Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
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First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
1st edition.


1740-1746. Aet. 17-23


SMITH left Scotland for Oxford in June 1740, riding the whole way on horseback, and, as he told Samuel Rogers many years afterwards, being much struck from the moment he crossed the Border with the richness of the country he was entering, and the great superiority of its agriculture over that of his own country. Scotch agriculture was not born in 1740, even in the Lothians; the face of the country everywhere was very bare and waste, and, as he was rather pointedly reminded on the day of his arrival at Oxford, even its cattle were still lean and poor, compared with the fat oxen of England. Among the stories told of his absence of mind is one he is said by a writer in the Monthly Review to have been fond of relating himself whenever a particular joint appeared on his own table. The first day he dined in the hall at Balliol he fell into a reverie at table and for a time forgot his meal, whereupon the servitor roused him to attention, telling him he had better fall to, because he had never seen such a piece of beef in Scotland as the joint then before him. His nationality, as will presently appear, occasioned him worse trouble at Oxford than this good-natured gibe.


He matriculated at the University on the 7th of July. Professor Thorold Rogers, who has collected the few particulars that can now be learned of Smith's residence at Oxford from official records, gives us the matriculation entry: "Adamus Smith e Coll. Ball., Gen. Fil. Jul. 7mo 1740,"*10 and mentions that it is written in a round schoolboy hand—a style of hand, we may add, which Smith retained to the last. He has himself said that literary composition never grew easier to him with experience; neither apparently did handwriting. His letters are all written in the same big round characters, connected together manifestly by a slow, difficult, deliberate process.


He remained at Oxford till the 15th of August 1746; after that day his name appears no longer in the Buttery Books of the College; but up till that day he resided at Oxford continuously from the time of his matriculation. He did not leave between terms, and was thus six years on end away from home. A journey to Scotland was in those days a serious and expensive undertaking; it would have taken more than half Smith's exhibition of £40 to pay for the posting alone of a trip to Kirkcaldy and back. When Professor Rouet of Glasgow was sent up to London a few years later to push on the tedious twenty years' lawsuit between Glasgow College and Balliol about the Snell exhibitions, the single journey cost him £11:15s., exclusive of personal expenses, for which he was allowed 6s. 8d. a day.*11 Now Smith out of his £40 a year had to pay about £30 for his food; Mr. Rogers mentions that his first quarter's maintenance came to £7:5s., about the usual cost of living, he adds, at Oxford at that period. Then the tutors, though they seem to have ceased to do any tutoring, still took their fees of 20s. a quarter all the same, and Smith's remaining £5 would be little enough to meet other items of necessary expenditure. It appears from Salmon's Present State of the Universities, published in 1744, during Smith's residence at Oxford, that an Oxford education then cost £32 a year as a minimum, but that there was scarce a commoner in the University who spent less than £60.


Smith's name does not appear in Bliss's list of Oxford graduates, and although in Mr. Foster's recent Alumni Oxonienses other particulars are given about him, no mention is made of his graduation; but Professor Rogers has discovered evidence in the Buttery Books of Balliol which seems conclusively to prove that Smith actually took the degree of B.A., whatever may be the explanation of the apparent omission of his name from the official graduation records. In those Buttery Books he is always styled Dominus from and after the week ending 13th April 1744. Now Dominus was the usual designation of B.A., and in April 1744 Smith would have kept the sixteen terms that were then, we may say, the only qualification practically necessary for that degree. He had possibly omitted some step requisite for the formal completion of the graduation.


Smith's residence at Oxford fell in a time when learning lay there under a long and almost total eclipse. This dark time seems to have lasted most of that century. Crousaz visited Oxford about the beginning of the century and found the dons as ignorant of the new philosophy as the savages of the South Sea. Bishop Butler came there as a student twenty years afterwards, and could get nothing to satisfy his young thirst for knowledge except "frivolous lectures" and "unintelligible disputations." A generation later he could not even have got that; for Smith tells us in the Wealth of Nations that the lecturers had then given up all pretence of lecturing, and a foreign traveller, who describes a public disputation he attended at Oxford in 1788, says the Præses Respondent and three Opponents all sat consuming the statutory time in profound silence, absorbed in the novel of the hour. Gibbon, who resided there not long after Smith, tells that his tutor neither gave nor sought to give him more than one lesson, and that the conversation of the common-room, to which as a gentleman commoner he was privileged to listen, never touched any point of literature or scholarship, but "stagnated in a round of College business, Tory politics, personal anecdotes, and private scandal." Bentham, a few years after Gibbon, has the same table to tell; it was absolutely impossible to learn anything at Oxford, and the years he spent there were the most barren and unprofitable of his life. Smith's own account of the English universities in the Wealth of Nations, though only published in 1776, was substantially true of Oxford during his residence there thirty years before. Every word of it is endorsed by Gibbon as the word of "a moral and political sage who had himself resided at Oxford." Now, according to that account, nobody was then taught, or could so much as find "the proper means of being taught, the sciences which it is the business of those incorporated bodies to teach." The lecturers had ceased lecturing; "the tutors contented themselves with teaching a few unconnected shreds and parcels" of the old unimproved traditionary course, "and even these they commonly taught very negligently and superficially"; being paid independently of their personal industry, and being responsible only to one another, "every man consented that his neighbour might neglect his duty provided he himself were allowed to neglect his own"; and the general consequence was a culpable dislike to improvement and indifference to all new ideas, which made a rich and well-endowed university the "sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection after they have been hunted out of every corner of the world." Coming up from a small university in the North, which was cultivating letters with such remarkable spirit on its little oatmeal wisely dispensed, Smith concluded that the stagnation of learning which prevailed in the wealthy universities of England was due at bottom to nothing but their wealth, because it was distributed on a bad system.


Severely, however, as Smith has censured the order of things he found prevailing at Oxford, it is worthy of notice that he never, like Gibbon and Bentham, thought of the six years he spent there as being wasted. Boswell and others have pronounced him ungrateful for the censures he deemed meet to pass upon that order of things, but that charge is of course unreasonable, because the censures were undeniably true and undeniably useful, and I refer to it here merely to point out that as a matter of fact Smith not only felt, but has publicly expressed, gratitude for his residence at the University of Oxford. He does so in his letter to the Principal of Glasgow College in 1787 accepting the Rectorship, when in enumerating the claims which Glasgow College had upon his greateful regard, he expressly mentions the fact that it had sent him as a student to Oxford. In truth, his time was not wasted at Oxford. He did not allow it to be wasted. He read deeply and widely in many subjects and in many languages; he read and thought for six years, and for that best kind of education the negligence of tutors and lecturers, such as they then were, was probably better than their assiduity.


For this business of quiet reading Smith seems to have been happily situated in Balliol. Balliol was not then a reading college as it is now. A claim is set up in behalf of some of the other Oxford colleges that they kept the lamp of learning lit even in the darkest days of last century, but Balliol is not one of them. It was chiefly known in that age for the violence of its Jacobite opinions. Only a few months after Smith left it a party of Balliol students celebrated the birthday of Cardinal York in the College, and rushing out into the streets, mauled every Hanoverian they met, and created such a serious riot that they were sentenced to two years' imprisonment for it by the Court of King's Bench; but for this grave offence the master of the College, Dr. Theophilus Leigh, and the other authorities, had thought the culprits entitled to indulgence on account of the anniversary they were celebrating, and had decided that the case would be sufficiently met by a Latin imposition. If Balliol, however, was not more enlightened than any of the other colleges of the day, it had one great advantage, it possessed one of the best college libraries at Oxford. The Bodleian was not then open to any member of the University under the rank of a bachelor of arts of two years' standing, and Smith was only a bachelor of arts of two years' standing for a few months before he finally quitted Oxford. He could therefore have made little use of the Bodleian and its then unrivalled treasures, but in his own college library at Balliol he was allowed free range, and availed himself of his privilege with only too great assiduity, to the injury of his health.


His studies took a new turn at Oxford; he laid aside the mathematics for which he showed a liking at Glasgow, and gave his strength to the ancient Latin and Greek classics, possibly for no better reason than that he could get nobody at Oxford to take the trouble of teaching him the former, and that the Balliol library furnished him with the means of cultivating the latter by himself. He did so, moreover, to some purpose, for all through life he showed a knowledge of Greek and Latin literature not only uncommonly extensive but uncommonly exact. Dalzel, the professor of Greek at Edinburgh, was one of Smith's most intimate friends during those latter years of his life when he was generally found with one of the classical authors before him, in conformity with his theory that the best amusement of age was to renew acquaintance with the writers who were the delight of one's youth; and Dalzel used always to speak to Dugald Stewart with the greatest admiration of the readiness and accuracy with which Smith remembered the works of the Greek authors, and even of the mastery he exhibited over the niceties of Greek grammar.*12 This knowledge must of course have been acquired at Oxford. Smith had read the Italian poets greatly too, and could quote them easily; and he paid special care to the French classics on account of their style, spending much time indeed, we are told, in trying to improve his own style by translating their writings into English.


There was only one fruit in the garden of which he might not freely eat, and that was the productions of modern rationalism. A story has come down which, though not mentioned by Dugald Stewart, is stated by M'Culloch to rest on the best authority, and by Dr. Strang of Glasgow to have been often told by Smith himself, to the effect that he was one day detected reading Hume's Treatise of Human Nature—probably the very copy presented him by the author at the apparent suggestion of Hutcheson—and was punished by a severe reprimand and the confiscation of the evil book. It is at least entirely consistent with all we know of the spirit of darkness then ruling in Oxford that it should be considered an offence of peculiar aggravation for a student to read a great work of modern thought which had been actually placed in his hands by his professor at Glasgow, and the only wonder is that Smith escaped so lightly, for but a few years before three students were expelled from Oxford for coquetting with Deism, and a fourth, of whom better hopes seem to have been formed, had his degree deferred for two years, and was required in the interval to translate into Latin as a reformatory exercise the whole of Leslie's Short and Easy Method with the Deists.*13


Except for the great resource of study, Smith's life at Oxford seems not to have been a very happy one. For one thing, he was in poor health and spirits a considerable part of the time, as appears from the brief extracts from his letters published by Lord Brougham. When Brougham was writing his account of Smith he got the use of a number of letters written by the latter to his mother from Oxford between 1740 and 1746, which probably exist somewhere still, but which, he found, contained nothing of any general interest. "They are almost all," he says, "upon mere family and personal matters, most of them indeed upon his linen and other such necessaries, but all show his strong affection for his mother." The very brief extracts Brougham makes from them, however, inform us that Smith was then suffering from what he calls "an inveterate scurvy and shaking in the head," for which he was using the new remedy of tar-water which Bishop Berkeley had made the fashionable panacea for all manner of diseases. At the end of July 1744 Smith says to his mother: "I am quite inexcusable for not writing to you oftener. I think of you every day, but always defer writing till the post is just going, and then sometimes business or company, but oftener laziness, hinders me. Tar-water is a remedy very much in vogue here at present for almost all diseases. It has perfectly cured me of an inveterate scurvy and shaking in the head. I wish you'd try it. I fancy it might be of service to you." In another and apparently subsequent letter, however, he states that he had had the scurvy and shaking as long as be remembered anything, and that the tar-water had not removed them. On the 29th of November 1743 he makes the curious confession: "I am just recovered from a violent fit of laziness, which has confined me to my elbow-chair these three months."*14 Brougham thinks these statements show symptoms of hypochondria; but they probably indicate no more than the ordinary lassitude and exhaustion ensuing from overwork. Hume, when about the same age, had by four or five years' hard reading thrown himself into a like condition, and makes the same complaints of "laziness of temper" and scurvy. The shaking in the head continued to attend Smith all his days.


But low health was only one of the miseries of his estate at Oxford. There is reason to believe that Balliol College was in his day a stepmother to her Scotch sons, and that their existence there was made very uncomfortable not merely at the hands of the mob of young gentlemen among whom they were obliged to live, but even more by the unfair and discriminating harshness of the College authorities themselves. Out of the hundred students then residing at Balliol, eight at least were Scotch, four on the Snell foundation and four on the Warner, and the Scotch eight seem to have been always treated as an alien and intrusive faction. The Snell exhibitioners were continually complaining to the Glasgow Senatus on the subject, and the Glasgow Senatus thought them perfectly justified in complaining. In a letter of 22nd May 1776, in which they go over the whole long story of grievances, the Glasgow Senatus tell the Master and Fellows of Balliol plainly that the Scotch students had never been "welcomely received" at Balliol, and had never been happy there. If an English undergraduate committed a fault, the authorities never thought of blaming any one but himself, but when one of the eight Scotch undergraduates did so, his sin was remembered against all the other seven, and reflections were cast on the whole body; "a circumstance," add the Senatus, "which has been much felt during their residence at Balliol." Their common resentment against the injustice of this kind of tribal accountability that was imposed on them naturally provoked a common resistance; it developed "a spirit of association," say the Senatus, which "has at all periods been a cause of much trouble both to Balliol and to Glasgow Colleges."*15 In 1744, when Smith himself was one of them, the Snell exhibitioners wrote an account of their grievances to the Glasgow Senatus, and stated "what they wanted to be done towards making their residence more easy and advantageous";*16 and in 1753, when some of Smith's contemporaries would still be on the foundation, Dr. Leigh, the master of Balliol, tells the Glasgow Senatus that he had ascertained in an interview with one of the Snell exhibitioners that what they wanted was to be transferred to some other college, because they had "a total dislike to Balliol."*17


This idea of a transference, I may be allowed to add, continued to be mooted, and in 1776 it was actually proposed by the heads of Balliol to the Senatus of Glasgow to transfer the Snell foundationers altogether to Hertford College; but the Glasgow authorities thought this would be merely a transference of the troubles, and not a remedy for them, that the exhibitioners would get no better welcome at Hertford than at Balliol if they came as "fixed property" instead of coming as volunteers, and that they could never lose their national peculiarities of dialect and their habits of combination if they came in a body. Accordingly, in the letter of 22nd May 1776, which I have already quoted,*18 they recommended the arrangement of leaving each exhibitioner to choose his own college,—an arrangement, it may be remembered, which had just then been strongly advocated as a general principle by Smith in his newly-published Wealth of the Nations, on the broader ground that it would encourage a wholesome competition between the colleges, and so improve the character of the instruction given in them all.


Now if the daily relations between the Scotch exhibitioners at Balliol and the authorities and general members of the College were of the unhappy description partially revealed in this correspondence, that may possibly afford some explanation of what must otherwise seem the entirely unaccountable circumstance that Smith, so far as we are able to judge, made almost no permanent friends at Oxford. Few men were ever by nature more entirely formed for friendship than Smith. At every other stage of his history we invariably find him surrounded by troops of friends, and deriving from their company his chief solace and delight. But here he is six or seven years at Oxford, at the season of manhood when the deepest and most lasting friendships of a man's life are usually made, and yet we never see him in all his subsequent career holding an hour's intercourse by word or letter with any single Oxford contemporary except Bishop Douglas of Salisbury, and Bishop Douglas had been a Snell exhibitioner himself. With Douglas, moreover, he had many other ties. Douglas was a Fifeshire man, and may possibly have been a kinsman more or less remote; he was a friend of Hume and Robertson, and all Smith's Edinburgh friends; and he was, like Smith again, a member of the famous Literary Club of London, and is celebrated in that character by Goldsmith in the poem "Retaliation," as "the scourge of impostors, the terror of quacks." I have gone over the names of those who might be Smith's contemporaries at Balliol as they appear in Mr. Foster's list of Alumni Oxonienses, and they were a singularly undistinguished body of people. Smith and Douglas themselves are indeed the only two of them who seem to have made any mark in the world at all.


An allusion has been made to the Scottish dialect of the Snell exhibitioners; it may be mentioned that Smith seems to have lost the broad Scotch at Oxford without, like Jeffrey, contracting the narrow English; at any rate Englishmen, who visited Smith after visiting Robertson or Blair, were struck with the pure and correct English he spoke in private conversation, and he appears to have done so without giving any impression of constraint.


Smith returned to Scotland in August 1746, but his name remained on the Oxford books for some months after his departure, showing apparently that he had not on leaving come to a final determination against going back. His friends at home are said to have been most anxious that he should continue at Oxford; that would naturally seem to open to him the best opportunities either in the ecclesiastical career for which they are believed to have destined him, or in the university career for which nature herself designed him. But both careers were practically barred against him by his objection to taking holy orders, the great majority of the Oxford Fellowships being at that time only granted upon condition of ordination, and Smith concluded that the best prospect for him was after all the road back to Scotland. And he never appears to have set foot in Oxford again. When he became Professor at Glasgow he was the medium of intercourse between the Glasgow Senate and the Balliol authorities, but beyond the occasional interchange of letters which this business required, his relations with the Southern University appear to have continued completely suspended. Nor did Oxford, on her part, ever show any interest in him. Even after he had become perhaps her greatest living alumnus, she did not offer him the ordinary honour of a doctor's degree.

Notes for this chapter

Rogers's edition of the Wealth of Nations, I. vii.
Laing MSS., Edinburgh University.
Stewart's Life of Adam Smith, p. 8.
Tyerman's Wesley, i. 66.
Brougham, Men of Letters, ii. 216.
Letter from Senatus of Glasgow College to Balliol College, in Laing MSS., Edinburgh University.
Letter of A. G. Ross of Gray's Inn to Professor R. Simson, Glasgow, in Edinburgh University Library.
Laing MSS., Edinburgh University.
Edinburgh University Library.

Chapter IV

End of Notes

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