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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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
THE author of the
Pleasures of Memory, going to Scotland to make the home tour, as it was called, then much in vogue, brought with him letters of introduction to Smith from Dr. Price and Dr. Kippis, the editor of the
Biographia Britannica. The poet was then a young man of twenty-three, who had published nothing but his
Ode to Superstition, and these old Unitarian friends of his father were as yet his chief acquaintances in the world of letters. Their names, notwithstanding the disparaging allusion Smith makes to Price in a letter previously given, won for Rogers the kindest possible reception, and even a continuous succession of civilities, of which he has left a grateful record in the journal he kept during his tour. This journal has been published in Mr. Clayden’s
Early Years of Samuel Rogers, and a few additional particulars omitted in it are found in Dyce’s published and Mitford’s unpublished recollections of Rogers’s table-talk.
Rogers arrived in Edinburgh apparently on the 14th of July—that momentous 14th of July 1789 which set the world aflame, though not a spark of information of it had reached Edinburgh before he left the city on the 21st; and on the morning of the 15th he walked down Panmure Close and paid his first visit to the economist. He found Smith sitting at breakfast quite alone, with a dish of strawberries before him, and he has preserved some
scraps of the conversation, none of them in any way remarkable. Starting from the business then on hand, Smith said that fruit was his favourite diet at that season of the year, and that Scotland produced excellent strawberries, for the strawberry was a northern fruit, and was at its best in Orkney or Sweden. Passing to the subject of Rogers’s tour, he said that Edinburgh deserved little notice, that the old town had given Scotland a bad name (for its filth, presumably), and that he himself was anxious to remove to the newer quarters of the town, and had set his heart on George Square (the place where Walter Scott was brought up and Henry Dundas died). He explained that Edinburgh was entirely supported by the three Courts of Session, Exchequer, and Justiciary (possibly to account for the filth of the place, in accordance with his theory that there was always more squalor and misery in a residential than in an industrial town). While thus apparently slighting or ignoring the beauties of Edinburgh, which were all there then as they are now, he praised Loch Lomond highly. It was the finest lake in Great Britain, the islands being very beautiful and forming a very striking contrast to the shores. The conversation passed from the scenery of Scotland to the soil, and Smith said Scotland had an excellent soil, but a climate so severe that its harvests were too often overtaken by winter before they were housed. The consequence was that the Scotch on the Borders were still in extreme poverty, just as he had noticed half a century before when he rode across the Borders as a student to Oxford, and was greatly struck with the different condition of things he saw as he approached Carlisle. From agriculture they passed on to discuss the corn trade, and Smith denounced the Government’s late refusal of corn to France, saying it ought to excite indignation and contempt, inasmuch as the quantity required was so trifling that it would not support the population of Edinburgh for a single day. The population of Edinburgh suggested their houses, and Smith said that the houses were piled high on
one another in Paris as well as in Edinburgh. They then touched on Sir John Sinclair, of whom Smith spoke disparagingly in certain aspects, but said that he never knew a man who was in earnest and did not do something at last. Before leaving to return to his hotel Rogers seems to have asked Smith if he knew Mrs. Piozzi, who was then living there, and had called upon Rogers after learning from the landlord that Smith and Robertson had left cards for him, and Smith said he did not know her, but believed she was spoiled by keeping company with odd people. Smith then invited his visitor to dine with him next day at the usual Friday dinner of the Oyster Club, and Rogers came away delighted with the interview, and with the illustrious philosopher’s genuine kindness of heart.
On Friday, as appointed, Rogers dined with the Oyster Club as Smith’s guest, but he has made no specific entry of the event in his journal, and no record of the conversation. Black and Playfair seem to have been there, and possibly other men of eminence; but the whole talk was usurped by a commonplace member, and Smith felt—and possibly Rogers too—that the day was lost. For next time they met Smith asked Rogers how he liked the club, and said, ”
That Bogle, I was sorry he talked so much; he spoiled our evening.” That Bogle was the Laird of Daldowie, on the Clyde. His father had been Rector of Glasgow University in Smith’s professorial days, and one of his brothers, George Bogle, attained some eminence through the embassy on which he was sent by Warren Hastings to the Llama of Thibet, and his account of which has been published quite recently; and the offender himself was a man of ability and knowledge, who had been a West India merchant for many years, was well versed in economic and commercial subjects, and very fond of writing to the Government of the day long communications on those subjects, which seem to have been generally read, and sometimes even acted upon. In society, as we are told by one of his relations, Mr. Morehead, he was generally considered
very “tedious, from the long lectures on mercantile and political subjects (for he did not converse when he entered on these, but rather declaimed) which he was in the habit of delivering in the most humdrum and monotonous manner.”
*96 His tedious lectures must, however, have had more in them than ordinary hearers appreciated, for Smith thought so highly of Bogle’s conversation that when he invited Rogers to the club on this particular occasion he mentioned that Bogle, a very clever person, was to be there, and said “I must go and hear Bogle talk.”
Rogers was with Smith again on Sunday the 19th, and used ever afterwards to speak of that particular Sunday as the most memorable in his life, for he breakfasted with Robertson, heard him preach in the Old Greyfriars in the forenoon, heard Blair preach in the High Church in the afternoon, drank coffee thereafter with Mrs. Piozzi, and finished the day by supping with Adam Smith. He had called on Smith “between sermons,” as they say in Scotland, and apparently close on the hour for service, since “all the bells of the kirks” were ringing. But Smith was going for an airing, and his chair was at the door. The sedan was much in vogue in Edinburgh at that period, because it threaded the narrow wynds and alleys better than any other sort of carriage was able to do. Smith met Rogers at the door, and after exchanging the few observations about Bogle and the club to which I have already alluded, he invited his young friend to come back to supper in the evening, and also to dinner on Monday, because he had asked Henry Mackenzie, the author of the
Man of Feeling, to meet him. “Who could refuse?” writes Rogers. Smith then set out in his sedan, and Rogers walked up to the High Church to hear Blair. Returning to Panmure House at nine, he found there, he says, all the company who were at the club on Friday
except Bogle and Macaulay, and with the addition of a Mr. Muir from Gottingen. (I do not know who Macaulay and Muir were.) They spoke of Junius, and Smith suspected Single-speech Hamilton of the authorship, on the ground of the well-known story, which seems to have been then new to Rogers, and which Smith had been told by Gibbon, that on one occasion when Hamilton was on a visit at Goodwood, he informed the Duke of Richmond that there was a devilish keen letter from Junius in the
Public Advertiser of that day, and mentioned even some of the points it made; but when the Duke got hold of the paper he found the letter itself was not there, but only an apology for its absence. From this circumstance Hamilton’s name came to be mentioned in connection with the authorship of the letters, and they ceased to appear. Smith’s argument was that so long as the letters were attributed to men who were not their writers, such as Lord Lansdowne or Burke, they continued to go on, but immediately the true author was named they stopped. The conversation passed on to Turgot and Voltaire and the Duke of Richelieu, and its particulars have been stated already in previous parts of this work.
On Monday Rogers dined at Smith’s house to meet Henry Mackenzie, as had been arranged, and the other guests seem to have been the Mr. Muir of the evening before and Mr. M’Gowan—John M’Gowan, Clerk of the Signet, already referred to. Dr. Hutton came in afterwards and joined them at tea. The chief share in the conversation seems to have been taken by Mackenzie, who, as we know from Scott, was always “the life of company with anecdotes and fun,” and related on this occasion many stories of second sight in the Highlands, and especially of the eccentric Caithness laird, who used the pretension as a very effectual instrument for maintaining authority and discipline among his tenantry. They spoke much too about the poetesses,—Hannah More, and
Mrs. Charlotte Smith, and Mrs. John Hunter, the great surgeon’s wife; but it appears to have still been Mackenzie who bore the burden of the talk. The only thing Rogers reports Smith as saying is a very ordinary remark about Dr. Blair. They had been speaking, as was natural, about the sermon which Rogers—and Mackenzie also—had heard the previous afternoon on “Curiosity concerning the Affairs of Others,” and one passage in which, though it reads now commonplace enough in the printed page, Rogers seems to have admired greatly. Smith observed that Blair was too puffed up, and the worthy divine would have been more or less than human if he had escaped the necessary effects of the excessive popularity he so long enjoyed at once as a preacher and as a critic. It will be remembered how Burns detested Blair’s absurd condescension and pomposity.
From Smith’s the company seems to have proceeded in a body to a meeting of the Royal Society, of which all were members except Muir and Rogers himself. Before going Mackenzie repeated an epigram which had been written on Smith sleeping at the meetings of this society, but the epigram has not been preserved. Only seven persons were present—Smith and his guests and the reader of the paper for the day, who happened to be the economist, Dr. James Anderson, already mentioned repeatedly in this book as the original propounder of Ricardo’s theory of rent. His paper was on “Debtors and the Revision of the Laws that respect them,” and Rogers says it was “very long and dull,” and, as a natural consequence, “Mr. Commissioner Smith fell asleep, and Mackenzie touched my elbow and smiled,”
*99—a curious tableau. When the meeting was over Rogers took leave of his host, went to the play with Mrs. Piozzi, and, though he no doubt saw Smith again before finally quitting Edinburgh, mentions him no more.
Having been so much with Smith during those few
days, Rogers’s impressions are in some respects of considerable value. He was deeply impressed with the warmth of Smith’s kindness. “He is a very friendly, agreeable man, and I should have dined and supped with him every day, if I had accepted all his invitations.”
*100 He was very communicative,
*101 and to Rogers’s surprise, considering the disparity of their years and the greatness of his reputation, Smith was “quite familiar.” “Who shall we have to dinner?” he would ask. Rogers observed in him no sign of absence of mind,
*102 and felt that as compared with Robertson, Smith was far more of a man who had seen much of the world. His communicativeness impressed itself also upon other casual visitors, because his first appearance sometimes gave them the opposite suggestion of reserve. “He was extremely communicative,” says the anonymous writer who sent the first letter of reminiscences to the editor of the
Bee, “and delivered himself on every subject with a freedom and boldness quite opposite to the apparent reserve of his appearance.”
Another visitor to Scotland that year who enjoyed a talk with Smith, and has something interesting to communicate about the conversation, is William Adam, barrister and M.P., afterwards Chief Commissioner of the Jury Court in Scotland, who was a nephew of Smith’s schoolfellow and lifelong friend, Robert Adam, the architect. William Adam was an intimate personal friend of Bentham since the days when they ate their way to the bar together and spent their nights in endless discussions about Hume’s philosophy and other thorny subjects, and when in Scotland in the summer of 1789 he met Smith, and drew the conversation to his friend Bentham’s recently published
Defence of Usury. This book, it will be remembered, was written expressly to
controvert Smith’s recommendation of a legal limitation of the rate of interest, and from this conversation with Adam there seems to be some ground for thinking that the book had the very unusual controversial effect of converting the antagonist against whom it was written. Smith’s reason for wanting to fix the legal rate of interest at a maximum just a little above the ordinary market rate was to prevent undue facilities being given to prodigals and projectors; but Bentham replied very justly that, whatever might be said of prodigals, projectors at any rate were one of the most useful classes a community could possess, that a wise government ought to do all it could to encourage their enterprise instead of thwarting it, and that the best policy therefore was to leave the rate of interest alone. In conducting his polemic Bentham wrote as an admiring pupil towards a venerated master, to whom he said he owed everything, and over whom he could gain no advantage except, to use his own words, “with weapons which you have taught me to wield and with which you have furnished me; for as all the great standards of truth which can be appealed to in this line owe, as far as I can understand, their establishment to you, I can see scarce any other way of convicting you of an error or oversight than by judging you out of your own mouth.”
Smith was touched with the handsome spirit in which his adversary wrote, and candidly admitted to Adam the force of his assaults. The conversation is preserved in a letter written to Bentham on the 4th December 1789 by another friend and fellow-barrister, George Wilson, as he apparently had the story from Adam’s own lips.
“Did we ever tell you,” writes Wilson, “what Dr. Adam Smith said to Mr. William Adam, the Council M.P., last summer in Scotland? The Doctor’s expressions were that ‘the
Defence of Usury was the work of a very superior man, and that tho’ he had given
him some hard knocks, it was done in so handsome a way that he could not complain,’ and seemed to admit that you were right.”
*104 This admission, though apparently not made in so many words by Smith, but rather inferred by Adam from the general purport of the conversation, is still not far removed from the confession so definitely reported that his position suffered some hard knocks from the assaults of Bentham. After that confession it is reasonable to think that if Smith had lived to publish another edition of his work, he would have modified his position on the rate of interest.
Life of the Rev. R. Morehead, p. 43.
Early Life of Samuel Rogers, p. 96.
Early Life of Samuel Rogers, p. 90.
Recollections of the Table-talk of Samuel Rogers, p. 45.
Works, iii. 21.