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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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 spring of 1773, Smith, having, as he thought, virtually completed the
Wealth of Nations, set out with the manuscript for London, to give it perhaps some finishing touches and then place it in the hands of a publisher. But his labours had told so seriously on his health and spirits that he thought it not improbable he might die, and even die suddenly, before the work got through the press, and he wrote Hume a formal letter before he started on his journey, constituting him his literary executor, and giving him directions about the destination of the various unpublished manuscripts that lay in his depositories:—
MY DEAR FRIEND—As I have left the care of all my literary papers to you, I must tell you that except those which I carry along with me, there are none worth the publishing but a fragment of a great work which contains a history of the astronomical systems that were successively in fashion down to the time of Descartes. Whether that might not be published as a fragment of an intended juvenile work I leave entirely to your judgment, tho’ I begin to suspect myself that there is more refinement than solidity in some parts of it. This little work you will find in a thin folio paper book in my writing-desk in my book-room. All the other loose paper which you will find either in that desk or within the glass folding-doors of a bureau which stands in my bedroom, together with about eighteen thin paper folio books, which you will likewise find within the same glass folding-doors, I desire may be destroyed without any examination. Unless I die very suddenly,
I shall take care that the Papers I carry with me shall be carefully sent to you.—I ever am, my dear friend, most faithfully yours,
th April 1773.
To DAVID HUME, Esq., 9 St. Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh.
Smith went to London shortly after writing this letter, and spent most of the next four years there. We find him there in May 1773, for he is admitted to the Royal Society on the 27th of that month; he is there in September, for Ferguson then writes to him as if he were still there. He is there in February 1774, for Hume writes him in that month, “Pray what accounts are these we hear of Franklyn’s conduct?”—a question he would hardly have addressed except to one in a better position for hearing the truth about Franklin than he was himself. He is there in September 1774, for he writes Cullen from town in that month, and speaks of having been for some time in it. He is there in January 1775, for on the 11th Bishop Percy met him at dinner at Sir Joshua Reynolds’, along with Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, and others.
*72 He is there in February, for a young friend, Patrick Clason, addresses a letter to him during that month to the care of Cadell, the bookseller, in the Strand. He is there in December, for on the 27th Horace Walpole writes the Countess of Ossory that “Adam Smith told us t’other night at Beau-clerk’s that Major Preston—one of two, but he is not sure which—would have been an excellent commander some years hence if he had seen any service. I said it was a pity that the war had not been put off till the Major should be
some years older.”
*73 He returned to Scotland in April 1776, about a month after his book was issued, but we find him back again in London in January 1777, for his letter to Governor Pownall in that month is dated from Suffolk Street. Whether the first three years of his stay in London was continuous I cannot say, but it would almost appear so from the circumstance that nothing remains to indicate the contrary.
Those three years were spent upon the
Wealth of Nations. Much of the book as we know it must have been written in London. When he went up to London he had no idea that any fresh investigations he contemplated instituting there would detain him so long. He wrote Pulteney, as we have seen, even in the previous September that the book would be finished in a few months, and he led not only Hume but Adam Ferguson also to look for its publication in 1773. In a footnote to the fourth edition of his
History of Civil Society, published in that year, Ferguson says, “The public will probably soon be furnished (by Mr. Smith, author of the
Theory of Moral Sentiments) with a theory of national economy equal to what has ever appeared on any subject of science whatever.” But the researches the author now made in London must have been much more important than he expected, and have occasioned extensive alterations and additions, so that Hume, in congratulating him on the eventual appearance of the work in 1776, writes, “It is probably much improved by your last abode in London.” Whole chapters seem to have been put through the forge afresh; and on some of them the author has tool-marked the date of his handiwork himself.
A very circumstantial account of Smith’s London labours at the book comes from America. Mr. Watson, author of the
Annals of Philadelphia, says: “Dr. Franklin once told Dr. Logan that the celebrated Adam Smith when writing his
Wealth of Nations was in the habit of
bringing chapter after chapter as he composed it to himself, Dr. Price, and others of the literati; then patiently hear their observations and profit by their discussions and criticisms, sometimes submitting to write whole chapters anew, and even to reverse some of his propositions.”
Franklin’s remark may have itself undergone enlargement before it appeared in print, but though it may have been exaggerated, there seems no ground for rejecting it altogether. Smith became acquainted with Franklin in Edinburgh in 1759, and could not fail to see much of him in London, because some of the most intimate of his own London friends, Sir John Pringle and Strahan, for example, were also among the most intimate friends of Franklin. Then a considerable proportion of the additions, which we know from the text of the
Wealth of Nations itself to have been made to the work during this London period, bear on colonial or American experience.
*75 And as Smith always obtained a great deal of his information from the conversation of competent men, no one would be more likely than Franklin to be laid under contribution or to be able to contribute something worth learning on such questions. The biographer of Franklin states that his papers which belong to this particular period “contain sets of problems and queries as though jotted down at some meeting of philosophers for particular consideration at home,” and then he adds: “A glance at the index of the
Wealth of Nations will suffice to show that its author possessed just that kind of knowledge of the American Colonies which Franklin was of all men the best fitted to impart. The allusions to the Colonies may be counted by hundreds; illustrations from their condition and growth occur in nearly every chapter. We may go further and say that the American Colonies constitute the experimental evidence of the essential truth of the book, without which many of its leading positions had been little
more than theory.”
*76 It ought of course to be borne in mind that Smith had been in the constant habit of hearing much about the American Colonies and their affairs during his thirteen years in Glasgow from the intelligent merchants and returned planters of that city.
After coming to London Smith seems to have renewed his acquaintance with Lord Stanhope, who sought Smith’s counsel as to a tutor for his ward the Earl of Chesterfield, and appointed Adam Ferguson on Smith’s recommendation. The negotiations with Ferguson were conducted through Smith, and some of Ferguson’s letters to Smith on the matter still exist, but contain nothing of any interest for the biography of the latter. But in contemplation of Ferguson’s going abroad with the Earl of Chesterfield, Hume, ever anxious to have his friend near him, sounds Smith on the possibility of his agreeing to act during Ferguson’s absence as his substitute in the Moral Philosophy chair at Edinburgh. Smith, however, was apparently unwilling to undertake that duty. As we have already seen, he was strongly opposed to professorial absenteeism, and in the present case it was associated with unpleasant circumstances. The Town Council, the administrators of the College, refused to ssanction Ferguson’s absence, and called upon him either to stay at home or to resign his chair. Ferguson merely snapped his fingers, appointed young Dugald Stewart his substitute, and went off on his travels, quietly remarking that fools and knaves were necessary in the world to give other people something to do. Hume’s letter is as follows:—
th February 1774.
DEAR SMITH—You are in the wrong for never informing me of your intentions and resolutions, if you have fix’d any. I am now obliged to write to you on a subject without knowing whether the proposal, or rather Hint, which I am to give you be an absurdity or not. The settlement to be made on Ferguson is
a very narrow compensation for his class if he must lose it. He wishes to keep it and to serve by a Deputy in his absence. But besides that this scheme will appear invidious and is really scarce admissible, those in the Town Council who aim at filling the vacancy with a friend will strenuously object to it, and he himself cannot think of one who will make a proper substitute. I fancy that the chief difficulty would be removed if you could offer to supply his class either as his substitute or his successor, with a purpose of resigning upon his return. This notion is entirely my own, and shall never be known to Ferguson if it appear to you improper. I shall only say that he deserves this friendly treatment by his friendly conduct of a similar kind towards poor Russell’s family.
Pray what strange accounts are these we hear of Franklyn’s conduct? I am very slow in believing that he has been guilty in the extreme degree that is pretended, tho’ I always knew him to be a very factious man, and Faction next to Fanaticism is of all passions the most destructive of morality. I hear that Wedder-burn’s treatment of him before the Council was most cruel without being in the least blamable. What a pity!
Smith’s headquarters in London, to which Hume’s letters to him were addressed, was the British Coffee-House in Cockspur Street, a great Scotch resort in last century, kept, as I have said, by a sister of his old Balliol friend, Bishop Douglas, “a woman,” according to Henry Mackenzie, “of uncommon talents and the most agreeable conversation.” Wedderburn founded a weekly dining club in this house, which Robertson and Carlyle used to frequent when they came to town, and no doubt Smith would do the same, for many of his Scotch friends belonged to it—Dr. William Hunter, John Home, Robert Adam the architect, and Sir Gilbert Elliot. Indeed, though men like Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Garrick, and Richard Cumberland were members, it was predominantly a Scotch club, and both Carlyle and Richard Cumberland say an extremely agreeable one. But during his residence at this period in London Smith was in 1775 admitted to the membership
of a much more famous club, the Literary Club of Johnson and Burke and Reynolds at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard Street, and he no doubt attended their fortnightly dinners. The only members present on the night of his election were Beauclerk, Gibbon, Sir William Jones, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Boswell, writing his friend Temple on 28th April 1776, immediately after the
Wealth of Nations was published, says, “Smith too is now of our club. It has lost its select merit.” But another member of the club, Dean Barnard—husband of the authoress of “Auld Robin Gray”—appreciates his worth better, though he wrote the lines in which his appreciation occurs before the
Wealth of Nations appeared, and his words may therefore be taken perhaps to convey the impression made by Smith’s conversation. One of the Dean’s verses runs—
If I have thoughts and can’t express ’em,
Gibbon shall teach me how to dress ’em
In form select and terse;
Jones teach me modesty and Greek,
Smith how to think, Burke how to speak,
And Beauclerk to converse.
Smith’s conversation seems, from all the accounts we have of it, to have been the conversation of a thinker, often lecturing rather than talk, but always instructive and solid. William Playfair, the brother of Professor John Playfair, the mathematician, says, “Those persons who have ever had the pleasure to be in his company may recollect that even in his common conversation the order and method he pursued without the smallest degree of formality or stiffness were beautiful, and gave a sort of pleasure to all who listened to him.”
Bennet Langton mentions the “decisive professorial manner” in which he was used to talk, and according to Boswell, Topham Beauclerk conceived a high opinion of
Smith’s conversation at first, but afterwards lost it, for reasons unreported, though if Beauclerk was himself, as Dean Barnard indicates, the model converser of the club, he would probably grow tired of expository lectures, however excellent and instructive. A criticism of Garrick’s is more curious. After listening to Smith one evening, the great player turned to a friend and whispered, “What say you to this? eh, flabby, eh?” but whatever may have been the case that particular evening, flabbiness at least was not a characteristic of Smith’s talk. It erred rather in excess of substance. He had Johnson’s solidity and weight, without Johnson’s force and vivacity. Henry Mackenzie, author of the
Man of Feeling, talking of Smith soon after his death with Samuel Rogers, said of him, “With a most retentive memory, his conversation was solid beyond that of any man. I have often told him after half an hour’s conversation, ‘Sir, you have said enough to make a book.'”
*79 His conversation, moreover, was particularly wide in its range. Dugald Stewart says that though Smith seldom started a topic of conversation, there were few topics raised on which he was not found contributing something worth hearing, and Boswell, no very partial witness, admits that his talk evinced “a mind crowded with all manner of subjects.” Like Sir Walter Scott, Smith has been unjustly accused of habitually abstaining from conversing on the subjects he had made his own. Boswell tells us that Smith once said to Sir Joshua Reynolds that he made it a rule in company never to talk of what he understood, and he alleges the reason to have been that Smith had bookmaking ever in his mind, and the fear of the plagiarist ever before his eyes. But the fact thus reported by Boswell cannot be accepted exactly as he reports it, and his explanation cannot be accepted at all. Men able to converse on a variety of subjects will naturally prefer to converse on those unconnected with their own shop, because they go into company for diversion
from their own shop, but it is a question of company and circumstances. If Smith ever made any such rule as Boswell speaks of, he certainly seems to have honoured it as often by the breach as by the observance, for when his friends brought round the conversation to his special lines of research, he never seems to have failed to give his ideas quite freely, nay, as may be seen from the remark just quoted from Henry Mackenzie, not freely merely but abundantly—as many as would make a book. He does not appear to have been in this respect a grudging giver. I have already quoted his remark on hearing of Blair’s borrowing some of his juridical ideas, “There’s enough left.” When Sir John Sinclair was writing his
History of the Revenue Smith offered him the use of everything, either printed or manuscript, in his possession bearing upon the subject. And if it is true that he was discussing his own book chapter by chapter with Franklin, Price, and others, about the very period when this remark to Sir Joshua purports to have been made, it appears most unlikely that he could have thought of setting any churlish watch on his lips in ordinary conversation. But however it be with his disposition to talk about his own pursuits, we know from Dugald Stewart that he was very fond of talking of subjects remote from them, and as Stewart says, he was never more entertaining than when he gave a loose rein to his speculation on subjects off his own line. “Nor do I think,” says Stewart, “I shall be accused of going too far when I say that he was scarcely ever known to start a new topic himself, or to appear unprepared upon those topics that were introduced by others. Indeed, his conversation was never more amusing than when he gave a loose rein to his genius upon the very few branches of knowledge of which he only possessed the outlines.”
*80 One of his defects, according to both Stewart and Carlyle, was his poor penetration into personal character; but he was very fond of drawing the character of any person whose name came
up in conversation, and Stewart says his judgments of this kind, though always decided and lively, were generally too systematic to be just, leaning ever, however, to charity’s side, and erring by partiality rather than prejudice; while Carlyle completes the description by stating that when any one challenged or disputed his opinion of a character, he would retrace his steps with the greatest ease and non-chalance and contradict every word he had been saying. Carlyle’s statement is confirmed by the remarks of certain of Smith’s other friends who speak incidentally of the amusing inconsistencies in which he indulged in private conversation. He was fond of starting theories and supporting them, but it is not so easy to explain a man on a theory as to explain some abstract subject on a theory.
His voice seems to have been harsh, his utterance often stammering, and his manner, especially among strangers, often embarrassed, but many writers speak of the remarkable animation of his features as he warmed to his subject, and of the peculiar radiancy of his smile. “His smile of approbation,” says Dr. Carlyle, “was captivating.” “In the society of those he loved,” says Stewart, “his features were often brightened with a smile of inexpressible benignity.”
While living in London, Smith, along with Gibbon, attended Dr. William Hunter’s lectures on anatomy,
*81 as we are told by a writer who was one of Hunter’s students at the time, and during that very period he had an opportunity of vindicating the value of the lectures of private teachers of medicine like Hunter against pretensions to monopoly set up at the moment on behalf of the universities. In a long letter written to Cullen in September 1774 Smith defends with great vigour and vivacity the most absolute and unlimited freedom of medical education, treating the University claims as mere expressions of the craft spirit, and recognising none of those exceptional features of medical education which have constrained even
the most extreme partisans of economic liberty now to approve of government interference in that matter.
The letter was occasioned by an agitation which had been long gathering strength in Scotch medical circles against the laxity with which certain of the Scotch universities—St. Andrews and Aberdeen in particular—were in the habit of conferring their medical degrees. The candidate was not required either to attend classes or to pass an examination, but got the degree by merely paying the fees and producing a certificate of proficiency from two medical practitioners, into whose qualifications no inquiry was instituted. In London a special class of agent—the broker in Scotch degrees—sprang up to transact the business, and England was being overrun with a horde of Scotch doctors of medicine who hardly knew a vein from an artery, and had created south of the Border a deep prejudice against all Scotch graduates, even those from the unoffending Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. A case seemed to be brought home even to Edinburgh in the year 1771. The offender—one Leeds—had not, indeed, got his degree from Edinburgh without examination, but he showed his competency to be so doubtful in his duties at the London Hospital that the governors made it a condition of the continuance of his services that he should obtain the diploma of the London College of Physicians, and he failed to pass this London examination and was deprived of his post. This case created much sensation both in London and Edinburgh, and when the Duke of Buccleugh was elected an honorary Fellow of the College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1774, he made that body something like an offer to take up the question of examination for medical degrees in Parliament and try what could be done to remove this reproach from his country. The College of Physicians thereupon drew up a memorial to Government for the Duke of Buccleugh to present, praying for the prohibition of the universities from granting medical degrees, except honorary ones, to any person in
absence, or to any person without first undergoing a personal examination into his proficiency, and bringing a certificate of having attended for two years at a university where physic was regularly taught, and of having applied himself to all branches of medical study. They add that they fix on two years not because they think two years enough, but because that was the term adopted by the London College of Physicians, and they suggest the appointment of a royal commission of inquiry if Government is not prepared for immediate action.
The Duke of Buccleugh sent the memorial for the consideration of Adam Smith, and asked him to write to Cullen his views on the subject. Smith thought that it was not very practicable in any event for the public to obtain a satisfactory test of medical efficiency, that it was certainly not practicable if the competition by the private teachers were suppressed, that otherwise the medical examination might become as great a quackery as the medical degree, and that the whole question was a mere squabble between the big quack and the little one. He unfolds his views in the following letter:—
DEAR DOCTOR—I have been very much in the wrong both to you and to the Duke of Buccleugh, to whom I certainly promised to write you in a post or two, for having delayed so long to fulfil my promise. The truth is that some occurrences which interested me a good deal, and which happened here immediately after the Duke’s departure, made me forget altogether a business which, I do acknowledge, interested me very little.
In the present state of the Scotch universities I do most sincerely look upon them as, in spite of all their faults, without exception the best seminaries of learning that are to be found anywhere in Europe. They are perhaps, upon the whole, as unexceptionable as any public institutions of that kind, which all contain in their very nature the seeds and causes of negligency and corruption, have ever been or are ever likely to be. That, however, they are still capable of amendment, and even of considerable amendment, I know very well, and a Visitation (that is, a Royal Commission) is, I believe, the only proper means of
procuring them this amendment. Before any wise man, however, would apply for the appointment of so arbitrary a tribunal in order to improve what is already, upon the whole, very well, he ought certainly to know with some degree of certainty, first, who are likely to be appointed visitors, and secondly, what plan of reformation those visitors are likely to follow; but in the present multiplicity of pretenders to some share in the prudential management of Scotch affairs, these are two points which, I apprehend, neither you nor I, nor the Solicitor-General nor the Duke of Buccleugh, can possibly know anything about. In the present state of our affairs, therefore, to apply for a Visitation in order to remedy an abuse which is not perhaps of great consequence to the public, would appear to me to be extremely unwise. Hereafter, perhaps, an opportunity may present itself for making such an application with more safety.
With regard to an admonition, or threatening, or any other method of interfering in the affairs of a body corporate which is not perfectly and strictly regular and legal, these are expedients which I am convinced neither his Majesty nor any of his present Ministers would choose to employ either now or at any time hereafter in order to obtain an object even of much greater consequence than this reformation of Scottish degrees.
You propose, I observe, that no person should be admitted to examination for his degrees unless he brought a certificate of his having studied at least two years in some university. Would not such a regulation be oppressive upon all private teachers, such as the Hunters, Hewson, Fordyce, etc.? The scholars of such teachers surely merit whatever honour or advantage a degree can confer much more than the greater part of those who have spent many years in some universities, where the different branches of medical knowledge are either not taught at all, or are taught so superficially that they had as well not be taught at all. When a man has learnt his lesson very well, it surely can be of little importance where or from whom he has learnt it.
The monopoly of medical education which this regulation would establish in favour of universities would, I apprehend, be hurtful to the lasting prosperity of such bodies corporate. Monopolists very seldom make good work, and a lecture which a certain number of students must attend, whether they profit by it or no, is certainly not very likely to be a good one. I have thought a great deal upon this subject, and have inquired very carefully into the constitution and history of several of the principal universities of Europe; I have satisfied myself that the present state of degradation
and contempt into which the greater part of these societies have fallen in almost every part of Europe arises principally, first, from the large salaries which in some universities are given to professors, and which render them altogether independent of their diligence and success in their professions; and secondly, from the great number of students who, in order to get degrees or to be admitted to exercise certain professions, or who, for the sake of bursaries, exhibitions, scholarships, fellowships, etc., are obliged to resort to certain societies of this kind, whether the instructions which they are likely to receive there are or are not worth the receiving. All these different cases of negligence and corruption no doubt take place in some degree in all our Scotch universities. In the best of them, however, these cases take place in a much less degree than in the greater part of other considerable societies of the same kind; and I look upon this circumstance as the real cause of their present excellence. In the Medical College of Edinburgh in particular the salaries of the professors are insignificant. There are few or no bursaries or exhibitions, and their monopoly of degrees is broken in upon by all other universities, foreign and domestic. I require no other explication of its present acknowledged superiority over every other society of the same kind in Europe.
To sign a certificate in favour of any man whom we know little or nothing about is most certainly a practice which cannot be strictly vindicated. It is a practice, however, which from mere good-nature and without interest of any kind the most scrupulous men in the world are sometimes guilty of. I certainly do not mean to defend it. Bating the unhandsomeness of the practice, however, I would ask in what manner does the public suffer by it? The title of Doctor, such as it is, you will say, gives some credit and authority to the man upon whom it is bestowed; it extends his practice and consequently his field for doing mischief; it is not improbable too that it may increase his presumption and consequently his disposition to do mischief. That a degree injudiciously conferred may sometimes have some little effect of this kind it would surely be absurd to deny, but that this effect should be very considerable I cannot bring myself to believe. That Doctors are sometimes fools as well as other people is not in the present time one of those profound secrets which is known only to the learned. The title is not so very imposing, and it very seldom happens that a man trusts his health to another merely because that other is a Doctor. The person so trusted has almost always some knowledge or some craft which would
procure him nearly the same trust, though he was not decorated with any such title. In fact the persons who apply for degrees in the irregular manner complained of are, the greater part of them, surgeons or apothecaries who are in the custom of advising and prescribing, that is, of practising as physicians; but who, being only surgeons and apothecaries, are not fee-ed as physicians. It is not so much to extend their practice as to increase their fees that they are desirous of being made Doctors. Degrees conferred even undeservedly upon such persons can surely do very little harm to the public. When the University of St. Andrews very rashly and imprudently conferred a degree upon one Green who happened to be a stage-doctor, they no doubt brought much ridicule and discredit upon themselves, but in what respect did they hurt the public? Green still continued to be what he was before, a stage-doctor, and probably never poisoned a single man more than he would have done though the honours of graduation had never been conferred upon him. Stage-doctors, I must observe, do not much excite the indignation of the faculty; more reputable quacks do. The former are too contemptible to be considered as rivals; they only poison the poor people; and the copper pence which are thrown up to them in handkerchiefs could never find their way to the pocket of a regular physician. It is otherwise with the latter: they sometimes intercept a part of what perhaps would have been better bestowed in another place. Do not all the old women in the country practise physic without exciting murmur or complaint? And if here and there a graduated Doctor should be as ignorant as an old woman, where can be the great harm? The beardless old woman indeed takes no fees; the bearded one does, and it is this circumstance, I strongly suspect, which exasperates his brethren so much against him.
There never was, and I will venture to say there never will be, a university from which a degree could give any tolerable security that the person upon whom it had been conferred was fit to practise physic. The strictest universities confer degrees only upon students of a certain standing. Their real motive for requiring this standing is that the student may spend more money among them and that they may make more profit by him. When he has attained this standing therefore, though he still undergoes what they call an examination, it scarce ever happens that he is refused his degree. Your examination at Edinburgh, I have all reason to believe, is as serious, and perhaps more so, than that of any other university in Europe; but when a student has resided
a few years among you, has behaved dutifully to all his professors, and has attended regularly all their lectures, when he comes to his examination I suspect you are disposed to be as good-natured as other people. Several of your graduates, upon applying for license from the College of Physicians here, have had it recommended to them to continue their studies. From a particular knowledge of some of the cases I am satisfied that the decision of the College in refusing them their license was perfectly just—that is, was perfectly agreeable to the principles which ought to regulate all such decisions; and that the candidates were really very ignorant of their profession.
A degree can pretend to give security for nothing but the science of the graduate; and even for that it can give but a very slender security. For his good sense and discretion, qualities not discoverable by an academical examination, it can give no security at all; but without these the presumption which commonly attends science must render it in the practice of physic ten times more dangerous than the grossest ignorance when accompanied, as it sometimes is, with some degree of modesty and diffidence.
If a degree, in short, always has been, and, in spite of all the regulations which can be made, always must be, a mere piece of quackery, it is certainly for the advantage of the public that it should be understood to be so. It is in a particular manner for the advantage of the universities that for the resort of students they should be obliged to depend, not upon their privileges but upon their merit, upon their abilities to teach and their diligence in teaching; and that they should not have it in their power to use any of those quackish arts which have disgraced and degraded the half of them.
A degree which can be conferred only upon students of a certain standing is a statute of apprenticeship which is likely to contribute to the advancement of science, just as other statutes of apprenticeship have contributed to that of arts and manufactures. Those statutes of apprenticeship, assisted by other corporation laws, have banished arts and manufactures from the greater part of towns corporate. Such degrees, assisted by some other regulations of a similar tendency, have banished almost all useful and solid education from the greater part of universities. Bad work and high price have been the effect of the monopoly introduced by the former; quackery, imposture, and exorbitant fees have been the consequences of that established by the latter. The industry of manufacturing villages has remedied in part the inconveniences which the monopolies
established by towns corporate had occasioned. The private interest of some poor Professors of Physic in some poor universities inconveniently situated for the resort of students has in part remedied the inconveniences which would certainly have resulted from that sort of monopoly which the great and rich universities had attempted to establish. The great and rich universities seldom graduated anybody but their own students, and not even these till after a long and tedious standing; five and seven years for a Master of Arts; eleven and sixteen for a Doctor of Law, Physic, or Divinity. The poor universities on account of the inconvenience of their situation, not being able to get many students, endeavoured to turn a penny in the only way in which they could turn it, and sold their degrees to whoever would buy them, generally without requiring any residence or standing, and frequently without subjecting the candidate even to a decent examination. The less trouble they gave, the more money they got, and I certainly do not pretend to vindicate so dirty a practice. All universities being ecclesiastical establishments under the immediate protection of the Pope, a degree from one of them gave all over Christendom very nearly the same privileges which a degree from any other could have given; and the respect which is to this day paid to foreign degrees, even in Protestant countries, must be considered as a remnant of Popery. The facility of obtaining degrees, particularly in physic, from those poor universities had two effects, both extremely advantageous to the public, but extremely disagreeable to graduates of other universities whose degrees had cost them much time and expense. First, it multiplied very much the number of doctors, and thereby no doubt sunk their fees, or at least hindered them from rising so very high as they otherwise would have done. Had the universities of Oxford and Cambridge been able to maintain themselves in the exclusive privilege of graduating all the doctors who could practise in England, the price of feeling the pulse might by this time have risen from two and three guineas, the price which it has now happily arrived at, to double or triple that sum; and English physicians might, and probably would, have been at the same time the most ignorant and quackish in the world. Secondly, it reduced a good deal the rank and dignity of a doctor, but if the physician was a man of sense and science it would not surely prevent his being respected and employed as a man of sense and science. If he was neither the one nor the other, indeed, his doctorship would no doubt avail him the less. But ought it in this case to avail him at all? Had the hopeful project of the rich and great universities succeeded, there would have been no occasion
for sense or science. To have been a doctor would alone have been sufficient to give any man rank, dignity, and fortune enough. That in every profession the fortune of every individual should depend as much as possible upon his merit and as little as possible upon his privilege is certainly for the interest of the public. It is even for the interest of every particular profession, which can never so effectually support the general merit and real honour of the greater part of those who exercise it, as by resting on such liberal principles. Those principles are even most effectual for procuring them all the employment which the country can afford. The great success of quacks in England has been altogether owing to the real quackery of the regular physicians. Our regular physicians in Scotland have little quackery, and no quack accordingly has ever made his fortune among us.
After all, this trade in degrees I acknowledge to be a most disgraceful trade to those who exercise it; and I am extremely sorry that it should be exercised by such respectable bodies as any of our Scotch universities. But as it serves as a corrective of what would otherwise soon grow up to be an intolerable nuisance, the exclusive and corporation spirit of all thriving professions and of all great universities, I deny that it is hurtful to the public.
What the physicians of Edinburgh at present feel as a hardship is perhaps the real cause of their acknowledged superiority over the greater part of other physicians. The Royal College of Physicians there, you say, are obliged by their charter to grant a license without examination to all the graduates of Scotch universities. You are all obliged, I suppose, in consequence of this, to consult sometimes with very unworthy brethren. You are all made to feel that you must rest no part of your dignity upon your degree, a distinction which you share with the men in the world perhaps whom you despise the most, but that you must found the whole of it upon your merit. Not being able to derive much consequence from the character of Doctor, you are obliged perhaps to attend more to your character as men, as gentlemen, and as men of letters. The unworthiness of some of your brethren may perhaps in this manner be in part the cause of the very eminent and superior worth of many of the rest. The very abuse which you complain of may in this manner perhaps be the real source of your present excellence. You are at present well, wonderfully well, and when you are so, be assured there is always some danger in attempting to be better.
th September 1774.
Whether this decided expression of unfavourable opinion on the part of his old and venerated tutor altered the Duke of Buccleugh’s mind on the subject, or in any way prevented him from persevering in his contemplated application to Government, we have no means of knowing, but at any rate no further action seems to have been taken in the matter, and it was left to the Scottish universities themselves to remedy abuses which were seriously telling on their own interest and good name.
The last year of Smith’s residence in London was overcast by growing anxiety about the condition of his friend Hume, who had always enjoyed fairly good health till the beginning of the year 1775, and then seemed to fall rapidly away. As Smith said one evening at Lord Shelburne’s to Dr. Price, who asked him about Hume’s health, it seemed as if Hume was one of those persons who after a certain time of life go down not gradually but by jumps.
*83 Under those circumstances Smith had determined as soon as his new book was out to go down to Edinburgh and if possible persuade Hume to come back with him to London, to try the effect of change of scene and a little wholesome diversion. But, bad correspondent that he was, he appears to have left Hume to gather his intentions from the reports of friends, and consequently received from Hume the following remonstrance a few weeks before the publication of his work:—
th February 1776.
DEAR SMITH—I am as lazy a correspondent as you, but my anxiety about you makes me write.
By all accounts you intend to settle with us this spring, yet we hear no more of it. What is the reason? Your chamber in my house is always unengaged; I am always at home; I expect you to land here.
I have been, am, and shall be probably in an indifferent state of health. I weighed myself t’other day, and find I have fallen five compleat stones. If you delay much longer I shall probably disappear altogether.
The Duke of Buccleugh tells me that you are very zealous in American affairs. My notion is that this matter is not so important as is commonly imagined. If I be mistaken I shall probably correct my error when I see you or read you. For navigation and general commerce may suffer more than our manufactures. Should London fall as much in its size as I have done it will be the better. It is nothing but a Hulk of bad and unclean Humours.
The American question was of course the great question of the hour, for the Colonies were already a year in active rebellion, and they issued their declaration of independence but a few months later. Smith followed the struggle, as we see from many evidences in the concluding portion of the
Wealth of Nations, with the most patriotic interest and anxiety, and having long made a special study of the whole problem of colonial administration, had arrived at the most decided opinions not only on the rights and wrongs of the particular quarrel then at issue, but on the general policy it was requisite to adopt in the government of dependencies. Hume was in favour of separation, because he believed separation to be inevitable sooner or later in the ordinary course of nature, like the separation of the fruit from the tree or the child from the parent. But Smith, shunning all such misleading metaphors, held that there need never be any occasion for separation as long as mother country and dependency were wise enough to keep together, and that the sound policy to adopt was really the policy of closer union—of imperial
federation, as we should now call it. He would not say, “Perish dependencies,” but “Incorporate them.” He would treat a colony as but a natural expansion of the territory of the kingdom, and have its inhabitants enjoy the same rights and bear the same burdens as other citizens. He did not think it wrong to tax the Colonies; on the contrary, he would make them pay every tax the inhabitants of Great Britain had to pay; but he thought it wrong to put restrictions on their commerce from which the commerce of Great Britain was free, and he thought it wrong to tax them for imperial purposes without giving them representation in the Imperial Parliament—full and equal representation, “bearing the same proportion to the produce of their taxes as the representation of Great Britain might bear to the produce of the taxes levied upon Great Britain.” The union he contemplated was to be more than federal; it was to preclude home rule by local assemblies; it was to be like the union which had been established with Scotland, and which he strongly desired to see established with Ireland; and the Imperial Parliament in London was to make laws for the local affairs of the provinces across the Atlantic exactly as it made laws for the local affairs of the province across the Tweed. He shrank from none of the consequences of his scheme, admitting even that when the Colonies grew in population and wealth, as grow they must, till the real centre of empire changed, the time would then arrive when the American members of the Imperial Parliament would far outnumber the British, and the seat of Parliament itself would require to be transferred from London to some Constantinople on the other side of the Atlantic.
He was quite sensible that this scheme of his would be thought wild and called a “new Utopia,” but he was not one of those who counted the old Utopia of Sir Thomas More to be either useless or chimerical, and he says that this Utopia of his own is “no more useless or chimerical than the old one.” The difficulties it would encounter came, he says, “not from the nature of things,
but from the prejudices and opinions of the people both on this and on the other side of the Atlantic.” He held, moreover, very strongly that a union of this kind was the only means of making the Colonies a useful factor instead of a showy and expensive appendage of the empire, and the only alternative that could really prevent their total separation from Great Britain. He pleaded for union, too, not merely for the salvation of the Colonies to the mother country, but even more for the salvation of the Colonies to themselves. Separation merely meant mediocrity for Great Britain, but for the Colonies it meant ruin. There would no longer be any check on the spirit of rancorous and virulent faction which was always inseparable from small democracies. The coercive power of the mother country had hitherto prevented the colonial factions from breaking out into anything worse than brutality and insult, but if that coercive power were entirely taken away they would probably soon break out into open violence and bloodshed.
The event has falsified the last anticipation, but this is not the place to criticise Smith’s scheme. It was only requisite to recall for a moment the ideas which, according to the Duke of Buccleugh’s statement to Hume, Smith was at this time so zealously working for in the important circles in which he then moved in London.
Letters, vi. 302.
Annals of Philadelphia, i. 533.
Life of Franklin, i. 537.
Wealth of Nations, I. xiii.
Early Life of Samuel Rogers, p. 168.
Records of my Life, ii. 262.
Life of Cullen, i. 481.
Life of Hume, ii. 483.