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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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
BURKE had been elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow in November 1783 in succession to Dundas, and he came down to Scotland to be installed in the following April. He spent altogether eight or ten days in the country, and he spent them all in the company of Smith, who attended him wherever he went. Burke and Smith, always profound admirers of one another’s writings, had grown warm friends during the recent lengthened residence of the latter in London. Even in the brilliant circle round the brown table in Gerrard Street there was none Burke loved or esteemed more highly than Smith. One of the statesman’s biographers informs us, on the authority of an eminent literary friend, who paid him a visit at Beaconsfield after his retirement from public life, that he then spoke with the warmest admiration of Smith’s vast learning, his pro-found understanding, and the great importance of his writings, and added that his heart was as good and rare as his head, and that his manners were “peculiarly pleasing.”
*73 Smith on his part was drawn to Burke by no less powerful an attraction. He once paid him a compliment with which the latter appears to have been particularly gratified, for he repeated it to his literary friend on this same occasion. “Burke,” said the economist, “is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do,
without any previous communications having passed between us.”
The installation of Lord Rector was to take place on Saturday the 10th of April, and Burke arrived in Edinburgh on Tuesday or Wednesday previous. Whether he was Smith’s guest while there I am unable to say, but at any rate it was Smith who did the honours of the town to him, and accompanied him wherever he went. Dalzel, the Greek professor, gives an account of the statesman’s visit, to his old friend and class-fellow, Sir Robert Liston, and states that “Lord Maitland attended him constantly and Mr. Adam Smith. They brought him,” he adds, “to my house the day after he arrived.” Lord Maitland was the eldest son of the Earl of Lauderdale, and became a well-known figure both in politics and in scientific economics after he succeeded to the peerage himself. I have already mentioned him for his admiration of Smith, and his defence of him from the disparaging remarks of Fox, though he was himself no blind follower of the
Wealth of Nations, but one of the earliest and not the least acute of the critics of that work. He was at this time one of the rising hopes of the Whigs in the House of Commons, which he had entered as representative of a Cornish borough in 1780. Dalzel had been his tutor, and had accompanied him in that capacity to Oxford; and being also a great favourite with Smith, whom he respected above all things for his knowledge of Greek, he was naturally among the first of the eminent citizens to whom they introduced their distinguished guest.
On Thursday morning Burke and Smith went out with Lord Maitland to Hatton, the Lauderdale seat in Midlothian, to dine and stay the night there on their way to Glasgow, and Dugald Stewart and Dalzel joined them later in the day after they had finished their college classes. The conversation happened very naturally to touch on party prospects, for they were at the moment in the thick
of a general election—the famous election of 1784, so fatal to the Whigs, when near 160 supporters of the Coalition Ministry—”Fox’s martyrs”—lost their seats, and Pitt was sent back with an enormous majority behind him. Parliament had been dissolved a fortnight before, and many of the elections were already past; Burke himself had been returned for Malton on his way north, but the battle was still raging; in Westminster, where the Whig chief was himself fighting, it lasted a month longer, and in many other constituencies the event was as yet undecided. As far as returns had been made, however, things had gone hard with the Whigs, and Burke was despondent. He had been some twenty years in public life without his party being in power as many months, and since the party seemed now doomed, as indeed it was, to twenty years of opposition again, he turned to Lord Maitland and said, “Lord Maitland, if you want to be in office, if you have any ambition or wish to be successful in life, shake us off, give us up.” But Smith intervened, and with singular hopefulness ventured to prophesy that in two years things would certainly come round again. “Why,” replied Burke, “I have already been in a minority nineteen years, and your two years, Mr. Smith, will just make me twenty-one, and it will surely be high time for me to be then in my majority.”
Smith’s hearty remark implies his continued loyalty to the Rockinghams, and shows that just as he two years before approved of their separation from Lord Shelburne, which many Whig critics have censured, so he now equally approved of their coalition with their old adversary, Lord North, which Whig critics have censured more severely still. But his sanguine forecast was far astray. Burke never again returned to office, and the whole conversation reads strangely in the light of subsequent events. Only a few years more and Burke had himself shaken off
his friends—from no view to power, it is true—and the young nobleman to whom he gave the advice in jest was to take the lead in avenging the desertion, and to denounce the pension it was proposed to give him as the wages of apostasy. The French Revolution, which drove Burke back to a more conservative position, carried Lord Maitland, who had drunk in Radicalism from Professor John Millar, forward into the republican camp. He went over to Paris with Dugald Stewart and harangued the mob on the streets
pour la iberté,*76 and he said one day to the Duchess of Gordon, “I hope, madame, ere long to have the pleasure of introducing Mrs. Maitland to Mrs. Gordon.”
On the present occasion at Hatton, however, they were all one in their lamentations over the temporary eclipse the cause of liberty had suffered. On the following morning they all set out together for Glasgow, Stewart and Dalzel being able to accompany them because it was Good Friday, and Good Friday was then a holiday at Edinburgh University. They supped that evening with Professor John Millar, Smith’s pupil and Lord Maitland’s master, and next day they assisted at the ceremony of installation. The chief business was of course the Rector’s address, described in the
Annual Register of the year as “a very polite and elegant speech suited to the occasion.” Tradition says Burke broke down in this speech, and after speaking five minutes concluded abruptly by saying he was unable to proceed, as he had never addressed so learned an audience before; but though the tradition is mentioned by Jeffrey, who was a student at Glasgow only three years afterwards, and is more definitely stated by Professor Young of the same University in his
Lectures on Intellectual Philosophy (p. 334), there appears to be no solid foundation for it whatever. It is not mentioned by Dalzel, who would be unlikely to omit so interesting a
circumstance in the gossiping account of the affair which he gives in his letter to Sir R. Liston.
After the installation they adjourned to the College chapel for divine service, where they heard a sermon from Professor Arthur, and then they dined in the College Hall. On Sunday Stewart and Dalzel returned to Edinburgh for their classes next day, but Smith and Lord Maitland accompanied Burke on an excursion to Loch Lomond, of which we know Smith was a great admirer. He said to Samuel Rogers it was the finest lake in Great Britain, and the feature that pleased him particularly was the contrast between the islands and the shore.
*78 They did not return to Edinburgh till Wednesday, and they returned then by way of Carron, probably to see the ironworks. On Thursday evening they dined at Smith’s, Dalzel being again of the party. Burke seems to have been at his best—”the most agreeable and entertaining man in conversation I ever knew,” says Dalzel. “We got a vast deal of political anecdotes from him, and fine pictures of political characters both dead and living. Whether they were impartially drawn or not, that is questionable, but they were admirably drawn.”
The elections were still proceeding, and the 29th of April was fixed for the election in Lanarkshire, which had been represented for the previous ten years by a strong personal friend of Smith, Andrew Stuart of Torrance. I have already mentioned Stuart’s name in connection with his candidature for the Indian Commissionership, for which Sir William Pulteney thought of proposing Smith. Though now forgotten, he was a notable person in his day. He came first strongly into public notice during the proceedings in the Douglas cause. Having, as law-agent for the Duke of Hamilton, borne the chief part in preparing the Hamilton side of the case, he was attacked in the House of Lords—and attacked with quite unusual virulence—both
by Thurlow, the counsel for the other side, and by Lord Mansfield, one of the judges; and he met those attacks by fighting a duel with Thurlow, and writing a series of letters to Lord Mansfield, which obtained much attention and won him a high name for ability. Shortly thereafter—in 1774—he entered Parliament as member for Lanarkshire, and made such rapid mark that he was appointed a Commissioner of Trade and Plantations in 1779, and seemed destined to higher office. But now in 1784, on the very eve of the election, Stuart suddenly retired from the field, in consequence apparently of some personal considerations arising between himself and the Duke of Hamilton. He was extremely anxious to have his reasons for this unexpected step immediately and fully explained to his personal friends in Edinburgh, and on the 22nd of April—the day before he wrote his resignation—he sent his whole correspondence with the Duke of Hamilton about the matter through to John Davidson, W.S., for their perusal, and especially, it would appear, for the perusal of Smith, the only one he names. “There is particularly,” he says, “one friend, Mr. Adam Smith, whom I wish to be fully informed of everything.” Being the only friend specifically named in the letter, Smith seems to have been consulted by Davidson as to any other “particular friends” to whom the correspondence should be submitted, and he wrote Davidson on the 7th of May 1784 advising him to show it to Campbell of Stonefield, one of the Lords of Session, and a brother-in-law of Lord Bute. He says—
My Lord Stonefield is an old attached and faithful friend of A. Stuart. The papers relative to the County of Lanark may safely be communicated to him. He is perfectly convinced of the propriety of what you and I agreed upon, that the subject ought to be talked of as little as possible, and never but among his most intimate and cordial friends.
Friday, 7th May.*80
After being brightened by the agreeable visit of Burke, Smith was presently cast into the deepest sadness by what seems to have been the first trouble of his singularly serene and smooth life—the death of his mother. She died on the 23rd of May, in her ninetieth year. The three avenues to Smith, says the Earl of Buchan, were always his mother, his books, and his political opinions—his mother apparently first of all. They had lived together, off and on, for sixty years, and being most tenderly attached to her, he is said, after her death, never to have seemed the same again. According to Ramsay of Ochtertyre, he was so disconsolate that people in general could find no explanation except in his supposed unbelief in the resurrection. He sorrowed, they said, as those who have no hope. People in general would seem to have little belief in the natural affections; but while they extracted from Smith’s filial love a proof of his infidelity, Archdeacon John Sinclair seeks to extract from it a demonstration of his religious faith. It appears that when Mrs. Smith was visited on her deathbed by her minister, her famous son always remained in the room and joined in the prayers, though they were made in the name and for the sake of Christ; and the worthy Archdeacon thinks no infidel would have done that.
The depression Smith showed after his mother’s death, however, was unfortunately due in part to the fact that his own health was beginning to fail. He was now sixtyone; as Stewart tells us, he aged very rapidly, and in two years more he was in the toils of the malady that carried him off. The shock of his mother’s death could not help therefore telling severely upon him in his declining bodily condition.
Burke was—no doubt at Smith’s instance—elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in June 1784, in spite of several black balls; for, as Dalzel observes, “it would seem that there are some violent politicians among us”; and in August 1785 he was again in Scotland
attending to the duties of his Rectorship. He was accompanied this time by Windham, who was the most attached and the most beloved of his political disciples, and who had been a student at Glasgow himself in 1766. If Dalzel was delighted with Burke, he was enchanted with Windham, for, says he to Liston, “besides his being a polite man and a man of the world, he is perhaps the very best Greek scholar I ever met with. He did me the honour of breakfasting with me one morning, and sat for three hours talking about Greek. When we were at Hatton he and I stole away as often as we could from the rest of the company to read and talk about Greek. . . . You may judge how I would delight in him.” Smith was not at Hatton with them this time, but he saw much of them in Edinburgh.
Smith had probably known Windham already, but at any rate, as soon as Burke and he arrived in Edinburgh on the 24th of August and took their quarters in Dun’s Hotel, they paid a visit to Smith, and next day they dined with him at his house. Among the guests mentioned by Windham as being present were Robertson; Henry Erskine, who had recently been Burke’s colleague in the Coalition Ministry as Lord Advocate; and Mr. Cullen, probably the doctor, though it may have been his son (afterwards a judge), who lives in fame chiefly for his feats as a mimic. Windham gives us no scrap of their conversation except a few remarks of Robertson about Holyrood; and though he says he recollected no one else of the company except those he has mentioned, there was at least one other guest whose presence there that evening he was shortly afterwards to have somewhat romantic occasion to recall. This was Sir John Sinclair, who had just reentered Parliament for a constituency at the Land’s End, after having been defeated in the Wick burghs by Fox. Burke and Windham proposed making a tour in the Highlands, and Sir John advised them strongly, when they came to the beautiful district between Blair-Athole and Dunkeld, to leave their post-chaise for that stage and
walk through the woods and glens on foot. They took the advice, and about ten miles from Dunkeld came upon a young lady, the daughter of a neighbouring proprietor, reading a novel under a tree. They entered into conversation with her, and Windham was so much struck with her smartness and talent that though he was obliged at the time, as he said, most reluctantly to leave her, he, three years afterwards, came to Sinclair in the House of Commons and said to him, “I have never been able to get this beautiful mountain nymph out of my mind, and I wish you to ascertain whether she is married or single.” Windham was too late. She was already married to Dr. Dick—afterwards a much-trusted medical adviser of Sir Walter Scott—and had gone with her husband to the East Indies.
They returned to Edinburgh on the 13th of September, and, says Windham, “after dinner walked to Adam Smith’s. Felt strongly the impression of a family completely Scotch. House magnificent and place fine …. Found there Colonels Balfour and Ross, the former late aide-de-camp to General Howe, the latter to Lord Cornwallis. Felt strongly the impression of a company completely Scotch.”
Colonel Nesbit Balfour, who won great distinction in the American war, was the son of one of Smith’s old Fifeshire neighbours, a proprietor in that county, and became afterwards well known in Parliament, where he sat from 1790 to 1812. Colonel (afterwards General) Alexander Ross had also taken a distinguished part in the American war, and was Cornwallis’s most intimate friend and correspondent. He was at this time Deputy-Adjutant-General of the Forces in Scotland. Whether he was a relation of the Colonel Patrick Ross of whom Smith speaks in one of his letters as a kinsman of his own,
*81 I cannot say.
Next day, the 14th, Burke and Windham dined with Smith. There was no other guest except a Mr. Skene, no doubt one of Smith’s cousins from Pitlour, probably the
Inspector-General of Scotch Roads already mentioned.
*82 On the following morning the two statesmen proceeded on their way southward.
One of the visits Burke paid in Edinburgh was to a charming poet, to whom fortune has been singularly unkind, not only treating him cruelly when alive, but instead of granting the usual posthumous reparation, treating him even more cruelly after his death. I mean John Logan, the author of the
Ode to the Cuckoo, which Burke thought the most beautiful lyric in the language. Logan was at the moment in the thick of his troubles. He had written a tragedy called
Runnymede, which, though accepted by the management of Covent Garden, was prohibited by the Lord Chamberlain, who scented current politics in the bold speeches of the Barons of King John, but it was eventually produced in the Edinburgh theatre in 1783. Its production immediately involved the author, as one of the ministers of Leith, in difficulties with his parishioners and the ecclesiastical courts similar to those which John Home had encountered twenty years before, and the trouble ended in Logan resigning his charge in December 1786 on a pension of £40 a year. Smith, who was an admirer and, as Dr. Carlyle mentions to Bishop Douglas, a “great patron” of Logan, stood by him through these troubles. When they first broke out in 1783 he wished, as Logan himself tells his old pupil Sir John Sinclair, to get the poet transferred if possible from his parish in Leith to the more liberal and enlightened parish of the Canongate, and when Logan eventually made up his mind to take refuge in literature, Smith gave him the following letter of introduction to Andrew Strahan, who had, since his father’s death, become the head of the firm:—
DEAR SIR—Mr. Logan, a clergyman of uncommon learning, taste, and ingenuity, but who cannot easily submit to the puritanical
spirit of this country, quits his charge and proposes to settle in London, where he will probably exercise what may be called the trade of a man of letters. He has published a few poems, of which several have great merit, and which are probably not unknown to you. He has likewise published a tragedy, which I cannot say I admire in the least. He has another in manuscript, founded and almost translated from a French drama, which is much better. But the best of all his works which I have seen are some lectures upon universal history, which were read here some years ago, but which, notwithstanding they were approved and even admired by some of the best and most impartial judges, were run down by the prevalence of a hostile literary faction, to the leaders of which he had imprudently given some personal offence. Give me leave to recommend him most earnestly to your countenance and protection. If he was employed on a review he would be an excellent hand for giving an account of all books of taste, of history, and of moral and abstract philosophy.—I ever am, my dear sir, most faithfully and affectionately yours,
th September 1785.
The lectures which Smith praises so highly were published in 1779, and are interesting as one of the first adventures in what was afterwards known as the philosophy of history. But his memory rests now on his poems, which Smith thought less of, and especially on his
Ode to the Cuckoo, which he has been accused so often of stealing from his deceased friend Michael Bruce, but to which his title has at last been put beyond all doubt by Mr. Small’s publication of a letter, written to Principal Baird in 1791, by Dr. Robertson of Dalmeny, who acted as joint editor with him of their common friend Bruce’s poems.
Life of Burke, ii. 429.
Life of Burke, ii. 429.
History of University of Edinburgh, i. 42.
Anecdotes, p. 25.
Early Life of Samuel Rogers, p. 92.
History of the University of Edinburgh, i. 42.
Michael Bruce and the Ode to the Cuckoo, p.7.