Life of Adam Smith

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



SMITH was not only teacher in Glasgow, he was also learner, and the conditions of time and place were most favourable, in many important ways, for his instruction. Had he remained at Oxford, he would probably never have been an economist; had he not spent so many of his best years in Glasgow, he would never have been such an eminent one. It was amid the thickening problems of the rising trade of the Clyde, and the daily discussions they occasioned among the enterprising and intelligent merchants of the town, that he grew into a great economist.


It need scarce be said that the Glasgow of the middle of last century was a very different city from the Glasgow of to-day. It was in size and appearance a mere provincial town of 23,000 inhabitants. Broom still grew on the Broomielaw; a few cobles were the only craft on the river; and the rude wharf was the resort of idlers, watching the fishermen on the opposite side cast for salmon, and draw up netfuls on the green bank. The Clyde was not deepened till 1768. Before that the whole tonnage dues at Glasgow were only eight pounds a year, and for weeks together not a single vessel with a mast would be seen on the water. St. Enoch Square was a private garden; Argyle Street an ill-kept country road; and the town herd still went his rounds every morning with his horn, calling the cattle from the Trongate and the Saltmarket to their pasture on the common meadows in the now densely-populated district of the Cowcaddens.


Glasgow in these its younger days struck every traveller chiefly for its beauty. Mrs. Montagu thought it the most beautiful city in Great Britain, and Defoe, a few years before, said it was "the cleanest and beautifullest and best built city in Britain, London excepted." As Mrs. Bellamy approached it on the occasion I have mentioned in order to open the new theatre in 1764, she says "the magnificence of the buildings and the beauty of the river... elated her heart"; and Smith himself, we know, once suffered for praising its charms. It was at a London table, and Johnson was present, who, liking neither Smith nor his Scotch city, cut him short by asking, "Pray, sir, have you seen Brentford?" Bosewell, who took a pride in Glasgow himself, calling it "a beautiful city," afterwards expostulated with the doctor for this rough interruption: "Now, sir," said he, "was not that rude?" The full rudeness is only apparent when we remember that Brentford was in that day a byword for dreariness and dirt—Thomson in the Castle of Indolence calls it "a town of mud." When Johnson visited Glasgow, however, he joined the troop of its admirers himself, and Boswell took the opportunity to put him then in mind of his question to Smith, and whisper to him, "Don't you feel some remorse?"


But Glasgow had already begun its transition from the small provincial to the great commercial capital, and was therefore at a stage of development of special value to the philosophical observer. Though still only a quiet but picturesque old place, nestling about the Cathedral and the College and two fine but sleepy streets, in which carriers built their haystacks out before their door, it was carrying on a trade which was even then cosmopolitan. The ships of Glasgow were in all the waters of the world, and its merchants had won the lead in at least one important branch of commerce, the West India tobacco trade, and were founding fresh industries every year with the greatest possible enterprise. The prosperity of Glasgow is a fruit of the Union which first opened the colonial markets to Scotch merchandise, and enabled the merchants of the Clyde to profit by the advantages of their natural situation for trading with the American plantations. Before the middle of the century the Clyde had become the chief European emporium for American tobacco, which foreign countries were not then allowed to import directly, and three-fourths of the tobacco was immediately on arrival transhipped by the Glasgow merchants for the seaports of the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the North Sea.


As they widened their connections abroad, they naturally developed their industries at home. They founded the Smithfield ironworks, and imported iron from Russia and Sweden to make hoes and spades for the negroes of Maryland. They founded the Glasgow tannery in 1742, which Pennant thought an amazing sight, and where they employed 300 men making saddles and shoes for the plantations. They opened the Pollokshaws lined, printfield in 1742, copper and tin works in 1747, the Delffield pottery in 1748. They began to manufacture carpets and crape in 1759, silk in 1759, and leather gloves in 1763. They opened the first Glasgow bank—the Ship—in 1750, and the second—the Arms—in 1752. They first began to improve the navigation of the Clyde by the Act of 1759; they built a dry dock at their harbour of Port Glasgow in 1762; while in 1768 they deepened the Clyde up to the city, and began (for this also was mainly their work) the canal to the Forth for their trade with the Baltic. It was obvious, therefore, that this was a period of unique commercial enterprise and expansion. We can easily believe Gibson, the historian of Glasgow, when he states that after 1750 "not a beggar was to be seen in the streets," and "the very children were busy"; and we can as easily understand Smith when, contrasting Glasgow and Edinburgh among other places, he says the residence of a few spirited merchants is a much better thing for the common people of a place than the residence of a court.


Now it was those spirited merchants who had then so much to do with the making of Glasgow that had also something to do with the making of Adam Smith. Plain business men of to-day sometimes smile at the "Virginian Dons" and "tobacco lords" of last century as they picture them gathering to the Glasgow Plainstances at the hour of 'Change in the glory of scarlet cloaks, cocked hats, and gold-headed canes, and the plain citizens of that time all making way for their honours as they passed. But there was much enlightenment and sagacity concealed under that finery. Mrs. Montagu, who visited Glasgow in 1767, wrote Sir A. Mitchell, the Ambassador, that she was more delighted with it than with any other commercial town she had seen, because gain did not usurp people's whole attention, but "the sciences, the arts, and the love of agriculture had their share."*66 Their fortunes were small compared with the present standard. Sir John Dalrymple, speaking of three of the foremost merchants of Glasgow (one of them, John Glassford, the richest man in the city), computes that they had a quarter of a million between the three, and Dr. Reid, explaining the anxiety caused in Glasgow by the American troubles in 1765, says Glasgow owners possessed property in the American plantations amounting to £400,000. But these figures meant large handling and large dealings in those times, and perhaps more energy, mind, and character than the bigger figures of the present day; and we are told that commercial men in Glasgow still look back to John Glassford and Andrew Cochrane as perhaps the greatest merchants the Clyde has seen.


Andrew Cochrane was Smith's particular friend among them, and Dr. Carlyle tells that "Dr. Smith acknowledged his obligations to this gentleman's information when he was collecting materials for his Wealth of Nations; and the junior merchants who have flourished since his time and extended their commerce far beyond what was then dreamt of, confess with respectful remembrance that it was Andrew Cochrane who first opened and enlarged their views."*67 Dr. Carlyle informs us, moreover, that Cochrane founded a weekly club in the "forties"—a political economy club—of which "the express design was to inquire into the nature and principles of trade in all its branches, and to communicate knowledge and ideas on that subject to each other," and that Smith became a member of this club after coming to reside in Glasgow. $??$ was probably the first political economy club in the world, for Carlyle was in Glasgow in 1743, and it is of that period he speaks when he says, "I was not acquainted with Provost Cochrane at this time, but I observed that the members of this society had the highest admiration of his knowledge and talents."


Cochrane was indeed one of the remarkable men of that time. Smollett describes him in Humphrey Clinker as "one of the first sages of the Scottish kingdom," and "a patriot of a truly Roman spirit." He was Provost of Glasgow during the Rebellion, and while the Government and the Horse Guards slumbered and dawdled, and let Prince Charlie march from the Highlands to Edinburgh, and from Edinburgh up into the heart of England, Cochrane had already raised two regiments in Glasgow to resist the invader, which, however, this same dawdling Government, from mistaken suspicions of Scottish loyalty, refused to permit him to arm. The Prince, on his return from England, actually occupied Glasgow, and taxed it severely, but Cochrane's sagacious management piloted the city through the crisis, so that it neither yielded to the popular Prince's arts nor provoked him to hostilities; and, looking back at these difficulties when he laid down the Provostship a few years later, he said, "I thank my God that my magistracy has ended without reproach." His correspondence, published by the Maitland Club, contains some terse descriptions of the "prodigious slavery" he underwent, "going through the great folks" in London day after day for two months trying to recover from the Government some compesation for the Prince's exactions. And it may be added that it was his banking firm—Cochrane, Murdoch and Co., generally known, however, as the Glasgow Arms Bank, because they printed the Glasgow arms on their notes—that fell on the happy expedient of paying in sixpences when the Bank of Scotland made the infamous attempt to "break" it in 1759 by first collecting its notes for some time, and then suddenly presenting the whole number collected for immediate payment. The agent of the Bank of Scotland presented £2893 of notes on the 14th of December, and after thirty-four successive days' attendance he wrote his employers that he had only received £1232, because "the partners vied with each other in gaining time by miscounting and other low arts, and when the partners became wearied or ashamed of the task, their porter, a menial servant, would act the part of teller."*68


Of the Political Economy Club, founded by this able man, we know nothing except what Dr. Carlyle tells us, and the only other member of it besides Smith and Cochrane whose name Carlyle mentions is Dr. Wight, Professor of Ecclesiastical and Civil History. But it met once a week all the thirteen years Smith resided in Glasgow, and must have discussed many commercial problems during that time. We know, indeed, some of the principal practical questions which were then agitating the minds of Glasgow merchants, and may be sure those, at least, would be among the questions discussed at the club. Some of them concerned the removal of trade restrictions, but the restrictions which those Glasgow merchants were anxious to remove were restrictions on the import of raw materials for their manufactures, such as iron and linen yarn, and manufacturers, of course, are not necessarily free-traders because they want free import of raw materials. That was advocated as strongly from the old mercantilist standpoint as it is now from the free-trade one; it was merely sanctioning a little addition to our imports in order to produce a much greater addition to our exports.


In 1750 we find Provost Cochrane in correspondence with Smith's friend, James Oswald, M.P., concerting parliamentary action for the entire removal of the import duty on American iron. The Glasgow ironworks—the nailery, as it was called—with which Mr. Cochrane was connected used at that time 400 tons of iron in the year, and the iron had to be all imported at a high price from Russia and Sweden, because the native ores of Scotland were not then discovered, and American iron, by an iniquitous piece of preferential legislation in favour of the English manufacturer, was allowed to come duty free into English but not into Scotch seaports. Cochrane wants Oswald to get the law amended so as to "allow bar iron from our colonies to be imported to Scotland duty free." "It would," he says, "save our country very great sums, and no way hurt the landed interest. It would lower the price of iron, and consequently of all our manufactures, which would increase the consumpt and sale; it would serve for ballast to our ships from North America, and when tobacco is scarce, fill up part of the tonnage; would increase our exports, and no way interfere with our neighbours in the South."*69 That language might be held indifferently by the mercantilist and the free-trader.


In advocating the abolition of the duty on foreign linen yarns, which they succeeded in obtaining in 1756, the Glasgow merchants seem certainly to have had no thought of free trade, or probably anything else but their own obvious interest as manufacturers, for they never dreamt of abolishing either the export bounty on home-made linen cloth or of repealing the law of 1748, which gave their own Glasgow linen factory a considerable lift, and which forbade the import of foreign linen, and fined husbands for letting their wives wear it. Still the discussion of these subjects would open up various points of view, and it may be remembered that this duty on foreign linen yarns is one which Smith himself, free-trader though he was, was against abolishing, not out of any favour for the flax-growers, but for the protection of the poor women scattered in the cottages of the kingdom who made their livelihood by spinning yarn.


On the question of paper money we find Mr. Cochrane and Mr. Glassford—both of whom were bankers as well as merchants—in communication with Baron Mure and Sir James Steuart, the economist, soon after Smith left Glasgow. Sir James would almost certainly be a member of the club, because he resided in the neighbourhood, but as he was only pardoned a few months before Smith resigned his chair, it is improbable that the two economists ever met together at the club meetings. But the questions the two leading merchants were then discussing with Sir James would, no doubt, have been occasionally subjects of conversation at the club during the time of Smith's attendance. What, we find them asking, are the effects of paper money on prices? on the currency? on the exchanges with other countries? What was the effect of small notes? what of notes not payable on demand? They differed on various points. For example, Glassford would let the banks issue notes for any sums they liked, and had no objection to the small ten-shilling and five-shilling notes which were then common. Cochrane would abolish all notes for less than a pound,*70 and Smith—at least in 1776—would abolish all notes less than five pounds.*71 But all alike had a firm grasp of the true nature and operation of money.


Another society of which Smith was a member, and indeed a founder, was the Literary Society of Glasgow. It was a general debating society composed mainly of professors in the University—Cullen, Black, Wilson the astronomer; Robert Simson, Leechman the divinity professor and principal; Millar, and indeed nearly the whole Senatus; with a few merchants or country gentlemen of literary tastes such as William Craufurd, the friend of Hamilton of Bangour; William Mure of Caldwell, M.P. for Renfrewshire; Sir John Dalrymple, the historian, who was a proprietor in the West country; John Callander of Craigforth, the antiquary; Thomas Miller, Town Clerk of Glasgow, and afterwards Lord Justice-Clerk of Scotland; Robert Foulis, the printer; James Watt, who said he derived much benefit from it; Robert Bogle of Shettleston, the promoter of the theatre already mentioned; David Hume, and the Earl of Buchan, elected while residing as a student in 1762.


The Literary Society was founded in 1752, and met every Thurusday evening from November to May at half-past six. Its minutes are probably still in existence somewhere, but a few extracts from them have been published by the Maitland Club,*72 and from them we learn that Smith was one of the first contributors to its proceedings. Early in its first session—on the 23rd of January 1753—Professor Adam Smith is stated to have read an account of some of Mr. David Hume's Essays on Commerce. These essays had then just appeared, and they had probably been seen by Smith before their publication, for in September 1752 Hume writes Smith asking him for any corrections he had to suggest on the old edition of the Political Essays with the Commercial Essays were incorporated. We have seen Hume submitting one of these Commercial Essays in 1750 to Oswald and Mure, and when we find him in 1752 asking for suggestions from Smith on the essays already printed, we may safely infer that he had also asked and received suggestions on the new essays which had never been published.


The Maitland Club volume gives us no information about the papers read in this society after the first six months, except those read by Foulis, but no doubt Smith read other papers in the remaining ten years of his connection with the society. Its debates were often very keen; the metaphysical and theological combats between Professor Millar—a most brilliant debater—and Dr. Reid, the father of the common-sense philosophy, were famous in their day; and on one occasion tradition informs us that Smith engaged in a strenuous discussion on some subject for a whole evening against the entire assembly, and, having lost his point by an overwhelming majority, was overheard muttering to himself, "Convicted but not convinced."*73


After their high controversies in the Literary Society and their keener but less noble contentions in the Senate Hall, the Glasgow professors used to unbend their bows again in the simple convivialities of "Mr. Robin Simson's Club." Mr. Robin Simson was the venerable Professor of Mathematics, equally celebrated and beloved, known through all the world for his rediscovery of the porisms of Euclid, but in Glasgow College—whose bounds he rarely quitted—the delight of all hearts for the warmth, breadth, and uprightness of his character, for the charming simplicity of his manner, and the richness of his weighty and sparkling conversation. It was his impressions of Simson that first gave Smith the idea that mathematicians possessed a specific amiability and happiness of disposition which placed them above the jealousies and vanities and intrigues of the lower world. For fifty years Simson's life was spent almost entirely within the two quadrangles of Glasgow College; between the rooms he worked and slept in, the tavern at the gate, where he ate his meals, and the College gardens, where he took his daily walk of a fixed number of hundred paces, of which, according to some well-known anecdotes, he always kept count as he went, even under the difficulties of interruption. Mr. Robin, who was unmarried, never went into general society, but after his geometrical labours were over finished the day with a rubber of whist in the tavern at the College gate. Here one or another of the professors used to join him, and the little circle eventually ripened into a regular club, which met for supper at this tavern every Friday evening, and went out to Anderston for dinner on Saturday. It was at then known as the Anderston Club, as well as by its former designation from the name of its founder. Anderston was at that time quite a country village. It was very soon afterwards made busy enough with the cotton factory of James Monteith, but at this time James Monteith's father was using the spot as a market garden. It contained, however, a cosy little "change-house," capable of providing the simple dinner then in vogue. The dinner consisted of only one course. Mr. M'George says the first dinner of two courses ever given in Glasgow was given in 1786; and Principal M'Cormick of St. Andrews, writing Dr. Carlyle about that date, praises the dinner-parties of St. Andrews to the skies, but says nobody gave two courses except Mrs. Prebendary Berkeley, and Mrs. Prebendary Berkeley was the daughter-in-law of a bishop. The course at the Anderston dinner, moreover, consisted every week of the same dish; it was invariably chicken-broth, which Smollett classes with haggis, singed sheepshead, fish and sauce, and minced collops, as one of the five national dishes of Scotland. He describes it as "a very simple preparation enriched with eggs in such a manner as to give the air of a spoiled fricassee"; but adds that "notwithstanding its appearance, it is very delicate and nourishing." The chicken-broth was accompanied with a tankard of sound claret, and then the cloth was removed for whist and a bowl of punch. At whist Smith was not considered an eligible partner, for, says Ramsay of Ochtertyre, if an idea struck him in the middle of the game he "either renounced or neglected to call,"*74 and he must have in this way given much provocation to the amiability of Simson, who, though as absent-minded as Smith ever was at common seasons, was always keenly on the alert at cards, and could never quite forgive a slip of his partner in the game. After cards the rest of the evening was spent in cheerful talk or song, in which again Simson was ever the leading spirit. He used to sing Greek odes set to modern airs, which the members never tired of hearing again, for he had a fine voice and threw his soul into the rendering. Professor Robinson of Edinburgh, who was one of his students, twice heard him—no doubt at this club, for Simson never went anywhere else—sing a Latin hymn to the Divine Geometer, apparently of his own making, and the tears stood in the worthy old gentleman's eyes with the emotion he put into the singing of it. His conversation is said to have been remarkably animated and various, for he knew most other subjects nearly as well as he did mathematics. He was always full of hard problems suggested by his studies of them, and he threw into the discussion much whimsical humour and many well-told anecdotes. The only subject debarred was religion. Professor Traill says any attempt to introduce that peace-breaking subject in the club was checked with gravity and decision. Simson was invariably chairman, and so much of the life of the club came from his presence that when he died in 1768 the club died too.


Three at least of the younger men who shared the simple pleasures of this homely Anderston board—Adam Smith, Joseph Black, and James Watt—were to exert as important effects on the progress of mankind as any men of their generation. Watt specially mentions Smith as one of the principal figures of the club, and says their conversation, "besides the usual subjects with young men, turned principally on literary topics, religion, morality, belles-lettres, etc., and to this conversation my mind owed its first bias towards such subjects in which they were all my superiors, I never having attended a college, and being then but a mechanic."*75 According to this account religion was not proscribed, but Professor Traill's assertion is so explicit that probably Watt's recollection errs. It is, however, another sign of the liberal spirit that then animated these Glasgow professors to find them welcoming on a footing of perfect equality one who, as he says, was then only a mechanic, but whose mental worth they had the sense to recognise. Dr. Carlyle, who was invited by Simson to join the club in 1743, says the two chief spirits in it then were Hercules Lindsay, the Professor of Law, and James Moor, the Professor of Greek, both of whom were still members in Smith's time. Lindsay, who, it will be remembered, acted as Smith's substitute in the logic class, was a man of force and independence, who had suffered much abuse from the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh for giving up the old practice of delivering his lectures in Latin, and refusing to return to it. Moor was the general editor of the famous editions of the classics printed by his brother-in-law, Robert Foulis, a man, says Dugald Stewart, of "a gaiety and levity foreign to this climate," much addicted to punning, and noted for his gift of ready repartee. He was always smartly dressed and powdered, and one day as he was passing on the Plainstanes he overheard two young military officers observe one to the other, "He smells strongly of powder." "Don't be alarmed, my young soldier," said Moor, turning round on the speaker, "it is not gunpowder." A great promoter of the merriment of the club was Dr. Thomas Hamilton, Professor of Anatomy, the grandfather of Sir William, the metaphysician, who is thus described in some verses by Dr. John Moore, the author of Zelucco

He who leads up the van is stout Thomas the tall,
Who can make us all laugh, though he laughs at us all;
But entre nous, Tom, you and I, if you please,
Must take care not to laugh ourselves out of our fees.


Then we remember what Jeffrey says of "the magical vivacity" of the conversation of Professor John Millar.

Notes for this chapter

Add. MSS., 6856.
Carlyle's Autobiography, p. 73.
Fleming's Scottish Banking, p. 53.
Oswald's Correspondence, p. 229.
Caldwell Papers, ii. 3.
Wealth of Nations, Book II. chap. ii.
Notices and Documents illustrative of the Literary History of Glasgow, p. 132.
Strang's Clubs of Glasgow, 2nd ed. p. 314.
Ramsay's Scotland and Scotsmen in Eighteenth Century, i. 468.
Smile's Lives of Boulton and Watt, p. 112.

Chapter VIII

End of Notes

10 of 35

Return to top