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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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
AFTER the publication of his book in the beginning of March, Smith still dallied in London, without taking any steps to carry out his plan of going to see Hume in Edinburgh and bring him up to London. But some hope seems to have been entertained of Hume coming up even without Smith’s persuasion and escort. John Home, who was in London and was in correspondence with him, thought so, but he at length received a direct negative to the idea in a letter from Hume himself, written on the 12th of April; and then Smith and John Home set out together immediately for the northern capital, but when the coach stopped at Morpeth, whom should they see standing in the door of the inn but Colin, their friend’s servant? Hume had determined to undertake the journey to London after all to consult Sir John Pringle, and was now so far on his way. John Home thereupon accompanied Hume back to London, but Smith, having heard of his mother being taken ill, and being anxious about her, as she was now over eighty years old, continued his journey on to Kirkcaldy. At Morpeth, however, he and Hume had time to discuss the question of the publication, in the event of Hume’s death, of certain of his unpublished works. Hume had already on the 4th of January 1776 made Smith his literary executor by will, leaving him full power over all his papers except the
Dialogues on Natural
Religion, which he explicitly desired him to publish. It was years since this work had been written, but its publication had been deferred in submission to the representations of Sir Gilbert Elliot and other friends as to the annoying clamour it was sure to excite. Its author, however, had never ceased to cherish a peculiar paternal pride in the work, and now that his serious illness forced him to face the possibility of its extinction, he resolved at last to save it from that fate, clamour or no clamour. If he lived, he would publish it himself; if he died, he charged his executor to do so.
But this was a duty for which Smith had no mind. He was opposed to the publication of these
Dialogues on general grounds and under any editorship whatever, as will appear in the course of the correspondence which follows, but he had also personal scruples against editing them, of the same character as those which had already so long prevented their author himself from publishing them. He shrank from the public clamour in which it would involve him, and the injury it might do to his prospects of preferment from the Crown. When he met Hume at Morpeth accordingly he laid his mind fully before his friend, and the result was that Hume agreed to leave the whole question of publication or no publication absolutely to Smith’s discretion, and on reaching London sent Smith a formal letter of authority empowering him to deal with the
Dialogues as he judged best.
rd May 1776.
MY DEAR FRIEND—I send you enclosed a new ostensible letter, conformably to your desire. I think, however, your scruples groundless. Was Mallet anywise hurt by his publication of Lord Bolingbroke? He received an office afterwards from the present king and Lord Bute, the most prudent men in the world, and he always justified himself by his sacred regard to the will of a dead friend. At the same time I own that your scruples have a specious appearance, but my opinion is that if upon my death you
determine never to publish these papers, you should leave them sealed up with my brother and family, with some inscription that you reserve to yourself the power of reclaiming them whenever you think proper. If I live a few years longer I shall publish them myself. I consider an observation of Rochefoucault that the wind, though it extinguishes a candle, blows up a fire.
You may be surprised to hear me talk of living years, considering the state you saw me in and the sentiments both I and all my friends at Edinburgh entertained on that subject. But though I cannot come up entirely to the sanguine notions of our friend John, I find myself very much recovered on the road, and I hope Bath waters and further journies may effect my cure.
By the little company I have seen I find the town very full of your book, which meets with general approbation. Many people think particular parts disputable, but this you certainly expected. I am glad that I am one of the number, as these parts will be the subject of future conversation between us. I set out for Bath, I believe, on Monday, by Sir John Pringle’s directions. He says that he sees nothing to be apprehended in my case. If you write to me (hem! hem!)—I say if you write to me, send your letter under cover to Mr. Strahan, who will have my direction.
The ostensible letter which accompanied the other is—
rd May 1776.
MY DEAR SIR—After reflecting more maturely on that article of my will be which I leave you the disposal of all my papers, with a request that you should publish my
Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, I have become sensible that both on account of the nature of the work and of your situation it may be improper to hurry on that publication. I therefore take the present opportunity of qualifying that friendly request. I am content to leave it entirely to your discretion at what time you will publish that piece, or whether you will publish it at all.
You will find among my papers a very inoffensive piece called “My Own Life,” which I composed a few days before I left Edinburgh, when I thought, as did all my friends, that my life was despaired of. There can be no objection that the small piece should be sent to Messrs. Strahan and Cadell and the proprietors of my other works, to be prefixed to any future edition of them.
The ink of those letters was scarcely dry before Hume’s heart softened again towards his
Dialogues, and in order to make more sure of their eventual publication than he could feel while they were entrusted to Smith’s hands, he wrote Strahan from Bath on the 8th of June asking if he would agree to act as literary executor and undertake the editing and publishing of the work. In this letter he says: “I have hitherto forborne to publish it because I was of late desirous to live quietly and keep remote from all clamour, for though it be not more exceptionable than some things I had formerly published, yet you know some of them were thought exceptionable, and in prudence perhaps I ought to have suppressed them. I there introduce a sceptic who is indeed refuted and at last gives up the argument; nay, confesses that he was only amusing himself by all his cavils, yet before he is silenced he advances several topics which will give umbrage and will be deemed for bold and free as well as much out of the common road. As soon as I arrive at Edinburgh I intend to print a small edition of 500, of which I may give away about 100 in presents, and shall make you the property of the whole, provided you have no scruple, in your present situation, of being the editor. It is not necessary you should prefix any name to the Title-page. I seriously declare that after Mr. Miller and you and Mr. Cadell have publicly avowed your publication of the
Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, I know no reason why you should have the least scruple with regard to these
Dialogues. They will be much less obnoxious to the Law and not more exposed to popular clamour. Whatever your resolution be, I beg you would keep an entire silence on this subject. If I leave them to you by will, your executing the desire of a dead friend will render the publication still more excusable. Mallet never suffered anything by being the editor of Bolingbroke’s works.”
Strahan agreed to undertake this duty, and Hume on
the 12th of June added a codicil to his will making Strahan his literary executor and entire master of all his manuscripts. Hume, however, got rapidly worse in health, so that he never printed the small edition he spoke of, and feeling his end to be near, he added a fresh codicil to his will on the 7th of August, desiring Strahan to publish the
Dialogues within two years, and adding that if they were not published in two years and a half the property should return to his nephew (afterwards Baron of Exchequer), “whose duty,” he says, “in publishing them, as the last request of his uncle, must be approved of by all the world.”
Hume had meanwhile on the 4th of July 1776 gathered his group of more intimate friends about him to eat together a last farewell dinner before he made the great departure. Smith was present at this touching and unusual reunion, and may possibly have remained some days thereafter, for he speaks in a letter in the following month of having had several conversations with Hume lately, among them being that which he afterwards published in his letter to Strahan. But he was in Kirkcaldy again in the beginning of August, and received there on the 22nd of August the following letter which Hume had written on the 15th, and which, having gone, through some mistake, by the carrier instead of the post, had lain for a week at the carrier’s house without being delivered. The delay occasioned by this accident was the more unfortunate on account of the earnest appeal for an early answer with which the letter closes, and which seems to contain a recollection of many past transgressions, for Smith was always a dilatory and backward correspondent, the act of writing, as he repeatedly mentions, being a real pain to him.EDINBURGH, 15
th August 1776.
MY DEAR SMITH—I have ordered a new copy of my
Dialogues to be made besides that wh. will be sent to Mr. Strahan,
and to be kept by my nephew. If you will permit me, I shall order a third copy to be made and consigned to you. It will bind you to nothing, but will serve as a security. On revising them (which I have not done these five years) I find that nothing can be more cautiously and more artfully written. You had certainly forgotten them. Will you permit me to leave you the property of the copy, in case they should not be published in five years after my decease? Be so good as write me an answer soon. My state of health does not permit me to wait months for it.—Yours affectionately,
To this letter Smith, immediately on receiving it, sent the following reply:—
nd August 1776.
MY DEAREST FRIEND—I have this moment received yr. letter of the 15th inst. You had, in order to save me the sum of one penny sterling, sent it by the carrier instead of the Post, and (if you have not mistaken the date) it has lain at his quarters these eight days, and was, I presume, very likely to lie there for ever.
I shall be very happy to receive a copy of your
Dialogues, and if I should happen to die before they are published, I shall take care that my copy shall be as carefully preserved as if I was to live a hundred years. With regard to leaving me the property in case they are not published within five years after yr. decease, you may do as you think proper. I think, however, you should not menace Strahan with the loss of anything, in case he does not publish yr. work within a certain time. There is no probability of his delaying it, and if anything could make him delay it, it wd. be a clause of this kind, wh. wd. give him an honourable pretence for doing so. It would then be said I had published, for the sake of an emolument, not from respect to the memory of my friend, what even a printer, for the sake of the same emolument, had not published. That Strahan is sufficiently jealous you will see by the enclosed letter, wh. I will beg the favour of you to return to me, but by the Post, and not by the carrier.
If you will give me leave I will add a few lines to yr. account of your own life, giving some account in my own name of your behaviour in this illness, if, contrary to my own hopes, it should prove your last. Some conversations we had lately together, particularly that concerning your want of an excuse to make to
Charon, the excuse you at last thought of, and the very bad reception wh. Charon was likely to give it, would, I imagine, make no disagreeable part of the history. You have in a declining state of health, under an exhausting disease, for more than two years together now looked at the approach of death with a steady cheerfulness such as very few men have been able to maintain for a few hours, tho’ otherwise in the most perfect Health.
I shall likewise, if you give me leave, correct the sheets of the new edition of your works, and shall take care that it shall be published exactly according to your last corrections. As I shall be at London this winter, it will cost me very little trouble.
All this I have written upon the supposition that the event of yr. disease should prove different from what I still hope it may do. For your spirits are so good, the spirit of life is still so very strong in you, and the progress of your disorder is so slow and gradual, that I still hope it may take a turn. Even the cool and steady Dr. Black, by a letter I received from him last week, seems not to be averse to the same hopes.
I hope I need not repeat to you that I am ready to wait on you whenever you wish to see me. Whenever you do so I hope you will not scruple to call on me. I beg to be remembered in the kindest and most respectful manner to yr. Brother, your sister, your nephew, and all other friends.—I ever am, my dearest friend, most affectionately yours,
Hume answered this letter next day.
rd August 1776.
MY DEAREST FRIEND—I am obliged to make use of my nephew’s hand in writing to you, as I do not rise to-day.
There is no man in whom I have a greater confidence than Mr. Strahan, yet I have left the property of that manuscript to my nephew David, in case by any accident it should not be published within three years after my decease. The only accident I could foresee was one to Mr. Strahan’s life, and without this clause my nephew would have had no right to publish it. Be so good as to inform Mr. Strahan of this circumstance.
You are too good in thinking any trifles that concern me are so much worth of your attention, but I give you entire liberty to make what additions you please to the account of my life.
I go very fast to decline, and last night had a small fever, wh.
I hoped might put a quicker period to this tedious illness, but unluckily it has in a great measure gone off. I cannot submit to your coming over here on my account, as it is possible for me to see you so small a portion of the day, but Dr. Black can better inform you concerning the degree of strength which may from time to time remain with me.—Adieu, my dearest friend,
P.S. It was a strange blunder to send yr. letter by the carrier.
These were the last words of this long and memorable friendship. Two days after they were written Hume passed peacefully away, and his bones were laid in the new cemetery on the Calton Crags, and covered a little later, according to his own express provision, with that great round tower, designed by Robert Adam, which Smith once pointed out to the Earl of Dunmore as they were walking together down the North Bridge, and said, “I don’t like that monument; it is the greatest piece of vanity I ever saw in my friend Hume.”
Smith was no doubt at the funeral, and seems to have been present when the will was read, and to have had some conversation about it with Hume’s elder brother, John Home of Ninewells,
*8 for on the 31st of August he writes from Dalkeith House, where he had gone on a visit to his old pupil, discharging Ninewells of any obligation to pay the legacy of £200 which he had been left by Hume in consideration of acting as his literary executor, and which had not been revoked in the codicil superseding him by Strahan. This legacy Smith felt that he could not in the circumstances honourably accept, and he consequently lost no time in forwarding to Ninewells the following letter:—
st August 1776.
DEAR SIR—As the Duke proposes to stay here till Thursday next I may not have an opportunity of seeing you before yr. return
to Ninewells. I therefore take the opportunity of discharging you and all others concerned of the Legacy which you was so good as to think might upon a certain event become due to me by your Brother’s will, but which I think could upon no event become so, viz. the legacy of two hundred pounds sterling. I hereby therefore discharge it for ever, and least this discharge should be lost I shall be careful to mention it in a note at the bottom of my will. I shall be glad to hear that you have received this letter, and hope you will believe me to be, both on yr. Brother’s account and your own, with great truth, most affectionately yours,
P.S.—I do not hereby mean to discharge the other Legacy, viz. that of a copy of his works.
Mr. Home answered him on the 2nd of September as follows:—
DEAR SIR—I was favoured with yours of Saturday, and I assure you that on perusing the destination I was more of oppinion than when I saw you that the pecuniary part of it was not altered by the codicil, and that it was intended for you at all events, that my brother, knowing your liberal way of thinking, laid on you something as an equivalent, not imagining you would refuse a small gratuity from the hands it was to come from as a testimony of his friendship, and tho’ I most highly esteem the motives and manner, I cannot agree to accept of your renunciation, but leave you full master to dispose of it which way is most agreeable to you.
The copys of the
Dialogues are finished, and of the life, and will be sent to Mr. Strahan to-morrow, and I will mention to him your intention of adding to the last something to finish so valuable a life, and will leave you at liberty to look into the correction of the first as it either answers your leisure or ideas with regard to his composition or what effects you think it may have with regard to yourself. The two copys intended for you will be left with my sister when you please to require them, and the copy of the new edition of his works you shall be sure to receive, tho’ you have no better title to that part than the other, tho’ much you have to the friendship and esteem, dr. sir, of him who is most sincerely yours,
2nd September 1776.
Smith’s reply was that though the legacy might be due to him in strict law, he was fully satisfied it was not due to him in justice, because it was expressly given in the will as a reward for a task which he had declined to undertake. This reply was given in a letter of the 7th October, in which he enclosed a copy of the account of Hume’s death which he proposed to add to his friend’s own account of his life.
DEAR SIR—I send you under the same cover with this letter what I propose should be added to the account which your never-to-be-forgotten brother has left of his own life. When you have read it I beg you will return it to me, and at the same time let me know if you wd. wish to have anything either added to it or taken from it. I think there is a propriety in addressing it as a letter to Mr. Strahan, to whom he has left the care of his works. If you approve of it I shall send it to him as soon as I receive it from you.
I have added at the bottom of my will the note discharging the legacy of two hundred pounds which your brother was so kind as to leave me. Upon the most mature deliberation I am fully satisfied that in justice it is not due to me. Tho’ it should be due to me therefore in strict law, I cannot with honour accept of it. You will easily believe that my refusal does not proceed from any want of the highest respect for the memory of your deceased brother.—I have the honour to be, with the highest respect and esteem, dear sir, most sincerely and affectionately yours,
KIRKALDY, FIFESHIRE, 7
th October 1776.
Mr. Home returned Smith’s manuscript to him on the 14th of October, and expressed his entire approbation of it except “that as it is to be added to what is wrote in so short and simple a manner, he would have wished that the detail had been less minutely entered into, particularly of the journey which, being of a private concern and having drawn to no consequences, does not interest the publick,” but still he expressed that opinion, he
said, with diffidence, and thought the piece would perhaps best stand as it was. He says, too, that instead of the words, “as my worst enemies could wish” in the remark to Dr. Dundas, he was told that the words his brother actually used were, “as my enemies, if I have any, could wish”—a correction which was adopted by Smith. And he repeats that by his interpretation of his brother’s will he considers the legacy to belong to Smith both in law and in equity.
Meanwhile Smith had also written Strahan from Dalkeith:—
MY DEAR STRAHAN—By a codicil to the will of our late most valuable friend Mr. Hume, the care of his manuscripts is left to you. Both from his will and from his conversation I understand that there are only two which he meant should be published—an account of his life and
Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. The latter, tho’ finely written, I could have wished has remained in manuscript to be communicated only to a few people. When you read the work you will see my reasons without my giving you the trouble of reading them in a letter. But he has ordered it otherwise. In case of their not being published within three years after his decease, he has left the property of them to his nephew. Upon my objecting to this clause as unnecessary and improper, he wrote to me by his nephew’s hand in the following terms: “There is no man in whom I have a greater confidence than Mr. Strahan, yet have I left the property of that manuscript to my nephew David, in case by any accident they should not be published within three years after my decease. The only accident I could foresee was one to Mr. Strahan’s life, and without this clause my nephew would have had no right to publish it. Be so good as inform Mr. Strahan of this circumstance.” Thus far this letter, which was dated on the 23rd of August. He dyed on the 25th at 4 o’clock afternoon. I once had persuaded him to leave it entirely to my discretion either to publish them at what time I thought proper, or not to publish them at all. Had he continued of this mind the manuscript should have been most carefully preserved, and upon my decease restored to his family; but it never should have been published in my lifetime. When you have read it you will perhaps think it not unreasonable to consult some prudent friend about what you ought to do.
I propose to add to his Life a very well authenticated account of his behaviour during his last illness. I must, however, beg that his life and those
Dialogues may not be published together, as I am resolved for many reasons to have no concern in the publication of the
Dialogues. His life, I think, ought to be prefixed to the next edition of his former works, upon which he has made many very proper corrections, chiefly in what concerns the language. If this edition is published while I am at London, I shall revise the sheets and authenticate its being according to his last corrections. I promised him that I would do so.
If my mother’s health will permit me to leave her, I shall be in London by the beginning of November. I shall write to Mr. Home to take my lodgings as soon as I return to Fife, which will be on Monday or Tuesday next. The Duke of Buccleugh leaves this on Sunday. Direct for me at Kirkaldy, Fifeshire, where I shall remain all the rest of the season.—I remain, my dear Strahan, most faithfully yours,
DALKEITH HOUSE, 5
th September 1776.
Let me hear from you soon.
To this Strahan replied on the 16th of September, and then towards the end of October Smith wrote the following answer, of which the first draft, in Smith’s own handwriting, unsigned and undated and containing considerable erasures, exists in the R.S.E. Library. It shows that Smith submitted his account of Hume’s illness to the whole circle of Hume’s intimate friends, and that at the moment of writing he was waiting for the arrival of John Home, the poet, in Edinburgh, to obtain his remarks upon it.
DEAR SIR—When I received your last letter I had not begun the small addition I proposed to make to the life of our late friend. It is now more than three weeks since I finished it, and sent one
copy to his brother and another to Dr. Black. That which I sent to his brother is returned with remarks, all of which I approve of and shall adopt. Dr. Black waits for John Home, the Poet, who is expected every day in Edinburgh, whose remarks he proposes to send along with those of all our common friends. The work consists only of two sheets, in the form of a letter to you, but without one word of flattery or compliment. It will not cost my servant a forenoon to transcribe it, so that you will receive it by the first post after it is returned to me.
I am much obliged to you for so readily agreeing to print the life together with my additions separate from the
Dialogues. I even flatter myself that this arrangement will contribute not only to my quiet but to your interest. The clamour against the
Dialogues, if published first, might hurt for some time the sale of the new edition of his works, and when the clamour has a little subsided the
Dialogues may hereafter occasion a quicker sale of another edition.
I do not propose being with you till the Christmas holidays; in the meantime I should be glad to know how things stand between us, what copies of my last book are either sold or unsold, and when the balance of our bargain is likely to be due to me. I beg my most respectful and affectionate compliments to Mr. Cadell; I should have written him, but you know the pain it gives me to write with my own hand, and I look upon writing to him and you as the same thing. I have been since I came to Scotland most exceedingly idle. It is partly in order to bring up in some measure my leeway that I propose to stay here two months longer than I once intended. If my presence, however, was at all necessary in London, I could easily set out immediately.
I beg the favour of you to send the enclosed to Mr. Home. The purpose of it is to bespeak my lodgings.
The second and third paragraphs of this letter as they stood at first are erased entirely, but their original substance is in no way altered in their corrected form. One of the original sentences about the clamour he dreaded may perhaps be transcribed. “I am still,” he says, “uneasy about the clamour which I foresee they will excite.” It may also be noticed that he does not
seem to have dictated his account of Hume’s illness to his amanuensis, but to have written it with his own hand and then got his amanuensis to transcribe it. The Mr. Home whom he wishes to bespeak lodgings for him must be John Home the poet, in spite of the circumstance that he speaks of John Home the poet as being expected in Edinburgh every day at the time of writing; and in the event Home does not seem to have come to Edinburgh, for in a subsequent letter to Strahan on 13th of November Smith again mentions having written Mr. Home to engage lodgings for him from Christmas. This letter is as follows:—
DEAR SIR—The enclosed is the small addition which I propose to make to the account which our late invaluable friend left of his own life.
I have received £300 of the copy money of the first edition of my book. But as I got a good number of copies to make presents of from Mr. Cadell, I do not exactly know what balance may be due to me. I should therefore be glad he would send me the account. I shall write to him upon this subject.
With regard to the next edition, my present opinion is that it should be printed in four vol. octavo; and I would propose that it should be printed at your expense, and that we should divide the profits. Let me know if this is agreeable to you.
My mother begs to be remembered to Mrs. Strahan and Miss Strahan, and thinks herself much obliged both to you and them for being so good as to remember her.—I ever am, dear sir, most affectionately yours,
KIRKALDY, FIFESHIRE, 13
th November 1776.
I shall certainly be in town before the end of the Christmas holidays. I do not apprehend it can be necessary for me to come sooner. I have therefore written to Mr. Home to bespeak my lodgings from Christmas.
Strahan acknowledges this letter on the 26th of November, and asks Smith’s opinion on an idea that has
occurred to him of publishing the interesting series of letters from Hume to himself which he possessed, and which, after a curious and remarkable history, have been now preserved for the world through the liberality of Lord Rosebery and the learned devotion of Mr. Birkbeck Hill. To these letters Strahan, if he obtained Smith’s concurrence, would like to add those of Hume to Smith himself, to John Home, to Robertson, and other friends, which have now for the most part been lost. But Smith put his foot on this proposal decisively, on the ground apparently that it was most improper for a man’s friends to publish anything he had written which he had himself given no express direction or leave to publish either by his will or otherwise. Strahan’s letter runs thus:—
DEAR SIR—I received yours of the 13th enclosing the addition to Mr. Hume’s Life, which I like exceedingly. But as the whole put together is very short and will not make a volume even of the
smallest size, I have been advised by some very good judges to annex some of his letters to me on political subjects. What think you of this? I will do nothing without your advice and approbation, nor would I for the world publish any letter of his but such as in yr. opinion would do him honour. Mr. Gibbon thinks such as I have shown him would have that tendency. Now if you approve of this in any manner, you may perhaps add partly to the collection from your own cabinet and those of Mr. John Home, Dr. Robertson, and others of your mutual friends which you may pick up before you return hither. But if you wholly disapprove of this scheme say nothing of it, here let it drop, for without your concurrence I will not publish a single word of his. I should be glad, however, of your sentiments as soon as you can, and let me know at the same time as nearly as may be what day you purpose to be in London, for I must again repeat to you that without your approbation I will do nothing.
Your proposal to print the next edition of your work in 4 vols. octavo at
our expense and to divide the Profits is a very fair one, and therefore very agreeable to Mr. Cadell and me. Enclosed is the List of Books delivered to you of the 1st edit.
My wife and daughter join kindest compliments to your amiable Parent, who, I hope, is still able to enjoy your company,
which must be her greatest comfort.—Dear sir, your faithful and affectionate humble servant,
th November 1776.
The following is Smith’s reply:—
DEAR SIR—It always gives me great uneasiness whenever I am obliged to give an opinion contrary to the inclination of my friend. I am sensible that many of Mr. Hume’s letters would do him great honour, and that you would publish none but such as would. But what in this case ought principally to be considered is the will of the Dead. Mr. Hume’s constant injunction was to burn all his Papers except the
Dialogues and the account of his own life. This injunction was even inserted in the body of his will. I know he always disliked the thought of his letters ever being published. He had been in long and intimate correspondence with a relation of his own who dyed a few years ago. When that gentleman’s health began to decline he was extremely anxious to get back his letters, least the heir should think of publishing them. They were accordingly returned, and burnt as soon as returned. If a collection of Mr. Hume’s letters besides was to receive the public approbation, as yours certainly would, the Curls of the times would immediately set about rummaging the cabinets of all those who had ever received a scrap of paper from him. Many things would be published not fit to see the light, to the great mortification of all those who wish well to his memory. Nothing has contributed so much to sink the value of Swift’s works as the undistinguished publication of his letters; and be assured that your publication, however select, would soon be followed by an undistinguished one. I should therefore be sorry to see any beginning given to the publication of his letters. His life will not make a volume, but it will make a small pamphlet. I shall certainly be in London by the tenth of January at furthest. I have a little business at Edinburgh which may detain me a few days about Christmas, otherwise I should be with you but the new year. I have a great deal more to say to you; but the post is just going. I shall write to Mr. Cadell by next post.—I ever am, dear sir, most affectionately yours,
2nd December 1776.
When we consider Smith’s concern about the clamour he expected to arise from the
Dialogues, and his entire unconcern about the clamour he did not expect to arise from the letter to Strahan on Hume’s last illness, the actual event seems one of those teasing perversities which drew from Lord Bolingbroke the exclamation, “What a world is this, and how does fortune banter us!” The
Dialogues fell flat; the world had apparently had its surfeit of theological controversy. A contemporary German observer of things in England states that while the book made something of a sensation in his own country, it excited nothing of that sort here, and was already at the moment he wrote (1785) entirely forgotten.
The letter to Strahan, on the other hand, excited a long reverberation of angry criticism. Smith had certainly in writing it no thought of undermining the faith, or of anything more than speaking a good word for the friend he loved, and putting on record some things which he considered very remarkable when he observed them, but in the ear of that age his simple words rang like a challenge to religion itself. Men had always heard that without religion they could neither live a virtuous life nor die an untroubled death, and yet here was the foremost foe of Christianity represented as leading more than the life of the just, and meeting death not only without perturbation, but with a positive gaiety of spirits. His cheerfulness without frivolity, his firmness, his magnanimity, his charity, his generosity, his entire freedom from malice, his intellectual elevation and strenuous labour, are all described with the affection and confidence of a friend who had known them well; and they are finally summed up in the conclusion: “Upon the whole I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”
Hume’s character was certainly one of great beauty
and nobleness, and churchmen who knew him well speak of him in quite as strong admiration as Smith. Robertson used to call him “the virtuous heathen”; Blair said every word Smith wrote about him was true; and Lord Hailes, a grave religious man and a public apologist of Christianity, showed sufficient approbation of this letter to translate it into Latin verse. But in the world generally it raised a great outcry. It was false, it was incredible, it was a wicked defiance of the surest verities of religion. Even Boswell calls it a piece of “daring effrontery,” and as he thinks of it being done by his old professor, says, “Surely now have I more understanding than my teachers.” Though nothing was further from the intention of the author, it was generally regarded as an attack upon religion, which imperatively called for repulsion; and a champion soon appeared in the person of Dr. George Horne, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, author of a well-known commentary on the Psalms, and afterwards Bishop of Norwich. In an anonymous pamphlet, entitled “A Letter to Adam Smith, LL.D., on the Life, Death, and Philosophy of David Hume, Esq., by one of the People called Christians,” which ran rapidly through a number of editions, Horne, begging the whole question he raises, contends that a man of Hume’s known opinions could not by any possibility be the good and virtuous man Smith represented him to be, for had he been really generous, or compassionate, or good-natured, or charitable, or gentle-minded, he could never have thought of erasing from the hearts of mankind the knowledge of God and the comfortable faith in His fatherly care, or been guilty of “the atrocious wickedness of diffusing atheism through the land.” Horne goes on to charge this “atrocious wickedness” against Smith too. “You would persuade us,” he says, “by the example of David Hume, Esq., that atheism is the only cordial for low spirits and the proper antidote against the fear of death, but surely he who can reflect with complacency on friend thus employing his talents in this life, and thus
amusing himself with Lucian, whist, and Charon at his death, can smile over Babylon in ruins, esteem the earth-quakes which destroyed Lisbon as agreeable occurrences, and congratulate the hardened Pharaoh on his overthrow in the Red Sea.”
Smith never wrote any reply to this attack, nor took any public notice of it whatever, though he had too much real human nature in him to agree with Bishop Horne’s own ethereal maxim that “a man reproached with a crime of which he knows himself to be innocent should feel no more uneasiness than if he was said to be ill when he felt himself in perfect health.” It was of course quite unjust to accuse Smith of atheism, or of desiring to propagate atheism. His published writings, which the Bishop ought in fairness to have consulted, show him to have been a Theist, and there is some ground for thinking that he believed Hume, as many others of Hume’s personal friends did, to have been a Theist likewise. Though Hume was philosophically a doubter about matter, about his own existence, about God, he did not practically think so differently from the rest of the world about any of the three as was often supposed. Dr. Carlyle always thought him a believer. Miss Mure of Caldwell, the sister of his great friend the Baron of Exchequer, says he was the most superstitious man she ever knew.
*18 He told Holbach that an atheist never existed, and once, while walking with Adam Ferguson on a beautiful clear night, he stopped suddenly and exclaimed, pointing to the sky, “Can any one contemplate the wonders of that firmament and not believe that there is a God?”
*19 That Smith would not have been surprised to hear his friend make such a confession is apparent from the well-known anecdote told of his absence of mind in connection with Henry Mackenzie’s story of “La Roche.” That story was written soon after Hume’s death; it was published in the
Mirror in 1779, while Horne’s agitation was raging; and the author introduced
Hume as one of the characters of the piece for the very purpose of presenting this more favourable view of the great sceptic’s religious position with which Mackenzie had been impressed in his own intercourse with him. Hume appears in the story as a visitor in Switzerland, an inmate of the simple household of the pastor La Roche, and after describing him as being deeply taken with the sweet and unaffected piety of this family’s life and with the faith that sustained them in their troubles, the author goes on to observe, “I have heard him long after confess that there were moments when, amidst the pride of philosophical discovery and the pride of literary fame, he recalled to his mind the venerable figure of the good La Roche and wished he had never doubted.” Before publishing his story Mackenzie read it to Adam Smith, in order to be told whether anything should be omitted or altered as being out of keeping with Hume’s character, and so completely was Smith carried away by the verisimilitude that he not only said he found not a syllable to object to, but added that he was surprised he had never heard the anecdote before. In his absence of mind he had forgotten for the moment that he had been asked to listen to the story as a work of fiction, and his answer was the best compliment Mackenzie could receive to his fidelity to the probabilities of character.
Life of Hume, ii. 492.
Letters of Hume to Straban, p. 330.
Life of Hume, ii. 494.
Letters of Hume, p. 351.
Zustand des Staats, etc., in Gross-britannien, ii. 365.
Hume, ii. 451.
Works of J. Home, i. 21.