Life of Adam Smith

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


1787. Aet. 64


IN April he had improved enough to undertake the journey to London to consult Hunter, but he was wasted to a skeleton. William Playfair—brother of his friend the Professor of Mathematics, and afterwards one of the early editors of the Wealth of Nations—met him soon after his arrival in London, and says he was looking very ill, and was evidently going to decay. While in his usual health he was, though not corpulent, yet rather stout than spare, but he was now reduced to skin and bone. He was able, however, to move about in society and see old friends and make new. Windham in his Diary mentions meeting him at several different places, and he was now introduced for the first time to the young statesman who was only a student in the Temple when he was last in London in 1777, but who was already one of the most powerful ministers England had ever seen, and was at the moment reforming the national finances with the Wealth of Nations in his hand. Pitt always confessed himself one of Smith's most convinced disciples. The first few years of his long ministry saw the daybreak of free trade. He brought in a measure of commercial emancipation for Ireland; he carried a commercial treaty with France; he passed, in accordance with Smith's recommendations, laws simplifying the collection and administration of the revenue. In this very year 1787 he introduced his great Consolidation Bill, which created order out of the previous chaos of customs and excise, and was so extensive a work that it took 2537 separate resolutions to state its provisions, and these resolutions had only just been read on the 7th of March, a few weeks before Smith arrived in London.


No one in London therefore was more interested to meet Smith than the young minister who was carrying the economist's principles out so extensively in practical legislation. They met repeatedly, but they met on one occasion, of which recollection has been preserved, at Dundas's house on Wimbledon Green,—Addington, Wilberforce, and Grenville being also of the company; and it is said that when Smith, who was one of the last guests to arrive, entered the room, the whole company rose from their seats to receive him and remained standing. "Be seated, gentlemen," said Smith. "No," replied Pitt; "we will stand till you are first seated, for we are all your scholars." This story seems to rest on Edinburgh tradition, and was first published, so far as I know, in the 1838 edition of Kay's Portraits, more than half a century after the date of the incident it relates. Most of the biographies contained in that work were written by James Paterson, but a few of the earliest, including this of Smith, were not. They were all written, however, from materials which had been long collected by Kay himself, who only died in 1832, or which were obtained before the time of publication from local residents who had known the men themselves, or had mingled with those who did. The whole were edited by the well-known and learned antiquary, James Maidment, whose acceptance of the story is some security that it came from an authoritative though unnamed source.


Smith was highly taken with Pitt, and one evening when dining with him, he remarked to Addington after dinner, "What an extraordinary man Pitt is; he understands my ideas better than I do myself."*88 Other statesmen have been converts to free trade. Pitt never had any other creed; it was his first faith. He was forming his opinions as a young man when the Wealth of Nations appeared, and he formed them upon that work. Smith saw much of this group of statesmen during his visit to the capital in that year.*89 We find Wilberforce sounding him about some of his philanthropic schemes, Addington writing an ode to him after meeting him at Pitt's, and Pitt himself seeking his counsels concerning some contemplated legislation, and perhaps setting him to some task of investigation for his assistance. Bentham had in the early part of 1787 sent from Russia the manuscript of his Defence of Usury, written in antagonism to Smith's doctrine on the subject, to his friend George Wilson, barrister, and Wilson a month or two later—14th of July—writes of "Dr. Smith," who can, I think, be no other than the economist: "Dr. Smith has been very ill here of an inflammation in the neck of the bladder, which was increased by very bad piles. He has been cut for the piles, and the other complaint is since much mended. The physicians say he may do some time longer. He is much with the Ministry, and the clerks of the public offices have orders to furnish him with all papers, and to employ additional hands, if necessary, to copy for him. I am vexed that Pitt should have done so right a thing as to consult Smith, but if any of his schemes are effectuated I shall be comforted."*90 It may be, of course, that Smith was examining papers in the public offices in connection with his own work on Government, but Wilson's statement rather leaves the impression that the researches were instituted in pursuance of some idea of Pitt's, probably related to the reform of the finances. If the Dr. Smith of Wilson's letter is the economist, he would appear to have stayed in London a considerable time on this occasion, and to have suffered a serious relapse of ill-health during his stay there.


Wilberforce did not think quite so highly of Smith as Pitt did, being disappointed to find him too hard-headed to share his own enthusiasm about a great philanthropic adventure of the day, which, to the very practical mind of the economist, seemed entirely wanting in the ordinary conditions of success. With some of the other philanthropic movements in which Wilberforce was interested—with his anti-slavery agitation, for example, begun in that very year 1787—he would have found no more cordial sympathiser than Smith, who had condemned slavery so strongly in his book. The Sunday school movement, too, started by Thomas Raikes two or three years before, won Smith's strongest commendation; for Raikes writes William Fox on 27th July of this same year,and writes as if the remark had been made in conversation with himself, "Dr. Adam Smith, who has very ably written on the Wealth of Nations, says: 'No plan has promised to effect a change of manners with equal ease and simplicity since the days of the Apostles.'" These schools were instituted for the purpose of giving gratuitous instruction to all comers for four or five hours every Sunday in the ordinary branches of primary education, and they were opposed by some leading ecclesiastics—among others by a liberal divine like Bishop Horsley—on the ground that they might become subservient to purposes of political propagandism. The ecclesiastical mind is too often suspicious of the consequences of mental improvement and independence, but to Smith these were merely the first broad conditions of all popular progress.


No man could be less chargeable with indifference to honest and practicable schemes of philanthropy, but the particular scheme towards which Wilberforce found him "characteristically cool" was one which, in his opinion, held out extravagant expectations that could not possibly be realised. It was a project—first suggested, I believe, by Sir James Steuart, the economist, and taken up warmly after him by Dr. James Anderson, and especially by that earliest and most persistent of crofters' friends, John Knox, bookseller in the Strand—for checking the depopulation and distress of the Scotch Highlands by planting a series of fishing villages all round the Highlands coast. Knox's idea was to plant forty fishing villages at spots twenty-five miles apart between the Mull of Cantyre and the Dornoch Firth at a cost of £2000 apiece, or at least as many of them as money could be obtained to start; and the scheme rose high in public favour when the parliamentary committee on Scotch Fisheries gave it a general recommendation in 1785, and suggested the incorporation of a limited liability company by Act of Parliament in order to carry it out.


The Scotch nobility adopted the suggestion with great spirit, and in 1786 the British Society for extending the Fisheries, was incorporated for that purpose by Royal Charter with a capital of £150,000, with the Duke of Argyle for Governor, and many leading personages, one of them being Wilberforce, for directors. It was indeed the grand philanthropic scheme of the day. The shares were rapidly subscribed for sufficiently to justify a start, and when Smith was in London in 1787 the society had just begun operations on a paid-up capital of £35,000. One of the directors, Isaac Hawkins Browne, M.P., was actually down in Scotland choosing the sites for the villages; and Wilberforce was already almost hearing the "busy hum" of the little hives of fishermen, coopers, boat-builders, and ropemakers, whom they were settling along the desolate coasts.


He naturally spoke to Smith about this large and generous project for the benefit of his countrymen, but was disappointed to find him very sceptical indeed as to its practical results. "Dr. Smith," writes Wilberforce to Hawkins Browne, "with a certain characteristic coolness, observed to me that he looked for no other consequence from the scheme than the entire loss of every shilling that should be expended on it, granting, however, with uncommon candour, that the public would be no great sufferer, because he believed the individuals meant to put their hands only in their own pockets."*91


The event, however, has justified the sagacity of Smith's prognostication. The society began by purchasing the ground for three fishing settlements on the west coast,—one at Ullapool, in Ross-shire; a second at Lochbeg, in Inverness-shire; and a third at Tobermory, in Argyle. They prepared their feuing plans, built a few houses at their own cost, tried to attract settlers by offering building feus at low rents and fishing-boats on credit at low rates, but, except to a slight extent at Ullapool, their offers were not taken; not a single boat ever sailed from Tobermory under their auspices, and before many years elapsed the society deserted these three original west coast stations and sold its interest in them at a loss of some £2000. But meanwhile the directors had in 1803 bought land at a small port on the east coast, Wick, where a flourishing fishery with 400 boats had already been established by local enterprise without their aid, and they founded there the settlement of Pulteneytown (named by them after Smith's friend, Sir William Pulteney), which has grown with the industry of the port. The society never again tried to resume its original purpose of creating new fishing centres, and here in Pulteneytown it has obviously only acted the part of the shrewd building speculator, investing in the ground-rents of a rising community and prudently helping in its development. Through this change of purpose it has contrived to save some of its capital, and having recently resolved to be wound up, it sold its whole estate in 1893 for £20,000, and after all claims are met may probably have £15,000 of its original capital of £35,000 left to divide. The net result of the scheme therefore on the development of Highland fisheries has been as near nil as Smith anticipated; and if the shareholders have not, as he predicted, lost every shilling of their money, they have lost half of it, and only saved the other half by abandoning the scheme for which it was subscribed. In the whole course of its one hundred and eight years' existence the society never paid more than eleven annual dividends, because for many years it saved up its income for building an extension to its harbour, and eventually lost all these savings and £100,000 of Government money besides in a great breakwater, which proved an irremediable engineering failure, and lies now in the bottom of the sea.


Smith returned to Edinburgh deeply pleased with the reception he met with from the ministers and the progress he saw his principles making. He came back, says the Earl of Buchan, "a Tory and a Pittite instead of a Whig and a Foxite, as he was when he set out. By and by the impression wore off and his former sentiments returned, but unconnected either with Pitt, Fox, or anybody else."*92 Had the impression remained till his death, it would be no matter for wonder. A Liberal has little satisfaction in contemplating the conflict of parties during the first years of Pitt's long administration, and seeing the young Tory minister introducing one great measure of commercial reform after another, while his own Whig chief, Charles Fox, offers to every one of them a most factious and unscrupulous opposition.


Soon after his return Smith received another, and to him a very touching, recognition of his merit in being chosen in November Lord Rector of his old alma mater, the University of Glasgow. The appointment lay with the whole University, professors and students together, but as the students had the advantage of numbers, the decision was virtually in their hands, and their unanimous choice came to Smith (as Carlyle said a similar choice came to him) at the end of his labours like a voice of "Well done" from the University which had sent him forth to do them, and from the coming generation which was to enter upon the fruits of them. There was at first some word of opposition to his candidature, on the good old electioneering plea that he was the professors' nominee, and that it was essential for the students to resent dictation and assert their independence. One of Smith's keenest opponents among the students was Francis Jeffrey, who was then a Tory. Principal Haldane, who was also a student at Glasgow at the time, used to tell of seeing Jeffrey—a little, black, quick-motioned creature with a rapid utterance and a prematurely-developed moustache, on which his audience teased him mercilessly—haranguing a mob of boys on the green and trying to rouse them to their manifest duty of organising opposition to the professors' nominee. His exertions failed, however, and Smith was chosen without a contest.


On receiving intimation of his appointment Smith wrote to Principal Davidson the following reply:—

REVEREND AND DEAR SIR—I have this moment received the honour of your letter of the 15th instant. I accept with gratitude and pleasure the very great honour which the University of Glasgow have done me in electing me for the ensuing year to be the Rector of that illustrious Body. No preferment could have given me so much real satisfaction. No man can own greater obligations to a Society than I do to the University of Glasgow. They educated me, they sent me to Oxford, soon after my return to Scotland they elected me one of their own members, and afterwards preferred me to another office to which the abilities and virtues of the never-to-be-forgotten Dr. Hutcheson had given a superior degree of illustration. The period of thirteen years which I spent as a member of that Society, I remember as by far the most useful and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life; and now, after three-and-twenty years' absence, to be remembered in so very agreeable a manner by my old friends and protectors gives me a heartfelt joy which I cannot easily express to you.


I shall be happy to receive the commands of my colleagues concerning the time when it may be convenient for them to do me the honour of admitting me to the office. Mr. Millar mentions Christmass. We have commonly at the Board of Customs a vacation of five or six days at that time. But I am so regular an attendant that I think myself entitled to take the play for a week at any time. It will be no inconveniency to me therefore to wait upon you at whatever time you please. I beg to be remembered to my colleagues in the most respectful and the most affectionate manner; and that you would believe me to be, with great truth, reverend and dear sir, your and their most obliged, most obedient, and most humble servant,

EDINBURGH, 16th November 1787.
Principal of the College, Glasgow.*93


He was installed as Rector on the 12th December 1787 with the usual ceremonies. He gave no inaugural address, nor apparently so much as a formal word of thanks. At least Jeffrey, who might have been present, though he does not seem to speak from personal recollection, says he remained altogether silent. His predecessor, Graham of Gartmore, held the Rector's chair for only one year, but Smith, like Burke and Dundas, was re-elected for a second term, and was Rector therefore from November 1787 till November 1789.


One of the new friends Smith made during his last visit to London was Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, who seems to have shown him particular attentions, and shortly after his return he gave a young Scotch scientific man a letter of very warm recommendation to Sir Joseph. The young man of science was John Leslie, afterwards Sir John, the celebrated Professor of Natural Philosophy in Edinburgh University. Leslie, who belonged to the neighbourhood of Smith's own town of Kirkcaldy, had been employed by him for the previous two years as tutor to his cousin and heir, David Douglas, and being thus a daily visitor at Smith's house, had won a high place in his affections and regard. Accordingly when Leslie in 1787 gave up his original idea of entering the Church, and resolved to migrate to London with a view to literary or scientific employment, Smith furnished him with a number of letters of introduction, and, as Leslie informed the writer of his biography in Chambers's Biographical Dictionary, advised him, when the letter was addressed to an author, to be always sure to read that author's book before presenting it, so as to be able to speak of the book should a fit opportunity occur. The letter to Sir Joseph Banks runs as follows:—

SIR—The very great politeness and attention with which you was so good as to honour me when I was last in London has emboldened me to use a freedom which I am afraid I am not entitled to, and to introduce to your acquaintance a young gentleman of very great merit, and who is very ambitious of being known to you. Mr. Leslie, the bearer of this letter, has been known to me for several years past. He has a very particular happy turn for the mathematical sciences. It is no more than two years and a half ago that he undertook the instruction of a young gentleman, my nearest relation, in some of the higher parts of these sciences, and acquitted himself most perfectly both to my satisfaction and to that of the young gentleman. He proposes to pursue the same lines in London, and would be glad to accept of employment in some of the mathematical academies. Besides his knowledge in mathematics he is, I am assured, a tolerable Botanist and Chymist. Your countenance and good opinion, provided you shall find he deserves them, may be of the highest importance to him. Give me leave, upon that condition, to recommend him in the most anxious and earnest manner to your protection. I have the honour to be, with the highest respect and regard, sir, your most obliged and most obedient humble servant,

EDINBURGH, 18th December 178 (sic).


Why does so large a proportion of Smith's extant letters consist of letters of introduction? Have they a better principle of vitality than others, that they should be more frequently preserved? There certainly seems less reason to preserve them, but then there is also less reason to destroy them.


Smith's health appears to have improved so much during the spring of 1788 that his friends, who, as we know from Robertson's letter to Gibbon, had been seriously alarmed about his condition, were now again free from anxiety. He seemed to them to be "perfectly re-established." But in the autumn he suffered another great personal loss in the death of his cousin, Miss Jean Douglas, who had lived under his roof for so many years. His home was now desolate. His mother and his cousin—the two lifelong companions of his hearth—were both gone; his young heir was only with him during the vacations from Glasgow College, where he was now living with Professor John Millar, and being a man for whom the domestic affections went for so much, there seemed, amid all the honour, love, obedience, troops of friends that enrich the close of an important career, to remain a void in his life that could not be filled.


Gibbon had sent him a present of the three concluding volumes of the Decline and Fall, and Smith writes him in November a brief letter of thanks, in which he sets the English historian where he used to set Voltaire, at the head of all living men of letters.

EDINBURGH, 18th December 1788.

MY DEAR FRIEND—I have ten thousand apologies to make for not having long ago returned you my best thanks for the very agreeable present you made me of the three last volumes of your History. I cannot express to you the pleasure it gives me to find that by the universal consent of every man of taste and learning whom I either know or correspond with, it sets you at the very head of the whole literary tribe at present existing in Europe.—I ever am, my dear friend, most affectionately yours,



In this letter Smith makes no complaint of his condition of health, but he seems to have got worse again in the course of the winter, for we find Gibbon writing Cadell, the bookseller, with some apparent anxiety on the 11th of February 1789: "If you can send me a good account of Adam Smith, there is no man more sincerely interested in his welfare than myself." If, however, he were ill then, he recovered in the summer, and was in excellent spirits in July, when Samuel Rogers saw him often during a week he spent in Edinburgh.

Notes for this chapter

Pellew's Life of Sidmouth, i. 151.
Wilberforce's Correspondence, i. 40.
Bowring's Memoir of Bentham, Bentham's Works, x. 173.
Wilberforce's Correspondence, i. 40.
The Bee, vol. iii. p. 165.
Glasgow College Minutes.
Morrison MSS.
Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works, ii. 429.

Chapter XXX

End of Notes

32 of 35

Return to top