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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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
SMITH joined his pupil in London in the end of January 1764, and they set out together for France in the begining of February. They remained abroad two years and a half—ten days in Paris, eighteen months in Toulouse, two months travelling in the South of France, two months in Geneva, and ten months in Paris again. Smith kept no journal and wrote as few letters as possible, but we are able from various sources to fill in some of the outlines of their course of travel.
At Dover they were joined by Sir James Macdonald of Sleat, a young baronet who had been at Eton College with the Duke of Buccleugh, and who had been living in France almost right on since the re-establishment of peace. Sir James was heir of the old Lords of the Isles, and son of the lady who, with her factor Kingsburgh, harboured Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald in Skye; and he was himself then filling the world of letters in Paris and London alike with astonishment at the extent of his knowledge and the variety of his intellectual gifts. Walpole, indeed, said that when he grew older he would choose to know less, but to Grimm he seemed the same marvel of parts as he seemed to Hume. He accompanied Smith and the Duke to Paris, where they arrived (as we know from Smith’s letter to the Rector of Glasgow University) on the 13th of February.
In Paris they did not remain long—not more than ten
days at most, for it took at that period six days to go from Paris to Toulouse, and they were in Toulouse on the 4th of March. Smith does not appear during this short stay in Paris to have made the personal acquaintance of any of the eminent men of letters whom he afterwards knew so well, for he never mentions any of them in his subsequent letters to Hume from Toulouse, though he occasionally mentions Englishmen whose acquaintance he first made at that time. He probably could not as yet speak French, for even to the last he could only speak it very imperfectly. Most of their time in Paris seems, therefore, to have been spent with Hume and Sir James Macdonald and Lord Beauchamp, who was Hume’s pupil and Sir James’s chief friend. Paris, moreover, was merely a halting-place for the present; their immediate destination was Toulouse, at that time a favourite resort of the English. It was the second city of the kingdom, and wore still much of the style of an ancient capital. It was the seat of an archbishopric, of a university, of a parliament, of modern academies of science and art which made some ado with their annual
Jeux Floraux, and the nobility of the province still had their town houses there, and lived in them all winter. The society was more varied and refined than anywhere else in France out of Paris.
Among the English residents was a cousin of David Hume, who had entered the Gallican Church, and was then Vicar-General of the diocese of Toulouse, the Abbé Seignelay Colbert. Smith brought a letter from Hume to the Abbé, and the Abbé writes Hume in reply on the 4th of March, thanking him for having introduced Smith, who, he says, appeared to be all that was said of him in the letter. “He has only just arrived,” the Abbé proceeds, “and I have only seen him for an instant. I am very sorry that they have not found the Archbishop here. He went some six weeks ago to Montpellier, whence he will soon go to Paris. He told me he had a great desire to make your acquaintance. I fear that my long black
cassock will frighten the Duke of Buccleugh, but apart from that I should omit nothing to make his stay in this town as agreeable and useful as possible.”
*66 He writes again on the 22nd of April, after having a month’s experience of his new friends: “Mr. Smith is a sublime man. His heart and his mind are equally admirable. Messrs. Malcolm and Mr. Urquhart of Cromartie are now here. The Duke, his pupil, is a very amiable spirit, and does his exercises well, and is making progress in French. If any English or Scotch people ask your advice where to go for their studies, you could recommend Toulouse. There is a very good academy and much society, and some very distinguished people to be seen here.” In a subsequent letter he says, “There are many English people here, and the district suits them well.”
This Abbé Colbert, who was Smith’s chief guide and friend in the South of France, was the eldest son of Mr. Cuthbert of Castlehill in Inverness-shire, and was therefore head of the old Highland family to which Colbert, the famous minister of Louis XIV., was so anxious to trace his descent. That minister had himself gone the length of petitioning the Scotch Privy Council for a birth-brieve, or certificate, to attest his descent from the Castlehill family, and the petition was refused through the influence of the Duke of Lauderdale. But his successor, the Marquis de Seignelay, found the Scotch Parliament more accommodating in 1686 than the Scotch Privy Council had been, and obtained the birth-brieve in an Act of that year, which was passed, as it states, in order that “this illustrious and noble family of Colbert may be restored to us their friends and to their native country,” and which declared that the family came from the south of Scotland, took their name from St. Cuthbert (pronounced, says the Act, by the Scotch Culbert, though “soaftened” by the French into Colbert), and received their arms for their valour in the battle of Harlaw.
The link between the Scotch Cuthberts and the French Colberts, thus attested by Act of Parliament, may or may not be fabulous, but it was a link of gold to many members of the family of Castlehill, who emigrated to France, and were advanced into high positions through the interest of their French connections. One of these was the present Abbé, who had come over in 1750 a boy of fourteen, was now at twenty-eight Vicar-General of Toulouse, and was in 1781 made Bishop of Rodez. As Bishop he distinguished himself by the work he did for the improvement of agriculture and industry in his diocese, and, as member of the States General in 1789, he became the hero of the hour in Paris and was carried shoulder-high through the streets for proposing the union of the clergy with the Third Estate. When the Civil Constitution of the clergy was declared he refused to submit, and returning to this country, spent the remainder of his days here as Secretary to Louis XVIII.
It would appear from the Abbé’s first letter that Smith had either brought with him from Paris an introduction to the Archbishop of Toulouse, or that Hume had asked his cousin to give him one. This Archbishop—who was so desirous to make Hume’s acquaintance—was the celebrated Loménie de Brienne, afterwards Cardinal and Minister of France, who was thought at this time, Walpole says, to be the ablest man in the Gallican Church, and was pronounced by Hume to be the only man in France capable of restoring the greatness of the kingdom. When he obtained the opportunity he signally falsified Hume’s prognostication, and did much to precipitate the Revolution by his incapacity. Smith must no doubt have met him occasionally during his protracted sojourn at Toulouse, though we have no evidence that he did, and the Archbishop was rather notorious for his absence from his see. If he did meet his Grace he would have found him as advanced an economist as himself, for having been a college friend
of Turgot and Morellet at the Sorbonne, he became a strong advocate of their new economic principles, and succeeded in getting the principle of free trade in corn adopted by the States of Languedoc. Whether they were personally acquainted or not, the Archbishop does not appear to have cherished any profound regard for Smith, for when he was Minister of France he refused his friend Morellet the trifling sum of a hundred francs, which the Abbé asked to pay for the printing of his translation of the
Wealth of Nations.
During Smith’s first six months at Toulouse he does not seem to have seen the Archbishop, or to have seen much of anybody, as the following letter shows. Indeed he found the place extremely dull, the life he led in Glasgow having been, he says, dissipation itself in comparison. They had not received the letters of recommendation they had expected from the Duc de Choiseul, and for society they were as yet practically confined to the Abbé Colbert and the English residents. For a diversion Smith contemplates an excursion to Bordeaux, and suggests a visit for a month from Sir James Macdonald, for the sake not only of his agreeable society, but of the service “his influence and example” would render the Duke. Personally he had, to mitigate his solitude, taken a measure no less important than effectual—he had begun to write a book—the
Wealth of Nations—”to pass away the time. You may believe I have very little to do.”
They had arrived in Toulouse on the 3rd or 4th of March, but it is the 5th of July before Smith thinks of writing Hume; at least the following letter reads as if it were the first since they parted:—
MY DEAREST FRIEND—The Duke of Buccleugh proposes soon to set out for Bordeaux, where he intends to stay a fortnight or more. I should be much obliged to you if you could send us recommendations to the Duke of Richelieu, the Marquis de Lorges, and the Intendant of the Province. Mr. Townshend
assured me that the Duc de Choiseul was to recommend us to all the people of fashion here and everywhere else in France. We have heard nothing, however, of these recommendations, and have had our way to make as well as we could by the help of the Abbé, who is a stranger here almost as much as we. The Progress indeed we have made is not very great. The Duke is acquainted with no Frenchman whatever. I cannot cultivate the acquaintance of the few with whom I am acquainted, as I cannot bring them to our house, and am not always at liberty to go to theirs. The life which I led at Glasgow was a pleasurable dissipated life in comparison of that which I lead here at Present. I have begun to write a book in order to pass away the time. You may believe I have very little to do. If Sir James would come and spend a month with us in his travels, it would not only be a great satisfaction to me, but he might by his influence and example be of great service to the Duke. Mention these matters, however, to nobody but to him. Remember me in the most respectful manner to Lord Beauchamp and to Dr. Trail,
*68 and believe me, my dear friend, ever yours,
th July 1764.
The trip to Bordeaux was taken probably in August, and in the company of Abbé Colbert. At Bordeaux they fell in with Colonel Barré, the furious orator, whose invective made even Charles Townshend quail, but who was now over on a visit to his French kinsfolk, and making the hearts of these simple people glad with his natural kindnesses. He seems to have been much with Smith and his party during their stay in Bordeaux, and to have accompanied them back to Toulouse. For he writes Hume on the 4th of September from the latter town, and says: “I thank you for your last letter from Paris, which I received just as Smith and his élève and L’Abbé Colbert were sitting down to dine with me at Bordeaux. The latter is a very honest fellow and deserves to be a
bishop; make him one if you can. . . . Why will you triumph and talk of
platte couture? You have friends on both sides. Smith agrees with me in thinking that you are turned soft by the
délices of the French Court, and that you don’t write in that nervous manner you was remarkable for in the more northern climates. Besides, what is still worse, you take your politics from your Elliots, Rigbys, and Selwyns.”
Smith was already acquainted with Barré before he left Scotland, where the colonel, for services rendered to Lord Shelburne, held the lucrative post of Governor of Stirling Castle; and now he could not go sight-seeing in a French town under two better guides than Barré and Colbert—a Frenchman who had become a English politician, and an Englishman who had become a French ecclesiastic. He seems to have been struck with the contrast between the condition of the working class in Bordeaux and their condition in Toulouse, as he had already been struck with the same contrast between Glasgow and Edinburgh. In Bordeaux they were in general industrious, sober, and thriving; in Toulouse and the rest of the parliament towns they were idle and poor; and the reason was that Bordeaux was a commercial town, the
entrepôt of the wine trade of a rich wine district, while Toulouse and the rest were merely residential towns, employing little capital more than was necessary to supply their own consumption. The common people were always better off in a town like Bordeaux, where they lived on capital, than in a town like Bordeaux, where they lived on revenue.
*71 But while he speaks as if he thought the people of Bordeaux more sober as well as more industrious than the people of Toulouse, he looked upon the inhabitants of the southern provinces of France generally as among the soberest people in Europe, and ascribes their sobriety to the cheapness of their liquor. “People are seldom
guilty of excess,” he says, “in what is their daily fare.” He tells that when a French regiment came from some of the northern provinces of France, where wine was somewhat dear, to be quartered in the southern, where wine was very cheap, the soldiers were at first debauched by the cheapness and novelty of good wine; but after a few months’ residence the greater part of them became as sober as the rest of the inhabitants. And he thinks the same effect might occur in this country from a reduction of the wine, malt, and ale duties.
Besides seeing the places, they visited some of the notabilities, to whom the Earl of Hertford had sent them the letters of introduction for which Smith had asked through Hume. The governor of the province was away from home at the time, however; but Smith hoped to see him on a second visit to Bordeaux he was presently to pay to meet his pupil’s younger brother on his way round from Paris to Toulouse. But they found the Duke of Richelieu at home, and the gallant old field-marshal, the hero of a hundred fights and a thousand scandals, seems to have received them with great civility and even distinction. Smith used to have much to say ever afterwards of this famous and ill-famed man.
The excursion to Bordeaux in August was so agreeable that they made another—probably in September—up to the fashionable watering-place Bagnères de Bigorre, and in October, when Smith wrote the following letter to Hume, they were on the eve of the second visit to Bordeaux of which I have spoken, and even contemplating after that a visit to Montpellier, when the States of Languedoc—the local assembly of the province—met there in the end of November.
st October 1764.
MY DEAR HUME—I take this opportunity of Mr. Cook’s going to Paris to return to you, and thro’ you to the Ambassador,
my very sincere and hearty thanks for the very honourable manner in which he was so good as to mention me to the Duke of Richelieu in the letter of recommendation which you sent us. There was, indeed, one small mistake in it. He called me Robinson instead of Smith. I took upon me to correct this mistake myself before the Duke delivered the letter. We were all treated by the Maréchal with the utmost Politeness and attention, particularly the Duke, whom he distinguished in a very proper manner. The Intendant was not at Bordeaux, but we shall soon have an opportunity of delivering his letter, as we propose to return to that place in order to meet my Lord’s Brother.
*73 goes to Caen to wait upon Mr. Scot, and to attend him from that place to Toulouse. He will pass by Paris, and I must beg the favour of you that as soon as you understand he is in town you will be so good as to call upon him and carry him to the Ambassador’s, as well as to any other place where he would chuse to go. I must beg the same favour of Sir James. Mr. Cook will let you know when he comes to town. I have great reason to entertain the most favourable opinion of Mr. Scot, and I flatter myself his company will be both useful and agreeable to his Brother. Our expedition to Bordeaux and another we have made since to Bagnères has made a great change upon the Duke. He begins now to familiarise himself to French company, and I flatter myself I shall spend the rest of the time we are to live together not only in Peace and contentment, but in gayetty and amusement.
When Mr. Scot joins us we propose to go to see the meeting of the States of Languedoc at Montpelier. Could you promise us recommendations to the Comte d’Eu, to the Archbishop of Narbonne, and to the Intendant? These expeditions, I find, are of the greatest, I find, are, of the greatest service to my Lord.—I ever am, my dear friend, most faithfully yours,
A few days after the date of that letter Smith writes Hume again, introducing one of the English residents in Toulouse, Mr. Urquhart of Cromartie, as Abbé Colbert describes him in one of his letters, a descendant therefore probably of Sir Thomas. The letter is of no importance, but it shows at least Smith’s hearty liking for a good fellow.
MY DEAR FRIEND—This letter will be delivered to you by Mr. Urquhart, the only man I ever knew who had a better temper than yourself. You will find him most perfectly amiable. I recommend him in the most earnest manner to your advice and protection. He is not a man of letters, and is just a plain, sensible, agreeable man of no pretensions of any kind, but whom you will love every day better and better.—My dear friend, most faithfully yours,
th November 1764.
Smith and his two pupils made their proposed expedition to Montpellier during the sittings of the States, for we find them visited there by Horne Tooke,
*76 then still parson of Brentford, who had been on a tour in Italy, and stayed some time in Montpellier on his way back. Tooke, it may be said here, was no admirer of Smith; he thought the
Theory of Moral Sentiments nonsense, and the
Wealth of Nations written for a wicked purpose,
*77 and this is the only occasion on which they are known to have met.
The little provincial assembly which Smith had come to Montpellier to see was at that period, it ought to be mentioned, attracting much attention from all the thinkers and reformers of France, and was thought by many of the first of them to furnish the solution of the political question of that age. The States of Languedoc were almost the only remains of free institutions then left in France. In all the thirty-two provinces of the country except six the States had been suppressed altogether, and in five of these six they were too small to be important or vigorous; but Languedoc was a great province, containing twenty-three bishoprics and more territory than the kingdom of Belgium, and the States governed its affairs so well that its prosperity was the envy of the rest of France. They dug canals, opened harbours,
drained marshes, made roads, which Arthur Young singles out for praise, and made them without the
corvée under which the rest of rural France was groaning. They farmed the imperial taxes of the province themselves, to avoid the exactions of the farmers-general. They allowed the
noblesse none of the exemptions so unfairly enjoyed by them elsewhere. The
taille, which was a personal tax in other parts of the kingdom, was in Languedoc an equitable land tax, assessed according to a valuation periodically revised. There was not a poor-house in the whole province, and such was its prosperity and excellent administration that it enjoyed better credit in the market than the Central Government, and the king used sometimes, in order to get more favourable terms, to borrow on the security of the States of Languedoc instead of his own.
Under those circumstances it is not surprising that one of the favourite remedies for the political situation in France was the rivival of the provincial assemblies and the suppression of the intendants—”Grattan’s Parliament and the abolition of the Castle.” Turgot, among others, favoured this solution, though he was an intendant himself. Necker had just put it into execution when the Revolution came and swept everything away. Smith himself has expressed the strongest opinion in favour of the administration of provincial affairs by a local body instead of by an intendant, and he must have witnessed with no ordinary interest the proceedings of this remarkable little assembly at Montpellier, with its 23 prelates on the right, its 23 barons on the left, and the third estate—representatives of 23 chief towns and 23 dioceses—in the centre, and on a dais in front of all, the President, the Archbishop of Narbonne. The Archbishop, to whom, it will be remembered, Smith asked, and no doubt received, a letter of introduction from Lord Hertford, was a countryman of his own, Cardinal Dillon, a prince of
prelates, afterwards Minister of France; a strong champion of the rights of the States against the pretensions of the Crown, and, if we may judge from the speech with which Miss Knight heard him open the States of Languedoc in 1776, a very thorough free-trader.
With all these excursions, Smith was now evidently realising in some reasonable measure the “gayetty and amusement” he told Hume he anticipated to enjoy during the rest of his stay in the South of France. His command of the language, too, grew easier, though it never became perfect, and he not only went more into society, but was able to enjoy it better. Among those he saw most of in Toulouse were, he used to tell Stewart, the presidents and counsellors of the parliament towns, for their hospitality, and noted above those of other parliament towns for keeping up the old tradition of blending their law with a love of letters. They were men, moreover, of proved patriotism and independence; in no other society would Smith be likely to hear more of the oppressed condition of the peasantry, and the necessity for thoroughgoing reforms. In those days the king’s edict did not run in a province till it was registered by the local parliament, and the Parliament of Toulouse often used this privilege of theirs to check bad measures. They had in 1756 remonstrated with the king against the
corvée, declaring that the condition of the peasantry of France was “a thousand times less tolerable than the condition of the slaves in America.” At the very moment of Smith’s first arrival in Toulouse they were all thrown in prison—or at least put under arrest in their own houses—for refusing to register the
centième denier, and Smith no doubt had that circumstance in his mind when he animadverted in the
Wealth of Nations on the violence practised by the French Government to coerce its parliaments. He thought very highly of those parliaments as institutions, stating that though not very convenient courts of law, they had never been accused or
even suspected of corruption, and he gives a curious reason for their incorruptibility; it was because they were not paid by salary, but by fees dependent on their diligence.
During Smith’s residence in Toulouse the town was raging (as Abbé Colbert mentions in his letters to Hume) about one of the judgments of this Parliament, and for the most part, strangely enough, taking the Parliament’s side. This was its judgment in the famous Calas case, to which Smith alludes in the last edition of his
Theory. Jean Calas, it may be remembered, had a son who had renounced his Protestantism in order to become eligible for admission to the Toulouse bar, and then worried himself so much about his apostasy that he committed suicide in his father’s house; and the father was unjustly accused before the Parliament of the town of having murdered the youth on account of his apostasy, was found guilty without a particle of proof, and then broken on the wheel and burnt on the 9th of March 1762. But the great voice of Voltaire rose against this judicial atrocity, and after three years’ agitation procured a new trial before a special court of fifty masters of requests, of whom trial Turgot was one, on the 9th of March 1765, with the result that Calas was pronounced absolutely innocent of the crime he suffered for, and his family was awarded a compensation of 36,000 livres. The king received them at court, and all France rejoiced in their rehabilitation except their own towns-folk in Toulouse. On the 10th of April 1765—a month after the verdict—Abbé Colbert writes Hume: “The people here would surprise you with their fanaticism. In spite of all that has happened, they every man believe Calas to be guilty, and it is no use speaking to them on the subject.”
Smith makes use of the incident to illustrate the proposition that while unmerited praise gives no satisfaction except to the frivolous, unmerited reproach inflicts the keenest suffering even on men of exceptional endurance,
because the injustice destroys the sweetness of the praise, but enormously embitters the sting of the condemnation. “The unfortunate Calas,” he writes—”a man of much more than ordinary constancy (broken upon the wheel and burnt at Tholouse for the support murder of his own son, of which he was perfectly innocent)—seemed with his last breath to deprecate not so much the cruelty of the punishment, as the disgrace which the imputation must bring upon his memory. After he had been broke, and when just going to be thrown into the fire, the monk who attended the execution exhorted him to confess the crime for which he had been condemned. ‘My father,’ said Calas, ‘can you bring yourself to believe that I was guilty?’ ”
Letters of Eminent Persons to David Hume, p. 37.
Life of Horne Tooke, i. 75.
State of Society in France, pp. 265, 271.