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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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
ARRIVING in London early in November, Smith seems to have remained on in the capital for the next six months. The body of his unfortunate pupil, which he brought over with him, was ultimately buried in the family vault at Dalkeith, for Dr. Norman Macleod and Mr. Steel say so; but the interment there does not seem to have taken place immediately after the arrival from France, for the London journals, which announce the Duke of Buccleugh’s landing at Dover on the 1st of November, mention his presence at the Guildhall with his stepfather, Mr. Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the 10th, Lord Mayor’s Day; and the Duke, who is stated by Dr. Macleod to have brought his brother’s remains north, could not have been to Scotland and back in that interval. Smith was accordingly not required to proceed to Scotland on that sad duty, and on the 22nd of November Andrew Millar, the publisher, writing to David Hume in Edinburgh, mentions the fact that Smith was then in London and moving about among the great. This letter was written about a question on which Hume had sought Smith’s counsel, and on which Millar had held some conversation with Smith, the upshot of which he now communicates to Hume—the question whether he should continue his
History of England. While Smith was still in Paris Hume had written saying: “Some push me to continue my
History. Millar offers
any price. All the Marlborough papers are offered me, and I believe nobody would venture to refuse me, but
cui bono? Why should I forego dalliance and sauntering and society, and expose myself again to the clamours of a stupid factious public? I am not yet tired of doing nothing, and am become too wise either to want censure or praise. By and by I shall be too old to undergo so much labour.”
Smith does not appear to have answered this letter at the time, but his opinion is communicated to Hume in this letter from Millar, who no doubt had a conversation with him on the subject. Millar says: “He is of opinion, with many more of your very good sensible friends, that the history of this country from the Revolution is not to be met with in books yet printed, but from MSS. in this country, to which he is sure you will have ready access, from all accounts he learns from the great here; and therefore you should lay the groundwork here after your perusal of the MSS. you may have access to, and doing it below will be laying the wrong foundation. I think it my duty to inform you the opinion of your most judicious friends, and I think he and Sir John Pringle may be reckoned amongst that number.”
Smith was himself publishing with Millar at this time a new edition of his
Theory of Moral Sentiments—the third, which appeared in 1767, containing, like the second, the addition of the
Dissertation upon the Origin of Languages. One of his reasons for staying so long in London this winter was no doubt to see the sheets through the press. The book was printed by Strahan, who was also a partner in Millar’s publishing business; and there is a letter to him from Smith which, though bearing no date but Friday and no place of writing at all, must have been written, as indeed those two very circumstances indicate, in London, and some time during the winter of 1766-67.
MY DEAR STRAHAN—I go to the country for a few days this afternoon, so that it will be unnecessary to send me any more sheets till I return. The
Dissertation upon the Origin of Languages is to be printed at the end of the
Theory. There are some literal errors in the printed copy of it which I should have been glad to have corrected, but have not the opportunity, as I have no copy by me. They are of no great consequence. In the titles, both of the
Dissertation, call me simply Adam Smith without any addition either before or behind.—I ever am, etc.,
Wealth of Nations came out in 1776 the author described himself on the title-page as LL.D. and F.R.S., late Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow University, but he wants here on the
Theory nothing but plain Adam Smith, his mind being at this period apparently averse to making use of his degree even on public and formal occasions, as it always was to using it in private life. He described himself on his visiting cards as “Mr. Adam Smith,” he was known in the inner circle of his personal friends as Mr. Smith, and when Dugald Stewart was found fault with by certain critics for speaking of him so in his memoirs, he replied that he never heard Smith called anything else.
But while Smith was superintending the republication of his first book, he was at the same time using his opportunities in London to read up at the British Museum, then newly established, or elsewhere, for his second and greater, of which he had laid the keel in France. One of the subjects which he was engaged in studying at that time was colonial administration. He seems to have been discussing the subject with Lord Shelburne, who was now Secretary of State, and he gives that statesman the results of his further investigations into at least one branch of the subject in the following letter, written in the first
instance, like so many others of Smith’s extant letters, to do a service to a friend. He wished to interest Lord Shelburne in the claims of a Scotch friend, Alexander Dalrymple, for the command of the exploring expedition which it was then in contemplation to send to the South Sea, and which was eventually committed to Captain Wallis. This Alexander Dalrymple was afterwards the well-known Hydrographer to the Admiralty and the East India Company, to whom the progress of geographical knowledge lies under deep obligations. He was one of the numerous younger brothers of Lord Hailes, the Scotch judge and historian, and having returned in 1765 from thirteen years’ work in the East India Company’s service, had devoted himself since then to the study of discoveries in the South Sea, and arrived at a confident belief in the existence of a great undiscovered continent in that quarter. Lord Shelburne would have given him the command of this expedition had not Captain Wallis been already engaged, and next year he was actually offered, and had he been granted naval rank, which he thought essential for maintaining discipline on board ship, he would have undertaken command of the more memorable expedition to observe the transit of Venus, which made Captain Cook the most famous explorer of his age.
The following is Smith’s letter:—
MY LORD—I send you enclosed Quiros’s memorial, presented to Philip the Second after his return from his voyage, translated from the Spanish in which it is published in Purchass. The voyage itself is long, obscure, and difficult to be understood, except by those who are particularly acquainted with the geography and navigation of those countries, and upon looking over a great number of Dalrymple’s papers I imagined this was what you would like best to see. He is besides just finishing a geographical account of all the discoveries that have yet been made in the South Seas from the west coast of America to Tasman’s discoveries. If your lordship will give him leave, he would be glad to read this to you himself, and show you on his map the geographical ascertainment of the situation of each island. I have seen it; it is
extremely short; not much longer than this memorial of Quiros. Whether this may be convenient for your lordship I know not; whether this continent exists or not may perhaps be uncertain; but supposing it does exist, I am very certain you never will find a man fitter for discovering it, or more determined to hazard everything in order to discover it. The terms that he would ask are, first, the absolute command of the ship, with the naming of all the officers, in order that he may have people who both have confidence in him and in whom he has confidence; and secondly, that in case he should lose his ship by the common course of accidents before he gets into the South Sea, that the Government will undertake to give him another. These are all the terms he would insist upon. The ship properest for such an expedition, he says, would be an old fifty-gun ship without her guns. He does not, however, insist upon this, as a
sine quâ non, but will go in any ship from an hundred to a thousand tons. He wishes to have but one ship with a good many boats. Most expeditions of this kind have miscarried from one ship’s being obliged to wait for the other, or losing time in looking out for the other.
Within these two days I have looked over everything I can find relating to the Roman Colonys. I have not yet found anything of much consequence. They were governed upon the model of the Republic: had two consuls called
duumviri; a senate called
collegium decurionum, and other magistrates similar to those of the Republic. The colonists lost their right of voting or of being elected to any magistracy in the Roman comitia. In this respect they were inferior to many municipia. They retained, however, all the other privileges of Roman citizens. They seem to have been very independent. Of thirty colonies of whom the Romans demanded troops in the second Carthaginian war, twelve refused to obey. They frequently rebelled and joined the enemies of the Republic; being in some measure little independent republics, they naturally followed the interests which their peculiar situation pointed out to them.—I have the honour to be, with the highest regard, my lord, your lordship’s most obedient humble servant,
th February 1767.
The problem of colonial rights and responsibilities had just come rapidly to the forefront of public questions in
England. The abandonment of North America by the French in 1763 had given a new importance to the plantations, and seemed to develop at the same time a stronger disposition to assert colonial rights on the one side of the Atlantic, and to interfere with them on the other. The Stamp Act of 1765 had already begun the struggle against imperial taxation which Charles Townshend’s tea duty, imposed a few months after this letter was written, was to precipitate into rebellion. There was therefore very good reason why statesmen like Lord Shelburne should be studying the relations of dependencies to mother countries, and turning their attention to earlier colonial experiments such as those of ancient Rome. It will be observed that Smith came in the
Wealth of Nations to modify somewhat the view he expresses in this letter of the independence of the Roman colonies, and explains that the reason they were less prosperous than the Greek colonies was because they were not like the latter, independent, and were “not always at liberty to manage their own affairs in the way that they judged most suitable to their own interest.”
Smith’s absent-minded habit, while it seems from various accounts to have been lessened by his travels abroad, was not entirely removed by them, for on the 11th of February 1767 Lady Mary Coke writes her sister that Lady George Lennox and Sir Gilbert Elliot had happened to meet while visiting her, and had talked of “Mr. Smith, the gentleman that went abroad with the Duke of Buccleugh,” saying many things in his praise, but adding that he was the most absent man they ever knew. Sir Gilbert mentioned that Mr. Damer (probably Mr. John Damer, Lord Milton’s son) had paid Smith a visit a few mornings before as he was sitting down to breakfast, and falling into discourse Smith took a piece of bread and butter, and after rolling it round and round put in into the teapot and poured the water upon it. Shortly after he poured out a cup, and on tasting it declared it
was the worst tea he had ever met with. “I have not the least doubt of it,” said Mr. Damer, “for you have made it of bread and butter instead of tea.”
The Duke of Buccleugh was married in London on the 3rd of May 1767 to Lady Betsy, only daughter of the Duke of Montagu, and Smith probably returned to Scotland immediately after that event. For in writing Hume from Kirkcaldy on the 9th of June 1767, he mentions having now been settled down to his work for about a month. Another circumstance confirms this inference. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London on the 21st of May 1767, but was not admitted till the 27th of May 1773, and that seems to imply that he had left London before the former date, and never returned to it again till shortly before the latter one.
Life of Hume, ii. 392.
Journal, i. 141.