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those particulars and letters to which I have alluded were collected together, and if they were supplemented by such unpublished letters and information as it still remained possible to procure.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
A COMMON misconception regarding Smith is that he was as helpless as a child in matters of business. One of his Edinburgh neighbours remarked of him to Robert Chambers that it was strange a man who wrote so well on exchange and barter was obliged to get a friend to buy his horse corn for him. This idea of his helplessness in the petty transactions of life arose from observing his occasional fits of absence and his habitual simplicity of character, but his simplicity, nobody denies, was accompanied by exceptional acuteness and practical sagacity, and his fits of absence seem to have been neither so frequent nor so prolonged as they are commonly represented. Samuel Rogers spent most of a week with him in Edinburgh the year before his death, and did not remark his absence of mind all the time. Anyhow, during his thirteen years’ residence at Glasgow College, Smith seems to have had more to do with the business of the College, petty or important, than any other professor, and his brethren in the Senate of that University cannot have seen in him any marked failing or incapacity for ordinary business. They threw on his shoulders an ample share of the committee and general routine work of the place, and set him to audit accounts, or inspect the drains in the College court, or see the holly hedge in the College garden up-rooted, or to examine the encroachments on the College lands on the Molendinar Burn, without any fear of his
forgetting his business on the way. They entrusted him for years with the post of College Quaelig;stor or Treasurer, in which inattention or the want of sound business habits might inflict injury even on their pecuniary interests. They made him one of the two curators of the College chambers, the forty lodgings provided for students inside the College gates. And when there was any matter of business that was a little troublesome or delicate to negotiate, they seem generally to have chosen Smith for their chief spokesman or representative. It was then very common for Scotch students to bring with them from home at the beginning of the session as much oatmeal as would keep them till the end of it, and by an ancient privilege of the University they were entitled to bring this meal with them into the city without requiring to pay custom on it; but in 1757 those students were obliged by the tacksman of the meal-market to pay custom on their meal, though it was meant for their own use alone. Smith was appointed along with Professor Muirhead to go and represent to the Provost that the exaction was a violation of the privileges of the University, and to demand repayment within eight days, under pain of legal proceedings. And at the next meeting of Senate “Mr. Smith reported that he had spoken to the Provost of Glasgow about the ladles exacted by the town from students for meal brought into the town for their own use, and that the Provost promised to cause what had been exacted to be returned, and that accordingly the money was offered by the town’s ladler
*56 to the students.”
Smith was often entrusted with College business to transact in Edinburgh—to arrange with Andrew Stuart, W.S., about promoting a bill in Parliament, or to wait on the Barons of Exchequer and get the College accounts passed; and he was generally the medium of communication
between the Senatus and the authorities of Balliol College during their long and troublesome contentions about the Snell property and the Snell exhibitioners.
He was Quæstor from 1758 till he left in 1764, and in that capacity had the management of the library funds and some other funds, his duties being subsequently divided between the factor and the librarian. The professors, we are told by Professor Dickson, used to take this office in turn for a term of two or three years, but Smith held the office longer than the customary term, and on the 19th of May 1763 the Senate agreed that “as Dr. Smith has long executed the office of Quæstor, he is allowed to take the assistance of an amanuensis.” He was Dean of Faculty from 1760 to 1762, and as such not only exercised a general supervision over the studies of the College and the granting of degrees, but was one of the three visitors charged with seeing that the whole business of the College was administered according to the statutes of 1727. While still filling these two offices, he was in 1762 appointed to the additional and important business office of Vice-Rector, by his personal friend Sir Thomas Miller, the Lord-Advocate of Scotland (afterwards Lord President of the Court of Session), who was Rector of the University that year. As Sir Thomas Miller was generally absent in consequence of his public engagements in London or his professional engagements in Edinburgh, Smith as Vice-Rector had to preside over all University meetings—meetings of the Senatus, of the Comitia, of the Rector’s Court—at a time when this duty was rendered delicate by the contentions which prevailed among the professors. The Rector’s Court, it may be added—which consisted of the Rector and professors—was a judiciary as well as administrative body, which at one time possessed the power of life and death, and according to the Parliamentary Report of 1829, actually inflicted imprisonment in the College steeple on several delinquents within the preceding fifty years. It may be mentioned that some time elapsed after Sir Thomas Miller’s
election to the Rectorship before he was able to appoint a Vice-Rector, because he could not appoint a Vice-Rector till he was himself admitted, and he could not attend personally to be admitted on account of engagements elsewhere. During this interval Smith was elected præses of the University meetings by the choice of his colleagues, and as the position was at the time one of considerable difficulty, they would not be likely to select for it a man of decided business incapacity.
Some idea of the difficulty of the place, on account of the dissensions prevailing in the College during Smith’s residence there, may be got from a remark of his successor, Dr. Reid. In the course of the first year after his arrival in Glasgow, Reid writes one of his A berdeen friends complaining bitterly of being obliged to attend five or six College meetings every week, and meetings, moreover, of a very disagreeable character, in consequence of “an evil spirit of party that seems to put us in a ferment, and, I am afraid, will produce bad consequences.”
*57 A writer in the
Gentleman’s Magazine, in noticing Smith’s death in 1790, says that these divisions turned on questions of academic policy, and that Smith always took the side which was popular with people of condition in the city. The writer offers no further particulars, but as far as we can now ascertain anything about the questions which then kept the Glasgow Senate in such perpetual perturbation, they were not questions of general policy or public interest such as his words might suggest, and on the petty issues they raised it makes no odds to know whether Smith sided with the kites or with the crows. The troubles were generated, without any public differences, out of the constitution of the University itself, which seemed to be framed, as if on purpose, to create the greatest possible amount of friction in its working. By its constitution, as that is described in the Parliamentary Report of 1830, Glasgow University was at that time under one name really two distinct corporations,
with two distinct governing bodies: (1) the University governed by the Senate, which was composed of the Rector, the Dean of Faculty, the Principal, the thirteen College or Faculty professors, and the five regius professors; and (2) the College governed by the Faculty, as it was called, which consisted of the thirteen College professors alone, who claimed to be the sole owners and administrators of the older endowments of the College, and to have the right of electing the occupants of their own thirteen chairs by co-optation. Within the Faculty again there was still another division of the professors into gown professors and other professors. The gown professors, who seem to have been representatives of the five regents of earlier times, were the professors of those classes the students of which wore academical gowns, while the students of the other classes did not; the gown classes being Humanity, Greek, Logic, Natural Philosophy, and Moral Philosophy. These several bodies held separate meetings and kept separate minutes, which remain to this day. The meetings of the Senate were called University meetings or Rector’s meetings, because they were presided over by the Rector; and the meetings of the Faculty were called Faculty meetings or Principal’s meetings, because they were presided over by the Principal. Even the five gown professors with the Principal held separate meetings which the other professors had no right to attend—meetings with the students every Saturday in the Common Hall for the administration of ordinary academic discipline for petty offences committed by the students of the five gown classes. Smith belonged to all three bodies; he was University professor, Faculty or College professor, and gown professor too. It is obvious how easily this complicated and unnatural system of government might breed incessant and irritating discussions without any grave division of opinion on matters of serious educational policy. Practical difficulties could scarce help arising as to the respective functions of the
University and the College, or the respective claims of the regius professors and the Faculty professors, or the respective powers of the Rector and the Principal; and Smith himself was one of a small committee which presented a very lengthy report on this last subject to the Senate of the University on the 13th of August 1762. The report was adopted, but two of the professors dissented on the ground that it was too favourable to the powers of the Principal.
But, wrangle as they might over petty points of constitutional right or property administration, the heads of Glasgow College were guided in their general policy at this period by the wisest and most enlightened spirit of academic enlargement. Only a few years before Smith’s arrival they had recognised the new claims of science by establishing a chemical laboratory, in which during Smith’s residence the celebrated Dr. Black was working out his discovery of latent heat. They gave a workshop in the College to James Watt in 1756, and made him mathematical instrument maker to the University, when the trade corporations of Glasgow refused to allow him to open a workshop in the city; and it was in that very workshop and at this very period that a Newcomen’s engine he repaired set his thoughts revolving till the memorable morning in 1764 when the idea of the separate condenser leapt to his mind as he was strolling past the washhouse on Glasgow Green. They had at the same time in another corner of the College opened a printing office for the better advancement of that art, and were encouraging the University printer, the famous Robert Foulis, to print those Homers and Horaces by which he more than rivalled the Elzevirs and Etiennes of the past. To help Foulis the better, they had with their own money assisted the establishment of the type-foundry of Wilson at Camlachie, where Foulis procured the types for his
Iliad; they appointed Wilson type-founder to the University, and in 1762 they erected for him a founding-house,
as they called it, in their own grounds. They had just before endowed a new chair of astronomy, of which they had made their versatile type-founder the first professor, and built for him an astronomical observatory, from which he brought reputation to the College and himself by his observation of the solar spots. They further gave Foulis in 1753 several more rooms in the College, including the large room afterwards used as the Faculty Hall, to carry out his ill-fated scheme of an Academy of Design; so that the arts of painting, sculpture, and engraving were taught in the College as well as the classics and mathematics, and Tassie and David Allan were then receiving their training under the same roof with the students for the so-called learned professions. The Earl of Buchan, while walking, as he said, “after the manner of the ancients in the porticoes of Glasgow with Smith and with Millar,” unbent from the high tasks of philosophy by learning to etch in the studio of Foulis. This was the first school of design in Great Britain. There was as yet no Royal Academy, no National Gallery, no South Kensington Museum, no technical colleges, and the dream of the ardent printer, which was so actively seconded by the heads of the University, was to found an institution which should combine the functions of all those several institutions, and pay its own way by honest work into the bargain. In all these different ways the College of Glasgow was doing its best, as far as its slender means allowed, to widen the scope of university education in accordance with with the requirements of modern times, and there was still another direction in which they anticipated a movement of our own day. They had already done something for that popularisation of academic instruction which we call university extension. Professor John Anderson, an active and reforming spirit who deserves to be held in honour in spite of his troublesome pugnacity, used then to deliver within the College walls, with the complete concurrence and encouragement of his colleagues, a series of evening
lectures on natural philosophy to classes of workingmen in their working clothes, and the lectures are generally acknowledged to have done great service to the arts and manufactures of the West of Scotland, by improving the technical education of the higher grades of artisans.
Now in all these new developments Smith took a warm interest; some of them he actively promoted. There is nothing in the University minutes to connect Smith in any more special way than the other professors with the University’s timely hospitality to James Watt; but as that act was a direct protest on behalf of industrial liberty against the tyrannical spirit of the trade guilds so strongly condemned in the
Wealth of Nations, it is at least interesting to remember that Smith had a part in it. Watt, it may be recollected, was then a lad of twenty, who had come back from London to Glasgow to set up as mathematical instrument maker, but though there was no other mathematical instrument maker in the city, the corporation of hammermen refused to permit his settlement because he was not the son or son-in-law of a burgess, and had not served his apprenticeship to the craft within the burgh. But in those days of privilege the universities also had their privileges. The professors of Glasgow enjoyed an absolute and independent authority over the area within college bounds, and they defeated the oppression of Watt by making him mathematical instrument maker to the University, and giving him a room in the College buildings for his workshop and another at the College buildings for his workshop and another at the College gates for the sale of his instruments. In these proceedings Smith joined, and joined, we may be sure, with the warmest approval. For we know the strong light in which he regarded the oppressions of the corporation laws. “The property which every man has in his labour,” he says, “as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of the poor man lies in the strength and
dexterity of his hands, and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman and of those who might be disposed to employ him.”
*58 Watt’s workshop was a favourite resort of Smith’s during his residence at Glasgow College, for Watt’s conversation, young though he was, was fresh and original, and had great attractions for the stronger spirits about him. Watt on his side retained always the deepest respect for Smith, and when he was amusing the leisure of his old age in 1809 with his new invention of the sculpture machine, and presenting his works to his friends as “the productions of a young artist just entering his eighty-third year,” one of the first works he executed with the machine was a small head of Adam Smith in ivory.
In the Foulis press and the Academy of Design Smith took a particular interest. He was himself a book-fancier, fond of fine editions and bindings, and he once said to Smellie the printer, whom he observed admiring some of the books in his library, “I am a beau in nothing but my books.” And he was a man, as Dugald Stewart informs us, with a carefully-cultivated taste for the fine arts, who was considered by his contemporaries an excellent judge of a picture or a sculpture, though in Stewart’s opinion he appeared interested in works of art less as instruments of direct enjoyment than as materials for speculative discussions about the principles of human nature involved in their production. Smith seems to have been one of Foulis’s chief practical advisers in the work of the Academy of Design, in settling such details, for example, as the pictures which ought to be selected to be copied by the pupils, or the subjects which ought to be chosen for original work from Plutarch or other classical
sources, and which would be most likely to suit modern taste.
Sir John Dalrymple, who appears to have been one of Foulis’s associates in the enterprise, and to have taken an active concern in the sale of the productions of the Academy in its Edinburgh agency shop, writes Foulis on the 1st of December 1757 regarding the kind of work that ought to be sent for sale there. “In the History pictures that you send in, I beg you will take the advice of Mr. Smith and Dr. Black. Your present scheme should be to execute not what you think the best, but what will sell the best. In the first you may be the better judge, since you are the master of a great Academa, but in the last I think their advice will be of use to you.”
*60 The letter concludes: “Whether it is an idea or not, I am going to give you a piece of trouble. Be so good as make out a catalogue of your pictures, and as far as you can of your busts, books of drawings, and as far as you can of your boys, and how employed. Thirdly, the people who have studied under you with a view to the mechanical art. And lastly, give some account of the prospects which you think you have of being of use either to the mechanical or to the fine arts of your country. Frame this into a memorial and send it to me. I shall have it tryed here by some who wish well to you, and as I go to London in the spring, I shall, together with Mr. Wedderburn and Mr. Elliot, consider what are the most prudent measures to take for your sake, or whether to take any. Mr. Smith is too busy or too indolent, but I flatter myself Dr. Black will be happy to make out this memorial for you. Let me know if I have any chance of seeing you this winter. I have none of being at Glasgow, and therefore wish you and Mr. Smith would come here, or you by yourself would come here in the Christmas vacance.”
The memorial alluded to in this letter was no doubt a memorial to Government in behalf of a project then
promoted by the Earl of Selkirk and other friends of Foulis, of settling a salary on him for directing an institution so useful to the nation as the Academy of Design. Whether Smith overcame his alleged indolence and drew up the memorial I cannot say, but this whole letter shows that Smith and Black were the two friends in Glasgow whom Foulis was in the habit of principally consulting, and the last sentence seems to indicate that Smith’s hand in the business was hardly less intimate than Dalrymple’s own. It may be noticed too how completely Sir John Dalrymple’s ideas of Smith, as implied in this letter, differ from those which are current now, and how he sends a tradesman to the philosopher for advice on practical points in his trade. As to pure questions of art, whether this work or that is finest, he thinks Foulis himself may possibly be the best judge, but when it comes to a question as to which will sell the best—and that was the question for the success of the project—then he is urged to take the practical mind of Smith to his counsels. Though Smith’s leanings were not to practical life, his judgment, as any page of the
Wealth of Nations shows, was of the most eminently practical kind. He had little of the impulse to meddle in affairs or the itch to manage them that belongs to more bustling people, but had unquestionably a practical mind and capacity.
If Smith was consulted by Foulis in this way about the management of the Academy of Design, we may safely infer that he had also more to do with the Foulis press than merely visiting the office to see the famous
Iliad while it was on the case. Smith’s connection with Foulis began before he went to Glasgow, by the publication of Hamilton of Bangour’s poems by the University press, and I think it not unreasonable to see traces of Smith’s suggestion in the number of early economic books which Foulis reissued after the year 1750, works of writers like Child, Gee, Mun, Law, and Petty.
In the University type-foundry Smith took an active interest, because he was a warm friend and associate of the accomplished type-founder. Wilson had been bred a physician, but gave up his practice to become type-founder, and devoted himself besides, as I have just mentioned, to astronomy, to which Smith also at this period of his life gave some attention. Smith indeed was possibly then writing his fragment on the history of astronomy, which, though not published till after his death, was, we are informed by Dugald Stewart, the earliest of all his compositions, being the first part of an extensive work on the history of all the sciences which he had at this time projected. Wilson, having gone to large expense both of time and money to cast the Greek type for the University Homer, and having never found another customer for the fount except the University printer, went up to London in 1759 to push around, if possible, for orders, and was furnished by Smith with a letter of recommendation to Hume, who was then residing there. Hume writes to Smith on the 29th of July: “Your friend Mr. Wilson called on me two or three days ago when I was abroad, and he left your letter. I did not see him till to-day. He seems a very modest, sensible, ingenious man. Before I saw him I spoke to Mr. A. Millar about him, and found him much disposed to serve him. I proposed particularly to Mr. Millar that it was worthy of so eminent a bookseller as he to make a complete elegant set of the classics, which might set up his name equal to the Alduses, Stevenses, or Elzevirs, and that Mr. Wilson was the properest person in the world to assist him in such a project. He confessed to me that he had sometimes thought of it, but that his great difficulty was to find a man of letters that could correct the press. I mentioned the matter to Wilson, who said he had a man of letters in his eye—one Lyon, a nonjuring clergyman of Glasgow. I would desire your opinion of him.”
When Wilson came to reside in the College in 1762, after his appointment to the chair of Astronomy, he found it inconvenient to go to and fro between the College and Camlachie to attend to the type-foundry, and petitioned the Senate to build him a founding-house in the College grounds, basing his claim on their custom of giving accommodation to the arts subservient to learning, on his own services to the University in the matter of the Greek types before mentioned, and on his having undertaken, in spite of the discouraging results of that speculation, to cast a large and elegant Hebrew type for the University press. He estimated that the building would cost no more than the very modest sum of £40 sterling, and he offered to pay a fair rent. This memorial came up for consideration on the 5th of April, and it was Smith who proposed the motion which was ultimately carried, to the effect that the University should build a new foundry for Mr. Wilson on the site most convenient within the College grounds, at an expense not exceeding the sum of £40 sterling, on condition (1) that Mr. Wilson pay a reasonable rent, and (2) that if the house should become useless to the College before the Senate were sufficiently recouped for their expenditure, Mr. Wilson or his heirs should be obliged to make adequate compensation. The foundry was erected in the little College garden next the Physic Garden; it cost £19 more than the estimate, and was let for £3:15s. a year, from which it would appear that 6½ per cent on the actual expenditure (irrespective of any allowance for the site) was considered a fair rent by the University authorities in those days.
The Senate of this little college, which was thus actively encouraging every liberal art, which had in a few years added to the lecture-room of Hutcheson and Smith the laboratory of Black, the workshop of Watt, the press of Foulis, the academy of painting, sculpture, and engraving, and the foundry and observatory of Wilson, entertained
in 1761 the idea of doing something for the promotion of athletics among the students, and had under consideration a proposal for the establishment of a new academy of dancing, fencing, and riding in the University. One of the active promoters of this scheme appears again to have been Adam Smith, for it is he who is chosen by the Senate on the 22nd December 1761 to go in their name and explain their design to the Rector, Lord Erroll, and request his assistance. This idea seems, however, to have borne no fruit. Dancing was an exercise they required to be observed with considerable moderation, for they passed a rule in 1752 that no student should be present at balls or assemblies or the like more than thrice in one session, but they treated it with no austere proscription.
One art alone did they seek to proscribe, the art dramatic, and in 1762 the Senate was profoundly disturbed by a project then on foot for the erection of the first permanent theatre in Glasgow. The affair originated with five respectable and wealthy merchants, who were prepared to build the house at their own expense, the leading spirit of the five being Robert Bogle of Shettleston, who had himself, we are told by Dr. Carlyle, played “Sempronius” in a students’ performance of
Cato within the walls of Glasgow College in 1745. Carlyle played the title
rôle, and another divinity student, already mentioned as a college friend of Smith’s, Dr. Maclaine of the Hague, played a minor part. But an amateur representation of an unexceptionable play under the eye of the professors was one thing, the erection of a public playhouse, catering like other public playhouses for the too licentious taste of the period, was another, and the project of Mr. Bogle and his friends in 1762 excited equal alarm in the populace of the city, in the Town Council, and in the University. The Council refused to sanction a site for the theatre within the city bounds, so that the promoters were obliged to build it a mile outside; but the anger of
the multitude pursued them thither, and on the very eve of its opening in 1764 by a performance in which Mrs. Bellamy was to play the leading part, it was set on fire by a mob, at the instigation of a wild preacher, who said he had on the previous night been present in a vision at an entertainment in hell, and the toast of the evening, proposed in most flattering terms from the chair, was the health of Mr. Millar, the maltster who had sold the site for this new temple of the devil.
During the two years between the projection of this building and its destruction it caused the Senate of the College no common anxiety, and Smith went along with them in all they did. On the 25th of November 1762 he was appointed, with the Principal and two other professors, as a committee, to confer with the magistrates concerning the most proper methods of preventing the establishment of a playhouse in Glasgow, and at the same time to procure all the information in their power concerning the privileges of the University of Oxford with respect to their ability to prevent anything of that kind being established within their bounds, and concerning the manner in which those privileges, if they existed, were made effectual. On the recommendation of this committee the University agreed to memorialise the Lord Advocate on the subject, and to ask the magistrates of the city to join them in sending the memorial. The Lord Advocate having apparently suggested doubts as to the extent of their ancient powers or privileges and the direction contemplated, Smith was appointed, along with the Principal and one or two other professors, as a special committee of inquiry into the ancient privileges and constitution of the University, and the Principal was instructed meanwhile to express to his lordship the earnest desire of the University of prevent the establishment of a playhouse. While this inquiry was proceeding, the magistrates of the city, on their part, had determined, with the concurrence of a large body of the inhabitants, to raise an
action at law against the players if they should attempt to act plays in the new theatre, and at a meeting over which Smith presided, and in whose action he concurred, the University agreed to join the magistrates in this prosecution. The agitation against the playhouse was still proceeding when Smith resigned his chair in 1764, but shortly afterwards, finding itself without any legal support, it gradually died away.
The part Smith took in this agitation may seem to require a word of explanation, for he not only entertained no objection to theatrical representations, but was so deeply impressed with their beneficial character that in the
Wealth of Nations he specially recommends them for positive encouragement by the State, and expressly dissociates himself from those “fanatical promoters of popular frenzies” who make dramatic representations “more than all other diversions the objects of their peculiar abhorrence.” The State encouragement he wants is nothing in the nature of the endowment of a national theatre, which is sometimes demanded nowadays. All the encouragement he asks for is liberty—”entire liberty to all those who from their own interest would attempt, without scandal or indecency, to amuse and divert the people by painting, poetry, music, dancing, by all sorts of dramatic representations and exhibitions.” But in pressing for this liberty, he expresses the strongest conviction that “the frequency and gaiety of public diversions” is absolutely essential for the good of the commonwealth, in order to “correct whatever is unsocial or disagreeably rigorous in the morals of all the little sects into which the country is divided,” and to “dissipate that melancholy and gloomy humour which is almost always the source of popular superstition and enthusiasm.”
*62 Yet here we seem to find him in alliance with the little sects himself, and trying to crush that liberty of dramatic representations which he declares to be so vital to the health of the community.
The reason is not, moreover, that he had changed his opinions in the interval between the attempts to suppress the Glasgow playhouse in 1762 and the publication of his general plea for playhouses in the
Wealth of Nations in 1776. He had not changed his opinions. He travelled with a pupil to France, still warm from this agitation in Glasgow, and, as we learn from Stewart, was a great frequenter and admirer of the theatre in that country,
*63 and a few years before the agitation began he was as deeply interested as any other of John Home’s friends in the representations of the tragedy of
Douglas, and as much a partisan of Home’s cause. He does not appear indeed, as is sometimes stated, to have been present either at the public performance of Home’s tragedy in Edinburgh in 1756, or at the previous private performance, which is alleged to have taken place at Mrs. Ward the actress’s rooms, and in which the author himself, and Hume, Carlyle, Ferguson, and Blair are all said to have acted parts. But that he was in complete sympathy with them on the subject is manifest from an undated letter of Hume to Smith, which must have been written in that year. In this letter, knowing Smith’s sentiments, he writes: “I can now give you the satisfaction of hearing that the play, though not near so well acted in Covent Garden as in this place, is likely to be very successful. Its great intrinsic merit breaks through all obstacles. When it shall be printed (which shall be soon) I am persuaded it will be esteemed the best, and by French critics the only tragedy of our language.” After finishing his letter he adds:”I have just now received a copy of
Douglas from London. It will instantly be put on the press. I hope to be able to send you a copy in the same parcel with the dedication.”
*64 These sentences certainly imply that Smith’s ideas of theatrical representations were in harmony with those of Hume and his other Edinburgh friends, but
shortly afterwards he is seeking to revive obsolete academic privileges to prevent the erection of a theatre.
The explanation must be looked for in the line of the conditional clause with which he limits his claim for entire liberty to dramatic entertainments—they must be “without scandal or indecency.” There is never any question that if free trade and public morals clash, it is free trade that must give way, and his opposition to the project of the Glasgow playhouse must have originated in his persuasion that it was not attended, as things then went, with sufficient practical safeguards against scandal and indecency. In considering that point due weight must be given not only to the general improprieties permissible on the English stage at that time, but to the fact that locally great offence had quite recently been given in Scotland by the profane or immoral character of some of the pieces presented on the Scottish boards,
*65 and that Glasgow itself had had experience of a disorderly theatre already—the old wooden shed where hardly playgoers braved opinion and listened to indifferent performances under the protection of troops, and where, it will be remembered, Boswell, then a student at the College, made the acquaintance of Francis Gentleman, the actor. That house was not a licensed house, but the new house was not to be a licensed house either, and it is quite possible for one who thought a theatre generally, with due safeguards, a public benefit, to think that a particular theatre without those safeguards might constitute a public danger, especially in a university town.
On two delicate questions of professorial duty Smith made a decided stand in behalf of the stricter interpretation. In 1757 Professor John Anderson, the founder of the Andersonian University, who was then Professor of Oriental Languages in Glasgow, became a candidate for the chair which he afterwards filled for so many years with great credit and success—the chair of Natural Philosophy; and, as the appointment lay with the professors, Professor
Anderson was one of the electors, and was quite within his legal right in voting for himself. But Smith, impressed with the importance of keeping such appointments free from any leaven of personal interest, tabled a formal protest on three successive occasions against the intervention of that distinguished but headstrong professor in the business of that particular election. He protested first against Anderson voting on a preliminary resolution respecting the election; he protested the second time against him taking part in the election itself; and he protested a third time after the election, desiring it to be recorded expressly “that he did not vote in the election of Mr. Anderson as Professor of Natural Philosophy, not from objection to Mr. Anderson, in whose election he would willingly have concurred, but because he regarded the method of proceeding as irregular and possibly establishing a bad precedent.” As patrons of University chairs, the professors were trustees for the community, and ought each to be bound by a tacit self-denying ordinance, at least to the extent of refraining from actively using this public position to serve his private interest. Smith himself, it will be remembered, was one of his own electors to the Moral Philosophy chair, but then that election was uncontested, and Smith was not present at the meeting which appointed him.
The other personal question arose also out of circumstances which have their counterpart in Smith’s own history. Professor William Rouet, Professor of Ecclesiastical and Civil History, made an engagement in 1759 to travel abroad as tutor with Lord Hope, the eldest son of Lord Hopetoun; but when Lord Hopetoun wrote requesting leave of absence for Professor Rouet, the Senate by a majority refused to grant the request. Smith was one of that majority, and took an active part in the subsequent transactions arising out of their decision. Rouet persists in going abroad in the teeth of the refusal, and the University by a majority deprive him of office for
his negligence of duty. The Crown, however, at first refuse to appoint a successor, on the ground of informality in the act of deprivation, and Lord Bute tells the Rector, Lord Erroll, that “the king’s orders” are that the business must be done over again
de novo, or “else it may be of the worst consequences to the University.” The University take the opinion of eminent counsel, Ferguson of Pitfour and Burnet of Mountbodie (Monboddo), and are prepared to face the consequences threatened, but are eventually saved the trouble by the resignation of Rouet in 1761. Now in these transactions Smith seems to bear a leading part. He was one of the small committee appointed to draw up answers to the protest tabled by the minority of the Senatus; it was to him Lord Erroll communicated the intimation of Lord Bute, though he was not then either Vice-Rector or Dean of Faculty; and it was he and Professor Millar who were sent through to Edinburgh to consult the two advocates.
Smith was probably on the best terms with Rouet himself, who was an intimate friend of David Hume and a cousin of their common friend Baron Mure, and it was not an uncommon practice for the Scotch universities at that period to sanction the absence of a professor on a tutorial engagement. Adam Ferguson left England as tutor to Lord Chesterfield while he was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, and Dalzel resided at Oxford as tutor to Lord Maitland after he was Professor of Greek in the same University. The Senate of Glasgow had itself already permitted Professor John Anderson to remain another winter in France with a son of the Primate of Ireland, when he was chosen Professor of Oriental Languages in 1756, and Smith had concurred in giving the permission. But Anderson’s absence was absence to fulfil an already-existing engagement, like the absence granted to Smith himself in the first year of his own appointment, while Rouet’s was absence to fulfil a new one; and Smith, as his own subsequent conduct
shows, held pluralities and absenteeism of that sort to be a wrong and mischievous subordination of the interest of the University to the purely private interest or convenience of the professors. They had too many temptations to accommodate one another by such arrangements at the expense of the efficiency of the College; and his action both in Rouet’s case and his own is entirely in the spirit of his criticism of the English universities in the
Wealth of Nations.
Reid, p. 43.
Life of Watt, p. 470.
Notes and Documents, p. 25.
Life of Hume, ii. 59.
Works, x. 49.
Life of Hume, ii. 16.
Annals of the Stage, ii. 377.