Life of Adam Smith
By John Rae
THE fullest account we possess of the life of Adam Smith is still the memoir which Dugald Stewart read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on two evenings of the winter of 1793, and which he subsequently published as a separate work, with many additional illustrative notes, in 1810. Later biographers have made few, if any, fresh contributions to the subject. But in the century that has elapsed since Stewart wrote, many particulars about Smith and a number of his letters have incidentally and by very scattered channels found their way into print. It will be allowed to be generally desirable, in view of the continued if not even increasing importance of Smith, to obtain as complete a view of his career and work as it is still in our power to recover; and it appeared not unlikely that some useful contribution to this end might result if all those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure. In this last part of my task I have been greatly assisted by the Senatus of the University of Glasgow, who have most kindly supplied me with an extract of every passage in the College records bearing on Smith; by the Council of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who have granted me every facility for using the Hume Correspondence, which is in their custody; and by the Senatus of the University of Edinburgh for a similar courtesy with regard to the Carlyle Correspondence and the David Laing MSS. in their library…. [From the Preface]
First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Chapter 29
- Chapter 30
- Chapter 31
- Chapter 32
IN returning to Scotland Smith’s ideas were probably fixed from the first on a Scotch university chair as an eventual acquisition, but he thought in the meantime to obtain employment of the sort he afterwards gave up his chair to take with the Duke of Buccleugh, a travelling tutorship with a young man of rank and wealth, then a much-desired and, according to the standard of the times, a highly-remunerated occupation. While casting about for a place of that kind he stayed at home with his mother in Kirkcaldy, and he had to remain there without any regular employment for two full years, from the autumn of 1746 till the autumn of 1748. The appointment never came; because from his absent manner and bad address, we are told, he seemed to the ordinary parental mind a most unsuitable person to be entrusted with the care of spirited and perhaps thoughtless young gentlemen. But the visits he paid to Edinburgh in pursuit of this work bore fruit by giving him quite as good a start in life, and a much shorter cut to the professorial position for which he was best fitted. During the winter of 1748-49 he made a most successful beginning as a public lecturer by delivering a course on the then comparatively untried subject of English literature, and gave at the same time a first contribution to English literature himself by collecting and editing the poems of William Hamilton of Bangour. For both these
undertakings he was indebted to the advice and good offices of Lord Kames, or, as he then was, Mr. Henry Home, one of the leaders of the Edinburgh bar, with whom he was made acquainted, we may safely assume, by his friend and neighbour, James Oswald of Dunnikier, whom we know to have been among Kames’s most intimate friends and correspondents. Kames, though now fifty-two, had not yet written any of the works which raised him afterwards to eminence, but he had long enjoyed in the literary society of the North something of that position which Voltaire laughs at him for trying to take towards the world in general; he was a law on all questions of taste, from an epic poem to a garden plot. He had little Latin and no Greek, for he never was at college, and the classical quotations in his
Sketches were translated for him by A. F. Tytler. But he had thrown himself with all the greater zeal on that account into English literature when English literature became the range in Scotland after the Union, and he was soon crossing steel with Bishop Butler in metaphysics, and the accepted guide of the new Scotch poets in literary criticism. Hamilton of Bangour confesses that he himself
From Hume learned verse to criticise,
the Hume meant being his early friend, Henry Home of Kames, and not his later friend, David Hume the historian.
*19 Home’s place in the literature of Scotland corresponds with his place in its agriculture; he was the first of the improvers; and Smith, who always held him in the deepest veneration, was not wrong when, on being complimented on the group of great writers who were then reflecting glory on Scotland, he said, “Yes, but we must every one of us acknowledge Kames for our master.”
When Home found Smith already as well versed in the English classics as himself, he suggested the delivery of this course of lectures on English literature and criticism. The subject was fresh, it was fashionable, and though Stevenson, the Professor of Logic, had already lectured on it, and lectured on it in English too to his class, nobody had yet given lectures on it open to the general public, whose interest it had at the moment so much engaged. The success of such a course seemed assured, and the event fully justified that prognostication. The class was attended among others by Kames himself; by students for the bar, like Alexander Wedderburn, afterwards Lord Chancellor of England, and William Johnstone, who long played an influential part in Parliament as Sir William Pulteney; by young ministers of the city like Dr. Blair, who subsequently gave a similar course himself; and by many others, both young and old. It brought Smith in, we are informed, a clear £100 sterling, and if we assume that the fee was a guinea, which was a customary fee at the period, the audience would be something better than a hundred. It was probably held in the College, for Blair’s subsequent course was delivered there even before the establishment of any formal connection with the University by the creation of the professorship.
The lectures Smith then delivered on English literature were burnt at his own request shortly before his death. Blair, who not only heard them at the time, but got the use of them—or, at least, of part of them—afterwards for the preparation of his own lectures on rhetoric, speaks as if there was some hope at one time that Smith would publish them, but if he ever entertained such an intention, he was too entirely preoccupied with work of greater importance and interest to himself to obtain leisure to put them into shape for publication. It has been suggested that they are practically reproduced in the lectures of Blair. Blair acknowledges having taken a few hints for his treatment of simplicity in style from the
manuscript of Smith’s lectures. His words are: “On this head, of the general characters of style, particularly the plain and the simple, and the characters of those English authors who are classed under them, in this and the following lecture, several ideas have been taken from a manuscript treatise on rhetoric, part of which was shown to me many years ago by the learned and ingenious author, Dr. Adam Smith; and which it is hoped will be given by him to the public.”
*21 Now many of Smith’s friends considered this acknowledgment far from adequate, and Hill, the biographer of Blair, says Smith himself joined in their complaint. It is very unlikely that Smith ever joined in any such complaint, for Henry Mackenzie told Samuel Rogers an anecdote which conveys an entirely contrary impression. Mackenzie was speaking of Smith’s wealth of conversation, and telling how he often used to say to him, “Sir, you have said enough to make a book,” and he then mentioned that Blair frequently introduced into his sermons some of Smith’s thoughts on jurisprudence, which he had gathered from his conversation, and that he himself had told the circumstance to Smith. “He is very welcome,” was the economist’s answer; “there is enough left.”
*22 And if Smith made Blair welcome to his thoughts on jurisprudence, a subject on which he intended to publish a work of his own, we may be certain he made him not less heartily welcome to his thoughts on literature and style, on which he probably entertained no similar intention. Besides, if we judge from the two chapters regarding which he owns his obligation to Smith, Blair does not seem to have borrowed anything but what was the commonest of property already. He took only what his superficial mind had the power of taking, and the pith of Smith’s thinking must have been left behind. To borrow even a hat to any purpose, the two heads must be something of a size.
We cannot suppose, therefore, that we have any proper representation or reflection of Smith’s literary lectures in the lectures of Blair, but it would be quite possible still, if it were desired, to collect a not inadequate view of his literary opinions from incidental remarks contained in his writings or preserved by friends from recollections of his conversation. Wordsworth, in the preface to the
Lyrical Ballads, calls him “the worst critic, David Hume excepted, that Scotland, a soil to which this sort of weed seems natural, has produced,” and his judgments will certainly not be confirmed by the taste of the present time. He preferred the classical to the romantic school. He thought with Voltaire that Shakespeare had written good scenes but not a good play, and that though he had more dramatic genius than Dryden, Dryden was the greater poet. He thought little of Milton’s minor poems, and less of the old ballads collected by Percy, but he had great admiration for Pope, believed Gray, if he had only written a little more, would have been the greatest poet in the English language, and thought Racine’s
Phædrus the finest tragedy extant in any language in the world. His own great test of literary beauty was the principle he lays down in his Essay on the Imitative Arts, that the beauty is always in the proportion of the difficulty perceived to be overcome.
Smith seems at this early period of his life to have had dreams of some day figuring as a poet himself, and his extensive familiarity with the poet always struck Dugald Stewart as very remarkable in a man so conspicuous for the weight of his more solid attainments. “In the English language,” says Stewart, “the variety of poetical passages which he was not only accustomed to refer to occasionally, but which he was able to repeat with correctness, appeared surprising even to those whose attention had never been attracted to more important acquisitions.” The tradition of Smith’s early ambition to be a poet is only preserved in an allusion in Caleb Colton’s
“Hypocrisy,” but it receives a certain support from a remark of Smith’s own in conversation with a young friend in his later years. Colton’s allusion runs as follows:—
Unused am I the Muse’s path to tread,
And curs’d with Adam’s unpoetic head,
Who, though that pen he wielded in his hand
Wealth of Nations to command;
Yet when on Helicon he dar’d to draw,
His draft return’d and unaccepted saw.
If thus like him we lay a rune in vain,
Like him we’ll strive some humbler prize to gain.
Smith’s own confession is contained in a report of some conversations given in the
Bee for 1791. He was speaking about blank verse, to which he always had a dislike, as we know from an interesting incident mentioned by Boswell. Boswell, who attended Smith’s lectures on English literature at Glasgow College in 1759, told Johnson four years after that Smith had pronounced a strong opinion in these lectures against blank verse and in favour of rhyme—always, no doubt, on the same principle that the greater the difficulty the greater the beauty. This delighted the heart of Johnson, and he said, “Sir, I was once in company with Smith, and we did not take to each other, but had I known that he loved rhyme as much as you tell me he does, I should have hugged him.” Twenty years later Smith was again expressing to the anonymous interviewer of the
Bee his unabated contempt for all blank verse except Milton’s, and he said that though he could never find a single rhyme in his life, he could make blank verse as fast as he could speak. “Blank verse,” he said; “they do well to call it blank, for blank it is. I myself even, who never could find a single rhyme in my life, could make blank verse as fast as I could speak.” The critic would thus appear here again to have been the poet who has failed, though in this case he had the sense to discover the failure without tempting the judgment of the public.
Indeed he had already begun to discover his true vocation, for besides his lectures on English literature, which he delivered for three successive winters, he delivered at least one winter a course on economics; and in this course, written in the year 1749, and delivered in the year 1750-51, Smith advocated the doctrines of commerical liberty on which he was nurtured by Hutcheson, and which he was afterwards to do so much to advance. He states this fact himself in a paper read before a learned society in Glasgow in 1755, which afterwards fell into the hands of Dugald Stewart, and from which Stewart extracts a passage or two, which I shall quote in a subsequent chapter. They certainly contain a plain enough statement of the doctrine of natural liberty; and Smith says that a great part of the opinions contained in the paper were “treated of at length in some lectures which I have still by me, and which were written in the hand of a clerk who left my service six years ago”—that is, in 1749—and adds that “they had all of them been the subjects of lectures which I read at Edinburgh the winter before I left it, and I can adduce innumerable witnesses both from that place and from this who will ascertain them sufficiently to be mine.”
*23 These ideas of natural liberty in industrial affairs were actively at work, not only in Smith’s own mind, but in the minds of others in his immediate circle in Scotland in those years 1749 and 1750. David Hume and James Oswald were then corresponding on the subject, and though it is doubtful whether Smith had seen much or anything of Hume personally at that time (for Hume had been abroad with General St. Clair part of it, and did not live in Edinburgh after his return), it was in those and the two previous years that Smith was first brought into real intellectual contact with his friend and townsman, James Oswald.
Oswald, it may be mentioned, though still a young
man—only eight years older than Smith—had already made his mark in Parliament where he sat for their native burgh, and had been made a Commissioner of the Navy in 1745. He had made his mark largely by his mastery of economic subjects, for which Hume said, after paying him a visit at Dunnikier for a week in 1744, that he had a “great genius,” and “would go far in that way if he persevered.” He became afterwards commissioner of trade and plantations, Lord of the Treasury, and Vice-Treasurer of Ireland, and would have certainly gone further but for his premature death in 1768 at the age of fifty-two. Lord Shelburne once strongly advised Lord Bute to make him Chancellor of the Exchequer. Smith thought as highly of Oswald as Hume. He used to “dilate,” says Oswald’s grandson, who heard him, “with a generous and enthusiastic pleasure on the qualifications and merits of Mr. Oswald, candidly avowing at the same time how much information he had received on many points from the enlarged views and profound knowledge of that accomplished statesman.”
*24 Dugald Stewart saw a paper written by Smith which described Oswald not only as a man of extensive knowledge of economic subjects, but a man with a special taste and capacity for the discussion of their more general and philosophical aspects. That paper, we cannot help surmising, is the same document of 1755 I have just mentioned in which Smith was proving his early attachment to the doctrines of economic liberty, and would naturally treat of circumstances connected with the growth of his opinions. However that may be, it is certain that Smith and Oswald must have been in communication upon economic questions about that period, and Oswald’s views at that period are contained in the correspondence to which reference has been made.
Early in 1750 David Hume sent Oswald the manuscript of his well-known essay on the Balance of Trade, afterwards published in his
Political Essays in 1752, asking
for his views and criticisms; and Oswald replied on the 10th of October in a long letter, published in the
Caldwell Papers,*25 which shows him to have been already entirely above the prevailing mercantilist prejudices, and to have very clear conceptions of economic operations. He declares jealousies between nations of being drained of their produce and money to be quite irrational; that could never happen as long as the people and industry remained. The prohibition against exporting commodities and money, he held, had always produced effects directly contrary to what was intended by it. It had diminished cultivation at home instead of increasing it, and really forced the more money out of the country the more produce it prevented from going. Oswald’s letter seems to have been sent on by Hume, together with his own essay, to Baron Mure, who was also interested in such discussions. The new light was thus breaking in on groups of inquirers in Scotland as well as elsewhere, and Smith was from his earliest days within its play.
Amid the more serious labours of these literary and economic lectures, it would be an agreeable relaxation to collect and edit the scattered poems, published and unpublished, of Hamilton of Bangour, the author of what Wordsworth calls the “exquisite ballad” of “The Braes o’ Yarrow,” beginning—
Busk ye, busk ye, my bonny, bonny bride,
Busk ye, busk ye, my winsome marrow,
Busk ye, busk ye, my bonny, bonny bride,
And think no more on the Braes o’ Yarrow.
This ballad had appeared in Allan Ramsay’s
Tea-Table Miscellany so long ago as 1724, and it was followed by Hamilton’s most ambitious effort, the poem “Contemplation,” in 1739, but the general public of Scotland only seem to have awakened to their merits after the poet espoused the Jacobite cause in 1745, and celebrated the
victory of Prestonpans by his “Ode to the Battle of Gladsmuir”—the name the Jacobites preferred to give the battle. This ode, which had been set to music by M’Gibbon, became a great favourite in Jacobite households, and created so much popular interest in the author’s other works that imperfect versions of some of his unpublished poems, and even of those which were already in print, began to appear. The author was himself an outlaw, and could not intervene. The ode which had lifted him into popularity had at the same time driven him into exile, and he was then living with a little group of young Scotch refugees at Rouen, and completely shattered in bodily health by his three months’ hiding among the Grampians. Under those circumstances his friends thought it advisable to forestall the pirated and imperfect collections of his poems which were in contemplation by publishing as complete and correct an edition of them as could possibly be done in the absence of the author. And this edition was issued from the famous Foulis press in Glasgow in 1748. In doing so they acted, as they avow in the preface, “not only without the author’s consent, but without his knowledge,” but it is absurd to call an edition published under those circumstances, as the new
Dictionary of National Biography calls it, a “surreptitious edition.” It was published by the poet’s closest personal friends as a protection for the poet’s reputation, and perhaps as a plea for his pardon.
The task of collecting and editing the poems was entrusted to Adam Smith. We are informed of this fact by the accurate and learned David Laing, and though Laing has not imparted his authority for the information, it receives a certain circumstantial corroboration from other quarters. We find Smith in the enjoyment of a very rapid intimacy with Hamilton during the two brief years the poet resided in Scotland between receiving the royal pardon in 1750 and flying again in 1752 from a more
relentless enemy than kings—the fatal malady of consumption, from which he died two years later at Lyons. Sir John Dalrymple, the historian, speaks in a letter to Robert Foulis, the printer, of “the many happy and flattering hours which he (Smith) had spent with Mr. Hamilton.” We find again that when Hamilton’s friends propose to print a second edition of the poems, they come to Smith for assistance. This edition was published in 1758, and is dedicated to the memory of William Craufurd, merchant, Glasgow, a friend of the poet mentioned in the preface to the first edition as having supplied many of the previously unpublished pieces which it contained. Craufurd appears to have been an uncle of Sir John Dalrymple, and Sir John asks Foulis to get Smith to write this dedication. “Sir,” says he, in December 1757, “I have changed my mind about the dedication of Mr. Hamilton’s poems. I would have it stand ‘the friend of William Hamilton,’ but I assent to your opinion to have something more to express Mr. Craufurd’s character. I know none so able to do this as my friend Mr. Smith. I beg it, therefore, earnestly that he will write the inscription, and with all the elegance and all the feelingness which he above the rest of mankind is able to express. This is a thing that touches me very nearly, and therefore I beg a particular answer as to what he says to it. The many happy and the many flattering hours which he has spent with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Craufurd makes me think that he will account his usual indolence a crime upon this occasion. I beg you will make my excuse for not wryting him this night, but then I consider wryting to you upon this head to be wryting to him.”
*26 It is unlikely that Smith would resist an appeal like this, and the dedication bears some internal marks of his authorship. It describes Mr. Craufurd as “the friend of Mr. Hamilton, who to that exact frugality, that downright probity and pliancy
of manners so suitable to his profession, joined a love of learning and of all the ingenious arts, an openness of hand and a generosity of heart that was far both from vanity and from weakness, and a magnanimity that would support, under the prospect of approaching and inevitable death, a most torturing pain of body with an unalterable cheerfulness of temper, and without once interrupting even to his last hour the most manly and the most vigorous activity of business.” This William Craufurd is confounded by Lord Woodhouselee, and through him by others, with Robert Crauford, the author of “The Bush aboon Traquair,” “Tweedside,” and other poems, who was also an intimate friend of Hamilton of Bangour, but died in 1732.
Another link in the circumstantial evidence corroborating David Laing’s statement is the fact that Smith was certainly at the moment in communication with Hamilton’s personal friends, at whose instance the volume of poems was published. Kames, who was then interesting himself so actively in Smith’s advancement, was the closest surviving friend Hamilton possessed. They had been constant companions in youth, leading spirits of that new school of dandies called “the beaux”—young men at once of fashion and of letters—who adorned Scotch society between the Rebellions, and continued to adorn many an after-dinner table in Edinburgh down till the present century. Hamilton owns that it was Kames who first taught him “verse to criticise,” and wrote to him the poem “To H. H. at the Assembly”; while Kames for his part used in his old age, as his neighbour Ramsay of Ochtertyre informs us, to have no greater enjoyment than recounting the scenes and doings he and Hamilton had transacted together in those early days, of which the poet himself writes, when they “keptfriendship’s holy vigil” in the subterranean taverns of old Edinburgh “full many a fathom deep.”
Life of Kames, i. 218.
Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, i. 381.
Early Life of Samuel Rogers, p. 168.
Works, ed. Hamilton, vol. x. p. 68.
Notes and Documents illustrative of the Literary History of Glasgow, p. 25.