Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
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London: Macmillan and Co.
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DR. RICHARD PRICE had recently stirred a sensation by his attempt to prove that the population of England was declining, and had actually declined by nearly 30 per cent since the Revolution, and the first to enter the lists against him was William Eden, who in his Fifth Letter to the Earl of Carlisle, published in 1780, exposes the weakness of Price's statistics, and argues that both the population and the trade of the country had increased. Price replied to these criticisms in the same year, and now in 1785 Eden appears to have been contemplating a return to the subject and the publication of another work upon it, in connection with which he entered upon a correspondence with Smith, for the two following letters bearing on this population question of last century, though neither of them bears any name or address, seem most likely to have been written to that politician.


Price had drawn his alarmist conclusions from rough estimates founded on the revenue returns. From a comparison of the hearth-money returns before the Revolution with the window and house tax returns of his own time he guessed at the number of dwelling-houses in the country, and from the number of dwelling-houses he guessed at the number of inhabitants by simply supposing each house to contain five persons. He further tried to support his conclusion by figures drawn from bills of mortality and by references to colonial emigration, consolidation of farms, the growth of London, and the progress of luxury.


Smith thought very poorly of those ill-founded speculations, and even of their author generally, and he appears to have called Eden's attention to a population return relative to Scotland which furnished a sounder basis for a just estimate of the numbers of the people than the statistics on which Price relied. This was a return of the number of examinable persons in every parish of Scotland which had been obtained in 1755 by Dr. Alexander Webster, at the desire of Lord President Dundas, for the information of the Government. Public catechisings were then, and in many parishes are still, part of the ordinary duties of the minister, who visited each hamlet and district of his parish successively for the purpose every year, and consequently every minister kept a list of the examinable persons in his parish—the persons who were old enough to answer his questions on the Bible or Shorter Catechism. None were too old to be exempt. Webster procured copies of these lists for every parish in Scotland, and when he added to each a certain proportion to represent the number of persons under examinable age, he had a fairly accurate statement of the population of the country. He appears to have procured the lists for 1779 as well as those for 1755, and to have ascertained from a comparison of the two that the population of Scotland had remained virtually stationary during that quarter of a century, the increase in the commercial and manufacturing districts being counterbalanced by a diminution in the purely agricultural districts, due to the consolidation of farms. That, at least, was the impression of the officials of the Ministers' Widows' Fund, through whom the correspondence on the subject with the ministers had been conducted; and they threw doubt on an observation of a contrary import—apparently to the effect that the population of Scotland was increasing—which Smith heard Webster make in one of those hours of merriment for which that popular and useful divine seems destined to be remembered when his public services are forgotten.


Smith's first letter runs thus:—

SIR—I have been so long in answering your very obliging letter of the 8th inst. that I am afraid you will imagine I have been forgetting or neglecting it. I hoped to send one of the accounts by the post after I received your letter, but some difficulties have occurred which I was not aware of, and you may yet be obliged to wait a few days for it. In the meantime I send you a note extracted from Mr. Webster's book by his clerk, who was of great use to him in composing it, and who has made several corrections upon it since.


My letters as a Commissioner of the Customs are paid at the Custom House, and my correspondents receive them duty free. I should otherwise have taken the liberty to enclose them, as you direct, under Mr. Rose's cover. It may perhaps give that gentleman pleasure to be informed that the net revenue arising from the customs in Scotland is at least four times greater than it was seven or eight years ago. It has been increasing rapidly these four or five years past, and the revenue of this year has overleaped by at least one-half the revenue of the greatest former year. I flatter myself it is likely to increase still further. The development of the causes of this augmentation would require a longer discussion than this letter will admit.


Price's speculations cannot fail to sink into the neglect that they have always deserved. I have always considered him as a factious citizen, a most superficial philosopher, and by no means an able calculator.—I have the honour to be, with great respect and esteem, sir, your most faithful humble servant,

CUSTOM HOUSE, EDINBURGH, 22nd December 1785.

I shall certainly think myself very much honoured by any notice you may think proper to take of my book.*85


The second letter followed in a few days:—

EDINBURGH, 3rd January 1786.

SIR—The accounts of the imports and exports of Scotland which you wanted are sent by this day's post to Mr. Rose.


Since I wrote to you last I have conversed with Sir Henry Moncreiff, Dr. Webster's successor as collector of the fund for the maintenance of clergymen's widows, and with his clerk, who was likewise clerk to Dr. Webster, and who was of great use to the Doctor in the composition of the very book which I mentioned to you in a former letter. They are both of opinion that the conversation I had with Dr. Webster a few months before his death must have been the effect of a momentary and sudden thought, and not of any serious or deliberate consideration or inquiry. It was, indeed, at a very jolly table and in the midst of much mirth and jollity, of which the worthy Doctor, among many other useful and amiable qualities, was a very great lover and promoter. They told me that in the year 1779 a copy of the Doctor's book was made out by his clerk for the use of my Lord North. That at the end of that book the Doctor had subjoined a note to the following purpose, that though between 1755 and 1779 the numbers in the great trading and manufacturing towns and villages were considerably increased, yet the Highlands and Islands were much depopulated, and even the low country, by the enlargement of farms, in some degree; so that the whole numbers, he imagined, must be nearly the same at both periods. Both these gentlemen believe that this was the last deliberate judgment which Dr. Webster ever formed upon this subject. The lists mentioned in the note are the lists of what are called examinable persons—that is, of persons upwards of seven or eight years of age, who are supposed fit to be publicly examined upon religious and moral subjects. Most of our country clergy keep examination rolls of this kind.


My Lord North will, I dare to say, be happy to accommodate you with the use of this book. It is a great curiosity, though the conversation I mentioned to you had a little shaken my faith in it—I am glad now to suppose, without much reason.—I have the honour to be, with the highest regard, sir, your most obedient humble servant,



A new edition of the Wealth of Nations—the fourth—appeared in 1786, without any alteration in the text from the previous one, but the author prefixed to it an advertisement acknowledging the very great obligations he had been under to Mr. Henry Hope, the banker at Amsterdam, for (to quote the words of the advertisement) "the most distinct as well as the most liberal information concerning a very interesting and important subject, the Bank of Amsterdam, of which no printed account has ever appeared to me satisfactory or even intelligible. The name of that gentleman is so well known in Europe, the information which comes from him must do so much honour to who-ever has been favoured with it, and my vanity is so much interested in making this acknowledgment, that I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of prefixing this advertisement to this new edition of my book."


Smith had now, as he says in the following letter, reached his grand climacteric—his sixty-third year, according to the old belief, the last and most dangerous of the periodical crises to which man's bodily life was supposed to be subject—and the winter of 1786-87 laid him so low with a chronic obstruction of the bowels that Robertson wrote Gibbon they were in great danger of losing him. That was the winter Burns was in Edinburgh, and it was doubtless owing to this illness and Smith's consequent inability to go into society, that he and the poet never met. Burns obtained a letter of introduction to Smith from their common friend Mrs. Dunlop, but writes her on the 19th of April that when he called he found Smith had gone to London the day before, having recovered, as we know he did, sufficiently in spring to go up there for the purpose of consulting John Hunter. He was still in Edinburgh in March, however, and wrote Bishop Douglas a letter introducing one of his Fifeshire neighbours, Robert Beatson, the author of the well-known and very useful Political Index. Beatson had been an officer of the Engineers, but had retired on half-pay in 1766 and become an agriculturist in his native county. While there he compiled his unique and valuable work, which he published in 1786 and dedicated to his old friend Adam Smith. A new edition was called for within a year, and the author proposed to add some new matter, on which he desired the advice of Bishop Douglas. Hence this letter:—

DEAR SIR—This letter will be delivered to you by Mr. Robert Beatson of Vicars Grange, in Fifeshire, a very worthy friend of mine, and my neighbour in the country for more than ten years together. He has lately published a very useful book called a Political Index, which has been very successful, and which he now proposes to republish with some additions. He wishes much to have your good advice with regard to these additions, and indeed with regard to every other part of his book. And indeed, without flattering you, I know no man so fit to give him good advice upon this subject. May I therefore beg leave to introduce him to your acquaintance, and to recommend him most earnestly to your best advice and assistance. You will find him a very good-natured, well-informed, inoffensive, and obliging companion.

I was exceedingly vexed and not a little offended when I heard that you had passed through this town some time ago without calling upon me, or letting me know that you was in our neigh-bourhood. My anger, however, which was very fierce, is now a good deal abated, and if you promise to behave better for the future, it is not impossible that I may forgive the past.

This year I am in my grand climacteric, and the state of my health has been a good deal worse than usual. I am getting better and better, however, every day, and I begin to flatter myself that with good pilotage I shall be able to weather this dangerous promontory of human life, after which I hope to sail in smooth water for the remainder of my days.—I am ever, my dear sir, most faithfully and affectionately yours,

EDINBURGH, 6th March 1787.*87

Notes for this chapter

Original in possession of Mr. Alfred Morrison.
Original in Edinburgh University Library.
Egerton MSS., British Museum, 2181.

Chapter XXIX

End of Notes

31 of 35

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