Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
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First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
1st edition.
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THE new edition of the Theory was the last work Smith published. A French newspaper, the Moniteur Universelle of Paris, announced on 11th March 1790 that a critical examination of Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois was about to appear from the pen of the celebrated author of the Wealth of Nations, and ventured to predict that the work would make an epoch in the history of politics and of philosophy. That at least, it added, is the judgment of well-informed people who have seen parts of it, of which they speak with an enthusiasm of the happiest augury. But notwithstanding this last statement the announcement was not made on any good authority. Smith may probably enough have dealt with Montesquieu as he dealt with many other topics in the papers he had prepared towards his projected work on government, but there is no evidence that he ever intended to publish a separate work on that remarkable writer, and before March 1790 his strength seems to have been much wasted. The Earl of Buchan, who had some time before gone to live in the country, was in town in February, and paid a visit to his old professor and friend. On taking leave of him the Earl said, "My dear Doctor, I hope to see you oftener when I come to town next February," but Smith squeezed his lordship's hand and replied, "My dear Lord Buchan,*111 I may be alive then and perhaps half a dozen Februaries, but you never will see your old friend any more. I find that the machine is breaking down, so that I shall be little better than a mummy"—with a by-thought possibly to the mummies of Toulouse. "I found a great inclination," adds the Earl, "to visit the Doctor in his last illness, but the mummy stared me in the face and I was intimidated."*112


During the spring months Smith got worse and weaker, and though he seemed to rally somewhat at the first approach of the warm weather, he at length sank again in June, and his condition seemed to his friends to be already hopeless. Long and painful as his illness was, he bore it throughout not with patience merely but with a serene and even cheerful resignation. On the 21st of June Henry Mackenzie wrote his brother-in-law, Sir J. Grant, that Edinburgh had just lost its finest woman, and in a few weeks it would in all probability lose its greatest man. The finest woman was the beautiful Miss Burnet of Monboddo, whom Burns called "the most heavenly of all God's works," and the greatest man was Adam Smith. "He is now," says Mackenzie, "past all hopes of recovery, with which about three weeks ago we had flattered ourselves."


A week later Smellie, the printer, wrote Smith's young friend, Patrick Clason, in London: "Poor Smith! we must soon lose him, and the moment in which he departs will give a heart-pang to thousands. Mr. Smith's spirits are flat, and I am afraid the exertions he sometimes makes to please his friends do him no good. His intellect as well as his senses are clear and distinct. He wishes to be cheerful, but nature is omnipotent. His body is extremely emaciated, and his stomach cannot admit of sufficient nourishment; but, like a man, he is perfectly patient and resigned."*113


In all his own weakness he was still thoughtful of the care of his friends, and one of his last acts was to commend to the good offices of the Duke of Buccleugh the children of his old friend and physician, Cullen, who died only a few months before himself. "In many respects," says Lord Buchan, "Adam Smith was a chaste disciple of Epicurus as that philosopher is properly understood, and Smith's last act resembled that of Epicurus leaving as a legacy to his friend and patron the children of his Metrodorus, the excellent Cullen."*114


When it became evident that the sickness was to prove mortal, Smith's old friend Adam Ferguson, who had been apparently estranged from him for some time, immediately forgot their coolness, whatever it was about, and came and waited on him with the old affection. "Your friend Smith," writes Ferguson on 31st July 1790, announcing the death to Sir John Macpherson, Warren Hastings' successor as Governor-General of India—"your old friend Smith is no more. We knew he was dying for some months, and though matters, as you know, were a little awkward when he was in health, upon that appearance I turned my face that way and went to him without further consideration, and continued my attentions to the last."*115


Dr. Carlyle mentions that the harmony of the famous Edinburgh literary circle of last century was often ruffled by little tifts, which he and John Home were generally called in to compose, and that the usual source of the trouble was Ferguson's "great jealousy of rivals," and especially of his three more distinguished friends, Hume, Smith, and Robertson. But it would not be right to ascribe the fault to Ferguson merely on that account, for Carlyle hints that Smith too had "a little jealousy in his nature," although he admits him to have been a man of "unbounded benevolence." But whatever it was that had come between them, it is pleasant to find Ferguson dismissing it so unreservedly, and forgetting his own infirmities too—for he had been long since hopelessly paralysed, and went about, Cockburn tells us, buried in furs "like a philosopher from Lapland"—in order to cheer the last days of the friend of his youth.


When Smith felt his end to be approaching he evinced great anxiety to have all his papers destroyed except the few which he judged to be in a sufficiently finished state to deserve publication, and being apparently too feeble to undertake the task himself, he repeatedly begged his friends Black and Hutton to destroy them for him. A third friend, Mr. Riddell, was present on one of the occasions when this request was made, and mentions that Smith expressed regret that "he had done so little." "But I meant," he said, "to have done more, and there are materials in my papers of which I could have made a great deal, but that is now out of the question."*116 Black and Hutton always put off complying with Smith's entreaties in the hope of his recovering his health or perhaps changing his mind; but at length, a week before his death, he expressly sent for them, and asked them then and there to burn sixteen volumes of manuscript to which he directed them. This they did without knowing or asking what they contained. It will be remembered that seventeen years before, when he went up to London with the manuscript of the Wealth of Nations, he made Hume his literary executor, and left instructions with him to destroy all his loose papers and eighteen thin paper folio books "without any examination," and to spare nothing but his fragment on the history of astronomy. When the sixteen volumes of manuscript were burnt Smith's mind seemed to be greatly relieved. It appears to have been on a Sunday, and when his friends came, as they were accustomed to do, on the Sunday evening to supper—and they seem to have mustered strongly on this particular evening—he was able to receive them with something of his usual cheerfulness. He would even have stayed up and sat with them had they allowed him, but they pressed him not to do so, and he retired to bed about half-past nine. As he left the room he turned and said, "I love your company, gentlemen, but I believe I must leave you to go to another world." These are the words as reported by Henry Mackenzie, who was present, in giving Samuel Rogers an account of Smith's death during a visit he paid to London in the course of the following year.*117 But Hutton, in the account he gave Stewart of the incident, employs the slightly different form of expression, "I believe we must adjourn this meeting to some other place." Possibly both sentences were used by Smith, for both are needed for the complete expression of the parting consolation he obviously meant to convey—that death is not a final separation, but only an adjournment of the meeting.


That was his last meeting with them in the earthly meeting-place. He had gone to the other world before the next Sunday came round, having died on Saturday the 17th of July 1790. He was buried in the Canongate churchyard, near by the simple stone which Burns placed on the grave of Fergusson, and not far from the statelier tomb which later on received the remains of his friend Dugald Stewart. The grave is marked by an unpretending monument, stating that Adam Smith, the author of the Wealth of Nations, lies buried there.


His death made less stir or rumour in the world than many of his admirers expected. Sir Samuel Romilly, for example, writing on the 20th of August to a French lady who had wanted a copy of the new edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, says: "I have been surprised and, I own, a little indignant to observe how little impression his death has made here. Scarce any notice has been taken of it, while for above a year together after the death of Dr. Johnson nothing was to be heard of but panegyrics of him,—lives, letters, and anecdotes,—and even at this moment there are two more lives of him to start into existence. Indeed, one ought not perhaps to be very much surprised that the public does not do justice to the works of A. Smith since he did not do justice to them himself, but always considered his Theory of Moral Sentiments a much superior work to his Wealth of Nations."*118 Even in Edinburgh it seemed to make less impression than the death of a bustling divine would have made—certainly considerably less than the death of the excellent but far less illustrious Dugald Stewart a generation later. The newspapers had an obituary notice of two small paragraphs, and the only facts in his life the writers appear to have been able to find were his early abduction by the gipsies, of which both the Mercury and the Advertiser give a circumstantial account, and the characteristics which the Advertiser mentions, that "in private life Dr. Smith was distinguished for philanthropy, benevolence, humanity, and charity." Lord Cockburn, who was then beginning to read and think, was struck with the general ignorance of Smith's merits which his fellow-citizens exhibited shortly after his death. "The middle-aged seemed to me to know little about the founder of the science (political economy) except that he had recently been a Commissioner of Customs and had written a sensible book. The young—by which I mean the Liberal young of Edinburgh—lived upon him."*119 Stewart was no sooner dead than a monument was raised to him on one of the best sites in the city. The greater name of Smith has to this day no public monument in the city he so long adorned.


Black and Hutton were his literary executors, and published in 1795 the literary fragments which had been spared from the flames. By his will, dated 6th February 1790, he left his whole property to his cousin, David Douglas, afterwards Lord Reston, subject to the condition that the legatee should follow the instructions of Black and Hutton in disposing of the MSS. and writings, and pay an annuity of £20 a year to Mrs. Janet Douglas, and after her death, a sum of £400 to Professor Hugh Cleghorn of St. Andrews and his wife.*120 The property Smith left, however, was very moderate, and his friends could not at first help expressing some surprise that it should have been so little, because, though known to be very hospitable, he had never maintained anything more than a moderate establishment. But they had not then known, though many of them had long suspected, that he gave away large sums in secret charity. William Playfair mentions that Smith's friends, suspecting him of doing this, had sometimes in his lifetime formed special juries for the purpose of discovering evidences of it, but that the economist was "so ingenious in concealing his charity" that they never could discover it from witnesses, though they often found the strongest circumstantial evidence of it.*121 Dugald Stewart was more fortunate. He says: "Some very affecting instances of Mr. Smith's beneficence in cases where he found it impossible to conceal entirely his good offices have been mentioned to me by a near relation of his and one of his most confidential friends, Miss Ross, daughter of the late Patrick Ross, Esq., of Innernethy. They were all on a scale much beyond what would have been expected from his fortune, and were combined with circumstances equally honourable to the delicacy of his feelings and the liberality of his heart." One recalls the saying of Sir James Mackintosh, who was a student of Cullen and Black's in Smith's closing years, and used occasionally to meet the economist in private society. "I have known," said Mackintosh to Empson many years after this—"I have known Adam Smith slightly, Ricardo well, and Malthus intimately. Is it not something to say for a science that its three greatest masters were about the three best men I ever knew?"*122


Smith never sat for his picture, but nevertheless we possess excellent portraits of him by two very talented artists who had many opportunities of seeing and sketching him. Tassie was a student at Foulis's Academy of Design in Glasgow College when Smith was there, and he may possibly even then have occasionally modelled the distinguished Professor, for we hear of models of Smith being in all the booksellers' windows in Glasgow at that time, and these models would, for a certainty, have been made in the Academy of Design. However that may be, Tassie executed in later days two different medallions of Smith. Raspe, in his catalogue of Tassie's enamels, describes one of these in a list of portraits of the largest size that that kind of work admitted of, as being modelled and cast by Tassie in his hard white enamel paste so as to resemble a cameo. From this model J. Jackson, R.A., made a drawing, which was engraved in stipple by C. Picart, and published in 1811 by Cadell and Davies. Line engravings of the same model were subsequently made by John Horsburgh and R. C. Bell for successive editions of the Wealth of Nations, and it is accordingly the best known, as well as probably the best, portrait of the author of that work. It is a profile bust showing rather handsome features, full forehead, prominent eyeballs, well curved eyebrows, slightly aquiline nose, and firm mouth and chin, and it is inscribed, "Adam Smith in his 64th year, 1787. Tassie F." In this medallion Smith wears a wig, but Tassie executed another, Mr. J. M. Gray tells us, in what he called "the antique manner," without the wig, and with neck and breast bare. "This work," says Mr. Gray, "has the advantage of showing the rounded form of the head, covered with rather curling hair and curving upwards from the brow to a point above the large ear, which is hidden in the other version."*123 It bears the same date as the former, and it appears never to have been engraved. Raspe mentions a third medallion of Smith in his catalogue of Tassie's enamels—"a bust in enamel, being in colour an imitation of chalcedony, engraved by F. Warner, after a model by J. Tassie,"—but this appears from Mr. Gray's account to be a reduced version of the first of the two just mentioned. Kay made two portraits of Smith: the first, done in 1787, representing him as he walked in the street, and the second, issued in 1790, and occasioned, no doubt, by his death, representing him as he has entered an office, probably the Custom House. There is a painting by T. Collopy in the National Museum of Antiquities at Edinburgh, which is thought to be a portrait of Adam Smith from the circumstance that the title Wealth of Nations appears on the back of a book on the table in the picture; but in the teeth of Stewart's very explicit statement that Smith never sat for his portrait, the inference drawn from that circumstance cannot but remain very doubtful. All other likenesses of Smith are founded on those of Tassie and Kay. Smith was of middle height, full but not corpulent, with erect figure, well-set head, and large gray or light blue eyes, which are said to have beamed with "inexpressible benignity." He dressed well—so well that nobody seems to have remarked it; for while we hear, on the one hand, of Hume's black-spotted yellow coat and Gibbon's flowered velvet, and on the other, of Hutton's battered attire and Henry Erskine's gray hat with the torn rim, we meet with no allusion to Smith's dress either for fault or merit.


Smith's books, which went on his death to his heir, Lord Reston, were divided, on the death of the latter, between his two daughters; the economic books going to Mrs. Bannerman, the wife of the late Professor Bannerman of Edinburgh, and the works on other subjects to Mrs. Cunningham, wife of the Rev. Mr. Cunningham of Prestonpans. Both portions still exist, the former in the Library of the New College, Edinburgh, to which they have been presented by Dr. D. Douglas Bannerman of Perth; and the latter in the possession of Professor Cunningham of Queen's College, Belfast, except a small number which were sold in Edinburgh in 1878, and a section, consisting almost exclusively of Greek and Latin classics, which Professor Cunningham has presented to the library of the college of which he is a member. Among other relics of Smith that are still extant are four medallions by Tassie, which very probably hung in his library. They are medallions of his personal friends: Black, the chemist; Hutton, the geologist; Dr. Thomas Reid, the metaphysician; and Andrew Lumisden, the Pretender's old secretary, and author of the work on the antiquities of Rome.

Notes for this chapter

"My dear Ascanius" are the words of the text, because Ascanius was the pseudonym under which the Earl happened to be writing.
The Bee, 1791, iii. 166.
Kerr's Memoirs of W. Smellie, i. 295.
The Bee, 1791, iii. 167.
Original letter in Edinburgh University Library.
Stewart's Works, x. 74.
Clayden's Early Life of Samuel Rogers, p. 168.
Memoirs of Sir Samuel Romilly, i. 403.
Cockburn's Memorials of My Own Time, p. 45.
Bonar's Library of Adam Smith, p. xiv.
Playfair's edition of Wealth of Nations, p. xxxiv.
Edinburgh Review, January 1837, p. 473.
Bonar's Library of Adam Smith, p. xxii.

End of Notes


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