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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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
SOON after Smith settled in Edinburgh he received from his old French friends, the Duchesse d’Enville and her son the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, a presentation copy of a new edition of their ancestor’s
Maximes, accompanied by the following letter from the Duke himself, in which he informs Smith of the interesting circumstance that, in spite of the way his famous ancestor is mentioned in the
Theory of Moral Sentiments, he had himself at one time undertaken a translation of that work, and only abandoned the task when he found himself anticipated by the publication of the translation by Abbé Blavet in 1774. It is a little curious that a disciple of Quesnay, a regular frequenter of Mirabeau’s economic dinners, should take no notice in his letter of Smith’s greater work, so lately published.
Le désir de se rappeller à votre souvenir, monsieur, quand on a eu l’honneur de vous connoître doit vous paroître fort naturel; permettez que nous saisissons pour cela, ma mère et moi, l’occasion d’une édition nouvelle des
Maximes de la Rochefoucauld, dont nous prenons la liberté de vous offrir un exemplaire. Vous voyez que vous n’avons point de rancune, puisque le mal que vous avez dit de lui dans la
Théorie des Sentimens Moraux ne nous empêche point de vous envoyer ce même ouvrage. Il s’en est même fallu de peu que je ne fisse encore plus, car j’avois eu peutêtre la témérité d’entreprendre une traduction de votre
Théorie; mais comme je venois de terminer la première partie, j’ai vu paroître la traduction
de M. l’Abbé Blavet, et j’ai été forcé de renoncer au plaisir que j’aurois eu de faire passer dans ma langue un des meilleurs ouvrages de la vôtre.
Il auroit bien fallu pour lors entreprendre une justification de mon grandpère. Peutêtre n’auroit-il pas été difficile premièrement de l’excuser, en disant, qu’il avoit toujours vu les hommes à la Cour, et dans la guerre civile,
deux théâtres sur lesquels ils sont certainement plus mauvais qu’ailleurs; et ensuite de justifier, par la conduite personnelle de l’auteur, les principes qui sont certainement trop généralisés dans son ouvrage. Il a pris la partie pour le tout; et parceque les gens qu’il avoit eu le plus sous les yeux étoient animés par
l’amour-propre, il en a fait le mobile général de tous les hommes. Au reste quoique son ouvrage mérite à certains égards d’être combattu, il est cependant estimable même pour le fond, et beaucoup pour la forme.
Permettez-moi de vous demander, si nous aurons bientôt une édition complète des œuvres de votre illustre ami M. Hume? Nous l’avons sincèrement regretté.
Recevez, je vous supplie, l’expression sincère de tous les sentimens d’estime et d’attachement avec lesquels j’ai l’honneur d’être, monsieur, votre très humble et très obéissant serviteur,
What immediate answer Smith gave to this letter is unknown, and he certainly suffered the offending allusion to his correspondent’s ancestor to remain unmodified in the new edition of the
Theory which appeared in 1781, but eventually at any rate he came to think that he had done the author of the
Maximes an injustice by associating him in the same condemnation with Mandeville, and when Dugald Stewart visited Paris in 1789 he was commissioned by Smith to express to the Duc de la Rochefoucauld his sincere regret for having done so, and to inform him that the error would be repaired in the forthcoming edition of the work, which was at that time in preparation.
*42 This was done. In that final edition the allusion to Rochefoucauld was entirely suppressed, and the censure confined to Mandeville alone.
While Smith’s French friends were remonstrating with
him about an incidental allusion in the
Theory of Moral Sentiments, his old friend, Lord Kames—still at eighty-three as keen for metaphysical controversy as he had been with Bishop Butler sixty years before—was preparing an elaborate attack upon the theory of the book itself, which he proposed to incorporate in a new edition of his own
Principles of Morality and Religion. Before publishing this examination of the theory, however, he sent the manuscript to Smith for perusal, and received the following reply:—
th November 1778.
MY DEAR LORD—I am much obliged to you for the kind communication of the objections you propose to make in yr. new edition to my system. Nothing can be more perfectly friendly and polite than the terms in which you express yourself with regard to me, and I should be extremely peevish and ill-tempered if I could make the slightest opposition to their publication. I am no doubt extremely sorry to find myself of a different opinion both from so able a judge of the subject and from so old and good a friend; but differences of this kind are inevitable, and besides,
Partium contentionibus respublica crescit. I should have been waiting on your Lordship before this time, but the remains of a cold have for these four or five days past made it inconvenient for me to go out in the evening. Remember me to Mrs. Drummond,
*43 and believe me to be, my dear Lord, your most obliged and most humble servant,
Smith had most probably discussed the merits of Lord Kames’s objections with his lordship already, so that he saw no occasion to reply to them in his letter. What Kames principally combated was the idea that sympathy with the sufferings of another originated in any way in our imagining what would be our own feelings if we were in the sufferer’s place. He contends, on the contrary, that
it is excited directly by the perception of the screams, contortions, tears, or other outward signs of the pain that is endured; and that trying to put ourselves in the sufferer’s place produces really a self-satisfaction, on account of our own immunity from his troubles, which has the effect not of awakening the feeling of pity but of moderating and diminishing it.
A second objection he raises is that if Smith’s theory were true, those in whom the power of imagination was strongest would feel the force of the moral duties most sensibly, and
vice versâ, which, he says, is contradicted by experience. His last objection is that while the theory proposes to explain the origin of the moral sentiments so far as they respect other persons, it fails entirely to account for those sentiments in regard to ourselves. Our distress on losing an only son and our gratitude for a kindly office neither need to be explained nor can they be explained by imagining ourselves to be other persons.
One of the first acquaintances Smith made in Edinburgh was a young Caithness laird who was presently to make a considerable figure in public life—the patriotic and laborious Sir John Sinclair, founder of the Board of Agriculture, promoter of the Statistical Account of Scotland, and author of the
History of the Public Revenue, the Code of Agriculture, the Code of Health, and innumerable pamphlets on innumerable subjects. Sinclair was not yet in Parliament when Smith came to Edinburgh in the end of 1777, but his hands were already full of serious work. He was busy with his
History of the Public Revenue, in which Smith gave him every assistance in his power, and he had actually finished a treatise on the Christian Sabbath, which, in deference to Smith’s advice, he never gave to the press. The object of this treatise was to show that the puritanical Sabbath observance of Scotland had no countenance in Holy Scripture, and that, while part of the day ought certainly to be devoted to divine service, the rest might be usefully employed in occupations of a character
not strictly religious without infringing any divine law. When the work was completed, Sinclair showed the manuscript to Smith, who dissuaded him strongly from printing it. “Your work, Mr. Sinclair,” said he, “is very ably written, but I advise you not to publish it, for rest assured that the Sabbath as a political institution is of inestimable value independently of its claim to divine authority.”
One day Sinclair brought Smith the news of the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777, and exclaimed in the deepest concern that the nation was ruined. “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” was Smith’s calm reply. In November 1778 Sinclair wanted Smith to send him to Thurso Castle the loan of the important French book on contemporary systems of taxation, which is so often quoted in the
Wealth of Nations—the
Mémoires concernant les Impositions—and of which only 100 copies were originally printed, and only four apparently found their way to this country. Smith naturally hesitated to send so rare a book so far, but promised his young correspondent to give him, when he returned to Edinburgh, not only that book but everything else, printed or written, which he possessed on the subject. Smith’s letter is as follows:—
Mr. Smith presents his most respectful compliments to Mr. Sinclair of Ulbster.
Mémoires sur les Finances*45 are engaged for four months to come to Mr. John Davidson;
*46 when he is done with them Mr. Smith would be very happy to accommodate Mr. Sinclair, but acknowledges he is a little uneasy about the safety of the conveyance and the greatness of the distance. He has frequent occasion to consult the book himself, both in the course of his private studies
and in the business of his present employment, and is therefore not very willing to let it go out of Edinburgh. The book was never properly published, but there were a few more copies printed than was necessary for the Commission, for whose use it was compiled.
One of these I obtained by the particular favour of Mr. Turgot, the late Controller-General of the Finances. I have heard but of three copies in Great Britain: one belongs to a noble lord, who obtained it by connivance, as he told me;
*47 one is in the Secretary of State’s office, and the third belongs to a private gentleman. How these two were obtained I know not, but suspect it was in the same manner. If any accident should happen to my book, the loss is perfectly irreparable. When Mr. Sinclair comes to Edinburgh I shall be very happy to communicate to him not only that book, but everything else I have upon the subject, both printed and manuscript, and am, with the highest respect for his character, his most obedient humble servant,
th November 1778.
Mémoires was printed in 1768, but it may be reasonably inferred, from Smith’s account of the extreme difficulty of getting a copy, that he only obtained his in 1774, on the advent of Turgot to power. If that be so, much in the chapters on taxation in the
Wealth of Nations must have been written in London after that date.
Sir John’s biographer quotes a passage from another letter of Smith in connection with his correspondent’s financial studies. This letter—which Archdeacon Sinclair describes as a “holograph letter in six folio pages”—is no longer extant, but it concluded with the following remarks on the taxation of the necessaries and luxuries of the poor:—
I dislike all taxes that may affect the necessary expenses of the poor. They, according to circumstances, either oppress the
people immediately subject to them, or are repaid with great interest by the rich,
i.e. by their employers in the advanced wages of their labour. Taxes on the
luxuries of the poor, upon their beer and other spirituous liquors, for example, as long as they are so moderate as not to give much temptation to smuggling, I am so far from disapproving, that I look upon them as the best of sumptuary laws.
I could write a volume upon the folly and the bad effects of all the legal encouragements that have been given either to the linen manufacture or to the fisheries.—I have the honour to be, with most sincere regard, my dear friend, most affectionately yours,
Works, x. 46.
Memoirs of Sir John Sinclair, i. 36.
History of Scotland as a special authority on certain facts of the life of Mary Stuart.
Life of Sir J. Sinclair, i. 39.