Life of Adam Smith
By John Rae
THE fullest account we possess of the life of Adam Smith is still the memoir which Dugald Stewart read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on two evenings of the winter of 1793, and which he subsequently published as a separate work, with many additional illustrative notes, in 1810. Later biographers have made few, if any, fresh contributions to the subject. But in the century that has elapsed since Stewart wrote, many particulars about Smith and a number of his letters have incidentally and by very scattered channels found their way into print. It will be allowed to be generally desirable, in view of the continued if not even increasing importance of Smith, to obtain as complete a view of his career and work as it is still in our power to recover; and it appeared not unlikely that some useful contribution to this end might result if all those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure. In this last part of my task I have been greatly assisted by the Senatus of the University of Glasgow, who have most kindly supplied me with an extract of every passage in the College records bearing on Smith; by the Council of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who have granted me every facility for using the Hume Correspondence, which is in their custody; and by the Senatus of the University of Edinburgh for a similar courtesy with regard to the Carlyle Correspondence and the David Laing MSS. in their library…. [From the Preface]
First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Chapter 29
- Chapter 30
- Chapter 31
- Chapter 32
IN 1763 the Rev. William Ward of Broughton, chaplain to the Marquis of Rockingham, was bringing out his
Essay on Grammar, which Sir William Hamilton thought “perhaps the most philosophical essay on the English language extant,” and sent an abstract of it to Smith through a common friend, Mr. George Baird, to whom Smith wrote the following letter on the subject:—
th February 1763.
DEAR SIR—I have read over the contents of your Friend’s work with very great pleasure; and heartily wish it was in my power to give, or to procure him all the encouragement which his ingenuity and industry deserve. I think myself greatly obliged to him for the very obliging notice he has been pleased to take of me, and should be glad to contribute anything in my power to compleating his design. I approve greatly of his plan for a Rational Grammar, and am convinced that a work of this kind, executed with his abilities and industry, may prove not only the best system of grammar, but the best system of logic in any language, as well as the best history of the natural progress of the human mind in forming the most important abstractions upon which all reasoning depends. From the short abstract which Mr. Ward has been so good as to send me, it is impossible for me to form any very decisive judgment concerning the propriety of every part of his method, particularly of some of his divisions.
If I was to treat the same subject, I should endeavour to begin with the consideration of verbs; these being in my apprehension the original parts of speech, first invented to express in one word a compleat event; I should then have endeavoured to show how the subject was divided to form the attribute, and afterwards how the object was distinguished from both; and in this manner I should have tried to investigate the origin and use of all the different parts of speech and of all their different modifications, considered as necessary to express the different qualifications and relations of any single event. Mr. Ward, however, may have excellent reasons for following his own method; and perhaps if I was engaged in the same task I should find it necessary to follow the same; things frequently appearing in a very different light when taken in a general view, which is the only view I can pretend to have taken of them, and when considered in detail.
Mr. Ward, when he mentions the definitions which different authors have given of nouns substantive, takes no notice of that of the Abbé Girard, the author of the book called
Les Vrais Principes de la Langue Françoise, which made me think it might be possible that he had not seen it. It is the book which first set me a thinking upon these subjects, and I have received more instruction from it than from any other I have yet seen upon them. If Mr. Ward has not seen it, I have it at his service. The grammatical articles, too, in the French
Encyclopédie have given me a good deal of entertainment. Very probably Mr. Ward has seen both these works, and as he may have considered the subject more than I have done, may think less of them. Remember me to Mrs. Baird and Mr. Oswald, and believe me to be, with great truth, dear sir, sincerely yours,
Shortly after the date of this letter, Smith, who was now probably beginning to see the approach of the day when he would lay down his Glasgow professorship in order to superintend the studies of the young Duke of Buccleugh, writes David Hume, pressing for his long-promised visit to the West. The occasion of the letter is to introduce a young gentleman of whom I know nothing, but who was doubtless one of the English students who were attracted to Glasgow by Smith’s rising fame. He
was possibly the first Earl of Carnarvon, of whose uncle, Nicholas Herbert, Smith told Rogers the story that he had read over once a list of the Eton boys and repeated it four years afterwards to his nephew, then Lord Porchester. Smith said he knew him well. The letter is as follows:—
MY DEAR HUME—This letter will be presented to you by Mr. Henry Herbert, a young gentleman who is very well acquainted with your works, and upon that account extremely desirous of being introduced to the authour. As I am convinced that you will find him extremely agreeable, I shall make no apology for introducing him. He proposes to stay a few days in Edinburgh while the company are there, and would be glad to have the liberty of calling upon you sometimes when it suits your conveniency to receive him. If you indulge him in this, both he and I will think ourselves infinitely obliged to you.
You have been long promising us a visit at Glasgow, and I have made Mr. Herbert promise to endeavour to bring you along with him. Though you have resisted all my sollicitations, I hope you will not resist his. I hope I need not tell you that it will give me the greatest pleasure to see you.—I ever am, my dear friend, most affectionately and sincerely yours,
nd February 1763.
To that letter Hume returned the following answer:—
DEAR SMITH—I was obliged to you both for your kind letter and for the opportunity which you afforded me of making acquaintance with Mr. Herbert, who appears to me a very promising young man. I set up a chaise in May next, which will give me the liberty of travelling about, and you may be sure a journey to Glasgow will be one of the first I shall undertake. I intend to require with great strictness an account how you have been employing your Leisure, and I desire you to be ready for that purpose. Wo be to you if the Ballance be against you. Your friends here will also expect that I should bring you with me. It seems to me very long since I saw you.—Most sincerely,
th March 1763.
This long-meditated visit was apparently never accomplished, the chaise notwithstanding. Only a few months more pass and the scene completely changes; the two friends are one after the other transported suddenly to France on new vocations, and their first meeting now was in Paris.
Hume writes Smith from Edinburgh on the 9th of August 1763 intimating his appointment as Secretary to the English Embassy at Paris, and bidding him adieu. “I am a little hurried,” he says, “in my preparations, but I could not depart without bidding you adieu, my good friend, and without acquainting you with the reasons of so sudden a movement. I have not great expectations of revisiting this country soon, but I hope it will not be impossible; but we may meet abroad, which will be a great satisfaction to me.”
Smith’s reply has not been preserved, but it seems to have contained among other things a condemnation, in Smith’s most decisive style, of the recent proceedings of his friend Lord Shelburne in connection with various intrigues and negotiations set agoing by the Court and Lord Bute with the view of increasing the power of the Crown in English politics. That appears from a letter Hume writes Smith from London on 13th September, wanting information about his new chief’s eldest son, Lord Beauchamp, regarding whom he had once heard Smith mention something told by “that severe critic Mr. Herbert,” and to whom Hume was now to act in the capacity of tutor in conjunction with his offical duties as Secretary of Legation. Then after relating the story of Bute’s negotiations with Pitt through Shelburne, and stating that Lord Shelburne resigned because he found himself obnoxious on account of his share in that negotiation, he says: “I see you are much incensed with that nobleman, but he always speaks of you with regard. I hear that your pupil, Mr. Fitzmaurice, makes a very good figure at Paris.”
Smith was always a stout Whig, strongly opposed to any attempt to increase the power of the Crown, and cordially denounced Bute and all his works. He was delighted with the famous No. 45 of the
North Briton, published in the April of this very year 1763, and after reading it exclaimed to Dr. Carlyle, “Bravo! this fellow (Wilkes) will either be hanged in six months, or he will get Lord Bute impeached.”
*57 Shelburne after his resignation in September voted against the Court in the Wilkes affair, but up till then, at any rate, his public conduct could not be viewed by a man of Smith’s political principles with anything but the most absolute condemnation, and the condemnation would be all the stronger because, from personal intercourse with his lordship, Smith knew that he was really a man of liberal mind and reforming spirit, from whom he had a right to look for better things.
When Hume arrived in France the first letter he wrote to any of his friends at home was to Smith. He had been only a week in the country, and describes his first experiences of the curious transformation he then suddenly underwent: from being the object of attack and reproach and persecution for half a lifetime among the honest citizens of Edinburgh, he had become the idol of extravagant worship among the great and powerful at the Court of France.
“During the last days in particular,” he says, “that I have been at Fontainebleau I have
suffered (the expression is not improper) as much flattery as almost any man has ever done in the same time, but there are few days in my life when I have been in good health that I would not rather pass over again.
“I had almost forgot in this effusion, shall I say, of my misanthropy or my vanity to mention the subject which first put my pen in my hand. The Baron d’Holbach, whom I saw at Paris, told me that there was one under his eye
that was translating your
Theory of Moral Sentiments, and desired me to inform you of it. Mr. Fitzmaurice, your old friend,
*58 interests himself strongly in this undertaking. Both of them wish to know if you propose to make any alteration on the work, and desire you to inform me of your intentions in that particular.”
Hume’s hope of their “not impossible” meeting in Paris was destined to be gratified sooner than he could have conjectured. A few days before Smith received this letter from Hume he had received likewise the following letter from Charles Townshend, intimating that the time had now come for the Duke of Buccleugh to go abroad, and renewing to Smith the offer of the post of travelling tutor to his Grace:—
DEAR SIR—The time now drawing near when the Duke of Buccleugh intends to go abroad, I take the liberty of renewing the subject to you: that if you should still have the same disposition to travel with Him I may have the satisfaction of informing Lady Dalkeith and His Grace of it, and of congratulating them upon an event which I know that they, as well as myself, have so much at heart. The Duke is now at Eton: He will remain there until Christmass. He will then spend some short time in London, that he may be presented at Court, and not pass instantaneously from school to a foreign country; but it were to be wished He should not be long in Town, exposed to the habits and companions of London, before his mind has been more formed and better guarded by education and experience.
I do not enter at this moment upon the subject of establishment, because if you have no objection to the situation, I know we cannot differ about the terms. On the contrary, you will find me more sollicitous than yourself to make the connection with Buccleugh as satisfactory and advantageous to you as I am persuaded it will be essentially beneficial to him.
The Duke of Buccleugh has lately made great progress both in his knowledge of ancient languages and in his general taste for composition. With these improvements his amusement from reading and his love of instruction have naturally increased. He
has sufficient talents: a very manly temper, and an integrity of heart and reverence for truth, which in a person of his rank and fortune are the firmest foundation of weight in life and uniform greatness. If it should be agreeable to you to finish his education, and mould these excellent materials into a settled character, I make no doubt but he will return to his family country the very man our fondest hopes have fancied him.
I go to Town next Friday, and should be obliged to you for your answer to this letter.—I am, with sincere affection and esteem, dear sir, your most faithful and most obedient humble servant,
Lady Dalkeith presents her compliments to you.
th October 1763.
Smith accepted the offer. The terms were a salary of £300 a year, with travelling expenses while abroad, and a pension of £300 a year for life afterwards. He was thus to have twice his Glasgow income, and to have it assured till death. The pension was no doubt a principal inducement to a Scotch professor in those days to take such a post, for a Scotch professor had then no resource in his old age except the price he happened to receive for his chair from his sucessor in the event of his resignation; and we find several of them—Professors Moor and Robert Simson of Glasgow among others—much harassed with pecuniary cares in their last years. Smith’s remuneration was liberal, but nothing beyond what was usual in such situations at the time. Dr. John Moore, who gave up his medical practice in Glasgow a few years later to be tutor to the young Duke of Hamilton, got also £300 a year while actively employed in the tutorship and a pension of £100 a year afterwards.
*61 Professor Rouet, who, as already mentioned, sacrificed his chair in Glasgow for his tutorial appointment, is said to have received a pension of £500 a year from Lord
Hopetoun, in addition to a pension of £50 he received, in consideration of previous services of the same kind, from Sir John Maxwell; and Professor Adam Ferguson, who was appointed tutor to the Earl of Chesterfield on Smith’s recommendation, had £400 a year while on duty, and a pension of £200 a year, which he lived to enjoy for forty years after, receiving from first to last nearly £9000 for his two years’ work. Smith did almost as well, for with the pension, which he drew for twenty-four years, he got altogether more than £8000 for his three years’ service.
This residence abroad for a few years with a competent tutor was then a common substitute for a university education. The Duke of Buccleugh, for example, was never sent to a university after he came back from his travels with Smith, but married almost immediately on his return, and entered directly into the active duties of life. It was generally thought that travel really supplied a more liberal education and a better preparation for life for a young man of the world than residence at a university; and it is not uninteresting to recall here how strongly Smith disagrees with that opinion in the
Wealth of Nations, while admitting that some excuse could be found for it in the low state of learning into which the English universities had suffered themselves to fall:—
“In England it becomes every day more and more the custom to send young people to travel in foreign countries immediately upon their leaving school, and without sending them to any university. Our young people, it is said, generally return home much improved by their travels. A young man who goes abroad at seventeen or eighteen, and returns home at one-and-twenty, returns three or four years older than he was when he went abroad; and at that age it is very difficult not to improve a good deal in three or four years. In the course of his travels he generally acquires some knowledge of one or two foreign languages; a knowledge, however, which is seldom sufficient to enable
him either to speak or write them with propriety. In other respects he commonly returns home more conceited, more unprincipled, more dissipated, and more incapable of any serious application, either to study or to business, than he could well have become in so short a time had he lived at home. By travelling so very young, by spending in the most frivolous dissipation the most precious years of his life, at a distance from the inspection and controul of his parents and relations, every useful habit which the earlier parts of his education might have had some tendency to form in him, instead of being riveted and confirmed, is almost necessarily either weakened or effaced. Nothing but the discredit into which the universities are allowing themselves to fall could ever have brought into repute so very absurd a practice as that of travelling at this early period of life. By sending his son abroad, a father delivers himself, at least for some time, from so disagreeable an object as a son unemployed, neglected and going to ruin before his eyes.”
Smith must have written Townshend accepting the situation almost immediately on receiving the offer of it, and he at the same time applied to the University authorities for leave of absence for part of the session. He does not as yet resign his chair, nor does he make in his application any formal mention of the nature of the business that required his absence; he merely asks for their sanction to some highly characteristic arrangements which he desired to make in connection with the conduct of his class by a substitute. On the 8th of November 1763, according to the Faculty Records, “Dr. Smith represented that some interesting business would probably require his leaving the College some time this winter, and made the following proposals and request to the meeting:—
“1st, That if he should be obliged to leave the College without finishing his usual course of lectures, he should pay back to all his students the fees which he shall have
received from them; and that if any of them should refuse to accept of such fees, he should in that case pay them to the University.
“2nd, That whatever part of the usual course of lectures he should leave unfinished should be given gratis to the students, by a person to be appointed by the University, with such salary as they shall think proper, which salary is to be paid by Dr. Smith.
“The Faculty accept of the above proposals, and hereby unanimously grant Dr. Smith leave of absence for three months of this session if his business shall require, and at such time as he shall find it necessary.”
The reason he asks in the first instance only for this temporary and provisional arrangement is no doubt to be found in the fact that the precise date for the beginning of the tutorship was not yet determined. As it might very possibly be fixed upon suddenly and involve a somewhat rapid call for his services, the precaution of obtaining beforehand a three months’ leave of absence would enable him to remain in constant readiness to answer that call whenever it might come, without in the meanwhile requiring him to give up his duties to his Glasgow class prematurely; and it would at the same time allow ample time to the University to make more permanent arrangements before the temporary provision expired. The call when it came did come rather suddenly. Up till the middle of December Smith never received any manner of answer from Townshend, and the matter was not settled till after the Christmas holidays. For on the 12th of December 1763 Smith writes Hume, who was now in Paris:—
MY DEAR HUME—The day before I received your last letter I had the honour of a letter from Charles Townshend, renewing in the most obliging manner his former proposal that I should travel with the Duke of Buccleugh, and informing me that his Grace was to leave Eton at Christmas, and would go abroad very soon after that. I accepted the proposal, but at the same time expressed to Mr. Townshend the difficulties I should
have in leaving the University before the beginning of April, and begged to know if my attendance upon his Grace would be necessary before that time. I have yet received no answer to that letter, which, I suppose, is owing to this, that his Grace is not yet come from Eton, and that nothing is yet settled with regard to the time of his going abroad. I delayed answering your letter till I should be able to inform you at what time I should have the pleasure of seeing you….—I ever am, my dearest friend, most faithfully yours,
After the Duke reached London, however, at the Christmas recess, it seems to have been quickly settled to send him out on his travels without more delay, and on the 9th of January 1764 Smith intimated to the Faculty of Glasgow College that he was soon to leave that city under the permission granted him by the Dean of Faculty’s meeting of the 8th of November, and that he had returned to the students all the fees he had received that session. He likewise acquainted the meeting that he proposed to pay his salary as paid by the College for one half-year, commencing the 10th of October previous, to the person who should teach his class for the remainder of the session. Mr. Thomas Young, student of divinity, was, on Smith’s recommendation, chosen for this purpose. A committee was appointed to receive from Smith the private library of the Moral Philosophy class; next day at a meeting of Senatus he was paid the balance due to him on his accounts as Quæstor, and was entrusted with a copy of Foulis’s large
Homer, which they asked him to carry to London and deliver, in their name, to Sir James Gray, as a present to his Sicilian majesty, who had shown them some favour; and the Senate-room of Glasgow knew him no more.
His parting with his students was not quite so simple. They made some difficulty, as he seems to have anticipated, about taking back the fees they had paid him for his class, and he was obliged to resort almost to force before he succeeded in getting them to do so. The curious scene is
described by Alexander Fraser Tytler (Lord Woodhouselee) in his
Life of Lord Kames: “After concluding his last lecture, and publicly announcing from the chair that he was now taking a final leave of his auditors, acquainting them at the same time with the arrangements he had made, to the best of his power, for their benefit, he drew from his pocket the several fees of the students, wrapped up in separate paper parcels, and beginning to call up each man by his name, he delivered to the first who was called the money into his hand. The young man peremptorily refused to accept it, declaring that the instruction and pleasure he had already received was much more than he either had repaid or ever could compensate, and a general cry was heard from every one in the room to the same effect. But Mr. Smith was not to be bent from his purpose. After warmly expressing his feelings of gratitude and the strong sense he had of the regard shown to him by his young friends, he told them this was a matter betwixt him and his own mind, and that he could not rest satisfied unless he performed what he deemed right and proper. ‘You must not refuse me this satisfaction; nay, by heavens, gentlemen, you shall not;’ and seizing by the coat the young man who stood next him, he thrust the money into his pocket and then pushed him from him. The rest saw it was in vain to contest the matter, and were obliged to let him have his own way.”
This is a signal proof of the scrupulous delicacy of Smith’s honour; he had firmly determined not to touch a shilling of this money, and if the students had persisted in refusing it he intended, as we have seen, to give it to the funds of the University. Many may think his delicacy even excessive, for it is common enough for a professor’s class to be conducted by a substitute in the absence, through ill-health or other causes, of the professor himself, and nobody thinks the students suffer any such injury by the arrangement as to call for even a reduction of the fees.
What Smith would have done had his absence been due to ill-health one cannot say, but as his engagement with the students for a session’s lectures was broken off by his own spontaneous acceptance of an office of profit, he felt he could not honourably retain the wages when he had failed to implement the engagement,—a thing which a barrister in large practice does without scruple every day.
The same sense of right led Smith to resign his chair. He did not do so till he reached France, but he manifestly contemplated doing it from the first, for he only made arrangements for paying his substitute till the end of the first half of the session, by which time he would expect his successor to have entered on office, as indeed actually happened, for Reid came there in the beginning of June. Moreover, his resignation was evidently an understood thing at the University long before it was really sent in, for a good deal of intriguing had already been going on for the place. The Lord Privy Seal (the Hon. James Stuart Mackenzie, Lord Bute’s brother), who was Scotch Minister, writes Baron Mure on the 2nd February 1764, a fortnight before Smith resigned, asking whether it was true the University were to appoint Dr. Wight to succeed Smith, and mentions incidentally having had some conversation with Smith himself (apparently in London) on the subject, particularly with regard to the possible claims of Mr. Young, his substitute, to the appointment.
It was not always necessary—nor, indeed, does it seem to have been the more usual practice—for a Scotch professor to resign his chair on accepting a temporary place like a travelling tutorship. Adam Ferguson fought the point successfully with the Edinburgh Town Council when he left England as tutor to Lord Chesterfield; and Dalzel, when Professor of Greek in Edinburgh, went to live at Oxford as tutor to Lord Maitland; but we have already seen, in connection with the case of Professor Rouet, that Smith held strong views against the encouragement of absenteeism and the growth of any feeling that the
University was there for the convenience of the professors, instead of the professors being there for the service of the University.
Under these circumstances it was natural for Smith to resign his chair on his acceptance of the tutorship; and although he only sent the letter of resignation after his arrival in France, it is perhaps more convenient to print it here in its natural connection with Glasgow University affairs than to defer it to its more strictly chronological place in the chapter describing his French travels. The letter is addressed “To the Right Hon. Thomas Miller, Esq., His Majesty’s Advocate for Scotland,” Lord Rector of Glasgow University at the time; and it runs as follows:
MY LORD—I take this first opportunity after my arrival in this place, which was not till yesterday, to resign my office into the hands of your lordship, of the Dean of Faculty, of the Principal of the College, and of all my other most respectable and worthy colleagues. Into your and their hands, therefor, I do hereby resign my office of Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow and in the College thereof, with all the emoluments, privileges, and advantages which belong to it. I reserve, however, my right to the salary for the current half year, which commenced at the 10th of October for one part of my salary and at Martinmas last for another; and I desire that this salary may be paid to the gentleman who does that part of my duty which I was obliged to leave undone, in the manner agreed on between my very worthy colleagues and me before we parted. I never was more anxious for the good of the College than at this moment; and I sincerely wish that whoever is my successor may not only do credit to the office by his abilities, but be a comfort to the very excellent men with whom he is likely to spend his life, by the probity of his heart and the goodness of his temper.—I have the honour to be, my lord, your lordship’s most obedient and most faithful servant,
th February 1764.
The Senate accepted his resignation on the 1st of March, and expressed their regret at his loss in the following
terms: “The University cannot help at the same time expressing their sincere regret at the removal of Dr. Smith, whose distinguished probity and amiable qualities procured him the esteem and affection of his colleagues; whose uncommon genius, great abilities, and extensive learning did so much honour to this society; his elegant and ingenious
Theory of Moral Sentiments having recommended him to the esteem of men of taste and literature throughout Europe. His happy talents in illustrating abstracted subjects, and faithful assiduity in communicating useful knowledge, distinguished him as a professor, and at once afforded the greatest pleasure and the most important instruction to the youth under his care.”
Literary Illustrations, iii. 515.
Life of Hume, ii. 157.
Autobiography, p. 431.
Life of Hume, ii. 168.
Scotts of Buccleuch, ii. 403.
Kames, i. 278.