to have retired from the smoke and hurry of the immense capital of London," it was in the ancient smoke and leisure of the Canongate they found their sanctuary. Robertson flitted out, indeed, to the Grange House; Black—Smith's special crony in this Edinburgh period—to the present Blind Asylum in Nicolson Street, then a country villa; and Adam Ferguson to a place at the Sciennes which, though scarce two miles from the Cross, was thought so outrageously remote by the people of the compact little Edinburgh of those days, that his friends always called it Kamtschatka, as if it lay in the ends of the earth. But Kames and Hailes still lived in New Street, Sir John Dalrymple and Monboddo and many other notabilities in St. John Street, Cullen in the Mint, and Dugald Stewart in the Lothian Hut (the town-house of the Marquis of Lothian) in the Horse Wynd.


Panmure House is still standing. It is a much more modern structure than the houses near it, having been built towards the middle of last century; and although its rooms are now mostly tenantless, and its garden a cooper's yard, it wears to this day an air of spacious and substantial comfort which is entirely wanting in the rest of the neighbourhood. William Windham, the statesman, who dined in it repeatedly when he was in Edinburgh with Burke in 1785, thought it a very stately house indeed for a philosopher. "House magnificent," he enters in his diary, "and place fine," and one can still imagine how it would appear so when the plastered walls were yet white, and the eye looked over the long strip of terraced garden on to the soft green slopes of the Calton. There was then no building of any kind on or about the Calton Hill, except the Observatory, and Dugald Stewart, who was very fond of rural scenery, always said that the great charm of his own house a few closes up was its view of the Calton crags and braes.


Smith brought over his mother and his cousin, Miss Douglas, from Kirkcaldy, and a few months later the youngest son of his cousin, Colonel Douglas of Strathendry, who was to attend school and college with a view to the bar, and whom he made his heir. Windham, after visiting them, makes the same note twice in his diary, "Felt strongly the impression of a family completely Scotch." Smith's house was noted for its simple and unpretending hospitality. He liked to have his friends about him without the formality of an invitation, and few strangers of distinction visited Edinburgh without being entertained in Panmure House. His Sunday suppers were still remembered and spoken of in Edinburgh when M'Culloch lived there as a young man. Scotch Sabbatarianism had not at that time reached the rigour that came in with the evangelical revival in the beginning of this century, and the Sunday supper was a regular Edinburgh institution. Even the Evangelical leaders patronised it. Lord Cockburn and Mrs. Somerville both speak with very agreeable recollections of the Sunday supper parties of the Rev. Sir Harry Moncreiff, and Boswell mentions being invited to one by another Evangelical leader, Dr. Alexander Webster.


His mother, his friends, his books—these were Smith's three great joys. He had a library of about 3000 volumes, as varied a collection in point of subject-matter as it would be possible to find. Professor Shield Nicholson, who saw a large portion of it, says: "I was most struck by the large number of books of travel and of poetry, of some of which there were more than one edition, and occasionally éditions de luxe. I had hoped to find marginal notes or references which might have thrown light on the authorities of some passages in the Wealth of Nations (for Smith gives no references), but even the ingenious oft-quoted author of the Tracts on the Corn Laws has escaped without a mark. At the same time pamphlets have been carefully bound together and indexes prefixed in Smith's own writing."*30


Mr. James Bonar has been able to collect a list of probably two-thirds of Smith's books—about 1000 books, or 2200 volumes.*31 Nearly a third of the whole are in French, another third in Latin, Greek, and Italian, and a little more than a third in English. According to Mr. Bonar's analysis, a fifth of them were on Literature and Art; a fifth were Latin and Greek classics; a fifth on Law, Politics, and Biography; a fifth on Political Economy and History; and the remaining fifth on Science and Philosophy. One cannot help remarking, as an indication of the economist's tastes, the almost complete absence of works in theology and prose fiction. Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion and Pascal's Pensées belong as much to philosophy as theology; Jeremy Taylor's Antiquitates Christianae, Father Paul Sarpi's History of the Council of Trent, and Ruchat's Histoire de la Reformation de la Suisse belong as much to history; and except these the only representatives of theology on Smith's shelves were the English Bible, Watson's edition, 1722—probably his parents' family Bible—a French translation of the Koran, and Van Maestricht's Theologia. The only sermons, except those of Massillon in French, are the Sermons of Mr. Yorick. Those sermons, however, were the only representative of Sterne. Goldsmith was represented by his poems, but not by his fiction; and Defoe, Fielding, Richardson, and Smollett were not represented at all. One or two French novels were there, but except Gulliver, which came in with the complete edition of Swift's works in 1784, the only English novel Smith seems to have possessed was the Man of the World, by his friend Henry Mackenzie. It is perhaps stranger that he ignored the novel than that he ignored theology, for the novel was then a very rising and popular literary form, and Smith began life as a professed literary critic. His mind seems to have been too positive to care much for tales. On the other hand, of the Greek and Latin classics he not unfrequently had several different editions. He had eight, for example, of Horace, who seems to have been an especial favourite.


Like most men who are fond of books, he seems to have bound them well, and often elegantly. Smellie, the printer, says that the first time he happened to be in Smith's library he was "looking at the books with some degree of curiosity, and perhaps surprise, for most of the volumes were elegantly, and some of them superbly bound," when Smith, observing him, said, "You must have remarked that I am a beau in nothing but my books."*32 M'Culloch, however, who had seen the books, doubts whether their condition warranted the account given of them by Smellie, and says that while they were neatly, and in some cases even elegantly bound, he saw few or none of which the binding could with propriety be called superb.


The Custom House was on the upper floors of the Royal Exchange, in Exchange Square, off the High Street; and Kay, standing in his shop over at the corner of the Parliament Close, must often have seen Smith walk past from his house to his office in the morning exactly as he has depicted him in one of his portraits,—in a light-coloured coat, probably linen; knee-breeches, white silk stockings, buckle shoes, and flat broad-brimmed beaver hat; walking erect with a bunch of flowers in his left hand, and his cane, held by the middle, borne on his right shoulder, as Smellie tells us was Smith's usual habit, "as a soldier carries his musket." When he walked his head always moved gently from side to side, and his body swayed, Smellie says, "vermicularly," as if at each alternate step "he meant to alter his direction, or even to turn back." Often, moreover, his lips would be moving all the while, and smiling in rapt conversation with invisible companions. A very noticeable figure he was as he went up and down the High Street, and he used to tell himself the observations of two market women about him as he marched past them one day. "Hegh sirs!" said one, shaking her head significantly. "And he's weel put on too!" rejoined the other, surprised that one who appeared from his dress to be likely to have friends should be left by them to walk abroad alone.


There were five Commissioners in the Scotch Board of Customs, but Smith's colleagues were none of them men of any public reputation at the time, and they are now mere names; but the name of the Secretary of the Board, R. E. Phillips, may be mentioned for the circumstance that, after living to the great age of 104, he was buried—for what reason I know not—in the same grave with Adam Smith in Canongate Churchyard. The business of the office was mostly of a routine and simple character: considering appeals from merchants against the local collector's assessments; the appointment of a new officer here, the suppression of one there; a report on a projected colliery; a plan for a lighthouse, a petition from a wine importer, or the owner of a bounty sloop; a representation about the increase of illicit trade in Orkney, or the appearance of smuggling vessels in the Minch; the despatch of troops to repress illegal practices at some distillery, or to watch a suspected part of the coast; the preparation of the annual returns of income and expenditure, the payment of salaries, and transmission of the balance to the Treasury.


Smith attended to those duties with uncommon diligence; he says himself, in his letter to the Principal of Glasgow College in 1787 on his appointment to the Rectorship, that he was so regular an attendant at the Custom House that he could "take the play for a week at any time" without giving offence or provoking comment. He was evidently a very conscientious and on the whole, no doubt, a satisfactory administrator, though he may have been in some things slower than a clerk bred to business would have been, and caused occasionally a ludicrous mistake through his incidental absence of mind. Sir Walter Scott relates two anecdotes illustrative of that weakness, on the authority of one of Smith's colleagues on the Board of Customs. Having one day to sign an official document as Commissioner, Smith, instead of signing his own name, wrote an imitation of the signature of the Commissioner who had written before him. The other story, though, possibly enough, embellished unconsciously by the teller in some details, is yet of too distinct and peculiar a character to be easily rejected, and for the same reason will best be given in Scott's own words:—


"That Board (the Board of Customs) had in their service as porter a stately person, who, dressed in a huge scarlet gown or cloak covered with frogs of worsted lace, and holding in his hand a staff about seven feet high as an emblem of his office, used to mount guard before the Custom House when a Board was to be held. It was the etiquette that as each Commissioner entered the porter should go through a sort of salute with his staff of office, resembling that which officers used formerly to perform through their spontoon, and then marshal the dignitary to the hall of meeting. This ceremony had been performed before the great economist perhaps five hundred times. Nevertheless one day, as he was about to enter the Custom House, the motions of this janitor seem to have attracted his eye without their character or purpose reaching his apprehension, and on a sudden he began to imitate his gestures as a recruit does those of his drill serjeant. The porter having drawn up in front of the door, presented his staff as a soldier does his musket. The Commissioner, raising his cane and holding it with both hands by the middle, returned the salute with the utmost gravity. The inferior officer, much annoyed, levelled his weapon, wheeled to the right, stepping a pace back to give the Commissioner room to pass, lowering his staff at the same time in token of obeisance. Dr. Smith, instead of passing on, drew up on the opposite side and lowered his cane to the same angle. The functionary, much out of consequence, next moved upstairs with his staff upraised, while the author of the Wealth of Nations followed with his bamboo in precisely the same posture, and his whole soul apparently wrapped in the purpose of placing his foot exactly on the same spot of each step which had been occupied by the officer who preceded him. At the door of the hall the porter again drew off, saluted with his staff, and bowed reverentially. The philosopher again imitated his motions, and returned his bow with the most profound gravity. When the Doctor entered the apartment the spell under which he seemed to act was entirely broken, and our informant, who, very much amused, had followed him the whole way, had some difficulty to convince him that he had been doing anything extraordinary."*33


This inability to recollect in a completely waking state what had taken place during the morbid one separates this story from all the rest that are told of Smith's absence of mind. For his friends used always to observe of his fits of abstraction what a remarkable faculty he possessed of recovering, when he came to himself, long portions of the conversation that had been going on around him while his mind was absent. But here there is an entire break between the one state and the other; the case seems more allied to trance, though it doubtless had the same origin as the more ordinary fits of absence, and, like them, was only one of the penalties of that power of profound and prolonged concentration to which the world owes so much; it was thinker's cramp, if I may use the expression.


In one way Smith took more interest in his official work than ordinary Commissioners would do, because he found it useful to his economic studies. In 1778 he wrote Sir John Sinclair, who had desired a loan of the French inquiry entitled Mémoires concernant les Impositions, that "he had frequent occasion to consult the book himself both in the course of his private studies and in the business of his present employment," and Sir John states that Smith used to admit "that he derived great advantage from the practical information he derived by means of his official situation, and that he would not have otherwise known or believed how essential practical knowledge was to the thorough understanding of political subjects."*34 This is confirmed by the fact that most of the additions and corrections introduced into the third edition of the Wealth of Nations—the first published after his settlement in the Customs—are connected with that branch of the public service.


Still his friends were perhaps right in lamenting that the duties of this office, light though they really were, used up his time and energy too completely to permit his application to the great work on government which he had projected. "Though they required little exertion of thought, they were yet," says Dugald Stewart, "sufficient to waste his spirits and dissipate his attention; and now that his career is closed, it is impossible to reflect on the time they consumed without lamenting that it had not been employed in labours more profitable to the world and more equal to his mind. During the first years of his residence in this city his studies seemed to be entirely suspended, and his passion for letters served only to amuse his leisure and to animate his conversation. The infirmities of age, of which he very early began to feel the approach, reminded him at last, when it was too late, of what he yet owed to the public and to his own fame. The principal materials of the works which he had announced had been long ago collected, and little probably was wanting but a few years of health and retirement to bestow on them that systematical arrangement in which he delighted."*35


His leisure seems to have been passed during these later years of his life very largely in the study of the Greek poets, and he frequently remarked to Dugald Stewart, when found in his library with Sophocles or Euripides open before him on the table, that of all the amusements of old age, the most grateful and soothing was the renewal of acquaintance with the favourite studies and the favourite authors of our youth.*36 Besides, the work of composition seems to have grown really more arduous to him. He was always a slow composer, and had never acquired increased facility from increased practice.


Much of his time too was now given to the enjoyments of friendship. I have already mentioned his Sunday suppers, but besides these he founded, soon after settling in Edinburgh, in co-operation with the two friends who were his closest associates during the whole of this last period of his career—Black the chemist, and Hutton the geologist—a weekly dining club, which met every Friday at two o'clock in a tavern in the Grassmarket. Dr. Swediaur, the Paris physician, who spent some time in Edinburgh in 1784 making researches along with Cullen, and was made a member of this club during his stay, writes Jeremy Bentham: "We have a club here which consists of nothing but philosophers. Dr. Adam Smith, Cullen, Black, Mr. M'Gowan, etc., belong to it, and I am also a member of it. Thus I spend once a week in a most enlightened and agreeable, cheerful and social company." And of Smith, with whom he says he is intimately acquainted, he tells Bentham he "is quite our man"—in opinion and tendencies, I presume. Ferguson was a member of the club, though after being struck with paralysis in 1780 he never dined out; but among the constant attenders were Henry Mackenzie, Dugald Stewart, Professor John Playfair, Sir James Hall the geologist; Robert Adam, architect; Adam's brother-in-law, John Clerk of Eldin, inventor of the new system of naval tactics; and Lord Daer—the "noble youthful Daer"—who was the first lord Burns ever met, and taught the poet that in a lord he after all but "met a brither," with nothing uncommon about him,

Except good sense and social glee,
An' (what surprised me) modesty.

Lord Daer was the eldest son of the fourth Earl of Selkirk, and, on the outbreak of the French Revolution, a few years after Burns met him, became one of the most ardent of the "Friends of the People"; and was intimate with Mirabeau, to whom he ventured to speak a word for the king's safety, and was told that the French would not commit the English blunder of cutting off their king's head, because that was the usual way to establish a despotism.*37 Great expectations were cherished of Lord Daer's future, but they were defeated by his premature death in 1794. The Mr. M'Gowan mentioned by Swediaur is little known now, but he was an antiquary and naturalist, a friend and correspondent of Shenstone, Pennant, and Bishop Percy. M'Gowan kept house with a friend of his youth, who had returned to him after long political exile, Andrew Lumisden, Prince Charlie's Secretary, who was also a warm friend of Smith, and whose portrait by Tassie is one of the few relics of Smith's household effects which still exist. Lumisden had been Hamilton of Bangour's companion in exile at Rouen, and was no doubt also a member of this club.


According to Playfair, the chief delight of the club was to listen to the conversation of its three founders. "As all the three possessed great talents, enlarged views, and extensive information, without any of the stateliness and formality which men of letters think it sometimes necessary to affect, as they were all three easily amused, and as the sincerity of their friendship had never been darkened by the least shade of envy, it would be hard to find an example where everything favourable to good society was more perfectly united, and everything adverse more entirely excluded."*38 This friendship of Smith, Black, and Hutton, if not so famous as the friendship between Smith and Hume, was not less really memorable. Each of them had founded—or done more than any other single person to found—a science; they may be called the fathers of modern chemistry, of modern geology, and of modern political economy; and for all their great achievements, they were yet men of the most unaffected simplicity of character. In other respects they were very different from one another, but their differences only knit them closer together, and made them more interesting to their friends.


Black was a man of fine presence and courtly bearing, grave, calm, polished, well dressed, speaking, what was then rare, correct English without a trace of Scotch accent, and always with sense and insight even in fields beyond his own. Smith used to say that he never knew a man with less nonsense in him than Dr. Black, and that he was often indebted to his better discrimination in the judgment of character, a point in which Smith, not only by the general testimony of his acquaintance, but by his own confession, was by no means strong, inasmuch as he was, as he acknowledges, too apt to form his opinion from a single feature. Now the judgment of character was, according to Robison, Black's very strongest point. "Indeed," says Robison, "were I to say what natural talent Dr. Black possessed in the most uncommon degree, I should say it was his judgment of human character, and a talent which he had of expressing his opinion in a single short phrase, which fixed it in the mind never to be forgotten."*39 He was a very brilliant lecturer, for Brougham, who had been one of his students, said that he had heard Pitt and Fox and Plunket, but for mere intellectual gratification he should prefer sitting again on the old benches of the chemistry class-room, "while the first philosopher of his age was the historian of his own discoveries"; and, adored as he was by his students, he was the object of scarce less veneration and pride to the whole body of his fellow-citizens. Lord Cockburn tells us how even the wildest boys used to respect Black. "No lad," says he, "could ever be irreverent towards a man so pale, so gentle, so elegant, and so illustrious."


Hutton was in many respects the reverse of Black. He was a dweller out of doors, a man of strong vitality and high spirits, careless of dress and appearance, setting little store by the world's prejudices or fashions, and speaking the broadest Scotch, but overflowing with views and speculations and fun, and with a certain originality of expression, often very piquant. Every face brightened, says Playfair, when Hutton entered a room. He had been bred a doctor, though he never practised, but, devoting himself to agriculture, had been for years one of the leading improvers of the Border counties, and is said, indeed, to have been the first man in Scotland to plough with a pair of horses and no driver, the old eight-ox plough being then in universal use. Between his early chemical studies and his later agricultural pursuits, his curiosity was deeply aroused as he walked about the fields and dales, not merely concerning the composition but the origin of the soils and rocks and minerals that lay in the crust of the globe, and he never ceased examining and speculating till he completed his theory of the earth which became a new starting-point for all subsequent geological research. He was a bold investigator, and Playfair distinguishes him finely in this respect from Black by remarking that "Dr. Black hated nothing so much as error, and Dr. Hutton nothing so much as ignorance. The one was always afraid of going beyond the truth, and the other of not reaching it." He went little into general society, but Playfair says that in the more private circles which he preferred he was the most delightful of companions.


The conversation of the club was often, as was to be expected from its composition, scientific, but Professor Playfair says it was always free, and never didactic or disputatious, and that "as the club was much the resort of the strangers who visited Edinburgh from any objects connected with art or with science, it derived from them an extraordinary degree of vivacity and interest."*40


Its name was the Oyster Club, and it may be thought from that circumstance that those great philosophers did not spurn the delights of more ordinary mortals. But probably no three men could be found who cared less for the pleasures of the table. Hutton was an abstainer; Black a vegetarian, his usual fare being "some bread, a few prunes, and a measured quantity of milk diluted with water"; and as for Smith, his only weakness seems to have been for lump sugar, according to an anecdote preserved by Scott, which, trivial though it be, may be repeated here, under the shelter of the great novelist's example and of Smith's own biographical principle that nothing about a great man is too minute not to be worth knowing.


Scott, speaking apparently as an eye-witness, says: "We shall never forget one particular evening when he (Smith) put an elderly maiden lady who presided at the tea-table to sore confusion by neglecting utterly her invitation to be seated, and walking round and round the circle, stopping ever and anon to steal a lump from the sugar basin, which the venerable spinster was at length constrained to place on her own knee, as the only method of securing it from his uneconomical depredations. His appearance mumping the eternal sugar was something indescribable." It is probably the same story Robert Chambers gives in his Traditions of Edinburgh, and he makes the scene Smith's own parlour, and the elderly spinster his cousin, Miss Jean Douglas. It may have been so, for Scott, as a school companion of young David Douglas, would very likely have been occasionally at Panmure House.

Notes for this chapter

Nicholson's edition of Wealth of Nations, p. 8.
Bonar's Catalogue of the Library of Adam Smith, p. viii.
Smellie's Life of Smith, p. 297.
Quarterly Review, xxxvi. 200.
Sir J. Sinclair's Correspondence, i. 389.
Stewart's Works, x. 73.
Stewart's Life of Reid, sec. iii.
Sinclair's Old Times and Distant Places, p. 7.
Transactions, R.S.E., v. 98.
Black's Works, I. xxxii.
Transactions, R.S.E., v. 98.

Chapter XXII

End of Notes

24 of 35

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