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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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 the end of August Smith and his pupils left Toulouse and made what Stewart calls an extensive tour in the South of France. Of this tour no other record remains, but the Duke’s aunt, Lady Mary Coke, incidentally mentions that when they were at Marseilles they visited the porcelain factory, and that the Duke bought two of the largest services ever sold there, for which he paid more than £150 sterling. They seem to have arrived in Geneva some time in October, and stayed about two months in the little republic of which, as we have seen, Smith had long been a fervent admirer. In making so considerable a sojourn at Geneva, he was no doubt influenced as a political philosopher by the desire to see something of the practical working of those republican institutions which he regarded speculatively with so much favour, to observe how the common problems of government worked themselves out on the narrow field of a commonwealth with only 24,000 inhabitants all told, which yet contrived to keep its place among the nations, to sit sometimes as arbiter between them, and to surpass them all in the art of making its people prosperous. He had the luck to observe it at an interesting moment, for it was in the thick of a constitutional crisis. The government of the republic had hitherto been vested in the hands of 200 privileged families, and the rest of the citizens were now pressing their right to a share in it, with the active assistance of Voltaire. This important struggle
for the conversion of the aristocratic into the democratic republic continued all through the period of Smith’s visit, and the city of Geneva, which in its usual state was described by Voltaire as “a tedious convent with some sensible people in it,” was day after day at this time the animated scene of the successive acts of that political drama.
During his stay there Smith made many personal friends, both among the leading citizens of the commonwealth and among the more distinguished of the foreign visitors who generally abounded there. People went to Geneva in those days not to see the lake or the mountains, but to consult Dr. Tronchin and converse with Voltaire. Smith needed no introduction to Tronchin, who, as we have seen, held so high an opinion of his abilities that he had sent his own son all the way to Glasgow to attend his philosophical classes; and it was no doubt through Tronchin, Voltaire’s chief friend in that quarter, that Smith was introduced to Voltaire. Smith told Rogers he had been in Voltaire’s company on five or six different occasions, and he no doubt enjoyed, as most English visitors enjoyed, hospitable entertainment at Ferney, the beautiful little temporality of the great literary pontiff, overlooking the lake.
There was no living name before which Smith bowed with profounder veneration than the name of Voltaire, and his recollections of their intercourse on these occasions were always among those he cherished most warmly. Few memorials, however, of their conversation remain, and these are preserved by Samuel Rogers in his diary of his visit to Edinburgh the year before Smith’s death. They seem to have spoken, as was very natural, of the Duke of Richelieu, the only famous Frenchman Smith had yet met, and of the political question as to the revival of the provincial assemblies or the continuance of government by royal intendants. On this question Smith said that Voltaire expressed great aversion to the States and favoured the side of the royal prerogative. Of the Duke of Richelieu Voltaire said that he was an old friend of his,
but a singular character. A few years before his death his foot slipped one day at Versailles, and the old marshal said that was the first
faux pas he had ever made at court. Voltaire then seems to have told anecdotes of the Duke’s being bastilled and of his borrowing the Embassy plate at Vienna and never returning it, and to have passed the remark he made elsewhere that the English had only one sauce, melted butter. Smith always spoke of Voltaire with a genuine emotion of reverence. When Samuel Rogers happened to describe some clever but superficial author as “a Voltaire,” Smith brought his hand down on the table with great energy and said, “Sir, there is only one Voltaire.”
*80 Professor Faujas Saint Fond, Professor of Geology in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, visited Smith in Edinburgh a few years before Rogers was there, and says that the animation of Smith’s countenance was striking when he spoke of Voltaire, whom he had known personally, and whose memory he revered. “Reason,” said Smith one day, as he showed M. Saint Fond a fine bust of Voltaire he had in his room, “reason owes him incalculable obligations. The ridicule and the sarcasm which he so plentifully bestowed upon fanatics and heretics of all sects have enabled the understanding of men to bear the light of truth, and prepared them for those inquiries to which every intelligent mind ought to aspire. He has done much more for the benefit of mankind than those grave philosophers whose books are read by a few only. The writings of Voltaire are made for all and read by all.” On another occasion he observed to the same visitor, “I cannot pardon the Emperor Joseph II., who pretended to travel as a philosopher, for passing Ferney without doing homage to the historian of the Czar Peter I. From this circumstance I concluded that Joseph was but a man of inferior mind.”
One of the warmest of Smith’s Swiss friends was Charles Bonnet, the celebrated naturalist and metaphysician, who, in writing Hume ten years after the date of this visit, desires to be remembered “to the sage of Glascow,” adding, “You perceive I speak of Mr. Smith, whom we shall always recollect with great pleasure.”
*82 On the day this letter was written by Bonnet to Hume, another was written to Smith himself by a young Scotch tutor then in Geneva, Patrick Clason, who seems to have carried an introduction from Smith to Bonnet, and who mentions having received many civilities from Bonnet on account of his being one of Smith’s friends. Clason then goes on to tell Smith that the Syndic Turretin and M. Le Sage also begged to be remembered to him. The Syndic Turretin was the President of the Republic, and M. Le Sage was the eminent Professor of Physics, George Louis Le Sage, who was then greatly interested in Professor Black’s recent discoveries about latent heat and Professor Matthew Stewart’s in astronomy, and was one of a group who gathered round Bonnet for discussions in speculative philosophy and morals, at which, it may be reasonably inferred, Smith would have also occasionally assisted. Le Sage seems to have met Smith first, however, and to have been in the habit of meeting him often afterwards, at the house of a high and distinguished French lady, the Duchesse d’Enville, who was living in Geneva under Tronchin’s treatment, and whose son, the young and virtuous Duc de la Rochefoucauld, who was afterwards stoned to death in the Revolution, was receiving instruction from Le Sage himself. Le Sage writes the Duchesse d’Enville on 5th February 1766, “Of all the people I have met at your house, that is, of all the
élite of our good company, I have only continued to see the excellent Lord Stanhope and occasionally Mr. Smith. The latter wished me to make the acquaintance of Lady Conyers and the Duke of
Buckleugh, but I begged him to reserve that kindness for me till his return.”
This letter shows that Smith was so much taken with Geneva that he meant to pay it a second visit before he ended his tutorial engagement, but the intention was never fulfilled, in consequence of unfortunate circumstances to be presently mentioned.
The Duchesse d’Enville, at whose house Smith seems to have been so steady a guest, was herself a Rochefoucauld by blood, a grand-daughter of the famous author of the
Maxims, and was a woman of great ability, who was popularly supposed to be the inspirer of all Turgot’s political and social ideas, the chief of the “three Maries” who were alleged to guide his doings. Stewart tells us that Smith used to speak with very particular pleasure and gratitude of the many civilities he received from this interesting woman and her son, and they seem on their part to have cherished the same lively recollection of him. When Adam Ferguson was in Paris in 1774 she asked him much about Smith, and often complained, says Ferguson in a letter to Smith himself, “of your French as she did of mine, but said that before you left Paris she had the happiness to learn your language.”
*84 After two and a half years’ residence in France, Smith seems then to have been just succeeding in making himself intelligible to the more intelligent inhabitants in their own language, and this agrees with what Morellet says, that Smith’s French was very bad. The young Duc de la Rochefoucauld, who, like his mother, was a devoted friend of Turgot, became presently a declared disciple of Quesnay, and sat regularly with the rest of the economist sect at the economic dinners of Mirabeau, the “Friend of Man.” When Samuel Rogers met him in Paris shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution, he expressed to Rogers the highest admiration for Smith,
then recently dead, of whom he had seen much in Paris as well as Geneva, and he had at one time begun to translate the
Theory of Moral Sentiments into French, abandoning the task only when he found his work anticipated by the Abbé Blavet’s translation in 1774. The only surviving memorial of their intercourse is a letter from the Duke, which will be given in its place, and in which he begs Smith to modify the opinion pronounced in the
Theory on the writer’s ancestor, the author of the
The Earl Stanhope, whom Smith used to meet at the Duchess’s, and with whom he established a lasting friendship, was the second Earl, the editor of Professor Robert Simson’s mathematical works, and himself a distinguished mathematician. He took no part in public life, but his opinions were of the most advanced Liberal order. He had come to Geneva to place his son, afterwards also so distinguished in science, under the training of Le Sage. The Lady Conyers, to whom the Scotch was so anxious to introduce the Swiss philosopher, was the young lady who a few years afterwards ran away from her husband, the fifth Duke of Leeds, with the poet Byron’s father, whom she subsequently married, and by whom she became the mother of the poet’s sister Augusta.
Early Life of Samuel Rogers, p. 110.
Travels in England, Scotland, and the Hebrides, ii. 241.
Notice de la Vie et des écrits de George Louis Le Sage de Geneva, p. 226.
Biographical Sketch of Adam Ferguson, p. 20.