Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
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IN his letter to Cadell Smith reproaches himself with his idleness during his first few years in Edinburgh. He had bought a good many new books in London, or new editions of old ones, and, says he, "The amusement I found in reading and diverting myself with them debauched me from my proper business, the preparing a new edition of the Wealth of Nations." While he was engaged in this dissipation of miscellaneous reading a young interviewer from Glasgow, who happened to be much in his company in connection with business in the year 1780, elicited his opinions on most of the famous authors of the world, noted them down, and gave them to the public after Smith's death in the pages of the Bee for 1791. In introducing these recollections the editor of the Bee, Dr. James Anderson—author of Ricardo's rent theory—says that even if they had not been sent to him with the strongest assurances of authenticity, he could entertain no doubt on that point after their perusal from the coincidence of the opinions reported in them with those he himself had heard Smith express. The writer, who takes the name Amicus, describes himself as "young, inquisitive, and full of respect" for Smith, and says their conversation, after they finished their business, always took a literary turn, and Smith was "extremely communicative, and delivered himself with a freedom and even boldness quite opposite to the apparent reserve of his appearance."


The first author Amicus mentions is Dr. Johnson, of whom he thought Smith had a "very contemptuous opinion." "I have seen that creature," said Smith, "bolt up in the midst of a mixed company, and without any previous notice fall upon his knees behind a chair, repeat the Lord's Prayer, and then resume his seat at table. He has played this trick over and over, perhaps five or six times in the course of an evening. It is not hypocrisy but madness. Though an honest sort of man himself, he is always patronising scoundrels. Savage, for example, whom he so loudly praises, was but a worthless fellow; his pension of £50 never lasted him longer than a few days. As a sample of his economy you may take a circumstance that Johnson himself once told me. It was at that period fashionable to wear scarlet cloaks trimmed with gold lace, and the Doctor met him one day just after he had got his pension with one of those cloaks on his back, while at the same time his naked toes were sticking through his shoes." He spoke highly, however, of Johnson's political pamphlets on the American question, in spite of his disapproval of their opinions, and he was especially charmed with the pamphlet about the Falkland Islands, because it presented in such forcible language the madness of modern wars.


"Contemptuous opinion" is too strong an expression for Smith's view of Johnson, but it is certain he never rated him so high as the world did then or does now. He told Samuel Rogers that he was astonished at Johnson's immense reputation, but, on the other hand, he frequently praised some of the Doctor's individual writings very highly, as he did to this young gentleman of Glasgow. He once said to Seward that Johnson's preface to Shakespeare was "the most manly piece of criticism that was ever published in any country."*62


Amicus then inquired of Smith his opinion of his countryman Dr. Campbell, author of the Political Survey, and Smith replied that he had never met him but once, but that he was one of those authors who wrote on from one end of the week to the other, and had therefore with his own hand produced almost a library of books. A gentleman who met Campbell out at dinner said he would be glad to have a complete set of his works, and next morning a cart-load came to his door, and the driver's bill was £70. He used to get a few copies of each of his works from the printers, and keep them for such chances as that. A visitor one day, casting his eye on these books, asked Campbell, "Have you read all these books?" "Nay," said the other, "I have written them."


Smith often praised Swift, and praised him highly, saying he wanted nothing but inclination to have become one of the greatest of all poets. "But in place of that he is only a gossiper, writing merely for the entertainment of a private circle." He regarded Swift, however, as a pattern of correctness both in style and sentiment, and he read to his young friend some of the short poetical addresses to Stella. Amicus says Smith expressed particular pleasure with one couplet—

Say, Stella, feel you no content,
Reflecting on a life well spent?

But it was more probably not so much of these two lines as of the whole passage of which they are the opening that Smith was thinking. He thought Swift a great master of the poetic art, because he produced an impression of ease and simplicity, though the work of composition was to him a work of much difficulty, a verse coming from him, as Swift himself said, like a guinea. The Dean's masterpiece was, in Smith's opinion, the lines on his own death, and his poetry was on the whole more correct after he settled in Ireland, and was surrounded, as he himself said, "only by humble friends."


Among historians Smith rated Livy first either in the ancient or the modern world. He knew of no other who had even a pretence to rival him, unless David Hume perhaps could claim that honour.


When asked about Shakespeare Smith quoted with apparent approval Voltaire's remarks that Hamlet was the dream of a drunken savage, and that Shakespeare had good scenes but not a good play; but Amicus gathered that he would not permit anybody else to pass such a verdict with impunity, for when he himself once ventured to say something derogatory of Hamlet, Smith replied, "Yes, but still Hamlet is full of fine passages." This opinion of Shakespeare was of course common to most of the great men of last century. They were not so much insensible to the poet's genius as perplexed by it. His plays were full of imagination, dramatic power, natural gifts of every kind—that was admitted; but then they seemed wild, unregulated, savage—even "drunken savage," to use Voltaire's expression; they were magnificent, but they were not poetry, for they broke every rule of the art, and poetry after all was an art. And so we find Addison at the beginning of last century writing on the greatest English poets and leaving the name of Shakespeare out; and we find Charles James Fox, a true lover of letters, telling Reynolds at the close of the century that Shakespeare's reputation would have stood higher if he had never written Hamlet. Smith thought Shakespeare had more than ten times the dramatic genius of Dryden, but Dryden had more of the poetic art.


He praised Dryden for rhyming his plays, and said—as Pope and Voltaire used also to say—that it was nothing but laziness that prevented our tragic poets from writing in rhyme like those of France. "Dryden," said he, "had he possessed but a tenth part of Shakespeare's dramatic genius, would have brought rhyming tragedies into fashion here as they were in France, and then the mob would have admired them just as much as they then pretended to despise them." Beattie's Minstrel he would not allow to be called a poem at all, because it had no plan, no beginning, middle, or end. It was only a series of verses, some of them, however, he admitted, very happy. As for Pope's translation of the Iliad, he said, "They do well to call it Pope's Iliad, for it is not Homer's Iliad. It has no resemblance to the majesty and simplicity of the Greek."


He read over to Amicus Milton's L' Allegro and Il Penseroso, and explained the respective beauties of each; but he added that all the rest of Milton's short poems were trash. He could not imagine what made Johnson praise the poem on the death of Mrs. Killigrew, and compare it with Alexander's Feast. Johnson's praise of it had induced him to read the poem over and with attention twice, but he could not discover even a spark of merit in it. On the other hand, Smith considered Gray's Odes, which Johnson had damned, to be the standard of lyric excellence.


The Gentle Shepherd he did not admire much. He preferred the Pastor Fido, of which, says Amicus, he "spoke with rapture," and the Eclogues of Virgil. Amicus put in a word in favour of the poet of his own country, but Smith would not yield a point. "It is the duty of a poet," he said, "to write like a gentleman. I dislike that homely style which some think fit to call the language of nature and simplicity and so forth. In Percy's Reliques too a few tolerable pieces are buried under a heap of rubbish. You have read perhaps Adam Bell, Clym of the Cleugh, and William of Cloudesley." "Yes," said Amicus. "Well then," continued Smith, "do you think that was worth printing?"


Of Goldsmith Smith spoke somewhat severely—of Goldsmith as a man apparently, not as a writer—relating some anecdotes of his easy morals, which Amicus does not repeat. But when Amicus mentioned some story about Burke seducing a young lady, Smith at once declared it an invention. "I imagine," said he, "that you have got that fine story out of some of the Magazines. If anything can be lower than the Reviews, they are so. They once had the impudence to publish a story of a gentleman having debauched his own sister, and on inquiry it came out that the gentleman never had a sister. As to Mr. Burke, he is a worthy, honest man, who married an accomplished girl without a shilling of fortune." Of the Reviews Smith never spoke but with ridicule and detestation. Amicus tried to get the Gentleman's Magazine exempted from the general condemnation, but Smith would not hear of that, and said that for his part he never looked at a Review, nor even at the names of the publishers.


Pope was a great favourite with him as a poet, and he knew by heart many passages from his poems, though he disliked Pope's personal character as a man, saying he was all affectation, and speaking of his letter to Arbuthnot when the latter was dying as a consummate piece of canting. Dryden was another of his favourite poets, and when he was speaking one day in high praise of Dryden's fables, Amicus mentioned Hume's objections, and was told, "You will learn more as to poetry by reading one good poem than by a thousand volumes of criticism." Smith regarded the French theatre as the standard of dramatic excellence.


Amicus concludes his reminiscences by quoting one of Smith's observations on a political subject. He said that at the beginning of the reign of George the Third the dissenting ministers used to receive £2000 a year from Government, but that the Earl of Bute had most improperly deprived them of this allowance, and that he supposed this to be the real motive of their virulent opposition to Government.


These recollections of Amicus provoked a letter in a succeeding number of the Bee from Ascanius (the Earl of Buchan) complaining of their publication, not as in any way misrepresenting any of Smith's views, but as obtruding the trifles of the ordinary social hour upon the learned world in a way Smith himself would have extremely disliked. Smith, he says, would rather have had his body injected by Hunter and Monro, and exhibited in Fleet Street or in Weir's Museum. That may very possibly be so; but though Smith, if he were to give his views on literary topics to the public, might prefer putting them in more elaborate dress, yet the opinions he expressed were, it must be remembered, mature opinions on subjects on which he had long thought and even lectured, and if neither Dr. Anderson nor the Earl of Buchan has any fault to find with the correctness of Amicus's report of them, Smith cannot be considered to be any way wronged. The Earl complains too of the matter of the letter being "such frivolous matter"; but it is not so frivolous, and, if it were, is it not Smith himself who used to say to his class at Glasgow, as we are informed by Boswell, that there was nothing too frivolous to be learnt about a great man, and that, for his own part, he was always glad to know that Milton wore latchets to his shoes and not buckles?


In 1781 Gibbon seems to have been in doubt as to continuing his History, and desired Robertson, who happened to be up in London at the time, to talk the matter over with Smith after his return to Edinburgh. The result of this consultation is communicated in a letter from Robertson to Gibbon on 6th November 1781. "Soon after my return," says Robertson, "I had a long conversation with our friend Mr. Smith, in which I stated to him every particular you mentioned to me with respect to the propriety of going on with your work. I was happy to find that his opinion coincided perfectly with that which I had ventured to give you. His decisions, you know, are both prompt and vigorous, and he could not allow that you ought to hesitate a moment in your choice. He promised to write his sentiments to you very fully, but as he may have neglected to do this, for it is not willingly he puts pen to paper, I thought it might be agreeable to you to know his opinion, though I imagine you could hardly entertain any doubt concerning it."*63


Professor B. Faujas Saint Fond, Professor of Geology in the Museum of Natural History at Paris and member of the National Institute of France, paid a visit to Edinburgh in October or November 1782 in the course of a tour he made through Scotland, and received many civilities from Adam Smith, as he mentions in the account of his travels which he published in 1783. Saint Fond says there was nobody in Edinburgh he visited more frequently than Smith, and nobody received him more kindly or studied more to procure for him every information and amusement Edinburgh could afford. He was struck with Smith's numerous and, as he says, excellently chosen library. "The best French authors occupied a distinguished place in his library, for he was fond of our language." "Though advanced in years, he still possessed a fine figure; the animation of his countenance was striking when he spoke of Voltaire." I have already quoted the remark he made (p. 190).


One evening when the geologist was at tea with him, Smith spoke about Rousseau also, and spoke of him "with a kind of religious respect." "Voltaire," he said, "set himself to correct the vices and follies of mankind by laughing at them, and sometimes by treating them with severity, but Rousseau conducts the reader to reason and truth by the attractions of sentiment and the force of conviction. His 'Social Compact' will one day avenge all the persecutions he suffered."


Smith asked the Professor if he loved music, and on being told that it was one of his chief delights whenever it was well executed, rejoined, "I am very glad of it; I shall put you to a proof which will be very interesting for me, for I shall take you to hear a kind of music of which it is impossible you can have formed any idea, and it will afford me great pleasure to know the impression it makes upon you." The annual bagpipe competition was to take place next day, and accordingly in the morning Smith came to the Professor's lodgings at nine o'clock, and they proceeded at ten to a spacious concert-room, plainly but neatly decorated, which they found already filled with a numerous assembly of ladies and gentlemen. A large space was reserved in the middle of the room and occupied by gentlemen only, who, Smith said, were the judges of the performances that were to take place, and who were all inhabitants of the Highlands or Islands. The prize was for the best execution of some favourite piece of Highland music, and the same air was to be played successively by all the competitors. In about half an hour a folding door opened at the bottom of the hall, and the Professor was surprised to see a Highlander advance playing on a bagpipe, and dressed in the ancient kilt and plaid of his country. "He walked up and down the vacant space in the middle of the hall with rapid steps and a martial air playing his noisy instrument, the discordant sounds of which were sufficient to rend the ear. The tune was a kind of sonata divided into three periods. Smith requested me to pay my whole attention to the music, and to explain to him afterwards the impression it made upon me. But I confess that at first I could not distinguish either air or design in the music. I was only struck with a piper marching backward and forward with great rapidity, and still presenting the same warlike countenance, he made incredible efforts with his body and his fingers to bring into play the different reeds of his instrument, which emitted sounds that were to me almost insupportable. He received, however, great praise." Then came a second piper, who seemed to excel the first, judging from the clapping of hands and cries of bravo that greeted him from every side; and then a third and a fourth, till eight were heard successively; and the Professor began at length to realise that the first part of the music was meant to represent the clash and din and fury of war, and the last part the wailing for the slain,—and this last part, he observed, always drew tears from the eyes of a number of "the beautiful Scotch ladies" in the audience. After the music came a "lively and animated dance," in which some of the pipers engaged, and the rest all played together "suitable airs possessing expression and character, though the union of so many bagpipes produced a most hideous noise." He does not say whether his verdict was satisfactory to Smith, but the verdict was that it seemed to him like a bear's dancing, and that "the impression the wild instrument made on the greater part of the audience was so different from the impression it made on himself, that he could not help thinking that the lively emotion of the persons around him was not occasioned by the musical effect of the air itself, but by some association of ideas which connected the discordant sounds of the pipe with historical events brought forcibly to their recollection."*64


Nor were these annual competitions the only local institutions in which Smith took a more or less active interest. One of the duties of a citizen which he under-took will perhaps occasion surprise—he became a Captain of the City Guard. He was made Honorary Captain of the Trained Bands of Edinburgh—the City Guard—on the 4th of June 1781, "with the usual solemnity," the minutes state, "and after spending the evening with grate joy, the whole corps retired, but in distinct divisions and good order, to quarters."*65


The business of this body, according to its minutes, seems practically to have been mostly of a convivial character, and we can sympathise with the honest pride of the clerk in recording in what a condition of good order they were able to retire after celebrating that auspicious occasion with the joy it deserved. Smith no doubt attended their periodical festivities, or paid his fine of eight magnums of claret for absence. But their business was not all claret and punch. On the 8th September 1784, for example, the captains, lieutenants, and ensigns of the Trained Bands were called out, in consequence of an order from the Lord Provost, "to attend the wheeping of Paull and Anderson, actors in the late riots at Cannonmills." A rescue riot was apprehended, and the Trained Bands met in the old Justiciary Court-room, and were armed there with "stowt oaken sticks." Marching forth in regular order, they acted as guard to the magistrates during the day, and "by their formidable and respectable appearance had the good effect of detering the multitude so that they became only peaceable spectators." Whether an honorary captain could be called upon for active service in an emergency I cannot say, but Smith's name is not mentioned in the list of absentee captains upon this occasion.


In 1783 Smith joined Robertson and others in founding the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Robertson had long entertained the idea of establishing a society on the model of the foreign academies for the cultivation of every branch of science, learning, and taste, and he was at length moved into action by the steps taken in 1782 by the Earl of Buchan and others to obtain a royal charter for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, founded two years before. Robertson was very anxious to have only one learned society in Edinburgh, of which antiquities might be made a branch subject, and he even induced the University authorities to petition Parliament against granting a charter of incorporation to the Antiquarian Society. In this strong step the University was seconded by the Faculty of Advocates and the old Philosophical Society, founded by Colin Maclaurin in 1739, but their efforts failed. Out of the agitation, however, the Royal Society came into being. Whether Smith actively supported Robertson, or supported him at all, in his exertions against the Antiquarian Society, I do not know. He was not, as Robertson was, a member of the Society of Antiquaries. But he was one of the original members of the Royal Society. The society was divided into two branches,—a physical branch or class devoted to science; and a literary branch or class devoted to history and polite letters,—and Smith was one of the four presidents of the literary class. The Duke of Buccleugh was President of the whole society; and Smith's colleagues in the presidency of the literary class were Robertson, Blair, and Baron Gordon (Cosmo Gordon of Cluny, a Baron of Exchequer and most accomplished man).


Smith never read a paper to this society, nor does he ever seem to have spoken in it except once or twice on a matter of business which had been entrusted to him. The only mention of his name in the printed Transactions is in connection with two prizes of 1000 ducats and 500 ducats respectively, which were offered to all the world in 1785 by Count J. N. de Windischgraetz for the two most successful inventions of such legal terminology for every sort of deed as, without imposing any new restraints on natural liberty, would yet leave no possible room for doubt or litigation, and would thereby diminish the number of lawsuits. The Count wished the prizes to be decided by three of the most distinguished literary academies in Europe, and had chosen for that purpose the Royal Academy of Science in Paris, which had already consented to undertake the duty; the Royal Society of Edinburgh, whose consent the Count now sought; and one of the academies of Germany or Switzerland which he was afterwards to name. He addressed his communication to the society through Adam Smith, who must therefore be assumed to have had some private acquaintance or connection with him; and on the 9th of July Smith laid the proposal before the Council of the society, and, as is reported in the Transactions, "signified to the meeting that although he entertained great doubt whether the problem of the Count de Windischgraetz admitted of any complete and rational solution, yet the views of the proposer being so highly laudable, and the object itself being of that nature that even an approximation to its attainment would be of importance to mankind, he was therefore of opinion that the society ought to agree to the request that was made to them. He added that it was his intention to communicate his sentiments on the subject to the Count by a letter which he would lay before the Council at a subsequent meeting."*66 This letter was read to the Council on the 13th of December, and after being approved, a copy of it was requested for preservation among their papers, as the author "did not incline that it should be published in the Transactions of the society."


Nothing further is heard of this business till the 6th of August 1787, when "Mr. Commissioner Smith acquainted the society that the Count de Windischgraetz had transmitted to him three dissertations offered as solutions of his problem, and had desired the judgment of the society upon their merits. The society referred the consideration of these papers to Mr. Smith, Mr. Henry Mackenzie of the Exchequer, and Mr. William Craig, advocate, as a committee to appraise and consider them, and to report their opinion to the society at a subsequent meeting." At length, on the 21st January 1788, Mr. Commissioner Smith reported that this committee thought none of the three dissertations amounted either to a solution or an approximation to a solution of the Count's problem, but that one of them was a work of great merit, and the society asked Mr. A. Fraser Tytler, one of their secretaries, to send on this opinion to the Count as their verdict.*67

Notes for this chapter

Seward's Anecdotes, ii. 464.
Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works, ii. 255.
Saint Fond, Travels in England, Scotland, and the Hebrides, ii. 241.
Skinner's Society of Trained Bands of Edinburgh, p. 99.
Transactions, R.S.E., i. 39.
Ibid., R.S.E., ii. 24.

Chapter XXVI

End of Notes

28 of 35

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